Saturday, February 28, 2009

Hand me down the music

Toronto has always been one of my favourite Ontario cities for its widespread arts and entertainment community. When visiting last week, I decided to do something I've always wanted -- to go on a "used record shop hop" in the city! Like most music fans, it's important to me to have a hard copy of what I listen to. With the rise of big box music stores such as HMV, and online stores like iTunes, it's not always easy to find what I'm looking for.

I did some research before setting out on my adventure, and, thanks to OurFaves, was able to compile a list of record stores in the same area. Toronto is huge, but, even still, I never realized I'd find so many music stores on one street! Queen St. W is definitely the place to be if you're a music and memorabilia lover! I must have gone to about ten different independent stores, and found the following four most unique:

Kops Records / Vintage Sounds (229 Queen St. W): Two record shops in one sounds pretty cool, if you ask me! While Kops houses a collection of contemporary vinyl, Vintage Sounds, located upstairs, has piles upon piles of boxes of 45s and LPs from the 50s to the 90s. Being a big Tori Amos fan, I was set on coming across something unique for my collection in my record shop visits. It was my first time at a mostly vinyl store, and, not entirely sure where to start digging, I asked assistance of the elderly man working there. I was excited when he knew exactly where to look, and handed me two hard to find 45s! The prices were great, too -- $3.99 each.

Moog Audio (442 Queen St. W): An interesting store, especially for those who are interested in working with vinyl. Although Moog carries a selection of records, they also sell a wide range of equipment. The layout of the store is very modern, with stations set up in an open space -- you are able to choose from a selection of unique records to test out various turntables and other DJing equipment. Not quite what I was looking for, but it was still neat place. The staff is very knowledgeable, so it would definitely be worth the visit if you're thinking about picking up a turntable.

Criminal Records (493 Queen St. W): There were actually quite a few music stores on Queen St. W that I hadn't seen listed online, and Criminal Records was one of them. The name was hilarious, though, so I had to check it out! I recall a few steps or a ramp leading down into Criminal, and the lights were dimmed toward the back of the store where the independent music and vinyl was located -- what a great underground feel! Closer to the front of the store were contemporary records. Criminal also had a large selection of vintage band t-shirts -- unfortunately I wasn't able to purchase any because I haven't robbed a bank lately! ;) I'll definitely have to go back when I have more money. Overall, Criminal Records had a great selection of music and memorabilia! Best of all? It's legal!

Neurotica (642 Queen St. W): This was the last store I visited, and I was pretty impressed. It was well organized considering the small amount of space and large amount of product... music was literally spilling out onto the street -- there were CDs arranged on shelves outside the store. Inside, CDs were arranged around the perimeter of the store, as well as on shelves hanging on the walls. A large vinyl section is located in the middle of the store, and is nicely organized on racks rather than in the usual boxes. There was so much stuff that I wanted to buy at Neurotica! I was happy to find a few CDs I'd wanted to check out, but hadn't seen at any other used store I've been to -- The Tragically Hip's Road Apples, Sinéad O'Connor's The Lion And The Cobra, and Suzanne Vega's Nine Objects of Desire. $7.95 each -- not a bad price for some great finds! You've got to be careful when paying though because Neurotica's counter is partially made up of a very high pile of CDs, tapes, and DVDs! Oh, and a secret shopping tip... if you make conversation with whoever's working while you're at Neurotica, they'll give you a 10% off card for your next visit!

If you've never gone on a used record shop hop, I recommend it! Definitely a fun way to spend an afternoon, not to mention a great way to support independent music stores.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Looking for a cure? Just Askher!

I recently attended a breast cancer benefit -- what an awesome way to spend a Sunday night at Norma Jean’s, London’s home of live music! The $5 donation at the door was more than worth it to support such an important cause and to see the night’s line-up, four talented female-fronted bands, singing for a cure: The Stone Angels, Jenn Marino, Stop’n’Askher, and Shelly Rastin. While all of the bands were fantastic, one really caught my ear!

At the event I was fortunate to hang out with self-taught guitarist, and singer-songwriter Lori Girard, whom I was introduced to by my drummer friend, Julie Howes. Lori’s performance with her band, Stop’n’Askher, was phenomenal! Lori sings lead vocals and rocks out on her acoustic guitar with Ron Van Boheemen on bass, Barry McKeon on drums, and Andrew Malo on guitar. The band opened with a cover of Sheryl Crow's All I Wanna Do, and played a great set including Girard's very own I Told You So, Teeter Totter, Head Games, and Karma, among others. They also performed an incredible cover of Janis Joplin's Me and Bobby McGee:

While she often plays with the band, Lori also has been playing a live solo show for four years under her stage name, Askher. She also plays in three duos -- Askher and Newman (who opened for April Wine), Askher Fonti, and Askher and C!

When she’s not on stage, or recording in her home studio, Ms. Girard can be found teaching high school English and French! The multitasking musician is also a mother of two, and one who has a fun sense of humour -- when asked by a new fan whether she likes playing alone, her reply was, “I like to play with myself!” Lori then spoke more seriously about her love for music, and how it has helped to guide her:

I think everything in the world comes in waves -- sound waves, light waves -- waves go up and down, and life goes up and down. When I’m up, I know I’m going down again, but then I’ll get up again.” – Lori Girard

Askher's words can certainly speak to anyone -- we all have our ups and downs, but we need to know that the sun will shine again even when we're feeling low. Lori's positive philosophy comes out in her song Karma:

This particular video was taped in 2007, but I'm posting it because the sound quality is much better than it is in the video of Karma I took at last week's show. Both are amazing performances, so it's not hard to see why Lori has been nominated for two London Music Awards this year! Make sure to vote for her as your favourite London singer-songwriter under “Lori Girard” and as your favourite composer under “Askher.” By the way, Lori's opening for Cheryl Hardy on Saturday, March 14th, so if you're in London, be sure to head on over to Norma Jean's!

Askher’s lyrics are filled with emotion and, with over 10 years of experience, her energy on stage shines through to show her passion for performing. Lori is one of those artists whose music really speaks to my soul. I have a feeling that one day she'll strike a record deal. After all, such would be karma for playing so many wonderful shows!

Monday, February 16, 2009

At the GRAMMYs: Do you Grimace or Grin?

The GRAMMYs are usually not my cup of tea although the 51st award ceremony this past February 8th produced a few noteworthy performances. Robert Plant, former Led Zeppelin frontman, and bluegrass singer, Alison Krauss, took home five GRAMMYs for their collaborative hit album, Raising Sand. (photo to left of Krauss and Plant by John Shearer)

Coldplay also did well, and took home three GRAMMYs -- Viva La Vida Or Death And All His Friends received the award for Best Rock Album, and the group received Song of the Year and Best Pop Performance By A Duo Or Group With Vocals, both for the title-track.

Despite some good performances, most people I know are not all that interested in the GRAMMYs. This could be because of the ceremony's emphasis on the Red Carpet -- a music ceremony should not be an exclusive press party for the stars to show off their high fashion. Also, voting is limited to members of The Recording Academy, which is limited to the artists who choose to join. Established musicians can request membership, which allows them to enter recordings, vote and participate in the GRAMMYs, and receive other benefits:

"The GRAMMYs are the only peer-presented award to honor artistic achievement, technical proficiency and overall excellence in the recording industry, without regard to album sales or chart position."
What we need to remember is that there are independent artists out there, many who deliberately have chosen to separate themselves from the corrupt music industry, and thus not become Recording Academy members. It is not unlikely that they outnumber those who are signed with major record companies. This is perhaps where the bias lies, and why to many the ceremony appears to be a publicity show for those in key with the industry. Nevertheless, The Recording Academy aims to follow its mission statement:

"To positively impact the lives of musicians, industry members and our society at large."
Despite the lack of artists who are not members of The Recording Academy, the GRAMMYs allow contemporary artists to share and recognize each others' work. Another cool thing is rather than just giving sole credit to the musicians, there are also awards for producers, artists, engineers, and so forth. This is great because it puts faces to the names out there that you might only come across upon a close read of an album’s liner notes. Whereas some people might not realize just how many individuals collaborate to produce a record, industry members are happy to congratulate each other on their achievements.

For example, Radiohead's In Rainbows won for the Best Boxed Or Special Limited Edition Package, but this award isn't another for Thom Yorke, Jonny Greenwood, and band. Rather, it was presented to Radiohead's art directors, Stanley Donwood, Mel Maxwell, and Christiaan Munro. The band members did receive deserved recognition with the Best Alternative Music Album award.

Although the GRAMMYs offer an exceptional ceremony for all involved, it is a shame that artists who have chosen not to be involved with the industry must go unrecognized. What I think would be neat is if we, the listeners, were able to place our votes for our favourite artists in a major award ceremony similar to the GRAMMYs, but free of membership and class restrictions. All artists and bands, new and old, would be eligible, and there would be worldwide categories like Best Song of All Time... could you decide? ;)

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Got PS22?

Live from Staten Island, New York, the PS22 Chorus is not your typical 5th grade public elementary school choir. These kids have risen to worldwide fame not only through their teacher, "Mr. B"'s, blog. There have been over 2,450,000 views of PS22 performances on YouTube. You can also catch them on episodes of the latest season of Electric Company, airing on PBS!

I first found out about PS22 from some friends on a Tori Amos forum. Being a huge fan, I was intrigued to learn that a group of young students were performing covers of her complex songs. With the help of Undented, the PS22 of 2007 received a once in a lifetime offer from Sony Music -- to sing with Tori!

The student stars brought piano prodigy, Amos, to tears with their performance of her song Dragon, above, which now has over 152,000 views on YouTube.

"They were so good! Their arrangements -- their sound -- it was so good... It was... disarming. It means so much that they took it and made it their own." - Tori Amos

PS22 have also sung with Judy Torres, and were recipients of a special invitation from Academy Award-winner, Marcia Gay Harden, to perform at her home. Apart from Tori they have covered Regina Spektor, Bjork, Madonna, Keane, and Coldplay, among others.

Since 2000, Gregg Breinberg has been teaching P.S. 22 5th graders vocal techniques that allow them to cover a wide range of contemporary repertoire. He accompanies on piano and guitar to structure covers for the chorus in such a way that projects creative ability, and captures emotion. It is refreshing to know that Mr. B not only understands the importance of arts in education at a regular public school, but has brought his kids to the attention of supporters worldwide. With smiles all around, faces lit up, and their hands on their hearts, it is simple to be swept into their sound.

Perez Hilton certainly agrees for he has featured the PS22 chorus a few times on his celebrity blog. It is exciting to note that the chorus has recently been covered by mainstream news sources such as The New York Times and The Guardian.

P.S. Speaking of gaining momentum, the latest news is that the chorus, pictured above with Coldplay management, has the possibility of being signed for a record deal. I'll be staying tuned, for sure!

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Ani for President!

I recently posted about Obama's national cause in support of the Arts. I am sure that many of you are aware that he also is an activist for women's rights.

In the Winter 2009 inaugural issue of Ms. Magazine, feminist folk musician, Ani DiFranco, speaks out to President Obama:

"I have received so many breathless letters myself and now it's role-reversal time. You have reawakened a disillusioned and passive electorate and begun healing racial wounds that have crippled us for centuries." (photo to left by Rhea Anna for Ms. Magazine)
Ani is an example of an artist who gives back to the people. On one hand her music is personal, which makes it accessible. On the other, it is popular because it is political.

Ani`s most recent song, November 4, 2008, is a direct reference to election day. In an interview by Italian blogger, Eleonora Bianchini, Ani declares that her politics are somewhat left of Obama`s, that she`s more radical than him. Nevertheless she rejoices about what she believes he will bring to America.

There has been some controversy within the Ani fan community because the lyrics to November 4 seem not as poetic as what the little folksinger is capable of. What is important, however, is that she has captured a moment with her music. Ani spent the week after election day writing this song. It`s not about how poetic it is, or how popular Obama is. Ani is human and like many, it is great to see that she is in tune with a vision for change. November 4, 2008 is another outlet for the expression of independence and opinion that has given Ani her name in the industry.

To watch additional solo and live versions of November 4th, 2008, step on over to Righteous Babe Records!