I haven’t been to Bar le Ritz PDB in a minute, and my expectations are low. I remember it dingy and bare, but as I get past the silly line that snaked needlessly out the door, I find myself in the soft glow of string lights and approaching the bar I notice they are serving Gamay by the glass. I spy the orange sticker that says it’s a Rézin import – my fave – and I’m impressed. This is not your typical dive bar wine, and I appreciate that they know their crowd. There are three or four tables and a smattering of chairs, all taken, so I grab a seat on the floor like some other people have done. Shout out the management of Bar le Ritz: when you notice tons of people sitting on the floor, go get your fucking chairs. I mean, come on. Pure. Laziness. Yes, I’m still sore about The Paper Kites.
Thus Owls is the opener, married duo Erika and Simon Angell. Their fourth album was released this year and features Montreal indie favourites Laurel Sprengelmeyer (Little Scream), Nicolas Basque (Plants and Animals), Michael Feuerstack (Wooden Stars, Snailhouse) and Marc-André Landry. Tonight they perform with a drummer, but I don’t catch his name. They start and I have trouble figuring out where one song ends and the next begins because the tone and rhythm change completely at some point. I think it’s the second song that feels like a sound bath. The music washes over me, and I feel my sinuses clearing (Thus Owls + humidifier = healed). There’s a simple refrain, “who am I/what do you see” and there is a break for applause as the band shifts to a more lyrical and rhythmic song with a thump like a heartbeat. Lead singer Erika Angell impresses with incredible vocals as she’s ah-ah-ah-ing, hitting the notes both sharp and yet full at the same time. I realize that she has an accent – she’s Swedish – and she reminds me of Amy Lee from Evanescence.
By the fourth (?) song the room has filled and I’m starting to get into it. The electric guitar is the star now, and then the song evolves. To… spoken word… a crescendo… and I’m confused. I feel like they made it weird. I realize that’s the point of experimental indie rock and that it’s supposed to make you feel something. If it annoys you, disturbs your sense of rhythm, that’s something, and it does feel like Thus Owls are being disruptive.
The following song starts with a siren call and cool electric guitar and would be a great theme song for a rocker villainess on Buffy/Charmed/Vampire Diaries/Sabrina Dismantles the Patriarchy. (I worry that I watch too much TV.) Next, Simon starts playing his guitar like a violin and it’s awesome. Erika is sounding a little like Björk, which is a comparison I was trying to avoid drawing because it’s the obvious one. But you’re not stupid – you knew those pop cultural references were both pandering and dancing away from the Nordic elephant in the room – so, yes, pretty Björk-y. Thus Owls is worth hearing and was a fun accompaniment to the headliner.
I wonder, as Marissa Nadler takes the stage, if things are about to get gloomier.
She looks younger than I expected. If I didn’t know she’d just released her eighth album, I’d have wagered she was in college. Her first song is the title track from her most recent album, For My Crimes. Having done my research into both goth-folk and Nadler herself, I know that this track arose from an experiment proposed by her husband, and is sung from the perspective of an inmate on death row. Her next song, Drive, is a lullaby in a haunted house, and could easily play in the trailer for a horror movie about said house.
Between songs she engages the audience in an endearingly awkward way, poking fun at herself. “Good banter,” she jokes. She also repeatedly asks her stage partner, Milky Burgess – her “band”, playing bass with his feet and playing his guitar at the same time – off-mic but still audibly, whether there is an issue with the sound quality. It comes up a handful of times throughout the show, and I mention it here not because it was distracting or off-putting, but because it showed her professionalism and commitment. It’s clear that she cares about her music and wants to connect with the audience.
After a false start for Are You Gonna Move to the South? She says, “Oh, Marissa” and it’s charming. I immediately forgive her for the sombre tone of the songs, as she repeatedly requests of the audience with comments like “this is one of my happiest songs” before proceeding to play Dead City Emily. She is genuine and brave, coming forth with song after song written from the raw, imperfect place that is the inside of love. The audience is here for it, nodding and singing along. The room feels thick with emotion – she’s clearly a favourite, and it’s unsurprising, to me, because of her ability to laugh at her own dark themes. It’s comforting and honest.
I Can’t Listen to Gene Clarke Anymore is a creepy Christmas song and Leave the Light On feels like a classic. It brings to mind a scene from Adam’s Rib, wherein Spencer Tracy angrily spanks his on-screen wife Katharine Hepburn mid-massage and she calls him out on his supposed playfulness, saying, “I know a slap from a slug!” This song is an old one, unreleased, but could easily be part of her latest album. It feels like a married couple’s fight: “I never want to see your face again… But I will leave the light on… In case you’re coming back”
She plays Blue Vapor without the accompaniment of Dum Dum Girls’ Kristin Kontrol’s vocals or Hole’s Patty Schemel on drums (I was secretly hoping for a surprise appearance) and it’s inarguably missing something. When I listen to it later, I will love it, but at the show I find it pretty forgettable. Before the encore, she plays Firecrackers and I find it beautiful and wintery, bedtime-y. She sings two more as an encore, one a cover I don’t recognize and another full of old Hollywood glamour, reminiscent of a more genuine Judy Garland.
The next day, I feel like I’ve been educated in Gothic Folk, and I hear these songs as a soundtrack. I google Marissa Nadler and see she’s been featured on UnReal, a satire of The Bachelor with plenty of dark, twisted themes. I want to be sure I’ve got her right, though, because this is not my go-to style of music. It’s not even – though it may soon be – my once-in-a-while style of music. I asked this website’s editor, Steve Gerrard, who took the gorgeous accompanying photos, what he thought about the show. I’ll leave you with his words, which sum up what I felt somewhat more succinctly:
“(Last night) I was unsure what to expect. Sometimes artists that play music that’s otherworldly and pretty mellow can be somewhat uninspiring live, but she managed to take it somewhere unexpected and to capture what makes her so unique. It still felt a little unrehearsed and that made it all the better.”
For My Crimes
I Can’t Listen to Gene Clarke Anymore
Leave the Light On
Are You Really Gonna Move to the South?
Said Goodbye to that Car
Was It a Dream?
Dead City Emily
Hungry is The Ghost
Review – Carrie-Ann Kloda
Photos – Steve Gerrard