Last night yielded the rare find every CMJ attendee hopes for: a wholly unique, captivating music act, tucked into the back room of an unassuming venue. This was exactly what I stumbled upon last night at Union Pool, where Toronto-based trio Timber Timbre treated an entranced audience to an intricate, atmospheric performance. Frontman Taylor Kirk’s resonant vocals were both rough and elegant (think Tom Waits, sanded down), and were acommpanied by Simon Trottier on lap steel and Mika Posen on violin. The group played waltzing, lushly orchestrated blues songs, accomplishing a sound that was unpredictable and enveloping. The only discordant moments of the set were the looped birdsongs laced through the final piece, which seemed a heavy-handed, indulgent push for cinematic flair – something I felt was unnecessary, given the music’s ability to invoke the same environment in a subtler and far more arresting manner.
Following Timber Timbre were Still Life Still, who played an enthusiastic, digressive set, quickly shifting the vibe from deep, tangled woods to deep basement house party. Still Life Still struck me as a derivative, far less articulate version – or even, as a friend suggested, a photocopy of a photocopy – of Broken Social Scene; a move some might consider a faux pas given that both bands are signed to Canadian label Arts&Crafts. Fellow label-mates Zeus took the stage shortly thereafter, treating the packed audience to some hard-driving, nostalgic rock and roll.
Heading over to the Knitting Factory for the Saddle Creek showcase and a change of pace, I was lucky to catch Azure Ray’s Orenda Fink, whose haunting and composed folk songs stilled the room. (Never underestimate the power of Southern grace.) This stillness was quickly broken by Miles Benjamin Anthony Robinson, who seemed delighted to be onstage and humbled by the previous acts. Shiny with sweat and full of self-deprecating remarks (“I know it’s really fucking late,” he said around 1:30 a.m., “I would’ve left by now”), the sock-footed Robinson belted out gruff but melodic folk rock while pogoing happily around his backing musicians.
The brisk walk home had me thinking about how so many of the artists I’ve seen at CMJ this week have played straight off their albums, replicating the familiar. This can be exciting, but it’s also a lot like watching someone at work. Those artists who stand out – Antlers, Darwin Deez, Timber Timbre – do so not only because they're smart musicians, but because they’ve put time and energy into constructing live acts that deviate from studio recordings and cultivate narrative and cohesion. As musicians try to navigate the volatile record industry, perhaps we'll start seeing more bands trying to differentiate themselves through both their music and their performance -- fingers crossed.
Photo Credit: Max Herman/Prefixmag.com