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Pop Explosion: Numbers Game 

Even if you failed math, it's clear that 125 bands in five days and 15 venues is way too much for one rock soldier. So here are 10 Pop Explosion picks that add up perfectly.


Spiral Beach

St. Matthew’s Church (1479 Barrington) 8pm, $15

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Toronto’s Spiral Beach play with a twinkle in their eye, youthful abandon and confidence well beyond their 20-and-change years. Their show with Polaris Award-noms Two Hours Traffic may just be the sleeper of this year’s Pop Explosion. “We’ve been playing together for almost six years now with the same four members,” explains drummer Daniel Woodhead who, along with brother and guitarist Airick, co-writes the songs. Bassist Dorian Wolf and singer/keyboardist Maddy Wilde (“We kind of think of Maddy as our sister!”) round out the lineup. “The dynamic between members is pretty solid at this point.” Add to that how they’ve known each other since school days. The band has two albums out (Spiral Beach and Ball). The first Woodhead describes, humbly, as a “demo.” Far from the case, of course. The second captures the band’s heavier live sound. Work on a third has just begun. “We’ve been doing a lot of acoustic sets lately and busking around Toronto, and I think a lot of our new songs are influenced by that, trying to get a solid foundation first before putting all kinds of weird ideas over top of it.” So humble. Both albums impress with thoughtful, visual lyrics, largely inspired by identification with artists from Gogol Bordello to Flaming Lips to Syd Barrett. (SF)

Plays with: Two Hours Traffic (9:45pm), The Meligrove Band (8:45pm)

Amy Campbell

The Music Room, (6181 Lady Hammond) 9:30pm, $15

Amy Campbell is back at her Toronto home for a brief stint at the laundromat between touring dates when we talk. A Haligonian for 15 years, the Newfoundland-born Campbell returns for the Pop Explosion to release her new album, Oh Heart, Oh Highway, a two-disc set and drawing booklet. Since her last album was released in fall 2003, she decided to give touring a try and clocked plenty of hours on the road over the next few years, across Canada and the States, eventually moving to Toronto to be more centrally located. “ created a really conducive landscape,” she says. “Driving is a very meditative action, especially alone.” Time on the road and matters of the heart gave rise to Oh Heart, Oh Highway, divided into five chapters, the first two and last two framing the narrative and drawings in the enclosed booklet. “Drawing was something I found myself doing unconsciously. I was almost doodling my thoughts---sometimes that was easier,” Campbell, a former NSCAD film student, says. She saw an opportunity to incorporate this aspect of her practice into the album and allow part of the story to be told visually, creating a complex cross-country journey. (LK)Plays with: Tanya Davis (8:15pm), Julie Fader (7:30pm)

Boxer The Horse

Coconut Grove, (1567 Grafton), 10pm, $8

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Four barely legal PEI boys, Boxer The Horse have been on a slope of success ever since their first demo CD sold out at a Battle of the Bands show put on for Quebec exchange students last summer at UPEI’s campus pub. “The prize was beer, which we couldn’t even accept,” says drummer Andrew Woods. “It was one of the funnest shows we’ve ever played…it gave us the incentive to make a new CD so people from PEI could hear.”  Since then, they’ve opened for acts like Jason Collett, Dog Day, Two Hours Traffic and The Museum Pieces, to name a few. Working classic rock and folk influences in with an upbeat contemporary indie rock sound, it’s not bad for a few young musicians playing together for under a year and a half. Woods claims much of the band’s music is inspired by “characters, weird people on the street,” and chats excitedly about strange encounters on a trip to Montreal he and guitarist Jeremy Gaudet took by bus this past summer. The band is enthusiastic about Charlottetown’s music scene and plans to stick around. “There are some nights now when you’re like, ‘Oh, there are two options!’” says Woods. (LK)

Plays with: Laura Barrett (1am), Ghost Bees (12:15am), Rich Aucoin (11:30pm), The Rural Alberta Advantage (10:45pm)

Laura Barrett

Coconut Grove (1567 Grafton), 1am, $8

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The best gardens are like collages. Laura Barrett’s Victory Garden follows that model. “The album is definitely an assemblage of ideas, especially since some of the songs were written before I had plans for a full length album,” she writes by email. Barrett’s been touring with Ghost Bees. (“It’s been a pleasure to experience touring life with such generous, knowledge-seeking spirits. Musically, it’s a treat too, because of their inspiring focus and elegance onstage.”) “Within a song, though, even though there may be different angles of approach, I try to stick to one narrative or concept, however metaphorical (or even jumbled) it might end up being. I’d hope that each time you hear one of the songs you get something different from it.” Indeed, that happens. “One of my friends asked me never to tell him what my songs are about,” she adds. The kalimba (thumb-piano) adds a rich vein to the songs. “It definitely inspires the rhythmic flow of the lyrics, and a lot of the time I’ll pick percussive words that might not be very sonorous but merge well with the sounds of the kalimba. I also feel that, beyond word choice, the way I sing has evolved with my playing. In my mind, the instrument’s voice and my voice form a duet.” (SF)

Plays with: Ghost Bees (12:15am), Rich Aucoin (11:30pm), The Rural Alberta Advantage (10:45pm), Boxer The Horse (10pm)


Retribution Gospel Choir

St. Matthew’s Church (1479 Barrington), 9:45pm, $15

At the westernmost point on the north shore of Lake Superior is Duluth, Minnesota. Retribution Gospel Choir’s frontman, Alan Sparhawk (of Low) has spent most of his life living in Duluth, in awe of Lake Superior and in the shadow of relics of socialist-inspired architecture. You can’t help but wonder if humbling power of the Great Lakes plays into the biblical nature of the band’s name, which goes back to the roots of music: travelling tour buses with the names of the acts emblazoned on the side and images of brimstone and payback dancing in their heads. Sparhawk talks of Duluth’s surreal nature and how it can be traced back to its relationship with nature and its relationship to anarcho-syndicalism and the Industrial Workers of the World. Sparhawk calls it “one of the last bastions of pre-McCarthy socialism in the US,” as the city still houses vestiges from the days of the Workers’ Socialist Publishing Company and the Work People’s College, and socialist murals fade on the walls of downtown buildings. Blending elements of psychedelia and dub with singable melodies and deafening rock, RGC moves beyond preconceptions of what noise, a side project and Duluth all should be. (MB)Plays with: i see rowboats (8:45pm), The Prospector’s Union (8pm)


Hell’s Kitchen (2037 Gottingen), midnight, $28adv/$33 door, included with Marquee cover for GZA

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Blending consciousness with wit and a sense of humour, J-Bru is an easily likeable emcee. With a Honey Cone sample as its jump-off point, “Help! I Been Robbed,” J-Bru’s 2007 single from his album Identity Crisis is the perfect example of how well the memorable verses and playful persona of Jason Bruce have been received by audiences. The song garnered Bru an ECMA nomination and received more video play on MuchMusic than any of his previous videos. “I get my funny side from just being me. I have always been the centre of attention among my friends but when it comes to videos and stuff, I work mainly with Marc André Debruyne, who has done all four of my videos. He and I have always talked about making a funny video and when we got together to shoot ‘Help! I Been Robbed,’ it was a natural thing.” Bru’s next album is the Jason EP which Bru promises “will be my first album where I don’t give a shit about what anyone has to say.” The album’s subject matter will go beyond the J-Bru persona that fans are accustomed to---Bru promises to “show people Jason and not J-Bru, so it is very personal.” (MB)

Plays with: Quake (11pm), J Gutta (10:30pm), Joe Buck (10pm)


Coconut Grove (1567 Grafton), 1am, $8

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“It’s really scary here! I might die!” the Hilotrons’ synth player and vocalist Mike Dubué shouts into his cellphone while crossing a street. A bunch of self-professed geeks who don’t take themselves too seriously, the Ottawa electro-pop band has been playing since 2002, but is just beginning to build a strong fan base in the rest of the country since the release of their third album, Happymatic, earlier this year. “We don’t leave Ottawa much,” Dubué admits. Their frenetic, danceable sound has garnered comparisons to everything from new wave to Asian pop to funk. Dubué’s sense of humour is obvious, his conversation as frantic as the Hilotrons’ music. “I’m on acid right now,” he tells me. “No, not really. Drugs are bad,” then proceeds to relate a recent story about a straight-edge kid pulling out a knife at a party. The band members all have busy music careers: In addition to playing in a multitude of other bands, Dubué works on soundtracks, drummer Philip Bova is a studio engineer and keyboardist Mike Schultz is an engineer of the scientific variety. With the robot-like songs you’d expect from a record titled Happymatic, they’re hoping to drag your Haligonian asses onto the dance floor. (LK)

Plays with: Andrew Vincent (12:15am), Andy Swan (11:30pm), Jessie Kussin (10:45pm), Laura Borealis (10pm)


Brutal Knights

The Pavilion (5816 Cogswell), 9pm, $6. Gus’ Pub (2605 Agricola), 1am, $6

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Nick Flanagan, what’s the worst show The Brutal Knights have played? “Locally, the worst show we played was probably the time we opened for Clit 45 at Kathedral. Not a venue we like, not a band we knew anything about, a bad turnout and being underpaid made this a worthless experience. That was a ‘let’s give it a try’ decision that definitely bit us in the fat butt.” Are you excited to come to Halifax? “We’re excited. Our bassist is from Truro. We’re coming a month later because it was a tour that we’ve been delaying for a while. Twice in Halifax in less than a month should be fun, I think.” You use quite a bit of broken English in your lyrics. What misuse are you most proud of? “The lyrics to the Teen Crud Combo, ‘Wash Dish,’ I guess. ‘Men agree for girls wash dish.’ Very compact. Also, in the song ‘Suck It,’ I get to say, ‘Is for Nick good,’ which I am also proud. TCC definitely was the progenitor of the broken English style I employ.” What’s the best offer you’ve ever received? “Can I help carry that amp?” (MB)

Plays with: The Endless Blockade (8:20pm), Envision (7:45pm), Last Laugh (7:15pm), Genetic Angry (6:45pm)/The Endless Blockade (12:15am), Criminal Intent (11:30pm), Attack Mode (10:45pm), Contagium, 10pm


The Pavilion (5816 Cogswell), 4:45pm, $12adv-$15. The Marquee, (2037 Gottingen), 1am, $13adv/$8

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Montreal-based Islands have three days left to go on their European tour. Having left Paris in the morning, Nick Thorburn---singer, guitarist and lyricist---fields questions by email in St. Lo, France, but his mind remains in the City of Lights: “Hemingway lived in Paris. So did Nina Simone. She lived out her last days there. I think Bukowski did. And Céline. Not Dion, the author.” Surely Islands returned the favour of inspiration to Parisian audiences with sets drawing heavily from their majestic new album, Arm’s Way, which one wants to describe as chamber pop---not Thorburn. “Maybe Arm’s Way has symphonic elements, but as a whole, I’m more interested in a great song and a great sound than intricate arrangements,” he writes. “That being said, I think maybe certain people like densely layered music for the rewards that come from repeated listens, discovering new things in the songs.” His words offer plenty of discoveries, “macabre imagery,” the body open and exposed to the lover or the world. With just a voice and acoustic guitar, he’ll start putting flesh on the melodic bones, often expanding through “a really banal context. An example would be, ‘I have to goooo to the baaaaaathrooom.’ I’m not joking. Isn’t that weird?” (SF)

Plays with: Sebastien Grainger & The Mountain (3:45pm), Thundrah (3pm), Special Noise (2:15pm), Greenbelt Collective (1:30pm)/ Sebastien Grainger (midnight), the got to get got (11pm), ruby coast (10pm)

Basia Bulat

The Music Room, 6181 Lady Hammond, 9:30pm, $15

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Most people don’t think of palm trees when they think about Halifax, but that’s what sticks out in Toronto singer Basia Bulat’s memory from her 2007 performance at the Cunard Centre, when she opened for Wintersleep. Perhaps it was the tropical atmosphere that made the audience seem “really warm” to Bulat. Her 2007 debut album Oh My Darling feels like it comes out of nowhere, as though it’s been born from the foam on a crest of a wave. Having been short-listed for this year’s Polaris Prize, Bulat calls her album’s success “a pleasant surprise.” Winter days at university in London, ON, gave rise to much of the album, with friends, her brother and roommate gathering to play music in her apartment. “When I was writing songs I was wondering what would be fun for us to play together,” she says. “Listening to the album now, I can hear how much fun we had.” Bulat claims to live in a van currently (“Sometimes I get in it and it feels like I’m home.”), but is excited to take a rest and resume work on her master’s in literature following the Pop Explosion. Warm and articulate in her music, it’s no surprise to hear she’s also a voracious reader in the midst of a dozen books. (LK)

Plays with: Brian Borcherdt (8:15pm), The Western Civilization (7:30pm)


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