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Not your average flick

The Flick, by Annie Baker

Produced by ITSAZOO Productions

Presented by Blue Bridge Repertory Theatre

Directed by Phoenix alum Chelsea Haberlin

Reviewed by Chris Ho

It seems appropriate that The Flick, which takes place at “a falling apart movie theatre” in Worcester Country, MA, is being performed at the once run-down but beloved Roxy Theatre on Quadra. And even though the amusing bit of irony, combined with the fresh smell of popcorn may have already put me in a good mood as I entered the theatre, I can objectively say that this contemporary play by Annie Baker is a must-see.

As one can imagine, it isn’t easy to create a consistently engaging play that explores the subtle gems of self-discovery and change that sometimes emerge during the mundane moments of everyday life. The first 10 or 15 minutes of the play might be summed up as two employees bantering as they sweep popcorn off the floor. And yet when I took a glance at the audience, it seemed like they were at the edge of their seat like I was. Annie Baker touches on a very universal theme about the moments in life where we stand at a crossroad that then gives us insight into who we were, and who we might become. Yet she manages to do it in a way where it doesn’t feel overly cliché, or overdone.

This is something that ITSAZOO Productions clearly understands, and captures very beautifully in its rendition of The Flick. Kyle Sutherland (Set Design) and Simon Farrow (Lighting Design) seamlessly transform the Roxy from a movie house to a live performance space, — and stay true to the simplistic design that the playwright likely intended. Bits of popcorn are strewn about, surrounding the authentically creaky movie seats – and directly above, a small pane of glass looks into the projector room, as the projector looks out on us. To visually portray the idea that people’s lives can seem like a performance at times, the movie projector transitions the scenes by intermittently projecting clips of Hollywood movies toward the audience as the lights are dimmed.

For me, the appeal of this production lies in the fact that there aren’t really any missing components or weak links in its overall composition. The three characters in the play, Sam (Chris Cochrane), Avery (Jesse Reid) and Rose (Kate Dion Richard), were perfectly cast. Each and every one of them was consistently in tune with their roles, as well as with the nuances in their characters’ development throughout the entire play. Everything from the sound, lighting and set design were complementary and did a great deal to enhance the overall vibe of the play. Under the direction of Brian Richmond, these actors were able to bring out the thematic subtleties in Annie Baker’s writing.  I’d give it four out of five stars.

Chris Ho is a Victoria-based singer songwriter.

Hank Angel Pays Homage to Rock and Roll

Hank Engel

Hank Angel (Extended Play 45)

Produced by David Jeffrey and Dave Lang

Reviewed by Chris Ho

Victoria musician Hank Engel’s self-titled EP is a nostalgic gem that brings you right back to the feel-good rockabilly vibe of the 50’s. Engel pays homage to the underground music scene in Edmonton in the 1980s, and more specifically to one of his favourite bands, The Draggnetts. Although this band had recorded much of their material and were admired for their musicianship, they ended up disappearing into obscurity. In an interview with Drive-in Magazine, Engel said, “We idolized those guys. Not only did they play great music, but they lived it, in an old house with rebel flags and velvet paintings and overflowing ashtrays. Empty bottles all over the place, a bust of Elvis on the mantle. Their girlfriends walked around looking like Betty Page and Marilyn Monroe. Their band was like a gang, like every band ought to be.”

The idea of living out the music that you write and express is essential to a lot of rock and roll — something that you don’t see as often these days. Many bands don’t have the luxury of being signed and consequently need to manage their own careers. Likely, it would only hinder productivity in that regard if they were to live out that kind of lifestyle – (talk about a buzz kill). But this isn’t the sort of genre that lends itself well to being focused on marketing, and making sure you tweet frequently enough. It’s a genre that’s about the music and the lifestyle. It reminds us that, when all is said and done, it’s the whole package that counts: sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll.

Hank Engel’s EP reminds us of this. The production isn’t flashy, and the vocals aren’t tuned to perfection. Many of the tracks sound as though they were recorded live off the floor, which gives it that old-­‐school rockabilly feel. And regardless of how polished the EP may be, one has to admire this decision to record the songs in this way. Hank Angel could very well have recorded these old tunes in a more mainstream, or polished way, but instead he stays true to the rockabilly roots.

Producer David Jeffrey clearly has a good understanding of Hank Angel’s genre, and has recorded and mixed it in a way that harks back to that early vintage rock-­‐ and-­‐roll sound. As a result, the EP gives you just the right amount of crisp guitar tones, non-­‐intrusive drum rhythms and raw vocals. Hank brings a new life to the songs of Art Adams and The Draggnetts, although it’s a shame that he doesn’t include more of his original material. His song “A Guitar and A Broken Heart” is a great opener for the EP since it has many of the elements that make a great song, including the catchy vocal melodies, tasteful guitar riffs, and simplistic drum rhythms. But instead of developing this, along with his own sound, he decides to resurrect a couple of great rockabilly tunes, obscuring his own path as a musician.

Nonetheless, his motives are pure, and the songs have come together very well. And who knows, maybe we’ll get to hear more original rockabilly releases from Hank /Engel/Angel in the future.

Chris Ho is a UVic  graduate, musician and closet cookie dough eater.

Woodsmen carve their mark

Despite being a fairly young band, the eclectic indie-rock collective Woodsmen has quickly made a name for itself within the tightly knit Victoria community. Even before releasing their debut EP, Woodsmen has shared the stage with such acts as Jon and Roy, Kytami, and The Zolas, and has received airplay through CBC Music. The band’s opening track “For Keeps” was nominated as the Island Song of the Year in the 2013 Vancouver Island Music Awards. Members Maryse Bernard and Sean Kennedy talked recently with Chris Ho about their successes.

Woodsmen has been described as “an accessible blend of blues, jazz and rock” with “unconventional time changes and experimental song structure.” How do you find a balance with accessibility and experimentation in your music?

MARYSE: I wouldn’t say it’s a conscious thing—that we sit down to write with the intention of creating music that surprises without distancing the audience—but it is an important balance to keep in mind. I think the best songs evoke in us both a sense of familiarity, as well as the unexpected. It’s always fun to throw in some wacky time changes, but songs still need to follow a certain structure. We aim to deliver new discoveries without pulling people out of the listening experience.

SEAN: Yeah I’d say it’s pretty spontaneous. A lot of the cooler parts of our songs come from mistakes we made while writing that we thought sounded awesome. The hard part is to  recreate them and incorporate them into our songs.

I have to say Maryse’s vocals definitely tie our songs together in terms of accessibility. They’re really emotive and draw a lot of attention, which I guess distracts from some of the strange things going on in our songs. For instance,  “Memo” changes time signatures 4 or 5 times and “Not the Same” has separate vocal and instrumental choruses, but you’re focusing more on Maryse’s melodies and lyrics throughout those songs. Essentially we all get weird behind the veil that is her voice.

Was the recording process of your debut EP just as experimental as your musical style, or was it by contrast very straightforward? What was your overall vision for the EP, as far as song selection and general soundscape goes?

MARYSE: We generally stuck to the same vocals as when we perform, but came up with the three-part harmonies for “Not The Same” in the studio. I’m a creature of habit when it comes to singing, so it was fun to add more of a spontaneous side and come up with parts right during the recording process. We carried them into our live shows, and I love now getting to jazz-geek out for that part of the song. I think Sean also got experimental with the keys for “Memo”?

SEAN: Yeah we reversed some of my key parts in “Memo,” added some reverb, then used the sound for transitions and building tension in certain parts. We also put a microphone in a refrigerator for some of the drum parts to make them sound more dirt-nasty.

MARYSE: Vision-wise, the songs go in chronological order of when we wrote them. It was our first time recording “Memo” and “Not The Same”, but we also wanted to include a revamped version of “For Keeps,” since it’s one of our favourites from our 2012 Demo. Hopefully there’s some growth that can be heard both in sound and content over the course of the EP. To me, each song brings up a distinct chapter in its theme.

What would you say are the ideal listening conditions for your self-titled EP, and why?

MARYSE: I can’t assume this for everyone, but I like to think of it as a really good driving soundtrack. When Sam Weber first sent us the rough tracks, I listened to them during a road trip to California, and that environment of looking out at the passing landscape to the music kind of stuck. Our friends recently took the EP with them on their drive to whistler. They said afterwards that whenever a Woodsmen tune came on it made everyone feel good, which is one of the best things musicians can hope for: for it to be enjoyable in a group setting, but also appreciable on a more personal level when listening to it alone. I hope that when people really pay attention to the lyrics, they can find something that rings true with them.

Would you describe your band as being unified in its musical influences and preferences, or is there quite a bit of diversity?

MARYSE: I think our influences are all pretty diverse, and that that creates one of our sound’s best qualities. I love that everyone comes from different musical backgrounds and brings their own flavor to the conception of our songs. It inspires lyrics and melodies I may never have come up with otherwise. I was trained in jazz with heavy RnB and blues influence, but also adored punk rock as a teen, so it’s awesome to create this fusion that becomes our own genre of alternative. In the studio, Sam Weber called us the “Motown Grizzly Bear.”

Oftentimes a band’s perception of their best song doesn’t line up with what others perceive as their best song. Is this the case for your track “For Keeps,” which has evidently garnered attention through its nomination in the Island Song of the Year?

MARYSE: In my opinion, if you’re making music for the sole purpose of it being popular, the lack of substance is going to be obvious. If it doesn’t resonate with us, then it probably won’t with fans either. What’s great about “For Keeps” is that it can be taken as a lighter track—danceable and a little poppy—but also as a darker confessional when you listen to it closely. There was some heavy turmoil going on when writing the lyrics— the fear of essentially being broken when it comes to relationships. So I think it can be connected to on a number of different levels, depending on how listeners want to approach it.

Timberlake entices with glamour

 Justin Timberlake
The 20/20 Experience (RCA Records, 2013)
Produced by Timbaland, Justin Timberlake, Jerome “J-Roc” Harmon

Reviewed by Chris Ho

Lights up on stage right. Trails of cigarette smoke. Stage curtains drawn, revealing the dapper string section of the orchestra. May I present to you: The 20/20 Experience.

The first track instantly introduces the glamorous 1950s New York throwback, which is then infused with the familiar R&B pop sound that is unmistakably Justin Timberlake. And with some exceptions, the mixture of these elements essentially encapsulates Timberlake’s latest album, The 20/20 Experience.

Having been on a musical hiatus for six years, his highly anticipated comeback couldn’t have been classier. If painting the town with your friends in a stylish suit and tie getup wasn’t already on your list of priorities, it soon will be. Timberlake brought sexy back with the previous record FutureSex/LoveSounds, and now, he’s bringing classy back with The 20/20 Experience. In particular, “Suit & Tie” grooves in a way that could only be suitable in a select number of clubs. The clean and soulful sounding vocal melodies are paired with relaxed, finger-snapping beats, and topped off with a classic interjecting trumpet line. It seems as though Justin Timberlake disappeared from the music scene, only to reappear with a newfound Sinatra-esque edge, and an old big band to back him up. And yet, somehow, his music seems even more original (and perhaps experimental) than ever.

Timberlake has always tended to instill his work with a generous amount of vocal layering and pleasing harmonies, but never before like this. Between the strategically placed string parts, interesting electronic sounds, and soft backup vocal lines, the production of the album puts the listener in a head-bobbing trance. The brilliance of this comes in the fact that it’s difficult to pick out the specific musical elements that create this effect, because it’s ultimately the overall exceptional production as a whole that does it. Although, at the same time, the interesting electronic sounds found in tracks like “Blue Ocean Floor” and “Dress On,” certainly seem to stand out in a very tangible way.

An album that incorporates very classic musical elements while staying true to the artist’s creative integrity and trademark style generally tends to be audibly enticing. Such is the case for Timberlake’s The 20/20 Experience, which gives us the familiar, the old, the new, and then some. The particularly striking tracks include “Suit & Tie,” “That Girl,” “Pusher Love Girl,” and “Blue Ocean Floor.”

Chris Ho is a UVic graduate and Victoria-based singer-songwriter.

Twilight Horizon sparkles with artistic vision

Twilight Horizon (2012)
Written, recorded, and produced by Eric Hogg at Soma Sound.

Reviewed by Chris Ho

After releasing his debut full-length album, ‘Twilight Horizon,’ this January, Solipsis, a.k.a. Eric Hogg, is now up for two well deserved Vancouver Island Music Award nominations: one for Island Producer of The Year, and one for Island Pop/Rock Album of the Year.

Given the tightly knit instrumental layering and overall cohesiveness of the album, it’s clear that Twilight Horizon is the culmination of a remarkably pointed artistic vision. Everything from the reversed guitar riffs to the sweeping vocal harmonies and impeccable guitar tones are carefully crafted and consistently balanced throughout the entire record. Nearly every track has just the right amount of twists and turns in between the inventive, yet accessible, vocal melodies. Even after a casual first listen, I was immediately drawn into the album’s soundscape, which seemed to be its own entity, separate from everything around me.

Twilight Horizon begins with a choir of voices, combined with ambience, bells, clean guitar and bass, which serves as an intro that smoothly transitions into the next brilliantly produced track, “Along the Way.” Among the ambient noise, an acoustic guitar gradually emerges and is joined by a distant voice, easing the listener into the journey they are about to take: the buildup is gradual, but the payoff is loud and glorious as the electric guitar and cymbals come crashing in for the finale. Normally I wouldn’t be this corny and refer to an album as a “journey,” but this seems appropriate here. In the same way that a story challenges you to look at the world differently and indulge in the archetypal journey of the protagonist, this record invites you to open up your mind, engage with the full spectrum of sound and indulge in its meaning.

Yet again, the ambient trail off of the second song takes us right into the next track, further establishing that sense of cohesiveness. The vocal melodies are inventive and yet accessible, but not in the way of modern pop, per se. Alternatively, they resemble the melodic charm of The Beatles, Radiohead, and especially Elliot Smith. This is particularly apparent in songs like “Over the Falls,” “End of the Rainbow,” and “Falling.” I won’t be at all surprised if Eric Hogg’s masterpiece wins him an award for both Island Producer of The Year and Island Pop/Rock Album of The Year.

Chris Ho is a UVic graduate and Victoria-based singer-songwriter.

Retro pop inspires nostalgia . . . or confusion

Tegan and Sara (2012)
Produced by Greg Kurstin, Justin Meldal-Johnsen and Rob Cavallo

Reviewed by Chris Ho

Reaching for new heights, the Canadian indie duo Tegan and Sara released their seventh studio album at the end of January and recently announced their 2013 Summer Tour with the indie-pop sensation, Fun.

It’s tempting to consider Heartthrob as a huge departure from the sisters’ signature guitar-driven indie rock that earned them their fame, although it’s been a somewhat natural progression. With the success and attention they received from their collaboration with dance-pop icons Tiesto and David Guetta, it’s no surprise that Heartthrob expresses the poppy, synth-driven side of Tegan and Sara.

However, if you were expecting the same sort of fresh and innovative pop sensibility found in previous tracks like “Feel It In My Bones,” or ‘”Alligator,” you may be slightly disappointed. With a few exceptions, nearly all of the songs from the new album are produced and written in a style that is extremely reminiscent of 80’s and 90’s pop, (which could very well brainwash the listener into either working out to “Body Break” Youtube videos or feeling a sudden urge to attend an 80’s-themed party). Or if you’re me, you put on Olivia Newton John’s “Let’s Get Physical,” after hearing the first song and hit single, “Closer.”  Be warned.

Nonetheless, with over-exaggerations aside, Heartthrob is a very honest album underneath all of the candy-coated dance beats and synth-bass lines. While the lyrics are simpler than what a Tegan and Sara fan would have come to expect, they are still ones we can relate to and are sung with a sense of conviction and honesty. Needless to say, the confessional style of Tegan and Sara’s songwriting remains throughout, even as it becomes saturated with a somewhat overwhelming amount of 80’s and 90’s pop influences. This is apparent in songs such as, “I Was A Fool and “Goodbye, Goodbye,” where everything from the vocal melodies to the synth lines and ambient elements seem to transport to listener into an episode of Dawson’s Creek or Saved By The Bell.

So as the album winds down and almost ends on a note that reminds you of a more serious side of  The Spice Girls, (as might be argued for the chorus of  “Now I’m All Messed Up”), one will either be overjoyed with nostalgia, or confused as to where this creation might fit in with modern-day pop.


Chris Ho is a UVic graduate and Victoria-based singer-songwriter.

Singer’s lyrics aided by English degree

Chris Ho’s new CD, City of Dust, released January 18, 2013 at the Victoria Event Centre, has been keeping Lynne Van Luven happy company for the past couple of weeks. Smitten by the music and lyrics, she keeps changing her mind about her favourite songs. Today, it’s “Ghost Limbs.” Tomorrow, it could be “Story of the Flood,” or “It’s Coming Along.”  Van Luven recently talked to Chris Ho about his work and creative plans. 

Chris, I am one of your newest fans.  Love your lyrics!  I keep trying to figure out your musical influences. I’d call you a bit of a balladeer, but you have a wonderfully energetic sound–which is good, because ballads can get awfully lugubrious and sentimental. Can you explain where you position your own songs in the music spectrum?

Thank you! My top influences include Wilco, Death Cab For Cutie, Stars, and Tegan and Sara. There is somewhat of a genre ambiguity when it comes down to my music. Put simply though, the sort of music I’ve written thus far tends to fall under two somewhat contrasting categories: indie rock and folk. That isn’t to say that they’re always separate from one another, since many songs obviously incorporate both of these traditions simultaneously, but it definitely helps to think of City Of Dust as having two personalities.

The numbers in this new—your first—CD are all appealing, and yet convey their messages in diverse ways. Did you envision an overarching narrative for City of Dust?

After writing the songs, and contemplating which ones I wanted to include on the album, I did end up envisioning an album that was musically eclectic and yet narratively cohesive, which was definitely a bit of a challenge.

Where did you study or are you a totally self-educated musician?

I took guitar lessons for about a year, starting when I was sixteen, at the Douglas Academy of Music in Vancouver, which taught me some basics. But, ultimately, songwriting has always been a process of spontaneity and trial and error. Oddly enough, the English Major I completed last April at the University of Victoria contributed to my growth as a songwriter more than anything else.

 I am impressed by the orchestral sophistication of City of Dust. Can you tell us about the crew that helped you put your CD together?

The co-producer and engineer Sam Weber, along with myself, put our minds together for this, and of course reached out to the local community of musicians in order to add more depth to this album. For example, Taz Eddy (Trumpet), Rob Phillips (Drums), and Alexei Paish (Percussion) were all music students at UVic during the time we were tracking the album. Not to mention, Kiana Brasset (Violin, Backup Vocals), Chelsea-Lyne Heins (Backup Vocals), and Esme John (Bass Guitar) are very much embedded in Victoria’s musical community as well. The hard work of Sam Weber, combined with my artistic vision and a strong support network of musicians, made this album possible.

I know you have a another show coming up in Victoria (Feb. 16th–all ages–at Fairfield United Church with The Archers, doors at 7pm, $10) and recently played in Kelowna, and will keep on with more promotion. Where would you like to be five years from now?

Put simply, I would like to be doing exactly what I’m doing now, except on a larger scale. The singer-songwriter tells the story of [his] journey, and the listener relates it to theirs. Every so often, someone tells me how much they appreciate my music, or how it’s helping them get through something in their life. The more people I can affect this way, the more rewarding and fulfilling that work is for me.