Sunday, January 28, 2018

CD Odyssey Disc 1097: The Pack A.D.

I had to do an emergency disc swap this weekend. I had rolled my next album (Hem’s “Rabbit Songs”) without remembering that I was going to see the Pack A.D. on Saturday and hadn’t given their new album a full listen yet. Concerts are way more fun when you familiarize yourself with the album the band is touring on. After all, they’re going to play a bunch of those songs live and just yelling “Freebird!” all night long and hoping for the best ain’t gonna alter the setlist.

With this in mind, I quickly switched to the Pack A.D. (via Rule #5) and gave it most of my spare listening time for the rest of the weekend. So here’s the resulting review and below that are my thoughts on the live performance that inspired the shift.

Disc 1097 is… Dollhouse
Artist: The Pack A.D.

Year of Release: 2017

What’s up with the Cover? Becky Black and Maya Miller recline in a life-sized dollhouse. Of the two, Maya seems to be handling it better, passing the time reading. Becky looks positively deranged. Maybe she’s realized that with one whole wall missing it is going to be impossible to heat the place come winter.

How I Came To Know It: This is just the latest Pack A.D. album. I like them quite a bit, so I bought it on spec when it came out.

How It Stacks Up:  I now have five Pack A.D. albums. Of those, I must put “Dollhouse” at fifth. I still like it, but I like the other four a bit more.

Ratings: 3 stars

On “Dollhouse” the Pack A.D. delivers their signature sound of garage rock riffs, and mix in a bit of ambient fuzz pop for good measure. The record doesn’t have the same furious intensity of some of their previous albums, and is over a little too soon, but it’s still a solid entry in the discography of a band that deserves more commercial success than they have so far achieved.

The Pack A.D. are the queens of reverb guitar, and at their best when they chug away with blues tinged crunch. “Dollhouse” features a couple of good ones with “Woke Up Weird” and the title track punching you between the eyes early on the record. On both songs Becky Black’s guitar sounds so thick it feels like you could pave a highway with it. Drummer Maya Miller hits with a dull echoing thud that is the perfect accompaniment to such distortion excess.

These are two of the album’s first three songs and unfortunately “Dollhouse” doesn’t manage the same intensity throughout. Part of this is the band’s obvious interest in exploring pop elements that had me thinking of the Cure and other bands that were enjoyed by those who liked to wear black in the eighties. The best of these is “Thomas Hardy” which takes on a natural grimness by virtue of its depressing 19th century namesake, and then further underscores that grimness with lines like:

“You look like death
You’re my best friend”

Thomas Hardy” is a lot rougher around the edges than any Cure song, however (these gals are rock musicians, not pop musicians) and at times reminded me favourably of Concrete Blonde or Sleater Kinney with its punk-tinged intensity.

The final song “I Tried” is a slow and thoughtful pop song about heartache that could have fallen out of the early sixties if it weren’t for all that guitar crunch. Black’s vocals, which are so often fierce and punked out, are positively sweet here and the song feels like a close-hold slow dance at the end of an evening. Mind you, it’s a dance that’s going to end with one partner telling the other it’s over. So bittersweet, but sweet nonetheless.

While I liked hearing all these influences reimagined into the Pack A.D.’s brand of garage rock, the initial driving energy of the record gave me an appetite for a certain level of oomph that the rest of the record didn’t fully sustain. If I owned this on vinyl (or wasn’t so fiercely committed to Rule #3 (see sidebar) this album would likely end up as a bit of a one-sider.

The record is incredibly short (only nine songs and 28 minutes total) so it doesn’t give itself a chance to make a more lasting impression, but at least it doesn’t have any clunkers in those 28 minutes. It is a solid entry into the musical catalogue of two talented women who refuse to be pigeonholed into any single style.

Best tracks: Woke Up Weird, Dollhouse, Thomas Hardy

The Concert – January 27, 2018 at the Upstairs Cabaret, Victoria

I had seen the Pack A.D. in November 2016 so I had high expectations going in, even more so because the Upstairs Cabaret (formerly Harpo’s) is one of my favourite places to see live music (and in my youth, to dance and meet women). We collected up a half dozen music lovin’ friends and after a quick bite to eat at the nearby Garrick’s Head pub, headed over to find prime seating/viewing territory.

Unfortunately, Upstairs has changed a lot in recent years, and most of those changes seem focused on removing good seats and sightlines for live shows. There were three giant liquor stations around the room and a massive DJ Pedestal in the middle, all of which contributed to less places to stand.

Still, it would take a lot to knock all the charm out of this particular little live venue. Upstairs has a nice high ceiling and well-situated stage that gives you pretty good viewing even if the seating is no longer the greatest. Also, they still have the smoke machines I remember from my dancing days, which brought back pleasant memories.

The first of two opening acts were the Poor Choices, an all-woman punk/garage band from right here in Victoria. Tonight they had a guy on the drums because their drummer had just given birth, which as an excuse to miss a gig, ranks pretty high. In her place was a dude in a KISS T-shirt who had just learned their set in the last week or two. He basically kept time and where something more complicated was called for he wisely stayed chill instead of making a mistake.

The star of the band was the singer/guitarist who not only has a great stage presence but played well and has a brassy vibrato vocal that reminded me of Sleater Kinney in a good way. The only mistake they made was not announcing their name to the audience. No one is going to download your music from bandcamp if they don’t know who you are! In the end, my buddy Casey went and asked for their name, but they didn’t have any merch for sale so don’t look for a review anytime soon.

The next opener was the Helletones. I had seen the Helletones once before, as the opening act for Creepshow last November and I remembered them favourably. At that show they were all dressed up in suits but here they went for a punk vibe more suitable to the bands around them. They played great and were very tight. Much love to the drummer in particular, who has mad skills.

Another cool fact about the Helletones: they are basically a classic four-piece lineup (singer/guitar, lead guitar, drums, bass) with a trombonist thrown into the mix. This lends a very cool vibe to their sound, as the trombone provides interesting flourishes at the low end of the mix. It really works. I imagined a brighter world where one day trombones replace all those bad sax solos in rock and roll songs.

The Pack A.D.

The Pack A.D. then took the stage. Drummer Maya Miller does the small talk and crowd engagement, and guitarist/vocalist sticks mainly to singing and playing.

The band was touring their new album (reviewed above) and managed to work well over half the new songs into the set list, including all three of my favourites (noted above). I like a mix of old favourites, deep cuts and new material and the Pack A.D. found a good balance, although maybe a bit light on the deep cuts this time.

For just two people it is incredible how much air they move, and the show was energetic and powerful. When they bear down on those bluesy guitar riffs it feels natural and smooth, but also aggressive as hell.

The crowd was mostly well-behaved. The area in front of the stage looked like a little crazy from a distance, with much random fist pumping and the waving of devil horns. However those of us who braved the area said it was a positive energy up close, with everyone respectful of each other’s space, within the context of being at a rock concert. Fun audience fact: Upstairs ends their live shows at eleven, at which time all the live music lovers file out of the building and a bunch of dolled up club goers file in. The coat check looks like a shift change.

Back to the show, and a quick shout out to whoever was rocking the sound board, because all three bands had amazing sound. Loud enough to know you were at a rock concert, but not so loud as to bounce it off the walls, with a great mix of mid-range and bass to keep the ear interested. Kudos!  

A very cool thing happened that I hope catches on with other bands; Maya Miller called out the silliness of the false encore. As they neared the end of the show she said “we’ve got two more songs for you, followed by a ruse, followed by two more songs.” During “the ruse” the band didn’t even leave the stage, but instead did expressions of mock surprise that the crowd wanted more. Encores have become a joke where the band forces you to yell, all the while knowing they are coming back regardless of how long or loud you do it. This was a fun way to keep the tradition, but lose the bullshit.

Overall, I liked this performance more than the November 2016 one, partly because it was a more intimate setting, partly because of the sound mixing and partly because Miller and Black were in top form. I’ll definitely go see them again!

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