FemBots release gem of an album

There’s nothing like a pint to alleviate touring stress.
There’s nothing like a pint to alleviate touring stress.
Photo courtesy of fembots.net

Interview/Concert Preview: The FemBots @ The Grad Club, tonight

It’s always nice to see a hardworking band hit their stride and be rewarded for their effort.

With the release of their third album—The City—on Paper Bag Records last month, the FemBots are at last garnering the kind of attention that has seemed to come easily to some of their PB label mates, but has always (up to this point) appeared just out of reach for the veteran Toronto scenesters.

The City has been receiving high praise from our country’s indie tastemakers, scoring several four-star (and five-star) reviews and spurring eager music critics to include it in early declarations of Canadian albums of the year.

And good for them.

From Mucho Cuidado’s found-sound collage freakout, to Small Town Murder Scene’s inner-city, death-country balladry and now The City’s nostalgic longing for a lost history, the FemBots have been making some of the weirdest, spookiest, coolest and most original music in ... well, anywhere.

The FemBots are Dave MacKinnon and Brian Poirier. While neither are robots nor femmes themselves, they are the mad scientists behind the band’s experimental urban twang.

The high school chums played together in ’90s alt-rock bands Dig Circus and Hummer before starting the FemBots simply as a recording side project and outlet for the ideas that wouldn’t fit in with their other bands. Since then, though, their crazy ideas have grown into three great albums. They make country music for city dwellers that conjures up images of rickety record players and screeching tape reels coming alive in the middle of the night, as if the ’80s kids’ show Today’s Special were set in a pawn shop instead of a department store.

With The City, however, the band has made their most accessible record yet: more verse-chorus-verse, less Teddy Ruxpin tape player.

“When people think of it as being a dramatic shift from one record to another, it’s maybe because they don’t see all the stuff that goes on in between those records,” MacKinnon told the Journal by phone before kicking off their cross-Canada tour on the East Coast.

“What happened from Mucho Cuidado to now, is that somewhere along the line we started touring with a larger band and the sound we’ve arrived at now has been a natural outcome of that,” he said. But MacKinnon and Poirier have always been more than just a couple of noodling button-pushers. Amid Mucho’s and Small Town’s beeps, whirls and answering machine messages were campfire singalongs like “Ice Cream” and orchestral alt-country rockers like “Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist.”

And it’s not like the ’Bots went CMT on us or anything. The songs on The City still possess the same haunting quality of the band’s earlier work, and there’s still singing saws, xylophones, wine glasses and typewriter noises, but this time they flushed it out with horns, strings and vibes instead of thrift store noisemakers.

“We never hit a point where we sat down and said we wanted to make a record that was easier on people than the other ones might have been,” he said. “It’s just the way it happened. “The records kind of take on a life of their own once you’re midway through working on them,” he said. “A lot of music happens accidentally, and even if you’re the one creating it, you don’t necessarily know what it’s about or why it’s working the way it’s working until much later.

“And God knows the next one might be all annoying grating noises.”

Not only is The City the FemBots’ most musically accessible record to date, it’s also the most lyrically developed. In The City, MacKinnon painfully laments what he considers to be the incremental destruction of Toronto’s history.

“One of the central things in a lot of the songs on this record is trying to catalogue the history of our city,” he said. “Toronto is always trying so hard to be world-class and wants so badly to be recognized as a such a great city, but in order to get to those places, we’re really willing to whitewash over our history—especially the less glamorous parts of it.

“As a city, it does have a long and very interesting history, but the majority of people that live here have no clue what it is and there’s so little visible remnants of that history—we’ve just destroyed it.”

While MacKinnon and Poirier are the main composers and ringleaders of the band in the studio, on stage the FemBots appear in a variety of incarnations—drawing from a rotating posse of percussionists, bowers and noisemakers—making almost every show different from the one before.

At tonight’s show at The Grad Club, MacKinnon and Poirier will be joined by The Weakerthans’ Jason Tait and Greg Smith on drums and bass, respectively, as well as Julie Penner on violin and Paul Aucoin on vibraphone. There are too many bands in this country that quit before they ever hit their prime (*cough* Thrush Hermit *cough* Fur Packed Action and basically every great band from the Maritimes, save Sloan), unable to deal with the stresses,—both economic and emotional—of touring this vast, mostly empty landscape. So, it’s great to see a band like the FemBots hang in there long enough for things to start paying off.

“We’ve been doing it long enough that for us it’s always been that as long it’s getting a bit better every year, then that’s really the best thing you can ask for,” he said.

“It’s a pretty modest goal, but the reward is in the work, so as long as you’re able to do the work, then that’s really all you can ask for.”

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