Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Hey there, you're no square ...

Last week, I had the thrilling pleasure of watching my favourite singer perform in the flesh. Ian Svenonius is an indie underground wunderkind whose unique vocal stylings have graced several fantastic bands - I cherish them all, in fact.

In the late 1980s, he got his start playing spastic punk rock in the D.C. scene with Nation of Ulysses, following that with the rock 'n' soul flavours of Make Up, before moving on to the psychy sounds of Scene Creamers and Weird War.

Beyond music, he's also written for a variety of magazines, and had a collection of essays published as The Psychic Soviet. A true renaissance man, Svenonious also hosts the Vice webseries "Soft Focus," where he's held highly entertaining discussions with musicians ranging from Genesis P-Orridge and Cat Power to Calvin Johnson and Henry Rollins.

I saw his current group, Chain and the Gang, perform at this year's Pop Montreal festival. My expectations were high, and he met them with cool ease. Ian was spry, quick-witted, engaging, and highly entertaining. It was a rollicking time.

While all his bands have their own unique sound, Ian's presence is always a focal point. Lyrically, he often deals with issues of community, philosophy, ideology, commerce, identity, mortality, self-expression, and pop culture, just to name a few subjects he enjoys. It's a heavy agenda, but Ian tackles his work with raw gusto, and also makes use of a wicked sense of humour.

Vocally, he possesses a marvelous instrument in the most untraditional sense. His placement of words is always spot on, with the delivery ranging from low growls to squeaky squeals. When words won't do, a simple shriek suffices, often substituted by his trademark exclamation of "Yeah!"

Make Up's crowning achievement was undoubtedly 1999's Save Yourself, a nine-song recording that gave the band a chance to show off all its best assets. Svenonius shined particularly bright, whether delivering a gritty vocal to "White Belts" or handling an hilariously epic cover of "Hey Joe." It is a classic, and also the album that really got the ball rolling on my Ian Svenonius infatuation.

A low-key highlight of the album, "I Am Pentagon" is a slow burning soul number giving romance a mathematical representation. The musical accompaniment is stripped back and the exact opposite of flashy - which is really all that's necessary given the role of the group's singer, who unquestionably demands the listener's attention.

There is not a wasted line the whole song. Think of as many references to angles, geometric shapes – this song has lots of them. "Are you isosceles, or is your angle 90 degrees," he asks to start, trying to suss out his potential love partner. Elsewhere, he's "on a parallel plane," and "can't decide if you're on the same." Dreamy.

The chorus lays out the situation aptly - "I am pentagon, which side are you going to be on?"

It's a madly witty song, and one of many Ian has come up with over a career that'll soon enter it's fourth decade. Judging from some of the excellent new Chain and the Gang songs I heard at the show, I'm hopeful there's many more to come.

Make Up - "I Am Pentagon"

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