Culture & Conversation

Music that is … Ooh, Belle!

Despite the recent release(s) of their attention-grabbing, self-titled debut album, the lofty, experimental folk tunes of American imports The Barr Brothers have been floating around Montreal for some time now, enchanting the laid-back confines of the Plateau’s many low-key venues for the past half-decade.

In 2010, the foursome self-released their debut album and started handing it out at shows – a year later, the modest indie stars of the 514 have re-released this album, for real this time, on Secret City Records. Now any curious (and questionable, if they haven’t caught wind of these guys yet) music junkies sauntering down Ste-Catherine Street can catch a glimpse of Brad and Andrew Barr, with equally genius band mates and Andres Vial and Sarah Pagé, blown up under “SOLDE EPIQUE” in the windows of HMV’S downtown home base. Gracing the cover of this week’s edition of the Montreal Mirror, with a feature on NBC, another in La Presse, and an upcoming appearance on CBC Radio’s legendary Q with Jian Gomeshi this coming Thursday, Oct. 14, it’s fair to say that this band is about to make some serious waves in the music world.

“For the first time in our music career, I’m seeing a real break here,” confirms frontman Brad Barr. Certainly a warranted claim, but with all this success waiting for them, why did the Barr Brothers wait so long before properly releasing their LP?

The group actually signed to Secret City Records almost a year ago, with their album essentially ready to go. It was set to be the first of three Secret City albums, and the delay on its actual launch boils down to the fact that SCR just had too much on their hands with other releases including Miracle Fortress’ Was I the Wave?.

“A lot of our close friends are on that label, we love all their music” insists Barr. “For Montreal and parts of New England, yeah, [re-releasing the album] is kind of redundant […but] in the rest of Canada and the United States, nobody’s heard this record.”

“I don’t have any tremendous expectations,” he is quick to specify, “[but] I have a lot of hopes, and I hope that it can get to be heard.”

The re-release does not come free of modifications. The group flat-out re-recorded Ooh Belle, the last track on the record, and re-mastered the entire album. The changes may not be altogether drastic, but Barr emphasizes “more stereo” and changes that are only “subtly noticeable” but still definitely there.

The album is really something that should be experienced as a whole, with small surprises throughout that leave listeners with something new after every play. Not to mention a welcome, trancelike outlook on the mundane if one finds oneself listening to the captivating first single, Beggar in the Morning, while stuck and fighting for air on a city bus in afternoon rush hour traffic.

The group’s natural way of recording allowed for a moving away from the “tight, super-compressed sound” that a lot of recordings tend to conform to, says Barr. “We let things drift in and out and feel the space and artifacts in the record […] like the glitches, the little sounds. I mean like the opening minute of the record [from Beggar in the Morning] is a pretty good example.”

The album also captures a kind of spontaneity, as The Barr Brothers themselves have a level of randomness attached to their formation. After a Montreal venue caught fire while they were playing a show there with their then-band The Slip, out of Boston, the brothers fell in love with both our city and the people in it, inspiring their decision to relocate here. Brad later met Sarah Pagé through the wall of his new apartment, as the melodies of her harp seeped through plaster to meet the strumming of his guitar.

“I never actually, like, decided that I [wanted] to play music that’s performed by a guitar and a harp,” explains Barr. “The thing is, there’s only so much you can control in life, and then when you are presented with some situations [you should try to see them] flourish.”

Above everything that can be searched through, torn apart and retrieved from the Barr Brothers’ work, another influence reigns strong. In the middle of the record is a soft reverie, Cloud (For Lhasa), appropriately named not only in terms of it representing a light, airy substance as much as sound, but in its dedication, summing up a feeling that can be extracted from the entire record. The captivating Montreal singer-songwriter Lhasa de Sela died of breast cancer last year, at the age of 37. She was a good friend of the band’s, and being especially close to Pagé, she was one of the first people Brad met in the city.

“I didn’t even know that she was as famous as she was when I  first met her – she was just a girl hanging out in Sarah [Pagé]’s kitchen [… a] really beautiful and wise and totally mysterious girl,” says Barr, explaining how, with Lhasa’s illness and passing, Sarah “kinda shifted her energy towards the Barr Brothers,” bringing the band together. “We were all close, it helped her grieve. …A lot of the stuff we were doing was, in a lot of ways, a tribute to Lhasa.”

Whether or not one can sense this via the record will “again be up to interpretation,” says Barr, who himself feels her presence in almost every song. “I wish she could’ve heard it, too. …She probably would’ve given me some constructive criticism.”

So with everything that the Barr Brothers offer up, we wonder what the album is really all about. “I like an ambiguity, as long as there’s some kind of vision going on,” explains Barr. “I didn’t actually propose a kind of theme, but after it’s all done and you kinda come out and look at [the album], it appears to be this commentary on paradoxes, archetypes, dark and light, good and evil, heaven and hell,” he enumerates. “God and the devil … that’s the recurring theme that seems to come out of it.”

The Barr Brothers album release at La Tulipe (4530 Papineau), Oct. 18, at 8:30 pm
Tix are $15 in advance, $18 at the door

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