Culture & Conversation

Critically acclaimed, criminally underrated


Owen Pallet, Corona Theatre, September 25

The last time I saw Owen Pallett in concert, he was part of the North York Central Library’s music program. Back then (2006) it was only him, a loop pedal and a violin on a makeshift stage playing to a sparse crowd of nerdy teens including myself. My only night as a Cool Teenager.

Since then he has composed  numerous film scores and collaborated with the likes of Beirut, Grizzly Bear, Do Make Say Think and Arcade Fire, picking up an Oscar nom for co-scoring Spike Jonze’s Her with Will Butler. He also followed the music, dry winters and cheap rent and moved from his native Toronto to Montreal.

Despite his accomplishments over the past few years, at the Corona Theatre last week he began as one can when one is critically acclaimed yet still somehow criminally underrated: alone on a stage with a violin and a loop pedal.

The two opening performers set the atmosphere exquisitely. Montreal-based Thus Owls was less of a musical experience than an aura of Lynchian melodrama, all wailing sways, moody reverb and post-apocalyptic cymbals. And then out sprinted the first headliner, white-clad Basia Bulat strumming on a ukulele and dancing from mic to mic. She sings of scaling mountains with her smoke-tinged voice, of the plight of a woman scorned in the designs of an empty house, all set to a rollicking bass drum and an autoharp.

When Owen Pallett took the stage he began his set with a heartbeat, tapping a simple rhythm on his violin and looping it, then quickly and lightly picking his strings as he quietly sang the staccato words of “Song Song Song” from He Poos Clouds. Lit barely by a rotating spotlight on an otherwise darkened stage, he wanted us to notice the nuances, like the quick etches of a bow against his calculated percussive beats, and his simple, clear voice.

Owen Pallett has created chaos and drama out of a single violin for years, and the spectacle further expands when his band members take the stage.

In Conflict, his latest (Polaris-nominated) record, is a gradually shifting composition built around emotionally charged lyrics. His voice is placed at the forefront of a light buzz of electronic tones, sweeping strings, and quick rhythms; sometimes it’s simple and sometimes it’s dissonant, but guiding the listener through these sonic landscapes is Pallett’s soaring, often operatic voice. On stage, this dynamic is flipped on its head, and suddenly the nuances of his compositions are accented by flashing lights and longer instrumental breaks.

The song “The Passions” recounts a sexual encounter, a sensitive older man matched with a much younger lover. It sounds like the lone voice at the end of the world, the simple and gentle pleading voice asking for compassion from this naked virile force against a quietly building piano. On stage it is the end of the world, backed by a persuasive, ever more dissonant violin; the vocals seem less delicate and more desperate. On the record, he is the victim; on stage, he is the predator. And therein lies the genius of Pallett and his two-headed songs.

His encore ended with a song called “The CN Tower Belongs to the Dead” from Final Fantasy’s Has A Good Home. Here in Montreal, that sentiment has never seemed so true.

Jessica Wei is a Montreal-based writer and editor of culture and travel.

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