JP Hoe live at BreakOut West 2012
You know you’re in for a treat when an artist can handle a track by one of the few legendary rock bands out there and make it memorable in their own way.
BreakOut West’s Friday evening saw a good mix of established and up-and-coming groups taking to stages throughout the city, including at The Artesian on 13th Avenue (a venue that hosted a lot of acts that were new to me over the weekend). When I arrived Winnipeg’s JP Hoe was into his set, getting things moving with a band of four players, including two local string players recruited for the weekend to fill out his set.
Hoe shares a number of commonalities with one of the big draws of the weekend, Vancouver’s vaunted songsmith Dan Mangan. He fronts the band, playing an acoustic guitar that sounds a lot bigger than it ought to. With a lively rhythm section along for the ride he creates a sound that generally lands more on the rock and roll side of folk rock but still allows him to dip back into a gentler sound when the moment strikes.
As I teased above, one of the highlights of Hoe’s set is a cover of Radiohead’s classic doom anthem “Karma Police.” It is somehow both faithfully rendered and amended to make it his own, his core band owning it with a few slight tweaks to the arrangement. His adopted string performers proved essential on that number in particular, ensuring the song retains its foreboding edge and eery sense of anticipation. As he does on his own numbers, Hoe’s singing is carefully measured; not unlike Thom Yorke he moves from a slighter, more subtle singing to a kind of barely-restrained caterwauling at the appropriate moment.
Hoe is much more than a cover, though. His back catalogue also boasts pedigree, his early records having been nominated three times for Western Canadian Music Awards. In the last year he released his fifth record, the sharp and compelling Mannequin. The eleven song effort is Canadian singer-songwriter work at its finest, full of intensely-personal introspection and ace songcraft.
Hoe sets the bruised and battered tone of the record right off the top with “Bingo Palace,” a number that resignedly relents to the topsy-turvy world that seems to have rocked his interpersonal relationships. “I could share my bed, my kidney or lung instead but it won’t change a thing. Please don’t ask for me,” he pleads in a disconnected voice that has clearly had enough of the romantic turmoil that has him so shaken. Hoe also admits his own culpability, conceding his own guilt in “all the fucked up things that I’ve done, all the times that I’ve gone wrong.”
It’s a sentiment revisited later on in “Do I Know You?” which starts with a gently finger-picked melody that carries a subtly-drummed backbeat through a whistle-solo bridge into a fleshed-out arrangement to close the song. Perfectly-utilized ride cymbals and understated strings help sharpen Hoe’s admission that, “I’m not proud of what I’ve done.” But he shouts it from behind a barrier, proclaiming, “You’re a tyrant of nothing much; I believe you need control.” That condemnation is a strong one, but it’s delivered with only a modicum of ferocity, as though Hoe were trying to craft an after-the-fact justification. I suppose it’s telling when, later on, he declares “I only did it for love.” He seems to be recounting some youthful follies, portraying the type of romantic for whom the ends justify the means.
Mannequin isn’t entirely comprised of stories of regret and mistakes made. By the time “Nothing’s Gonna Harm You” hits its chorus (”Now there’s no way, nothing’s gonna harm you as long as I’m around”) seems almost unbelievable, but it’s a nice bit of balance, lyrically speaking, to counter the earlier misery he’s documented. “Lions and Tigers” is a downright empowering acoustic rock anthem with great drumming. “Bittersweet” is a lovely 3.5 minutes, a lilting ukulele lullaby.
Listening to the album is a nice contrast to Hoe’s live set. The measured, heavily-orchestrated arrangements on this record speak to a fairly impressive level of sophistication but at BreakOut West it seemed as though he happily embraces the live format with abandon, performing his songs in a nearly-unrestrained fashion at times. That little bit of abandon really helped his performance pop; melding those two worlds on his next record could take him to the next level. I think he’ll be one to watch.