In its 150-or-thereabouts years of existence, Canada has proven itself pretty good at the ol’ music thing. POP Montréal is an urban festival centred around the bars and venues of the city’s Mile End neighbourhood: an area which itself has connections to Arcade Fire, Godspeed! You Black Emperor, and Grimes, to name just three.
Local hero of sorts Richard Reed Parry is one of the big-name performers this year, alongside UK indie stalwarts The Charlatans and Gaz Coombes, plus electro queen SOPHIE, and other established acts US Girls, Bill Callahan, Wolf Parade, and Zola Jesus.
But most of POP Montréal is about the newcomers, and Thursday night at Casa Del Popolo has exactly that. Headliners BODEGA are, of course, from south of the border, but first up come Montréal’s own Slight. Stacking synth on top of synth - both literally and metaphorically, they’re akin to a half-speed Tame Impala, whirling atmospherics topped by noodling guitars and reverb-heavy vocals. Toronto’s Queen of Swords follow, the two-piece layering operatic vocals on top of a backing track owing more than a little to the Twin Peaks soundtrack.
It’s another Montréal band that are the night’s revelation. Equal parts gnarly garage rock and in-your-face post-punk, Lemongrab are nothing short of brilliant. Vocalist Gaëlle Cordeau spends the set prowling the stage as if it’s every bit her territory already: think the steely menace of Savages’ Jehnny Beth coupled with the playfulness of Shame’s Charlie Steen, as she screams vociferously in the middle of a quickly-opened ‘pit.
BODEGA may be a known prospect, but that doesn’t make tonight’s set any less exciting. Debut ‘Endless Scroll’ now firmly canon, ‘Jack In Titanic’ finds itself a fists-in-the-air anthem - and there’s barely a lyric not yelled back at the New Yorkers’ faces throughout, despite it being their first time here.
Part way through his daytime set in the Parc du Marché des Possibilities, Jacobus - a well-known name in Canada, the Nova Scotian was part of hip hop outfit Radio Radio - is teaching a member of the crowd a dance. It’s a strange situation, sure: the assorted crowd are both festival-goers and confused locals, dogs in tow. But it’s one that fits his set, interjecting the odd English word into a largely French output, his tongue-in-cheek songs touching on hand-me-downs, and, to laughter from the Canadians present, the snow having melted.
Locals Vanille open Friday’s evening festivities at L’Escogriffe. Describing themselves as “your area sad band” the outfit, formed around singer-songwriter Rachel Leblanc, bring impeccable jangly indie melodies to the fore, not unlike compatriots Alvvays - with touches of Pavement’s slacker vibe on standout ‘Cherry’, or Camera Obscura’s dreamy pop.
They’re followed by another Montréal-based act, ggpeach. Opening with a solo number before being joined by a full band, she switches between classic rock’n’roll and almost Beck-like funk in an instant, her silky vocals a constant. The night finishes at the Barfly, where Newfoundland’s Soap Opera not only forget their name, but treat the tiny bar to intense, swirling psych numbers.
Saturday’s block party features a record fair - and being the weekend, a lot of small children. Whether they’re in to Art School Girlfriend, here as part of the Focus Wales showcase, remains to be seen, but Polly Mackey and band’s dark, moody atmospherics belie the daylight, outdoor venue, with more than a hint of The xx in their sound.
The day closes with another Montréal act, Mort Rose. Their name is, we’re told, about playing dead, or falling in love. Their music veers between Mac DeMarco jangly indie and ‘90s alt: one number is as if be-hatted grump Badly Drawn Boy was, well, happy.
As the sun sets on the daytime acts, it’s back to Casa Del Popolo, and some riotous punk courtesy of Rose Bush. The Montréal group begin with a “One, two, fuck you”, and it’s no stretch to say they’re heavily influenced by ‘90s riot grrrl. With bassist Ali Levy and guitarist Amanda Lea sharing vocal duties - switching it up between gang, call-and-response, and plain singing to each other - it’s scratchy, minimalist and discordant. Amanda’s guitar lines bring to mind Sleater-Kinney; Ali’s shouty vocals are more Bikini Kill. There’s even a hint of Pixies, too, as the trio - completed by drummer Brigitte Naggar - shout “Save me Jesus… fucking Christ!”. In direct contrast, Sea Moya (also from Montréal) are all about introspection. Noodly electronics and bouncy rhythms are the name of their game.
At Barfly, Newfoundland’s Lo Siento are smashing through their Spanish-language garage rock. It might be the ramshackle nature of the tiny bar’s setup having its way with the sound, or just Argentinian frontwoman Pepa Chan’s pitch, but we’d be lying if we didn’t note a musical similarity to Hispanophone sisters Hinds. The subject matter on show is quite different, though, with anxiety, female solidarity and indigenous people all touched on.
Finally, it’s the turn of Chiffres. Another Montréal act, the trio peddle intense, brooding post-punk, visceral and to-the-point, bristling with a compelling menace.
If POP Montréal has shown us one thing - and, with plenty of time to discover the city during the daytime, it allows for much more than that - it’s that below the big names, under even the buzzy new acts, Canada’s hitting as consistently as it ever has.