Emily Haines & The Soft Skeleton at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts, 12/7/17
Thursday night (Dec. 7), Emily Haines returned to her alma mater UBC with an ambitious mix of music and theatrics. Although visibly undersold (from the orchestra level, the Chan Centre appeared to have been three-quarters full), those who did attend enjoyed a strong showing, albeit one that could have benefitted from fewer performance art frills.
Amid sounds of birds whistling, Haines slammed a suitcase onto the stage floor, unpacked it, and acted out sleeping on a trunk covered with a bed sheet and pillow and turning off a clock as an alarm piped through the theatre. While laying on her back and wearing a sleep mask, she sang “Planets” from her recently released second solo album Choir of the Mind. She mimed brushing her teeth as a recording of her voice played. Throughout the night, this internal voice belittled her with declarations such as “You’ve screwed up your life beyond repair.” From behind her piano, she recited more ballads from Choir, among them “Wounded” and “Nihilist Abyss.” “Emily, remember,” her voice said chiming in once again. “You’ve booked a tour! You’re on it right now!”
After Haines scrambled to repack her suitcase, a once-occurring robotic voice introduced her band The Soft Skeleton. Bolstered now by drums, guitar, and bass, the following stretch mostly consisted of songs from her 2006 solo debut Knives Don’t Have Your Back as well as one track from her 2007 EP What Is Free to a Good Home?.
Unsurprisingly, Haines’ most familiar songs got the best reactions. They also turned out to have been her best. “Mostly Waving” and “Detective Daughter” felt grand, their guitar solos welcome changes of pace. But the guitar-work of her Metric and Broken Social Scene bandmate James Shaw was most swooping on “Sprig.” Bassist Sam Goldberg and drummer Justin Peroff (also BSS comrades) grabbed the reigns on the slinky, curvy “Statuette.” Haines and the band moved between these and other higher energy, higher tempo songs including “Legend of the Wild Horse,” “Reading in Bed,” and the accelerating “Fatal Gift” free of interruption by recorded internal monologues.
For the encore, Haines, alone onstage, sang an acapella version of “Strangle All Romance” which is already nearly acapella on record. She finished with “Choir of the Mind.” Her extensive use of overlaid vocal backtracks was understandable here, to give life to the “choir of her mind.” her multiple internal voices speaking over each other. But with the Soft Skeleton in the house, her choice to use backtracks of various percussive instruments including piano seemed curious if not unnecessary.
“The through-line of this record is a fascination with feminine strength… This isn’t a record that brings you down,” Emily Haines told The Globe and Mail. The personal strength she unearths in her explorations of self and old wounds on Choir of the Mind certainly supersedes the album’s melancholic undertone. And certainly, her performance was strong and uplifting, but it would have been more potent without the distractions of so many theatrical elements.