Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Front Runner - Andre Obin

Front Runner

Andre Obin
Moodgadget Records.

SCQ Rating: 75%

Titled after the notion that autonomy can outperform the chasing pack, Front Runner weighs the benefits and hindrances of going it alone. On the plus side, this latest EP finds Obin working amid the perfect loner-parameters, given how synth-pop is essentially equivalent to a slow bloodletting on the dancefloor. All of its oily passageways and nihilistic tendencies are in full bloom over tracks like the incendiary ‘Valencia’, with its scathing radio-signaled-in chorus, and ‘Gazelle’, which helps itself to M83’s deep saws and tight beats. Founded on such nocturnal and malevolence moods, Front Runner’s sharpest material would feel inappropriate in the light of day, or anywhere remotely attached to one’s regular routine.

That’s the problem with such a narrow sonic focus and, had Obin stuck with his devious Depeche Mode influences throughout, Front Runner might’ve relegated itself to strictly weekend-listening. Thankfully Obin counteracts these aggressive numbers with more androgynous tracks, still hopelessly thick-skinned, but thoughtful and versatile enough for daily soundtracks. Padded, if no less propulsive, than ‘Valencia’ is ‘Golden Hair’, a 4/4 synth-trip that crests alongside distance vocals. Surrounding this late highlight are two instrumentals, ‘The North Sea’ and ‘Gossamer’, each just as indispensable for letting in frosty rays of light to give Front Runner a lighter touch. Ultimately these instrumentals serve Obin by shifting the EP into a gleaming neutral, hinted at on ‘The Arsonist’; a dreamy pace-keeper that fades out quickly just when you’d expect it to explode. Yes, Andre Obin succeeds well ahead of the pack on Front Runner’s synth-pop pursuits, but his strategy to stay ahead may rest in slowing things down.

[self-titled] - The Space Between Things


The Space Between Things
84 Records.

SCQ Rating: 84%

Considering how I’ve never met him in the flesh, it seems unreasonable that Chris Hobson (The Space Between Things) has been pestered by Skeleton Crew Quarterly for the better part of 2010. It began in early February with a newly finished track uploaded to his Myspace, a few comments traded, another couple songs uploaded by late April, and my increasingly probing questions on his plans for these one-offs. Every comment I posted on his page plugged for an album, pleaded for release dates. Satiated by his prolific output but admittedly unable to foresee any glue that could bind Hobson’s encyclopedic influences, I resigned myself to his Myspace page for an occasional fix.

I now recognize that Hobson’s patience, which enshrouds [self-titled] in every detail, dwarfs my own. The Toronto resident, hard at work writing and recording every note of this eight-song cycle for the past year and a half, wasn’t about to toss out a zip file on the heels of some fanboy, Myspace-chatter… and his careful approach pays substantial dividends. That “glue” I stated earlier as missing or invisible from his online playlist is audible straightaway on ‘Solitary Man’; it’s in his sleepily-layered vocal delivery and his guitar’s shambled dissonance that line up uniformly into something crisp and slate-grey. A sound that’s languid but comfortable like autumn jackets or week-night social calls; it’ll seep into your stride with ‘Don’t Care That Much’ and sear your heart on the disarming ‘GCDC’. An entrancing sequencing allows these songs to speak back and forth but Hobson’s embellishments, lo-fi yet well-formed, often say the most. Whether it’s the building ambience that glazes over the hypnotic ‘Twins’ or a muted breeze that blows across ‘Ginger Snap’, [self-titled] thrives on its minimalist detours.

A few of these songs debuted on Myspace during my watch - including the two that initiated my pestering – but the majority of material here either predates my knowledge of Hobson or was intentionally kept away from curious ears. I prefer to believe the latter theory, that the missing puzzle pieces to an excellent record were purposefully hidden in Hobson’s underground lair, waiting. At least in that version of history, everyone else is just as blindsided by this record as I am.

Spirit Youth - The Depreciation Guild

Spirit Youth

The Depreciation Guild
Kanine Records.

SCQ Rating: 76%

When the C86 revival kicked into high gear last year with jangly guitar and fey vocals taking priority, I expected The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart’s debut to be a launching point. Trend-wise, the NYC based outfit became poster-children but for a resurgence that never blossomed. Where was their entourage or, better yet, their competition? Bands have since referenced fringe aspects of the C86 sound – such as Wild Nothings on this summer’s Gemini – but its promise seemed to wither out of the gates as though the twee-rockers had modernized their homage to perfection.

A primary focus on Spirit Youth appears to be proving that notion false, and it’s ironic that the band responsible for vindicating that self-titled record’s direction, The Depreciation Guild, shares two members with The Pains of Being Pure At Heart. Aesthetic aside, these two bands cater to completely different fan-bases; unlike their twee-bearing peers who at least partially crutch themselves on fashion, The Depreciation Guild vanish behind walls of gauzy indie-rock and grand (yet accessible) experimentation. ‘My Chariot’ meets these principles head-on, lending shoegaze guitar washes to quivering electronic programming. And although the subsequent nine tracks assemble on similar merits, the quartet’s songwriting keeps their sonic escapades interesting. A soaring guitar warble feeds the spritely ‘Crucify You’ with a tempo that matches the speed, if not the pounding, of ‘Through the Snow’, a guitar-blast footnoted by fluttering keys. Despite their propulsive energy, Spirit Youth doesn’t shy away from its electronic veneer, at times replacing the ferocity of six-strings with masterful soundscapes (take ‘Dream About Me’, which sounds as if Ulrich Schnauss had been working the boards). This is what I’d hoped C86 might sound like in the 21st century, in no small part because The Depreciation Guild have armed it with studio-wizardry that faintly hints toward the future.

With a deceivingly massive scope and too gauzy to initially discern track-by-track, Spirit Youth could’ve easily burgeoned into a self-indulgent vanity project. The group’s ability to keep things taunt and aggressive makes this sophomore record a decadent treat, as even the odd overlong track (‘White Moth’) features more ambition than most retro-gazing bands (hint, hint). Okay, there’s nothing wrong with The Pains of Being Pure At Heart’s snuggly and concise indie-pop but I knew their muse deserved better. Attentive to the tiny musical details that can compound into muscular jolts, Spirit Youth has decidedly more substance.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Go - Jonsi


XL Records.

SCQ Rating: 74%

Few bands of the 21st century have delivered the surge of fresh imagination that Sigur Ros have and, as a fan, I agree that their decade-long legacy merits protecting. With A Buzz In Our Ears, We Play Endlessly found the Icelandic quartet at their first songwriting crossroads since Von, when nobody really cared, and their slow submission to the forces that would pigeonhole them – as grandiose cinematic whores, as string-laden balladeers, etc. – seemed more inevitable than preferable. So Jonsi’s second detour in a year’s time, Go, arrives with some mixed feelings from this particular author. Sigur Ros’ increasingly self-aware recordings, which seemed to cater toward predetermined scenes (‘Gobbledigook’’s ride on Animal Collective’s coattails) and universal hurrahs (half of Takk... being used for BBC theme-songs), paved a path for this technicolor, English-singing pop-star adorning Go with strange attire and… are those wings? What it’s replaced, sadly, we’ve never understood beyond the beautiful sterility of a parenthesis or abusing the term “ethereal”.

Jonsi doesn’t turn his back on a winning formula, inundating Go with its share of orchestral stomps and soaring vocal crescendos. ‘Kolnidur’ operates closest to the Sigur Ros formula, condensing the band’s epic build into a tighter but no less graceful four minutes, unlike slicker, upbeat numbers like ‘Around Us’ which clock significantly longer. ‘Sinking Friendships’ does everything right, from the choir of disembodied Jonsis to a momentum coursing via piano and flute, but it’s hard to overlook how familiar these tracks feel, even in miniature. As such, a song like ‘Animal Arithmetic’ feels both like a predictable retread and a cheat-sheet remix for the ADHD generation. The purity of his voice remains matchless and engages this imperative material well but, like needed nutrients, the substance is occasionally pressure-cooked out of these songs. Lead track ‘Go Do’ is therefore the best template to lust after, organically weighty but steady enough to slip headfirst into dance territory. Or, at the very least, new territory.

Go is arguably Jonsi’s Bjork-moment and he’s earned a straightforward reprieve from his brooding day-job. Still, one hopes this is but a pleasing aside from his parent trajectory. Like his image on the cover, Go feels overly glitzy for someone so oblivious to charisma. The more-loveable Jonsi hid in the humble shadows of his band, almost ironic given they’re one of the world’s best, and I wish he’d have lingered behind this album no differently than Thom Yorke (yah I know, a frequent comparative point) had with The Eraser. It’s just a cover-shot, sure, but the pop implications run far deeper than most Sigur Ros fans would likely admit.

The Creatures In the Garden of Lady Walton - The Clogs

The Creatures In the Garden Of Lady Walton

The Clogs
Brassland Records.

SCQ Rating: 83%

The Clogs aren’t an official group that, say, tours extensively and lives out of a beat-up van so much as a loose collective of powerhouse indie figures who assemble when schedules permit. To that point, their relatively unknown moniker is best dropped in favour of the people who make a record like The Creatures In the Garden Of Lady Walton‘s allure tangible: My Brightest Diamond songstress Shara Worden, Aaron Dessner and Matt Berninger of The National, Sufjan Stevens. Other bright eyes shimmer in this soft-leaf garden composed by songwriter Padma Newsome but such high-profile contributors should intrigue a healthy cross-section of indie-kids to this distinctive narrative of earthly hymns.

At least I hope they do. The implications of its title are not to be underestimated, as each arrangement creates a painterly setting for The Clogs’ considerable vocal talent to manifest. Into what? That’s unclear and mercifully so; stitched into the foliage of an impenetrable green, Berninger and Stevens embody breathless ideals which quiver like dew over nature’s eternal law (Berninger as time and Stevens as a choral of ghosts in the afterlife, if I had to stab coarsely in the dark). Only Worden identifies herself as the flesh and feathered songbird in ‘The Owl Of Love’, and that’s where The Creatures In the Garden of Lady Walton truly gets eccentric.

Worden’s range and timbre, while stunningly suited to these reflective scores, carries an opera-reminiscent quality/stigma that will distance some casual listeners. Any opportunities for mainstream appreciation lost due to Worden’s polarizing timbre are superficial compared to the ingenuity and authenticity she offers to …The Garden Of Lady Walton. ‘On the Edge’ is braver and purer because of her, whereas surrounding instrumental ‘I Used To Do’ or Newsome’s softer-sung ‘Red Seas’ lust sweetly in her absence. Through the graceful weaving of apexes and solemn valleys, The Creatures In the Garden Of Lady Walton deserves its classical allusions, as well as the devoted fans who’ll wander to this record with an open mind. It may end up a niche record but time should honour it as far more than a footnote for some of indie-rock’s leading artists.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Silver and Ash - Clare Burson

Silver and Ash

Clare Burson
New Rounder Records.

SCQ Rating: 78%

Even at the crossroads of modern folk, where a songwriter’s stripped-back basics of guitar and voice can feel pressured to beef up arrangement-wise, no choice of strings or brass can rival an artist’s natural allure. Not even contextualizing one’s debut as a tale about a grandmother's life in Europe from 1919 through 1938 can disguise a flat or well-tread voice, but Clare Burson doesn’t need to worry about that. Dressing these potent folk songs with overcast production while superseding her narrative complexities with a restrained but unique vocal delivery, Burson serves a powerful collection with Silver and Ash.

The most immediate comparative point Silver and Ash suggests is Sarah Harmer’s career-making You Were Here, a record that tried its hand at Top 40 rock, alt-country and folk without ever sounding stretched. In line with Silver and Ash’s quirky subtext, Burson takes greater risks trying to iron out its genre-conquests. The lone guitar sparking ‘The World Turns On a Dime’ could’ve been inspired by early Elliott Smith but quickly plateaus into a world-weary gypsy waltz whereas ‘Goodbye My Love’ carries the elegance of a war-time ballad but feels timeless nonetheless. These mild detours encompass Silver and Ash’s slight stretches, acting as welcomed wrinkles in an otherwise sleek sequencing of folk-rock songwriting.

Burson’s romanticism seems at peace with a sense of remorse that pervades these arrangements. The simple acoustic finger-picking on ‘The Only Way’ receives moody contrast courtesy of some distant but crucial electric feedback no differently than how airy keys offer ‘Magpies’ a heart-wrenching nostalgia. What’s idyllic and assured in Burson’s guitar gels effectively to the lovely gloom that surrounds it, and between these two halves of her lyrical tales weaves her voice, suitably anchored to life’s present and past.

Although no aspect of this record sounds rushed or undercooked, Silver and Ash occasionally risks being too deliberate with its ambitions. In the midst of these fresh yet familiar songs, Burson drops the personality-deficient ‘Losin’ You’, all hum-drum verses and big, swooning choruses. Perhaps its inclusion was Burson’s desire to kindle some momentum for the record’s second-half but its paint-by-numbers disposition screams out like a bid for radio play. ‘Losin’ You’ doesn’t betray Silver and Ash’s hard-fought beauty, nor does it stand-out immediately as a bland song. If anything, it’s a brief glance at Clare Burson on her heels, perhaps assuming some pressure to embrace accessibility on someone else’s terms. The rest of Silver and Ash thankfully plays by her own rules, and is confidently superior to anything the radio-waves can offer.

Summer Heart - Blackbird Blackbird

Summer Heart

Blackbird Blackbird

SCQ Rating: 54%

It’s too early to decide whether chillwave will anchor itself as a permanent fixture merging indie to lo-fi electronics or dissipate once every last touchstone of the 80s has been mined. Chances are it’ll morph into new sandboxes, still carrying the dominant traits of its beach-obsessed predecessor but pillaging new scenes and time-periods. It can’t go away; chillwave already runs an army of unsigned bedroom acts and the handful of originals are worth the surrounding detritus. Still, judging anything that fits snugly into the chillwave brand means lowering the expectation bar, instinctively and considerably; something that bands like Blackbird Blackbird are probably banking on.

The issues I leveled toward Toro Y Moi’s debut this past Spring go quadruple for Summer Heart, a full-length so painfully in search of transcendence, it can’t be bothered finessing its listeners with anticipation or the basic foreplay of songwriting. Over its near twenty tracks (remixes included), few could be considered actual songs. The title track functions as a sort-of composition, structured in its lazy repetition and anthemic enough to whistle to, but hopelessly devoid of conflict or any terse note. A similarly brief and catchy utopia awaits listeners on the apt genre-summation ‘I’m Feeling Hazy’, but therein lies the blurred emotional core of Summer Heart. Too comatose to unload any vulnerability or even arrogance, Blackbird Blackbird’s debut results in a hodgepodge of directionless experiments that are as ear-friendly as they are brainless.

Sounding impressive isn’t necessarily a talent anymore, and buried between some of this demo-styled filler hides a few genuine tunes. The Balearic piano of ‘Ups & Downs’ and the twee-electronics of ‘Aura’ play out like micro-scaled summer hits, blissed out and carefree, but far more purposeful than so much of the remainder, which is simply too blissed out to register beyond a superficial contact-high.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Skit I Allt - Dungen

Skit I Allt

Mexican Summer Records.

SCQ Rating: 85%

It’s one thing to throw up your hands and surrender your obliviousness to what genres Dungen are working within, but another thing entirely to get over it. Transforming from an electronic-minded post-rock record to a psychedelic jazz collection upon early listens, Skit I Allt now seems poised to rest as a cosmic-lounge album with the occasional psych explosion. At least that’s what I’m willing to hold with right now, until this concise ten-song set opens another rabbit hole to become swallowed in. Touching upon everything from retroist stoner rock to innocuous elevator music, Skit I Allt isn’t fascinating for where it wades in the genre-pool so much as how its gears turn musical tastes inside out and backwards, injecting meaning into the superficial.

Once you’ve listened beyond the sugary surface of ‘Vara Snabb’’s woodwind lead or the faceless rhythm guitar that makes ‘Soda’ sound unabashedly trite, Skit I Allt’s pastiche evaporates into an honest key to Dungen’s transcendence. The gluttonous ‘Hogdalstoppen’, which inverts an acid-rock jam into a sleek, jazz-bound triptych, soon becomes an important centerpiece, whereas the opener’s muzak-inspired flute sets the tone of a haunted establishing shot. That’s right; despite many songs actively rewriting the tenets of dissimilar musical styles, Skit I Allt carries an elusive but equally inviting narrative, one that requires careful listening and a lively imagination to sprout from. So, yeah, it’s a stoner record through and through, but not one that necessitates the presence of narcotics to move you someplace new.

A particular joy with Skit I Allt is its getting-to-know-you stage, as each track contains such unique personality. Mindbending instrumental moments develop into quick identifiers distinguishing songs, as how a solid guitar line wobbles and descends in ‘Barnen Undrar’ or the unexpected female vocals that swell in on ‘Brallor’. They may sound like slight details on paper but Dungen disguise them into mood-changing touchstones that could only seem trivial compared to Skit I Allt’s greater stylistic departures; ones that should keep listeners fastened in thirty or forty listens later. This album has crossover potential all over it, for prog-rock fans who’d never liked jazz and lounge-pop fans who’d never liked noise records. Approach Skit I Allt with an open mind and it’ll reward well beyond your expectations, even if you still aren't sure how to describe it.

Blandband by dungen

The Grand Bounce - Gord Downie

The Grand Bounce

Gord Downie
Maplemusic Records.

SCQ Rating: 78%

The relationship between Gord Downie’s solo output and his parent catalog as lead songwriter in The Tragically Hip has to be one of modern radio-rock’s strangest. Whereas most artists gone-solo tend to spotlight what’s attributed as their best contributions to a band’s democracy, Downie’s non-Hip output has been just that; a complete break from the tried-and-true legacy of Canada’s contemporary powerhouse, Coke Machine Glow – and, to a lesser extent, Battle Of the Nudes – prided themselves on existing without the commercial expectations that have slowly eroded The Tragically Hip’s versatility. And for open-minded listeners unafraid of distinguishing Gord Downie from his famous band, these records are exhibits A and B in unraveling Downie’s soul.

When ‘The East Wind’ bounds into its full-band awareness with polished, radio-ready guitar strums, many of these fans will dread counting the years in which Downie has let his solo trajectory languish. That’s seven years which, if you’re a member of The Tragically Hip, mean fairly little given how their last two LP’s have only cemented their preexisting fanbase. To contrast, if you’re a member of Death Cab For Cutie, seven years mean everything. So maybe it’s logical that The Grand Bounce’s accessible folk-pop opener and each album track thereafter is produced by Death Cab guitarist Chris Walla. By covering everything from polka to bluegrass, Downie’s two prior works have swept him up a generous pile of tags, everything from poet to patriot, so why not jump the proverbial shark with The Grand Bounce’s relative directness? Adhering not only to dependable verse-and-chorus songwriting but also accepting his bread-and-butter skills, Downie gives up Hip-ish rock songs (‘The Drowning Machine’, ‘Night Is For Getting’) alongside layered folk songs (‘As A Mover’, ‘Retrace’) which Walla adequately spit-shines with some indie-modernism. The results of Downie and Walla working together are too organic to sound as if they’d calculated this beforehand, and no production polish could ever disguise Downie’s idiosyncratic approach to, well, everything. Lyrically and vocally, Downie’s as unpredictable and affecting as ever, especially on a few black sheep tracks that scathe the sequencing. ‘Moonslow Yer Lashes’ is pretty much as quirky as its title suggests, but you’ll find its silver lining the same way you probably had to on previous solo records. We’re not supposed to get too close to Downie, after all, and The Grand Bounce tows us between cleverly quaint and unfamiliar even despite its radio-ready intentions.

First impressions will likely resound with uncertainty for fans of Coke Machine Glow or Battle Of the Nudes, but in time The Grand Bounce feels as solid – if less ambitious – in league with his predecessors. Some introspection in Downie’s lyrics has subsided, or at least become more imperative and action-oriented, but he’s almost merging his solo work to The Tragically Hip’s reliable Can-Rock material. In this strange case where Downie fans and Hip fans can be split into two camps of equal pride and loyalty, think of The Grand Bounce as the bridge.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Eyelid Movies - Phantogram

Eyelid Movies

Barsuk / Ghostly Records.

SCQ Rating: 88%

July 2010: My girlfriend and I were wandering Ottawa’s market in search of good sushi when we heard live music playing nearby. As we approached the stage at the dead-end of York Street expecting to find a local talent strumming away to no one, the duo’s deep beats and terse electronic beats sent shockwaves through the corridor of these downtown buildings. The song, I’d later discover, was ‘When I’m Small’ but I knew straightaway the band was Phantogram, a girl/boy duo (Sarah D. Barthel and Joshua M. Carter) I’d read of but never listened to. We watched their soundcheck, a pulverizing yet proficient mix of electronics and guitar grooves, found our sushi place and then waited around to catch their entire set again later on that rainy evening.

After such an eye-opening show, I heartily attempted to de-hype my first listen to Eyelid Movies for fear the debut wouldn’t wield the same power or hooks… but here we are. Eyelid Movies lives up to that deft performance, removing all of the random onlookers but keeping the overcast weather with a collection of gritty and soft-sung tunes. The couplet of ‘Mouthful Of Diamonds’ and ‘When I’m Small’ opens the disc like an electronic-pop singles compilation, moving from wound-up dance to gritty trip-hop anthems. These tracks are irrefutable examples of the band's instant gratification, but Phantogram’s best arguably arrives further into Eyelid Movies, where the duo punch-up their beats over more brooding compositions. Although boasting an uptempo beat, ‘Turn It Off’ is a surprisingly reflective piece, with Barthel and Carter harmonizing over a stunning chorus whereas ‘You Are The Ocean’ makes a bid for ballad of the year with a chorus that nearly approaches shoegaze in its wide-open guitar-work.

Its aesthetic, of trip-hop beats, samples, and pristine guitar, is relentless yet shape-shifts with startling versatility, emoting sentimental choruses (‘All Dried Up’) without lessening the grip established by hard-hitting urban tracks (‘Running From the Cops’, ‘Bloody Palms’). With nary a weak track in the bunch, Eyelid Movies deserves recognition as one of the year’s finest debuts. Oh, and word of advice: if you discover that Phantogram are due to play in your city, do not miss it.

Phantogram - Turn It Off by TNastee

My Room In the Trees - The Innocence Mission

My Room In the Trees

The Innocence Mission
Badman Records.

SCQ Rating: 75%

The Innocence Mission have a longer history than most people care to remember, first grabbing attention for their self-titled record and that mid-90s contribution to the Empire Records soundtrack. Since then, the band has nurtured a steady (if characteristically low-key) fanbase by consistently churning out relaxed but oft stunning albums that center on tasteful guitar and Karen Peris’ lovely vocals. Featuring gentle guitar lilts and pedal-heavy piano, My Room In the Trees is another successful outing that will inexplicably dodge the Starbucks crowd… but I’m sure die-hard fans won’t mind that.

Having always carried a seasonal sensitivity in their records, The Innocence Mission grab for their spring jackets with My Room In the Trees, its arrangements dotted in puddles of accompanied piano and drizzly guitar figures. Match these somber green and grey tones with Peris’ singular voice and a song like ‘The Happy Mondays’ will keep even the umbrella-loving crowd inspired. As with previous discs, drumming is kept to a minimum but still creates a sway of breezy momentum for instrumental ‘Mile-marker’ and the Spanish-guitar of ‘God Is Love’. On the shoulders of these tracks, My Room In the Trees boasts perhaps the band’s most outwardly coffee-house approved disc yet and, while only a cynic would seek to reduce their oeuvre because of its complimentary existence with caffeine, I do take solace in their cloudiest, percussion-free laments. ‘Rhode Island’ and ‘North American Field Song’ both dance along the wire separating moody from uplifting, stagnant from graceful.

I suppose the band’s history feels overlong because my first Innocence Mission experience occurred well after their breakthrough, with the GusGus remix of ‘Snow’. Alternately, every record they’ve released since has played with identical dynamics and idyllic lyricism; a level of consistency focused enough to suspend time. On one hand this may suggest that The Innocence Mission are simply reinventing their catalog but, on the other hand, this consistency ensures that any fan of their previous work will also fall in love with My Room In the Trees.

What I Dream Is Where I Live - Whoop-Szo

What I Dream Is Where I Live

Out of Sound Records.

SCQ Rating: 72%

Whoop-Szo’s press-release tells the tale of how Adam Sturgeon and Kirsten Palm met through increments of seasons and hibernations. Identifying this reclusive way of life which trends heavily in the Great White North as a spiritual escape, Sturgeon and Palm began utilizing winter’s inhospitable tenure as reason to hole-up and record their hyphen-required folk tapestries. The result, What I Dream Is Where I Live, exists in sleepy, half-realized vibes and sugar-high restlessness.

If the combination of slumber and hyperactivity feel bipolar, you’re well on your way to understanding Whoop-Szo, whose specialty in folk and lo-fi pop occasionally erupts into noise-jams or other unexpected left-turns. What separates this Guelph-based band (which includes Nathan Campagnaro on drums) from many noise-folk hybrids is that most of the bipolar moments on What I Dream Is Where I Live benefit the material as charming progressions instead of attention-seeking weirdness. The fuzzed-out classic-rock chords that swallow up the title track’s gentle acoustics may seem abrupt but it’s as welcome as the electronic beats that propel ‘Sunshower Clean’ out of the folky slipstream. None of these twists in the road distract from Whoop-Szo’s primary focus of laid-back roots-music, represented best on ‘Out On the Lake a Pair of Loons Laugh Their Idiot Cry’ and the crisp-then-crunchy ‘Snowfall’.

These comforting concoctions occasionally recall Extra Happy Ghost!!!’s 2009 EP How the Beach Boys Sound To Those With No Feelings, even if Whoop-Szo’s 90s influences don’t really gel with the former group’s psychedelic muse. Both of these under-the-radar Canadian acts thrive through experimentation, distinguishing themselves by writing solid tunes and then injecting them with their respective idiosyncrasies. Although this debut gets watered down by ‘A Wolf Named Jealousy’, a pop song without any hooks, What I Dream Is Where I Live offers a great deal to enjoy and take solace in as winter draws near.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Dog Weather - Baby Eagle

Dog Weather

Baby Eagle
You’ve Changed Records.

SCQ Rating: 68%

On a track called ‘Me Vs. the Devil’, Steven Lambke (the man behind Baby Eagle) returns home dragging mud and the devil into the kitchen. If Dog Weather held the blueprint for a good-time, roots-rock record, Lambke has muddied it beyond recognition with half-muttered lyrics and a backing-band (featuring Shotgun Jimmie, Daniel Romano, Colleen Collins and David Trenaman) that can best be described as cantankerous. Distortion pierces through guitar figures like waves between the rocks, sometimes growling convincingly beneath (as on ‘Haybale Song’), other times colliding messily (yep, that's ‘Me Vs. the Devil’). Thank God for all this mud; without Baby Eagle’s stormy disposition, Dog Weather might’ve felt tame or, worse, conventional.

Lambke’s intimidating use of feedback might flag a few division-points, but it hardly compares to Baby Eagle’s polarizing approach to songwriting. Consider how the first few songs play off each other with ‘Day Of Our Departing’, which shuffles along an avenue of electric guitars into the heavy-handed gutter of ‘Fisherman Or Fish’ before resurfacing with the garage-rock flavour of ‘Haybale Song’. It’s a tumultuous patchwork that feels organically sequenced, as if these tracks were following a singular, shifting mood. Makes sense, when you take into account that Dog Weather’s recording stretched a meager two days, but Lambke saddles the album’s second-half with a rollercoaster of relaxed ponderings (‘Man Of My Time’) and confrontational rockers (‘American Drum’) that feel motion-sick tossed together.

The problem with Dog Weather’s harder-edged material should actually be its merit-badge; standing by all of their frayed notes and broken strings may give a song like ‘River Bank Sitter’ its authenticity, but it can’t add dimensions to undercooked songs. By rocking out with their hearts, this talented group of musicians forgot to brainstorm where these songs were heading, and Dog Weather’s biggest divide lies between the quality of folky arrangements (as on the excellent ‘Child Of the Weather’) and the aimlessness of blistering dry-runs. Lambke’s vocal-delivery rarely eases this separation, opting to chatter through verses and occasionally pull himself together for a chorus. He’s a visceral lyricist capable of painting strong imagery, but whether he's doing a conversational Craig Finn impression or a mumbling Matt Mays one, Lambke’s vocals sink many details that distinguish these songs.

Lastly, it’s worth noting that Baby Eagle doesn’t seem like the type of band who’d care about these criticisms and that confidence repels a lot of the record’s glaring missteps. Sure it’s challenging and those hurdles make it feel a lot longer than it is, but Dog Weather is a dustbowl of manic energy restrained to dense, acoustic revelry. He may be difficult but we need artists like Baby Eagle to combat all the substandard roots-rock records out there. Maybe the devil should stay in Lambke's details.

The Grey Kingdom - Grey Kingdom

The Grey Kingdom

Grey Kingdom
Dinealone Records.

SCQ Rating: 79%

Attack In Black last updated their website/blog in February of this year, and used the post to detail the steps necessary to bake a tremendous pecan pie. I suppose that’s a colourful way to insist that the band, as a unit, is settled at the moment and quite possibly consuming vast amounts of homemade pastries. But they aren’t whittling away the hours now, are they? Having established You’ve Changed Records over a year ago, members of the Welland-based quartet have been filling their time off with individual projects like Daniel Romano’s Workin’ For the Music Man and, now, Spencer Burton’s guise as Grey Kingdom.

Whereas Romano skipped back a few generations for a full-length indebted to classic folk and country, Burton feeds The Grey Kingdom with contemporary atmospheres that interact well with his acoustic yearnings. At its barest, the patient guitar pushing ‘Love Is Fast (The Tragedy of Kait Hagarty)’ meets Burton’s layered vocals, a force in and of itself, but with the subtle aid of echo and gentle chimes, the song’s intimacy resonates as if performed within a canyon. Uplifting and serene, ‘Paintbrush Soul’ also carries the winter-still confliction that moves beneath the linens of this EP’s four songs, otherwise presented naked on ‘I’ll Say Nothing But Goodbye’. The Grey Kingdom’s gentle ambience never overpowers Burton’s compositions, instead providing rich textures that emphasize each note and lyric. Even on ‘Haunted’, where ethereal drones swell up next to Burton’s vocal harmonies, the song’s core lies in the silence between verses.

Grey Kingdom will certainly summon up comparisons to other Canadian Zen-folk songwriters like Evening Hymns or Great Lake Swimmers, but these songs belong isolated unto themselves. In their own headspace, if that makes sense. Although it'll leave you wanting much more, The Grey Kingdom is both contemporary and timeless.

Out At Sea EP - Magnetic Island

Out At Sea EP

Magnetic Island
Disregard Records.

SCQ Rating: 65%

The lead track off Out of Sea EP, ‘End In Bender’, blasts into climax with the shoegaze guitar washes and blistering drum explosions that most indie outfits would deem fit to close a record on. Not Magnetic Island, the new project of former-Renminbi members Lisa Liu and SMV, who add some descending “ooohs” in the distance as if to mark their chorus amid the song’s five-minute summit. Such a slice of post-rock isn’t terribly unexpected from the Renminbi (R.I.P.) duo, but ‘End In Bender’ does feel fuller, less angular and increasingly chaotic. Give due credit to TJ Richards and Nikkie McLeod for putting some added distortion in Magnetic Island’s ear, then, as Out At Sea EP looks to make an immediate impression on Brooklyn’s indie-scene.

Part of this impression will be crafted from this release’s diversity, introducing lyrical verses in the twisted maelstrom ‘Sung (Not Said)’ and a heart-on-sleeve plea on the stripped-back (but, you know, still noisy) ‘Summer Phase’. And while ‘Let It Lie’ properly combines the respective fury and melody of those previous two tracks in what is likely the best track here, the EP feels like a teaser of directions Magnetic Island may explore on a full-length down the road. Will they follow the path ‘Sung (Not Said)’ anticipates, reminiscent of Asobi Seksu before they torn off their love of distortion? Or will they dive further into the pool of layered vocals and tender guitar that define ‘Let it Lie’? None of this material really sticks with you, but how they deliver components of their overall sound through different songwriting lens effectively keeps listeners on their toes.

Because Magnetic Island seem too in-the-moment to know what comes next, Out At Sea EP’s sequencing ends up being one of the best indicators for the band’s future mentality. Terrifically raw and pounding to begin with, then slowly unveiling more sentimental layers, Out At Sea’s ass-backward introduction suggests a band unafraid of finding themselves in the spotlight.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Past Time - Grass Widow

Past Time

Grass Widow
Kill Rock Stars Records.

SCQ Rating: 70%

Much has been said about Grass Widow’s influences, by way of critics who compile a shortlist of female-fronted bands and consider their job done. Although the theory that this trio references these influences by entitling their full-length sophomore Past Time may be correct, I think Grass Widow had more in mind than to honour stale Sleater-Kinney comparisons. For my money, Past Time cites the fleeting sensation of listening to its rapid-fire twenty-six minutes.

This is a record that requires serious time to take apart, not only because of its brisk run-time but because each song carries over the same sonic touchstones. Although certainly a multi-pronged talent, Grass Widow utilize the same signature techniques – layered, harmonizing vocals and intertwining guitar – on every single track. With only the odd distractions from this basic set-up (a nice violin-accompaniment, some muted organ), Past Time floats by pleasantly yet vaporously for such a guitar-based collection. I mean, Grass Widow aren’t some dream-pop outfit enveloped in haze; they’re a rock band who interlace their six-strings like a late-period Sonic Youth record, who offer spiky garage-rock like a modern day Kinks. Each song is concretely present, instrumentally cerebral in some cases, even, but the restricted palette of this record will divide audiences into two groups: (1) those who instinctively love the first song (and, subsequently, will love all of them) and (2) those who will try, possibly in vain, to separate these songs from their clone-like neighbours. As someone who would describe ‘Uncertain Memory’ for its post-punk bass, free-wielding percussion and lovely vocal harmonies, I clearly belong to the second group as I could describe half of Past Time the exact same way.

This homogenous result feels like a rip-off for the band. For one, Grass Widow’s instrumentation is always mobile, circling itself or interacting in clever ways, and secondly, the trio’s democratic approach to vocals ensures that listeners have at least two different vocal hooks to sing along to. So who’s at fault? Am I short-sighted or is Past Time just not as revelatory as people anticipated following their self-titled release last year? Answers may vary, but here’s a record that will confidently appeal to a sizeable fanbase as surely as it’ll elicit guilt from those who can't break through.

The Cradle - Colour Revolt

The Cradle

Colour Revolt
Dualtone Records.

SCQ Rating: 58%

A superficial spin of Colour Revolt’s new record The Cradle will leave an impression on you but, chances are, it’ll be an ill-conceived one. Trust me, I discovered this after hearing ‘Our Names’ and relating their layered, semi-spooky indie-rock to Grizzly Bear’s edgier moments. That opinion hasn’t changed; in fact ‘Our Names’ has all the melody and added grit that Veckatimest seemed so bashful about. Yet my impression hadn’t considered the possibility that the songs surrounding that highlight might borrow more from hard-rock in both its electric riff-age and the band’s testosterone-tinged lyricism. So is it a metal-influenced folk record, then? At the risk of making another erroneous assumption, I’ll say no.

‘8 Years’ opens with pounding drums and tight chords undercut by Jesse Coppenbarger’s torn-to-pieces voice and, for a moment, I had to check whether The Cradle came out via Vagrant Records. Between that first shot of adrenaline and the metal arpeggios that punch up ‘Heartbeat’, one can hardly be blamed for considering Colour Revolt too hardcore for indie-rock. Sounding nearly as grizzled as Bob Mould, Coppenbarger (alongside Sean Kirkpatrick, the two founding members remaining) seethes over sharp guitars and reflective atmospheres, offering serviceable range in bar-room rocker (‘She Don’t Talk’) and the after-hours lament (‘Everything Is the Same’). Few of these cuts register as anything beyond a change-up for variety’s sake, except for ‘Each Works’; a track that, like ‘Our Names’, dunks their riff-heavy foreboding into pools of textured keyboards.

Their playfulness with genre, tripping between hard-rock scapegoats and proggy flourishes, ends up far more interesting than their stunted emotional scope. What began as a puzzling filter of influences disassembles by The Cradle’s final third with the regrettable 90s radio-rock of ‘Mona Lisa’. Colour Revolt have the blueprints to create something original and special, there’s no doubting it, but The Cradle squanders the trust we listeners put forward. An unstable effort from a promising band.