Monday, February 28, 2011

TIME CHANGES: A New Language

First albums say more about your adolescent time and place in the world than just about anything else. I’m not talking about the first album you remember or the first you put down hard cash for; those are incidentals that say more about what stereo you were sitting closest to or what album-cover struck your fancy. What I’m talking about is the first cycle of songs you adored from front to back, that sequence of events in which you quietly commended yourself for hearing the beginning of the next song before the current one was through. Because it’s strange getting into music as a kid, and realizing that by acquiring the habit of listening to it – an activity that requires very little effort from an outward, physical perspective – you’re joining a more mature language that, if still rooted in youth, has infiltrated every corner of the world.

I was twelve when I first fell in love with a full album – Offspring’s Smash - and I recall the pride of enjoying something that didn’t come from a Toys ‘R’ Us shelf. Part of that satisfaction likely stemmed from the fact that Offspring’s breakthrough was also a favourite of my father’s. Yes, that’s right, my Dad was blaring Smash - a rather dicey choice for a suburban street dominated by young families - while painting the front porch when my ears first perked up. Over the following weeks, I broke into my cassette copy with the bedroom door shut, processing its use of aggression through tempo and language, rewinding certain progressions and then stewing over why I saw fit to rehear them.

Fourteen years on, I suppose I’m still scrutinizing those interests. Call them catalysts for teen-ambivalence or healing music for the aggressive spirit; whatever I found so exemplary in those songs has been placated through an incalculable number of radio-rock parallels. It's a natural reaction to grow weary of any language that perpetuates the same ideas and, eventually, Offspring's dynamics were ironed flat.

Recently I’ve taken up jazz. It’s a genre that has continuously laced my field of vision, first catching my ear by inspiring the samples of trip-hop and turntablism, then later by fusing to the compositions of life-changing bands like Radiohead and Talk Talk. Being open to the genre was crucial, of course, but only as a precursor to taking that first, daunting step. Admittedly, I’ve since wandered right off the proverbial cliff. Amidst an early February blizzard, I bought Dave Brubeck’s Time Changes, which provided a crash-course on his quartet’s style as well as chronicling Brubeck’s first success working with an orchestra. Two days later, I picked up Miles Davis’ In A Silent Way and Django Reinhardt’s Djangology; two classics of little association that educated me on fusion (the progressive mixing of rock and soul to jazz fixtures) and post-war, gypsy-guitar virtuosos.

Where these poor, exiled records will settle amid my sizeable collection of rock and electronica, I can’t say, but there’s a thrill in wading through a canon as labyrinthine as jazz. So far my interest has piqued upon the progressive, instrumental records of the 50s and 60s, plus a few modern releases from Munich-based label ECM. Unlike the sedated trajectory of “smooth-jazz”, releases from the likes of Davis and Reinhardt exude a stringent discipline on improvisation. That any two recordings of the same song – whether it’s a studio effort, live cut, demo take, or a varied group of musicians – can result in such drastically different performances exemplifies the artistic freedom at work, the elastic creativity that keeps each instrumental collision united toward some greater good.

In many cases, where the “greater good” escapes my sensibilities, I reconsider the grounds by which I took up this foolhardy jazz-odyssey in the first place. Are my current tastes waning? Am I searching for a listening experience I won’t feel any pressure to analyze critically? Or, could I be genuinely engaging with a new musical love affair? Smash still reasserts my existence as a twelve-year-old better than any photograph or childhood memory; its hell-bent obsession with self-destruction happened to be enough escapism for whatever angst fuels a kid on the verge of his teens. But what secrets might jazz hold for a navel-gazing music-nerd of twenty-eight years?

First, a new language is revealed. Upon hearing jazz was under my skin, a colleague at work coyly played an invisible piano while singing a series of dislocated bleeps and bops. It’s a classic joke, one I’m pretty sure I’ve acted out myself. And I still find it funny while I’m skipping the divide, listening as the echoes of my old critiques turn tone-deaf. The dynamic of the joke changes too.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

TRE3S - Chikita Violenta


Chikita Violenta
Arts & Crafts Records.

SCQ Rating: 73%

Over a two-week period in January, Chikita Violenta rode a wave of hype and backlash that most bands, given our presently overloaded musical landscape, would need a few months to fully traverse. Keep in mind, these guys aren’t some Myspace - sorry, Bandcamp – discovery; they’re the latest signing on world-class indie label Arts & Crafts, they’re produced by the one and only Dave Newfeld, and their sound is shaped from 90s bands like Pavement, Superchunk and Built To Spill. So naturally this quartet must be Mexico’s answer to Broken Social Scene – case closed.

Granted, the band’s new album, TRE3S, echoes profoundly of a lost Broken Social Scene outing; that’s an increasing likelihood when considering the band’s label, producer, and shortlist of influences. But to dismiss these songs as cloned, Mexico-made replications of BSS trademarks is to ignore what TRE3S offers in spades: another angle to Arts & Crafts’ addictive indie-rock sound. Hearing the harmonious noise that perforates ‘Roni’’s raw guitar may as well be confused for a siren’s call to bored hipsters everywhere, while a soaring chorus gives purpose to ‘The Pause’’s tripped-out noise-rock. If it sounds as though TRE3S’ production is packing the kinetic punch - and not the songwriting – you can blame Newfeld, who’s hardly resting on his laurels behind the boards. In most cases, Newfeld’s sharp ear for aggressively beautiful dissonance provides an ideal backdrop for Chikita Violenta’s earnest anthems but, occasionally, one can’t help but hear a Broken Social Scene record that could’ve been. ‘Tired’ bears a solid kinship to the Toronto collective’s gently strummed rockers whereas the ghost of Kevin Drew lurks over the chorus of ‘All I Need’s A Little More’.

Back to the real question, though: is Chikita Violenta a doppelganger band? Only in the sense that, like a thousand other worthwhile groups, they aren’t trailblazing so much as reiterating the need for ample gray areas that any debate over authenticity deserves.

Kindred - SubtractiveLAD


n5MD Records.

SCQ Rating: 71%

Following Stephen Hummel’s output as SubtractiveLAD is almost like taking a part-time job; it has a fixed presence in your life but you’re never quite sure where it’s heading. Sure, releasing seven records in seven years has allowed Hummel to passively expand upon (and in some cases refine) his emotive, electronic compositions, but each turn of his metronomic productivity has further subdued its reception. Entering into 2011, the announcement of a new SubtractiveLAD record could easily be translated as routine, representing a necessary glue to hold n5MD’s more anticipated releases in place.

As surely as its five massive songs debunk the appearance of an EP, Kindred also levels our middling expectations. Few tracks this year will shake one out of their assumptions quite like ‘The Available Light’, which opens with futuristic sweeps and distant chorals before escalating into a full-blown Kosmisch freak-out. ‘Hesperus Is Phosphorus’ takes a less bipolar approach, establishing serene atmospheres and then trespassing them with undulating Oneohtrix Point Never-styled noodling. These first two tracks, which could be EPs unto themselves, set the progressive, unwieldy tone of Kindred. The LP’s latter half finds Hummel employing the same adventurous spirit to compact arrangements (and by compact, I mean eight minutes instead of twenty-two). Nowhere is SubtractiveLAD’s peculiar direction more earnest, creepy and successful as when ‘Hello, Goodbye’ veers from its laid-back acoustics into a space-disco abyss.

These new songs operate like video-game narratives, growing from sterile repetitions to epic, arpeggio-stacked crescendos. Heady, uncompromising; SubtractiveLAD’s work has rarely afforded so many risks and rewarded so many backhanded accolades. If Kindred’s transformative fireworks lack the immediacy to grab new listeners, it should at least bolster SubtractiveLAD’s rank and reputation as one of n5MD’s most consistent mainstays.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will - Mogwai

Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will

Sub Pop Records.

SCQ Rating: 80%

Nearly two and a half years on, I still find myself trying to claw at what The Hawk Is Howling really was. An engorged assortment of post-rock tenets spring to mind, treading old reflexes at rare highlights (‘I’m Jim Morrison, I’m Dead’, ‘King’s Meadow’) but submerged in crotchety, witless songwriting for the most part. Yes, Mogwai’s 2008 epic occupied a lot of space on disc but for the same reason nobody bothers manufacturing oversized coasters, it was difficult to justify its ten songs’ ample elbow-room.

By reducing its scope, Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will retraces the band’s most rewarding challenge: tailoring their trademarked bouts of fury to compositions not necessarily designed for crescendo-hammering. Of course, to reach even that stage, the Scottish veterans required material with classical nuances and subtlety. That’s probably where The Hawk Is Howling lost its bite; by arming their structures with the sustenance to burden so many recurrent sonic blasts, Mogwai abandoned their elegance - the snap-shift beneath those dichotomies. Mr. Beast empowered itself by that standard, compelling each thoughtful whim to its natural peak or valley without arguing such a primitive consideration as volume, and this latest LP follows a similar mindset.

With that 2006 about-face as its closest relation, Hardcore... ventures back to small steps outside of a comfort zone that allows the occasional curveball. Showcasing the emotive weight Mogwai have been refining since Rock Action are tracks like ‘Death Rays’ and ‘Letters To the Metro’, which amble on the graces of their respectively rich backbones with a wide array of keys and, on the former in particular, a blast of organ and guitar. As ever, those pockets of reflective songwriting guide our eardrums back from the brink of annihilation, away from the perpetual riff of ‘Rano Pano’’s tempered ferocity and ‘Too Raging To Cheers’ climactic breakdown. Both of Mogwai’s well-trodden ends are hinted at in ‘White Noise’, with its romanced cloak of percolating arpeggios reaching skyward despite some trouble-making, dissonant plates shifting beneath.

Song titles aside, that last paragraph encapsulates the back-and-forth, restrained-then-epic trajectory of just about every Mogwai release, which is why Hardcore…’s odd moments deserve due mention. Some of these tracks sound decidedly un-Mogwai-ish; the vocoder-use in ‘George Square Thatcher Death Party’ is only surprising because of its traditional verse-chorus layout, while ‘Mexican Grand Prix’, with robot-pitched vocal-snippets and krautrock rhythms, demonstrates the band’s continued maturity (yes, in spite of them calling a song ‘How To Be a Werewolf’).

Acquired tastes, perhaps, but Hardcore…’s demands are easy to adjust to, with even the most college-rock-ready moment (‘San Pedro’) fitting into the record’s mood after a few spins. As with Mr. Beast or Happy Songs For Happy People before that, this Sub Pop debut reaffirms Mogwai’s reputation as the most consistent and magnetic pillar in post-rock’s aging castle.

MOGWAI - Death Rays by Pias France

Japanese For Beginners - Near the Parenthesis

Japanese For Beginners

Near the Parenthesis
n5MD Records.

SCQ Rating: 83%

There’s language to be interpreted on Near the Parenthesis’ new full-length, but it’s neither Japanese nor Tim Arndt’s native tongue of English. After several listens, what initially unfurled as elegant piano progressions, chiming and lamenting over beds of delicate electronics, transforms into Arndt’s ivory-key vocabulary; capable of circling a situation, describing its backdrop, and echoing the listener’s sentiments. Japanese For Beginners’ focus on piano becomes a mere subtext as the flurry of language over these nine compositions amass, with somber and hopeful melodies, into a forty-five minute web of reflective vignettes.

Rarely does a record’s uniformity remain this engaging throughout. With similar gears – piano, a variety of ambient keys and a throbbing patchwork of nestled beats – at work beneath each piece, Near the Parenthesis encourages strong melodic passages to persevere impulsively placed notes which tense and redefine its motivations. Alongside some of his most overtly electronic landscapes to date, Arndt’s pieces never settle, often tying emotional weight into a shuffling, nomadic desire to move forward. With each song modulating another catalyst for the record’s changing emotional state, highlights distinguish themselves regularly: ‘Soft Warmly Straw Raincoat’ delivers an hypnotic back-beat as evocative as the fine imagery of its title, ‘Voice and Radio Bureau’ welcomes some Rounds-era glitchiness, then ‘The Rose and Burial’ steps back into some Arovane-esque electronic solitude.

Okay, those “highlights” listed are actually just the first three tracks, and their effectiveness will largely depend on each listener’s capacity for stylish, unobtrusive electronica. There’s room to argue Japanese For Beginners’ charms as overly pretty, but to dismiss the record on such grounds would be overlooking Arndt’s concentrated ability to score emotional moods with a refined palette. Making the most of monotony, Near the Parenthesis has crafted the first great electronic record of 2011.

Near The Parenthesis - Japanese For Beginners - Soft Warmly Straw Raincoat (n5MD) by pdis_inpartmaint

Replicants - MillionYoung


Old Flame Records.

SCQ Rating: 72%

In the off-chance you find Extended Plays, as a format in general, slight in frame and unpredictable in quality, there’s a solid probability you’ve never set aside any time for Mike Diaz. Under his MillionYoung moniker, Diaz spent most of 2010 cresting upon the praise from two EPs, Sunndreamm and Be So True; neither of which game-changing but both matching a wildly fresh palette of surf-ridden guitar and retro keys to convincing compositions. Be So True, in particular, proved an ideal soundtrack for neon-lit nights of driving around in an attempt to keep cool, with Diaz’s vocals hanging in the humidity, uninterested not only in taking centre-stage but in defining any one focal point.

Even though the very essence of Chill-wave instinctively grabs at ear-pleasing euphoria, Diaz’s left-of-centre ideas sought to reform electro-pop into the confines of spacious songwriter-esque EPs. Offering a distinct ebb and flow, MillionYoung’s songwriting and sequencing hinted at a bigger picture than the series of disconnected hooks fired off by his subgenre’s many colleagues. Sure, both of these releases hovered around the twenty-minute mark and spent more time disproving expectations than blindly giving the goods, but they also boasted that Diaz knows his way around the EP’s anything-goes format, managing to say a lot within an unassuming song-cycle.

All of that said, a full-length debut still equates with big-boy shoes; the suspect belief that by creating something bigger and more conventional, it’ll also warrant the most respect. The resulting Replicants finds Diaz often taking the bait as well as centre-stage, not as an enigmatic electronic producer who contributes haunting vocal addendums but as front-man leading the way from verse to chorus and back again. Listen no further than ‘Calrissian’ to understand how MillionYoung’s effortless dream-pop can turn saccharine with too linear of an approach, as that single’s sing-along melody and breezy strums feel positively measured for short-term blogger satisfaction. ‘Perfect Eyes’ and the title track work with a similar straightforwardness; the former a dilated ballad of blurry harmonics that gathers rhythmic rumbling beneath Diaz’s adolescent croon, the latter an upgraded sequel to Be So True EP’s anthemic ‘Cynthia’. And both tracks, if unable to justify MillionYoung’s hype, at least reflect it, even when acknowledging that the added professionalism running slickly through Replicants abducts some of Diaz’s volatility.

Chill-wave cross-over bids aside, this debut LP still shares some spaced-out kinship with Diaz’s less conformist predecessors. The first substantial track, ‘Cosmonaut’, delivers a well-placed freefall; its melt-into-the-couch ease both vacuous and purposeful in establishing a chain of like-minded zone-outs. ‘Easy Now’ and ‘On On’ continue with more in-the-present, kinetic-as-hell brain-candy, preferring wordlessly intoned vocals, sensual and druggy, to the latter half’s sobering clairvoyance. Consumed independently, these jams, replete with zigzagging synth lines and a frostiness just a few degrees warm of Junior Boys’ Last Exit, might lack a ton of structural turns, but their disinterest in pretensions instill an urgency far more addictive than, say, ‘Calrissian’’s blandness. Other avenues emerge from this adventurousness, some more defined (like ‘Synanthropic’’s merger of lazer-synths and afro-rhythms – seriously, think a laptop-based Vampire Weekend) than others (the dub-turned-rock-WTF of ‘Gravity Feels’), but each of them lend more credence through experimenting than settling.

Exhausting his mellow side but safe-guarding his mystique, MillionYoung’s rite-of-passage full-length assembles like a minor success. While Diaz’s songwriting best compliments a foggy mind, it’s the vitality behind his beats – not the slow-building verses of ‘Perfect Eyes’ or the patient loops of ‘Sentimental’ – that rewards listeners. By forfeiting that core strength of impulsiveness for eager-to-please grooves, Replicants’ weak-points can gravitate alarmingly close to Chill-out music, an obsolete scene that Chill-wave artists would be wise to take notes from.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

SCQ's Winter Albums 2011

On Wednesday of last week, as a mammoth snowstorm threatened to affect over one-hundred-million lives from Texas up through Montreal, I left the vacant shoppe early and made my trek home through knee-high drifts. Somehow, the impetus to brainstorm SCQ’s first Quarterly feature of 2011 hadn’t occurred to me until that walk, so forgive the belated nature of these reviews.

Unlike previous years where SCQ’s Winter Albums either presaged or basked in Canada’s coldest season, these mid-February choices catch me already wishing for spring. As such, let’s hope these records soundtrack the final weeks before an unexpected thaw takes these snow-mounds down the gutter for another eight months.

A side-note for those who’ve read this far: Skeleton Crew Quarterly was recently nominated for Best Canadian Music Website on CBC Radio 3. I have my suspicion as to who initially nominated me but I’m really grateful to everyone who has linked me to Facebook, Tweeted my URL at large, and/or contacted me with an exclamation mark or two. It’s an honour to be listed among such fine websites/blogs and I know it’s because of you – those who bother reading bottom paragraphs of Quarterly features – that I tip my hat to the most.

Stay warm out there,

Love, SCQ

Penny Sparkle - Blonde Redhead (SCQ's Winter 2011)

Penny Sparkle

Blonde Redhead
4AD Records.

SCQ Rating: 81%

Of the multiple reasons Blonde Redhead’s Ottawa Bluesfest concert might spring to mind often, its therapeutic way of momentarily overlooking winter’s cruel wrath ranks somewhere around last. Sure, July’s dusk was an hour off, the sun was cresting over the river and a friend and I had just staked an ideal waterside plot of long-grass to drink beers and watch the band’s hazy set amid, but Penny Sparkle really doesn’t commiserate any of that. In fact, the very nature of Penny Sparkle amidst even the most AC-abused of summers feels slightly wrong.

As fragile as frost being thumbed from your windowpane, Penny Sparkle’s aesthetic elicits shivers at every turn. Arrangements focus on tight-lipped electronic beats that fizzle around intricate percussion and synths that, refreshingly, sound futuristic. Its production, courtesy of Van Rivers and the Subliminal Kid (the duo behind Fever Ray’s debut), invites icicles to grow upon such sparse terrain, and cloaks the band’s eighth LP in pale, delicate atmospheres. The strong-willed production-work no doubt has ramifications on Blonde Redhead’s songwriting but they’re of the ambiguous sort, more likely to reflect well due to the divide in opinions than suffer from them. And these songs are indeed flexible: the dubbed-out traces of ‘Will There Be Stars’ benefit from their far-off insinuations, as surely as a lurching bass keeps ‘Oslo’ lucid and wandering. Seldom does a song on Penny Sparkle permit instantly recognizable hooks, but ‘Here Sometimes’ and ‘Everything Is Wrong’, as exceptions to the rule, bolster the set from its introverted daydream. The rest are constituted of miniscule hooks in conjunction for a greater, album-crossing groove.

In a sleepy tapestry where even Kazu Makino’s vocals feel sidelined for gentle cooing, the downside becomes evident: such strict adherence to Van Rivers and the Subliminal Kid’s production encourages its homogeny. How one translates the threat of sameness will also decide its outcome; the record’s few overlong meditations, ‘Love Or Prison’ and the title track, survive on distant dance-rhythms that will appeal to electronic enthusiasts but likely outrage fans still clamoring for a return of Blonde Redhead’s noisy roots. For better or worse, Penny Sparkle isn’t an album to motivate action; it’s an album to collapse to, to drift in and out of conscious to, and to occasionally forget is even playing.

Funny, that soothing indifference to grab-me dynamics is about the only connection these songs have to that warm evening concert, in that our experience benefited from letting Blonde Redhead’s sly compositions sneak to the background. Penny Sparkle definitely has an escapist’s allure to it, and their liner-note on the CD sleeve (“Your Other World (Dream) Is Inside Here”) should be taken as an exciting forewarning.

Blonde Redhead-My Plants Are Dead by ellebirdie

Amulet - Teeel (SCQ's Winter 2011)


Moodgadget Records.

SCQ Rating: 72%

I’m a witness to the changing fashions, I swear it. Let's rewind: 80s weren’t considered retro yet, not because it wasn’t old enough but because it wasn’t cool enough. Someone unearths an outdated instrument – say, a synth – and incorporates a single element of it into their modern-day composition. It catches on, and a month later half of college radio is swooning to a surge of retro-rock hybrids.

Now the apex of any musical trend occurs as it crosses into the mainstream, when the innovation of its grassroots approach meets the commercialism of mainstream waking up. Like Nirvana taking grunge to the major labels with Nevermind or, to a lesser extent, The Chemical Brothers fighting for mainstream recognition with Dig Your Own Hole; these represent the pinnacles of certain stylistic shifts shortly before the excitement subsides and everyone begins to move on. To avoid the harrowing task of choosing just one record to symbolize a summit for our near decade-long obsession with the 80s, I’ll say this: when bands stopped cherry-picking and genuinely tried to encompass the 80s, retro turned to pastiche.

That switch, which likely happened about two years ago, doesn’t deter records like Amulet from fighting the current and ultimately mining some of the scene’s final succulent fruits. Although ‘Triangle’ emits a palpable sense of here-we-go-again with thick drum-machine beats and laid-back synths, Teeel’s full-length debut snowballs with each track, challenging several of chill-wave’s elite contributions. ‘Sweet Camaro’ cruises a chic slice of oscillating night-air whereas ‘Galilean Moons’ takes a percussive stance with pounding beats and some smoggy vocals. Fittingly, the title track and finale smoothly integrates Amulet’s instrumental versus soft-vocal approach into a satisfying pop song, arguing that Jim Smith is as much a “traditional” songwriter as a beatsmith.

For Teeel’s brand of synth-pop, however, neither of those titles may be enough. The only proven way to maneuver chill-wave’s expectations so far is to abandon them; MillionYoung has become a band and honed his songwriting side, Toro Y Moi’s crafting his own sonic-vessel as we speak. As for Teeel, the climate’s still fine for him to inspect this trendy genre from all angles, tweaking what’s misshapen if not what’s old-hat, but let’s hope LP #2 doesn’t land on the exhausted side of our retro-pop timeline.

Etched In Salt - Tapage & Meander (SCQ's Winter 2011)

Etched In Salt

Tapage & Meander
Tympanik Audio Records.

SCQ Rating: 79%

Thought up as a helpful descriptor, ambient-techno remains one of electronic music’s great oxymorons, combining a genre known for subduing sound-washes with one designed to arouse our kinetic impulses. The label’s so hard to characterize, it nearly undermines the potency, the thrill, of finding ambient-techno actually done right. ‘California Blue’, the lead cut off Tapage & Meander’s Etched In Salt, earns that tag outright with calm keys circling a restless IDM beat before finally fusing over some orchestral chasms. Its crunchy, sterile blizzard evokes Pantha du Prince’s Black Noise, but that’s just the first track; Etched In Salt transgresses ambient-techno, as well as IDM and break-core, to generate a devious but soulful electronic mixture.

Much of the record’s allure can be attributed to Tapage & Meander’s craft, which discards the accessible lures of four-by-four beats or treated guitar in favour of deft progressions and a purist’s sense of adventure. Look no further than ‘Plankton’ as an ideal diving point, where reflective keys meet a flurry of acid-squiggles and hard beats. Sometimes it’s hard to narrow down their influences (ie: are these guys bigger fans of Drukqs or AFX’s Analord series?), but the primary muse behind Etched In Salt remains pioneering electronica far removed from most noughties’ trends. And when I say “most”, I’m excluding the duo’s knack for cinematic progressions, like the strings that reinstate ‘Oceanographic’ with an emotional core or the contemplative low-end that lends ‘Hydrostatic Skeleton’ some gravity.

With 2011 as yet unwilling to unleash a ferocious, risk-taking electronica full-length, it’s doubly rewarding to glance back at Tapage & Meander’s underappreciated 2010 effort. Unlike ambient-techno, Etched In Salt isn’t always easy-listening but it’s a crash-course in why those sorts of subgenres never die.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Confidence Lodge - Jon McKiel

Confidence Lodge

Jon McKiel
Youth Club Records.

SCQ Rating: 75%

There’s something irresistible and damned-near timeless about ‘Monster Of the Mirimichi’, the lead-track off of Confidence Lodge; how its unhurried guitar hook is pedestal’d by low-end bass falling out of speakers that, by its very rumble, should be hugging the wood-paneled floor of some Canadian basement. When its heaving chorus of stately electric distortion and piano takes hold, it almost begs the question: so who is Jon McKiel, anyway?

Let the Halifax-based musician’s promising young catalog guide that answer; having gathered a reputation for honest songwriting with 2008’s full-length The Nature Of Things, McKiel is currently finishing his long-awaited follow-up Tonka Warcloud. If that description still casts McKiel in a shroud of mystery, this between-records’ EP should adequately introduce his ever-changing sensibilities to newbies and long-time fans alike. Towing sludgy progressions of amp-blown electrics and muddy atmospherics into his narratives, McKiel’s everyman delivery pierces like sunrays through the fog, leading the charge for Confidence Lodge’s more delicate embellishments. From the minimalist piano tinkerings that boost the latent mood encased in ‘Rupert May 18’’s bass-heavy plodding to the mournful violin that somehow inspires hope beyond ‘Snow Owl’’s sparse guitar-plucking, McKiel’s arrangements feel as lived-in as a favourite old couch – collapse-ready with a lot of sponge-like stuffing swept beneath.

Despite its EP-appropriate length, Confidence Lodge rolls out a generous first-impression of McKiel’s work through expert sequencing and the absence of any throwaway tracks. Still catchy but grasping with some cantankerous terrain, McKiel’s songwriting is quickly becoming one of the East Coast’s most remarkable attractions. It's also worthy of the question: so when is Tonka Warcloud coming out?

Faded Photographs - Absent Without Leave

Faded Photographs

Absent Without Leave
Sound In Silence Records.

SCQ Rating: 67%

Anyone with a voracious hunger for soft-hued post-rock and net-label electronica has likely crossed George Mastrokostas’ Absent Without Leave project. It’s no wonder how ever-present his name is; forget being prolific, just check out how connected his instrumental moniker is. He has recorded for Chat Blanc, Duotone, the likely defunct Distant Noise Records, and a slew of others but you needn’t look further than the liner notes of Faded Photographs to get a sense of the company he keeps: Epic45, port-royal, millimetrik, and members of Hood and The Declining Winter to name but a few. If you’ve a passing interest in European label Make Mine Music, you know what a like-minded troupe Mastrokostas has gathered, one hell-bent on emotively pastoral guitar progressions polished within an aural inch of sterility.

And that’s how Faded Photographs plays out, with each track built one layer at a time until it has reached an orchestrated swoon. ‘How The Winter Comes’ accomplishes that dreamy trajectory with a sense of modesty, as does ‘Dreams and Hopes’, but the predictability lying at the heart of Mastrokostas’ centerpiece – that his acoustic guitar, his lead instrument, rarely deviates at all – begins to underwhelm over a course of songs varying between four and eight minutes in length. Sometimes one of these guitar figures has some percussive snap behind it, like both the enjoyable title track as well as ‘Balloons In the Sky’, but this strategy is doomed; without even a subtle shift away from such linear chord repetitions, these songs (bearing no distinct beginning or end) could technically loop onward forever. Accompanied by such a brimming assortment of guest-musicians only makes this compositional argument more pointed, as it’s hard to shake the idea that many of these familiar Epic45 and Declining Winter flourishes are simply fancying up bare-boned guitar melodies.

Electronic and post-rock fans smitten with the genres’ tendency to create emotional backdrops for personal reflections will eat Faded Photographs by the spoonful and, while I can appreciate why that is, Absent Without Leave doesn’t offer enough twists in the road for me to choose this pretty soundtrack over countless others.