Thursday, March 31, 2011

SMM: Context - Various / The Reconstruction Of Fives - Various

SMM: Context

Various Artists
Ghostly International.

SCQ Rating: 80%

The Reconstruction Of Fives

Various Artists
n5MD Records.

SCQ Rating: 77%

The complication with compilations: they’re usually built to be torn apart, offering one-off tracks to crudely represent entire genres, time periods, artists and/or labels. For those of us who pedestal music as art worthy of its own mini-universe – like, say, the album – compilations embody the commercial underbelly; a middle-man, so to speak, who takes the majority of cash we’d prefer to give directly to the artists responsible. Independent labels are included in my editorial “we”, not only because their passion for music as art runs deeper than most listeners, but because good labels never short-change their discography for cash-in-hand.

Two of Skeleton Crew Quarterly’s favourite electronic labels, Ghostly International and n5MD, released compilations this past winter; the former an exposé of Ghostly’s increasingly experimental efforts, the latter a celebration of n5MD’s ten-year anniversary. Both are terrific in that they deliver new and likeminded artists to investigate but, moreover, they are worlds unto themselves, sequenced to flow – and be listened to – as full-length albums.

SMM: Context finds an assortment of artists blurring the once-separate worlds of electronica, drone and classical into a gorgeously sweeping, futurist’s movement. From sunny passages like Goldmund’s ‘Motion’ and Christina Vantzou’s ’11 Generations Of My Father’ to solemn sound-environments like Manual’s ‘Three Parts’, the compilation embraces a variety of ambient shades to colour its moody tapestry. Evocative instrumentals that act as understated film scores (Jacaszek’s ‘Elegia’) interact with minimalist symphonies (Kyle Bobby Dunn’s ‘Runge’s Last Stand’) to create a lived-in sense of ebb and flow. Sure, its imaginary narrative freezes up on occasion courtesy of a few hard-edged drone pieces (by Aidan Baker and Svarte Greiner) but SMM: Context’s overview wouldn’t be complete without these darker entries.

Instead of exploring unclassifiable sonic territories as Ghostly International has done, The Reconstruction Of Fives embraces n5MD’s past by looking forward with a selection of classic tracks performed by the label’s colleagues. Much-loved acts like Miwon, Rafael Anton Irisarri (The Sight Below) and Pale Sketcher pay their respects alongside n5MD’s new class, reworking personal favourites to brilliant effect. Worriedaboutsatan serve up a post-classical version of ’63 (She Was Trying to Sleep…)’ that nearly trumps Plastik Joy’s original while Pale Sketcher’s ‘Secret Knots’ is particularly arresting, shifting from Broadrick’s foreboding M.O. to heart-achingly delicate. Although not as dreamy as Ghostly’s compilation, The Reconstruction Of Fives seeks a more defined presence and establishes new talents (such as Winterlight) as much as it rejoices existing achievements.

SMM: Context and The Reconstruction Of Fives aren’t interesting simply because they’re riding on their respective label’s coattails or because their approach to the compilation format feels fresh and valuable. Instead, I’m stricken by these releases because both summarize their catalogs by stepping timidly outside of them. Ghostly ultimately travels further, as was their intention, while n5MD reassesses their trademarked post-rock/electronica by largely reimagining previous accomplishments. As someone regularly opposed to dropping hard-earned cash on compilations, I heartily recommend picking up both of these label profiles.

Underneath the Pine - Toro y Moi

Underneath the Pine

Toro y Moi
Carpark Records.

SCQ Rating: 80%

Of my eager anticipation to see Caribou unleash his psychedelic carousel last spring in Ottawa, a genuine sliver was partitioned for catching Toro y Moi open the gig. Yes, I’d recently accused his debut, Causers Of This, of being a songwriting cop-out but I was eager to hear how its glitchy fragments might sound when performed by Chaz Bundick and his full band. Granted, my troupe and I opted to remain in our U-shaped booth and watch Toro Y Moi from afar, but that indifference was largely caused by a set that felt uncomfortable in its own skin. Causers Of This had only been in stores for a few weeks but already Bundick seemed desperate to distance himself from its trendiness.

The performance opening for Caribou made peace with any lingering uncertainties my stance on Toro y Moi had been wrestling with, but it – and the tour as a whole – held greater implications for Chaz Bundick. Underneath the Pine, besides being far more informed by 70s funk and new age sentiments, finds Bundick exploring Caribou’s psychedelic wormhole of kaleidoscopic delights. Like a svelte incarnation of Snaith’s 2010 hit ‘Odessa’, ‘Still Sound’ bears a groove both danceable and head-swimmingly ungrounded. The same goes for ‘New Beat’’s freshly renovated take on pre-disco soul and ‘Light Black’’s shadowy vortex – an understated freak-out if ever there was one. And those are merely the examples that don’t cite Dan Snaith’s 60s love as a primary influence; in other places, like ‘Got Blinded’ or ‘Before I’m Done’, Bundick channels the Zombies’ melancholic swoon as if Caribou hadn’t been revitalizing it for the past five years.

Any foul play behind Underneath the Pine’s borrowings is thankfully overshadowed by Toro y Moi’s many upgrades on display. Gone is the cowardly playbook that had Bundick stitching disembodied hooks to fleeting euphoria. From sketches to full-blown songwriting in the span of a year, Toro y Moi hasn’t just uncovered a unique take on electronic music through somewhat organic means; he’s found himself as well.

Toro Y Moi - Still Sound by musicmule

12 Desperate Straight Lines - Telekinesis

12 Desperate Straight Lines

Morr Music/Merge Records.

No Ripcord Rating: 7/10
SCQ Rating: 76%

Within a brief spat of radio interference that linked the second and third tracks of Telekinesis’ sophomore release, something interesting happened. No sooner had 'Please Ask For Help' rounded out its New Order thrust of treated guitar and bass when '50 Ways' launched into the power-chords and glorious distortion that defined Weezer’s Blue Album. From sleek to stomp in a blink, Telekinesis (Michael Benjamin Lerner) isn’t just testing his own immaculate sense of sequencing; he’s jumping decades, taking us from the pop heights of one retro-cool era to another with his compact songwriting as the lead guide.

Suggestive though it may be, the familiar angles on 12 Desperate Straight Lines avoid labeling Lerner as a chameleon for precisely that law of compression. Apologies: if Telekinesis’ Myspace page has any sway, Lerner prefers the term “minimalist”. It’s a tempting descriptor when the vast majority of this sophomore’s songs pulse on a skeletal palette of no-bullshit rock hardware: drum-kit, a little bass, and a few guitars. Still, a cheeky studio veneer is never far off. Enter ace-in-sleeve Chris Walla, who counters the raw immediacy of songs like 'Country Lane' and 'Car Crash' with simple electronic effects that add considerable lifespan to Lerner’s quick takes. Once Walla’s touch has been recognized, it’s hard not to shake the sonic similarities between 12 Desperate Straight Lines and Narrow Stairs (on 'Patterns') or, say, the last two Tegan and Sara records (with 'Dirty Thing', 'Fever Chill'). Walla has more than a few hit records under his producer-hat and this little scorcher should bejewel him another.

So, okay, Telekinesis’ “minimalist” tag holds just as flimsily as it would for any of those other Walla endeavors but Lerner’s direct songwriting minces all of these college-rock influences into a surprisingly versatile record. There’s very little lyrical wallowing permitted here, as even the revisited theme of lovers left in different cities is relayed through our protagonist’s road-weary, matter-of-fact shrug. And in an indie-rock landscape where so many bands climb to eminence on the shoulders of pseudo-academic attention-seeking, a shrug and a good pulse can go a long way.

(This review was originally published on No Ripcord...)

Monday, March 21, 2011

Smoke Ring For My Halo - Kurt Vile

Smoke Ring For My Halo

Kurt Vile
Matador Records.

SCQ Rating: 75%

When word spread last spring that Matador was giving away Square Shells free for the price of an email address, I nearly let the occasion pass me by. His work with The War On Drugs notwithstanding, Vile’s solo output had always seemed entrenched with too much hype for a lone musician with hazy production values. And although I think that same critical praise has been heaped rather unrealistically upon Smoke Ring For My Halo, there's no denying Vile's ability to write sleeper songs that seep into the blogosphere's consciousness. After all, one of Square Shells' songs – ‘I Wanted Everything’ – gradually became an SCQ favourite.

Vile threatens to pull a similar feat on a few cuts here, using the same ramshackle approach – lo-fi strums, indolent lyrics – to foggier effect. So foggy in fact that Vile’s better songs are often sidelined by lyrical pursuits struggling to find direction: he doesn’t want to work but he doesn’t want to sit around (‘Peeping Tomboy’), he wants to sing at the top of his lungs… for fun (‘On Tour’). As assuredly as Vile’s failure to launch any kind of narrative results in a persistently transient vibe, it's hard to ignore how well his stream of consciousness tirades suit the album’s lush laziness.

It’s a vicious circle when Vile’s hypnotic songwriting only flourishes through cringe-worthy lyrical vices but, bellyaching aside, Smoke Ring For My Halo has staying-power. Each song possesses subtle turns – intricate chord changes, otherworldly auxiliary percussion -- that forms familiar bonds with its listener. Repetition plays its part in that heightened acquaintance, with both Vile’s lyrics and strums spiraling into blurry codas by the midway point of ‘Society Is My Friend’ and ‘Jesus Fever’, but that's part of the record's comfort-factor.

Fresh production keeps all of these bed-sick sentiments aglow with a rainy day feel, from the watery disposition of opener ‘Baby’s Arms’ to the electric dissonance lurking behind ‘Ghost Town’. If Smoke Ring For My Halo sounds a bit one-note on paper, it’s gloriously so on the heels of Vile’s production, which can transform a casual listener, susceptible to one or two tracks, into a fan who listens in front-to-back. Hell, it just happened to me. Again.

Starting As People EP - Giant Hand

Starting As People

Giant Hand
Empty Room Records.

SCQ Rating: 70%

Kirk Ramsey has long been a word-of-mouth favourite in his hometown of Ottawa, Ontario, and thankfully it looks as though the voices are beginning to shout. Sharing a few of the precious tenets that helped Conor Oberst garner a devoted following, Giant Hand subsists on acoustic ruminations and Ramsey’s warbled vocals. The comparison only goes so far; Starting As People may lack the auteurship that reflected so much ambition in Oberst’s Bright Eyes project but it certainly echoes the heartfelt confessionals that few musicians can pull off at their most naked.

But that’s Ramsey’s gift and he knows it; Starting As People stands firmly in his backward-looking catharsis, usually quite raw with emotional urgency. On ‘Starting As People II’, this results in a series of one-off memories and provincial keepsakes made seamless by a softly rollicking momentum, allowing Ramsey to catch us up over the markers of a map. Following numbers attain a similarly latent impetus but fetch greater reach thanks to Rolf Klausener (of The Acorn), whose production sets Ramsey’s quirks in beds of lovely folk. Without the dulled ambience that soothes ‘Bones Are My Home’ or a steady percussion behind ‘Another Step Down’, Starting As People would putter the tight perimeter of Giant Hand’s template from beginning to end. And inasmuch evident from the likes of ‘Solemn Little Row’ – a desolate closing track of Ramsey alone with his guitar – his anguish becomes too tedious, his warble too incessantly one-note, for anyone but the most ardent fan to dig into.

For someone who began teaching himself guitar a mere year before Giant Hand was born, Ramsey’s songwriting grows increasingly accomplished with each release. Until he expands his limited playbook to cover varied moods and genre devices, however, Giant Hand's wise to stick with the EP format.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Seventh Heaven EP - Pale Sketcher

Seventh Heaven EP

Pale Sketcher
Ghostly International.

SCQ Rating: 82%

While it’s true that few artists revered in the metal scene are as restless as Godflesh/Jesu/Pale Sketcher creator Justin Broadrick, his every release has committed to whatever inventive turn was at hand. In that respect, Broadrick’s evolution can be largely assessed from the opening track on each release; as surely as the title track from Lifeline EP announced a more nuanced electronic undercoating for Jesu’s post-rock, ‘Don’t Dream It’ from Pale Sketcher’s 2010 debut provided a marked synergy between his sludgy past and forward-looking aesthetic sheen. All the same, none of Broadrick’s work under the incestuous Jesu/Pale Sketcher umbrella has surprised fans beyond careful steps moving closer or farther from his raw beginnings.

So it’s well-worth noting that the first milliseconds of Seventh Heaven EP tear our smug expectations to the ground and bury them in heated, beat-laden loops worthy of The Field at his most gutteral. Over its pounding, intricate five minutes of industrial house, ‘Seventh Heaven’ breaks the lineage Broadrick’s Pale Sketcher moniker has shared – in tracklisting as well as sonic terrain – with the Jesu catalog, and develops a complex human heart as the EP unfurls. Eventually we’re subjected to 4/4 beats under sun-drenched drone (on ‘Resonanz Therapie Musik’) and some laid-back guitar-based harmonics (with ‘Drag Your Feet’), but first: ‘The Rainy Season’’s move into dub-step’s tonal shades with Polaroid shots of Aphex Twin’s acid-tinged break-beats likely constitutes the best piece of music Broadrick’s done in years.

Broadrick’s dependability has often been his vice, seeing him churn out more EPs and side-projects than most fans can keep up with, but Seventh Heaven cleans the slate while revealing how transitional last year’s Pale Sketches Demixed really was. All of the puzzle pieces feel locked in now; this here’s a prime example of what’s possible when ideal musician meets ideal label.

Pale Sketcher - Seventh Heaven [Ghostly International] by frankyboy

Transistor Sister - Shotgun Jimmie

Transistor Sister

Shotgun Jimmie
You’ve Changed Records.

SCQ Rating: 77%

By the time ‘Suzy’ started, the second track off of Shotgun Jimmie’s new LP, I was already Google-mapping Riverport, Nova Scotia, if only to try and catch a glimpse of Confidence Lodge – a recording studio that has spawned two excellent East Coast records in as many months. First, it became the namesake of Jon McKiel’s recent (not to mention great) EP and, with Transistor Sister, the ‘Lodge has done it again. There’s something about the structure’s unadorned beige-ness, which crawls up a casual four stories and overlooks a watery cove, that reasserts all of the summery, backwoods vibes complimented in the full-length’s jams. Or as Shotgun Jimmie puts it on ‘Stereo and the Stove’: “like climbing out of the attic, into the first real day of spring”. Yep, just like that.

Most of the LP’s sixteen tracks advocate Jimmie’s emphasis on good times, lining up breezy strummers (‘The Haze’), melodic rockers (‘King Of Kreuzberg’) and the odd segue that deserves closer attention (‘Paper Planes’). It almost goes without saying that the fractured but upbeat flow of Transistor Sister should appeal to any Pavement fan - I presume it was made by one - with the depth of Jimmie's storytelling conveyed through the weaving of deadpan humour and frazzled honesty. The sentiments communicated on ‘Bar’s Closed’ are appropriately half-drunken but, in his plainspoken way, still evocative of a post-bar utopia. Same goes for the Cars’ styled ‘Suzy’ and its high-school nostalgia, touching and laughable all at once.

His delivery and comedic streak may call to mind Stephen Malkmus but, like Transistor Sister’s lean thirty-minute runtime, Shotgun Jimmie eschews both pretension and abstract clutter. Unless, of course, you find a soundtrack for relaxing summer days and beer drinking too dimwitted; in which case, leave this record to the majority of us.

From Memory - Semiomime

From Memory

Ad Noiseam Records.

SCQ Rating: 79%

If there’s one thing I love more than a label staying true to its fundamental sound, it’s a label willing to take meditative steps outside of its bubble-of-influence. Semiomime’s From Memory, the new moniker and release courtesy of DJ Hidden’s Noel Wessels, is the appropriate vessel to move Ad Noiseam Records from its break-core stronghold out into an atmospheric, semi-lucid dream-world.

The notion of creating soundtracks to imaginary movies, while hardly novel in the electronic scene, gains some much-needed credibility on the shoulders of Wessels, who understands that soundtracks spend more time being executed than designed. Unlike many imaginary film soundtracks that wander into ambient limbo due to a murky, half-realized narrative, From Memory snowballs into drama and flexes its weight across electronic genres as if complimenting a shape-shifting visual component. (Seriously though, I hope one’s on the way…)

Instead of developing recurring themes, Semiomime crafts an ever-expanding universe that never looks back to re-evaluate itself. In doing so, a piece like ‘Parade’ becomes more of a distraction than part of From Memory’s continuous immersion. Growing ever stranger as it progresses, this seventy-four minute opus hangs in the balance of Wessels’ risk-taking, which, in the name of invention, mostly pays off. Although touching upon all of Ad Noiseam’s more aggressive roots, From Memory’s dreaminess – often anchored by soft bass, electronic keys and organic instrumentation – ultimately controls the record’s powerful nature.

The most curiously inviting tracks seem to crowd the album’s front-end – perhaps because the sonic narrative hasn’t undergone so many twists yet – with ‘Unveiled’ and ‘The Entrance’ casting insular vibes as listeners descend below street-level noise into Semiomime’s abyss. And as later highlights like ‘Pan’s Alcove’ and ‘Hendershot’ emerge, so too does the record’s learning-curve; this is no ordinary song-cycle, its rewards only matching the dedication put forth by its listeners. At once marginalized and inseparable from Ad Noiseam’s catalog, From Memory has the raw inspiration to become one of the label’s cult classics.

Friday, March 4, 2011

And the Running With Insanity EP - Alcoholic Faith Mission

And the Running With Insanity

Alcoholic Faith Mission
Paper Garden Records.

SCQ Rating: 78%

Alcoholic Faith Mission have jumped several indie-rock mantles over the past year and a half, predominantly through endless touring and that one-two blitzkrieg of releases, 421 Wythe Avenue and Let This Be the Last Night We Care. With the latter full-length and its career-defining climax (‘Honeydrip’), it was hard to imagine the band further equipping their bombast without running the risk of repeating themselves. So, it’s with relief and a wince of sadness to report that Alcoholic Faith Mission have side-stepped predictability once more, shying somewhat from their 2010 effort’s cathartic pulse in favour of patient songwriting that outlives all of life’s more immediate sensations.

There was a lot of blood, confusion and drunkenness at the root of Let This Be the Last Night We Care, which collectively made for a tumultuous listening-experience. Instead of trying to top that level of intensity, the sextet from Copenhagen has done something far more courageous: they’ve put aside one set of strengths to hone another. Compositionally, And the Running With Insanity EP is likely the band’s high-watermark. Eloquently paced and adventurous, each of these five songs explore melodic and vocal possibilities without straying from their core hooks. A breathless harmonica sets the title track’s rhythm with an airy vibe, which Thorben Seiero Jensen then flatters by crooning an almost jovial break-up song. With a flurry of hand-claps and backing vocals, 'Running With Insanity''s arrangement unfurls unlike anything from their back-catalog, confidently exploring detours grown organically from their craft.

Sometimes the band’s mid-tempo grooves evoke disparaging comparisons, as with how ‘Legacy’ stirs up a vocal line reminiscent of Iron and Wine or ‘When They Bleed’ grabs at a guitar hook used by The XX, but each passing familiarity reiterates how quickly this young group are evolving their heartfelt anthems. The last two tracks, ‘Drowning (In Myself)’ and ‘Dancing Fools’, are arguably the EP’s best, swooning on clever lyricism and instrumentation doused with rich harmonics – trademarks the band has nurtured from the beginning. Coming from a group that, just two years ago, couldn’t shake journalists’ tendency for Broken Social Scene comparisons (SCQ is likewise guilty of it), And the Running With Insanity EP is a quiet revelation, showing a willingness to dissect themselves and reconvene for the most hummable, if not bombastic, version of Alcoholic Faith Mission yet.

Scratches EP - Dog Day

Scratches EP

Dog Day
Noyes Records.

SCQ Rating: 75%

When Dog Day trekked through Eastern and Central Canada last summer, it was their first tour as a duo. After a ferocious set in Ottawa that August, Seth Smith admitted he and Nancy Urich had but a month to rebuild their live-presence, meaning that keyboards were suddenly a tossed-out luxury and Urich (who normally owns bass duties) needed to learn the drums pronto. The haphazard sense of urgency that brought their tour to fruition was radiantly displayed in their live-show dynamic, as Smith and Urich fed off each other with an insatiable punk-rock thirst.

With that memory in mind, Scratches EP sounds like a logical smattering of Dog Day’s gloominess, but pared down to its upbeat and sinister core. The gritty guitar of ‘Scratches’ immediately stands out as something dangerously sovereign from the warped carnival keys that gave Concentration its spooky veneer; at once bare but encouraged, its revved up chords next to Urich’s drum-kit spark some wonderful racket. Following in this vein, ‘Belle’ tears through anxious verses wound so tight, only the odd guitar spasm or repeated chorus hook can peer above the rush.

The blunt speed of Scratches‘ arrangements mirrors Dog Day’s live presence, be it in their quartet-days or their recent duo shows, and captures that raw energy at its most combustible. That said, it’s worth mentioning that none of these songs come very close to breaking the three-minute mark. Even ‘Give Me Light’, which slows things down to highlight Smith’s glum quiver, sticks by its steady chug as opposed to branching off into new ideas. How these songs are meant to compliment or contrast Dog Day’s upcoming full-length, no one yet knows, but let’s hope Scratches EP’s home-recorded merits don’t completely eclipse the murky, hard-fought path they’d haunted over previous albums.