Tuesday, May 31, 2011

New Age - The Albertans

New Age

The Albertans
Ernest Jenning Records Co.

SCQ Rating: 67%

There’s a bookish cutesiness pervading The Albertans’ debut full-length that I’m admittedly having trouble evaluating. Like any music-obsessive, Skeleton Crew Quarterly has a threshold when it comes to templates; in other words, the ability to predict exactly where a song’s going from the first few bars is not a superpower I’m after. The Albertans put me on guard because their peppy, girl/boy vocal-tradeoffs reflect the same playful sophistication that bands like Stars have been fashioning their posh pedestal on and frankly, with no offense intended towards Stars, we don’t really need a surplus of that expertly honed sugar-pop.

First offering ‘Jackpot’ made me realize that fact straightaway (perhaps because of some vocals that match the dramatic flair – not the timber – of Stars’ Torquil Campbell) but The Albertans’ songwriting thankfully offers more avenues than New Age’s polish suggests. ‘The Wake’ may start out almost identical to Margot and the Nuclear So-and-So’s ‘Hello Vagina’ but it carves out its own pulsating groove, one that can’t decide whether it should stay insular or be dropped in the middle of a house party. That indecision also benefits ‘Mila’, which starts out like an upbeat, paint-by-numbers rock jam before deviating into a heartfelt second suite that amplifies on the heels of some tough guitar and great backing vocals. At its early stages, The Albertans look poised to pull the rug out from under me with frilly arrangements that belie inspired songwriting.

That story arc never gets realized, due in part to The Albertans’ ill-advised slow tracks. Sparse arrangements on ‘May’ and ‘Mellow’ prove boring missteps, revealing the band’s limitations as songwriters and, alternately, their cunning know-how when it comes to dressing compositions up. Striking a topsy-turvy balance between deconstructing pop and flat-out adhering to its recent flavors, New Age tries its best to marry the idiosyncratic and catchy. Without any hint of a catharsis bubbling underneath however, the majority of these songs feel like hollow workouts.

Kogumaza - Kogumaza


Low Point Records.

SCQ Rating: 70%

The first thing to strike me about Kogumaza’s self-titled record is how much it resembles Mogwai at their cagey, metal-loving best. By adorning their guitars with a serviceable distortion and forbidding many of the frills that typically have license on instrumental, vaguely psychedelic releases, this Nottingham quartet takes their love of metal bands beyond the homage that post-rock bands like Mogwai often relegate to quick bridges.

That passion is readily communicated over Kogumaza’s two twenty-plus-minute pieces, each collecting four distinct but inseparable movements. The first slab of metal collects itself on the promise of a subtly tribal beat and bloodthirsty riff (‘Cosmonaut’) before sedating into a groove over ‘Lowland Hundred’, ‘Bells’ and the near-ambient rumble of ‘Tensor Tympani’. The second longform collage of tracks assumes a similar trajectory: commanding, riff-oriented top end (‘Swang’) followed by a yearning core that explores melodic possibilities as opposed to a sustained shock-and-awe. Despite the electric bombast that opens these tracks, the heart of Kogumaza pumps on a desire to infiltrate the likes of classic-rock and prog-rock. And over the course of these seemingly sludgy compositions, Kogumaza shape-shifts between traditional Black Sabbath chugging and a progressive approach leaning closer to a working-class version of Explosions In the Sky, all the while avoiding the former band’s intensity and the latter band’s vulnerability.

Make no mistake: these are massive jams, chocked full of feedback and momentum, but what makes Kogumaza so difficult to classify boils down to its lack of testosterone. With a seamless flow and progressive template begging for crossover relevance, the record defiantly spirals its raw metal urges between contemplative and quixotic aural landscapes, thereby allowing the record to sit in the background and merely exist. Sometimes these moments in stasis re-freshen their sound, other times they risk growing stale; luckily for us, the self-titled affair finds the band rarely settling on an idea for long.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Was I the Wave? - Miracle Fortress

Was I the Wave?

Miracle Fortress
Secret City Records.

SCQ Rating: 88%

It was an especially rainy day in Montreal when Was I the Wave? hit store shelves, although I doubt Graham Van Pelt felt a drop of it. The Montreal-via-Stratford musician is known for his reclusive ways – preferring to hide out in hotel-room corners, writing songs – but one can only assume that many of these new songs were written with just such drizzly weather in mind. His follow-up to 2007’s Polaris nominated Five Roses literally soaks in Miracle Fortress’ new electro-pop affinity, where percolating bass lines and synthesizers generate a powerful whirlpool of tight hooks and liquid-slick production.

Even by the close of two-minute opener ‘Awe’, which establishes Van Pelt’s electronic palette with a stationary coolness, there’s no denying Was I the Wave?’s “departure record” status. Indie-rock fans – particularly those who loved his debut – might call that first instrumental a non-track but they’ve a rather wearisome road ahead of them; Miracle Fortress features no less than four of these experiments in sound, all of them weightless and warped in nature. Fragmented though they may be, their inclusion on record ties a shimmering ribbon over Van Pelt’s transformation as a songwriter while, yes, quieting a release which, when disassembled, behaves more like an EP.

Of course, these amorphous instrumentals are mere seedlings that made expansive main-events like ‘Raw Spectacle’ possible. That single’s emotionally engorged chorus and elastic-snapping beats erupt over the record’s synth foundation like a mountain rising up from the surf. Van Pelt pulls that switch-up repeatedly, placing miniscule segues and towering songs next to one another. Giving these massive electro-pop concoctions some linear pull is Van Pelt’s sequencing, which devises a gradual thaw from Was I the Wave?’s cool beginnings to its comparatively cozy finish. These opposing temperatures offset each other without either half getting an inferiority complex; somehow the forbidding, tundra-like synth-layers of ‘Tracers’ remain just as catchy and enveloping as the breezier guitar-anchored ‘Everything Works’ of the latter half.

Van Pelt has already promised that Miracle Fortress will insist on exploring new sonic paths in order to survive, meaning that his electro-pop interests may already be subsiding. Even so, I suppose it says something about Was I the Wave?’s playability that I’m completely fine with that. In less than forty minutes, Miracle Fortress has laid down an all-encompassing landmark of adventurous and sleek songwriting. In this case, no sequel is necessary.

Miracle Fortress - Raw Spectacle by Le parallèle

Hope Dies Last - Winterlight

Hope Dies Last

n5MD Records.

SCQ Rating: 72%

n5MD enthusiasts have had their eye on Tim Ingham, aka Winterlight, for quite some time. Having first promised great things with Summer Interlude (under the name Lightsway and for the always uncertain Distant Noise Records) and a handful of remixes for n5MD artists, Ingham caught Skeleton Crew Quarterly’s attention last year when he reworked ‘Every Sunday’ for Bitcrush’s excellent remix album From Arcs To Embers. A slow-building mood-piece of understated synth-work, ‘Every Sunday’ proved that Winterlight not only deserved a concrete place in the n5MD universe, but also possessed an impressive working relationship with Bitcrush’s Mike Cadoo.

The two artists reconvene for Hope Dies Last, Winterlight’s n5MD debut, with Cadoo offering some instrumental backing to Ingham’s shimmering electronic-shoegaze fusions. Just as the ominous haze of ‘A Sky Full of Clouds’ peaks, Ingham’s delicate keys cut through like sunrays that reveal how much space Hopes Dies Last occupies. The blackness of its cover-art may suggest a nihilistic emptiness but that couldn’t be further from the truth; if anything, that darkness merely suggests the emotional chasm Hope Dies Last represents, weightless and measureless. Over the following tracks, Winterlight leaps behind merrily upbeat shoegaze anthems (‘Between Joy’, ‘Nattvardsgasterna’) and still-life ambient meditations (‘Awake and Asleep’). The former group of songs feels indebted to Ulrich Schnauss, who first married the blurred rock of Ride and Slowdive to electronic compositions, but Winterlight takes these adrenaline rushes in a starry-eyed and liberated direction. Surprisingly, it’s the latter group of songs, accompanied by head-nod approved break-beats and romanticized synths, which come off as less syrupy. The washes of ambience on ‘Plattenbauten: Palast’ tend to compliment any given mood whereas ‘Line Of Flight’ gravitates toward trip-hop with an urbane groove perfect for night driving.

Despite such songwriting variety, Hope Dies Last exists on a very limited sonic palette and begins to stretch longer than its seventy-minute run-time already demands. Which songs would I vote off in the defense of a more digestible album? Making those choices would admittedly be difficult but only because several tracks cover the same emotional territory with similar results. There’s a palpable sense of déjà vu on Hope Dies Last and while it’s still a worthy full-length debut, a reduced tracklisting would’ve given more oomph to its many dramatic turns.

Pedals - Rival Schools


Rival Schools
Photo Finish Records.

SCQ Rating: 83%

On the cusp of May 2010, Spinner introduced me to a wicked little record called An Open Letter To the Scene by one Walter Schreifels. Its ten songs revolved around typical songwriter fare and traditional instrumentation yet there was no questioning Schreifels’ reserved charisma. Relaxed as it was, An Open Letter To the Scene was undoubtedly crafted by a persona that had lived a few rock and roll lives. Upon reading a few band-names that hovered around his, Gorilla Biscuits may have stood out as the most humorous but I really should’ve kept my eye on Rival Schools.

How serendipitous then, that on the cusp of the following May, my random Spinner search fell upon that same voice? Only this time Schreifels sounded bolder, surrounded by his Rival Schools band-mates – not to mention a lot of 90s aggression – for the first time in a decade. If you happened to miss United By Fate, the band’s debut and a pillar of post-hardcore love, don’t worry: Pedals doesn’t only pick up where that debut left off, it delivers precisely the same glow that Emo was feeling around the turn of the millennium.

Opener ‘Wring It Out’ clears the air appropriately, with Schreifels reflecting on life lessons learned while his band punches out deep riffs. Truthfully, the whole disc displays such a knack for memorable hooks and choruses that I can only point out highlights: ‘Eyes Wide Open’ veers ferociously toward the band’s hard-core roots but shares the same cathartic breakdown that ballads like ‘Racing To Red Lights’ and ‘Small Doses’ defend. The band’s never short on testosterone, firing on all cylinders over sharp-cutting tracks like ‘Shot After Shot’, but the heart of Pedals always seems to backtrack toward more affecting, personal material.

This record begs the difficult task of distinguishing what’s salvageable from emo and post-hardcore here in 2011, what really separates them at all. Because, inevitably, Pedals marries the two subgenres so convincingly, you’ll be willing to forget all of the emo travesties of the past decade. Rival Schools have picked up right where they left off, offering ten great reasons to rejoin a movement before it went spectacularly off the rails.

Wring It Out - Rival Schools by Photo Finish Records

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Street Halo EP - Burial

Street Halo EP

Hyperdub Records.

SCQ Rating: 84%

When Untrue established dubstep as a genuine electronic movement in the fall of 2007, nobody could comprehend what Burial had brought to the table. Its comparisons to Boards Of Canada weren’t based on any musical similarities but moreso how Untrue paralleled an album like Music Has the Right to Children’s ability to infiltrate a genre with something entirely foreign and exciting. By that measure, the general consensus amid indie-minded music-lovers was that dubstep would either round itself into a palpable sub-genre or fizzle as a trend.

Shit ended up going mainstream and Burial’s return, four years after his inventive sophomore, teases a few seemingly important questions about Burial’s duty as proprietor and whether he’ll deride dubstep or up the ante. Street Halo EP wisely evades that nonsense, thanks to a sudden release strategy and its hype-settling format choice. If there’s a statement decodable through this three-song EP, it’s that Burial remains in an isolated league of his own. Familiar pillars to Untrue’s template have stuck around: the insular bass bubbles from ‘Raver’ drop in on ‘Street Halo’, the block-chop beats branch out indiscriminately and breathy vocals are (no surprise) littered all over.

Yet Street Halo EP does offer a notable shift from previous Burial efforts by yearning for more spacious arrangements. Both of the club-ready tracks as well as the slow-burner ‘NYC’ encompass refined dubstep atmospheres that span well over six minutes, which works well given Burial’s less confrontational approach this time around. Subdued though it may be by comparison, Street Halo EP hides a sinister bite that’ll keep these tracks on devious rotation. In fact, with its easy digestibility, early listens may have you declaring the sensual head-candy of ‘Stolen Dog’ or the fog-tinged beauty of ‘NYC’ as instant classics. Keep listening; this EP doesn’t aim to change the nature of dubstep but it does remind us what’s so enigmatic and alluring about the verified style. Essentially, that's Burial.

burial street halo EP by marrows blog

Companion - Gold Panda


Gold Panda
Ghostly International.

SCQ Rating: 71%

Gold Panda’s pre-Lucky Shiner catalog was everything a nerdy collector could hope for in the digital age: prolific but teasing, under the radar but hyped in all of the right corners. For those of you who, like me, wish to back-peddle to the limited-run beginnings of Gold Panda’s quick evolution, look to Companion for a one-stop fix. Gathering three of the beat-maker’s 2009 EPs onto a single disc package, Ghostly’s offering doesn’t simply retread the past for new (or less resourceful) listeners. Instead, its cut-and-paste job creates a bizarro full-length, one that unintentionally fulfills the EPs’ intangible quality that routinely kept us wanting more.

By confidently re-sequencing the tracks to serve the purpose of a longplayer, Ghostly has created some daring intersections for Gold Panda’s burgeoning craft. Coupling the fat electro samples of ‘Long Vacation’ with the refined loops of ‘Lonely Owl’ might’ve looked like a poor decision on paper but the tracks trip into one another as if Gold Panda had a sudden change of heart during a DJ set. That same impulsive feeling validates more subtle switch-ups, like where ‘Mayuri’ hops ahead of ‘Long Vacation’ (presumably because the former sounds so much better next to ‘Back Home’).

These sequencing tune-ups render the compilation less blocky, like how ‘Like Totally’ provides an air to the melancholic ‘Fifth Ave’ as if it has always been there, although one could argue Ghostly could’ve tinkered even more with the flow. The one release I would’ve preferred split up – the Before EP – remains curiously intact, meaning its meandering moments again group together as opposed to being redirected to more beneficial areas. Would spreading Gold Panda’s few mediocre tracks around make Companion more inviting, I’m not sure, but keeping the ho-hum experimentation behind ‘Triangle Cloud’ next to ‘Win-San Western’’s stuttering drum-and-bass kind of weakens the album’s back-end. That said, Ghostly rectifies the situation right away by using the early-classic ‘Police’ as a surprise-closing track.

Contrasting the painstakingly detailed bouts of bliss that Lucky Shiner dealt in, Companion lives without consequence, like a chain of songs largely unconcerned with any overarching expectation. The sequencing’s slapdash appeal fits Gold Panda’s ethos well, which might be the key reason Companion works as a never-was full-length.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Gold In the Shadow - William Fitzsimmons

Gold In the Shadow

William Fitzsimmons
Nettwerk Records.

SCQ Rating: 74%

This shit’s bound to be sold in Starbucks soon, if it isn’t already on the racks. I don’t like being so prophetic with regards to William Fitzsimmons’ burgeoning music career but the whole package – the whispery vocals, the pleasant use of electronic beats, even the goddamned cover-art – belongs to a template designed for mass consumption. Take a pinch of Iron & Wine’s intimacy, a morsel of Damien Rice’s desolate drama and a slice of David Gray’s production circa White Ladder; the resulting concoction would feel stripped from each of these artists if Fitzsimmons failed to own these songs the way he does. After all, beneath the stylistic turns in which these songs veer to appeal to caffeinated cross-marketing scouts, Gold In the Shadow showcases solid, mostly engaging songwriting that only Fitzsimmons can take credit for.

Ushered in on probably the record’s most honest, vulnerable note, ‘The Tide Pulls From the Moon’ yearns for connection with a lush backing of piano, bass, drums and woozy pedal steel. Its full-blooded ensemble caters to Fitzsimmons’ smooth voice instead of challenging it and builds steam over the sappy but satisfying ‘Beautiful Girl’ and the upbeat ‘The Winter From Her Leaving’. Yes, many of these songs confront mental illness (the songwriter’s a psychotherapist by day) but they also reside in the afterglow of the other side, of having survived one’s demons. Fans won’t like hearing that; Gold In the Shadow is a tuneful breather from Fitzsimmons’ emotionally exhausting back-catalog and a step away from the self-loathing most listeners bank on. As mournful as they are brisk, these early tracks merely foreshadow a songwriter who’s clearly restless for a larger audience; it’s what comes next that might just grant his wishes.

The couplet smack-dab in the album’s middle looks toward crisp electronics as a vehicle for Fitzsimmons’ coming-of-age, and it largely does the trick. Subtle atmospherics and computerized bass match perfectly to the airy guitar in ‘Fade and Then Return’, whereas beats and female backing vocals take proceedings a bit closer to pop in ‘Psychasthenia’. There’s no question that the fight over William Fitzsimmons’ creative path rests between that couplet and the Frou Frou-indebted ‘Let You Break’ but it’s hard to validate cries of “sell-out” when his songs settle in electro-assisted arrangements so well.

Moreover, Gold In the Shadow falls flat when it revisits the folky template for a final string of songs. None of these three slow-burners rise beyond ho-hum acoustic pleasantness, as ‘Wounded Knee’ and ‘Tied To Me’ would rather extend the tender vibes of previous tracks than assert or distinguish themselves. The lull also places more emphasis on Fitzsimmons’ who, despite many tries, isn’t much of a soul singer. True to its “other side” narratives, Gold In the Shadow marks a crossroads for Fitzsimmons’ artistry. And while embracing light electronics may damn his claustrophobic integrity, those experiments fare alongside the best on this release.

Entertainment Ordinaire - J.J. Ipsen and the Paper Crown

Entertainment Ordinaire

J.J. Ipsen and the Paper Crown
Label Fantastic Records.

SCQ Rating: 76%

There’s always an excitement about falling in with a new crowd. You’re still feeling out the personalities, relations and mindsets of all parties involved while gauging whether any of them might rub off in a complimentary way. That’s largely how I’ve approached J.J. Ipsen and the Paper Crown’s new full-length; I don’t know any of these musicians, their label or their intentions, and all of this has helped me approach Entertainment Ordinaire with a casual curiosity.

I mention this disconnect not only in light of the many Canadian bands (re: supergroups) who trade musicians at an incestuous rate but because, in the absence of all expectations, I’ve warmed up to Entertainment Ordinaire with an almost grassroots-styled patience. Lord knows why it took me so long; ‘Basement Pleasure Domes’ immediately lays out the group’s lead touchstone, Wilco (circa Summerteeth and A Ghost Is Born), via their electric stomp and chicken-choking guitar leads. Among these playful Beatles-esque transitions and frantic solos, however, exists a laidback cool, a smooth musicianship, which hands any homage back to Ipsen and Co.’s creative license. So many melodic, mid-tempo jams – even ones as silkily shape-shifting as these – risk stretching listeners’ attention spans but they butter-up Ipsen’s easy croon in a way that resembles a perfect hybrid between Ron Sexsmith and Gord Downie. And it’s that passive confidence that converts leisurely rock tunes like ‘Good To Be Me’ and ‘Crossword Puzzle Riddles’ into lounge-y pillars of a lived-in Sunday morning coffee collection. The romantic lilt pervading ‘Ancient Dictionary’ and ‘April & May’ lends well to this sort of listening environment, as does the reflective swoon of ‘Spangled Stars’.

But a solid mood-piece, Entertainment Ordinaire isn’t. While Ipsen and the Paper Crown don’t shy from eccentricities that might divide their audience, they at least commit to every decision. One would think ‘DaDaDa’, with its obvious singalong hooks, should be capitalizing on laziness but instead it’s a well-constructed chapter that never sabotages the album’s flow by getting too fluffy. By that same measure, the saloon-esque jaunt of ‘Hey Hairdo’ oversteps its intentions and interrupts the latter half’s earnest mood.

J.J. Ipsen and the Paper Crown cover a lot of ground with this full-length, jumbling their introspective moments in with a lot of quirky, eclectic performances. It’s a bit of an onion, the way its layers have slowly worked me over and dug under my skin. Like the cat painting adorning its cover, Entertainment Ordinaire weaves a precious narrative but one thankfully reinforced by tight musicianship and lovely songs.

Passive Aggressive: Singles 2002-2010 - The Radio Dept

Passive Aggressive: Singles 2002-2010

The Radio Dept.
Labrador Records.

SCQ Rating: 73%

There’s only one write-up featured within the luxurious, photo-packed liner pages of The Radio Dept’s first compilation but, as long as its insights belong to Johan Angergard, one write-up is all we need. Well-utilized musician and founder of Labrador Records, Angergard lays his complicated history with the band on the table: “There’s been fights and threats regarding contracts, they’ve cancelled more interviews than all the other bands I’ve worked with altogether, they are unworldly time optimists (they can miss a deadline by three years), they’ve demanded – and received – so much advances that we haven’t been able to pay our bills, I’ve had to bribe them with drugs to persuade them to talk to selected parts of the press, they’ve been so soundly pissed off when a colour of their artwork didn’t turn out exactly the shade they intended… etc… the story goes on.”

Naturally, Angergard goes on to announce that The Radio Dept’s music – whenever it actually arrives – makes the whole list of frustrations worthwhile. Still, as someone who purchased this 2CD release for the sole purpose of comprehending what all of The Radio Dept’s hype is about, I couldn’t help but find Angergard’s whole situation a bit ridiculous. I mean, seriously - who do these guys think they are? Of course, I already had a pretty good idea, having strained to hear Clinging To a Scheme as anything more than a mediocre record; one too careful and self-contained to ever catch its listeners off-guard. But I was virtually alone in my stance on The Radio Dept, those critical darlings, and struggled to understand how any trio so tepid in musical output could get away with such an uncompromising business sense.

Looking back, I was listening with the wrong expectations, the wrong ears. I was listening for dynamics that a posse of weathered music critics could nod appreciatively to, for a songwriting voice that in any way felt unique. Truth is, this music should best be judged within the confines of Angergard’s vent-session, in that The Radio Dept’s great strengths are their fine attention to detail and the paranoid-to-the-point-of-delusional way in which their protectiveness keeps these songs so clean and untarnished. There’s little point in differentiating between songs and their specific draws, as each slice of indie-pop flutters between gauzy textures, crisp electronics and disconnected vocals. Fittingly, the first disc of A sides doesn’t showcase a serious leap in quality from the latter disc of B sides; further proof of The Radio Dept’s painstaking efforts to find harmonic, tuneful equilibrium at every turn.

Even in Angergard’s most unnerved reflections it’s clear that The Radio Dept are embracing not just a collection of their singles which, combined, look prolific, but a combative legacy as well. In a small but crucial pond like Labrador Records or the Swedish music scene at large, such a legacy may pull its weight. For those of us who view The Radio Dept as a satisfactory band to spend an hour with, however, Passive Aggressive earns its humble keep as the band’s most dependable and generous offering.