Thursday, June 30, 2011

With 2011 Half Finished...

Normally my reaction to a Canada Post strike would be one of serious inconvenience, given how Skeleton Crew Quarterly receives a few shipments of physical product to review each week. However, regular readers may be unsurprised to read that SCQ is somewhat relieved by that brief nation-wide strike, as it has afforded this website a chance to catch up on what has been a slow year productivity-wise. A few reasons can readily explain SCQ’s reduction of content (by nearly 50% in 2011 so far), including regular contributions to another music criticism site, increased work hours and a renewed focus on creative writing. Collectively, these worthy distractions steal hours from days traditionally held for SCQ-writing and yes that sits uncomfortably with me.

Since a weekly percentage of my writing has been featured on other platforms, I thought this occasion might warrant a peak at some of those reviews. The vast majority of my contributions at Coke Machine Glow have been track-reviews, which Skeleton Crew Quarterly doesn’t really indulge in, but below I’ve included two album reviews written recently.

As far as the creative writing is concerned, I’ve become entrenched in my first poetry collection in nearly two years. When writing about music has dominated your free time for nearly three years, it’s difficult to ignore a fruitful, prolific period of honest writing that stands on its own - independent of bands, labels, the blogosphere, whatever. I’m aware of the risk; that by dedicating more time to those creative pursuits than I am to SCQ, I’m choosing a non-existent readership over a somewhat established one. Obviously it’s difficult to make peace with that.

Despite multiple, ongoing changes that 2011 has set down, Skeleton Crew Quarterly will continue to separate the best recordings it comes across and review them thoroughly. We're still accepting and listening to promos for as many hours as possible each day. Hopefully, as commitments settle into patterns, SCQ will be able to take up some of the opportunities offered (interviews, press passes, expansive features and lord knows what else). But for now, I wanted to let everyone know the scoop and affirm that all is well here. Just a bit quieter than usual.

Thanks as always for reading,

Love SCQ.

The Only She Chapters - Prefuse 73 (CMG Review)

The Only She Chapters

Prefuse 73
Warp Records.

CMG Rating: 59%

Was it presumptuous of me to assume that the helmet-wearing voyager on the cover of Everything She Touched Turned Ampexian (2009) was no taller than an inch in stature? I’d never considered otherwise, given how that record’s epic journey was spliced together from miniscule movements, many of them less than a minute in length. Fans called it prog-ish but in reality Prefuse 73, aka Guillermo Scott Herren, had accomplished far more than mere genre-mashing; he’d manipulated notions of brevity and excess in a way that allowed his jam to continuously shape-shift and build steam. Above all that, Herren’s self-imposed restraints forced listeners to hear his full-length as a whole and engage themselves with each second for fear of otherwise feeling ripped off. “I’m always going to run into the opinion of, ‘I wish this would turn into a song and go somewhere,’” Herren told The AV Club in June 2009. “If I wanted the song to run longer than 30 seconds…the album would be crushed. It would be overkill.”

Herren’s words, although intended for his previous song-cycle, lean prophetically upon The Only She Chapters. Because in case the kaleidoscopic cover art and all-too-similar song titles didn’t suggest an introspective, labyrinthine mind-fuck, Herren’s beat-making carries an overwrought capacity for thousands of sonic trinkets, swelling and chafing one another. To my surprise, the fact that these stacked and congealing layers all but obliterate Prefuse 73’s flair for progressive hip-hop is almost easy to make peace with, in part because we’re left with so few familiar scraps to champion. In the absence of those trademarks The Only She Chapters feels desolate, but remember: the avid collaborator behind such acts as Savath y Savalas, Piano Overlord, and Diamond Watch Wrists has gone gloriously off-map before. A willingness to blindly trust Prefuse 73’s instincts has proven a passport to imaginative aural playgrounds in the past, but here it’s hard to deny the dreaded suspicion that Herren might abandon us in the hollow of these overcooked productions.

Read the rest of the CMG review here.

Air Museum - Mountains (CMG Review)

Air Museum

Thrill Jockey Records.

CMG Rating: 77%

I tried to sell my copy of Choral (2009) not three months after I’d purchased it, which should be an indicator of how little I used to care about Mountains. I’d tested out Choral in a myriad of ways: while daydreaming on my balcony; during walks through my Greek-flavored Toronto neighborhood; and glancing indiscriminately from city-bus windows at the world on its way to work. These experiences hinted at a promise that, sort of like Mountains’ pear-shaped compositions, failed to blossom the way I’d hoped. If you’re familiar with the record, you can probably namedrop the all-too-short harmonics piece that could’ve explored an hour’s worth of ambient ear-candy, or the nine-minute zone-out which morphs into a mesmerizing guitar coda only seconds before fade-out. So hesitantly stationary were these structures that it was almost as if Koen Holtkamp and Brendon Anderegg had spent days tweaking knobs and honing textures, if only to improvise on the actual compositions.

No one really bothered with this critique upon Choral‘s release—I get it; demanding structure on an ambient record can equate to missing the point—but instead fascinated over Mountains’ mystical classification. The duo’s seamless merger of acoustic instrumentation and pastoral electronics lay at the epicenter of the record’s appeal, yet for all of Air Museum‘s ideological divides—as their first LP recorded without relying on computers, and their first recorded in a studio—that nitty-gritty discourse hasn’t been disrupted in the least. Is it interesting that Holtkamp and Anderegg customized their studio space in a way that freed their material from computer-processing? Of course—it shows a steadfast refusal to repeat themselves. But holy shit, should the greater emphasis of the duo’s reorganization not be that Mountains sounds completely different? After all, a catalog of careful nuances (however accolade-worthy) rarely affords the sort of knee-jerk reaction “Thousand Square” gets on first listen, with its throbbing modular synths percolating an alien melody.

Read the rest of the CMG review here.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Diaper Island - Chad VanGaalen

Diaper Island

Chad VanGaalen
Flemish Eye Records.

SCQ Rating: 78%

Putting your finger precisely on Chad VanGaalen’s M.O. is nearly impossible, even if his various excursions (be it under his Black Mold or birth name oeuvre) share some common lineage to DIY-styled noise. On first glance, Diaper Island has the cohesive sensibilities of a songwriter who has finally taken up roots in a certain sonic domain but that would be too easy. No, this here release is but the first in a handful of forthcoming VanGaalen LPs, all grappling at different sound-environments and songwriting approaches. Should we expect any less from a man who prefers to spend his days locked away in his Calgary-based studio, jotting down and exploring the constant influx of ideas gifted to him?

VanGaalen’s first byproduct of this new organizational method, which seeks not to distil his eccentricities so much as group them into natural camps, is Diaper Island; a front-to-back rock record which spends its time courting semi-tuned Sonic Youth progressions and soulful folk balladeering. The record’s first half marries these songwriting poles best, given how the relentless melody undercutting ‘Burning Photographs’ shares the same starved emotion that basks unblemished on the acoustic ‘Sara’. Haunting but technically cerebral as well, VanGaalen intuitively tightropes between the ugly and lovely, tackling psych-addled rock riffs on ‘Blonde Hash‘ and dropping off into a transcendent ambient drag with ‘Peace On the Rise’.

More impressive than his multitracked vocals, which resonate with a choral-like depth over lackadaisical tracks like ‘Heavy Stones’ and ‘Wandering Spirits’, is VanGaalen’s chameleon-esque guitar-playing, which fully asserts itself over Diaper Island’s second half. The sequencing of these lo-fi breakdowns (‘Can You Believe It!?’) and caterwauling jams (‘Freedom For a Policeman’) feels haphazard though, distracting listeners from the early half’s even-keeled flow. But that’s VanGaalen’s token take-it-or-leave-it moment; that left-of-center insistence that marks his every release with a challenging quirk to adapt to. As his most straightforward, Diaper Island safeguards its share of oddities, making it VanGaalen’s most enjoyable full-length yet.

Wit's End - Cass McCombs

Wit’s End

Cass McCombs
Domino Records.

SCQ Rating: 80%

The delicacy of Wit’s End requires its own set of beginners’ rules. Something this sedate, this seemingly ornery, needs full submission on the listener’s part or else it’ll slip with ease into the background. After playing it at low volume while surfing the web and nearly passing on it altogether, I can only offer the following advice to any future listeners: step into it without preconceptions or distractions and let the warm numbness of Wit’s End coil around you.

Compared with the rest of the album, opener ‘County Line’ almost has a swagger to it. And by swagger, I mean Cass McCombs sounds enlightened, relaxed, mindful but unbothered by Wit’s End’s looming demise. The remaining seven songs unfurl as stately, measured ruminations that repeatedly reflect Leonard Cohen’s fatalist streak (not to mention his knack for uncluttered folk arrangements). From the coffin-cramped soliloquy of ‘Buried Alive’ to the Elliott Smith tinged songwriting behind ‘Memory Stain’, McCombs proves himself a worthy heir to this semi-tragic vein of songwriting with writing that opens stubbornly but then latches onto your heart. McCombs never bullies himself too seriously; certain lyrics and flourishes tend to break through his mourning like rare rays of light through overcast, with ‘Hermit’s Cave’ and ‘The Lonely Doll’ committed largely to the silver linings of lamenting. And although the most defiantly downtrodden couplet lingers like a long shadow at the record’s close, Wit’s End remains a beautiful dirge.

Cass McCombs - The Lonely Doll by DominoRecordCo

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Wounded Beat - Mombi

The Wounded Beat

Own Records.

SCQ Rating: 82%

Rookie bands accept a gift and curse when finagling a well-known name to produce their debut; their record may be better off but the presence of so-and-so behind the soundboards ensures that all discourse will orbit the producer’s chair. And so I sit here, swooning by the lush intimacies of The Wounded Beat and trying to anchor my thoughts on anything but Keith Kenniff (Helios, Goldmund), the man supervising this engrossing song-cycle. (Oh yeah, and Taylor Deupree mastered it. Damn, that's good company.)

Luckily, the eight songs that comprise The Wounded Beat speak confidently on their own merits and wave the tendency to play fly-on-the-studio-wall with Keith Kenniff. Yes, the brainchild of Helios thrives in accentuating the shadowed acoustics of duo Kael Smith and Matt Herron but his role mostly beautifies a stark and chilling songwriter album. With Smith on guitars, Herron on piano and both fully engaged in sampling and programming, The Wounded Beat merges folk’s backbone to transient atmospheres. ‘Cascade Cliffs (Looking Down)’ and ‘Glowing Beatdown’ dwell under barely lit streetlights, whispering soft confessions over drifting ambient clouds, whilst ‘Monsoon’ and ‘The Misunderstanding’ dial in comfortable four-by-four beats which coexist nicely with Mombi’s poignant, lyrical edge.

The Wounded Beat isn’t the sort of record Mombi will be able to recreate or repeat; it rewards patience at such a gentle rate, one thinks a simple change in sequencing might’ve pushed its focus over the brink of homogeny. In its current, fragile form, however, Mombi have woven something stubbornly handsome between the realms of bleakness and saturation. Never too hollowed out and never too dense, The Wounded Beat should provide a summer’s worth of bittersweet lilts for evening walks.

Mombi - The Wounded Beat by Mombisongs

Let Go - Jerry Granelli Trio

Let Go

Jerry Granelli Trio
Plunge Records.

SCQ Rating: 69%

A few months ago, Pianist Vijay Iyer referred to Esperanza Spalding – fresh off her “Best New Artist” Grammy win – as “jazz famous”. This notion that jazz artists aspire to a glass ceiling far lower in rank than that of pop music icons isn’t without merit; since 1959 – the so-called peak year for jazz – it has become tougher and tougher to point out any living jazz musician today who would be considered a household name. Not only is Jerry Granelli “jazz famous” as an elder statesman, he’s Canadian as well, making the lack of attention around his recent output all the more bewildering. Where last year’s 1313 marked Granelli’s solo debut as an experimental minimalist, Let Go finds him joined in improvisation by Simon Fisk (bass/cello) and Danny Oore (saxophones) to good effect.

‘Bones’ gets off to a particularly lumbering start, saxophone calling out and percussion stuttering along, but the arrangement eventually finds its footing along a creeping bass line and the trio’s framework is laid. Subsequent tracks confirm that initial impressions will playfully mislead: ‘Dango’ and ‘Leaving 1313’ build from bare instrumentation to satisfying interplay while ‘Solaria’ undergoes several movements (one featuring the welcome vocals of Mary Jane Lamond) before arriving at a rhythmic finale. It’s arguably the album’s highlight for its ambition alone, something that latter tracks (‘Under a Chinese Saloon’, 'A Chinese Saloon') rarely involve. At times, Let Go’s restraint almost sounds as though each of the performers was backing off, waiting for someone else to take the lead.

For a country that unabashedly pedestals the success of lite-jazz queen Diana Krall, it’s strange that Canada doesn’t offer any spotlight to interesting avant-garde projects like Granelli’s. Although his work on 1313 feels special for its insistence on solo drum excursions, Granelli’s better off in a trio where mournful sax and probing bass occasionally take the pressure off his percussive talents. Although occasionally meandering, Let Go is another dark-horse release for listeners willing to jump back into jazz’s carnal, organic appeal.

Monday, June 13, 2011

The Pattern Theory - The Pattern Theory

The Pattern Theory

The Pattern Theory
Valeot Records.

SCQ Rating: 81%

It’s easy to get pessimistic about post-rock. The genre’s prolific peak notwithstanding, post-rock has been subject to its share of droughts in which only acts like Explosions In the Sky and the Twilight Sad have bolstered a disillusioned fanbase. Even Sigur Ros, who crafted one of the best post-rock albums of the 90s, dropped that bitch mid-decade in favour of, well, whatever they’re up to now. Rarely has a musical movement been so perpetually devoid of progressive flair, which gives some credence to folks who accuse post-rock of drying up shortly after its quiet-LOUD high-watermarks (think Godspeed You Black Emperor, Mogwai, Tortoise). With only a handful of quality contributions appearing each year, it’s difficult to deny the powers of persuasion; maybe post-rock is but a series of peaks and valleys, wordless verses and crashing choruses.

Then, an oasis. It happens in the midst of every bleak revelation: a new band arrives with a new disc and suddenly post-rock has value again. Enter The Pattern Theory, a Berlin-based three-piece who over the course of eight sprawling tracks manage to remind me what’s so important about this frustrating musical style. Let ‘Pyramid Schemes’ do the talking; an opener whose vibrant trails of feedback sear in and out of the mix, as if measuring the square-footage of their sound while bass and percussion probe away. Suddenly guitars interlock with a pulsating beat and ride a groove that defies the grandeur-seeking typical of this style; The Pattern Theory seem more interested in playing with tempos and tones than shattering eardrums.

That isn’t what most post-rock fans would call “progressive” but there’s comfort in the trio’s mostly traditional approach. It’s their execution which differs, preferring spritely tempos undercut by xylophones, vibraphones, organs and synthesizers. Elastic progressions bend over warm xylophones on the busy ‘Chevrons’ while ‘Framed Fields’ takes the scenic route around nostalgic progressions and relaxed drumming. Sticking closely to their chosen palette, The Pattern Theory have crafted a self-titled debut that is almost cohesive to a fault, as differentiating these instrumentals initially proves difficult. But like any great post-rock record, The Pattern Theory deserves to be heard as a full-length so that its tracks can bleed like movements of the whole. It may not reinvigorate the genre to its second-coming but The Pattern Theory is a welcome reminder of post-rock’s raw potential.

Into the Hills - Racoon Bandit

Into the Hills

Racoon Bandit
Collagen Rock Records.

SCQ Rating: 73%

In terms of Canadian rock – that being rock music that, for one reason or another, hasn’t a hope in hell of catching fire south of the Canada/USA border – Sam Roberts and his PR army have perhaps the ideal footing. It seems as though every other summer begins with a new Sam Roberts record; one obsessed with mining that elusive summer hit for seasonal retreats and get-togethers, each bearing but a fraction of the shadow that has receded album by album. The Tragically Hip steadily declined along the same predictable template. But that’s the tradeoff when it comes to major labels; you achieve a new audience but one that recognizes art as commerce, one that prefers comforts (like, say, knowing their fave artist will release something new every other spring) over surprises. Thus, Sam Roberts becomes property of corporate rock hangouts – the stagnant classic rock stations and primetime peaks of the CBC – which filter his creative muse down to a rigid calendar of expectations. Keep in mind that all of this has happened well in advance of Fucked Up launching a “pop-up” record store at an art gallery last week, from midnight to 4am, to celebrate their new album. I can’t see many major label execs putting their necks out for an idea like that; and so their bloodletting continues.

Independent music fans show a sense of commitment that enables Fucked Up and their DIY colleagues’ cleverness, but they also rally around young bands with big hearts. What got me ranting in the first place – this Canadian rock sound – well, I can’t pinpoint what causes it. The Deep Dark Woods, Grey Kingdom, and Cuff the Duke have that sound. Racoon Bandit has it too, a jovial but sedate mood and rustic musicianship that reflects landscapes we Canadians know in our mind’s eye. No differently than how Sam Roberts tries to corner the Summer-Jam market, In the Hills tests its functionality as an easy-going drinking album. That is what summer’s for, right?

Anyway I’d pick Racoon Bandit’s full-length over Roberts’ Collider any season, in part because the Charlottetown-based quintet knows their station. Opening with the tender but throbbing couplet of ‘Wooly Toque’ and ‘Steel Rail’, Racoon Bandit show a knack for warm folk-rock arrangements that hide an anthemic bite; something that goes smoothly next to daydreamed campfires and docks at sunset. Full band workouts on the Americana-tinged ‘I’m On Fire’ and the creeping beauty of ‘Hard Drive’ reach for new pastures but the warm production begins to sedate as we cross onto In the Hills’ second side. ‘Katie Cruel’ and ‘Fix It’, the record’s obvious black-hole, briefly loses the plot, choosing instrumentally compelling ways of standing still when Racoon Bandit’s chief allure is momentum. It’s what draws the band reasonable comparisons to Arcade Fire and results in some of their best tunes (‘Silver Bullet', ‘Get Off’).

The lyrics, mood and scope of In the Hills hugs at the nature of being Canadian and I’ve no doubt Canadians will be hugging this record back. Despite a lax second half, In the Hills shows enough promise to secure some indie-appropriate loyalties and, with any luck, some exposure south of the border.