Wednesday, July 27, 2011
Extra Happy Ghost!!!
Saved By Radio/Saved By Vinyl Records.
SCQ Rating: 76%
As 2009 embraced the grey shapelessness of a dim November, I became invested in Extra Happy Ghost!!!’s one-man fantasy project. The EP was titled How the Beach Boys Sound To Those With No Feelings and its bipolar mood, its battered psychedelia, conspired to form a twisted mood that kept me company those dreary days. As its title suggested, songwriting Matthew Swann was after a particular type of gloom, something largely uncharted amid this generation’s influx of laptop-addled mopers. Swann wanted to lay all of his numbness, boredom and introverted inspirations on the table, backed by a stark assortment of lurching effects and negative space. Turns out Chad VanGaalen was also a fan of that EP's about-face, as he's joined forces with Extra Happy Ghost!!! for Modern Horses.
Now some of you are no doubt still reading for the sake of summing up Chad VanGaalen’s handiwork. Yes, the man from Yoko Eno Studio manages the dual task of finding an ideal sonic swamp for Swann to dwell in without, you know, having it sound like Women. But championing VanGaalen’s production ultimately proves complimentary to Extra Happy Ghost!!!, since Modern Horses mostly refines Swann’s established sound. Make no mistake: the smoother production still suspends us over chasm-esque depths without completely abandoning Extra Happy Ghost!!!’s lo-fi origins. But the focus here remains unequivocally on Swann’s disaffected songwriting, the same voice that toiled between styles so convincingly on How the Beach Boys Sound To Those With No Feelings.
Modern Horses not only finds Swann ironing out his EQ levels but fully indulging each songwriting whim as well. Gone are the fragmented hooks and experimental clouds of noise that would amble comfortably before dissolving a minute-and-a-half later; here Extra Happy Ghost!!!’s sneakiness doesn’t belie the bigger picture. Both ‘Mercy Mercy’ and ‘Fire On Fire’ showcase the rigidity of Swann’s riffs, not to mention the surrounding instrumentation that grows restless over time. Sometimes that edginess boils over into free-form noise (like the bleeding organs that blare over ‘Pitiful’); otherwise it curls into the melancholy groove of ‘Feed Wolves Luck’ like reverberations of a cocoon – safe and impenetrable. Modern Horses’ mesmeric qualities sustain it through pockets of self-abuse (namely the cabin-fever of ‘J23439’) and reward listeners whose idea of mood-music doesn’t hinge on expensive synthesizers. You'll be hard-pressed to find a more honest indie-rock record this year.
SCQ Rating: 79%
Some artists thrive on an uphill challenge; as if Night Gallery wasn’t enough of an evocative title, Displacer’s cover-art offers a display of constellations and star clusters dazzling just beyond our evening’s atmosphere. Without even a whimper heard from composer Michael Morton concerning his record’s context or inspiration, it’s been unanimously decided: Night Gallery will delve into and soundtrack the nocturnal spirit or die trying.
Luckily for us demanding electronic fans, Displacer doesn’t let glossy images and sleek titles do the talking. Instead, the Toronto-based producer enunciates the shifting moods of night through the parlance of IDM filtered with Tympanik’s reputably kinetic beat-work. Early highlight ‘Invisible’ loops serene ambience into a textured break-beat whilst ‘Radioactive’ lends a more progressive techno rhythm to those transient night vapors. Despite its propulsive demeanor, Night Gallery is most fascinating for its temperament, which soaks up the mystique of dusk without leaning on creepiness or paranoia. Its lovely attributes – as when ‘Orchid’ settles like a bass-heavy Four Tet track – interplay with Displacer’s bolder beats in a way that nods to both the anticipation and tranquility of darkness.
Displacer’s tightrope walk between muscle and gracefulness encounters the odd stumble – like the awkwardly late introduction of vocals in the record’s last quarter – but there’s value in an artist who doesn’t rest on their laurels. In a more successful turn, ‘Ice Cold’ turns to effect-drenched guitar in a bid to lionize the finale’s throbbing undulations. It works beautifully and proves that playing marvelously within the confines of IDM styled electronica is often better than trying to breach the subgenre’s limitations.
Sings Shenandoah and Other Popular Hits
Blue Fog Recordings.
SCQ Rating: 70%
When you grow an appreciation for an artist based on a handful of contributions to other people’s work, it seems like a discovery that can't disappoint. In the case of Frederick Squire, who’d collaborated within Shotgun & Jaybird, who’d sung on Mount Eerie’s Lost Wisdom and who’d stood out as Fred in Daniel, Fred and Julie, I admit that my appreciation for his countless drop-ins on friends’ records snowballed into hype for Frederick Squire Sings Shenandoah and Other Popular Hits. But hype’s the enemy to a full-length as humble and reserved as this one. What Shenandoah requires is anti-hype, the reservations upheld by a patient ear and, perhaps, a healing heart.
Once you’ve whetted your palette to its lone-man folk, these nine songs begin to reward our company with songwriting that’s gentle yet unshakable, arrangements both stubborn and fluid. Where ‘Lucky Number Seven’’s devastating narrative feeds off of sympathetic organ work, ‘All Things Past Serve To Guide You On Your Way’ ends on a choral of mournful vocals. These unexpected flourishes that interrupt Shenandoah’s acoustic-or-bust framework may arrive suddenly but they wisely bleed some slow-moving gusto from such austere arrangements. These unassuming highlights - of which we can add the bittersweet 'Peaceful Valley' - make good on Sings Shenandoah's less accessible stretches of loneliness but, the fact remains, this record wasn't made for summer BBQs or weekend hangouts. Squire's words and music are to be coveted like a love-letter to one's own company, almost by necessity; I doubt the album could find suitable oxygen without an intimate environment.
Although some songs build to an affecting gracefulness, Squire’s decision to close the disc with a live recording of a scant instrumental (‘Theme From a Small Towne Movie’) suggests an indifference to the gravitas he’s just laid down. Mixing heavy doses of sparseness with shrugged-off asides doesn’t make for a landmark release in traditional (re: minimal) folk. And while nobody claimed that Sings Shenandoah was aiming for such a title, Squire’s careful approach throughout the majority of this album often suggests otherwise.
Sunday, July 17, 2011
Summer operates like a volatile seesaw for me; from May through June, I’m excited about all of the season’s benefits – namely warm sun, longer evenings and the heightened chance of a good thunderstorm – but by July’s humid peak and early August, I’m already eager for auburn shades in the trees. So it’s sort of fitting that SCQ’s Summer Albums of 2011 feature arrives on the cusp of an impasse since each of these records feel tied to the warm weather only through circumstance. Best heard in the evening while watching a bottle sweat in your hands. Enjoy these titles and thanks for reading.
SCQ Rating: 81%
Two summers ago, Sonic Youth – with their matchless and storied history – began to lose the plot. For all of The Eternal’s lovely John Fahey cover-art and intellectual mind-traps posing as contextual support, the music itself often felt slight, pushing forward without discerning what the present moment meant – in hooks, verses, breakdowns, whatever. From the outward perspective of a music writer, The Eternal suggested that Sonic Youth’s period of tangible influence was slipping from active to retrospective, and forthcoming records would be met with unanimous lip-service but few ripples in the landscape of indie-rock.
Following that scattershot full-length of forlorn ideas and Sonic Youth trademarks, Thurston Moore’s third solo outing bears a lark of a title. These thoughts aren’t demolished; they’re actually quite similar to the grunge poetry Moore has written in Sonic Youth for the past few decades. Only, what propelled his visceral wordplay toward the violent, abstract and frenetic has been replaced by a lush intimacy that anchors on acoustic guitar and symphonic accents. Masterfully focused without sacrificing the bite or psychedelia of his band’s best work, Demolished Thoughts feels more like a guided meditation, seamless and humbly awe-inspiring.
The abstractions thankfully remain. Samara Lubelski’s violin and Moore’s plainspoken acoustic open with the decidedly delicate ‘Benediction’, something that sounds almost fluffy against Moore’s prior work. But it’s a quietly stirring song that leads us toward more fertile songwriting, like the woozy, harp-laden ‘Illuminine’ and the deep orchestral chasms of ‘Mina Loy’. And I don’t lead with those highlights simply because the likes of Lubelski and harpist Mary Lattimore convey loving inflections upon Moore’s six-string work (although yes, they fill out a single-minded ensemble alongside some synth-playing producer I’ve never heard of named Beck Hansen). I mention these songs, as well as the ferocious restraint of would-be rocker ‘Circulation’, because Moore owns them. Demolished Thoughts’ songwriting stands on its own two feet, even though many of its sonic avenues would’ve remained in the dark without this great supporting cast. In the cases of ‘Orchard Street’ and ‘Space’, it’s hard to ignore the impulse to declare this Thurston’s Astral Weeks; it’s that contemplative and layered, if rarely so spritely. If there’s any room left for veteran statement-records in the blogosphere, Demolished Thoughts will be remembered.
03 Circulation by Thurston Moore
The Errant Charm
Sub Pop Records.
SCQ Rating: 79%
Vetiver’s reputation as a folk-rock outfit is partially hammered out on the promise that each full-length will feature a dominant amount of unplugged, slow-moving grooves. That truth remains unwavering with The Errant Charm but it’s worthwhile to point out that such a reputation couldn’t blossom without the band responsible delving into these slow grooves with considerable panache. And that’s precisely what bandleader Andy Cabic saw to, wandering his city of San Francisco’s Richmond District with rough takes and edits of The Errant Charm playing in his ears. The end result is a finessed set of sun-kissed pop songs refined to mirage-like effect; blurs of ambience sprawl beneath ‘It’s Beyond Me’’s poignant raison d’etre while subdued keyboards add to the breezy Byrds-ish jangle of ‘Hard To Break’.
Unsurprisingly, The Errant Charm captures that summery vibe one desires for walking the downtown stretches on a hot afternoon. But defining Vetiver’s fifth LP is the band’s careful ear, which seeks not to milk a good idea dry while recognizing – seemingly from conception – how to keep a mid-tempo record like The Errant Charm from growing tired. Alongside the buoyant support of ‘Wonder Why’ and the druggy skitter of should-be hit ‘Can’t You Tell’, Vetiver artfully emphasizes the benefits of lackadaisical songwriting without drowning listeners in the aural cover-up of reverb and effects. By the time ‘Soft Glass’ closes with an Appalachian-sized stunner, The Errant Charm has morphed from a barbeque-ready FM soundtrack into something more conducive to a lazy afternoon by one’s lonesome. The prospect of such an event sounds better as we age – something I think Andy Cabic knows already.
Golden Haze EP
Captured Tracks Records.
SCQ Rating: 70%
Jack Tatum clearly isn’t the sort to sit on his hands long. Instead of basking in the afterglow of Gemini, his 2010 debut, Tatum issued the Golden Haze EP not six months later. Pretty impressive, considering the one-man band’s origins only stem as far back as late 2009.
This EP, compiled of a rare release and some b-sides, retains the songwriter’s attachment to the 80s zeitgeist – particularly the scene that saw Cocteau Twins and The Smiths rise into cult favourites – but quibbles less with Gemini’s retro limitations. Thin production sensibilities play their part over ‘Take Me In’ and ‘Your Rabbit Feet’ but Golden Haze’s highlights communicate the same vintage arrangements with a modernist’s sleekness. ‘Quiet Hours’ runs on that premium petrol, its drum-machine gears pronounced with an added flair, although it’s eclipsed by ‘Vultures Like Lovers’, which exists between the reverb-drenched staccato rhythms that melt guitar, beats and Tatum’s voice into a euphoric vapor that recalls Merriweather Post Pavilion era Animal Collective.
Unsurprisingly, Wild Nothing’s tying together of rejected one-offs and confident late additions doesn’t quite gel; in fact, Golden Haze EP doesn’t even manage to stabilize the polarizing changes in volume between the two groups. But none of that negates the casual rush of Tatum’s ear-catching melodies and grooves, which remain just as tight and satisfying on this EP as on Gemini. Wild Nothing was wise enough to unleash his debut on the cusp of summer, ensuring it would soundtrack many humid nights. For fans who arrived late to this songwriter: Golden Haze EP represents a second chance to do summer right.
Monday, July 11, 2011
SCQ Rating: 77%
Tim Hecker’s music shirks casual listeners for a number of reasons. Everything from his confrontational sonic approach to his records’ obsessive conceptual ties make the Montreal veteran the kind of artist most crossover, electro-pop enthusiasts would hold at arm’s length. Being a recent convert myself – thanks to the impeccably designed An Imaginary Country – I must admit that the lead-up to Ravedeath, 1972 actually forced me to abate all expectations. For one, the album’s based on a single day’s worth of recording. Secondly, that recording was focused almost entirely on an old, Icelandic church organ. Thirdly (and this may seem irrelevant), Hecker responded to a query about the meaning of the album’s title by stating “I have no idea”. None of these three facts independently illustrated the thought and tact typically reserved for an event on the scale of a new Tim Hecker full-length and, so, like I had years before, I held Ravedeath, 1972 at arm’s length.
Should’ve known better. Ravedeath, 1972 overcomes its monotony-flirting focus and careless origins by crafting sheer magic out of splintered sounds and whirling notes. Aiming to create more than a patient remixing of that single day’s worth of noodling, Hecker has forged another world unto itself; still prickly with unrest but gorgeous in his uncompromising methods. The palette, relying almost exclusively on digitized organ pieces, lends an increased sense of claustrophobia over Ravedeath, 1972’s three song-suites. The calm center of ‘In the Fog’ gives way to serrated feedback in its third act’ whilst ‘In the Air’ gradually eases into a subdued ambience as it progresses. Although doggedly stormy and agitated might sound par for the course when it comes to Tim Hecker, Ravedeath, 1972 represents perhaps Hecker’s best attempt at making chaos – deconstructed and compiled again – sound at peace with its processes. Few records have such dueling abilities, to both calm and overwhelm, but Hecker has done it again here with a complicated yet embraceable ambient record.
SCQ Rating: 74%
Kyp Harness’ Wikipedia page reads like the sort of nurtured reality only someone close to the artist could’ve constructed. Besides echoing much of the praise offered in the press release for Resurrection Gold, the anonymous tipster’s breadth of knowledge stretches back just prior to when Harness recorded a promising demo in 1987. Convincing hyperbole from The Toronto Star and The Moncton Transcript aside, it’s strange that Kyp Harness’ successes – as laid out over a twenty-five year period – don’t translate into any recognizable fan-base. With humble followings on his Last.fm and Facebook pages, Kyp Harness could just as easily be a novice musician, carving out his voice.
In no way am I proposing this argument as a means to dismiss Harness’ reputation; quite the opposite, I’m trying to bridge the enormous divide between grandstanding lip service and what appears to be virtual anonymity. Because Resurrection Gold deserves to be heard, whether it’s caressing the walls in Toronto’s legendary Horseshoe Tavern or blaring from a neighbour’s back deck this summer. Kyp Harness’ songs boast considerable mileage. Utilizing mid-tempo, bar-band workouts (‘Dragonfly Wing’, ‘Wandering Heart’) and tender folky introspection (‘Passenger’) to communicate his everyman muse, the Sarnia native churns out satisfying folk-rock with the effortless air of Honeycomb-era Frank Black.
Perhaps the limbo Harness’ material lives in – trapped between critical love and listener apathy – is the result of a songwriter stubbornly taking the hard road for so long. There's no gimmick to releasing records independently or playing shows as they arise, and Kyp’s steadfastness sticks some edge to these arrangements. Why the record’s arguable highlight, ‘As We Go Spinning Madly On’, hasn’t cracked radio waves yet, I can’t say, but Resurrection Gold should be a veteran spoke in Can-con’s salvation.
Wednesday, July 6, 2011
SCQ Rating: 73%
The idea of Kevin Patzelt, the man behind dreiskk, being publicized as the first of n5MD’s next-generation artists seemed dangerous to me, not because I’d ever heard the dreissk project before but because artists taking inspiration from label-mates of a previous era sounds akin to a label spinning its wheels. That's hardly the case, thankfully. Having played The Finding through a multitude of times now, I understand n5MD’s angle; Patzelt does tip his hat to a flurry of styles either conceived or impeccably mastered by his predecessors, only he footnotes these influences into an undercurrent beneath dreiskk’s own vision.
The restlessness at the root of The Finding, dreissk’s inability to settle on ambience or loose composition, makes the whole affair that much more satisfying. From ambient tracks that stand sturdily on their own (‘Beholden’) to structured environments that simmer, swell and rise (‘Unknown Discontent’), Patzelt crafts a cantankerous mood-piece of songs that needn’t be separated into skip-able tracks (but it’s a nice gesture nonetheless). Like Tim Hecker, the majority of these songs exist in a state of turmoil, some fighting for beauty, others basking in disorder. The stargazing quality of ‘Depart’ may recall M83 with its achingly lovely guitar floating over menacing and muddled riffs, whereas ‘To That Which Binds Me’ boils over into industrial hysterics, well-crafted enough to avoid sounding obnoxious but too chaotic to communicate much else.
Touching on both the dreamy and nightmarish, dreissk’s achievements remain ultimately technical; the bubbling details of ‘Emergence’ are the song’s highpoint, not the heavy-hitting live drums that hammer the point home. Bombastic moments such as these may keep The Finding from getting groggy but they also steer some stirring music into predictable, epic fanfare. And in repeated cases over this n5MD debut, Patzelt shows he’s better when avoiding that impulse.
Winter Chords EP
SCQ Rating: 76%
Hushed but loaded with emotion, Poler Bear’s output has all the merits of a good secret. Creeping upon words and frozen atmospheres barely uttered, songwriter Josh Robinson continues his quiet evolution on Winter Chords EP, a delectable offering that, in typically restrained fashion, seeks not to raise too much fuss about his acoustic laments.
Which is too bad; I mean, there’s something about Poler Bear’s prolific streak – three releases in two years – that strike the most underground, DIY-styled nerve Canada has to offer, and Robinson belongs on that bare-boned folk fringe. Besides stepping back from So Long Lonesome’s heightened field-recording approach, Winter Chords EP represents an anchoring of Poler Bear’s approach: humble acoustic lilts, swashes of ambience and Robinson’s intimate vocals packaged in lovely hand-made sleeves. Sometimes he’s so close to the microphone you can hear every inhalation; other times his timbre becomes a muted hum as if he ditched the mic altogether. These five examples of earnest songwriting maneuver between quaint and powerful, with ‘The Nests In the Corn Crib’ and ‘The Stones That Settled In Our Stomachs’ stealing the EP's poignant core.
Running shy of eighteen minutes in length, Winter Chords might’ve benefitted from a gentle sprawl, meaning some more time to let these tracks air out and slowly encompass listeners. As always, it’s Poler Bear’s ambience that still grabs me the most, intoning itself like streetcar brakes half a kilometer away. Some exploration of that knack for sound-environments could’ve easily provided the plateau for some expansive songwriting but, yeah, I’m being greedy. It’s one thing to make Saskatoon sound like the loneliest place on earth but another to make listeners want to go visit. At Winter Chords’ tender best, Robinson achieves that feat.