Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Queue - Anklebiter


Tympanik Audio.

SCQ Rating: 74%

Few genres have adopted an online presence as keenly and prolifically as electronic has, enveloping new micro-labels and Bandcamp artists in an endless snowball effect. Of course we listeners have basked in these good tidings but, all the same, the quantity of electronic folds at work today makes it just about impossible to catch even a millisecond of every talented artist. This bittersweet reality has again caught me off-guard as I become acquainted with Anklebiter (one Tanner Volz), whose debut I Will Wait commanded some heavy praise last year. For those readers among you that missed this release, I offer two solutions: (1) stream that debut here, and (2) don’t despair, because that material is being celebrated with Queue, a lovingly compiled remix project.

Not only does Queue ward off shallow criticisms about its recycling of material by featuring an outstanding cast of remixers, it reignites Anklebiter’s primary allure: Volz’ romantic but powerful arrangements. That hard-beat bite remains intact but it’s exciting to hear what seasoned electronic musicians can wield with that sort of intensity at their disposal. SubtractiveLAD turns ‘Frigid’ into a piano-driven epic that flirts between a gauzy shoegaze extreme and Mogwai’s brittle restraint, which takes an opposite direction to Keef Baker’s stuttering rendition of the same track. Subsequent mixes by Boy Is Fiction and Irulan confirm that Queue stands by its cohesive qualities, layering chilled atmospherics over mid-tempo beat maneuvers. And did I mention that Anklebiter throws in a few new compositions to boot? Those tracks, ‘By Design’ and ‘OTT’, temporarily strip back the ambiance to bring Volz’ aggressive impetus into the forefront and prove that Anklebiter isn’t using this stop-gap release as a holiday.

Leave it to n5MD mainstays Dryft and Lights Out Asia to end the disc with covers that lend a sweeping finality; the former operating a nuanced haze over calm beats, the latter enlisting the band’s trademark style – big drums, chiming and echo-drenched guitars – to leave a lasting impression. As hinted by this couplet, Queue can be interpreted as entirely worth the price of admission based on the talented remixers alone. But beneath the familiar talent and quality control lies Anklebiter, whose songwriting voice deserves this CD-only victory lap.

Increase the Sweetness - The Golden Seals

Increase the Sweetness

The Golden Seals
Zunior Records.

SCQ Rating: 75%

A persistent beat backs Dave Merritt on his third Golden Seals effort as though the band is collectively pushing through the artifice and calculated image of independent music’s current glory days. The straightforwardness of that steady percussion, solidified further by rumbling guitar and vocal harmonies that recall early Sloan, provides an instant attraction that makes ‘Kick It’ exceedingly rare given the influx of bands aping after chin-stroking complexity.

Make no mistake: the Golden Seals seem disinterested in being your next smoke-in-the-armchair sort of band, as Increase the Sweetness takes its own prescription for immediate guitar licks, memorable hi-fi pop hooks and some knowing winks along the way. “We could use some education, we could use some thought control,” sings Merritt, giving some humour to highlight ‘The Year Things Fell Apart’’s soft laments. Merritt doesn’t pine for any of Pink Floyd’s ambition, preferring melodic arrangements and identifiable songwriting that pursues a timeless quality reminiscent of Tom Petty, The Cars and, yeah, a lot of Sloan. So clean and uncluttered are these tracks that ‘Woke Up Laughing’ initially feels bizarre with its electronic textures and padded organ; it follows the same less-is-more strategy and eventually feels at home despite bearing a completely separate palette.

A few more left turns would’ve arguably benefited Increase the Sweetness, not only because the record’s already a lean nine tracks but because Merritt, whose work has been covered by a wealth of artists from Sarah Harmer to the Rheostatics, has a proficient resume for shifting gears. The variety Golden Seals lack on this outing doesn’t diminish the strength of their focus and Increase the Sweetness stands firmly as one of the more irresistible choices for carefree, summery guitar rock.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

All Of It Was Mine - The Weather Station

All Of It Was Mine

The Weather Station
You’ve Changed Records.

SCQ Rating: 87%

On days I wake up in fervor about some sensational label I’d dreamed up in the night, it’s relieving to remember that You’ve Changed Records actually exists. The common strains of retro aesthetic and rustic approach linking each release would be good for nothing without music that rivals the grassroots appeal of this young catalog and You’ve Changed Records hasn’t had much in the way of quality control problems lately, what with expert releases by Shotgun Jimmie and Daniel Romano. That said, the label might've landed its crowning achievement with The Weather Station’s All Of It Was Mine.

Confronting the new album by Tamara Lindeman with grand compliments seems a damning thought, as though the record's delicacy may wilt under a single glare of hype. Her sophomore record is a lean twenty-eight minutes of acoustic lilts, with Lindeman’s songbird delivery often resolutely caged. Vulnerability is something The Weather Station has in droves but it’s never the suffocating sort; these arrangements move too briskly and have too much on their minds to bother soaking in a melodramatic moment. Opener ‘Everything I Saw’ establishes The Weather Station as a band – featuring a handful of musicians including Misha Bower of Bruce Peninsula and Romano on a variety of instruments – which boasts the light twang of banjo whilst ‘Came So Easy’ finds Lindeman with an acoustic in her kitchen, backed by Bower’s lovely harmonies. Her sweet delivery creates an idyllic mood-piece but the implicit pleasantries disguise a crucial streak of regret and doubt that give ‘Chip On My Shoulder’ and ‘If I’ve Been Fooled’ their bite.

Some of the finest tracks tend to evaporate suddenly but perhaps that temporary nature witnessed on ‘Yarrow and Mint’ and ‘Trying’ works to their advantage, since – let’s face it – I am playing them over and over. And since so few moments on All Of It Was Mine offer refrain or respite, I’ve found myself compelled by the fleeting poignancy of its lyrical and instrumental turns. The Weather Station doesn’t spare a note or sentiment here, resulting in a stunning half-hour of bittersweet folk that stands alongside the year’s very best.

The Weather Station - Everything I Saw by thebrokenspeaker

After Parties I & II - Dntel

After Parties I & II

Sub Pop Records.

SCQ Rating: 80%

Whenever straightforward pop is abandoned, motives get questioned. In the case of beatsmith Jimmy Tamborello, who with Postal Service essentially modernized pop in a way that continues to unfold in synthesized, starry-eyed indie acts today, stepping back from the vocalized (shudder…) “indie-tronica” which has been his meal-ticket may seem almost snobbish or ungrateful. But only to the fickle purists among Postal Service fans, who’ve sampled a few highlights from 2007’s Dumb Luck but ignored Dntel’s glorious Life Is Full Of Possibilities. Us longtime fans will view After Parties I & II as wistful steps back toward Tamborello’s roots, when instrumental beats and coy melodies manifested into soothing transmissions that brimmed with possible directions. Back to when the absence of Ben Gibbard was not missed.

Without drifting so far back into Tamborello’s past that we revive his earliest, Aphex-indebted work, ‘Fear Of Corners’ (from Life Is Full Of Possibilities) is perhaps the best point of comparison linking After Parties to Dntel’s past. Okay, so that 2000-era track’s beats don’t align themselves as briskly and immediately as After Parties’ often 4/4 rhythms do. And these new tracks feature more overt melodies than that subdued rumination, usually bending around and warping inside out. Yet it’s Tamborello’s playfulness – which at best tinkered beneath his later, vocalist-laden work – that reestablishes its borderless parameters, finding an upbeat but wholly sentimental horizon over the title-track’s long haul. It’s a thrilling start, initially peppered by staccato snippets of melody before finding its nostalgic center, and following tracks ‘Lindsey’ and ‘Soft Alarm’ retain the same bouncy appeal; the former gravitating from textural moods into a micro-beat cascade that approaches M83-styled emoting, the latter a sleep-deprived haunt evoking the serenity of empty streets at 3am in the dead of winter.

After Parties II digs deeper into Tamborello’s desire to soundtrack the pulse-slowing relief that comes post-euphoria. Concise tracks like ‘Flares’ and ‘Peepsie’ dutifully maintain the dance rhythms but the melodies have sunken in, reverting to bass undercurrents and bubbling harmonics. By the time ‘Hits Line’ files through with its codeine-steeped trance, Dntel’s trajectory – split over two 12” EPs and four sides of vinyl – becomes increasingly nocturnal. A late second wind in ‘Aimless’ motivates the record’s back-end from falling asleep with misshapen synths and a feel-good beat before ‘Leed’ dims the lights with a driving but pillowed closer of moody restraint.

Let’s not underscore the importance of Postal Service’s Give Up strictly on the point that its scope is terribly played out almost a decade after it set the standard. Having provided Sub Pop with its second highest sales of any release – outsold only by Nirvana’s NevermindGive Up has earned Dntel the right to release just about anything on the revered label. That clause shouldn’t enter the equation given the resplendent quality within After Parties I & II, but I fear it has. Several months after its untimely release in December 2010, the dual records haven’t so much as gathered an exclamation mark riddled fanboy review on Amazon, much less the critical notice it deserves. Maybe there was no way Tamborello could retreat from such a stratosphere of success without causing a universal shrug among the hipster elite. Or perhaps introducing a Postal Service-like mentality to Dntel’s universe, as he did on Dumb Luck, forced longtime fans to look elsewhere. In any case, After Parties I & II affirms Dntel as more than a studio collaborator hunched over someone else’s lyrics, and restores his image as a tuneful composer still very capable of creating a swoon on his own.

After Parties by Dntel

Ascension - Jesu


Caldo Verde Records.

SCQ Rating: 84%

Taking all of Justin Broadrick’s many musical projects into consideration, there’s little questioning that Jesu has been as much the songwriter’s show-horse and his workhorse. Over the course of fifteen releases – in just another a decade, keep in mind – Broadrick has fine-tuned Jesu into a brand. Sure, it might swerve spontaneously from industrial to electronic to raw metal but its undertow, in sludgy claws that manifest slow-motion beauty out of everyday depression, remains Jesu’s main draw and raison d’être. So it seemed a natural strategy that Jesu’s prolific output would deal mostly in split projects and EPs; formats that limited Jesu’s grandiose habits to digestible tablets that illustrated enormity without exhausting listeners.

Especially after the concise and awe-inspired snapshots Jesu captured in the Silver and Lifeline EPs, the announcement of Ascension as the long-awaited full-length follow-up to 2007’s Conqueror made me question the vitality of this long-standing brand: is Broadrick magnetic enough as a personality or vocalist to carry an hour-long dirge? Can Jesu’s notoriously stagnant repertoire keep listeners’ interested over such a haul? Much like the cover-art of Ascension, these answers fall into substantial grey area; tracks like ‘Fools’ and ‘December’ may take an ungodly amount of time to circle their conservative chords but Broadrick’s atmosphere and disaffected delivery somehow imbue the void with a hypnotic quality worth revisiting. The more familiar one gets, the clearer Jesu’s breathtaking vistas can be felt through the crushing distortion coating ‘Small Wonder’ and ‘Broken Home’. Not every song offers such keen unraveling but that impenetrable wall of sound is also a Jesu trademark that keeps this body of work so intimidating.

In fact, when you look at what makes Ascension unique compared to prior releases, they read more as hindrances than compliments; from the predictably glum mood to Broadrick’s odd desire to marginalize his own voice (which sounds almost swallowed by feedback at all times), it’s no surprise that many critics have shrugged this record off. Its angle might be soft from a music journalist’s perspective but these songs are ironclad, bulked to a heavy encumbrance even when Broadrick sounds more vulnerable than ever. Ascension boasts a lot of hard edges and uncompromising techniques but it makes each reward something greater to savour.

Jesu - Small Wonder by brooklynvegan

Friday, August 12, 2011

Calendar - JF Robitaille


JF Robitaille
Blue Cardinal Records.

SCQ Rating: 78%

It’s no surprise that Skeleton Crew Quarterly has a particular soft spot for lone singer-songwriters, perhaps because their heart-on-sleeve nature typically disregards the abstract lyricism and complicated instrumentation that collaboration tends to egg on. No, these fellas – the Walter Schreifels, the Cass McCombs, the JF Robitailles – they’re towing the line all by their lonesome, rising or falling by the might of their voice and thoughts alone. And like those other SCQ-approved artists, JF Robitaille’s debut strives in such a fickle arena because his songs manage to reach beyond the familiar assemblages of guitar, voice and percussion. These are everyman songs for the times you feel like the last man alive; its hooks will warm your heart while Robitaille’s lyrics numb it still.

Listen no further than ‘Modern Love Song Pt. 1’, an opener that hardly suffers from its absent sequel thanks to a bittersweet, slow-dance lilt and Robitaille’s careful intonations. It’s effectively timeless, which is a damned hard thing to pull off first thing on your debut album; a concoction of mood and romantic ease that’s both pretty and a punch to the gut. Calendar wisely branches off from there, illustrating folky strummers (‘When We Say Goodbye’, the downtrodden ‘The City Trembles’) and upbeat rockers (‘For Better Or Worse’, ‘The New Girl’) that share a keen melodic sensibility for kinship.

Alongside a committed backing band, Calendar finds additional company in the handful of contributors who fill in on drums, keys and vocals. Nobody’s toes get stepped on; the entire affair feels so light and airy, you’d never know upwards of six people (including The Dears’ Murray Lightburn) were playing on ‘Enemies’ (although it happens to be the record’s irresistible highlight) and kudos to the musicians who managed to disappear into their roles like shadows on a summer’s night. None of them eclipse the Montreal-based Robitaille, of course, whose sentiments amass the record’s conflicted heart with tender precision. But Calendar’s squeaky-clean equilibrium feels like a group accomplishment, with an end result worthy of outdoor wandering and insulated bedroom lamenting.

Organ Music, Not Vibraphone Like I'd Hoped - Moonface

Organ Music Not Vibraphone Like I’d Hoped

Jagjaguwar Records.

SCQ Rating: 68%

More than just a song-title, ‘Return To the Violence Of the Ocean Floor’ acts like an overwhelmed compass, peering beyond the obvious imagery of the words and into the spiky, occasionally seasick nature of Organ Music Not Vibraphone Like I’d Hoped. The song’s seven-minutes – a length of time apparently customary for Moonface – sprawl outward in organ-blips, cut-up and looped ad nauseum, to create a plateau vista that impresses due to the sheer enormity of it. This too proves part of Spencer Krug’s routine as Organ Music… swells into a pop-art consortium where every strain of organ competes for the role of dominant hook.

What’s unsurprising about this utmost particular side-project is that Krug steals that focus outright, his instantly recognizable delivery taking responsibility for the record’s several imperative peaks. His vocals organize and direct what would otherwise be a messy, often unlistenable concoction of grating layers – and therein lies the potential genius of Moonface. Too bad more of that potential isn’t realized. As its title makes clear, these five songs are founded and assembled via organs and Krug’s convincing moments, where he threatens to turn the whole experiment into a loveable dance-party, makes Organ Music… a somewhat painful near-miss. Whether the actual songwriting quality drops after the carnival-on-speed loops of single ‘Fast Peter’ or Moonface’s limited palette finally catches up, Organ Music…’s final couplet repeatedly witnesses a sudden drop in my attention span. Upon further inspection, the tense standstill of organs on ‘Shit-hawk In the Snow’ feel exhausted from the get-go, as though the track’s compositionally starving for a less abrasive instrument (maybe a vibraphone?). ‘Loose Heart = Loose Plan’ fares slightly better but never provides a payoff for the twenty-odd minutes of strain on listeners.

Despite having no affiliation to prior Krug outlets, Wolf Parade or otherwise, I truly wanted great things out of Moonface. And in modest quantities, Organ Music… delivers. Similar to its cover-art’s nonchalant party, I don’t think it would take too many brews to envision this project as an ideal trip to play out in the background of some open-minded social event. But party DJs beware: unlike Krug, know when to quit and try something else.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Deformer - Dog Day


Dog Day
FunDog Records.

SCQ Rating: 80%

Anyone who has caught Dog Day live knows that the punk spirit inhabiting the fringes of their gloomy, controlled records frays apart onstage. From statesmen of gloom to hell-bent revelers in a snap, the band’s raw performances became expositions on how to hear an album like Concentration or Elder Schoolhouse in an aggressive new light. So when this spring’s Scratches EP all but erased the contrast to Dog Day’s duality by presenting their noise-band rep on record, complete in raw recordings and compressed textures, it seemed as though the newly minted duo (core members Seth Smith and Nancy Urich) was self-imposing itself into a corner.

Deformer, despite bearing a similar home-recorded approach as Scratches EP, promptly incinerates those fears with a line-up of killer tunes with real songwriting depth. From the rallying call of ‘Daydream’ and rhythmic intensity of ‘Part Girl’ to ‘I Wanna Mix’’s autumnal guitar tones, Smith and Urich get the obvious out of the way; that losing half the members of their band hasn’t diminished the restless creativity at the heart of Dog Day. And as Deformer branches into menacing riffs (‘Positive’) and affecting atmospherics (‘Mr Freeze’), it becomes clear that the Nova Scotia-based duo has stepped further, somehow channeling the unhinged spirit of a band basking in the limelight for the first time. The scrappy yet magnetic energy displayed on Deformer seeks not to pedestal its qualities on Dog Day’s string of successful releases, as most artists would be content doing, but instead provides a blank slate – for both fans and themselves. It’s the same Dog Day you’ve always loved, just hungrier.

On a personal note, I’d be remiss not to mention how much I enjoyed Dog Day as a fearsome foursome. Part of the reason Concentration became Skeleton Crew Quarterly’s Top Album of 2009 was because the instrumentation posed so many intriguing questions; elegant bits of distortion melting into one another and songwriting that benefitted from different pens to the paper. No one really doubted Smith and Urich’s roles as the key ingredients to that stew but I’d wager a lot of fans hardly expected Deformer to make such a fine point of it. A passionate and ferocious return.

Dog Day - Scratches by Noyes Records

It's All True - Junior Boys (CMG Review)

It’s All True

Junior Boys
Domino Records.

CMG Rating: 77%
SCQ Rating: 85%

Junior Boys, being the luxurious beat-makers they are, make it easy to view even a record so bereft of ideas as Begone Dull Care with rose-tinted shades. That’s precisely what most critics must’ve been wearing in the spring of 2009 when the Hamilton duo’s third record sleepwalked through generous reviews before dissipating into thin air. Recognizably watered down in comparison to their prior full-lengths but bearing a scattershot of cherished JB trademarks, Begone Dull Care gave credence to the ruse that an album that sounds engaging must be engaging. And because Jeremy Greenspan and Matt Didemus have always excelled at fusing elusive songwriting to seductive electro-pop in equal, inseparable rations, the sonic achievement behind a track like “Parallel Lines” effectively disguised the fact that, compositionally, Greenspan and Didemus seemed lost in their own sound.

As with any impenetrable record which saddles its spot on a discography like an upside-down question mark, Begone Dull Care’s intrigues still welcomes the odd revisit. But what heartens those listens – the optimistic hope of finally detecting the puzzle’s missing piece – would become pointless if Junior Boys’ follow-up were to repeat the same missteps. Because then it isn’t an oddity, it’s a slope. The first slice from It’s All True insists on the latter route; chasing the same frivolous hooks that permeated their 2009 effort, “Itchy Fingers” steers their micro-beat palette toward the hypertensive. Sacrificed amid this acceleration of pop tendencies are the thick clouds of mood that surrounded Last Exit and, to lesser degree, So This Is Goodbye like romantic cloak-and-daggers. In other words: for a moment, Junior Boys settle for channeling Chromeo.

Thank God for “Playtime” then, a candle-lit mood-piece that carefully burns to smolder and reignites what’s been endangered on Junior Boys’ recent output: mystique. Reaching back to the desolate vibe of “Three Words”, a track that acted as glue for Last Exit’s constant craving, but adding some unexpected flourishes (think Andreas Vollenweider’s electric harp), “Playtime” sort of restarts the record – establishing real mood before raising the stakes. Subsequent highlights cleverly touch on new facets to their renowned sound: “Second Chance” benefits from its orbit of space-disco beats and proggy guitar bits whilst “Kick the Can” bubbles over as the most techno-oriented dance track the Hamilton-bred duo have put to tape. Baby-steps beyond their comfort zone only render “You’ll Improve Me” all the more classic, with the duo anchoring unsettled atmospherics to a rock-solid rhythm and chorus, together shifting the track’s focus from the dancefloor’s spotlight to its neglected afterglow. There was a time when Junior Boys’ songs were meant for lonely corners and, with It’s All True, Greenspan and Didemus have remembered just that.

Read the rest of the CMG review here.

Junior Boys - "ep" by blatanti