Monday, February 27, 2012

Underrated Silence - Ulrich Schnauss & Mark Peters (No Ripcord Review)

Underrated Silence

Ulrich Schnauss & Mark Peters
Bureau B Records.

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

Two weeks before the debut full-length between Ulrich Schnauss and Mark Peters hit store shelves, I caught a charter bus to Montreal to attend its listening party. For those of you on the island city wishing you’d known such an event was about to go down, relax. For one thing, it was a relatively secret gathering between an iPod, my friend and I. Besides that, we spent about half of the album preview laughing at the song titles. “Yesterday Didn’t Exist”, “The Child Or the Pigeon”, “Gift Horse’s Mouth”; it wasn’t the names, so much as their music’s inability to even broadly illustrate why these songs were titled as such, that made Underrated Silence a bit of a lark. Unlike the romantic dusk of “Sunday Evening In Your Street” (from 2001’s Far Away Trains Passing By) or the rush of confidence that sends shivers throughout “On My Own” (from A Strangely Isolated Place) – tracks that actually form emotions beneath the surface sheen – these collaborative tracks initially resound the randomness of their titles as if floating in from different galaxies.

Needless to say, Schnauss and Peters’ choice of song-titles can’t really be at fault here, not when the more popular (and irresponsibly tossed-off) accusation of “sonic wallpaper” seems applicable. And let’s face it, Ulrich fans: although 2007’s Goodbye found Schnauss’ trademarked shoegaze-fueled songcraft striving for new levels of crossover potential (“Stars”, “Medusa”), it veered just as often toward a beatless, sterile ambience (“Einfeld”). Marking the collaborative spirit of Mark Peters – bassist, keyboardist and guitarist of The Engineers – doesn’t deter Underrated Silence from grasping after the latter approach, one that largely shuns the gear-shifts that made Schnauss’ early work so exciting. In effect, the listener’s wading period, whereby one treads through the more atmospheric end of Schnauss’ style, might encourage the impatient among us to toss up the “sonic wallpaper” defense. Not even staunch admirers of this project would blame them; my Montreal-based friend and I – both longtime Schnauss fans – couldn’t pinpoint at the time why we were joking about a song-title like “Amoxicillin” but it’s plausibly because the composition itself offers so few contagious ingredients.

If listeners forget the hype implicated in the four years since Goodbye, forget the fruits of Schnauss/Peters’ earlier partnership on Enginners’ In Praise Of More, and treat Underrated Silence as a joint experiment, they’ll uncover a surprisingly enjoyable detour. Once acclimatized to its mellow focus, tracks such as “Rosen Im Asphalt” and “The Messiah Is Falling” even unveil terse undercurrents of drama to deepen otherwise ear-pleasing synth work-outs. It remains a pretty transient collection – like their curious titles, these tracks feel beamed in from planets entirely remote from one another – but Schnauss’ sheen unifies it as, bare minimum, a pleasant journey through the haze. Just don’t expect to see anything too clearly.

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

An Idea Of North/Learning To Walk - Mark Harris

An Idea Of North/Learning To Walk

Mark Harris
n5MD Records.

SCQ Rating: 75%

Whatever freedom lies at the heart of instrumental music, be it post-rock’s life-affirming crescendos or electronic music’s textural abyss, it’s magnified to the ethers when we’re dealing with field-recordings. To be a listener in the absence of voice – okay. But separated from the very intricacies of traditional or avant-garde composition – the instruments, the progressions – well, that’s a whole new world of freedom.

If all of this “absence” talk sounds impossible to navigate, rest easy: An Idea Of North/Learning To Walk notes its own intangible compass in the title. Audio/visual artist Mark Harris furthermore gives the listener direction at the onset with “Softly Lies Sleeping”, with natural sounds of distant waves, bird calls and rustling trees – or is that rain upon a roof? In either case, Harris’ establishing shot encompasses a smattering of field recordings that are highly suggestive and well integrated. A sneaky choral of synth curls around the track’s property, merging with the liquid cascade and transforming into the ambient “In Slow Motion She Falls”. An immaculately clean album, An Idea Of North/Learning To Walk doesn’t throw many anchors for listeners to depend on; its ample negative space somehow sounds bright and tracks slide gracefully into one another like the currents of a stream. So when a rare and overt melody constructs itself amid the title track’s Beaches and Canyons-indebted standstill, it transfixes and briefly restricts the listener’s sedated daydreaming.

It’s easy to lose concentration and allow a sound-design record like An Idea Of North/Learning To Walk to just thrive along the walls of one’s room. As much a soundtrack for existing as a mental journey in our own hands, Harris’ work contains its share of themes and percolating ideas just waiting to be uncovered and made personal. 

...At the End Of It All -

…At the End Of It All
Tympanik Audio.

SCQ Rating: 71%

On a webpage dedicated to the artist, Tympanik Audio proclaims that the man behind that stubborn moniker, Chase Dobson, captures the sound of “the movies in one’s mind”. The association between electronic music and visuals has always been a failsafe one, in part because so much of the genre is instrumental, but at times that connection acts more like a crutch. Encouraging a descriptor like “cinematic” seems to imply that any perceived fault on the music’s part actually belongs to what the listener was – or wasn’t – looking at.

Thankfully’s work is less impenetrable than his choice of name. Dobson’s second full-length …At the End Of It All doesn’t need to lean on the “cinematic” tag but its mention does exemplify the variety marking several of these eleven tracks. From the dead-tech, car-chase vibes on “Data Transmit” to the glitchy, futurist’s confusion in “Artificial Intelligence”, Dobson executes adventurous, well-conceived ideas through a commonplace palette: icy synths, brooding low bass, and a friction-laced approach to IDM beats. If the Hollywood premises drawn from those tracks – which represent the album’s more aggressive end – sound clichéd, it can be partially credited to the 'soundtrack'’s been-there feel. (The rest I’ll take responsibility for, as I suppose it’s my imagination placing these sound environments. Not that the song titles weren’t leading or anything…)

Even “Artificial Intelligence” earns its rightful place on …At the End Of It All because of Dobson’s keen ear for sequencing; the contrast keeps things interesting. After all, when the record isn’t scoring some digital heist, it’s laying down atmospheric tracks that skip between IDM (“The Stillness of Hours“) and underground dubstep (“Seven Days Warning”). Highlights arise from this more song-bent focus; the title track dwells in a nostalgic groove of distant guitar and break-beats while “A Map Of the Human Heart” boasts some unexpected hooks in the form of recoiling beats and a distinguished synth melody. Mid-point track “Airport [Never_Land]” likely marries Dobson’s two approaches best; both the dramatic ambient piece grounded in piano and its title provoke rather than spilling the beans. Showing not telling – it’s the difference between a soundtrack reliant on visual movement and an album reliant on its listener.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Leland - Francis Harris


Francis Harris
Scissor & Thread Records.

SCQ Rating: 81%

Confidence in one’s craft plays a key role in defining their genius. It’s a factor roundly assumed in regards to groundbreaking albums yet rarely probed beyond the parameters of what’s accessible and what’s challenging. We can all jot down on a napkin what distinguishes the Kid A of a particular band’s catalog from their more traditional fare, but the confidence to push those boundaries – which ensnared that first spark of creativity – typically slides to the backburner of our collective discourse.

Such a juicy issue, alas, requires a record with the right levels of audacity to incite discussion; I reckon Leland is one of those albums. Making Leland a two-disc set wouldn’t look at all arrogant; truth is, adding a mere eight seconds to its run-time would’ve left Francis Harris no choice. Yet where the confidence of Harris, better known by his alias Adultnapper, could be deduced by way of his recorded mass, his willingness to sabotage it all proves far more enticing. Here’s a collection of songs unobtrusive and meditative, so insular yet provocative, it would seem a serious blunder to stunt their potency within such a sprawling full-length. But that’s precisely what Leland accomplishes, surveying a flat horizon to let its minimal-techno arrangements graze, thereby hiding a treasure trove of euphoric movements beneath the bulk.

It takes a lot of confidence in oneself to assuredly conceal their best assets, but confidence in one’s listeners as well. For those of us constantly on the move, hearing Leland in its full two-hour stateliness will be a rare pleasure; for my part I’ve retained the same protocol since my first listen – choosing a random point in the album to tune in each time. Fragmented though that method may sound, it in no way distracts from Harris’ integrated electro-acoustic compositions. Dub-inflected lounge permeates “Pensum” and “Picture Us” but, with the addition of atmospheric trumpet, these tracks gather a mood less attached to cold rhythms. In fact, Harris infuses most of these house beats with a fair share of organic accompaniment, whether in the form of mournful cellos (“Whether Is Was”), auxiliary percussion (“Of the Field”) or warm vocals (“Plays I Play”) that are peppered sporadically throughout. Restrained but increasingly critical, these sly embellishments are among the countless discoveries, afforded by Harris’ bold vision, that will eventually grab you.

As long as there are lengthy albums, there will be artists heralding themselves for creating something decidedly un-commercial. Leland’s something else entirely; neither bloated, narcissistic, nor weighed down in conceptual themes, Harris’ methodology is more concerned with creating emotional space than cramming a full-length to its brim. Named after Harris’ deceased father, it’s clear that Leland has no room for dance-floor excess. Shape-shifting movements in posh house music and pastoral techno have rarely felt this pure-hearted or self-assured.

Don't Reach Out 7" - Long Weekends

Don’t Reach Out 7”

Long Weekends
Noyes Records.

SCQ Rating: 76%

Long Weekends’ Don’t Reach Out operates like that all-important first-impression – apt, considering this release is the Halifax-based band’s induction to Canada’s wider independent scene. As in any social situation, we put our best foot forward – acting cordial and well behaved – before gradually testing the waters with our less guarded selves. Long Weekends do the same, issuing two new (and killer) tracks up front before guiding us into their lo-fi lair via a miscellany of bonus cuts.

(Now to be clear: “Don’t Reach Out” and “Show Your Face” are the two headliners newly available on vinyl courtesy of Noyes Records. Whether the subsequent three cuts that appear on my promo are available on the 7” digital version, I can’t say with certainty. And yes, yes I know: it’s my job to research any discrepancy and verify some facts. But it’s also Skeleton Crew Quarterly’s job to present songs you need to hear, and you pretty much need to hear all of these.)

Despite the two vinyl cuts boasting some clearer production than the later tracks culled from Long Weekends’ 2011 EP Warmer Weather (get that here), Don’t Reach Out thumps along like a united EP. Long Weekends establish themselves fully over the headlining tracks; “Don’t Reach Out” bears a touch of the Ramones’ anthemic quality, even though it’s executed via gloriously thrashing garage-rock tendencies, while “Show Your Face” manages the rare task of casting dark shadows over upbeat, party-ready tunes. That ability to play on the edge of the proverbial sword invokes some complimentary post-punk comparisons (Maritimes style!) on “Quarter Sticks” and “At Long Last”, tracks so busted-up and lo-fi, you’d almost swear they were nihilistic before those heart-felt electric chords entwine you.

As someone who typically prefers the “studio album” (or at least a collection of songs all written for the same release), I was taken off-guard by the instant likeability of Don’t Reach Out 7”. The Long Weekends may be scrappy and brash but the surprises bundled here present a memorable first impression indeed.

Homesick Future EP - Young Liars

Homesick Future EP

Young Liars
Nettwerk Records.

SCQ Rating: 65%

Anyone with a broadband connection couldn’t possibly refute the fact that music listeners have never been as privy to as much music as we are now. The mere notion of having fifteen or so records on the go within the same month is considered a hobby now, not a completely unmanageable overdose. So it’s with trepidation that we acknowledge how musicians who’ve been raised amid this post-millennial deluge of music might filter their own eclectic influences without sounding like an homage to their iPod shuffle.

Enter: Young Liars, a Vancouver-based quintet that entwines a classic pop approach around a bevy of influences that would be commonplace if they’d picked only a few. Arguably the most pervasive influence afoot over the course of the band’s Homesick Future EP is Hot Chip, whose bubbly dance veneer and literate lyricism carved an undeniable niche in the mid-noughties indie explosion, and it informs Young Liars’ most reliable anchor. Single “Colours” wastes no time establishing that comparison with its cosmic keyboard arpeggios and bouncy verses giving way to the sort of direct chorus one expects to hear on the radio. Given the band’s aping of acts as varied as New Order, The Strokes, Bloc Party, and The Killers, it’s important to note that Young Liars’ scattershot mimicry falls into the trendy, not gimmicky, category. In fact, if you put aside the male vocals in “Newton, Forgive Me”, Young Liars not only sound like each of those bands separately but Florence And the Machine on top of it all.

The record boasts an of-the-moment feel, without sounding particularly compromised or contrived, but how you feel about the accomplished polish on Homesick Future EP will largely depend on your loyalties as a music listener. By amalgamating the euphoric rushes inherent to a handful of established genres, Young Liars risk dating themselves before they’ve even stamped something authentic onto the scene. With so much promise behind this talented bunch, it would be a shame to see Young Liars end up stranded on the fickle pinnacle of 2012.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Headcage EP - Matthew Dear

Headcage EP

Matthew Dear
Ghostly International.

SCQ Rating: 75%

Matthew Dear’s pop trajectory looked pretty well paved out in wake of 2007’s Asa Breed. He’d abandoned some techno momentum in favour of catchy dynamics and streamlined his lyricism to a contagious filter of kinetic longings – the sort of template one could technically run on for years. But those who anticipated Dear’s eventual follow-up to carry a sound closer to the rave-up dance styling of LCD Soundsystem were roundly bemused when Black City reorganized the tenets of dance music around Dear’s carnal instincts. Looming on sinister rhythms and abrasive layers, Black City was difficult enough to navigate without guessing what lay on the horizon of its outskirts but that reality – here in the form of Headcage EP – isn’t some terrifying sequel.

Instead, these four songs thrive on the same off-kilter rhythms and Dear’s warped growls but breathe a little sparser than usual. Stripped of its saturated layers, the title track’s stuttering chorus hook feels sharp and purposeful next to its curious, near-funky bounce. The success of ‘Headcage’ as a return to less art-damaged origins merely hints at the surprises on this new EP, since the subsequent material finds Dear’s go-to sonic trademarks increasingly evaporative. His always claustrophobic sense of percussion feels thwarted by the relaxed organ permeating ‘In the Middle (Where I Met You)’ and the choral ambience stretching ‘Around a Fountain’ over minimal techno patterings.

It’s a brave move for any electronic artist – reducing one’s overall attack to a nuanced exercise in bare-boned songwriting – and I think a natural reaction for many fans will be to decry its focus as something undercooked. But Dear has made a firm believer of me with this song-cycle, offering a sleeper set of new tunes that seek peace as much as a reliably strange beat to live by. In the wake of Black City’s cesspool of confrontational armor, Headcage EP sounds as though Dear’s cleansing himself for another evolution.

Six Cups of Rebel - Lindstrom

Six Cups of Rebel

Smalltown Supersound.

SCQ Rating: 48%

The first cut on ‘No Release’ opens as if scoring the dramatic centerpiece to a film, with loops of cascading organ building off one another to a peak – five minutes in the making – that suddenly cuts out. It seemed ham-fisted for a track so overloaded to amount to something ultimately substance-less but prologues often require the benefit of the doubt, right? The artist is establishing a scene and, by ‘No Release’’s gravity, (first name) Lindstrom looked to be redefining his own brand of epic, spaced out, kraut-inspired electronica.

And in a way, Six Cups of Rebel does offer a newly maximized version of the directions Lindstrom took on 2008’s Where You Go I Go Too, not that anyone really needed those three-tracks – which spanned a mammoth fifty-five minutes – assembled into a more grandiose arena. Whatever territory Lindstrom has staked over the course of these seven bloated and sugar-laced tracks, it certainly isn’t space-disco which, by his own definition, aired its melodic tendencies over subtle beats that felt as progressive as they were prog-ish.

It isn’t healthy either. The seasick carousel-like keys, 8-bit video game sound effects and gruelingly repetitive bass line that together constitute ‘Magick’ come off as downright nightmarish. When Six Cups Of Rebel isn’t aimlessly meandering, it’s tragically organized around bad ideas like the maddening “all I want is a quiet place to live” phrase, pitch-shifted to hell on the otherwise stitched-together ‘Quiet Place To Live’. It felt silly to pardon the overblown nature of opener ‘No Release’ upon my first listen; for one thing because I’d yet to give Lindstrom’s vision for this record a chance but mostly because he’s Lindstrom – the sort of musician you instantly give the benefit of the doubt because doubts concerning his music arise so seldom. But Six Cups of Rebel proves a wasteland of good intentions, from its dithering foundation to a palette that sounds consistently (and bewilderingly) cheap.

Independent music on the whole has been mining the 80s for almost a decade. It has been fruitful. And over the last few years I’ve figured the artist likely to kill the nostalgia generation once and for all would be some unknown chill-wave upstart – a last straw to break the scene’s obsession. Now that seems illogical; the idea that one extra Bandcamp page could extinguish so popular a muse. No, it seems far more plausible that the culprit would have to be an artist of merit and influence. Still, I never expected the culprit to be Lindstrom.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Lineage - Shigeto


Ghostly International.

SCQ Rating: 82%

Ghostly International has nurtured a surprisingly prolific relationship with Zach Saginaw since signing him in early 2010. With a smattering of digital-only EPs and one full-length under their belt, this partnership has resulted in a bevy of original Shigeto compositions inspired by Saginaw’s family history and nearly as much material remixed by or for the label’s formidable roster. Back when Shigeto’s white-hot inspiration was but a spark (with his Semi-Circle EP), Saginaw included a remix of Mux Mool’s ‘Morning Strut’ entitled “Shigeto’s Wakenbake Edit”; little did we know how much Saginaw’s style would come to compliment the chilled-out notion of a stoned morning on one’s own.

You see Lineage doesn’t extract this carefree attitude strictly on the merits of its shuffling, retro-fresh jazz leanings. Much of what distinguishes Shigeto’s latest mini-album lies in technique, probably the last thing his previous work showed any lacking in. But whereas Full Circle and What We Held On To EP sometimes favored the kitchen-sink approach of constantly revitalizing a composition with new ideas, Lineage’s technique is focused and ultimately matured. The meditative air permeating ‘Ann Arbor Part 3 & 4’ allows its electronic keys and shuffling beat to bend without transforming altogether which, like the soul-infused Boards Of Canada drone of ‘Please Stay’, feels entirely subdued next to Shigeto’s typical chaos.

Besides laying down head-nod approved beats with sustained melodies, Lineage thrives on an organic palette of resonating electric piano, warm organ and, most importantly, a percussive sensibility that bridges hip hop to jazz. From the freeform workout alone that ushers in the psychedelic flourishes and spastic beats of ‘A Child’s Mind’, it’s clear that Shigeto has struck a particularly lush groove this go around. Is this another teasingly short entry in Zach Saginaw’s speedy evolution? Sure. But unlike past enticements that exhausted as often as they thrilled, Lineage proves instantly re-spinnable; the sort of album that seeps into the sludgy atmosphere of a February morning and enlightens everything.

Shouts - Honheehonhee



SCQ Rating: 80%

“1, 2, 3, 4…”. That simple count, likely the most timeless invitation to rock in all of history, hits yet another touchstone when breathlessly screamed in the opening seconds of Shouts. It inflames the call-to-arms ‘We Only Go’, a jagged guitar-rock song trimmed on the edges with melodic xylophone and vocals that somewhat resemble the sensitive crooning of Arcade Fire’s Win Butler. A thunderous opening for sure, one that rightly foreshadows Shouts’ impulsive but well-honed emotion and volume.

Although tragically obscured by a release date in the year-end clouds of late November, the momentum of Honheehonhee’s debut couldn’t remain under-the-radar for long. ‘A. Is For Animal’, which sports a late 90s Moneen riff but builds on the band’s earnest drama, provides an irresistible single next to ‘Rooftop Archipelagos’’s communal anthem. There’s no denying the Arcade Fire comparisons, which run deep on account of the band’s massive ‘Wake Up’ styled crescendos, but Honheehonhee’s songs thankfully spare the other Montreal-based band’s impenetrable solemnity. Following the radio-ready fare of Shouts’ first half, the quintet really hits their stride, opting for upbeat songs that aren’t too self-conscious or serious. The carefree tempo and spastic vocal delivery on ‘Jump Start My Heart’ match ‘To the Silo’’s smart musicianship in reconstituting the record’s early energy with an off-kilter execution that reminds us that Honheehonhee are on their own unique mission after all. A short but deeply fulfilling rock album that deserves its due, Shouts has both the muscle and tenaciousness to become one of 2012’s sleeper hits.
Honheehonhee - We Only Go from HONHEEHONHEE on Vimeo.

The Harrow and the Harvest - Gillian Welch

The Harrow and the Harvest

Gillian Welch
Acony Records.

SCQ Rating: 80%
CMG Rating: 80%

What does eight years represent if not an overdue anniversary to stop counting, to cease peering longingly into the horizon and ‘fess up to whatever you’d hoped to see? That near decade separating Gillian Welch’s Soul Journey (2003) from any studio follow-up had rusted over with indifference; once overzealous fans like myself became complacent while the songwriting duo of Welch and David Rawlings considered calling it a day. The days of anticipating a new record with bated breath were well expired.

So credit the raw potency of The Harrow and The Harvest not only for rebuilding Welch’s estranged congregation, but also for convincing fans and press-folk alike to begin counting backwards. Much like recovered addicts piecing together the years in which they gradually derailed, listeners have become smitten with an origin tale that stretches back over those lost, seemingly uneventful years. And even if the grounds for apathy change from interview to interview—with Welch and Rawlings citing songwriting slumps, the three years spent building their own studio, or their habit of crisscrossing the USA by car—it’s the duo’s diligent quality control that shines throughout The Harrow and the Harvest like a proud badge.

Here’s a record tragic enough to warrant a renaissance of Welch’s aging cult status and elusive enough to justify fans romanticizing the death-slow creative process that kept Welch in the shadows for so long. The weary-eyed chorus of “Tennessee” has the anthemic touch of fellow alt-country collaborator Ryan Adams’ “Oh My Sweet Carolina,” only inverted as though any history buried in the soil is cursed, not glory-bound. A trio of disconnected ballads echoes a similar small-town plight, with “The Way It Will Be,” “The Way It Goes,” and “The Way The Whole Thing Ends” each finding new ways of articulating the poverty and tough love of a fated melodrama. Sometimes Welch and Rawlings seem content telling the tale as opposed to selling it—as on “That’s the Way the Whole Thing Ends,” where a drowsy guitar oscillates their rootsy nursery rhyme ad nauseum—but repeated listens reveal the grit and mournful harmonies scattered over the track’s emaciated skeleton. This is bone-dry Americana, for sure; the kind that casual listeners will label “too country-ish” and coffee houses won’t touch. This is music for taking swigs of whiskey off the dash of your car; “Tennessee” states as much explicitly.

Be warned: there’s just as much poison in The Harrow and the Harvest‘s sparseness as there is hard-fought contentment. And, more often than not, these two conflicting moods—the dour and the tender—form a cocoon-like veil over the listener, depressing and comforting them all at once. The likes of “Dark Turn of Mind” and “Down Along the Dixie Line” deal mostly in resignation, looking halfway back on a past one can’t change and a future seemingly stuck in stone. Matched to the record’s looming sense of economy, which renders each vocal coo and banjo pluck precious and fleeting, Welch and Rawlings draw us defenseless in The Harrow and the Harvest‘s long plateau. Its overcast may be thick like a dustbowl, but well-placed rays of light make this record an especially accomplished return.

(This review was originally published on CokeMachineGlow...)