Thursday, March 29, 2012


Considering how vacated 2012 looked at the onset of January, I'm pleased to present a shortlist of topnotch recordings that, among other qualities, collectively forecast a beautiful Spring. Here in Ottawa, the weather remains closer to snow pellets than refreshing rain but these albums have nonetheless instilled SCQ Headquarters with the air of open-windows. 

Wishing you all the most mild of days,

~ Love SCQ

Le Voyage Dans La Lune - Air (SPRING ALBUMS 2012)

Le Voyage Dans La Lune

Astralwerks Records.

SCQ Rating: 80%

Moon Safari’s lasting legacy has certainly been paved around futurist ideals but that hasn’t topped its status as a pioneering, modern-day make-out record. The sensuous mood elicited from Air’s 1998 classic has continuously teased expectations since, throughout the androgynous 10,000 Hz Legend and Love 2’s mixed bag, but it’s as ingrained a trademark as the duo’s French accents. Le Voyage Dans La Lune, Air’s second soundtrack-based effort, may focus more on the astronomical wonder of the moon but, like George Melies’ famed 1903 sci-fi, it’s no less rooted in fantasy.

Making a soundtrack operate like an album takes delicate craft but it’s helpful when the artisans have built a career defying easy categorization. As with their proper full-lengths, Le Voyage Dans La Lune feasts on aloof experimentation: one track features Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoit Dunckel on vocals, others refer those duties to special guests (Au Revoir Simone, Beach House’s Victoria Legrand), while others still explore vast instrumental possibilities. Even when compartmentalized this way, Le Voyage Dans La Lune embellishes a ten-minute narrative with complimentary shades and emotions. The shimmering “Moon Fever”, which wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Pocket Symphony, offers a rippling calm for listeners to survey Air’s alien landscape, whereas “Cosmic Trip” fuels a momentous coda of bass, toy-box keys and smeared strings. The vocal tracks also echo the space cadets’ journey, dropping woozy anxieties (“Who Am I Now?”) and starry-eyed yearnings (“Seven Stars”) to deepen the gravity of a film that has amazed for well on a century.

Surprisingly, the few tracks that reveal their score-bound intentions – namely, the ones that compliment the mis-en-scene most rigidly – are indeed the most rewarding. “Parade” boasts an otherworldly but salacious guitar hook that spikes over a choral and live-drum terrain while “Sonic Armada” rockets sci-fi synth-work and 70s funk to a psychedelic extreme. Such experiments can be understood via Le Voyage Dans La Lune’s accompanying DVD or absorbed as part of the record’s fully out-there moments. Either path results in the same satisfying adventure, so long as you aren’t trying to make out with anyone at the time.

Below is the full restored film, accompanied w/ portions of Air's score:

Ask Me This - Alcoholic Faith Mission (SPRING ALBUMS 2012)

Ask Me This

Alcoholic Faith Mission
Alarm Music.

SCQ Rating: 78%

It has become something of an institution for Alcoholic Faith Mission to issue a release in the springtime. 421 Wythe Avenue, Let This Be the Last Night We Care as well as 2011’s And the Running With Insanity EP each blossomed onto the scene at winter’s end and resonate as though they are unburdening the cares collected the previous year.

Ask Me This, however, wastes no time in presenting a change of season we weren’t expecting. Opening track “Down From Here” sets the tone via an impassioned group a cappella, building in bombast but remaining rigidly sober, before “Alaska” finds an almost industrial crunch replacing the typical warmth of this Copenhagen-based sextet. Ask Me This could’ve been considered a departure on the basis of sonic tinkering alone but that merely accentuates the tonal shift: that on these ten songs, Alcoholic Faith Mission are holding their burden tightly, consumed with and fueled by the conflicted emotions they once sought to emancipate. The sunny disposition of “Running With Insanity”, which owned the headliner spot on last year’s EP, only gradually feels at home here on account of its painstaking layered arrangement, as breathless harmonica, handclaps and vocal harmonies form the song’s foundation (whereas guitar and piano get relegated to the status of happy accessories).

Which brings me to my next point: Alcoholic Faith Mission’s break-neck speed of releasing material can only be outshone by their evolving song-craft, which undergoes another upgrade on Ask Me This. Whether it’s the spliced symphonics on “Reconstruct My Love” or the stuttering drum machine on “Into Pieces” that sound so alien to ‘aFm’ loyalists, repeated listens find those experimental qualities being absorbed into the same emotional vein that rendered past records so magnificent. In particular, “I’m Not Evil” likely stands as one of the band’s best tracks yet; its cascading piano line latched to a subtly rendered bass and percussion shuffle.

Small efforts truly make Ask Me This a more nuanced animal than its predecessors, even if the end results fail to shine quite as brightly. Saying this new record gets personal wouldn’t really explain much, given some of the band’s previous talking-points, but one could definitely call it insular. And that pervasive overcast succeeds in shedding strange new light on a disciplined band transforming before our very ears.

Barchords - Bahamas (SPRING ALBUMS 2012)


Universal Music.

SCQ Rating: 83%

“Lost In the Light”, the slowburning opening track to Afie Jurvanen’s sophomore outing as Bahamas, wasn’t only written last – at the close of the recording sessions that would produce Barchords – but was nearly held back for some unforeseen release down the road. That piece of trivia may sound worthless to some people, but those are people who likely haven’t heard “Lost In the Light” yet. Frankly, the song’s a game-changer; the sort of profile-raising, singer-songwriter gem that transcends “indie” by digging its heels into a bluesy nerve that borders on some slow-waltzing gospel. And luckily for those of us “in the know”, it’s but the first track on a record brimming with beauties.

A buoyant sense of variety gets roped in by Jurvanen’s smooth croon, which calms the surf-rock tinged spikiness of  “Caught Me Thinking” and soaks up emotion on the haunting ballad “Never Again”. In fact his delivery almost makes for easy dismissal on account of just how smooth it sounds, calling to mind the laid-back meanderings of Jack Johnson or Jason Mraz. A few dedicated listens will open a whole new understanding of Bahamas, however; one likened far more to Neil Young than Jack Johnson. Classic acoustic songwriting and tasteful musicianship stand hand-in-hand on the subtle stomp of “Be My Witness”, the electric licks punctuating “Your Sweet Touch” and the rustic swoon of “Time and Time Again”. Barring the sparse, demo-styled grays of “Any Other Way” and “Montreal”, it’s difficult to envisage a better album to usher us into spring than Barchords, an album light in touch but deceptively resonant in human emotion. 

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Paper Beat Scissors - Paper Beat Scissors

Paper Beat Scissors

Paper Beat Scissors
Forward Music Group.

SCQ Rating: 74%

It’s rare to hear an act entering Canada’s cliquey music scene in such fine company, especially when the principal songwriter boasts an accent that comes from neither our Pacific nor Atlantic coast. Despite spending his first quarter-century in England, Tim Crabtree’s debut full-length boasts contributions from a variety of Canadian indie-rock alumni, including Pietro Amato and Mike Feuerstack (of Bell Orchestre), Sebastian Chow (Islands) and Jeremy Gara (Arcade Fire). Handy chaps to have around, no doubt, but none of their invaluable input dissuades Paper Beat Scissors from being foremost a noteworthy showcase of Crabtree’s songwriting verve.

The emotional urgency at play over these eleven songs isn’t only ripe for the first-time listener; it’s rooted foremost in Crabtree’s guitar and vocal prowess. The balladry of “Rest Your Bones” calls to mind the raw fringes with which Damien Rice once danced, whereas on “Be Patient” Crabtree lilts above the measured rhythms without settling for complacency. Behind his voice, which wavers between unrestrained and careful approaches to the confessional, lush rock atmospheres breath melodic touches into “Ends In Themselves” and “Watch Me Go”. These symphonic additions iron out some of Crabtree’s grueling intensity, making for a more dynamic and listenable record even if its source material circles the same well too often. That argument could be made in reference to “Keening”, where Crabtree and the terse instrumental build backing him almost sound competitive as opposed to complimentary. There’s more than enough catharsis to go around on Paper Beat Scissors but its potency will certainly win more fans than it’ll lose.

Bone Soldiers - Baby Eagle & The Proud Mothers

Bone Soldiers

Baby Eagle & The Proud Mothers
You’ve Changed Records.

SCQ Rating: 68%
In Skeleton Crew Quarterly’s review of Baby Eagle’s 2010 full-length Dog Weather, I identified key factors that simultaneously enamored and repelled my interest as a listener. It was confusing; on one level I continued to listen as if hoping to decode some latent but lasting hooks from the mud, on another level I was marveling at the impossibility of succeeding.

Bone Soldiers, a follow-up credited to Lambke as well as The Proud Mothers (consisting of Marine Dreams’ Ian Kehoe and Grey Kingdom’s Spencer Burton, among others), delivers more blistery rock of the same vein, which again finds me deliberating the merits of Baby Eagle’s musical vision. The critiques remain the same: confrontational, messy arrangements and nasally, conversational vocals dominate the title track. Yet Bone Soldiers’ sequencing presents an increasingly subdued collective, moving from the stripped-back feel of “Old Punks” to the controlled, summer evening pulse of “Hard Truths”, and that intimacy throws Lambke’s unique songwriting into fresh relief. Featuring arrangements decidedly more open-aired than those on Dog Weather, songs like “Rebel Crimes” and “Brave Women” find the group reaching for the same irresistible rhythm – the former resulting in a choral climax, the latter in tightly motivated classic rock licks.

Lambke remains largely disinterested in commercializing his aims, and that’s respectable. Recorded and mixed over three days last October, Bone Soldiers retains Baby Eagle’s livewire impulse of firing out records with the efficiency and energy of a jazz set, frill-free. Whether that approach renders the accessible tracks here as flukes or prophesies, I can’t say, but there’s little denying that Baby Eagle is beginning to worm its way toward my heart – like a hard-fought love or a teasing storm.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Shit Camera Exposé: Harris Eisenstadt (National Arts Centre)

I stepped out into Ottawa’s dusk and sighed. However many kilometers I’d traveled that day from the mild Niagara region was but a speck of Canadian geography; still the dotted path I made from sunny vineyards to near-arctic tundra felt like a journey through Canada, each town a fertile shade different from the last.

Those six hours in the car likely weren’t as prolific as Harris Eisenstadt’s catalog, which for the past decade has spanned an internationalist’s tastes while dabbling nostalgically of late in Canada, where the Brooklyn-based artist spent his younger years. After collaborating on thirty-some-odd recordings as a session drummer or member of September Trio and Convergence Quartet, Eisenstadt’s recent work has found him operating as a bandleader, touring on the weight of his own compositions. Impressive though that feat is, Eisenstadt took to the Fourth Stage of the NAC on this chilly Monday evening and introduced himself by way of the Canada Day quintet. Now at first it seemed like merely a gracious move to bury his reputation in the collaborative spirit of his colleagues; I mean the ticket explicitly bears his birth name, not “Canada Day”, as do the recordings released by this quintet. But as soon as “Slow and Steady” takes shape, a vibraphone and cymbal-touched ambient piece topped over by pale horns and a tensely ambling bass, I begin to understand Eisenstadt’s democratic leanings.

No differently than how Art Blakey encouraged his sidemen to step up and evolve while performing in his troupe, Eisenstadt’s Canada Day approached each song as a shared experience full of instrumental face-offs and solos. Following that icicle-cool opening track – one of many new tracks, Eisenstadt promised – the band broke into livelier improvisations. “The Ombudsman I”, which began in oscillating vibraphone patterns that resonated increasingly like electronic sine waves, swelled into a dynamic sprawl of scathing trumpet solos and a percussive prowess I’d never personally witnessed. Alert to every burgeoning note, Eisenstadt proved an able navigator throughout, introducing well-timed lulls amid the cacophony of horns and in spastic, concise drum solos, reinstating the tune with fresh purpose.

Thrilling though it was to hear the band flirt so diligently with discord, Canada Day’s performance should be credited more to organization than to off-the-cuff improvisation. Besides the sheet music that positioned itself within eyesight of each musician, there was a notable regimen that enabled each track to thrive: Eisenstadt and bassist Garth Stevenson constantly communicated the quintet’s sense of momentum, Nate Wooley and Matt Bauder (on trumpet and tenor sax, respectively) carried melody and disharmony at the forefront while Chris Dingman permeated the gaps between the aforementioned instruments with webs of dreamy vibraphone. That subsequent lack of negative space might’ve felt overwhelming to the average listener if not for Eisenstadt’s transitional impetus, which treated each cluster of improvisation as another compositional link in the chain.

As surely as they’d stretch off in different directions before reassembling into tight song-craft, Canada Day’s overall pacing made light of its hour-and-a-half runtime. In one breath, dual horns would be punctuating funky grooves (“Nosey Parker”) and Dingman would illustrate how the vibraphone can offer a full body workout (on the ever-changing new song “Interactivity”). Minutes later, Canada Day would be settling into the romantic bass and cascading horns of a deft and surprisingly conservative ode to Eisenstadt’s wife (“Like It Was But a Bit Different”). It was a well-paced performance in which everyone walked back into winter feeling elevated. Patriotic, even.

Here's a video that showcases the making of Canada Day II, released in 2011:

Wild Lines - Mike O'Neill

Wild Lines

Mike O’Neill

SCQ Rating: 77%

Some musicians thrive on focus, whether engaging in a thematic concept, geographical muse or sonic approach. Mike O’Neill, who rose to nation-wide acclaim on account of his no-frills band The Inbreds two decades ago, probably isn’t one of those musicians. Recorded through an unnumbered series of apartments and studios with collaborators who blur the line between fellow songwriters (Charles Austin, Laura Peek) and visiting friends (Trailer Park Boys creator Mike Clattenburg), Wild Lines hardly sounds disciplined in a certain focus. Yet it’s just as plausible that O’Neill’s songwriting succeeds in the absence of strict regimen, as this flock of whip-smart tunes seems to benefit from the spontaneous and unexpected.

The former CanCon star pushes into the electric strum of “This Is Who I Am” with unintended purpose; this opener features many hallmarks that defined independent radio rock in the 90s – a decade already stepping back into the pastiche spotlight – while its unapologetic title deals exclusively with the song’s narrative. “Colin” and “Wasted Time” continue the throwback surge of mixing O’Neill’s earnest, Lennon-esque vocals and light discord into clean, pretension-less pop structures. Variety dominates the sequencing, dropping ambling bubble-gum pop melodies (“Henry”), layered mid-tempo jams (“Calgary”), and the occasional dose of English folk (“She’s Good”). Almost every song on Wild Lines seems to reference the Beatles’ catalog in some respect, whether it’s due to O’Neill’s classic approach to pop songs or the overall sunny disposition of these tunes.

When it comes to the post-grunge revival that’s sprouting up over the carcass of the 80s, day by day, Mike O’Neill should be considered a Canadian elder statesman. And with Wild Lines, his first album in eight years, he couldn’t have picked a better time to reclaim the scene.

Like the Blood - Night Genes

Like the Blood

Night Genes

SCQ Rating: 72%

However you feel about Eric Ingersoll, the deep-baritone vocalist and quirky primary songwriter of Night Genes, it’s hard not to respect his intentions. With a voice that occasionally calls to mind Jason Segel’s Dracula impression from Forgetting Sarah Marshall and arrangements that up the dramatic stakes to operatic levels, Night Genes are a tough act to impulsively lust after. When these idiosyncrasies combine, as they do on “Woods Are Full Of Animals”, they help define what Ingersoll’s intentions truly are: to be a unique voice amid a scene of synthetic noise.

Not that Like the Blood would catapult the Idaho-based band toward the tastemakers’ fickle universe in the first place, but that’s the point: the highlights of this album purposefully stand in opposition to all that’s immediate and trend-seeking in today’s disposable music culture. If “Woods Are Full Of Animals” feels too isolating, there’s no questioning the stark appeal of “Cyber Me” which, over an awkward keyboard refrain and some acoustic harmonics, creates an addictive yet bizarre pop song. Slower, meditative tracks also blossom into loveable swansongs; “Sweeper” crests on an atmospheric build of acoustics and organ, ultimately feeding off of beautiful female backing vocals, whereas “Ornaments” strips back to the palpable intimacy of Ingersoll with his guitar and sparse keys.

There’s no discussing Night Genes – especially in relation to popular independent music – without mentioning the National’s Matt Berninger, whose baritone marginally resembles Ingersoll’s. “Impression: Flood” even sounds like an alternate take on The National’s “Wasp Nest” until Night Genes’ weird synth line comes into play. But in spite of the superficial comparisons, not to mention the handful of strangely hypnotic songs on Like the Blood, it’s likely that Ingersoll is aiming for a fan-base more cult-like in spirit. That unwillingness to assimilate makes Like the Blood an odd but admirable inclusion to one’s record collection.