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.
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
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.
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:
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
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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
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.
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.
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