Monday, April 30, 2012

Good Luck Cartel - Olivier Jarda

Good Luck Cartel

Olivier Jarda
Jam Jar Records.

SCQ Rating: 79%

If it seems like Olivier Jarda popped onto the East Coast music scene out of nowhere, let the obvious assumption reign. Besides a few years of silence and a Wikipedia page which lays out life-turns like a cautiously self-penned autobiography, Jarda’s musical sphere was a tough one to peer in on. But no more! After working as a climate policy analyst in Washington, Jarda’s change of heart found him moving to Halifax and writing Good Luck Cartel, a full-blooded collection that should bolster his enigmatic profile.

Bearing understated songs that cherish verse as much as any chorus, Good Luck Cartel’s promising future in the orbit of college radio doesn’t rely on quirky songwriting. In fact, Jarda’s unforced vocals – which echo the nonchalant earnestness of Walter Schreifels – and brooding approach to songwriting makes this follow-up LP a potent grower-album. While buzzing opener “Speed Of Light” and “Ship Of Fools” offer sharp hooks to nod along to, it’s Good Luck Cartel’s deep-cuts that motivate the collection best; “Piece of Fiction” crests a bittersweet goodbye over piano and acoustic guitar while “Into the Lake” gets downright sinister on an electric, late highlight. Over these tracks, Jarda submerges his pop instincts into accessible songwriter vignettes – the sort that assembles loyal, frothing fanbases. Lyrically, this disc is bursting at the seams.

A balanced yet unassuming rock record of symphonic edges and provoking sentiment, Good Luck Cartel looks to permanently supplant any lingering queries about Olivier Jarda here in 2012. Riffs can be borrowed and postures come easy, but nobody can fake an authentic, original voice. With bits of Springsteen and John K. Samson peppered in for good measure, Jarda’s truly made his mark on me.

Embrace - Ex-Confusion


n5MD Records.

SCQ Rating: 75%

Ex-Confusion’s first release through n5MD disguises any overt relationship to the Oakland imprint’s oeuvre, perhaps because in many ways it aims at disconnecting from the greater expectations of an ambient-electronic scene inching toward the mainstream. While it’s awesome that Ravedeath, 1972, a popular ambient record of recent memory, can gather attention without compromising Tim Hecker’s compositional integrity, it still hinges on a particular discourse – namely Hecker’s approach and ethos to fractured noise as creation. Embrace, on the other hand, offers no talking points to guide our attention, instead laying flat a universe of blurred sound accessible from any direction.

Beatless and amorphous – that isn’t n5MD’s typical approach, which in turn creates much of Embrace's peculiar allure. The half-awake tonal fog of “Grass Harp” invokes up-and-coming drone artist Kyle Bobby Dunn before grasping at tangible albeit still hazy figures on the piano-led “If There Is Love” and “Sketches For the Truth”. In spite of the occasional lean toward post-classical balladry, Ex-Confusion communes almost exclusively via vapors and only his keen restraint prevents a track like “One Of Us” from floating into the ethers.

Seldom does an instrumental album ask for so few words of comment or critique but verbal praise truly feels inept in Embrace’s case. Without striving forward in any bizarre or exciting way, nor letting its ambience falter into sleepy, ho-hum indifference, Ex-Confusion creates potent clouds of emotional music to be felt and absorbed. Over these forty-five minutes, talking proves to be refreshingly counterproductive.

Attack On Memory - Cloud Nothings

Attack On Memory

Cloud Nothings
Carpark Records.

SCQ Rating: 81%

Cloud Nothings aren’t complicated, I keep insisting, but critiquing them on their own merits – removed from time and influences – somehow is. Only in 2012 could their new album, a rag-tag collection of adrenaline-fueled indie-rock, feel like a statement; a rebuttal aimed at our currently vaporous pinnacle of electro-rock nonsense. It isn’t that Attack On Memory doesn’t care about sounding good – after all, having Steve Albini on board pretty much negates any real punk sentiment – but it's Cloud Nothings’ defiance to the day’s tweaked trends that makes these eight songs so inviting.

Even on its own terms, Attack On Memory’s ambition gives preference to visceral intensity over considered musicianship. The extended breakdown and resurrection that lends to “Wasted Days”’ nine-minute trek sounds almost entirely improvised, spent mindlessly caterwauling and thrashing about, and it works on the premise that pretension destroys authenticity. Say what you will about the emo-tinged heartstrings being pulled on “Fall In” or “Stay Useless”, the two songs forming the LP’s pop-oriented centerpiece, but they’re honest representations of Cloud Nothings’ brash approach – tuneful and direct.

The rush of dissonant energy exuding from any single track on Attack On Memory grabs whatever dormant teenage brainwaves we’ve held onto and shellshocks them into submission. Like the last record that jolted me back to my rock-and-roll roots, The Hold Steady’s Boys and Girls In America, Cloud Nothings’ nihilistic indifference and sharp riffs provide a needed contrast to the pro-tooled habits of modern indie-rock.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Silver Skies - Lake Forest

Silver Skies

Lake Forest
Delaware House Records.

SCQ Rating: 77%

Will Whitwham first gained recognition as songwriter in The Wilderness Of Manitoba, a folk troupe that – as seen from this promotional video – really muses after nature. Taking inspiration from the trees, animals, breezes and soil is actually more direct of a conduit for universality than singing about love; it’s a constant that most humans cannot readily ignore and an escape for those of us feeling particularly disconnected between the grey shades of urbanity. While it’s a valid argument to state that few genres are as adept at conveying the rustic reality of our surroundings quite like folk, one can’t help but acknowledge that it was an oversaturation of natural imagery that facilitated the death of new age.

With The Wilderness Of Manitoba already carrying so much feel-good, post-hippie sentiment, Whitwham’s chosen moniker of Lake Forest suggested, if not an overbearing allegiance to doe-eyed solemnity, a perversion of art’s most resilient muse. Luckily Silver Skies doesn’t hammer its listeners with earnest nature-bound metaphors so much as relaying vignettes of love and loss next to an autumnal backdrop. Committing to traditional composition with sparse but recurring melodic touches, Whitwham crafts sweet understatement on “Escape the Moon” and “Silver Stars”.

Besides satisfyingly folky arrangements, Silver Skies also features grander approaches to Whitwham’s songwriting, most notably on the “Birds Of Prey”, with its haunted Elliott Smith reminiscent piano interplay, and “Ohio”, where a whole lot of echo introduces Lake Forest’s more obvious comparative point: Bon Iver. As a cottage-bound, lonely-guy record, Silver Skies does a respectable job of keeping off of Justin Vernon’s over-puffed coattails. Although veering for a similarly peaceful solitude, Whitwham and Vernon arrive at different ports on account of their distinct sensibilities. Tracks like “Whispers” and “An Autumn Sun Will Set the Land On Fire”, while less audacious than Bon Iver’s work, succeed as equally grounded mood-pieces that yearn to connect, human to human. Any natural imagery spotted along the way settles nicely, where it should, into Silver Skies sleepy ambience.

Plumb - Field Music


Field Music
Memphis Industries.

SCQ Rating: 79%

Oh, Field Music. Every other year the Brewis brothers unveil a new record of McCartney-sized hooks, precise instrumental shifts and tuneful segues, which is hailed as a modern masterpiece and then shrugged off by the end-of-year lists’ deadline. Hardly a jilt on the part of the UK press, I too have personally treated Field Music with unstable parts admiration and neglect. The dynamic song-craft nearly bursting the seams of Tones of Town and Measure caught my ear immediately but wore off just as instantly. (For what it’s worth: the only Field Music release I’ve held onto over the years doesn’t even get a mention on the duo’s official website – and in Write Your Own History’s case, my loyalties remain rooted in nostalgia.)

Is it possible that Field Music’s original approach to pop music, whereby they collect a myriad of colourful ideas then imbed and stitch them to a cohesive composition, fares more memorably on a technical level than in our music-loving consciousness? Field Music’s reputation as novel songwriters is undeniable even in the Americas, yet they’ve failed to gather many perks that other English bands from the mid-00’s post-punk arena who’ve already peaked and crumbled. The band’s inability to keep pop simple may be key to the giant divide between critical success and commercial wherewithal.

Well even if Field Music’s orchestral and proggy dissection of pop music provides merely a temporary delight, I can’t deny that Plumb has transfixed me yet again. Tightening their focus after 2010’s bold, twenty track affair Measure, David and Peter Brewis lust after a slightly more aggressive vein of complicated pop this go around, as heard on the Zeppelin-esque guitar licks that climb over “Start the Day Right”’s woozy strings. With chamber-pop tendencies being relegated to Field Music’s always-cluttered margins, gorgeously unpolished guitar tones become central on tracks like “(I Keep Thinking About) A New Thing” and “Is This the Picture?”. Each song still carries the duo’s knack for whimsy (“Ce Soir”, “A Prelude to Pilgrim Street”) while branching into the unexpected (the funk-tinged “A New Town”), and yet none of it feels overwrought or showy. Field Music will always be eccentric but Plumb stands to make their niche more universal as the most focused showcase in a career reconstructing pop.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Embers From the Underground #5: Paul Federici

Embers From the Underground, the interview feature which went on a bit of a sabbatical in 2011, returns this week with Paul Federici, an impressive talent hailing from St. Catharines, Canada. Being that he and I share the same hometown, it should come as no surprise that Mr. Federici and I met years ago through a mutual friend. What gives this entry in the EFTU series an added twist, however, is that through tracking Paul down and getting some thoughts on the making of his debut, Relative Importance (album review below), I've actually learned far more about him than I'd ever discovered in passing social circles. Stream the full album here and read on about his creative renaissance... (Photo by Matt Scobel)

SCQ: I'll begin by blindsiding you with a Leonard Cohen comparison: you've released a debut album in your early thirties. How long have these songs been gestating? Do you feel that the experiences gathered throughout your twenties have enriched this material or perhaps merely delayed it from seeing the light of day?

PF: "First off, I love Leonard Cohen – he and Bob Dylan are two of my Dad’s favourite artists and though I didn’t quite “get” their music and poetic lyrics when I was younger, I grew to realize that my Dad was a pretty cool dude who was definitely onto something. To be honest, the only song that was really gestating was Conveniently Yours, which I wrote in 2008 and turns out it was kind of turning point song for me. I wrote a lot in my early 20s, though I never had much faith in myself or my music, and I produced a few homemade “records” for friends and family filled with songs that left me feeling that I wasn’t quite hearing what I wanted or hoped and like I’d never get it “right” – that frustration and perfectionist thinking led me to stop for a few years until a friend heard some of the old recordings and asked why I wasn’t still writing. That got me thinking again – I tried to simplify things and wrote a few new songs, one of which was Conveniently Yours, and it just felt right. I always believed in that song and it made me realize how much I missed being around the creative process. As for the rest of the album, 6 of the other songs on the disc were written in the 3-4 months leading up to the recording of the project when I hit a real low point in my life emotionally; I hadn’t even picked up a guitar in months but as soon as I did all these songs kept coming out and the music really helped me through. Actually, at the time of recording the producer and I agreed on only 7 songs for the project, but I find that recording and being around the studio/process tends to inspire me and ended up writing Without You midway through and I just really wanted to include it because I felt it fit the theme of the album.  (I intentionally left it as the 8th song on the track listing because it was last to be written, same reason Conveniently Yours is 1st.) As for the age thing, I’ve always been a late bloomer I guess, and maybe I just needed time and experience to get to the songs that meant a lot more to me."

SCQ: What prompted you to record professionally? How did you go about choosing the studio and collaborators that aided in the creation of Relative Importance?

PF: "As I mentioned I hit a real low point in my life last year. I had finished my Master’s degree in clinical social work and I ended up with a job in Mississauga managing a crisis network, which really burnt me out and left me quite depressed. I started to take stock of where I was in life, what I wanted and where I was headed – I guess I did all of the things that I thought were expected of me, but I was just so unhappy in the end that I felt like I needed to follow my heart and take some chances. Music was always in the back of my mind, and I didn’t want to have the “what ifs” later in life if I had never even really tried. Maybe hitting such a low emotionally was a good thing really, because I ended up with songs that I believed it and I felt like I didn’t have anything to lose - I was already so unhappy that even if people hated the record or ridiculed my efforts I’d know that I had at least taken a swing, and really I didn’t care as much about critics anymore because I was doing this for myself. Ultimately the timing just felt right, and I knew that if I was going to record that I wanted to do it the right way and make the songs as good as they could be (and if they failed then so be it, at least I’d know then.)

As for choosing the studio I really went through the process pretty much blindly, looking up websites, making cold calls, listening to a lot of samples and trying to find a studio that I felt comfortable with and one that would fit well with my style of music. I met quite a few people, but as soon as I set foot in Catherine North Studios I just felt at home and Michael Chambers (who won 2011 Engineer of the Year at the Hamilton music awards during the project) was just incredible from the start. Really the work that has come out of the studio (City and Colour, Whitehorse) speaks for itself, and I also thought it would be really cool to record in Hamilton since my father grew up there and the album title was based on an old poem he wrote – so in the end it all just made sense. In terms of collaborators, I came into the project with an open mind and trusted Michael’s input, direction and talent – he proved to be an incredible mentor and producer whose finger prints are all over this record, and he ultimately chose the other musicians who participated."

SCQ: Presuming that these songs were born in the merger of voice and guitar, how did Relative Importance's various embellishments unfold? Did you mentally mark a clear line in the sand with regards to how many musical contributions a composition should have?

PF: "Song writing for me is a very spontaneous process, and yes the roots of all my songs come from a combination of voice and guitar together. Once I feel I have a song mostly arranged in my mind I create demo recordings where I really finish writing by adding harmonies and other parts to try and make the songs as “complete” as I can on my own, but each song takes on a life of its own. In that sense I’m very particular about the sound and feel of the song, but it’s hard for me to envision other instruments and contributions as I’ve never played in a band, and writing has always been a solo effort. Given that, coming into recording I was very open to feedback and input and really trusted Michael’s opinions and vision for the songs. There were times where we tried different arrangements and ideas, some of which worked and others didn’t, but it was a collaborative process going on feel and a willingness to experiment in the spirit of trying to make the songs as good as they could be in our minds."

SCQ: Many of these songs feature a nostalgic or mournful narrative often laced, I sense, with a contented air to the way their personal loose ends played out. When performing these songs, do you find you've developed a closer bond to the muse behind your songwriting -- as if opening old wounds -- or, alternately, a disconnect from revisiting these songs on a regular basis?

PF: "I would agree that these songs are nostalgic and mournful in many ways as that was the frame of mind I was in during the writing process for the record. I feel like songs in general tend to be a bit of a photograph or time stamp reflecting where you were emotionally at a particular time, and for me these songs were written when I was unhappy and questioning a lot of things in my life. I didn’t strive to give a contented air to the personal loose ends, in fact I often like to end the chord progressions unresolved or write in suspended tunings that have an ambiguous feel because I don’t think the world is black and white and I believe that many of the pains and struggles you experience in life are chronic and something you’ll always be fighting. Overall though, I feel that this whole process of recording and getting back to writing has definitely helped me learn more about myself and how I write – it’s definitely something I’ve dissected (maybe even too much) but I rarely aim to disconnect with the songs. Instead I sometimes I feel I’m at a point where I’m just ready to move on and new ideas, melodies, lyrics, themes etc. inspire you again. After a long haul of putting your ideas under the microscope of the studio that glow the songs once had when you first wrote them wears off  and then you strive to recapture that again with newer material. But like I said, I look back on these songs as pictures in a way of where I’ve been so I’ll always appreciate them for what they are."

SCQ: What has been most rewarding about releasing Relative Importance so far? And what comes next?

PF: "I don’t really know if I can narrow it down to a single most rewarding thing about releasing the album. What immediately comes to mind is the amount of positive feedback I’ve received on the album not only from family and friends, but from album reviewers who have been incredibly flattering, and college/university radio stations like Brock Radio, Conestoga College Radio, Humber College Radio who have generously supported the record. Hearing my songs on the radio has been such a cool feeling, and one of the best moments so far was learning that Relative Importance made it to #1 on CFBU Brock Radio’s charts as of February 22, 2012.  Ultimately it’s been a great feeling to just accomplish the goal of recording the record – no matter what happens I’ll always have this to look back on. Maybe the biggest thing is that I’m just following my heart, and ready to take chances again. What comes next? I’m going to keep writing and hopefully record another record, keep grinding, and find a way carve out a living at this. One day at a time."

Relative Importance - Paul Federici

Relative Importance

Paul Federici

SCQ Rating: 80%

In many ways, St. Catharines is a city constantly reevaluating itself. Surrounded by rural offshoots but dwarfed by neighbouring metropolises like Hamilton and Buffalo, the mid-sized “Garden City” continues to consolidate its reputation as a powerhouse behind two realms: the white collar Niagara School Board and the blue sweat pushing the manufacturing sector. Nonetheless, St. Catharines is also home to an independent scene that has been flourishing over the past decade; having first established nationally recognized outfits like Alexisonfire and Raising the Fawn, the annual SCENE Music Festival has also grown into a massively prolific one-day bash that would act as the musical climax for just about any city.

It’s the sort of conflicted place only a record like Relative Importance could come from; its soft nuances bundled with the no nonsense assuredness of a songwriter who knows his voice and exactly what he’s yearning to connect with. The clarity of that conviction comes across with ease on “Conveniently Yours”, a mid-tempo track bolstered by Federici’s multi-part harmonies and a pulse that begs to breath new life into rock-radio. As well equipped as his backing band sounds given the prospect of radio chart success, it’s the former quality – Federici’s voice – that anchors Relative Importance’s eight songs. “She Is Lost” and “True” would be highlights on the grounds of their arrangements alone – one, a steady and melodic tale of restlessness, the other a melancholic folk song – but Federici’s layered vocals overtop create an added dimension of harmonies that takes the traditional songwriter’s material to another level.

Since Relative Importance’s release in January, Federici’s voice has been venturing further and further from home. (According to his website, the record even cracked the Alternative Rock charts in Sinzig, Germany.) In spite of his growing reputation, little about these songs suggests that Paul Federici’s approach would change upon the doorstep of a bigger fan-base. When one hears this record in an intimate setting, it becomes clear that upgrading his sound might indeed prove counterproductive since Relative Importance’s heart lies in its grounded and restrained execution. Besides solid song-craft, it’s Federici’s quiet confidence that may just bring the disparate halves of his hometown together at last.

Ivory - Kutin


Valeot Records.

SCQ Rating: 82%

“Ambient” – a genre of music that defies the structure of pop music to arouse contemplation and emotion. Of course, the word “ambient” also preserves journalistic integrity on a daily basis and has gotten me, and I suspect a lot of music critics, out of some tight spots. There’s no need for guilt or denial; with every laptop a virtual home studio these days, who’s to say what every sonic embellishment is composed of and whether said adornment comes courtesy of a traditional instrument, or modern software program?

Peter Kutin’s third release, Ivory, didn’t catch my ear because I knew it was composed almost entirely of guitar – no, I only found that out later. But what drew me to his enigmatic explorations was certainly textural, as if Kutin’s approach to “ambient” leaned less on float-y distraction and more on weighty instrumentation. “White Desert” lays down a hotbed of subtle atmosphere, dotted by treated blurs of guitar, static and what sounds like field recordings from a beach, before introducing a softly descending bass figure that compliments an imagined vista. Alternately “After the Plague” stretches over brittle chords and into an increasingly drone-fed landscape, seemingly losing its form if not its potent emotion. In what I reckon is among the best compliments I can offer, you needn’t even pay attention to Ivory’s song-titles; artistic license aside, a track called “After the Plague” applies as much to its ambient quality as any nonsensical title you could lovingly label it with.

Giving the aforementioned highlights additional presence, Kutin diverts attention by occasionally forging new territory. The classically inspired “Sombre”, which loops a violin piece through smeared orchestral layers and rainy field recordings, keeps Ivory’s approach from stagnating and uncovers some intriguing points of navigation. Patient and immersive, Kutin’s made one of the year’s most self-assured ambient records without abandoning the possibilities of his core instrument.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Kindred EP - Burial

Kindred EP

Hyperdub Records.

SCQ Rating: 79%

Last spring’s Street Halo was very much a victory lap. Brisk but powerful, it procured enough subtle tricks to warrant a pat on the back for progressive leanings but essentially cemented the same sound we’d all lost our shit over four years prior. That’s something worth celebrating, even in the wake of dubstep’s mainstream perversion; the convincing evidence that insists Burial remains the sole proprietor and executioner of such a gritty, bleak and yet beautiful palette of urban restlessness.

Barely a year on, the mysterious beat-constructor returns with another three-pronged EP of sprawling, nomadic dubstep and the results are equally breathless. Kindred EP expands upon its predecessor’s spacey dimensions – in such a way that Street Halo’s longest run-time in effect becomes this EP’s shortest – and that aural real estate affords weightier compositions. “Loner” breaks from Burial’s trademarked wood-block approach by instilling a comparatively simple drum-machine loop to feed a flurry of samples and morose-keyed momentum. “Ashtray Wasp” preserves that drive, with four-by-four beats thudding beneath a wide array of voices and murky instrumentation, but it’s the title track that really steals the show here. “Kindred”, besides incorporating some industrial noise to its edges, probably boasts Burial’s best use of vocal samples ever, creating an esoteric link of voices that form one devastating hook after another.

Burial’s wise enough to steer clear of laying down too much at a time but by occasionally stripping his compositions down to scratch, he occasionally risks dropping his audience into structure-less limbo. “Ashtray Wasp” takes that permanent detour, presumably as a means to avoid overwhelming listeners, and the track’s piano-led ending – a pale echo of its earlier force – ultimately deepens the artist’s craft (although perhaps at the expense of his fans’ expectations). No matter how you hear it, Kindred EP won’t resonate like another unexpected victory lap, instead presenting itself as a complicated evolution that nonetheless reasserts Burial’s reign over all things dubstep.

Port Of Morrow - The Shins

Port Of Morrow

The Shins
Aural Apothecary/Sony.

SCQ Rating: 81%

Zach Braff's hyperbole sort of damned the Shins, sure. James Mercer’s quirky underdog songs may have fit well into Garden State’s sad-sack hum but they hadn’t the shoulders to bear the big budget indie flick’s over-the-top assertion that The Shins could “change your life”. Likewise, the makers behind Garden State didn’t have to concern themselves with sponsoring 2007’s Wincing the Night Away, still two years off, which would lament insomnia over a collection of mostly low-key chamber-pop arrangements. The pressure had peaked and a collective burnout was overdue; in what would amount to no big surprise, Wincing the Night Away was handled delicately, indecisively and mostly forgotten.

Whether I too was subconsciously suffering ‘Shins Burnout’ at the time, I can’t really say, but it’s clear that I underestimated Wincing the Night Away beyond its underwhelming role as breakout clutch hitter. Quite honestly, I cannot call to mind many records that have unguarded themselves with the patience and mystery of that moody outing; it reveals as much in a post Broken Bells universe as it did back in the winter of 2007. One thing I can say without hesitation is that Port Of Morrow won’t engage such a debate-rich discourse. 

For all of the questions that encircled an imminent Shins album in 2012 – above all, whether the entirely new ensemble surrounding Mercer could maintain The Shins’ distinctive sound – Port Of Morrow has a humbling effect on listeners; it’s as tuneful as the best Shins’ material and yet eclectic enough to rarely stay in one spot for long. Every bouncy, radio-rock candidate like “No Way Down” or “Bait and Switch” gets balanced by Mercer’s songbird sensitivity, which makes highlights of “It’s Only Life” and “September”. And with ample doses of playful choruses and sonic revelry at play, Port Of Morrow earns its keep more as a welcome return than as a cohesive masterstroke.