CD and book reviews
Valleys – “Are You Going to Stand There and Talk Weird All Night?”
In the last decade, Montreal has seen a huge surge of innovative, experimental alternative bands who found themselves the hot topic of conversation among music critics and journalists who marvelled at the staggering uniqueness of this new intricately-produced melancholy sound wave. Among the still-lesser-known tier of the Montreal scene are Valleys, whose latest, the brooding, intense “Are You Going to Stand There and Talk Weird All Night?”, is a quirky but sinister record that is random in almost all the right places.
This record features a myriad of meandering funeral dirges accompanied by sharp, tinny strings and wailing vocals – think The Funeral-era Arcade Fire meets the XX; the whole record has a very ‘wet’, detached feel from the choral-style singing, to the sparing metronome-type drums and one-note cymbals, to the quiet, droning electronic keyboard and fuzzy bass which cajole mostly off in the distance, until the latter half of the record when the noisy “John, Meet Me at the Precipice” introduces a tidal wave of sound that crashes into the listener with great, full force and carries on to the record’s triumphant 8-minute closer, “Undream a Year”. Each song lends itself to a level of unpredictability which ranges from long sonic jam sessions to subtle ballads. The record is always heavy, but carries with it a hint of earnest sensitivity.
“Are You Going to Stand There and Talk Weird All Night?” is a bit of a challenging listen at times; some might call it uneven. Yet, to me, the lack of consistency is what Valleys is hoping to accomplish here – experimenting with production and minimalism, which is mostly successful due to a strong knack for off-kilter song craft. “Undream a Year” is long, but never boring, and neither is the rest of this record; it is a bit of a puzzle, one whose pieces manage to interconnect into a picture that is at first, isolating and hard-to-digest. With patience however, a couple of listens will reveal this record’s softness and its listenability.
– Miya Abe, May 2013
Born Ruffians – ‘Birthmarks’
Paper Bag Records
Those of us in our mid-twenties are a bit lost at the moment – products of more prosperous generations, isolated, inundated with the responsibility of inheriting a damaged world while we’re all broke and existing among inflation and outsourcing. Born Ruffians have capitalized beautifully on this sense of loss and search for belonging with the aptly-titled “Birthmarks”, which both celebrates and lambastes the growing pains of one’s twenties with a bold but introspective wink at the audience.
“Birthmarks” is not just good but great – and not just great – verging on brilliant: delicious beats; catchy, lush choruses; punchy wallop-packing staccato rhythms; high-energy, impassioned vocals from vocalist Luke Lalonde. Each element of “Birthmarks” works together to create a whole, well-rounded concept. One of the biggest stars of the record is drummer Steven Hamelin whose zany, anarchistic beats transcend into the foreground, driving each song, each lament forward in crisp, chaotic precision.
Lyrics about breakups, lust, desperation, shattered self-image and even a youthful attempt at protest rock (the puerile “Dancing on the Edge of Our Graves”), keep this record exciting, sexy, dark and standing on its own two feet despite all the factors of being mid-twenties that seem to weigh down Lalonde, who is on the front-lines of all this angst. Despite this underlying sense of frustration and sadness, “Birthmarks” is charming, brave, personal, and ridiculous with a touch of masculine sexual prowess. In short, this record is, upon the very first listen, weird and wonderful and instantly enjoyable.
Born Ruffians have been active ever since 2004 but they’re still so young. And while some artists need maturity to find their footing, youth rears its pretty little head in all the right places on “Birthmarks” and demonstrates a band that isn’t wise beyond their years, nor do they need to be. This record isn’t a call to action, a wordly tale, and doesn’t feed your soul with timeless depth; rather, it’s a small, childish record from a group of wunderkinds whose whispers have suddenly become screams.
– Miya Abe, April 2013
Young Galaxy – Ultramarine
Paper Bag Records
Vancouver’s Young Galaxy aren’t new kids on the block, having released their Montreal-recorded self-titled debut six years ago; while the band has taken a back seat to their big name Montreal contemporaries, they’ve been burning under the surface but have released some great songs which meld sparkling digital pop with deep, soulful lyrics. The band eventually garnered two Polaris Prize long list nominations for both 2009’s “Invisible Republic” and 2011’s “Shape Shifting” indicating that they’re a force to be reckoned with.
“Ultramarine” tips the digital scales. The songs are still clear-eyed and haunting but performed behind a wall of electronic sound. Heavy on synth and lighter on the slow, melodic pop of their earlier records, “Ultramarine” is a bit of a departure, although the way electronic music seems to have dominated the music landscape both on and off the charts in the last couple of years, this turn of events is unsurprising. What is surprising are the few moments on this record that are completely unique: “Fall for You” is sparse and chant-like, resembling an oddly Caribbean-flavoured version of Queen’s “Body Language”. “Privileged Door” is an unabashedly new wave tune whose chorus erupts with kinetic, joyous infectious beats. And as always, Catherine McCandless’ voice has a low, melancholy tonal voice that has the ability to carry a lot of weight.
“Ultramarine” features slow-burning, chilled out music presented behind a blast of whiz-bang-pop energy but it’s for this reason that the record falls short. The songs have a monotonous quality to them that lacks spangle and passion, and don’t showcase the strengths of the band. While there are bright spots, they are mere flickers and don’t reflect the deep, heartfelt strengths of Young Galaxy’s previous releases. I hope going forward they can capitalize on the more robust elements of their sound and reclaim their increasing momentum.
– Miya Abe, Apil 2013
Ruth Moody – ‘These Wilder Things’
True North Records
Australian-born, Manitoba-raised Moody is a member of the Wailin’ Jennys and released her first solo EP in 2002, and a full-length solo record in 2010. She’s back with 2013’s “Wilder Things”, a record that demonstrates a well-rounded, pleasant, sweet side of the country/folk songstress.
Moody’s voice doesn’t fall into the pocket of her songs; rather, it floats gently on top of her melodies, melding endearingly, often heartbreakingly, with tinkering piano, heavy acoustic guitar and crisp plucking mandolins. Her songs on this record are often sad and longing but always with an uplifting, soaring feel that take off the hard edge of songs about heartbreak like the heavier, wavering ‘Pockets’. A highlight of this record is her unique, folk/pop cover of ‘Dancing in the Dark’, adding a little cheekiness and femininity to her straight-up folk take on the classic tune by the Boss. The end of the record adds a touch of pop-wisdom as Moody croons, “If love is everything, we’ve got nothing without love” drawing a good record to a satisfying, sugary conclusion.
Ruth Moody’ solo efforts aren’t at all different than the material she’s released with the Jennys. This isn’t a problem with the record, but rather it begs a question: if artists choose to go solo, is it important that they showcase another untapped side of themselves? In some cases it’s what we might expect – that set free to act on their own creative instincts, artistry can flow in new, unexpected ways. However, Ruth Moody knows who she is, and she works perfectly well within the comfortable, lovely confines of her niche.
– Miya Abe, Apil 2013
The Treasures – ‘Bring The Night Home’
Universal Music Canada
The Treasures are from Toronto, Ontario and their country sensibility could scarcely be matched by the most Southern American artist. I don’t generally think country-blues when I think of Toronto’s indie music scene. But it’s been a while since I’ve heard such a lush, rich, beautiful purely country record from anywhere, Canada or otherwise.
This whole record has a vibe reminiscent of “Faithless Street”-era Whiskeytown or “A.M.”-era Wilco but while those records are small on arrangement and big on melody, The Treasures’ debut is mostly small on melody and big on arrangement. The band boasts an amazing guitarist whose solos practically break through the sound barrier and deliver greatness in nearly every song, and that’s just the beginning of the beautiful noise on this record; behind gritty vocals are pedal steel, organ, piano, and crisp lively drums which at times work together so they’re big enough to overtake the song.
These are simplistic songs – at times so repetitive it’s maddening; it takes a certain level of patience to focus on the four-minute single “And I Know You”. Yet, after the song is over, there is an emotional need to hear it again. The first few tracks on the record are moderately formulaic but the record finds its stride eventually and the moments of greatness are truly great; the blues-y rocker “Crossed The Wrong Woman” is a master-class in country-rock vocals that even Don Henley might be unable to compete with; and “Perfect Antidote” is a rousing go-west folk ballad that dials back the overtly almost orchestral sound of many tracks on the record.
The lengthy fourteen-song album could have used an editor; if this album kept only its strongest 10 or 12 tracks it would have been that much more tightly focused and fully realized. But this is a quality debut record. There is a lot going on, but a lot of it’s good.
– Miya Abe, Apil 2013
Grapes of Wrath – ‘High Road’
I’m walking into this review with a mostly blind eye. While The Grapes of Wrath have been around since 1983 (their hiatus notwithstanding), I’m admittedly unfamiliar with their older music aside from their 1985 single, “Misunderstood”. Grapes of Wrath reformed in 2009 and have since replaced their new wave cult-rock with a nicely updated fuzzy pop-rock sound. “High Road” is a good-time straightforward record full of lo-fi jangly pop a la early REM but with a surf-inspired twist.
The first track on the record, “Good To See You”, with its hand claps, catchy upbeat chorus and sunny lyrics, sets the tone for what is a really enjoyable listen. There’s no bells and whistles on the record: just straight-up verse-chorus structures, earnest imperfect vocals and a nice simple production quality that keeps the songs moving forward without drawing attention to itself. The lighter moments on the record like the earnest piano ballad “I’m Lost (I Miss You)” or the lovely campfire ballad “Take on the Day” are a nice breather in an otherwise solely pop-based record.
In short, there isn’t a weak track on the record; while it feels it runs a little long at times, each song does its best at bringing something to the table. It feels like a retrospect of a myriad of sounds in the band’s repertoire and despite that I’m unfamiliar with the band’s repertoire, this almost adds strength to the record, as I can still get a sense of identity from Grapes of Wrath when listening to “High Road” even with knowing only one song of theirs from the mid-80s.
“High Road” is Grapes of Wrath’s first record since 2000. In thirteen years the musical landscape in Canada and beyond has changed drastically but Grapes of Wrath still hold true to their principles and has crafted a record which feels that it represents their past while remaining current and contemporary at the same time.
– Miya Abe, March 2013
Atlas Genius – ‘When It Was Now’
Warner Bros. Records
I heard rumblings about Atlas Genius on social media recently, and now they’re suddenly everywhere. In the past week I’ve probably heard their sexy, melodic “Trojans” in bars, on the radio, at the ski hill, and so and so on.
While Atlas Genius hasn’t quite cracked the Top 100, their full length debut has a Top 100-quality sound all over it; the band is following in the dance rock revolution footsteps of bands like The Killers and the Postal Service; it blends together elements of trance and bouncy alternative rock, yet with a dark 80s-inspired twist. Upon the first couple of listens, the record has a bit of a flat sound, meaning that none of the songs sound unlike the others in what is a melding of bland same-y material. However, after repeated listenings the songs just begin to stand out on their own and the spacey, cooler elements of the record – long drawling electronic sections, insistent backbeats, and smooth, unwavering vocals from lead singer and guitarist Keith Jeffery – start to sound like something a little bit special.
“Trojans” is a track that has everything and I’m sure it will be on everyone’s playlist this summer; it’s a solid, thrilling, melody-driven song that has the makings of a massive crossover hit. The rest of the record serves as a first draft for a band who, once they gain some maturity, will surely find a sound, chemistry and style that is uniquely theirs.
To flip the switch on the sound of the record, I recommend checking out this acoustic version of the hit single, “Trojans”.
– Miya Abe, March 2013
The Matinee – ‘We Swore We’d See The Sunrise’
Canada now has an addition to the great contemporary alternative country genre with Vancouver’s own The Matinee, whose debut record is a stunning ode to youthfulness. The record itself is a road trip adventure story from start to finish and draws its strengths from an array of influences from pop, to punk, to straight-up classic country.
The first single, “Young & Lazy” is a salute to wayward hipsters and standout “L’Absinthe” tells a Kerouac-ian road trip tale of craziness, aimless partying, and temporary love in against a purely Canadian backdrop. While the record stands up proudly with its more famous American contemporaries, it is an homage, not a copy of Americana and lends a brand of humbleness that is small and rural, although it comes from a place of urbanity.
Front to back, this record is a strong first effort from a band that is currently unknown but won’t be for long. Its perfect encapsulation of listlessness, romance, sex, and fun is an accessible, wonderful record and one of my first favourite records of 2013.
– Miya Abe , March 2013
Two Hours Traffic – ‘Foolish Blood’
Unlike most of their Maritime contemporaries, Two Hours Traffic has cultivated a sound that falls outside of the Celtic/folk or bar band tradition. And while this sound does tend to be a bit stoic and un-changing, its consistency never fails to delight, even at its most un-interesting.
The band’s newest record, “Foolish Blood” is a healthy mish-mash of the Big Star and REM-esque pop that’s made the band famous, TV soundtrack-ready lyrics about unrequited love, British Invasion-inspired garage rock (right down to its fuzzy, flat production), and California surf pop. The dated feel of the record is what allows it to maintain small-town, small-time charm. The lead single, “Magic” is a typical jam from Two Hours Traffic, which has all the height and catchiness of a Billboard breakthrough single, and all the lo-fi jangly guitar sound of a typical college radio hit. The other songs on the record follow suit – they’re inoffensive, cute, and highly listenable.
Two Hours Traffic have never really brought anything new to the table and their sound has remained the same since their 2003 debut EP, “The April Storm”; having broken through to the US market due to their songs appearing on teenage dramas like The OC and One Tree Hill, the band has covered more ground than many other east coast bands who seem to have found a cozy niche within Canada only, such as Great Big Sea and The Trews. With marketability on their side and a no-fail, no-frills sound, “Foolish Blood” is destined for well-deserved indie record success. Just don’t expect it to blow your mind.
– Miya Abe , March 2013
Tegan and Sara – ‘Heartthrob’
The term “pop”, referring to “pop music” is an odd term. Originally ‘genre’-less, it referred to songs that weren’t essentially, chamber or classical music. Nowadays, “pop” has taken on a life of its own as a genre – oft-referring to electronic, big budget-driven songs that are played by pretty faces to crowds of thousands upon thousands of young teenagers. It’s a reviled term, one from which the anti-mainstream prefers to stay distant.
Tegan and Sara released their first record in 1999, a simplistic indie effort featuring songs like the sparse, folksy “Divided”. Fast forward 14 years to the Calgary-born twin sisters’ latest, “Heartthrob”, a record full of sparkling synth-y riffs and up-tempo melodies. In between these two night-and-day releases are a series of mostly inconsistent efforts that demonstrate the band’s search for their place within the celebrated cannon of great Canadian music. After six records, they may have come one step closer to finding it. And, that place is within the ‘pop’ genre.
“Heartthrob” allows the band to put their own spin on a predominantly electronic keyboard-based sound that is achingly catchy and addictive while still maintaining the kind of authenticity you’d expect from the former Lilith Fair performers. In less capable hands, a record like this might come across as cheesy or too grand a departure. However, there’s no denying the record’s accessibility, which is an underrated quality in a record.
Lyrically, Tegan and Sara haven’t covered any amazing ground here. The bland, unmemorable and consistently repeating lines about love, other girls, broken friendships and sex are not representative of any great singer/songwriter and are more or less invisible on the record. However, the purpose of this record, like the purpose of most pop records, is seemingly to pound out melody and lots of it. It does just that, and does so extremely well.
If “Heartthrob” represents what pop has the potential to become, perhaps it’s best for the dismissive alternative camp to reconsider meeting pop music halfway.
– Miya Abe, Feb 2013
‘Nervous Doll Dancing‘ is Franscesca Mountfort, a classically-trained cellist from Wellington New Zealand, who performs on the global fringe theatre festival circuit. Eidolon is the soundtrack to the visual projection and puppetry of the show. This is melancholic, delicately played string music that sounds like the perfect soundtrack to your favourite European art-house film. Listen alone in a darkened room and be transported to an otherworldly dream state. No vocals, all cello and piano.
– Matt Granlund, Sept 2012
Ever gone to a funeral and wound up on a toilet floor bleeding? Such an unlikely scenario may have been within the realm of possibility for Will, a character in Tim Kinsella‘s debut novel, ‘The Karaoke Singer’s Guide To Self-Defence’. The longtime frontman for eclectic Chicago-based rockers Joan of Arc, Kinsella recently re-directed his artistic drive towards a masters in creative writing, giving birth to this impressive tale.
Will is a street-fighting addict who has returned to his home town of Stone Claw Grove after a five-year absence to attend his Grandmother’s funeral. At this rare gathering of his working-class family, unresolved tension and hang-ups underlie their scrubbed-up clean appearances.
The lives of other outsiders intertwine with Will’s family throughout the story. There is a Sarah Anna, a teenage runaway who ends up working at the Shh…, a strip club and karaoke bar frequented by Will and his siblings. Will’s sister Mel is a lifer behind the bar, conflicted by her necessary periods of dancing to support her child. There is also the disturbing addition to the story of a middle-aged man on the run with a kidnapped teenager who is laying low in Stone Claw Grove.
Kinsella doesn’t fill the novel with fast action but instead guides the reader to dwell on the inner workings of these desperate characters. He utilizes shifts in time fro the present day to past episodes of Will’s legendary bloodletting in bars and car parks. The rewards of this style of narrative lay in the effective mapping of the psychological terrain governing the relationships between the family members and their connections to the other characters.
If the forced family occasion of the funeral doesn’t allows the siblings to let their guard down after years of unprocessed childhood trauma, the democratic ritual of karaoke offers a possibility for the masks to drop, if only for a night at a time. ‘They lived on display. That was how it was. How it was meant to be,’ Kinsella writes of Will’s defensiveness around his brother and sisters who are likely anticipating a relapse of his addictive brawling.
‘The Karaoke Singer’s Guide To Self Defence’, reads like an impressive cross between Fight Club and a heart-felt Springsteen lyric – a low key and occasionally cryptic tale about the vulnerability and angst of regular American people.
– Matt Granlund, Nov 2011
The Re-Mains – ‘Courage and Shuffle The Cards…’
Over the summer of 2011, Australian outlaw-country road warriors The Re-Mains have gifted Canadian listeners with an exuberant 30 day tour and accompanying souvenir CD : ‘Courage…and shuffle the cards’. The band crafts powerful songs about the realities of life on the road that are grounded in Australian folk and topped off with a likeable bar-room swagger. The inclusion of traditional banjo and pedal-steel enriches the punchy tunes with country and western stomp without sounding self-consciously ‘alt-country.’
The result is raucous and passionate. It is fitting that six of the twelve tracks are live recordings which showcase the raw country-rock that festival goers in Western Canada will experience with The Re-Mains this summer. The Re-mains are currently leading the charge of the hardest working Australian independent bands rocking the Canadian touring circuit. ‘Courage…and shuffle the cards’ also serves as a great entry-point into their back catalogue.
– Matt Granlund, July 2011
Blue Guitar Highway is an autobiography by Minneapolis, MN folk/blues musician Paul Metsa. A legend of sort in his home state, Metsa has earned a living as a professional musician for close to 40 years. In his book, the seasoned songwriter reflects on a series of well-received recordings and memories of thousands of shows in every imaginable venue, from pool halls and biker bars, to Neil Young’s star-studded Farm Aid.
If Seattle was the centre of the Rock n Roll universe in the early ’90s, Minneapolis had it’s own galactic-sized pull during the mid-80s, with the Replacements and Husker Du leading a burgeoning scene of post-punk and d.i.y acts. Metsa came of age in this scene, although is path has continued down a more traditional singer-songwriter blues and folk route. In the decades since, he’s held extended stopovers in Los Angeles and even remote Russia.
Metsa writes in a loose but descriptive style that is fitting for a guitar-slinger who has remained relatively unscathed after years of touring and risk-taking, due in part to an unrelenting self-belief in his vocation. This is not an angst-ridden tell-all, or a Motely-Cure-style sage of excess. Metsa instead speaks in awe of moments like performing alongside his hero Pete Seeger and others at a tribute to Woody Guthrie at the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame, and chronicles his valiant efforts to fight the demolition of historic Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis.
‘Blue Guitar Highway’ is a convincing testament to the strength that a performer can draw on by remaining in touch with his or her roots, while remaining open to the trial and rewards along the road of an America steeped in song.
– Matt Granlund, Sept 2011