I’m building it up

September 19th, 2014 No comments
The Smalls perform at Sonic Boom Festival in Edmonton.

The Smalls perform at Sonic Boom Festival in Edmonton.

A couple of weeks ago I got to experience a little piece of Canadian music history. But man, it was one of the weirdest musical experiences of my life.

My family and I attended the Sonic Boom Music Festival in Edmonton the last weekend of August. To say that some of us were going just to see the reunion of legendary bizarro rockers The Smalls probably isn’t entirely true, but it is definitely almost entirely true.

The Albertan jazz-metal-punk rockers were definitely the odd group out at Sonic Boom, a festival put on by the “modern rock” station of the same name. The big draws of the weekend were young, terrible rock bands like Cage The Elephant (whose warmed-over Rolling Stones pastiches and ripped-off Mick Jagger stage moves were frequently cringe-inducing) and Foster The People (whose ode to shooting children somehow became a massive hit single), while the bulk of the other “major” acts that have been around long enough to be at or near double-digit album numbers (Jack White, Descendents, Death Cab For Cutie, Stars, Tegan & Sara, New Pornographers, Rise Against).

Playing the odd men out, as they did the entire time they were an active band, were Alberta’s own The Smalls (sorry fam, I don’t acknowledge stylistic capitalization choices; suck it, E.E. Cummings). Always a group that went their own way, they were shockingly popular in the mid- and late-90s, especially in western Canada. That’s why I know about them, I guess.

The fesitval's biggest downside? Gomers dressed like this.

The fesitval’s biggest downside? Gomers dressed like this.

See, my sister Brandi was my musical beacon when I was a little baby in the 90s. Just as I was actually starting to listen to  music — any music — she was getting into bands like Green Day, The Lemonheads, and SNFU well before anyone else in our town. I can remember being fascinated by the sounds coming from her room, which she never seemed to leave. Still, I managed to find time to record Green Day’s immortal pre-fame LP Kerplunk onto a cassette when she wasn’t around (sorry pal!) so I could listen to it while playing basketball with friends and video games in our basement. To this day, songs like “Christie Road” and “One For The Razorbacks” still conjure up images of that Zelda game that was on Super Nintendo or Stephen King’s collected Richard Bachman novels, both of which I devoured one summer with that album on repeat.

But I never got into The Smalls. Not like she did, anyway; even a teenage Brandi never missed a show when they came through whatever town we were living in. She had all the records, as she always would, right up through their fourth and final release in 1999.  She knew them by name and had probably been spit on and elbowed and kneed in more mosh pits at their shows than I’ve ever been in. I just wasn’t there yet. I didn’t understand their bizarre, arty amalgam of jazz, punk, metal, country, and lord knows what else.

Except for one song. I think I probably heard it on a tape of Brandi’s in the car, possibly when she was giving me a ride somewhere or something? Who could say. But “Filling A Warehouse” was always a favourite of mine, even when I didn’t know what it was called or who did it. It was punk enough that it appealed to my nascent tastes, but the hushed and subtly menacing vocal produced a much more visceral reaction than did even the early Marilyn Manson record she also listened to around that time. I had no worldly idea what the lyrics were supposed to be about (still don’t) but it thrilled me every time I heard it.

So the idea of seeing it performed live some 13 years after The Smalls played their last show was at least a curious notion, if not a pretty exciting one. Granted, in the interim years I’ve gotten to know their catalogue a whole lot better, so I was looking forward to more than just the one song. But of course, I wasnowhere near as excited as Brandi, as you can see from her thoughts below.

What was it like to see the smalls play at Sonic Boom, 13 years after I thought I’d said goodbye, forever?

It’s difficult to compare the recent Edmonton set with any smalls show in my memory. I saw them at venues like the Exchange, where you had to watch out for teleposts as well as crowdsurfers; the Times, where the ceiling was so low, the sweat from the crowd literally condensed and dripped back down in the funkiest of rains; and Amigos, where you were as likely to get a table corner in the kidney as you were an elbow to the ribs.

Sonic Boom was another beast entirely – think Marty McFly’s first glimpse at life in the future: the technology is bizarre and pervasive (selfies-on-a-stick?!) the clothes are totally fucked up, there arefamiliar elements – but it’s all distorted by the hot glare of the 5:00 sun bouncing back off the hovercars, or in this case, the asphalt.

FullSizeRender (1)

SELFIES ON A STICK, BROS AND GURLS

Until I heard the first few chords, and the last decade – along with everything else – ceased to matter.

Because none of it ever mattered.

At least, not to me. Even back in the day, I’d never have recognized these guys if I saw them on the street (sorry, guys! Did I mention I love you? Because I do). It was never about being entertained, getting drunk or finding someone to hook up with.

Because it was always about the music.

That fast, heavy, complicated, aggressive but oddly balanced chimera of a sound that has never been pigeon-holed, or duplicated (in my biased-as-fuck opinion). And when you’re at the foot of the stage, with your face mashed up against some random dude’s sweaty shoulder-blade, it is the ONLY thing that matters.

Don’t get me wrong – it wasn’t exactly the same. In the old days, I’d have had to fight my way out of the pit every 4th song or so to take a breather, because it was balls-to-the-wall CRAZY from start to finish. This time around, it was relatively easy to just take a step or two back and find a space to rest on the fringe. That, and the palpable sense of pure, maniacal joy coming off the crowd in waves, accompanied by enormous grins and even a few tears, made it different than any other smalls show I’ve ever been to. And I am something of an expert on the subject.

The Smalls have played a lot of dark holes like Amigos in Saskatoon. Photo by Brandi.

The Smalls have played a lot of dark holes like Amigos in Saskatoon. Photo by Brandi.

I can certainly see how there may have been a disconnect for people like Pat, who didn’t get the full experience the first time these talented fellows were making their rounds, and maybe found the venue and other assorted weirdness a little too jarring. It was unsettling for me, too – until it wasn’t.

I am, as we used to say, super stoked for the show at the Owl next month. And I hope, with all of my aging skate-punk heart, that any of you who missed out on the smalls the first time around take this opportunity to jump into the Delorian and join us back in the ‘90s – where rock shows happen at night, in dingy clubs, and there’s not a hovercar or selfie-on-a-stick to be seen.

Because it WILL get weird. In the best possible way.

And she’s right. The ephemera shouldn’t have mattered at all, because the band played flawlessly, which was a remarkable surprise. Considering the complexity of some of their songs and the length of time they’ve been away from them, I was thoroughly impressed that they carried off every note perfectly. Corb Lund (who I didn’t even realize played bass, for god’s sake) kept the low-end locked down and provided his trademark vocals in a back-up context (sounding a little twangier than he did on the records, I think), Drummer Terry Johnson was a stalwart presence, and Dug Bevans’ guitar was perfect, the speed and dexterity of his playing never falling a step behind. They sounded amazing, and no foolin’. Hearing them tear through tracks like “Pity The Man With The Fast Right Hand” and the spaghetti-Western stomp of perennial favourite “My Saddle Horse Has Died” was sheer ecstasy.

But the gig may have left some feeling it wasn’t quite enough. Thanks to my wizened old-person brain, I wear earplugs at shows. So I got to hear a bro in his late-20s or early-30s trying to pick up some teenage girls by complaining about how boring the band was. A teenage fellow came to The Smalls’ defence, triggering a 5+ minute heated conversation about how the older fellow should respect a legendary local band and keep his mouth shut if he wasn’t enjoying it.

He was kind of right though. They mostly just stood there and played, locomotion sacrificed for intense focus on their instruments. Of course, at the time they took stage I don’t know if anyone realized that singer Mike Caldwell had recently broken his collarbone; I surely didn’t. As you can imagine, it put a damper on the show, although I wonder how much, since while I never saw them live when I was younger I have read that Caldwell used to essentially ignore the audience and refused to interact with the crowd. He certainly didn’t follow the lead of some of his young contemporaries at the festival by wading into the maddening crowd at the front of the barricade, but he did make some very gracious comments over the course of the hour-long set.

Still, I felt a bit unsettled when it was all over. The Smalls aren’t a band that ever fit that context in my head; I had a vague understanding of them as small club rats of yore, a road-weary band of musical mutts who played to hundreds, not 15,000 people (note: there was nowhere near that many people actually watching the band, that was the peak attendance during Jack White’s closing set on Sunday). They have earned a place of reverence in the CanCon history books, but it was a stage too big and too auspicious for the picture in my head. I was thrilled to see that their club dates are in much more appropriate venues. As Brandi mentioned, we have tickets to the Lazy Owl next month. It should get weird. I can’t wait.

The Smalls are directing people to iTunes to purchase their four classic albums. However, they were selling CDs at Sonic Boom and hinting at vinyl releases on Twitter. So get to these shows and get some goddamn Smalls songs. The current dates are below, but keep in mind that multiple shows have been added in numerous cities as dates sell out, so they’re probably going to keep booking gigs as long as tickets keep selling. Which is neat.

Oct. 18 – Toronto – The Horseshoe
Oct. 21 – Saskatoon – Louis’ Pub
Oct. 22 – Regina – The Lazy Owl
Oct. 23 – Winnipeg – West End Cultural Centre
Oct. 24 – Regina – University of Regina
Oct. 25 – Saskatoon – Louis’ Pub
Oct. 31 – Calgary – Flames Central
Nov. 4 – Nelson – The Hume Hotel
Nov. 5 – Kelowna – Flashbacks
Nov. 6 – Kamloops – Cactus Jack’s Saloon
Nov. 7 – Vancouver – Commodore Ballroom
Nov. 8 – Victoria – Sugar Nightclub
Nov. 9 – Vancouver – Commodore Ballroom
Nov. 14 – Edmonton – Starlite Room
Nov. 15 – Edmonton – Starlite Room
Nov. 16 – Edmonton – Starlite Room

Check out their web site for more details.

Can’t you see the gold?

September 16th, 2014 No comments

Chris Cresswell One Week Album CoverIn so many ways this is the album I’ve been waiting for Flatliners frontman Chris Cresswell to make. I know there’s no shortage of punk bands with frontmen who sing in rough-edged, gruff-yet-melodic tones, but there aren’t many (re: any) who do it in quite so compelling a fashion as Cresswell.

After years of neglect, I wrote a post earlier this year about his full-time band and their “metal-tinged” pop punk. I’m a huge fan, but I’ve always thought that Cresswell’s voice had more depth than their music suggested. You got hints of it here and there on some songs where he wasn’t afraid to hit the high notes and sing more cleanly, but now — with the help of Lagwagon/Bad Astronaut/Bad Loud/solo artist Joey Cape and his bizarre concept album-based record label (artists live with Cape for a week and write and record an entire full-length acoustic record during that time) — we’re getting pure, unfiltered crooning.

Unquestionably, the highlight of this quickly-executed record is his voice. For the most part he has little else in the mix but acoustic guitars. This isn’t a folk record as much as it is an acoustic one; strummed open chords form the foundation for this exercise, with overdubbed solos, vocal backups and harmonies, whistling, or tambourine pasted into the appropriate parts. There isn’t too much more at work; clearly the intent is to make sure that nothing gets in the way of Cresswell’s singing and lyrics.

Admittedly, however, there’s something a little unusual about listening to him sing cleanly, even tenderly, throughout the album. He has some unusual tics that are more pronounced in such a comparatively-sterile environment, like an occasional drawl of sorts that injects y- and h-sounds into syllables they wouldn’t necessarily exist. It’s also just a little bizarre to hear him sand so much of the edge of his singing you’re used to hearing on every single song off.

For the most part Cresswell successfully allows himself to show a very different side here. There’s a surprising amount of vulnerability on display and a fragile musical framework to reflect it. Songs like “Concrete Dialogue,” “Stitches,” and “San Ysidro” are the most subdued, quiet and gentle, almost muttered vocals carrying along some intriguing melodies and, in the latter case, fuckin’ finger-snaps. They are appropriately bleak, all grey, curdled coffee and the fear of getting old alone.

A lot of these songs follow that topical thread; “Meet Me In The Shade” starts the album off with one of the prettiest melodies here, masking the chilly solitude of the lyric. “100” sees him pledging to sing dozens of songs to someone “who doesn’t deserve a thing.” Then there’s “On The Day You Died,” the title of which gives all the explanation to its content you need.

The tone can border on severe at times, frankly. Cresswell still leans on the dark imagery that is pervasive in The Flatliners’ work. Even a beautiful song of repose like album opener “Meet Me In The Shade” includes includes references to choking and agony. “Daggers” is a lovely, vaguely Shins-esque number (complete with whistle solo!) that is awash in bloody stabbing imagery, often delivered with a slight vocal growl that isn’t quite befitting of the victim the song portrays him as. A cover of Fat Wreck label mates Dead To Me’s “Arrhythmic Palpitations” and “Stitches” are both partially delivered with the same Flatliners-esque vocal growl and muscle. It works until it doesn’t quite work, ultimately resulting in songs that have one foot planted too far into each world to stand on their own.

Still, those are minor quibbles in the face of the larger product, which is excellent. It’s worth noting that “Arrhythmic Palpitations” and “Stitches” are also the few songs where we hear the most muscular higher-end notes of his range, a temporary throwing-off of the shackles that were created by the becalmed nature of the rest of the record.

To me they’re proof that while the record works — and works very well — as a snapshot of the quietest moment of Cresswell’s career to date, it probably isn’t a true synthesis of the duality of his musical abilities. I would love to see him work in a full-band context, possibly even with electric guitars, that truly splits the difference between the acoustic troubadour and the howling-for-blood hardcore growler. I have a feeling that middle ground could be even more fertile.

You can get Chris’ One Week Record via the One Week Records web site here. The One Week roster is also currently on a North American tour, with the following Canadian dates coming up:

Sep. 25: Quebec City, QC — Bar a La Source de la Martiniere
Sep. 26: Montreal, QC — Corona Theater
Sep. 27: Toronto, ON — The Cave (upstairs)
Oct. 1: Winnipeg, MB — West End Cultural Centre
Oct. 2: Saskatoon, SK — Vangelis Tavern
Oct. 3: Edmonton, AB — The Pawn Shop
Oct. 4: Calgary, AB — The Gateway
Oct. 6: Whistler, BC — Garibaldi
Oct. 7: Vancouver, BC — The Biltmore Cabaret

 

It is what it is

September 14th, 2014 No comments

Cory Branan No Hit Wonder cover

The irony of an alt-country singer naming his fourth record The No-Hit Wonder only to receive the most media coverage he’s had since his debut is kind of delicious, but even though it’s also his best album I feel confident in predicting that Cory Branan will be no closer to becoming a superstar than he is today.

Oh, don’t get me wrong — I am an absolute devotee of Branan’s. He can do no wrong, as far as I’m concerned; his last record Mutt was nothing short of a revelation after he spent six years between albums (aside from a literally perfect split LP with SSA-favourite Jon Snodgrass). I loved it so much I called it one of my favourite records of 2012. The No-Hit Wonder will be at the top this year as well, I promise you that.

Still, the sarcastic and sassy title, no matter how tongue-in-cheek, will hold true. This album is Branan’s most consistent in terms of genre; where his early records swung between acoustic torch songs and fuzzed-out rock songs and Mutt went every which-way from Tom Waits-inspired Tin Pan Alley songcraft to John Cougar Mellencamp-style pop rock, Branan stays fairly close to the time-honoured traditions of pure country music on this record. But even that dedication won’t propel him onto the pop charts: his comfort zone is miles away from what succeeds in country music these days.

Consider the songs that hit me the hardest on my first listen: “Sour Mash,” “The Only You,” and “All The Rivers In Colorado.” They’d all fit well in the deep pockets of country greats like Waylon Jennings and George Jones, but that sort of traditionalism sounds nothing like what goes on country music radio these days. Branan is much more in line with Canadians like Corb Lund and Daniel Romano (although the latter has draped himself in so much pastiche it’s sometimes hard to tell he’s under the 10-gallon hats and rhinestones).

The first is a fantastic new whisky anthem, a paean to the brownest of the brown liquors (another thing I absolutely love) that is as timeless as the Tennessee whisky Branan sings about (he’s a Nashville stalwart, after all). It’s propelled by a lightning-quick, fantastically-picked electric guitar line reminiscent of Joe Memphis’ work on some Ricky Nelson tunes (or, for that matter, his theme for Bonanza!), a taught and muscular backbone for a sultry and sassy composition. This is as close as Branan gets to the flashes of vocal menace or malice he showed on Mutt, but the growlier bits are really just a subtle counterpoint to the wry wink of the chorus, in which he demands the entire bar be bought a shot upon his demise.

“All The Rivers In Colorado” is my personal favourite on the record. I could fully see it sitting in George Jones’ catalogue, although it has some musical familiarity to tracks like Merle Haggard’s “Tonight The Bottle Let Me Down” or Hank Williams’ “I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive.” A nice twist on the classic bitter-sweet love song, Branan sounds downright ebullient while pledging that all of the titular streams could drive away the thought of his former loved ones. “Not that I’m trying,” he insists, “Just a thought, though it might be nice to keep from crying like all the rivers in Colorado.” The yo-yo melody and the spindly steel guitar help it hew dangerously close to pop country territory.

Ah, but there’s the rub. Branan is considered a songwriter’s songwriter, and tracks like this are indicative of that stature. Whether it’s nearly every line in the first verse ending with the word river or the incredibly circular structure of the chorus, he just throws in all these off-beat quirks and tics that break the songs from the stereotypical and expected tropes of the genre. It’s kind of amazing to have these kinds of jags hit your ear when you’re expecting them to go a certain way.

Then there’s “The Only You.” A very catchy number, this one seems to have caught the ear of nearly every reviewer I’ve seen take this album on. I think Branan’s been equally praised and derided for some too-cute lines: “I heard you’ve got another boy/I hear he looks a lot like me…Well, I got me another girl/she looks like you at 23/and while she sleeps I trace the places where your tattoos used to be.” But the real heart of the song is the intensity of Branan’s melancholic yearning in the chorus. “When I get lonely? Sure, she’ll do. But you’re the only you,” he pines, somehow managing to encapsulate in his singing the painful distance of lost love, but even more powerful is the momentary (albeit ultimately fleeting) satisfaction of finding someone to take their place for now.

And for my money, that melancholy joy what really makes this album. Branan himself is in an abnormally happy place in his life, having a wife and two young children that make him actually want to be at home instead of touring each year away. While he retains his dour sensibilities on the Tom Waits-biting “All I Got And Gone” and the admittedly-playful “C’mon Shadow,” he also celebrates home and family: “Daddy Was A Skywriter” is an honest and loving assessment of his familial roots (“Papa shaped this place with grease and grace, mama loved me and I hope it shows”), “You Make Me” is a startlingly-smitten opening track, and “Missing You Fierce” and “The Highway Home” show where his beacon is fixed these days.

As Branan says in the title track, perhaps both inanely and poignantly (if that’s possible), “It is what it is.” His sardonic sense of humour as he admits his chosen career hasn’t worked out yet shows that regardless of how his musical aspirations have turned out, he’s starting to realize how little industry success really matters in the grand scheme. That means his songwriting still has the kind of freedom to wander and goof around that you just can’t find in corporate country music. And for a quirky writer like Branan, that makes all the difference.

Pick up both The No-Hit Wonder and Mutt from Bloodshot Records’ web store by clicking here. Those records and so much more are also available through iTunes.

All my new thoughts sound so store-bought

August 25th, 2014 No comments

wars camo pants cover

I’m writing this while I’m home sick, so it’s going to be a really terrible post. But I really hope you guys know about Wars. I am seriously derelict in writing about them and I can’t wait any longer!

The Vancouver fivesome or something have just put out a couple of new tunes, so what better catalyst for a blog post than that? The image you see to the left is the cover of the new single, which features two songs: “Camo Pants, Why?” and “Blue & Black Sheep.” They may be leftovers from their first “studio” album album, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t fantastic!

My first brush with Wars came when they put out the album Pacey From The Mighty Ducks, the recording session from which these songs originate. And yes, I totally downloaded the record just because of the title. From the pummelling opening power chords and the subtle melodic shifts in the vocals of opening track “Statue Isn’t Right” I was transported back in time. I could see this band on a bill with The Smugglers and Chixdiggit and The Pointed Sticks (if those three bands had actually all been active at the same time). Better still, they let themselves wander all over the spectrum, thrashing with reckless abandon on “Trojan Whores” and “Pretty Ape,” slowing things down and cranking the melody on “Single Dad” and “Maiden USA,” unplugging on “Post-Pwn’d,” and covering The Queers and The Germs for good measure.

Fun record! But while I enjoyed it I wasn’t really lit on fire by it, I suppose; if I had been I probably would’ve written about it on here.

What got me a little more rabid about Wars was a single, Wars 1979, that came out very late in 2012. A four song EP that offered a fairly skewed view of what the band is capable of, the most distinguishing part came early: the titular single.

“Wars 1979″ puts the band’s Jawbreaker adoration front and center (as though naming their record label after a song from 24 Hour Revenge Therapy didn’t make it apparent enough). More even-tempered than most of Blake Schwarzenbach’s work, however, this song has a real sense of wistfulness and abandon. Call it a mix of “Jet Black” and Smashing Pumpkins’ “1979,” if you like. Over a cigarette, singer Chris Van Der Laan considers a gulf of separation, impatience, and how to deal with it (or deal with talking about it). The chorus is pure ecstasy, the rhythm slowing to half-time and the bulk of the band ahh-ing along in a gorgeously harmonic vocal interplay that rises above the mid-fi production to trigger all the aural pleasure centres of the brain.

The bridge reaches similar heights, with Van Der Laan’s descending vocal melody cascading over and over before hitting the chorus one more time.

It’s honestly one of the finest rock songs I’ve heard in a long time. So catchy! I should’ve been shouting it from the rooftops all along, and for that I apologize to Wars. I’ve done you wrong, baby; I didn’t even realize that you’d put out a new full-length record since then.

And now the new single! For a couple of outtakes, the new single is absolutely phenomenal. “Camo Pants, Why?” (a sentiment I totally understand) is a fast-paced, fuzz bass-driven number that puts Van Der Laan’s vocals front and center with some more great vocal hooks. “Blue & Black Sheep” opens with a fairly incongruous accordion intro before a tempo-shifting rock anthem of big, hooky proportions kicks in. They’re just a couple of short tunes, but when a band’s throw-away tracks are this catchy there’s no way to resist the ones they actually put on records, right?

So this isn’t the most in-depth and insightful review, but who cares? WARS ARE AWESOME. Simple point, simply made. Check out some rad jams below and go buy their tapes.

You can get Wars’ music from their Bandcamp page, which has an hilarious URL: http://bonerwars.bandcamp.com/music. While you’re there, check out the new album Neville Say Never too!

Bury us out in the suburbs

August 18th, 2014 No comments

junior battles rally cover

Sometimes being a die-hard fan costs you a little more money. Whether it’s grabbing a “greatest hits” record because it has two new songs or the delightful Jon Snodgrass renaming songs and then releasing them on a couple of records or Corb Lund’s latest record consisting entirely of rerecorded “oldies” (although, having said that, Counterfeit Blues is a truly fantastic record), those of us rabid enough to grab up every single piece of work a group releases will inevitably find a few repeated tracks here and there. But that’s sort of what being a die-hard is all about, right?

I certainly have no regrets about spending good money on Rally, the latest from Toronto pop-punk loyalists Junior Battles. Issued at the end of May by American label Paper + Plastick Records, it may seem at first glance that there isn’t much to their sophomore full-length; it’s a swift 27 minutes, has three songs that run roughly a minute each, and includes two songs that were previously-released. Evidently they hadn’t necessarily intended to write a new full-length album. They had a few new songs and felt like they might as well push themselves a little further to create a whole LP. But regardless of how the music is parsed out here, it is rich and compelling.

“(You Will Score The Winning) Goal” starts the album, a snippet of a song that pulls the central thesis of album closer “(You Are Very Good At) Sports” and renders it into a distant, reverb’d and hypnotic introduction. On the face of it, the lyrics seem sarcastic at best, seemingly equating the band’s efforts to high school athletes who can’t let go of the past.

“You will score the winning goal,” they sing, “because you are very good at sports. You’ve got several trophies that all recognize you as being the best in your town in 2003.” Later, they add, “You will write the greatest song because you’ve been working on it so long. You’ve got a catchy chorus and two solid versus. You’ll let someone hear it as soon as you finish the bridge.”

The plodding single “Rafts” doesn’t follow that prescribed structure, painting a bleak picture of “an ocean full of chum” swirling beneath a group of people with “total compassion” that the band has handed the titular safety device to. The band showcases a more pointed shift in gears here, offering a more grinding, mid-tempo rock sound (the band has compared it to The Constantines, but that might be a bridge too far). The aggression is a good counterpoint to the slinky guitar parts and acoustic-guitar backing of the following “Three Whole years.”

In interviews the band has acknowledged that these songs have taken time (their last record Idle Ages came out in 2011), but there is definitely a continuation of the theme of rigorous self-analysis happening here. It runs through every song; “Three Whole Years,” for example, sees songwriter Aaron Zogel asking some pointed questions:

“Have you never felt alone in a roomful of people, with everybody on their phones seeking some validation?…When someone asks you what you do, do you tell them your day job? Or do you say you’re really good at making people feel at ease when they’re with you?”

Pessimism and self-doubt are often go-to subjects for this band, and that continues in various degrees throughout this record. Previously-released tracks “TPS Reports” and “Believe It Or Not, George Isn’t At Home” (they comprised a two-song cassette sold at No Idea Records’ FEST music festival in Florida [although I did manage to track down a copy somehow]) see Zorgel wallowing in some self-pity, feeling lonesome and isolated. It’s unclear if the chorus of the latter (“All the things you used to say are better off forgotten because you drink too much and just talk shit and no one wants to hear it”) are being directed internally or externally, with the verses alternatingly suggesting he’s excoriating himself or that he’s desperately trying to get through to some else, crying, “You won’t even talk to me anymore.” The former is all about futility: “Take whatever you’ve got and just stuff it down the drain, make whatever you want and it doesn’t mean a thing; everything that you got ends up circling the drain.”

Thankfully things get lighter after those tracks. “Assholes On Rollerblades” is more or less the polar opposite of the entire record so far, a bright and sprightly stab at something akin to folk-pop-punk that layers boisterous acoustic guitars and chiming, distorted electric lead guitar. It’s what Against Me! might have sounded like around the time of Reinventing Axl Rose if Tom Gabel ever smiled. It feels a bit manic at times, as though Zorgel is lashing out at anyone and everyone he sees in the immediate vicinity, albeit with good reason. The song retains the strongest portion of the sense of humour that is apparent in varying degrees in all of their work, culminating in a pure pop moment of cascading falsetto harmonies that shows one more wrinkle this amazingly-talented group hadn’t yet exposed.

As tortured as the lyrical content may seem up to that song, however, the real emotional centre of the record comes in a couple of minutes that are gone before you realize exactly what’s coming at you. “27th Floor” is a bit of acoustic noodling that will be written off as a tossed-together track to flesh out the track listing, but which serves as an important transitory element: without it, the fragile, tender “Architecture II: Future Music For The Children Of The Future” would be entirely too jarring and out-of-place.

Indeed, “Architecture II” speaks to the core of the band better than any of the twitching, anxious tracks in their catalogue. It echoes the nearly-whispered acoustic interlude “Architecture” from Idle Ages, even bringing back lyrics from another Idle Ages song to kick off the track. But the message here is that regardless of how quickly the years pass and how drastically their adult reality has deviated from their youthful dreams, music continues to be the providence that sustains them.

“It’s not about the songs you write to watermark these years: it’s an old archive of tapes and CD-Rs of all your fears…Everything you can build is just dirt in the ground, so play every song you love fucking loud,” Sam Sutherland sings, before the whole band and more join in to plead, “Bury us out in the suburbs or scatter our ashes in Lake Ontario.”  While they may not always have faith in themselves, the band seems to remain resolute in the belief that everything will be okay as long as they keep the music alive.

When Junior Battles return to the structure of the song that opened the record it’s in a full-band context, a riffy mid-tempo number that would fit comfortably on their self-titled EP. But 90 seconds in, after a fairly downtrodden, self doubting chorus, the band eases into a bridge composed of some tightly-intertwined and expertly-arranged horns. A cynic might call it the kind of stab at “maturity” one expects to see on a “sophomore” record, but that would mean ignoring the ambitious emotional texturing, saxophone and accordian and piano, and caustic guest vocals on their first record (and earlier on this one) that showcased their maturity as songwriters.

It’s their willingness to just go for it that makes Rally work so well, even if it is a somewhat cobbled-together hodgepodge with a couple previously-released songs and a side of recycled material. The members of Junior Battles are students of music, and the time they’ve spent bowing at the altars of their heroes has given them an edge: their arrangements are clever, they take a perverse glee in subverting the expectations of the pop-punk genre, and they put every ounce of heart they have into the product. This record may contain numerous elements that have already popped up in their catalogue, but it doesn’t matter; they know how to use them in a new context and make you want to hear them, again and again.

That’s the real accomplishment of this recored: listening to Rally makes me want to listen to Rally more, and then put on Idle Ages and “Basements” and “Rip It Up” and “Boats.” It makes me want to celebrate that these guys have stuck together and committed to making this band a thing and not walking away after that first full-length. It makes me want to yell at them on Twitter for never touring west of Ontario and it makes me want to drive to Toronto just to see them play live once. It reminds me how much I love music and how big an emotional trigger it is for me. What more could you ask for?

You can pick up this fantastic record from Paper + Plastick Records in Florida. If shipping costs are a total bummer for you (like they are for me) then you can also access the digital album via iTunes.

There’s no use trying to stop

July 1st, 2014 No comments

 

nick faye worry cover

Let’s hear it for songwriters that never stop looking for that light at the end of the tunnel.

A few weeks ago Regina’s latest alt-country (for lack of a better term; seriously, we should be able to do better than that) troubadours, Nick Faye and his band The Deputies, released their new album. He’s currently on tour out east. I had hoped to have this review up earlier to publicize more of the concert dates, but life is hard sometimes, you guys.

Anyway, Faye has been around a while but his previous record The Last Best West went completely unnoticed by me for a couple of years. When I heard it in 2013 I was rather impressed; there aren’t a lot of people in our city that I’ve heard playing his style of hybridized rock and country. The eight-song album was impressive; decidedly sing-along material was heavy throughout, even if it occasionally left something to be desired lyrically.

A three-song acoustic EP followed last year, offering a dour counterpoint to the upbeat tracks on The Last Best West. “Rockets” and the magnificent “Pincher Creek” put Faye front and centre, his voice and acoustic guitar riding out the former while some gorgeous harmonies beef up the latter.

But that teaser release was a bit of a misdirect. Faye and the band have turned up the distortion and returned to the more rockist sound on Worry. To hear Faye explain it, it’s a conscious choice to off-set the weightiness of the lyrics. He told the Leader Post recently that the songs put together for this new release represent a largely-autobiographical tale of a bad period in which his anxiety and depression got the better of him.

Catchy title track “Sheryl Crow” is the catalyst. While it really has nothing to do with the famed singer (aside from a line referencing one of her biggest hits and a vague sound-alikeness in the guitars), it is a dynamic opening track, giving the full band a chance to establish their footing. The electric guitar isn’t a centrepiece for the most part, allowing the organ to drive a lot of the melody. Bassist Byron Chambers also features, showing off some dextrous runs.

“Muse” amplifies the album, literally; the guitars are all fuzzed-out here, even though there’s still plenty of room to breathe in the mix. When the horns fill that empty space in the center channels, however, it becomes clear the group is going all-out on their arrangements. The propulsive, driving arrangement eases off in the bridge, some plaintive violin underlining Faye’s yearning. “I want to be your muse,” he admits, almost matter-of-factly, “I want to be your health, I want to be your love.”

That sentiment leads into the drawn-out “Howlin’,” a song that pushes the six minute mark and is by far the longest on Worry. Here, Faye admits to succumbing to temptation, his falsetto assertion, “I’m howlin’ out at the moon/”I couldn’t get you out of my head,” coming across a little more delicate than it probably could. The musical accompaniment reinforces the notion that these tales of longing and depression are being tempered by purposefully aggressively melodic and upbeat arrangements: the extended bridge is patient, slowly ratcheting up the energy until two different vocal parts are layered into a powerful finish. The six minutes has passed before you even know it.

One of the album’s absolute highlights comes with “All The Way Around,” which crackles from start to finish. Faye’s singing is his strongest and most assured on this track, his performance wrapped snugly around a laid-back classic-pop tune. The keyboard and trumpet/sax parts are woven delicately into the mix, with Faye’s repetitious, strident acoustic guitar and the busy drumming of Adam Ennis providing a solid bedrock on which to build. The vaguely-throwback sound masks perhaps the darkest lyrics yet: “You always told me that the world was gonna end; well now I’m waiting for it, hoping for it. Your scent is lingering: it’s holed up in my room.”

The peak of the record hits with “Ode,” a lean three minute rocker with some fantastic lyrical imagery. It brings the varied dynamism of Rural Alberta Advantage quite starkly to mind, mostly in the rhythmically tight and circular drum patterns and Faye’s emotive chorus performance, which features ethereal backing vocals from Eden Rohatensky. Both are perfectly delivered, carried to a dark, foreboding denouement that sees the instruments diminish while Faye laments, “Our lives are oceans apart.”

The band pares things back for the closing track, “St. Victor,” which Faye described in an interview with the great Alex MacPherson in Verb Magazine as a sort of victory lap. A trip the group made to the miniscule Saskatchewan hamlet a ways south of Moose Jaw (known more for the stone carvings found in a nearby provincial park than anything else) was evidently the “last piece of the puzzle” for Faye, providing the final inspiration for the record and a sense of confidence and closure in the work that they had done. It’s the most country-ish song on the album, thanks to some note-perfect violin and pedal steel guitar. It’s also the closest thing to uplifting here, for the most part; Faye declares victory, assuring the partner he’s been chasing throughout the record that, “I’ll never let you let me down.”

“When we depart,” he adds, “we’ll watch the night skies, sleep under hillsides, and wake another day: a fresh new start, stripped of our burdens, free from the weight of love. We’ll find another way.” I can practically see the sun peeking over the horizon.

This record, brief though it may be, is extremely laudable for a number of reasons. Faye and The Deputies’ mature and captivating songwriting is chief among them, obviously, but even having the balls to write about a topic like mental health is a big move. Despite some massive efforts the last few years to try and normalize the dialogue around mental health, there is still a vastly huge chunk of people for whom any discussion about those kind of issues is verboten. Faye’s willingness to put himself out there is brave; having a crack band to back him up in the effort probably helps, but he should be applauded for his willingness to go under the microscope.

Get this album right now, goddamnit, from Nick Faye & The Deputies’ Bandcamp page or through good ol’ iTunes. You can also see the band on the eastern wing of their tour throughout this month, returning back in the prairies towards the end of July. I think a western tour is to follow, but I don’t have dates for that.

7/1 – St John’s, NL – The Levee w/ Len O’Neill
7/2 – St John’s, NL – Distortion w/ Sam Burke
7/4 – St John’s, NL – The Bull and Barrel
7/5 – Placentia, NL- The Three Sisters
7/8 – Stephensville, NL – Clancy’s Pub
7/9 – Corner Brook, NL – White Horse Lounge
7/11 – West River, NS – The Pitchfork (Barn Show)
7/15 – Montreal, QC – Neighbourhood on the Move
7/17 – Ottawa, ON – Lunenburg Pub & Grill
7/18 – Toronto, ON – The Dakota Tavern
7/19 – Guelph, ON – Cornerstone
7/23 – Winnipeg, MB – Sam’s Place
7/25 – Bengough, SK – Gateway Festival
7/26 – Bengough, SK – Gateway Festival

 

It might take you a while to get here

April 24th, 2014 No comments

After nearly ten years on the job I packed up my desk yesterday.

It was a very long day; labouring over whether or not to leave the only career I’ve ever known or even considered having and the ramifications of going through with it has kept me from sleeping soundly for the last few weeks. I came close to tearing up several times during the day; I embraced the feeling by wallowing in the above song on a hard repeat for most of the day.

It was as much the mood of Miserere’s “Cold Coffee” that made it the perfect choice as it was the lyrics. Songwriter and singer Jim McIntyre encapsulated the feeling of the day: “Since I’ve been gone I’ve been honestly alright,” he sings, “but the older I get the more often I lie.”

It’s hard to move on after a decade. Even if you’re confident in the decision, the outpouring of regret and sadness from people who have been as close as family in those years can cause painful second-guessing. Separation is always painful and McIntyre recognizes that: “I went walking to school; when I got there I knew that I don’t go to school anymore and we’re a lot bigger than we were before.”

Ten years. It’s a long time. That’s actually almost how much time had passed between McIntyre’s musical releases: his band Sea Snakes released a record in 2004 that resonated with the small number of people who actually heard it. In late 2013 his new group, Miserere, put out its first record, which is where “Cold Coffee” comes from.

It might seems strange, but Miserere gives me some solace. Despite a break of nearly 10 years McIntyre has only gotten better; if you can find an album released in the last five years that is prettier than this record I will eat my goddamn hat. From the subtly jazzy undertones and the precise guitar picking of opener “Why Not A House?” through the spare, hushed vocal harmonies of “Niagara” to the 60’s pop-reflecting “A Werewolf Problem” and the appropriately-haunting yet majestically-sung closer “To Death Last Year,” there isn’t a moment here that fails to exude a cathartic and maudlin beauty. It’s an emotionally-draining listen that was the perfect foil for one of the most emotionally-draining days I’ve experienced in the last five years.

Sure, parting can be such sweet sorrow. But there’s always something new around the corner.

That’s what I’m counting on, at least.

You can get yourself a copy of this record and cry yourself to sleep while listening to it by visiting the Idée Fixe Records web store at this link right here. Hey, there’s an iTunes link here too.

I will call you home

April 24th, 2014 1 comment

papermoons no love cover Hopeless romantics rejoice! There is still beautiful music out there, being made for beauty’s sake, and it comes from Papermoons.

Songs of love and heartache, performed languorously, are the Texas-based band’s bread and butter. I have fond memories of their first releases. I can still see their debut 7″ spinning on my turntable in a one-bedroom apartment just off Regina’s downtown that had…well, let’s just call it character. I watched the blue/yellow splatter vinyl spin and listened to those four beautiful indie pop/folk/rock songs over and over, cracking open the living room window in the dead of -20 C weather to off-set the relentless heat pouring from the steam-driven radiator that couldn’t be adjusted no matter how hard I tried, the ceaseless pinging from the ancient metal heater serving as an ancillary off-beat percussion element.

The band (not to be confused with Winnipeg’s Paper Moon, a really nice pop band) refined their sound and a few of those songs for a brilliant first full-length album. I would spin that CD through the winter of 2008 and all through the summer; somehow it provided the perfect soundtrack for both snowy and sunny weather, its mix of melodic joy and melancholy proving as beautiful as it was cathartic.

Then, all of a sudden, the band was just gone. Their former label boss told me they had broken up, focusing on life and school and all the things that young people need to hunker down and get into sooner or later. Years passed before a rep for Deep Elm, the label that picked up digital sales rights for New Tales, emailed to let me know that the duo had gotten back together to create again.

That brings us No Love, a digital-only release by Deep Elm. I was overjoyed to see it. For all the years that have gone by very little has changed for Papermoons. My life couldn’t be more different but their music is like a comfortable beacon, a lighthouse set off rocky shores. Their askew rhythms remain as steady as they are gradual, their gentle melodies as mellifluous as ever. The backbone of their songs remains Matt Clark’s guitar playing; he returns to familiar strumming and picking patterns on much of the album. He has an ease on the strings, the songs of No Love as much defined by their pace as anything on New Tales.

The irony of the duo taking five years off between records is that they don’t sound any worse for it. If anything Clark’s voice is even more deft and confident, seeming to lean less on his higher register in favour of a more sturdy mid-range. Both feature beautifully on “Matchbook,” Clark intoning on a soaring and fragile chorus that, “It’s too late to move on from this frozen state.” But there’s another element that is newly pushed to the fore: beefy electric guitars that push to muscular new heights in the second chorus, lending their occasionally-pastoral sound a forceful edge. It’s an element that is used throughout the record. Like every piece of their sound, it’s placed with surgical precision: chained cymbals, densely-layered acoustic and electric guitars, the euphonious (and, as far as I can tell, synthesized) woodwinds, the sudden jags of guitar squall that disappear as quickly as they sound off.

There’s more going on during any given track than you might expect from a two-piece, but their compositions are ornate and bespoke, serving their harmony-rich singing and lyrics perfectly. Their imagery is evocative, frequently using the idea of frail human form as metaphor. Whether it’s Clark claiming to have pulled his teeth to stop from biting his tongue or crawling into someone’s mouth to extract something they’re hesitating to say or cauterizing wounds and blood rushing through extremities, the body is a shorthand for their shortcomings, pain, and struggle. That frailty reflects the sometimes-tremulous musical arrangements, creating a whole that is braced by the more explosive instrumental moments and a record that is as dreamy and as it is grounded.

You can grab a digital copy of this record by visiting Papermoon’s page on Deep Elm’s web site or their Bandcamp page. The vinyl is also available through Storm Chasers Records.

I bet you’d be miserable, just like me

April 11th, 2014 No comments

TinyEmpires_WeirdHeadspace

If it hasn’t already been banished to the netherworld, the new album from Tiny Empires should effectively blow up the ghost of O Pioneers!!! and free Eric Solomon from its shackles.

Long-time readers will know his work well. He’s a unique singer and songwriter who has been there when I’ve needed him for about eight years now. He also had what seemed like a never-ending streak of bad luck following him around constantly; it seemed like every year he was replacing his entire band, fate resigning him to deal with a revolving cast of characters that simply couldn’t stay the same for any length of time.

After the dissolution of the OP!!! brand, he embraced the black cloud that seemed to be hanging over his head. He describes his “new” band, Tiny Empires, with monikers like “melodic doom” and “swamp rock.” It’s worlds apart from the frantic chords and non-stop, plaintive wailing that marked his previous career.

Of course, that career wasn’t entirely static. Solomon’s writing was getting more layered, more exploratory towards the end of OP!!!. His association with his current band seems to have propelled him leaps and bounds beyond even that work. That much was apparent from Tiny Empires’ first release, a split single with Tigers Jaw that I wrote about rather favourably here. Some might say gushed, even.

What struck me about that song/side was the contrast, the caution, the patience of the piece overall. In a shrewd move, the band turns even that on its head from the opening track. “Wide Open Spaces” is a slow number, the muted electric guitar strumming and softly-sung vocals of its opening about as far from anything in the OP!!! catalogue. The chorus explodes with thick, aggressive power chords and gruff, guttural singing, only to give way to a gently-jarring keyboard bridge from straight out of left field.

The aggression, combined with the riffing on follow-up track “What’s The Plan, Phil?” suggest that Solomon is comfortable with shades of his former self appearing in Tiny Empires’ songs. The latter song actually isn’t too drastically removed from the prior band’s final days when Solomon was transitioning into the six-piece mass band that Tiny Empires has become. The layered backing vocals in the chorus, however, is a trick he hasn’t managed before (at least, not outside the few recorded minutes when OP!!! was him singing in front of one of Junior Battles’ poppiest arrangements). Lest anyone worry that his worldview has changed, Solomon also offers a lyrical tweak on a famous Kurt Vonnegut quote from Slaughterhouse-Five: “Everything is broken and nothing really hurts.” That opening salvo headlines a song about the agony of aging. “Watch me fall apart/watch me break down/watch my bones crumble now,” he sings, the vigor and intensity of his nearly-screamed vocals belying the sentiment.

“Just Imagine,” previously released as a digital teaser single on Bandcamp, is a bit of an outlier. Something in the verse guitar riff and the distant, distorted vocals and Bryon’s vocal melody is reminiscent of 90s alt-rock; there’s an association I can’t quite place, but it calls to mind maybe some brooding Nine Inch Nails after a fashion. Maybe Filter? There’s definitely a heavy dose of early Small Brown Boke in the mix as well. The layers of distortion on the non-chorus build-ups create a fuzzy pastiche that’s both icy and carries the warmth of familiarity. I get the same sense from “Tired Hearts and Livers,” especially from its alternating pace, the skittering drum beat that comes and goes as it pleases, and the constantly-shifting guitar tones. I know there was a bit of 90s revival on Chris Wollard’s first solo album but maybe we should be seeing more of that if songs like this are the result.

The highlight of the record is “Air Conditioning, Full Blast,” where what is arguably Solomon’s most vengeful lyric yet is fully-negated by an incredible arrangement. “When I’m angry I’m going to sneak into your house and steal your air conditioning unit. Steal it right from your wall and watch you sweat, because I bet you’d be miserable…just like me.” The way his arid singing voice extends the syllables of “miserable” is so perfect; you can picture the mask of his pessimism just starting to crack from the gleeful thought. When the extended chorus breaks in towards the song’s end with its harmonics and plucked high guitar notes, giving way to those final gentle keyboard notes your melodic sensibilities just might be overwhelmed entirely.

And then after all that we’re left with what I can only assume makes up the b-side of the LP: another marathon 10-minute song suite dubbed “Blurry Photos, Dead Leaves, Decomposed.” Suffice it to say that this composition builds on every single element that comes before, maybe even adding a few more elements (handclaps! How I’ve missed you!). Unfortunately, some passages of atonal, unchanging guitar riffing leave a sour taste in the melodic centers of my brain; swapping the last two songs on the record might have made for a cleaner, more aurally pleasing ending.

Regardless, this is a collection of loud, unabashed guitar rock that strives to be a little bit of everything and actually succeeds. “Maybe I don’t have the best intentions,” Solomon sings on “Air Conditioning, Full Blast,” adding, “but right now I just don’t care. Maybe someday, somehow, it comes back to me.”

Sorry pal; I don’t buy that for a second. This group of self-described “older men” have challenged themselves to come up with a sound that—despite Solomon’s lyrical insistence—hinges on sheer passion and more than a little ambition. When he sang on the group’s first single about rejecting the past-due ethos of the punk rock scene it wasn’t just window dressing; Solomon and his band have set themselves free from any constraints and the results are simply phenomenal.

You can get this record, and you should, at the group’s Bandcamp page. Support older men in bands! If you really need more convincing the record is also streaming on the A.V. Club’s web site.

Expecting desire

April 3rd, 2014 1 comment

Saskatoon’s Close Talker have announced some spring tour dates in a very splashy manner.

Above is the video for their brand new track “Heads.” It was released today and it’s a beautiful, creepy little number that pairs some very cinematic visuals with the band’s sweeping sound. Plus: no heads!

The song itself shows some very positive signs of growth for the young band, which will evidently be recording its first full-length album later this spring in Montreal. The elements that went into their splashy debut EP are still here: patient, building song structures, super-wet reverb, and stirring, layered vocals. The difference is here the song feels more cohesive; there’s an interplay between the instruments that make it seem less like a song written by one person and adapted for a group and more like a collaborative effort. The production is also more lush, filling the speakers while also letting the gaps between notes stand, allowing the moments in between chords breathe when appropriate. Later in the song the wall of instruments washes over the listener, leaving behind an ascendent, euphoric feeling during the softly-cooed denouement that is matched perfectly by the visuals in the clip above.

A promising sign of things to come, no doubt.

You can pick up this track and the band’s others via their Bandcamp page; try as best you can to ignore the grammatical abomination that is their bio. Also, see them soon in a town near you:

April 10 – Nanaimo – Vancouver Island University
April 10 – Victoria – Copper Owl
April 11 – Vancouver – Narrow’s Public House
April 12 – Abbotsford – Columbia
May 2 – Regina – O’Hanlons
May 3 – Saskatoon – The Capitol
May 5 – Winnipeg – WECC
May 8-10 – Toronto (CMW)
May 19 – Montreal – Barfly
June 19 – Swift Current (Long Day’s Night Festival)
July 25 & 26 – Bengough (Gateway Festival)