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 No comments

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)

Old bones will break

April 3rd, 2014 No comments

Call it the shock of the year: The Flatliners did not win the Juno this year for best metal/hard rock album.

When they say it’s an honour just to be nominated that’s probably only somewhat true; it’s likely very case-dependent. The Junos do not necessarily make or break new stars, but I would imagine any bump in profile for Canadian musicians, who make no money whatsoever, makes a pretty big difference.

The metal/hard rock category, however, has historically not been kind to punk bands. This year in particular saw The Flatliners not only scorned by some hardcore metalheads, however; an actual petition gathered hundreds of signatures to protest their inclusion in the category. Fair enough, I suppose; they don’t really sit comfortably side-by-side with Gorguts. They may play power chord riffs very quickly, but they’re metal the way Strung Out or A Wilhelm Scream was/is “metal:” in comparison to other non-metal bands. They’re heavy, but melody and hooks retain the highest priority.

What makes it even funnier is that if you were going to nominate a Flatliners record in the metal/hard rock category this was totally the wrong one to do it. Their previous record Cavalcade had a lot more metal chops than the one that was actually nominated.

flatliners cavalcade coverIt’s rare that I’ve enjoyed an album as thoroughly as Cavalcade but haven’t bothered to write about it on this site. Sometimes, like in the case of the latest Frog Eyes record, I have felt genuinely unqualified to try and expound on an inherently and overtly artistic work; Carey Mercer is working on a whole different level from what I understand. I enjoy his stuff as much as anyone can, but I am just not in a position to wax intellectual on it.

Calvalcade is different. It just fell through the cracks and stayed wedged there. As I recently mentioned with regards to Tokyo Police Club’s last album, I occasionally just don’t get to something until it seems like it’s too late. Calvalcade came out in 2010 and I glossed over it for the better part of a year. I enjoyed three or four tracks on their Fat Wreck Chords debut but it wasn’t enough to make me ravenous about the follow-up; I bought the CD and let it languish.

Oh, but then “Liver Alone” came along. I’ll be damned if I could tell you how it caught my ear, but it latched on and wouldn’t let go. It’s Cavalcade in a nutshell: a fast-paced barrage of hooks come from every direction, caustically-rough guitar tone, self-destructive lyrics, and impossibly melodic singing. They excised what remained of their ska dalliances and emerged leaner, meaner, and catchier than ever. There’s also some metal posturing that could be interpreted as either hilarious or overly-earnest; This Is Spinal Tap clips intro some songs and, on the whole, there is some very fast riffing going on throughout the album.

flatliners dead language cover

That’s where Dead Language is different: the basic formula stays the same and it’s not necessarily a “softer” album, but it definitely has a sliver less overall aggression, the pace is probably slower overall and there is a greater focus on melody.

Sure, the posturing is still there; song titles here include “Drown In Blood,” “Sew My Mouth Shut,” “Caskets Full,” and “Hounds.” All very metal-sounding.

They’re on-point lyrically in those songs, and others, as well. “I’ll drown in blood; I’ll watch it cleanse my skin, expend my body, weak, tired, frail and start again. I’ll drown in blood; I’ll watch it cleanse my skin, hold my breath no more. My lungs are wide open,” singer Chris Cresswell intones on “Drown In Blood” in a vocal performances that ranges from hellacious growling to clean and melodic singing in the span of a single word or two. The next song: “Sew my mouth shut so I can’t say a word. It just gets me in trouble, trouble I’m not worth. Sew my mouth shut so I can’t even breathe. What would life be like without me?”

Indeed, Cresswell’s imagery often hews pretty closely to the dessicated bones and seemingly-detached eyeballs depicted on the album’s cover art. Despite that sense of morbidity, however, the record has plenty of ear-pleasing hooks to smooth out the edges and draw in listeners. It’s there in the chorus of the frequently acerbic opener “Resuscitation Of The Year” when Cresswell insists “I’m coming back to life,” his voice soaring alongside perfectly-paired power chords and harmonic bass. “Birds Of England” goes half-time (compared to some songs, anyhow) and sees the group doing a near-pop turn, acoustic guitars backing up the palm-muted electric guitar while Cresswell hums and sings his heart out. Single “Caskets Full” is a full-on pop-rock number in the vein of Hostage Calm. “Ashes Away” sounds nothing like The Flatliners at first and boasts some of Cresswell’s cleanest and best singing yet, the song’s quieter moments resonating very strongly. “Tailfeathers” is an outlier in their catalogue, a downright slow number replete with more “woah-oh” vocals than a Misfits record; it’s also a fairly touching song, a vow of dedication couched in mutual self-destruction.

Sure, there are moments of deep-seated aggression more in line with what fans of Cavalcade might be expecting, but the duality of sound here, the willingness to explore softer textures and embrace some poppier elements, seems like a sign of growth. It may not be totally metal, but sometimes easing off the throttle means you make a stronger impact in other ways.

Check out New Damage Records’ MapleMusic page to order copies (assuming you’re in Canada). You can go to iTunes for the digital if you like.

In space no one can hear your weird instrumentals

April 2nd, 2014 No comments

john-frusciante-enclosureSo you remember that guy who played guitar on the most recently memorable Red Hot Chili Peppers albums? He wins the award for weirdest new album promotion.

That’s right: John Frusciante is going into space.

From the press release:

On March 29th, 2014, at a remote High Desert location in California, former Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist John Frusciante’s new album ENCLOSURE was loaded onto an experimental Cube Satellite called Sat-JF14 and launched into space aboard an Interorbital Systems’ NEPTUNE Modular Rocket.

Beginning today, March 31st, fans from around the world can download the free, custom-built Sat-JF14 mobile application developed by Frusciante’s longtime label Record Collection and leading Brazilian Creative Agency, Loducca. This app will enable users to trackSat-JF14‘s movement in real time. When Sat-JF14 hovers over a users’ geographic region,ENCLOSURE will be unlocked, allowing users to listen to the album for free on any iOS or Android mobile device. Sat – JF14 also supports an integrated social chat platform giving fans the ability to communicate with one another after listening to the music. The album preview will last until midnight on April 7th, at which point Sat-JF14 will cease transmission.

Oooookay. Why not, I guess?

You can pick up Enclosure from Frusciante’s on-line store. The song embedded above is called “Murderers” and is taken from an early 2000s album called To Record Only Water For Ten Days, which you can find on iTunes with the rest of his discography.

I don’t ever want to talk that way again

March 26th, 2014 No comments


against me cover
The music industry, like we human beings, is a sucker for a good story. I suppose that’s why there’s been a pretty impressive furor over Against Me!’s latest record, even though it’s only their fourth or fifth best album.

Don’t get me wrong—I couldn’t be happier that Transgender Dysphoria Blues has been released upon the world. I couldn’t be happier that a songwriter that I’ve been following for more than a decade has fought their way through an extremely challening period of personal and emotional upheavel to land in a fruitful, creative place. But people championing this album as the best of their career must not have been paying attention.

The story of Transgender Dysphoria Blues—and, of course, the transition of Tom Gabel into Laura Jane Grace—has been discussed at great length in media of various sizes in the last few months since the run-up to and release of the record. The short strokes: a brilliant, subversive punk songwriter finally begins his journey into womanhood after struggling with a lifetime of gender identity issues that were previously foreshadowed in his writing for those willing to actually think about what they were hearing.

I’ve read plenty of pieces that have incorrectly described this record as a chronicling of Grace’s specific journey, but that simply isn’t the case; it’s partially a concept album about a transgender prostitute, a notion that Grace originally presented to the band before coming out. The idea of a full concept album seems to have been discarded, the final product retaining some of those songs but also more direct and personal numbers.

There’s no disputing that the visibility of Grace’s journey (she revealed to the world that she was transitioning in Rolling Stone magazine and has since written about and discussed her experience in major publications like Chatelaine and The Hollywood Reporter) makes this album an important, high-profile release. The history of popular song has rarely—if ever—touched on subject matter like gender dysphoria; the idea that someone who has been a prominent member of a musical community distinguished by its inherently-aggressive nature can be so open about their struggles and be in turn embraced by that community is huge, and a great story to boot.

But Transgender Dysphoria Blues is not the zenith of Laura Jane Grace’s career. She is undoubtedly exorcising a lot of demons here and the return to a more aggressive sound just isn’t fully realized.

The title track opens the record and Grace’s lyrics set out the line between the inner desire of someone transitioning, to just blend in, and the sometimes-intolerant reality of people who don’t understand their situation. “You just want them to see you like they see every other girl; they just see a faggot,” she laments, her tone and tenor not really changed from the band’s previous albums. She strikes a snarling note at the beginning of the second verse: “You’ve got no cunt in your strut,” she growls, leaving the listener unsure if it’s a disgusting rejoinder from someone outside of herself or a jarring example of the kind of self-doubt and loathing she dealt with for years. From a musical standpoint the song is also a brilliant bridge from the somewhat-softer, more radio-friendly sound of previous full-length White Crosses to the strikingly-acerbic sounds still to come.

“[FUCKMYLIFE666]” is another melodic treat, harmonious in both the backing vocals and the guitar lines. But the chorus strikes some phenomenal, cathartic melodic tones, only to end abruptly on a down-beat note; it feels like there’s a line missing or an upbeat conclusion to match the delightfully-arranged music has been excised. But that’s just a feeling; the lyric here contrasts the idea of modifying one’s identity and realizing one’s dream with the consequence that your own loved ones may not even recognize you.

“True Trans Soul Rebel” boasts Grace’s best pure singing to date, a slight tremolo at the peak of the chorus rising to heights the tragic subject of the song will never reach. “You should’ve been a mother; you should’ve been a wife; you should’ve been gone from here years ago; you should be living a different life…Does god bless your transsexual heart, true trans soul rebel?”

“Drinking With The Jocks” is as close as the record gets to going totally wrong, a grinding, brief blast of a song that eschews Grace’s trademark melodic gruffness for atonal washes of distortion, noise, and full-throttle screaming. Moreover, it marks the low point for Grace’s songwriting, all blunt parody and artless rage. “I’m drinking with the jocks. I’m laughing at the faggots. Just like one of the boys, swinging my dick in my hand.  All of my life, just like I was one of the them. Look at all them bitches. Yeah, I’m gonna fuck them all. Look at all of the pussy. Yeah, fill them up with cum.” A feeble attempt to flip the script lives in the bridge, as Grace intones, “There will always be a difference between me and you.” Yeah, I think by now that’s been established.

There are other missteps. “Osama Bin Laden As The Crucified Christ” isn’t a lot better, a pallid distortion overlayed on Grace’s vocals obscuring her performance. “Two Coffins,” while otherwise lovely, is maddeningly repetitious. Minor quibbles, it’s true, but those three songs contribute a slightly washed-out middle to a record that lacks the track-after-track pummeling of flawless tunes seen on Reinventing Axl Rose and Searching For A Former Clarity and even the glossy-but-great New Wave.

The record ends very strongly, with “Paralytic States” concluding the transgender prostitute sub-theme with a soaring melodic number. That leads to possibly the best song here, closer “Black Me Out,” in which Grace acknowledges what she probably already knew before the band signed to Sire all those years ago: major labels are a bad idea.

“I don’t ever want to talk that way again. I don’t want to know people like that anymore. As if there was an obligation, as if I owed you something…I don’t want to see the world that way anymore. I don’t want to feel that weak and insecure. As if you were my fucking pimp, as if I was your fucking whore.”

Grace’s call for absolution, her pledge to “piss on the walls” of some record exec’s house, are as external an outburst as the internal ones that lead her to this place. An entire album based on years—if not decades—of self-doubt, self-loathing, and constant and unyielding desire to be the opposite of what she felt forced by society to be has built up to the point where its inevitable release couldn’t be contained. This album spills over with an unrestrained expulsion of venom and bile; a necessary release for the songwriter, I expect, listener be damned. Regardless, I’d be willing to bet that everyone who thinks this was a five star album will really be knocked back on their heels when Grace has a chance to come up with a set of songs that are more…let’s say, even-tempered.

You can get a bunch of Against Me! music and merch at their web store, yes? And iTunes, of course, as well.

Against Me! plays Regina this Sunday night at The Exchange with the mellifluous Laura Stevenson and the magnificent Cheap Girls. It’s sold out. Too bad for you.

Fuck all the old boring shits we’ve become

March 21st, 2014 No comments

lawrence-arms-metropole-cover

It’s been a long time since I wrote about a punk record. You could argue the Hop Along debut is pretty punk rock, or maybe Hostage Calm—although it’s pretty hard to suggest they’re anything but pure pop these days. I suppose the last pure punk album I took a good long look at was probably White Lung’s last, well over a year and a half ago.

I’ve aborted a few pieces in that time about my teenage punk heroes; I got a couple of thousand words into a nostalgia-heavy diatribe about the Lagwagon box set that I ultimately figured no other person in the world would ever want to or bother reading. I tried writing something after No Use For A Name’s Tony Sly died but I just couldn’t find the thread.

I suppose it’s inevitable for punks (and overly-loquacious wanna-be punks) to have a harder time sticking with it when they get older. The genre’s trappings must be hard to stay committed to in some ways; Danzig went metal, Pat Smear went Foo Fighters, Joe Strummer went pseudo-world music, Joey Cape/Jon Snodgrass/Greg Graffin/Tim Barry/Tony Sly/Chad Price went acoustic, and countless others “sold out” or disappeared. Plenty who push through do interesting work; NoMeansNo made one of their best records in 2006 when the band was nearly 30 years old (they also continue to play great live sets), for instance. The members of Descendents/ALL continue to do whatever the fuck they want and make great music along the way. Others, like Bad Religion for example, keep busy pretending they haven’t aged (at least when they aren’t actively embarrassing themselves).

The Lawrence Arms are among the former. Five years ago they put out a very good EP of new material which was, in itself, a stopgap that came three years after their previous album. It’s been more or less radio silence from them since, at least up until a few weeks ago when they issued a new full-length via Epitaph Records.

Metropole was described by bassist Brendan Kelly as a thematic record analyzing urban life; what it became is a 35-minute confessional about the members of the band growing older and making their signature brand of music in an urban environment in 2013. The picture they paint is dour, cathartic, and downright ugly at times. Those unfortunate elements, however, are off-set by the fact that they remain the most melodically-gifted midwestern punk band since Dillinger 4.

The inspiration for the title and the loose theme comes from a trip Kelly took to Italy. He stayed at the Hotel Metropole, likely the Venice one, and wandered the streets while in various cities in the country. Like their previous masterwork The Greatest Story Ever Told, this album is deftly produced by fellow Chicagoan Matt Allison. Kelly recorded the sounds of the streets on his phone during his time in Italy, allowing them to once again use field recordings and repurposed elements from their own songs to give the album a continuous, interweaving palette of sound and tie the songs together. Clips of accordion players, cheering crowds, telephone calls, piano performances, people chatting, loudspeaker announcements, and bucket drumming become interstitial elements weaving the songs together, the ephemera of city life creating a contrast of familiarity in which the chaos of aggressive music is couched.

And believe me: aged or no, The Lawrence Arms haven’t lost their edge and have given no quarter when it comes to aggression. The opening is a classic minute-long Kelly number in the vein of “Presenting: The Dancing Machine” or “Necrotism: Decanting The Insalubrious (Cyborg Midnight) Part 7,” that races along at a mile a minute, the words coming at a pace that is nearly faster than the listener can comprehend them. Can’t hardly blame him; the tale he’s telling is that of a decrepit specimen, indeed.

“I’ll dream when I’m sleeping. I’ll sleep when I die. I die every evening and break down and throw things and poison my lining. Walking on eggshells, covered in flies, beating and breathing, not quite alive.”

Nearly as brief and twice as aggro is “Drunk Tweets,” a track that averages a curse word every 2.5 seconds in its first half. It’s all about drinking in the streets and killing oneself to live in an overindulgent America where arrogance is rewarded above all else. Kelly also manages to use “Raskalnikovian gloom” in cadence seamlessly. Dude’s a fucking genius.

The ugly highlight of Kelly’s contributions to the album—maybe his entire career—comes with “The YMCA Down The Street From The Clinic.” Nine songs into the record he slows things down, merging the styles he long ago established in this band with his more recent work with The Wandering Birds. It’s a slower, more deliberate track that strips away the layers of harmonized guitar work on most of these tracks and presents a raw instrumental arrangement that matches a sparse and ugly lyric. The character piece describes the very dregs of society as Kelly sees them in his city, offering a sympathetic but unvarnished view of people falling through the cracks. Take the following for instance:

“I got a bad, sick stink and I’m bathing in the sink at the YMCA down the street from the clinic, and there’s a sad old man with a sad, saggy ass just crying under the electric dryer for your hands. And he’s wet, and he’s dying and the spiders on his nose seem to indicate that he’s been keeping warm out in the cold. And he’s a lot like me, I guess, but we’re somehow not the same; they say you really die the last time anybody says your name.”

He may try to divorce himself from the decrepitude of such a subject, but Kelly can’t help but own up to the feeling in his own heart: that he too has been lingering in this urban jungle for too long. ”This sweet and sticky dream was nothing that I needed, just demons to believe; poisons lined up to feed ‘em,” he laments. “And the rings inside this tree are rotten deeper down. Goddamn this fucking town. It’s restless and I’m drowning.”

That feeling of circling the drain is also made plain on single “Seventeener (17th and 37th),” which draws parallels between Kelly’s younger and current selves, the results coming out much the same. He’s realizing that grey hair is creeping into his beard and the young girls that used to fawn over him are avoiding his eye contact while he’s on stage. That’s left him drinking to excess and thinking about how he had always expected to die young: ”We thought about ways we’d love to go: high and beautiful and fucking in the snow, on New Years Day or Christmas Eve, on a warm November night buried beneath the orange leaves.”

His sense of mortality is front and centre throughout, a sense that guitarist Chris McCaughan shares, in particular on closer “October Blood.” That’s where he realizes how short life really is, admitting that the extensive travelling he’s done in his relatively short life only served to prove he was really alive. ”I was born and I died, and just a moment went by,” he both opens and closes the track. It recalls a moment earlier in the album on the song’s title track, when he intones over and over, “This is the end of all things,” ending the repeated phrase with such a melodic downturn you almost think he knows something you don’t.

For me, the first track to really put me back on my heels from the first spin is “Beautiful Things.” The first day I got the album I played it 35 times in a row. I can’t remember the last time I did that with a song. It really is the most baldly-beautiful song they’ve ever done and when McCaughan intones one last time, “Don’t kill all the beautiful things”…boy, it just gives me chills.

I may not be musically intelligent enough to say specifically what sets The Lawrence Arms apart. There’s definitely something in the way McCaughan’s guitars are played and layered that no one else does. Kelly’s three distinct singing styles all deliver a unique and damaged world view. There’s something in the way their two voices combine, some kind of undeniable symmetry, that ratchets up the passion. It’s those simple things and more that really make this album work. Trust me: only The Lawrence Arms can write a song called “Paradise Shitty” and make it completely sad and beautiful and wonderful all at once. The same goes for Metropole as a whole. This is punk for grown-ups, and goddamnit it is glorious.

Metropole is available in all sorts of formats through their Epitaph/King’s Road Merch store. iTunes also offers their entire discography, including a “deluxe” version of the new record.

Trying to colour in between the dotted lines

February 19th, 2014 No comments


So Tokyo Police Club has a new album coming out. I didn’t even know I was excited about it until I heard the news! But these exclamation marks would seem to suggest that I am excited indeed!

Now that my extremely elegeant lede is out of the way, let’s talk brass tacks: this is a good band! After a heavily-hyped debut EP they put out a very enjoyable first LP. I remember enjoying it, anyway; I was struck by the fairly distinct tonal shift, moving away from the brash guitar-heavy structures of the EP into more tonal and keyboard-flecked tunes. In retrospect, however, there’s only one song that has really stuck with me hard through the years: the gentle, elegant, downright lovely “Listen To the Math.” Its spare arrangement, powerfully melodic guitars, and surprisingly deft use of the term “Australopithecine” still knock my socks off nearly six years later.

I came to their follow-up, Champ, an unfortunately-long time after it came out. Aside from a cursory half-listen or two when it first came out I actually sort of disregarded it entirely until after I became enamored of keyboardist Graham Wright’s solo album Shirts vs Skins. That record is brilliant, from the vaguely-ragtime piano number “No Hard Feelings” to the tender lullaby balladry of “Birds Of A Feather” to the saxaphone skronk and infectious wordplay of “Potassium Blast” to the classic power-pop of “Soviet Race.” It was one of the best records of 2011; how could I not check out his other output?

In retrospect, Champ is essentially a pop-rock album with a healthy smattering of keyboards; think a more laid-back, fun-loving Bloc Party. They are integrated seamlessly, though; there are tracks where it’s tough to separate them from the rest of the mix. The pacing and arrangements are nicely varied, making for a group of songs that actually sound different (unlike their EP, which—while I enjoy it—had a certain sameness to it). Heck, the first song alone runs the gamut. “Favourite Food” starts with a softly-strummed acoustic guitar and David Monk’s vocals coming across more laconic than usual. Perhaps that’s fitting, given that the lyrics suggest he’s examining the perspective of a damaged senior citizen bound to a hospital bed.

“With a heart attack on your plate you were looking back on your days, how you spent them all in a blur,” he carefully enunciates before continuing. “Let the sugar melt down your throat because you know it’s sweet getting old. With a lollipop and a rose, let the hospital be your home.”

The tenderness of the first half of the song disappears as quickly-strummed electric guitars cut in and the pace accelerates exponentially. The remainder is propelled with frantic drumming and reverberating guitar, ending in a squalling finish of guitar soloing that is downright thrilling.

It’s a strong start to an album on which the strong start pretty much doesn’t stop. With no exaggeration, each of the first seven songs could be a huge single: “Favourite Colour” is a catchy, stuttering start/stop number about friends who have been separated for a time before they move in together and are getting to know each other again (the comparison to K-Ci and JoJo is priceless); “Breakneck Speed” is an amiable mid-tempo pop song; “Wait Up (Boots of Danger)” sees Wright’s keyboard take center stage, augmenting the song’s melodic edge while Monk’s wordless falsetto hook in the post-chorus amps up the energy; “Bambi” is an amazing centerpiece, a jittery amalgam of glitchy synths and pop-rock guitars that is possibly the band’s most purely danceable number to date; “End Of A Spark” is a big-guitar number and an infectious sing-along song; “Hands Reversed” is a curveball, slowing things way down and paring the instrumentation back to finger-picked electric guitars and a plodding, propulsive drum beat while Monk explores the lower end of his vocal register; “Gone” is an entirely enjoyable number about longing for a picturesque scenery when one just needs a break; “Big Difference” establishes a frantic pace to accompany lyrics about lashing out against isolation; “Not Sick” and closer “Frankenstein” mash up elements of the songs that precede them, adding more stoic tones and lyrics to square the circle and reflect the more serious opening tone of the album.

I’m serious, people; Champ is a fully-fantastic pop rock record from back to front. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve listened to it since I got off my butt and put it on with intent. Expectations are officially high for this new release!

Forcefield is out at the end of March, but you can pre-order it now through iTunes. There’s also a fairly-complicated pre-order set up through PledgeMusic that includes CD, digital, and vinyl copies (though it appears to be targeted at US fans). Digital versions and other releases can also be found through their Canadian label, Dine Alone Records.

Remember when our love was new

February 11th, 2014 No comments

belle plaine and band

When I was a boy I really liked a girl named Jennifer. I pined for her in that curious way that 10 year olds do. I strolled the streets of our prairie town of Swift Current in the hopes that wandering by her house would produce a chance encounter. Sometimes I would see her jumping on a pogo stick. I never knew anyone who had a pogo stick. My friends and I built a rudimentary tree house in a field near her house (I stepped on a nail in an old board once and had to get a tetanus shot) and she’d stop by every once in a while. I’m pretty sure that we and our friends were too young to “date” or anything like that. I just thought she was beautiful.

Or at least, that’s how I remember it. I have a notoriously terrible memory for all things and if there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that wistful longing and imagined romance are rarely crystal clear.

More recently I fell instantly in love with a beguiling redhead. Early winter of 2010 was a tumultuous time for a newly-single and thoroughly broke young me but meeting this young lady was a life-changing revelation. A few hours of engrossing conversation left me determined to see her again; she was romantically tied to someone a province away at the time but I couldn’t have cared less. What was, unbeknownst to me, a mutual attraction eventually became irresistible to both of us; now we’re married and have a goddamn kid. Who would’ve seen that coming?

There are all kinds of unrequited love that can lead people all kinds of places. Lovelorn Reginans will have a chance this Friday to check out a proper noun version at The Artesian: The Unrequited Love, a brand-new big band put together by local chanteuse extraordinaire and SSA favourite Belle Plaine. The group is a who’s-who of her favourite pals and players, building on her stellar regular backing band by adding members of The Lazy MKs, the Pile O’Bones Brass Band, and The Lonesome Weekends.

The all-star roster was assembled for a Saturday night show in Swift Current but Hankewich was compelled to throw together a special Friday show in Regina as well.

“I am quite cynical about Valentine’s Day,” Plaine, the stage moniker of Melanie Hankewich is quoted in in a terrific cover story in the latest issue of prairie dog magazine. “I want to provide a place where the dejected, the sad and the lonely can go to have fun.

“We all feel heartache and it’s such a rough holiday to go through because it’s such a farce. And if you don’t fit the mold of what the day is, then you’re left out. So I wanted to have something where you can come, have fun and shake your fists at Valentine’s Day,” she continued, adding, “I resent any holiday that tells me to feel a certain way.”

Hence the name of the band, I suppose.

Regardless of your marital status Hankewich and her band are a dynamic and delightful group of performers. Her predilection for telling stories during her sets showcases a great sense of humour and self-deprecation and I can only imagine this particular event will provide bountiful opportunities for chuckle-inducing tales. Oh, and then there’s the part where Hankewich is an incredibly-talented singer and songwriter and one of Regina’s strongest musical products at present. Add to that the fact that she’s recording the show for a live album and you’ve got a chance to literally be a part of recorded history and it all adds up to a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity!

In short, check out this show! You may not find your future partner there but you might find your next musical love.

The doors of The Artesian (and, more importantly for those looking to drown their single sorrows or take the edge off before scanning the crowd for fellow singles, the lounge) opens at 7 pm with the show set to start at 8. Check out The Artesian’s web site for more info and tickets.

I hope that it rips me to shreds

January 23rd, 2014 No comments

these estates dignity cover

Just about every Regina band ever interviewed by a publication outside of this province has cited the relative isolation and brutal winters and so on and etc. of Saskatchewan as motivating factors for their creative output. Less frequently are mentions of inebriation, desperation, sexual congress, and painful longing made as apparent in such forums, even when they’re more baldly apparent in the lyrical output.

Titling your debut full-length album The Dignity Of Man might seem like a bold maneuver, even if the apparent high-mindedness of such a moniker is off-set by the ridiculousness of the cover art (which features a questionable-looking fellow in a 1990s Mustang juxtaposed against the opulent marble construction of Saskatchewan’s provincial Legislature building). The group’s sense of humour notwithstanding, there is a significant amount of introspection happening here.

As you may have read here before These Estates are a fine group of local chaps who play no frills rock that borders on power-pop in a nice, aggressive way. Dignity bridges the gap between their two previous releases, moving from catchy, high-energy numbers to longer, more complex exercises in the intricacies of riff construction. Or something.

Cameron may be just a few years into his 20′s (I think), which makes it unsurprising that sex and alcohol are among his chief concerns. One of the record’s highlights comes in “Stripes Of Faith,” a gin- and bourbon-soaked lamentation for a lost friend (with a chaser of Catholic guilt) that features a sing-along chorus on par with the Sloan, Replacements, and Hüsker Dü records that seem to have influenced these young fellows. “Brushed Steel” catalogues the physical effects and self-destructiveness of yearning for a vicious, “feral love.” Dynamic closer “Pay Me Some Attention” speaks quite frankly about, uh, sexuality in a way that’s jarring at first to third listens. “The nuances of the way I feel about you can be difficult to pronounce,” he admits on “Happy While United,” taking the long way around to getting in touch with those feelings (Cameron also has a hell of a vocabulary to go with his perspective, which I respect greatly; there aren’t too many albums on which you’ll hear words like ‘polyglots’ and ‘tinctures’ and whatnot).

Like another album that Cameron had some involvement with Cameron’s surroundings occasionally play a part in a more direct fashion. “Highway 11 Theme” and its titular road are more than familiar to Regina music fans who have made the trek north to concerts more times than they would like. When he calls it “a hell of a drive” he’s not exaggerating; aside from the hill at Blackstrap it is a monotonous, excruciating slog that becomes interminably long after dark. At some point it inevitably becomes an almost-reasonable notion to, as Cameron writes, “just stop the car and shed our earthly forms. Leave our bones in a ditch; we won’t need them anymore.”

Each song here boasts propulsive guitar/bass/drum arrangements that show off plenty of creative spirit. Songs like “Pay Me Some Attention” and “Mt.” are fast and hooky numbers in the vein of the band’s first EP. Those songs are great but I’m even more enamoured with the slow-burners that fall more in line with the earlier b-side “Autumn In A Foreign Country.” I already mentioned the tortured barroom lament “Stripes of Faith,” a modestly-bleak recitation of nights spent drowning sorrows at the expense of your last bit of pocket change.

But the highlight might be the measured, percussive “Like Skin.” Kicking off the album’s second side, it features the baritone guitar that is Cameron and Mason Pitzel’s latest weapon. The chunky opening riff melds into a lock-step with the rest of the band during the verses, leading into a quiet, gradual, feedback-laden bridge. Guitars intertwine for a few minutes before the root riff returns, one more sort-of verse capping the song with Cameron’s voice lingering just one aching moment after the instruments cut out. It’s a literally perfect moment. There’s no arguing it.

Really, Cameron’s voice brings it all home. He may not be classically-trained or overtly polished but the dude exudes charisma and a thinly-reined intensity that breaks off its leash when a song needs heightening, like the chorus of the bucking and kicking opener “When The Lovee Breaks.” His passion makes a less-than-seamless transition into falsetto not only okay but full-on Bill and Ted-style EXCELLENT.

“Everything has got its own dialect,” Cameron declares on the record’s second half. His assertion that intent informs the beauty in art likely wasn’t meant to be an overt entreaty for his audience to look deeper at his own songs (especially since he follows it with the delightful bon mot, “I love the Romantic languages but I’d do anything for your Slavic tongue”) but it could be; there is a rough-hewn and caustic veneer on some of these songs but the honesty, insight, and occasional ignobility of Cameron’s words make them something approaching masterpieces, each worthy of being paid some attention.

This might be a contender for my new favourite Saskatchewan album. But, to quote These Estates one last time, we’ll see how it goes.

Do not hesitate to purchase this record and everything else you can get from These Estates’ Bandcamp page. Do it, PLEASE. You can also check them out live at the record release show on Feb. 22 at The Exchange with Coldest Night Of The Year and Treebird. All the beard rock you can handle!

Talkin’ and laughin’ in rhythm

January 14th, 2014 No comments

It seems like every year at this time I’m making excuses as to why the site hasn’t updated in a while.

This year I could lean on the usual tropes: it’s the holidays, I’ve been busy, family stuff, etc. In fact, that applies double right now, since in the last month and a half or so since I last posted something my wife and I sold our house, bought a new one, moved, spent the holidays with my parents who returned from their retirement place nearer the equator, had our baby daughter’s first birthday, and saw my twin brother give birth to his first child. That seems like an adequate enough excuse, right?

Well, my typing fingers may be dormant but music hasn’t been on the back-burner by any stretch of the imagination. I’ve been devouring a sudden glut of albums from some of my favourite gruff-singing melodic hardcore bands (The Flatliners, A Wilhelm Scream, Polar Bear Club, and Iron Chic all put out records within a few weeks of each other), considering my annual tardy best of lists, and reading a ton of music-related stuff. I have five or six things that are approaching the tipping point where I will have them finished sooner than later but that’s a lot of balls to juggle.

I also carved out some time before the move to sit down in front of my computer and Skype in an appearance on the severely under-consumed podcast Witch Police Radio. Helmed by short-lived SSA contributor Sam and his pals, the Winnipeg-based podcast (which also appears on Winnipeg’s campus radio station UMFM) is a forum where musicians and people tangentially connected to music can play songs of interest, based on a randomly-generated weekly theme, and then discuss them, along with larger issues. The episode I appeared on, deliciously titled “Bong Crosby,” also features a great music writer and feminist blogger named Jen Zoratti. It was a fast-paced and wide-ranging discussion that I got a real kick out of.

Check out the above links to download or stream the program. Check out some past episodes as well; the guys have really terrific and eclectic sensibilities when it comes to music and they have some terrific guests contributing live performances and interesting discussion. Seriously, it’s worth your time and I am so psyched I got to take part.

Anyway, keep an eye open in the coming weeks as this decrepit old beast of a blog lurches back to life. Hopefully. We’ll see.