Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Reviews:: Sunparlour Players Wave North

myspace || web site

The last time I talked about the Sunparlour Players, I mentioned something about how easy it was to jump into forced metaphors about the band's back story or the region that spurred their name. Well, in theory, none of those things have changed. You could focus on the proud farming tradition and warm southern breezes that describe the southern most part of Ontario or just as easily focus on lead vocalist, Andrew Penner, and talk about how he was raised a Mennonite and build on the stereotypical earnestness you’d expect to shine throughout the songs like it did on the standout Hymns for the Happy.

The thing is, Wave North marks such a huge growth for the Ontario trio, it will shock fans both old and new and shatter most of the easy jump off points reviewers search for. Sure, the elements are the same – banjo, guitar, kick drums, Penner’s unique vocal range – but they all sound bigger and more important. Even with the slowed pace of the opening track, North, the strums host an importance and over the next 12 songs, The Sunparlour Players unleash a collection of thicker arrangements. Producer Jeremy Backofen balances the sweat and emotion that earned the band a rabid fan base with a more professional, intricate sound perfectly. More importantly, he helps the band retain that succinct sound. Experimental? Yes. Wasted notes or confusion? No.

Horns and choral backing are obviously shocking (although they experimented with the latter before), but it’s the surging power the trio delivers that really knocks you back. Even the tender moments are accompanied with a tangible energy that makes you think the band could break into a sprint at any time. On Hymns for the Happy the band had two tempos - fast or slow - but now their control of pace and improved song writing allows for a constant mixing of the two. A few years ago, Nuclear would have ridden the simple picked banjo riff until the wave crashed, but now the 3+ minutes uses organ and tempo changes to hook the listener and the band nestles subtleties deep into the empty spaces.

Figure It Out is another classic ballad, but it seems more mature, more well thought out than anything on their last LP (which, keep in mind was terrific). You might be tempted to compare it to Pacifist’s Anthem - especially when you hear the familiar fret board squeaks - but instead of revealing each note on first pass, Figure it Out hides most of the textures just below the surface. The song unfolds slowly and it takes a few listens to really digest the whole track.

But without question, the biggest accomplishment of Wave North is how a "trio" can rise up and deliver inspired anthems like Point Pelee Is The Place To Be!, worthy of a place beside those penned by 9 and 10 member outfits, without losing any of the sincerity you expect from the Sunparlour Players. I read a press quote once that compared the band to Arcade Fire ... with more banjo and remember laughing. Well, with Wave North they make that writer look prophetic. PPitPtB is more than the fever pitch of John Had A Bell And A Whistle and more than another chance for fans to stomp a hole in the floor. Sure the kick drum that threatens to beat through your chest for the last minute of the song could wake the dead, but it’s the journey up to that point that is so remarkable. The pull the reigns tight at just the right time, gradually letting the song break into full stride.

It's exciting to see the changes the band have gone through. There is no doubt they will still deliver euphoric live shows, but now with a deeper catalog and an a better understanding of their sound, they show that over the next few years, we can expect a slew of consistent, action packed, rewarding records. The band was nice enough to let us offer up the first single - Battle of '77 - for you, so take a listen and start pinching pennies for the May 19th release.

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Posted at 8:30 AM by ack :: 2 comments

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Monday, April 27, 2009

Reviews:: The Provincial Archive Nameless Places

mysapce || web site || Buy from Zunior

With all the lo-fi bands making wavves these days by fusing moments of brilliance with static blasts and clouds of noise, it's remarkably refreshing to stumble on the crisp, clean bedroom folk Craig Schram and his band create. Surging anthems and muddled vocals have taken over the place of straight ahead, well penned verses and the never ending onslaught of bad news, worse decisions and pop stars saying nothing of value or interest makes it easier to care about nothing than holding on tight to a moment in time that we will never get back.

It’s easier to pine for days when the only things that mattered were drinking and hooking up or simply take solace in nihilistic attacks on the pillars of our society than admit your thoughts always circle back to your heart. When push comes to shove, apathy, rage or lust trump pining over a girl that broke your heart, especially since the rise and fall – from critics, not fans - of Ben Gibbard, being a sensitive ultra lyricist trapped in basements and bedrooms with only your thoughts and some recording gear have become a bit passé.

Instead of suffering through lo-rent production, Schram prefers to deliver emotions over crystalline sounds that accent his word instead of masking them. Whether it’s a nice acoustic, mandolin, accordion, xylophone or even simple computer effects, the aptly named, The Provincial Archive, doesn’t want to confuse the issue. They simply want to document moments in time for posterity, and while the ear pleasing melodies grab you, it’s the lyrics that force those thoughts into your brain.

A simple picked banjo opens the record - While I Am Writing Letters... - and even as more sounds are added, you continue to hone in on the original riff and Craig’s voice. In 4-minutes you learn everything you need to know about The Provincial Archive, a feat most bands can’t accomplish with the help of a full record. The song never feels the urge to rush or become something more than it is and Schram’s thoughts follow suit. He’s open, honest and willing to admit he still cares. As he sings of writing letters, it’s quite obvious that 140 characters of typos and symbols isn’t enough for Schram to document and his thoughts, nor is it enough time and effort for what the situation warrants.

The beautiful thing about Nameless Places, is that even with the detail and time TPA put into the end result, the events feel like they’ve happened to you. Whether it's the simple comfort of a road trip looking out at the stars as the odometer turns (Draw An Outline) or just enjoying the crisp air of a winter day (Sound In Winter), or something more tangible like the freedom of lost youth, getting your heart broken, wondering what is going to happen next(with apologies to Ice T), these thoughts seem more real than just obsessing over wanting to get laid. These songs are about the hours in your week that don't fly by under the clouded vision of drinks and strobe lights… you know, the ones that actually matter.

Even though there are better songs on Nameless Places (the catchy strums, hand percussion and xylophone of Sound in Winter are impossible to ignore and I can't help hitting << Like A Cloud Would Float finishes), the one that grabs me the most is On the Literate. Earlier this year I talked about the promiscuous slink of Kundera on the Dance Floor. As bar going patrons hunted in search of lust, passages and authors were floated into conversation to show emotional depth and sophistication. Schram’s character talks of a super intimate one–on-one encounter the irony of "her" memorizing words to sum up how she feels about where they are and who they are, but knowing it will fall short when they grow and she wants to leave.

If nothing else, Nameless Places would be worth a listen simply because it reminds us all that it's ok to care. It's ok to know our heart beats for a reason, often one we can't control. Luckily for the Canadian music scene, The Provincial Archive seems determined to keep a detailed record of the events for our own personal history. Even more fortunate is how they makes these personal thoughts sound great. Every melody floats by nicely, letting you zone in and out and still be rewarded. All in all, I'm not sure what else you could ask for.

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Saturday, April 18, 2009

Polaris Prize:: Round 1

With the first cut-off date for Polaris Long-List nominations approaching, and this being our first time being involved, I thought it would be a lot easier to jot down thoughts and ideas before the deadline, instead of just scanning the list and writing down 5 records on due date. Obviously, we've covered a ton of Canadian releases this year - one or two a day, 5 days a week - but we've missed some quality ones as well.

I haven't decided my Top 5 or the order they fall in but right now these are the nine records leading the herohill Polaris charge (with a few fighting to grab that 10th spot):


Elliott Brood - Meadow Mountain (review) || MP3 || web site

What we said: "And that's probably the thing that grabs me on Mountain Meadow. Despite their previous critical successes (their debut LP - Ambassador - was nominated for a Juno), Elliott Brood is often described as a terrific live band that falls short on record. While I've never agreed with these sentiments, the trio has worked hard to make a record that has the spirit and swagger of a live show, but still allow for repeatable listens. Write it all Down For and Chuckwagon are sweaty stomps track that will fuel sets for years to come, but the band has learned how to transform energetic tracks destined for the stage into songs that reward the headphone listener as well."

For our Halifax readers, Elliott Brood is playing the new Paragon on Friday. Be there.


Joel Plaskett - Three (Review)|| MP3 || web site

What we said: "It’s not surprising that Joel seems to focus on "leaving" for the majority of the first record. He’s reached the point where his life – well, as best as it can when he has to constantly hit the road – is settled here in Nova Scotia, but he’s also reached the age where you can’t help but wonder why worked out the way it did. When you call a different city home for half the year, constantly see your friends leaving and have to say goodbye before piling into the van night after night, you can’t help but feel the grind, miss the smells of home or wonder why you still spend so many hours watching the odometer turn."


Timber Timbre - Self-titled
(review) || MP3 || myspace

What we said: "So, to be honest, the change in sound he delivers on the new self-titled release was quite unexpected. Kirk still has the charisma to tell a compelling stories using little more than the muted, steady strums of his guitar, but the textures he adds accentuate the ominous tones of the record and really complete his songs. Organ, piano, percussion and beautiful string arrangements all add a density to Kirk’s compositions and fill some of the space once reserved for echoes and creaks."


Chad
VanGaalen - The Soft Airplane (review) || MP3:: City of Electric Light

What we said: "He's obviously a unique man with social anxiety and an unquenchable thirst for creative expression and as a result Soft Airplane is incredibly spontaneous and challenging, but at the same time multiple listens show how well the record is thought out. Sound effects, textures and emotion are nestled into the folds and corners, and until you can listen to the complete song, you aren't really hearing Chad's visions."

This was also voted my favorite album of 2008....


Japandroids - Post-Nothing (review) || MP3 || myspace

What we said: "The band is a simple combination of huge drums, guitar and the sing/shouts of Brian King and David Prowse, but the end result is much, much more. The nine song album delivers anthem after anthem, with distorted guitar and crashing cymbals personify the rage of youth, but the melodies the guys deliver really show the emotion and reality we all face when it's time to grow up."

For those unlucky enough to not hear this record, let me just say the songs create the most melodic drone you will find, and this two-piece from Vancouver sounds huge as they manage to perfectly convey the emotions of growing up even when you don't want to, without seeming pathetic nostalgic.


D-sisive - The Book (review) || MP3 (not from The Book) || myspace

What we said
: "Moving on, the hypnotic drums and keys of Kneecaps make up one of my favorite beats on the album, and D's mixing of his love for hip hop with the story of losing his parents is pretty captivating. Solid song all around. Church organ provides the backdrop for Laundry Room, likely one of the most depressing hip hop song you'll ever hear. Well I should clarify that, as the most intentionally depressing hip hop song, as anything currently in the top 10 from people like Young Jeezy or Plies will likely depress you for a different reason."

Admittedly, I would have never heard this record if Shane hadn't given it the huge Thumbs Up - coveted number 1 spot on his Canadian MC list - but the book is a fantastic LP. It's concise, powerful and he manages to hit with real emotion without seeming like he's crying or whining.


Portico - First Neighbours
(review) || MP3 || myspace

What we said: "On first pass, there are so many things that stand out on First Neighbours; the way they balance heavy, distorted guitar with a surprisingly soft touch, melodies that bob along like the little white ball over top of the words on a karaoke machine, the classic “indie – when indie still meant something” rock feel of songs that talk about nothing more than love, awkward silences and f*cking and the way they can transform an instrument like a simple horn into a completely new sound, but it’s when you really dive in that the greatness of this record stand to surface."

Women - Self-titled (review) || MP3 || myspace

What we said: "The self-titled debut is only 29 minutes, and really is more a collection of truncated ideas surrounding five more structured tracks, but live the songs, much like the plethora of equipment the band uses, mesh together into a surging, morphing mass. The set was energy filled, driven by Matt's thick bass lines but it was fueled by front man Pat's spastic guitar and yelps, and Mike's crashing percussion. They were able to balance the experimental noise with tight interaction and sounds that made heads bob."

$100 - Forest of Tears.
Review and info coming tomorrow. Let me just say, I'm smitten with this release, and been listening non-stop the last week or so.

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Posted at 10:09 AM by ack :: 5 comments

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Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Reviews:: Patrick Watson Wooden Arms

web site || label

Two years ago, like most of the world, I was relatively new to Patrick Watson. I really enjoyed Close to Paradise, but was shocked that he got a Juno nod and was absolutely floored when he grabbed the coveted Polaris Prize over names like Feist, The Besnard Lakes, Plaskett and Arcade Fire. Now, two years later Patrick Watson is a name on everyone’s tongue and his upcoming Secret City release - Wooden Arms - is one of the most anticipated of ’09 in the Canadian scene.

One listen to Wooden Arms and it's obvious that the last two years have been kind to Watson and his band. They’ve traveled the world, taking influence and inspiration from the exotic locales they visited and talented musicians with which they’ve played. It’s so easy to throw out easy qualifiers for this record – more mature, Canadian Radiohead (his falsetto begs the Yorke comparison at times) – but they make light of the success of Wooden Arms and the consistent collection of songs Watson delivers. More importantly, they take away from the way Watson blends influences and his own originality. Atmospheric and orchestral tones are constant, as is the clanking percussion the band is fond of, but the subtleties show the band using a much broader palette.

Percussion and a patient builds help epics like Tracy's Waters and Traveling Salesman surge forward, but the whimsy and amazement of Beijing helps you see the new world as Patrick sees it and offer up another side of Watson. The banjo riff and female vocals of the New Orleans Jazz fest ready Big Bird in a Small Cage are incredibly pleasant, but the track is more than just a folk song. Obviously visiting the area affected Watson, and this track combines the classic sounds with his love of echoing harmonies and atmosphere. The required crutches of comparing his voice to Devandra or his style to talents like Buckley or Drake are no longer needed, as Watson makes huge strides in defining his place in music.

Down on the Beach effortlessly glides forward, but never climaxes and as a result the tribal drums feel more natural and soothing, like meditation. A more cinematic vibe drives Where the Wild Things Are, a track that seems tailor made to fit into a scene of Spike Jonze’s adaptation of the classic tale, and Watson handles both nicely. The interesting thing is that with all the layers and the terrific production on Wooden Arms, there are lots of instances where Watson and his band invoke the less is more approach. The gentle crescendo of the piano never overpowers the simple arrangement and emotion they create with the strings on Hommage, and Man Like You shows the confidence of a front man playing a straight ahead track.

Basically, Watson is in a weird "no win, no lose" situation. He had carte blanche to try whatever he wanted on this release, but also had to be ready for backlash from fans that know him more for an award and his opening tour slots AND fans that will accuse him of selling out now that he has some success. Remarkably, he created a record that will appeal to casual fans, but took enough risks – like a seven minute closing track that meanders constantly - and showed enough growth to keep critics quiet as well.

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Saturday, April 11, 2009

Reviews:: Japandroids Post Nothing

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April has already been a pretty stellar month in terms of quality Canadian releases, but one I’ve been waiting anxiously for is the full length from Vancouver’s Japandroids. It seems like I’ve been waiting for this record for years. It was supposed to be self-released sometime last year and even with two EPs, seeing them play countless times in Vancouver before moving, some serious love from the powers that be, and of course the fact Quinn over at From Blown Speakers has long since tried to get people excited about the duo, it still feels like the Vancouver band was constantly lost in the myre.

Well, as of April 28th you can grab Post-Nothing on vinyl or digital download, and I highly suggest you pick it up.

The band is a simple combination of huge drums, guitar and the sing/shouts of Brian King and David Prowse, but the end result is much, much more. The nine song album delivers anthem after anthem, with distorted guitar and crashing cymbals personify the rage of youth, but the melodies the guys deliver really show the emotion and reality we all face when it's time to grow up.

Vancouver's a tough fucking city; hidden underneath the beautiful mountains and Oceanside parks is poverty, one of the most astronomical costs of living in Canada and musically, a scene that constantly shifts to accommodate the venues that get bought up for more condos, and a weird sense of exclusion and pride when it comes to specific sounds and bands. I'm not trying to claim that Japandroids could be the glue that holds it all together (even if they do rep the scene well on Rockers East Vancouver) - if anything, I'd say that it would probably be harder for them to fit into the heavy noise scene or the more straight ahead rock pockets scattered around town - but they might just be the noise outfit that gets out and gets noticed.

"We used to dream, now we worry about dying."

It would be so easy to dismiss the thoughts Dan and Brian offer up, if they weren't so real and already running around most of our minds. In the same way Joel Plaskett documented the confusion and loneliness of leaving, this Vancouver duo makes us think about what happens when the simple things we all took for granted start to disappear and we get stuck when everyone else seems to leave. We all grow up, grow apart and most importantly we all change, but everyone goes through that change at different times. Post-Nothing seems like the bible for those years where we are wondering whether to hold on as tight as possible or let go and accept the inevitable fall.

The huge drum fill and crunching guitar they give us on Wet Hair pushes along a simple adolescent fantasy - "we can french kiss some French girls" - and you remember that not too long ago, nights when hooking up and making out with a stranger you meet at a party or in a crowded bar were all you thought about. For me those days for me happened in the 90's and that's where this sound would have fit perfectly, but the great thing about Japandroids is they realize that youth fades and that simple, biting fact makes these songs more that a nostalgic look back at days that probably weren't all that good to begin with. More importantly, that reality is what makes this record so damn good.

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Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Reviews:: Eamon McGrath 13 Songs of Whiskey and Light

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Music certainly has changed in the last few years. Influences, styles, mediums and most of all the simple way fans consume it, so it warms my old curmudgeonly heart to stumble on a young man who is a throwback to a generation that failed to heed Victor Kurgan’s advice and seems to be fading away.

Twenty-year old Edmonton native Eamon McGrath writes songs because he has to... not because he wants to or even for more superficial reasons (girls, booze, fame). No, this guy records song after song – 18 home records already – afraid to let time sit still or any idea slip by undocumented. He’s the type of artist that makes me want to talk in cliches and run wild with hyperbolic comparisons, mostly because he's the type of artist that will be around for years and years singing to the same same small crowds that love his songs.

It's quite obvious that the blog world has little to no time for a guy, a guitar, his amp and never ending stream of ideas, especially if he’s not playing catchy acoustic riffs. The styles and people that influence Eamon are dying off and being forgotten. Punk rock has been bought and sold; tied to energy drinks and mall going youths while the ideals it stood far are long since forgotten. The blues? Well, unless it’s a frantic slide guitar and stomp a hole through the floor percussion, people don’t have time to listen. The days of the wandering, singing street poet have given way to mash-ups and recycled ideas and personally I think music is suffering as a result.

People these days say how The Hold Steady speaks perfectly for their youth and can save your life by bringing joy to music again... and while that may be true for those who think that high school and college were the best days of our lives, artists like Eamon speak for the kids that don’t have it figured out, get run over by love and isolation and wonder if it's ever just going to work out. Eamon isn’t going to save them or rock n’ roll, but he’s one of those artists that help us remember that for even a moment, the simple strums of an acoustic are enough to get us through the day.

His songs are strong enough to be played alone on stage, the type you try to figure out on your own guitar and stick with you the more you listen. It’s pointless to try to compare a 20-year old with the greats like Waits or Young, but McGrath seems like he could walk the same path; unafraid to power through the sludge and try something that may sound like nothing more than echoing distortion or open up to a room full of drunken punks with a stripped down touching ballad.

Get yourself together man, the bars are barely open. But you’ve got yourself a drink and it’s half gone.”

Eamon has some issues, ones he doesn’t skirt but more importantly ones he doesn’t glamorize. The drinks battle the sadness, trying to repress the inevitable but when the sadness wins out like it does on the beautifully touching Holy Roller it hits with the weight of the world as a man searches for faith or even the hope that things could get better. Even as Eamon tries to lessen the impact with scattered guitar feedback, the simple rolling piano and keep time percussion wins out and you start looking upward with him.

The 13 songs were cherry picked from his hundreds or recorded works by the good people at White Whale, but there’s so much honesty, angst, depression, emotion and fucking talent that it doesn’t much matter where or when they originated. Eamon isn’t going anywhere and that’s something he needs as much as we do now. It’s keeping him going, keeping us listening and keeping the blood ripping through our veins and forcing our heart to beat.

MP3::

Eamon McGrath - Welcome to the Heart
Eamon McGrath - Big River
Songs To Sing When Your Dead/Wild Dogs

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Posted at 7:49 AM by ack :: 1 comments

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Monday, April 6, 2009

Reviews:: Dark Mean Frankencottage

myspace || web site

It’s no secret I’m a big fan of the Hamilton label, Down by the Point records. The small run label is exactly the type of outfit that we bloggers should be searching out; limited-to-no PR budget, repping the hell out of their local scene and, of course, good bands with different sounds. So when Matt Paxton sent over the new EP from a band he is stoked on Dark Mean, I quickly hit stop on my iTunes and loaded up Frankencottage.

UPDATE - this release is actually on Vibewrangler, the Down by the Point people are just helping it get noticed.

The four-song EP opens with a bang… or more accurately, a stomping kick drum. Happy Banjo builds on the drums with a dancing banjo riff, harmonies, horns, pedal steel and electronics – all of which seem determined to battle the underlying sadness of the vocals. The four-minute song tucks little surprises into every opening and before it’s finished playing for the first time, you are trying to sing along to the words you don’t even know. That energy carries over to the title track, Frankencottage, as the drums, bass line and hand claps set the tone for soaring choruses and some electric noodling. Even with all the layers they experiment with, the sound is concise and crisp and the trio never lets your attention wander.

The second half of the EP might seem more subdued, as Lullabye starts as a tender ballad, but slowly an intensity burns and as the vocals get strained the folky banjo is mixed with drums and heavy strummed acoustic to build a powerful collage of sound. For me though, it’s the understanding of flow that makes this track work. The band takes their foot of the gas with gentle cymbal washes and the ambient folk outro really gives some depth to the quick hitting EP and shows that the band has more than one gear to play with on their upcoming full length.

China again mixes delicate sounds – piano, chimes – with a stomping drum line and warped synths notes. The interesting dichotomy helps Dark Mean, letting them reveal a gentler side to their songs, adding emotion and layers but providing the necessary stomp and energy to keep today's A.D.D. listeners engaged. The trio – each living in a different location – is experimenting with familiar tones, but combining them in new ways with terrific results. I kept wanting to highlight a song with a blanketing statement like, "Frankencottage would be worth your cash for Happy Banjo alone" but the more I listen, the more I am embracing each song on the EP. Oh... and the band is giving it away for free on their web site.

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Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Reviews:: Great Bloomers Speak of Trouble

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Back in ’07, I wrote some very kind words about the Ontario band, the Great Bloomers. Their debut EP was a terrific mix of southern rock, distortion, piano and nicely executed Beach Boys harmonies, but was steeped in potential. Needless to say, I’ve been waiting over a year for a follow up full length – partly because they re-released the EP and partly because the band has been touring the shit out of their songs and tightening the screws so to speak – but honestly I wish more young bands would take a page from that same book.

Their new LP, Speak Of Trouble, is a huge jump in sound for the band and shows a maturity that only comes from hours on stage and in the jam space. They didn’t rush into the studio, trying to grab a stranglehold on any of the positive praise they received, opting instead to produce and release an album when it was ready, not simply when the songs were finished. Speak of Trouble explodes out of the gate with the surging epic energy of Lobbyist. They still expose some of the same Southern rock, but it’s the dazzling piano that twinkles just behind the guitars that really completes the song.

At first I was scared the album might be front loaded, as the first four songs are all can't miss efforts, until I realized they all expose different elements to the Bloomers sound. The Young Ones Slept surges along, letting Lowell's voice grab the spotlight but the crunch and transitions really play well against more terrific piano. Honey Blanket has a country shuffle, but the band adds such a blissful sheen to the song with glistening harmonies and chugging drums and you honestly can’t help but smile and enjoy the three and a half minutes. They even change the tone with a 50’s influenced piano breakdown before jumping back into a gallop and that burst of energy flows nicely into the country jam session, AM radio feel of Daylight.

It’s probably no surprise that this record is fun (just listen to the harmonies on the title track), as the band seems to appreciate the success they’ve had, the people they’ve met and the places they’ve seen. Fever Days is as honest a tribute song as I’ve heard from such a young band. They say thanks without resorting to cheesy sentiments or forced significance and even throw in a little facemelter that doesn’t derail the song.

It’s quite obvious the young band is influenced by some of the greats – The Band, The Beach Boys and an affinity for Sonic Youth’s feedback and distortion come to mind for me – but even subtle tips of the cap come off as respectful instead of aping. The Great Bloomers are working hard to form their own sound and seemed more concerned with writing songs that stand the test of time. A lot of Canadian bands have exploded onto the scene and made some waves with catchy hits lately, but Great Bloomers seems to be setting up to make a career out this, instead of just writing some killer tracks that fade in this digital age.

By the time you reach the album closer - an unpretentious rock anthem that combines piano, guitar and a booming chorus - you can't help but let it repeat. Thorn In My Side acts as the perfect closer (for the record and a live show), as the sing-along chorus will get everyone screaming and as the harmonies fade you'll be left slightly sweaty and smiling as you and some friends walk to the doors after seeing one of your new favorite bands walk offstage after another terrific set.

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Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Reviews:: Tom Brosseau Posthumous Success

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It’s no secret I’m a pretty big fan of Tom Brosseau. Grand Forks made out Best-of ’07 list, and the follow up – Cavalier - was pretty spot on (and the Black Sparrow Press style cover art warmed my literary heart). So when I first heard that Brosseau was set to release a new record, I was using all my blogger cred (ie – begging) to get a review copy from the good folks at Fat Cat.

Not surprisingly, the Brosseau chatter across the music blogs has been pretty limited about this release and I’d expect it to stay that way. Tom, while incredibly talented, hits home with a very specific (and small) audience. Relying on gentle picked notes and detailed emotions that oppose volume, he's the type of artist that is best played alone or consumed by a tiny room of appreciative fans.

It’s been almost two years since new material has surfaced, so I was pretty happy when the first soft picked notes started Favourite Colour Blue, assuming I was getting ready for another record full of muted admissions from the terrific wordsmith. Instead, Posthumous Success shows Brosseau experimenting with bold arrangements - drums, jangled electric guitar, bass – largely ignoring his classical acoustic recording style and often letting his instrument of choice settle into the background.

Harmonies, drums and a catchy picked electric jump start Been True, but it’s Big Time where you really see the transformation Brosseau undergoes on this record. The song opens with his trusty acoustic and vocals, but explodes with drums, heavy plucked bass and an ever-present drone. He even adds a surging, sing-along chorus to the equation. I have to admit it shocked me and for the rest of the record I was left on unsteady footing. Even a song like Wishbone Medallion (that would normally fit into his traditional wheelhouse) is infused with a big bass line and some warbled sound effects.

To be honest, there are so many new sides of Brosseau introduced on Posthumous Success that at times I found myself getting a bit lost.

Even with a relatively straight forward combination of sounds, like the warm fuzz and fiddle that are paired with his acoustic and mouth harp on Boothill, I wasn’t sure if another eruption was on the horizon. Chandler is a simple electric guitar instrumental, one that Tom lets notes echo in the vast emptiness. New Heights uses bended synth notes and drums to push his guitar and vocals along and the hand claps and Paul Simon rhythm of Axe & Stump is equally jarring. You Don't Know My Friends is one of the angriest Brosseau songs I can remember, as the muffled sounds and fuzz add intensity to the track and his quicker cadence gives a bit of bite to lines like, “I’m still going to the dance, but I’m going stag. I don’t mind if any of you think I’m a fag.”

While you might think I am dismissing this record, that couldn't be farther from the truth. No, this isn’t the Tom Brosseau I’m used to, but by no means is it one I’m looking to ignore. He’s still an engaging songwriter, and with each listen I settle into more and more songs and start to unearth the little moments that drew me to Brosseau in the first place. Only now those moments are supplanted with melodies and infectious hooks. Already, I'm leaving the record on repeat and I imagine it's only going to become harder to turn it off the more familiar I get with his new styles.

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Posted at 8:30 AM by ack :: 2 comments

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Thursday, March 26, 2009

Contests:: Win Joel Plaskett's Three - Part Three

So, we’ve reach the final installment of our Joel Plaskett trivia/review effort for the release of Three. Remarkably, the third installment offers up yet another side of Joel, one with a more AM radio feel. The songs take on a more classic feel - avoiding the back beat and horns that push One and the homesickness and loneliness of Two - and showcase Joel’s Nova Scotia pride, but more so than the other collections of Three, this record pushes past the confines of New Scotland and starts to sound like the country we call home.

In theory, all three records can stand on their own, but the shared vocalists and guitar sound really let Joel tie them together nicely. And while they should be looked at as a complete package, I think the final record will be the one embraced by the most fans. Rewind, Rewind, Rewind starts the disk, and sets a playful tone. The bending steel helps Joel look back, but Ana’s vocals and a bouncy piano keep the nostalgic sepia tones from turn into regret and flow nicely into Precious, Precious, Precious. The song bounces along like the back seat of a car cruising down a long dirt road and a sun kissed sparkle starts to shine on the quick hitting ditty. Deny, Deny, Deny benefits from some nice fiddle and lets Joel expose some tried and true Maritime folk chops.

The album closer, On & On & On, offers up some of the most honest words I've heard on record in quite some time. The 12-minute epic shows Joel seeing parts of his parents and his hometown as crucial parts of who he is, missing the people who have come and gone, and as more and more high schoolers forge fake connections through facebook, it's refreshing to hear someone admit that spending two hours listening to him sing every couple of years isn't what a friendship is based on.

But for me, the standout number on the last disc is the Tom Petty/Traveling Wilbury’s feel he creates on One Look. You don’t set out on a 27 song collection without hoping to leave a mark - and the fact that Joel mentions his age a few times, makes you wonder if he's started to take stockof his life - and One Look (and to be fair, Rollin’, Rollin’, Rollin’ could be received just as well) is the type of song that people will be singing years from now, knowing that no matter how music changes, certain songs and certain sounds never go out of style.

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So here are the three questions you need to answer to be entered to win a copy of Joel's record:
Q1) What is the name of Joel's new record label?
Q2) What is the name of the Halifax neighborhood Joel spent his teen years in?
Q3) Name two of the artists featured in the Joel Plaskett curated single series? Hint. They are listed on his label's webpage.

To enter, just send an email with your contact info and the answers to herohill AT gmail DOT COM

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Posted at 12:46 PM by ack :: 0 comments

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Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Contest:: Win Joel Plaskett's Three - Part 2

When I jokingly suggested to the Ack that we split up Joel Plaskett's new triple opus, with he, the much, much more prolific hill-half, doing of the first and third discs, while I, of the glacial writing speed, would handle the second, there were three things I didn't take into account:



1) That he would agree to it
2) That disc two is the rather serious, "isolated and homesick Joel" one, and that is not usually in my wheelhouse
3) That the Ack would write a novel, which I would have to then follow up on

Well no matter, I really should have anticipated Numbers one and three, as us writing the verbose posts is like Joel bringing his Dad Bill out on stage during a Halifax show: it happens on the regular. But there is a plus side to following the Ack, as I think he's hit the nail square on the head in most of the things he's said about Joel and this ambitious project of his - so as a result, they don't need repeating from yours truly. Now I don't have to repeat them, but this wouldn't be the hill if I didn't do it to some extent.

The Ack opened his second paragraph with this statement: "I’m not sure any Canadian artist has finally tuned their style as well as Joel Plaskett." And I think he's right. When I think of Joel now, one of the main things that comes to mind now is just how comfortable he is in his artistic skin these days. In high school and after, Joel came across as the tall, somewhat shy, and perhaps a little awkward, fourth of Thrush Hermit. But while the height remains, the rest is gone. His vast experience as an artist has transformed him into a supremely confident and comfortable performer, one who is happy with his success, but is even more interested in pursuing art that he considers meaningful and satisfying. Three is the latest result of that pursuit.

Think about it: it takes a bit of chutzpah to release a triple album in today's record buying (cough...downloading) climate. Joel is a shrewd guy, he knows this is a bit of a gamble, but I think he also realizes that he's at a point in his career where the personal fulfillment he feels in doing something like this outweighs what he would stand to gain from trying to just put out one Nowhere With You after another.

But what of Disc 2 then, the reason for this here article (well I'm sure the reason you're here is for the second trivia question down below)? As I mentioned in my second point up above, the slower, more acoustic focused songs found in this portion of the album wouldn't normally be the ones I'd gravitate to. But these heartfelt songs of longing for home and for loved ones, those both far away and lost forever, have a simple honesty that drew me in after a couple listens. Joel has a knack for writing songs that people can relate to, no matter what the subject matter of the song may be. A perfect example of this is Shine On, Shine On, Shine On, which is undoubtably influenced by his time spent touring down under, but the theme of trying to enjoy where you are when you're missing someone is something many of us can relate to.

Despite the serious subject matter found here, I think the collection definitely picks up some momentum in its centre section. Sailors Eyes is one of the few uptempo songs in this section, and it has an adventurous arrangement (what is that in the opening, a lute? I hope it's a lute) to match its tale of dangerous love. Anna Egge's vocals are put to great use on this as well. In contrast to the full sound of Sailors Eyes, the sparse guitar and drum machine jangle of In The Blue Moonlight is just effective, matching the loneliness of the lyrics. Beyond, Beyond, Beyond is an honest and affectionate look at the time Joel spent in Lunenburg before moving to Halifax - it's another one of those songs that tells a specific story, but many people have a similar story to tell. There's something about New Scotland Blues that makes me think it'll be a mainstay in many a Plaskett setlist in the future.

Now, to get to the important bit of this post, the next trivia question:

What is the name of the Halifax neighborhood Joel spent his teen years in?
Hints:
1) There is a Thrush Hermit record named after it.
2) It is mentioned in Drunk Teenagers.

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Posted at 10:30 PM by naedoo :: 0 comments

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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Contest:: Win three signed copies of Joel Plaskett's Three

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When it comes to the East Coast music scene, I'm not sure there is going to be a bigger release - in scope and anticipation - than Joel Plaskett's new record Three. Twenty-seven songs full of classic Joel and the Emergency sounds, but chock-o-block full of surprises and bigger, bolder arrangements. At the end of the day, Plaskett's biggest undertaking might end up being his most appreciated success.

To celebrate, we have three copies of Three - signed by Joel to giveaway. We are going to feature one record - (9 songs on each) for the next three days, and also include a trivia question. When you know all three answers, email us [herohill AT gmail DOT COM] to enter.

*******

I know, I know. Right now all you haters are thinking, "Big deal. A review from herohill. You went to high school with the dude, of course you like him." Well, while that might be true, for a long time I actually leaned on the opposite side of that equation. I figured I listened to Joel because we used to head to class together and I watched him almost break his face trying a hand plant. It wasn’t until I started just listening to Joel simply as a song writer that I realized how talented he is.

I’m not sure any Canadian artist has finally tuned their style as well as Joel Plaskett. His unique palette of influence and inspiration blends an appreciation of the history of music – fiddle, vinyl, country, R & B, the constant themes of being home and traveling the world – but avoids any of the pitfalls that plague artists that rely on the past by keeping his songs upbeat and energetic. He splices tradition with drum machines beats, crunching indie inspired riffs and clever word poetry, and as a result he’s able to expose fans to musicians long since forgotten without alienating people who fell in love with his previous efforts.

Honestly, spend five minutes with the guy and you get the feeling that Joel is as happy to talk to you about the honor of recording in Willie Nelson’s studio as he is about crafting a hook for Classified. That love of music makes it impossible to question the sincerity of his songs, which is a good thing, because his latest opus – the appropriately titled Three – offers up 27 songs and on first glance you almost can't help but think about filler. Bands go a career without writing 27 good songs, let alone trying to package them for consumption in one sitting. Long story short though... Plaskett pulls it off, offering almost no tracks that you feel the need to skip over and tons that stand up against any of his catalog.

There are a few singers - Springsteen, John Mellancamp for example - that seem to find the exact words to represent their hometown, and Joel has crafted his voice to speak for Nova Scotia (and Canada really) and transport our ocean home to other locations. Normally you might stumble over lyrics like, “It’s a long long way to Winnipeg………. And I ain’t to proud to shake a leg, sing for my supper now crack me an egg” (Wishful Thoughts), but Plaskett makes those words just... fit... and forces you into the warming backing vocals, back beat and darting electric guitar of the road ready anthem.

Three explodes out of the gate with the country-fried electric guitar and a pulsing back beat of Every Time You Leave, but it’s when the backing vocals from Ana Egge and Rose Cousins (it must be said across the three LPs, they do a spectacular job – just listen to Gone, Gone, Gone for proof) kick in that you get hooked. Joel and the Emergency have always maintained a compact style, but the arrangements really bolster their sound and that energy continues into the lead single Through & Through & Through.

I always find Joel the most successful when he’s a bit playful on his records, and you can picture Joel and the girl’s smiling in the studio when they recorded this track. His salt of the earth comparisons hit the mark - “You be April Stevens, I’ll be April Wine” and “I will man my post, but I won’t do what I’m told” – and little things like how he bleeps out a curse with quick horns make it impossible to not like the track. But Disk One – as it is labeled – is not all horns and licks. Pine, Pine, Pine jumps into the Maritime folk driven sound Joel is so comfortable delivering, but this time around it’s bulked up by steel, drums, fiddle and some backing vocals. Wait, Wait, Wait adds more steel and horns to give the sleepy, country anthem a jump in its step, without taking away from the melancholic admissions Plaskett offers up.

It’s not surprising that Joel seems to focus on "leaving" for the majority of the first record. He’s reached the point where his life – well, as best as it can when he has to constantly hit the road – is settled here in Nova Scotia, but he’s also reached the age where you can’t help but wonder why worked out the way it did. When you call a different city home for half the year, constantly see your friends leaving and have to say goodbye before piling into the van night after night, you can’t help but feel the grind, miss the smells of home or wonder why you still spend so many hours watching the odometer turn. Luckily for fans, Plaskett channels the feeling of being lost perfectly and on the first 9 songs of Three he turns a lot of those road weary images into a collection of playful and poignant metaphors about love and loss.

Trivia question I - What is the name of Joel's new record label?

**The second question can be found here**
**The third question can be found here**

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Posted at 7:06 AM by ack :: 1 comments

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Monday, March 23, 2009

Reviews:: The Burning Hell Baby

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A few months ago, The Burning Hell came to Halifax and really blew me away. I already enjoyed Matthias’ ukulele ditties – and yes, made the obligatory Stephin Merritt comparisons – but when the band crowded on the small stage at Gus’ Pub, the energy, excitement and enjoyment was unreal. That energy really carries over onto the band’s new Weewerk release, Baby.

As the title implies, Kom somehow manages to create a collection of songs that touch on the childish and naïve, but still appeal to adults by showcasing his quick wit and cynicism. One listen to the infectious melody of The Things That People Make, Part 2 draws you in, but it’s the playfulness that is so important.

You be the dictator, I'll be the oppressed.
You be the baby bird, I'll be the regurgitated worm.
You be the frat boy, I'll be the guitar.

Wit has always been Kom’s biggest song writing strength. He builds narratives laced with clever wordplay and complex emotions from some of the simplest ideas, but this time around it seems like the band really came together. Sure, Kom still drops a few classic sounding tracks (Animal Hides and of course a continuation of the trilogy of murder ballads with, Grave Situation, Part 3), but for the most part the the songs are packed with new textures and a density.

Whether it's a interesting hybrid between tropical vibes and Mariachi inspired riffs (Precious Island) or the piano and dancing mandolin really help fill out the swagger of the infectious The Berlin Conference, the ramshackle collection of sounds add intensity to the songs. The subtle harmonica and group vocals of Berlin Conference transform the song with a nice breakdown, but the track never loses momentum and surges forward confidently until breaking into full stride for the last 90 seconds of the song and the band keeps up the energy with the drum machine heavy, “club folk” infused When the World Ends.

Honestly, the record constantly surprised me.

Dancer/Romancer
throws in some organ and horns to spike the tempo, but it’s the chorus (that would fit nicely into a catchy alt-country track) that sticks in your brain. Everything Will Probably Be OK starts as a classic sounding duet with Jenny Omnichord, but the back beat transforms the sound into a Casiotone for the Painfully Alone inspired battle between positive nonsense & inspiration from Jenny ("tomorrow is just another word for today", "you've got to lighten up to make it through the year") and Matthius' painful ennui. If you played the song for someone unfamiliar with Kom’s songs, they would probably give you a confused (or disgusted) face, but as the 7-minute track rolls on, the ends of their mouth would start to turn up and their feet would start tapping.

Really the fact you can't help but like the songs is probably the best way to sum up Baby. Fans will love it - it stays true to what you expect and love about the uke driven troubadour but moves more towards the energy and unashamed fun they deliver in a live setting - but the infectious melodies will win over new fans as well. Win, win if you ask me.

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Posted at 8:25 AM by ack :: 1 comments

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Friday, March 13, 2009

Reviews:: A night with the Great Lake Swimmers & Kate Maki



If you looked at the Great Lake Swimmers show as one of those movies that flashes back from a crucial point, you’d probably have to start at the unexpected standing ovation given to Tony and his band. From the wooden pews of the beautiful church, people jumped to their feet and showed their gratitude for the show we had just witnessed. While this might be a common occurrence in other cities, they are few and far between in the city by the sea.



The evening started with Kate Maki – a one time Halifax native – warming up the crowd. Being a fan of her last record, I was happy to sit through her tender acoustic tracks, but when she pulled former Guthries, Ruth Minnikin, Serge Samson and Brian Murray to play with her, the set was instantly fused with energy. Kate was playful, often asking the crowd to be more vocal – assuring us all that just because we were in a church didn’t mean we couldn’t talk – and the thicker sound of classics like Blue Morning, To Please and White Noise really helped the crowd stay attentive. Ending it with a Neil Young, crowd sing-along didn’t hurt either.

But undoubtedly, the crowd was there for the Great Lake Swimmers. For many artists, the setting would be daunting, even overwhelming but for Dekker and the rest of the Great Lake Swimmers, the acoustics and majesty of the setting seemed to match their sound perfectly. When I was talking to him earlier in the day (listen to the interview here), he mentioned that they are trying to play in more building with unique acoustics on this tour, and that comfort level was obvious.

For most of the fans in attendance, it was a chance to finally hear material from Lost Channels (review here) and see how the old songs would sound with the support of a bigger band. Dekker is a perfect front man for this type of setting: unassuming, charming and immensely talented. The lights cast long shadows over his slender frame, but the new band provides tons of support for his quiet demeanor. Julie Fader’s keys, piano and backing vocals lightly echoed around the church and the percussion, stand up bass and banjo really crackled.

Tracks like Pulling On a Line, She Comes to Me In Dreams and Palmistry – in all its REM goodness – exploded from the speakers, but Dekker also stripped back all the layers on new songs like Still and Concrete Heart and offered a bit on insight as to their origins (who knew that Concrete Heart was a commissioned song about Toronto architecture from 1950-1970?). More importantly, you can tell the band appreciated the show and had a good time playing as there were as many smiles on stage as there were popping up on faces in the crowd.

It was pretty nice to see the band rework some classic tracks too. Dekker got the crowd to stamp along to a rollicking version of Your Rocky Spine and I barely recognized the new, spirited version of I Am Part of a Large Family. Honestly, GLS are already on their way – a solid back catalog and major label support – but with this new setup, the energy and strength of Lost Channels and a live show that will satisfy the long time fan and casual listener, they might be on their way to becoming a household name.



Video::

Kate Maki - Blue Morning

Great Lake Swimmers - Palmistry

Great Lake Swimmers - Your Rocky Spine






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Posted at 6:45 AM by ack :: 0 comments

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Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Reviews:: The Lodge Take That Devil

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Right now, hundreds of angry bloggers are collectively losing their shit because the hype machine is only posting the Top 100 blogs on the front page of the site. There are screams for equality and demands for a revolution. In reality, most of the people that visit herohill from hypem.com stay for exactly one second... just long enough to download the track and move on, so while we might miss the traffic, I don't think we'd lose any of our audience.

It’s no secret that 95% of the shit we post on is never going to be popular or embraced by the masses – but if playing fields were equal a post on Halifax’s newest super group, The Lodge, would get us as much traffic as a 7 year old Outkast song. The Lodge is a classic indie rock outfit comprised of some of the seasoned vets of the Hali scene: Mike O’Neil (The Inbreds), Charles Austin (Superfriendz), Cliff Gibb (Thrush Hermit) and Andrew Glencross (Neuseiland and The Euphonic).

I could try to come up with a fresh description of their sound, but when Shane talked about them last year, he hit the nail on the head:

“One chunk, riff filled rocker after another.”

I hesitate to call The Lodge a throw-back, but hot damn does Take That Devil make you remember what music was all about back in the day. For the most part, it’s nothing more than guitar, bass and drums pummeling you for nine songs. Andrew turns his bass up loud enough for everyone to hear – something that seems to be passé these days – and the infectious melodies just warm your heart as they fill your ears.

The record explodes out of the gate like a musical Usain Bolt. World in Me is a heavy, melodic guitar driven track, but Cliff’s drum work really fills out the track. O’Neil’s always been a charismatic vocalist, and even with all the noise going on around him, you can’t help but focus in on what he’s got to say. But they are far from a one-trick pony, as the quartet plays with tempo nicely. Thaw Me Out, Vortex and She’s a Lightbulb (how awesome is the Robert Goulet-like run he adds at the 2:23 mark) showcase a softer side without losing any of the intensity you get from a quick-hitting, garage rocker like Hey, Kids.

Ultimately though, the band saves the best for last as the last third of the record is unstoppable. What Are We Hear For is simply put, sonic bliss and Your Theology is honestly one of the best songs I’ve heard all year. Those 6 minutes would demand repeat listening, if it weren’t for the fact the crunch of Forget the Silence is just as good as its predecessors and waits impatiently in the wings. We’ve already seen the release of some great Halifax recordings – Jenn Grant, Joel Plaskett’s record is almost out the door and is stellar – but The Lodge has drawn a line in the sand, daring local acts to cross it.

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Posted at 9:32 AM by ack :: 1 comments

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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Reviews:: Maybe Smith Another Murder in the Morning

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Saskatchewan’s music community is one of the most underrated scenes in the country, and the eclectic, chaotic indie rocker Maybe Smith is one of its brightest shining stars. You might remember us debuting Bloopers - the catchy indie pop duet featuring Christine Fellows on vocals - on the Elgaard mixtape, but that is just the tip of the iceberg.

Maybe Smith – aka Colin Skrapek - has been making super creative music for a long time now, but I think he really hit his stride on his new record, Another Murder in the Morning - out until April 21. The 12-songs use keys, guitars, laptop effects, backing vocals and chaotic transitions to craft extremely hook filled indie rock, but the most impressive thing about the record is how Skrapek bulks up the melodies with powerful emotion and warm blasts of static and fuzz.

The constant shape shifting transforms the record, but his skilled touch keeps the train off the track even when the surges and energy peak. That’s probably because Colin is as comfortable playing the part of the melancholic troubadour (Night and Day) as he is experimenting with quirky shifts or straight ahead riffs, but in almost every case his songs are more of a melting pot of pop influences. The subtle acoustic and croon of Night and Day comes alive thanks to static and sound effects and leads perfectly into the whimsical feel of Treehouse Enthusiasts (the spinning noisemaker is perfect).

Colin says the record is full of “murder, winter and dogs” and while that may be true, he has also infused the songs with life, laughter and childhood memories. Dangerous Games Involving Bodies of Water (Fall & Winter) throws in some Beach Boys like harmonies, hand percussion and a sense of freedom that contrast the greys he sings about. Even the title track - a slow paced, emotive number – uses static, harmonies and keys to give the Jens Lekman-inspired track a fresher sound.

A Walrus with a Gunswordaxe vs. The Big Bang Machine is probably the best example of how complex Colin’s arrangements are. On the surface, the track is a fairly straightforward pop song, but he distorts the pleasantries of some choral vocals with a surging energy, before revisiting an 80's English Nightclub sound and finishing off with a stripped down, singer-songwriter closing verse. Dangerous Games Involving Bodies of Water (Fall & Winter) starts out with a hint of sadness, before changing into a swirling, frantic pop track. I Suck at Photosynthesis explodes into a thumping anthem from its humble lap-pop origin (and retreats to a dark synth outro), and I know these intricate, odd sounding combination of sounds may seem overwhelming, but Shrapek has such a clear vision of what he wants his songs to say that your attention never wavers.

Front to back, Another Murder in the Morning sizzles. It escapes classification, as Skrapek is as likely to sample from Nilsson or Orbison as he is quirky popsters like The Flaming Lips or cover the track with a blissful MBV haze, but never strays too far that he loses his own voice or his own unique style. Not your typical murder ballads or morose tales of loneliness, if we could all make our darkest thoughts sounds this good, the world would be a much better place.

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Posted at 8:15 AM by ack :: 0 comments

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Thursday, March 5, 2009

Reviews:: Great Lake Swimmers Lost Channels

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I don’t think there are too many bands I’ve posted on more than Great Lake Swimmers. Whether it’s crafting powerful soundtracks, inspired live shows or fostering a sense of national pride, Tony Dekker and his rotating crew of helping hands write music that I love.

The new record – Lost Channels – continues the tradition of recording in bizarre, isolated locations as the band headed to the Thousand Islands region on Ontario. For a lot of bands that might be nothing more than some filler on a press sheet, but for GLS that trip really formed the core of the record. Lugging gear around on boats and recording in castles, churches and community centers not only inspired the band, it also contributed to the songs. You can sense the energy of the buildings - the creaks of the walls and the ghosts that remain behind - on almost every song. Even the little interlude of the castle bells breaks the record into logical A and B sides.

Strangely enough, even with the isolation, mystery and history that inspired Lost Channels, the record is more energetic, fleshed out and spirited than you’d expect. The album opener, Palmistry, sounds like classic REM and really starts Lost Channels with a bang. Throughout the record, Dekker’s band – Erik Arnesen, Greg Millson, Darcy Yates and the super talented Julie Fader (and some great cameos by Paul Aucoin, Serena Ryder and Bob Egan) – is bolder and seems to be more involved with the sounds they are asked to create.

She Comes To Me In Dreams uses a driving melody and Dekker’s voice to stabilize the song, but the arrangement is jam packed with subtleties and risks. Egan’s pedal steel, deep timbre drums, female harmonies and infectious electric work all make appearances, but never overstay their welcome. These small shifts in sound may seem insignificant to an unfamiliar listener or a natural progression for the band, but they really show an evolution in Tony’s song writing, confidence and trust and make Lost Channels something very special.

The second half of the record is more in line with the atmospheric songs from Dekker’s earlier work. Stealing Tomorrow, Unison Falling Into Harmony and New Light all shine the spotlight on Dekker, but the inspired strums and of Still are the perfect counterpoint to Dekker’s past work. Tony may still be looking for the “whispers in between yells” and want to be “the note that’s unplayed”, but he seems completely comfortable giving his friends the freedom to fill out his songs. Even on some of the most emotional, stripped down tracks – like the beautiful Concrete Heart, they experiment, quite successfully, with strings, harmonies and echoes.

Honestly, Lost Channels is the perfect bridge for long time fans and those eager to soak up the new sounds Tony has to offer. Luckily, Great Lake Swimmers will be playing in another old church – St. Matthew’s - here in Halifax on March. 11th. Kate Maki will try to steal your heart to open things up, so I’d highly suggest getting - Pulling on a Line.

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Quick Hitters:: Justin Townes Earle

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Just a quick reminder for people: Midnight at the Movies comes out on Tuesday, so save a few duckets. Already, people have been gushing - with good reason - about how great the new Justin Townes Earle record is, so there's not much point in throwing more gasoline on the fire at this point.

All I can say is that Midnight at the Movies is as good a record as I've heard so far this year. Don't believe me? Take a listen to the first single, Mama's Eyes. Justin admits he's more like his father than he'd like, but the best parts of his mother help make him the man he is.

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Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Reviews:: Azeda Booth Tubtrek EP

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When it rains it pours I guess. Yesterday, I mentioned a new EP from one of my 2007 favs – Amos the Transparent – and low and behold, now I get to talk about a new EP from a 2008 fav. I stumbled upon Azeda Booth last year when I fell in love with Women, but even though they shared a drummer the Calgary band quickly won me over on their own merit. The beautiful, icy cold ambient sounds of In Flesh Tones probably the most unexpected, pleasant discoveries of the year.

On the flip side of the coin, the new Azeda Booth record - In Flesh Tones - is written for cold secluded nights where every step on the walk home seems like a mile and you pine for anything that can numb the bitter chill. The sounds you hear often seem to move at a glacial pace, despite the complexities of the arrangements. Sure, undercurrents of static electricity run throughout the large mass of sound, but for the most part the Calgary quintet seems happy to let songs evolve slowly and surely.

The band has slimmed down – now a solid three piece instead of a quintet – and expanded their sonic tastes, resulting in the free EP, Tubtrek. They still create ethereal, electro fused post rock, but the new material seems more frantic and electric. The static pulses that ran beneath the melodies are now a more integral part of the arrangement and much more pronounced. Fiji Island Hearts starts with a subtle 80’s gleam, but the band moves away from the slow moving soundscape with bursts and blips dominating the minimal arrangement.

More bursts start Neonate, but the contrasting melodic tones and alternating vocals create a surprising warmth to the track. The trio patiently fills out the track, somehow keeping your ear moving with quick darting notes but soothing the listen with a slow developing crystalline calm. That calm continues of the absolutely stunning Samaon Girls. The five-minute track spends almost two minutes morphing before the band settles into a pulsing current and subtle, but precious melody. The last original number, Squall, shows the band returning to the sounds fans fell in love. The slow moving melody meanders beautifully, but the pulsing drum beat tkeep the track surging forward. The falsetto vocals echo nicely and the atmospheric cloud they create will warm the heart of any fan.

The second half of the EP is a collection of remixes of Flesh Tones tracks. Normally, I think remixes are throwaways, but the people the band tasked with reinventing the songs did a nice job. The Goodhands Team tackles In Red and adds a big kick drum beat and some lovely nature sounds (birds, waves) to the track and the dichotomy works well. Secret Mommy reworks Big Fists, and molds the beautiful melody into more club ready track, speeding up the bpm and adding a more carnival fun house vibe to the track. Will either supplant the originals in my iPod? No, but they take risks and offer a new perspective.

More to my liking is the complete transformation Well was given. The refilled and set in sand mix adds two and a half minutes and lets the song takes on a more tropical vibe, without losing the relaxed atmosphere the icy cold original delivered. I also enjoyed the way Morgan Greenwood stripped the pop feel and hand claps out of First Little Britches and created a darker, more subdued sound.

In short, Tubtrek is the perfect stop gap for anxious Azeda Booth fans. The band shows a nice progression in sound and forge a more cohesive setup. The fact it's free and ripped down for you at 320 kbs in just icing on the cake. Snatch this up an enjoy.

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Monday, March 2, 2009

Reviews:: Amos the Transparent My, What Big Teeth You Have...

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For any long time reader of herohill, you'll know are quite smitten with Ottawa's Amos the Transparent. We gave them the distinction of #2 on the 2007 Canadian album of the Year list and asked them to open up for The Inbreds reunion show at the herohill Pop Explosion last year. The way Chandler and Wilson melded bedroom pop with anthem ready classic rock was pretty breathtaking, but the thing that made Everything I've Forgotten to Forget stick in my brain was quickly the got to the point and how powerful their statements were.

"The songs are tight, the arrangements crisp and succinct. In most cases, too many cooks spoil the broth and too many guitars spoil the sounds. Huge crescendos are all well and good, but endless meandering that is all too common in today's indie scene is another thing. AtT never wastes a note."

So when Jonathan sent over the songs from the new Amos EP, I was a wee bit excited. My, What Big Teeth You Have is the first new material to surface since their record, and expectations were high. With the success and acclaim the LP got, you could almost expect the band to craft another collection of epics and wait for the praise to come in. Instead, AtT throws the listener a steady diet of nicely executed change ups to keep you guessing, but never fails to deliver on quality.

The first three songs show a very different side of the Ottawa based band. The M.O.B. Catalogue is more inline with something you might expect from Chandler's former band mate, as they explore a much harder edged synths/guitar riff and the EP opener, This Town, is full of distortion and uses a nice build, but they manage to soften the sounds with the nice female backing vocals courtesy of Kate Cooke. She and Chandler's vocals work well together, and help prevent the free flowing build from overpowering the song.

But for me, it's the EPs second song that really shows off the talent of the band. Up, Up & Away lulls you into the comfort of another big bedroom pop track. The childlike freedom you feel as Jonathan repeats, "up, up & away" and the nostalgic look back to some fatherly advice creates a comfortable escape, but around the 2:40 mark the band starts to unravel the threads of our security blanket. Blasts of guitar contrast chimes and the slow kick drums gradually gathers momentum until the band explodes into a chaotic, guitar heavy breakdown. Just when you start to get into the heaviness of the effort, Cooke and Chandler's vocals shimmer revealing another layer to the song before abruptly signing off.

It's not until the last two songs that the band treads on any of the same territory you'd expect from them. Greater Than Consequence might sound like the type of bedroom pop you'd expect from Chandler, but in reality it's a reworked song penned by keyboarder Mark Hyne. It's a song that has evolved with the band, and the simple beautiful strums of an acoustic, layers of strings and keyboard textures, and harmonies (and choral outro) float perfectly into the driving bass line and keep time drums of Lemons. The pleasant sounds provides the support for Jonathan's emotional vocals and really this song is as close as the band comes to revisting the sonic palette they crafted their debut LP.

It's obvious that this isn't the same band that a lot of Canadian music bloggers fell in love with a few years back. No, the new Amos the Transparent is bigger and bolder, and unafraid of risk. It might only be 5-songs, but it shows just how many different paths the band can take and how rewarding each of those path are.

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Friday, February 27, 2009

Reviews:: Jon-Rae Fletcher Oh, Maria

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We only have so many legs to stand on; family, friends, the people we love and the city we call home. For Jon-Rae Fletcher, over the last year couple of years he has seen most of those pillars crumble and to top it off, his band broke up. On the surface, that might seem as cliché as a beaten down hero losing his dog in the divorce, but you forget that just because musicians create art doesn’t mean their words are scripted.

After the dust settled, Jon-Rae left Toronto and headed back west and Oh, Maria is the stark, honest result. Gone are the soulful riffs that he & The River perfected on Knows What You Need, and in their place are folk tracks laced with emotion and sincerity. His new band – including Kathryn Calder of New Pornographers/Immaculate Machine fame, Ladyhawk’s Darcy Hancock, Crystal Dee Denham and Denver Rawson shaping the mood of the songs with dark trombone – are there to support Jon-Rae, but even when his voice swells the music is more about supporting the mood with subtleties.

Recorded in only four hours, the songs feel more like a conversation than a confessional. Fletcher isn’t always sure how to handle his thoughts, often retreating to near silence or swelling to powerful crescendos instead taking the time to worry about the clarity. While you might get the feeling that means the songs are lacking or rushed, you couldn’t be more wrong. Jon-Rae completely opens up to the listener and the earnest words are some of his most beautiful. Obviously, the end of his relationship shapes Oh, Maria - when he sings, “this is the sound of my heartbreaking in two” on The Sound, you feel the seams of your own heart starting to stretch – but the record exposes so much more.

As Jon-Rae's thoughts meander across the ten-songs and you get the sneaking suspicion this is his way of getting it all off his chest. I wouldn't go as far as saying it's a concept album, but it plays like one of those late night conversations that starts with a reluctant admission and by the time the sun is coming up, the ashtray is littered with untouched cigarettes burned down to the filter and you've revealed - if only for your own sanity - your deepest fears. Fletcher's biggest success on this record is how easily you can imagine these events happening to him, but the common themes of heart break, feeling lost, admitting that it wasn’t always someone else's fault, pointing out what you dislike the most about yourself (The Big Talker), and the exhaustion of trying to keep the train on the tracks transfers to all of us.

Whether it’s intimacy of a gentle touch on the small of her back (City Lights) or how those same hands can be used to hurt or for pleasure (Those Hands), Fletcher doesn't shy away from his strongest emotions but you still want to think that at the end of the day, Jon-Rae will be ok. It will take time, but as the fuzz, piano and horns spike the energy and optimism on the album closer Oh, Maria, you see Fletcher trying to be the bigger - and more importantly, a better - person and get some closure. Selfishly, if turmoil helps Jon-Rae write songs as moving as the 10 he penned for Oh, Maria, I hope that closure isn't just around the corner.

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Monday, February 23, 2009

Quick hitters:: Dan Mangan Roboteering

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Herohill has a long history with Vancouver’s Dan Mangan although one that started with ulterior motives on our part. When I lived in Vancouver, my wife was a big fan of Brett Dennen and when tickets for his show went on sale we were in Anacortes and missed the sales window. Mangan was opening for Brett, so I thought why not reach out to see if we could get on the list (herohill is not as selfless as you might have thought).

At the end of the day, his management didn’t get back to me until the day after the show so my attempts to scam them failed, but they did send over a copy of his record - Postcards and Dreaming - which became a favorite at our apartment and a must have on any road trip. I was so impressed with Dan's sound that I try to come up with a scientific equation to explain why I thought Dan was going to be huge.

Start with the appeal of Dave Matthew's rough, yet somehow tender voice. Now, quickly subtract all the douche bag antics you associated with DM and scrap the 9-minute jams sessions that go nowhere. Oh, and the violin parts from the odd looking dude, those are gone too. Now add arrangements that draw you in, a presence that makes you listen and an honesty that exudes from the lyrics and makes every song sound like something from your own life. Finally, carry the one, and you are left with Dan and the reasons why the Vancouver singer / songwriter has the potential to explode.

The thing is, it wasn’t until I saw Dan open up for Mark Berube a month or two later that I was convinced that Dan is destined for big things. At the time, I mentioned that when people started singing along to the chorus of Robots, the room was filled with smiles and people rushed towards the merch table. To be honest, I never thought much about it after I left other than it was a cute sing-along about a lonely man that worked well at shows, but for days weeks later, I found myself singing along to the chorus. It entered my brain so effortlessly, but it was damn near impossible to get it to leave

Well, now it's 2009 - almost 5 years since Dan first released Postcards and Dreaming - and he's finally getting ready to release his follow up record. Most people out of the game for 5 years would long since be forgotten, but Dan's been touring non stop, building his fanbase and really letting his songs develop into full fledged gems. The tracks aren't just snippets, but complete thoughts and maybe to say sorry for making us wait so long, he’s putting out a nice little EP – Roboteering – to get everyone excited.

The lead single, obviously, is Robots, a track that showcases the surprising tenderness of Dan’s gruff vocals, but it's how the song has been fleshed out that makes it impossible to shake from your cranium. The horns and slow build are terrific, as are the smatterings of banjo and harmonies, but it’s the nostalgic feel I get when Dan replicates the sing-along vibe of his live shows with group vocals to the end the song. Honestly, I challenge you to not sing-along as he repeats, “robots need love too. They want to be loved by you.”

The rest of the EP – including the great duet, The Indie Queens Are Waiting - is the perfect introduction to Dan’s skills. Not many people could pull off an insecure ballad about trying to fit in, a reworked demo as a treat for old fans and a spoken word piece and still only scratch the surface of the potential of the full length. I haven’t heard the full record yet, but I have no problem reserving a spot on my Best-of list for the talented Vancouver singer. Maybe that will make up for trying to squeeze him for tickets.

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Thursday, February 19, 2009

Reviews:: Julie Doiron I Can Wonder What You Did With Your Day

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Over the last few years, it’s become increasingly easy to picture Julie Doiron writing songs from the comfort of her Sackville kitchen. Her sonic preferences have evolved from sludge and lo-fi melodies to tender tracks that expose hints of sadness delivered by a subdued voice and her emotions are spiked with the drama of a slowed down life filled with memories and dreams instead of the insecurities of youth.

And while there’s no doubt that Doiron is incredibly successful writing in this style (Woke Myself Up earned a Polaris short-list nomination), for me it’s hard not to pine for the noise and energy that she and the other Tripper’s created in the 90’s. It’s obvious, even after working with her former band mates on Woke Myself Up, that Doiron is never going to fully return to that style, but I Can Wonder What You Did With Your Day blends her past and present nicely.

The record opens with the simple strummed ditty, The Life Of Dreams. As the bird sing in the distance, you can’t help but think of a beautiful sun filled morning; you get that rush of a new day and a fresh start. Doiron sings about the best things in life – good friends, hope, love – with an unexpected, but very refreshing optimism. Over the course of the next 11 songs, it becomes obvious that Doiron is in a great place in her life looking forward and seeing the beauty in everyday life (another summery number - Nice To Come Home - about the unbridled joy of coming home to a warm home).

But she also reflects fondly on her past (both with memories and a return to a sound many of us had forgot about – she even recorded a terrific French track Je Le Savais that will warm the heart of her long time fans). She and Fred Squire attack Spill Yer Lungs, a gritty stripped down track written by Squire that shows Doiron plugging in and letting distorted notes thicken up the sound. There's no mistaking that this release is a solo record, but Julie is quite happy to let Rick White’s keys and bass or Squire’s drums mesh with her guitar and voice (like she does on the punchy Borrowed Minivans or the classic melody of Lovers of the World) and deliver a bigger sound.

For those concerned, it’s still the same Julie. She still harbors the sneaking suspicion that a love can’t actually be pure or that a heart can’t exist unbroken. She still sings about the little things she sees unfold in front of her instead of grandiose narratives, but Doiron is definitely exploring some new terrain and making bolder musical choices. The way she describes the simple pleasure of flying around Sackville on a bike with wet brakes is classic, but the When Brakes Get Wet is completed by the pulsing drum machine static that creates a childlike excitement that really mirrors that energy and happiness we feel when we are lucky enough to escape real life.

For me though, what makes I Can Wonder What You Did With Your Day so special is the honesty and freedom that runs through it. Trying to balance a storied past with where she's at now in her life would intimidate most artists and more importantly, risk alienating some of her newer fans. Following Nice To Come Home with the heavily distorted, double tracked chaos of Consolation Prize showcases the two extremes of her songs, but it also successfully replaces the nostalgia we might feel for any record Doiron has released in the past with an overwhelming desire to get to know who Julie has become.

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Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Reviews:: The Hylozoists L'Île de Sept Villes

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I’m not really a fan of epic instrumental jams or those guitar/drum indie bangers that make skinny jeaned kids freak out awkwardly. I tend to get lost in the wash of sounds or bored by the repetitive nature of the artist, despite the constant attempts at sonic drama. As easy as it is to throw on Ratatat when I’m out jogging or Mogwai at the end of a night and zone out, I rarely reach for a record full of beats or a post rock album simply for a casual listen.

That all changes when The Hylozoists come into play.

The six piece instrumental acts from Toronto is back with a new record – a collection of songs inspired by Paul Chaisson’s book The Island Of Seven Cities – and the range of sounds and emotions conveyed are staggering. Led by vibraphone savant and composer Paul Aucoin, the songs on L'Île de Sept Villes find strength, cower in shyness, love, hurt, soar freely and sear with intensity, (all without the benefit of a spoken word) but unlike so instrumental acts trying to convey the same emotions, the catchy melodies The Hylozoists craft infuse playfulness and whimsy to lighten the load. Bubbles & Wheezy starts with an airy melody that the band deftly (and patiently) transforms into a dark storm, but understands the weight of the chaos, and quickly ushers in bluer skies to conclude the track (in a concise 4-minutes, avoiding the trap of building and building until the song’s length outlasts its impact).

Crafting heavy, dark, gloomy instrumentals or dancey-pants beats is one thing, but for an instrumental record to truly inspire and drive the listener forward is another thing altogether. They certainly build some dark tones (The French Settle In), but even on the dark and brooding Bras d'Or Lakes, the eerie violin and vibraphone that haunt the listener at the onset give way as the band infuses life into the notes, transforming the song with a subtle, organic build. Your Band Doesn't Have The Legs I Thought It Would seems like the theme to some sort of animated short that pits a morose hero against the struggles of another lonely morning ( ican almost picture him covering his eyes to block out the sun and budding flowers), only to see him gain motivation and strength with each step, springing forward with giant leaps.

And it's that type of vivid imagery that makes L'Île de Sept Villes so rewarding. You can literally pick any song on the record and be amazed by the emotions it uncovers or how it triggers a memory of a personal journey you’ve struggled through, but more importantly one you overcame. The warming fuzz and gentle picked notes of the tender Acadia Acadia sounds like falling in love for the first time. The Island of Seven Cities floats along perfectly, but the band manages to infuse the airy feel with an energy that you probably felt since childhood. Even the perfectly titled Parents Don't Let Your Children Grow up to Be Compressed - which makes me wonder if Aucoin feels that restricting these songs to tiny speakers and headphones takes away from the vast height the tracks soar to - feels like the gentle touch and wonder you see from new parents who have just been completely floored by the miracle of life.

The Hylozoists convey emotion much more powerful than you could expect from a record with only a few words. The songs come to life as they unfold and even if you disagree with every emotion I described, it's probably because you have such a detailed picture/memory stuck in your thoughts. I'm not sure if there can be a better reason to listen to this record or bigger compliment you can give to the band.

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Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Reviews:: Bruce Peninsula A Mountain is a Mouth

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For some reason – no, that’s not true, the reason is the shitty economy and the constant fear of being unemployed while we watch the technology sector crumble and Wall Street reward itself with 18 billion in bonuses – it’s been a struggle lately. The underlying anxiety starts to take over and every time the phone rings or an email pops up on your screen, your heart starts to race. You start comparing yourself to your coworkers that you actually know nothing about using random comparisons with obscure qualifiers to judge your worth.

It’s also probably the reason I’ve found myself listening to the powerful debut from Bruce Peninsula over and over again. People who read herohill already know how much respect I have for the band – I voted them as the second hottest band in Canada behind the strength of a few songs – and how excited I was to hear A Mountain is a Mouth, so why am I only getting around to talk about it now?

Unlike a lot of the blog world, I let this record marinate slowly and only listened to it a few times in December and January and to be honest the first few listens didn’t blow me away like their 7” did. I certainly enjoyed the songs on AMisM, but I wanted to make sure I didn’t rush to judgment and took the time to embrace the subtleties and varying emotions, not just the thumping percussion and soulful choral hollering. It’s almost impossible to ignore the ragged epics the collective pens - Steamroller and Crabapples could shake the dead back to life - but there is a depth to these songs that shouldn’t be overlooked.

Subtleties are not what you might expect from a ten-piece collective led dominated by hand claps and the gravelly growl of Neil Haverty, but the soft touch the band adds to the record really helps the band (and the listener) keep one foot on the ground during the soaring, surging chaos. A perfect example is how they balance the hand clapping, tub thumping energy that ends Satisfied with the surprisingly delicate, uplifting introduction of Shutters. You’d never expect it, but the clarity and tranquility hit as hard as any percussive beat on the record.

I’ve read tons of reviews calling the listening experience religious or spiritual but to me, the band strips away the need for prayer and floods your soul with a much more important feeling; inspiration. Instead of looking to the heavens or hoping someone else can save you, Bruce Peninsula makes you feel you can overcome anything on your own. As the peaceful sounds of Weave Myself a Dress slowly pick up momentum with a gentle foot stomp, marching band drum and a choir, you feel a surge inside your body that makes you feel like you can fly. Even when the band lets you hit rock bottom (the bleak Drink All Day) they lift you back up with the workman like Northbound/Southbound.

A Mountain is a Mouth doesn’t hit as hard as Lift Em Up or Jack, Can I Ride, but really, you wouldn’t want it to. Instead Bruce Peninsula creates emotional valleys that give the record a timely reality, but follow them up with soaring epics that inspire you to keep going, and that might just make this one of the most important records you’ll hear this year.

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Monday, February 2, 2009

Reviews:: United Steel Workers of Montreal Three on the Tree

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The United Steel Workers of Montreal will kick your ass. I’m not really sure what else needs to be said about the urban hillbillies from Montreal, but seriously, one listen to their new record – Three on the Tree – will leave you battered and bruised and emotionally spent.

I could start with the basics; banjo, squeezebox, guitar, and double bass that make you want to stomp a hole in the dance floor or talk about Gern’s gruff, whiskey sloshed vocals. I could even mention the tender ballads the band routinely adds to the mix (the old-time feel of Little Girl is a great example of how they control the tempo of the record) or how perfectly Felicity Hamer drifts into falsetto, but trying to dissect this record takes away from the end result.

I know bluegrass has become increasingly popular over the last few years (thanks in large part to the rise of the Avetts) and naturally that will lead to a ton of bands throwing their hat in the ring, but the USWM are the real deal. Even with multiple song writers with different styles (Shawn Beauchamp, Gern, and Matt Watson), they all manage to pay tribute to the past with classic imagery, sounds and themes - hearing the epic tale of of a man defending the honor of the woman he loves, even if she doesn't love him back on Son, Your Daddy Was Bad or the way they transport the listener to the seedy underbelly of society on Shot Tower will appeal to any longtime fan of the finger picking, as will the familiar sounds of What a Riot - but it's the experimentation they use that will help the Montreal sextet touches a much bigger audience.

Obviously, USWM write songs that take new life once the whiskey and adrenaline start flowing, but they avoid the disconnect that so often plagues energetic bands when they hit the studio. Shot Tower starts as a slow burner, but they change pace midstream and when they break into full gallop (the banjo, mandolin and percussion that clip clops for the last minute surge forward) a charge pulses through your body. Three Hard Knocks sizzles, but they don't rely on frantic finger work to set the tone. The Ballad Of Mary Gallagher could easily find a home on a more radio friendly effort (think Be Good Taynas) and Rise Up sounds like a traditional Irish pub standard. Even as the harmonica and blues guitar rip over the images of heaven and hell on the album closer, Jesus We Sweat, they add Gern’s radio Pasteur pontification to freshen the sound.

But at the end of the day, the thing I like most about the album is how adaptable the band is. You might expect Hamer to focus on the softer touches on the record, leaving the grit and grime for Gern, but the rage she sings with on Glen Jones makes the song. On the flip side, Gern is able to control his gravelly pipes (like the way he shows compassion and control on the lovely duet The Line) and those moments are what transforms the United Steel Workers of Montreal from another fantastic bar band not to miss into a complete band that packs a record full of surprises.



Be sure to check out the USWM when the burn down the Seahorse on Feb. 21st.

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Thursday, January 29, 2009

Reviews:: Portico First Neighbours

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Honestly, I’m not sure how many more terrific Canadian releases can dominate the early days of 2009. I already have three or four records that will contend for "Best-of" status - I’ve been impressed by Timber Timbre’s transformation, the maturity of Jenn Grant’s newest release, the heights reached by In-Flight Safety and still haven’t had enough time to talk about Bruce Peninsula - and it's not even February yet.

I guess complaining about too much good music in '09 would be like peering into the gullet of a gift horse and checking around, so I'll gladly jump all over a release that will probably be overlooked by many (the band flies so far under the radar they are kind of like that super smart plane in that terrible Jessica Biel/Jamie Foxx flick). East Van residents Portico are back with their third record, First Neighbours and even though we've gushed and gushed about this band before and set the bar really high for their output, Portico Fosbury flops over it with ease.

On first pass, there are so many things that stand out on First Neighbours; the way they balance heavy, distorted guitar with a surprisingly soft touch, melodies that bob along like the little white ball over top of the words on a karaoke machine, the classic “indie – when indie still meant something” rock feel of songs that talk about nothing more than love, awkward silences and f*cking and the way they can transform an instrument like a simple horn into a completely new sound, but it’s when you really dive in that the greatness of this record stand to surface.

It would be enough to go on and on about how god damn catchy this record is… how they don’t throw on superfluous layers and get a bigger, fuller sound with just a bass, drums, a guitar and some harmonies that most of the "collectives" that are cropping up everywhere and how even at 48 minutes, the record flies by way too fast. I could just talk about Lyn Heinemann’s voice is so unique, powerful enough to grab your ear but still feminine and soft, but when it comes to Portico, it’s more about what they say than just how well they say it.

Battle of Duck Lake crunches out of the gate with Mimi’s bass and Greg’s drums helping to form a three-headed beast, but it’s Lyn’s portrayal of the pain and anguish the Metis people suffered and the surge of the epic battle (mimicked nicely with the swirling, chaotic horn) they fought that makes this song so powerful. The simple, spot on riff that bounces along so effortlessly on I Heard There's Proof completely disguises her blunt attack on the gap between the have’s and have not’s that grows wider each year in Vancouver.

Whether its historical narratives - Frank Slide details the events of the tragic Alberta rock slide, A Year Between the Wars tells the story of a family in the Great Depression and the alienation and anger of racism showcased on Louis Riel Leaves The Collège De Montréal - or an honest look at the sex trade in East Vancouver (the heartbreaking Hallmark Poultry Ltd. - which I think is a track written by label mate Leah Abramson), Lyn manages to make each song like a personal experience, putting herself in the protagonist’s skins to recreate the powerful emotions.

The perfect thing about these songs is how the band understands the weight of the listen and seems to have a sixth sense of when to lighten the load. The band’s playful homage to the Pixies (the woo hoos and terrific bass line that fill out the last minute of I Heard There's Proof) forces you to forget the inevitable sadness you just heard and flows perfectly into Unreunion. Easily the most infectious melody of the record and Heinemann addresses the universal themes of love, break ups and the awkwardness of new relationships and new sex. When she admits, “I don’t really care if we can’t talk, we can always fuck”, some of your most awkward moments of your adolescence come flooding back to life.

The only thing stopping this band from being huge is the fact I’m not sure that’s something they even want. Portico seems more than happy to play shows, exist on a great label (Copperspine) that treats them well and write music on their own schedule. With all the one-hit, blog wonders and disappointing records out there, songs as refreshing as the ones on First Neighbours should not be passed up.

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Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Reviews:: William Elliott Whitmore Animals in the Dark

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For his last three records, William Elliott Whitmore (and even his lovely collaboration with Jenny Hoysten) has been able to take the listener on a dark journey deep into his soul, using his gravelly voice, trusted banjo and little else. He’s a man who can sit in front of a crowd on thousands, most of who’ve never heard him sing, and make the venue turn pin drop quiet. He’s the same man who is usually fed shots of whiskey from hard earned fans, and doesn’t try to hide his smiles or slurs as the set progresses. He’s an artist’s artist, one who constantly fills opening slots for bigger named musicians who count themselves as fans (*).

He’s also one of my favorite singers.

On February 17th, Whitmore is releasing his first record – Animals in the Dark - on Anti records, and the changes are shocking. On the surface, you can't help but notice the banjo makes only a few appearances, but more importantly, Whitmore seems more mature. He experiments with sounds and instrumentation and instead of coming off like a farmer from Lee County, Whitmore transforms himself into a true folk singer, tackling the issues that are dragging us down and tries to inspire the masses. He sings of hope, and while someone else may have already forced the world to remember that word still exists, it’s a refreshing change and not one to take lightly.

I realize this new style might alienate some of Whitmore’s core fan base, but it's one that really exposes a new side to his songwriting. The opening number, Mutiny shows Whitmore venturing into the political as he questions the leadership – maybe not so much just the President of his country, but leadership in general – with only a natural cadence and a marching band drum driving the song. Those political themes continue on the first single – the full band driven, bar room ready Old Devils - as he pleads for a change to the back office meetings that control our world.

But it’s the album’s second track, Who Stole the Soul where Whitmore really starts to impress. Showcasing a softer side, William sings not with the anger and rage of youth, but with the frustration of experience and a longing for a change that always seems to be just ahead on the horizon. He uses some heavy strums of an acoustic, but it’s the beautiful strings that complete the mood. Even as he jumps into the live favorite Johnny Law, you can tell Whitmore has grown. The first time I heard the song, he commented on how angry he was at the cops for punching his female friend in the face, and the song was fast and the anger was palpable. Now, he’s taken a deep breath, and the track is more a commentary than a call for action.

Even when Whitmore sings for his friends and the county he once called home and now hardly ever sees (like he does on Hell or High Water), his words and the subtle guitar come across more like a weary road warrior looking forward to the comforts of home instead of longing for another whiskey soaked night. He’s happy for what he has and those he’s met, refusing to let the state of the world darken his visions of love and hope. He travels too much ( Lifetime Underground) and takes too much pride and enjoyment from his life to let someone else decide how he lives. As he finishes the record, with the scenic beauty and tranquility of A Good Day to Die, you can’t help but think about the good things you have instead of the shit that is hurled at us with a plummeting economy and a society that thrives on war and strife.

As unlikely a folk poet as you’d imagine, Whitmore has made a record that should push his work to the ears of a much bigger audience and really inspire the listener. So as he says, "smoke em if you got em and drink your glasses to the bottom" and in a time where we need every ounce of hope we can get, embrace what you have and take a long listen to Animals in the Dark.



* When he played Vancouver, Ben Nichols of Lucero stood alone in front of the stage supporting William's set.

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Monday, January 19, 2009

Reviews:: Jenn Grant Echoes + Interview

photo by Norman Wong

Undoubtedly, the two biggest releases coming from Nova Scotia this year will be the triple album from Joel Plaskett, and the soon to be released sophomore release some PEI born, Halifax resident Jenn Grant. With her debut - Orchestra from the Moon - Jenn showed the world her talent, enchanting listeners with her voice and melodies.

Echoes certainly reinforces her talent but shows Grant developing a more grounded view of the world she lives in, one that benefits her songs nicely. After the first few lines of Heartbreaker, you sense something is different about Jenn, almost as if the last year has put her through some things that made her stronger, calmer. You really get the sense that Jenn has grown into her voice and more importantly, as a song writer. The maturity and power she delivers on songs like Hawaii and Only Love Can Break Your Heart really hit with the same impact as the first Norah Jones record that became the must have record of the year.

As soon as the sensational You'll Go Far starts, you expect the song to explode into the wood nymph dance party like her smash hit, Dreamer . Jenn and her band (The Night Painters) use many of the same elements and build the anticipation throughout the song, but instead of floating off into another wide-eyed, dream they control the pace and despite the light sounds Grant takes the role of a grounded supporter instead of an unwavering optimist.

Grant has always dabbled in countless styles, and Echoes is no different. The intimate Where Are You Now floats around the empty space, and warms the room like the first rays of light that creep through the windows but even with how easily this song could dominate the radio, it's only one piece of the Grant puzzle. She pays tribute to the sounds of the past with the quirky, country fair vibe of the terrific (I've Got) The Two Of You, a song that would probably leave the listener flat without the purity of her voice and is able to handle with bigger, jazzy arrangements with ease.

Grant's voice has always been intoxicating and flexible, but her interaction with The Night Dreamers can't be overlooked. The spacey undercurrent of the confessional Blue Mountain really makes the track crackle, and they seem to feed off the emotion her voice creates. They add some intrigue and anger to When I Was Your Woman and really help Grant transform Parachutes (another intimate track that uses harmonies perfectly and finally gives Grant's voice the spotlight) by breaking into a full gallop after her voice has already fully entrenched you in the song.

With the success of her debut record and the insane expectations for Echoes, the bar was set quite high for Grant, but her maturity and talent allows her to easily clear the hurdle. She takes chances, opens up her soul to the listener but also shows that at the end of the day, some of her music is written for her (the album's last song, Everybody Loves you almost feels like Jenn reassuring herself that things are going to work out) and the process of her writing is important for her growth. Undoubtedly, this record is one that fans will embrace, but in all honesty, it's one that is going to make Jenn Grant something more than just Halifax's favorite female voice.



Jenn was nice enough to answer a few questions for us, and if you thought we could go a whole interview without talking about Lionel Ritchie, Bill Ocean or Step it Up 2, Electric Boogaloo... well, you obviously don't know us or Jenn.

HH:: You just finished recording and are getting to release Echoes. With the success you had with your last release, did you feel any pressure to build on the momentum?
JG:: I didn't feel any pressure, I actually felt like I was going crazy and wanted to record pretty much right after releasing Orchestra for the Moon. I am so glad I waited. I wasn't ready!!!

HH:: The music on your last record has been described – and rightly so in my opinion – as whimsical and magical. When I listened to Echoes, I hear a more mature and darker sound on a lot of the tracks (like I Was Your Woman). I wouldn't say the songs emit sadness, but they seem less… wide-eyed maybe. Was this a conscious decision or did your own experiences just lead to these songs?
JG:: I noticed that too. But more so like it was unfolding before me. I don't think i could plan something like that even if I tried, nor would I want to. It's just something that happened. but it's nice because I feel like I grew up a bit.

HH:: Much like fellow Maritimer Joel Plaskett, you have achieved success and built a North American fan base without having to leave Nova Scotia for a bigger city. How important is your home, your friends and a smaller, slower lifestyle to you and your music?
JG:: It is very important. I love the Maritimes and really need to come back and fuel up again so that I can keep writing and feeling happy. There really needs to be time to feel like I know what day it is in between all the touring. Big cities although amazing in their own way often make me feel anxious. And I miss the little things the most like making myself a cup of tea after sleeping in my own bed and walking down Agricola street. But i appreciate these simple pleasures all the more for being away from home. It's nice to have something to come back to.

HH:: Do you think your career would have unfolded the same way if your family had stayed in PEI and not moved to Halifax?
JG:: Leaving PEI as a ten year old girl was very hard for me, but I am so much happier today having grown up. in both of them. Leaving the island and having to find my place in Halifax has much to do with becoming who I am. I think a lot of the romanticism I write about comes from the landscapes of Prince Edward Island but it was the diverse community of Halifax that accepted me and encouraged me to develop as an artist. I have left both provinces and appreciated both of them more so afterwords.

HH:: Over the last year, you've had the chance to work with some terrific artists and show how versatile your voice is. You completely transform Matthew De Zoete's sound when you sing with him on his new record and mesh perfectly with Justin Rutledge (not to mention your work on the new Olympic Symphonium release), so I was just wondering how your creative process works when you are supporting other artists? Do you have much input or are you basically just trying to deliver the sound the artist wants?
JG:: I am most comfortable and perform the best when I have creative freedom singing with other artists. I feel the same way about singers who sing with me. Although some direction is sometimes needed, I want their own sound to come through and make it better than I could. That is the point of it for me. And you get to know who you love to sing with. For example, I love to sing with Rose Cousins.

HH:: Without trying to make you blush, your songs are starting to get noticed by a much bigger audience, even landing you a spot performing during the Grammys and pushing your name to the top of the "next Canadian artist to break out" list. Did that kind of change in your life and schedule have any impact at all on your new album?
JG:: That kind of press, although very flattering and appreciated and exciting, doesn't affect the music I'll make. I made this album with a very few specific people with me, and on a farm far away from cities or radios or tvs or anything that would distract me or be an outside influence. The music was created simply for the amazing purpose of creating it. Being able to offer it to the audience I already love who I feel wanted something more from me and who have supported me through Orchestra for the moon is something very special. That's something more than I ever thought would happen. I feel very lucky.

HH:: You are likely one of the most nationally known artists to come out of Halifax recently, but you are also one of the most vocal supporters of our scene. Could you name a couple of other acts that you think will emerge from our fair city in the near future?
JG:: Sure! Share (lead singer songwriter Andrew Sisk) has recently finished recording an album produced by Daniel Ledwell. I love this album. I also think Andrew has developed alongside a really great band who are all showcased on this recording. Daniel is also producing his own work as well which is truly beautiful and i think his songs and production are just going to add to the great things going on in this community.

HH:: It's getting harder and harder for bands to tour, and with so many venues closing down here in Halifax, what would you say to convince National acts to make the trip?
JG:: I think that if you are born to be an artist then you will do what it takes to live that life and if you don't you might be very sad. So i would just say follow your heart even if it takes you to a dingy type of cold band room because it will still be worth it. Bring a sweater and a granola bar or you might die. If you really hate it then you should stop!

HH:: Last question - any chance that your Halifax CD release show for Echoes will see you reprise your Billy Ocean-inspired dance routine from last year's IDOW show? Might you perhaps show Lionel Ritchie some love instead?
JG:: Ha... ah geeze. I was thinking about that tonight but I don't think I can "step it up" ... 1 or 2, for this show. Sorry, that's a reference to a dance movie we watched tonight. I believe it was the first movie of step it up, before step it up 2. It made me realize that I would have a lot of work to do before being in another dance routine. They're nerve racking! So I'm sorry, but you'll just have to wait until the time is right. But I am really, really looking forward to the Halifax show. I imagine it in my head every day. So I really want to focus on making it a true representation of the album. Maybe next time, Gadget.

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Monday, January 12, 2009

Review:: The Deep Dark Woods Winter Hours

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To be honest, this review could have bern as simple as rewriting my initial reaction when I heard the first song from The Deep Dark Woods new record. As soon as the harmonies on All the Money I Had Is Gone started, I stopped what I was doing and wrote to my friend that passed along the track, "Wow. I always liked The Deep Dark Woods, but this song is incredible."

The band creates a nostalgic feel over the four minutes, but the song focuses on the struggles of a band instead of the more classic themes of heartbreak and loss. A simple picked riff starts the song and the band adds lap steel, keep-time drums and eventually spot on harmonies and a heavy Wurlitzer that coat the sound in sepia, but the juxtaposition of more modern lyrics makes this more than a simple rehash of the tried and true. You can't help but fall in love with the band, wanting bigger and better things to happen for them.

But when I hear a record as complete and rock solid as Winter Hours, I want to talk about it. I want to convince someone that has never heard of the band to take the time to listen. I want to point out the little things that forces me fall in love with the band and listen to the songs over and over. With all the music at our finger tips thanks to p2p networks and overzealous PR firms, finding a record with the purity that runs through Winter Hours is extremely rare and these types of records are why I keep blogging and why I will always be more of a fan than a critic.

The Deep Dark Woods honors the tradition of roots music and took the time to ensure their songs deserve the classic comparisons that are destined to follow. Gospel, traditional folk, pure country rock and dark roots all make an appearance, and remarkably, all are handled with aplomb and respect. A powerful, stripped down arrangement like the chilling opener Farewell, relies on nothing more than a fiddle, guitar and some harmonies but stands alongside playful, more spontaneous jams that are more about Sunday afternoon porch sessions and cold drinks that painful emotions.

The band is able to slow things down and tell a tale that draws you into the narrative, but is just as successful when they pick up the pace on gentle orange and brown toned country rock (Nancy) that feel as free as the morning’s first light. With harmonies and spirit, The Deep Dark Woods can make you smile and make you cry, but make sure to never rely on one emotion more than the other. That’s why a song like Polly - one that could have been unearthed from the a time capsule and was formed in a simple jam session - or the slow build that they execute so well on When First Into This Country can be nestled into the folds between more upbeat tracks like All the Money I Had is Gone, the Wilburys-ish, foot stomping Two Time Loser or the swirling chaos that ends the record (the last few minutes of the 8+ minute adventure, The Sun Never Shines reveals yet another wrinkle in the bands sound).

It must be mentioned that the work Steve Dawson put into recording the album was invaluable. Plain and simply, Winter Hours sounds terrific. His skilled touch and appreciation for the style of music The Deep Dark Woods plays lets the band revisit the past, but ensures they never let the record breakdown into a “sounds like” game. Even with the heavy Neil Young influence on the acoustic driven The Birds On The Bridge, the harmonies and band gives the song enough of their own personality. The sprinkling of piano and steel on the achingly sad, but equally beautiful How Can Try complete the song, but don't overwhelm the fragile emotion the band creates.

When a band grows this much on one recording, you can’t help but appreciate the results. The Deep Dark Woods have delivered a record that will surprise critics and fans alike. On the surface you could simply point out that Ryan Boldt has become a better storyteller (as As I Roved Out or The Gallows prove), but the confidence and skill of the entire band has improved considerably, allowing the quartet to move around the melodies and textures like a single unit. This might be the best roots act in the country right now, and they've set the bar high for any that want to challenge for the title.



On the flip side of the coin, I’m getting really frustrated by all the blogs that seem to thrive on ripping apart bands, like this is a job, like if you don’t review the band your editor will be calling for your head. If you don’t like a CD that a dude spent 10 bucks sending you – probably out of his own bank account - hoping for any kind of appreciation he can build on, don’t write about it. I'm sure your loyal readers will get the drift if you don't talk about the record. Using that excuse, “they sent me the cd to review, I have to be honest” is kind of played out, and if you are taking the time to bash a band whose goal is to get heard and maybe book the opening slot at a show so they can play for a handful of fans, bottom line, you’re a dick.

I’m not sure why the voice of a blogger has changed. Maybe it’s that shitty blogger entitlement or maybe it’s the fact a few blogs get paid big bucks to be taste makers, but I don't think it's a development, especially since most bloggers have little to no experience with music. Instead of searching for music that inspires us and trying to uncover the little things that make a song special, the "everyone has a voice" attitude gives anyone with a blogspot address and the harshest of pens the chance to tear down the work an artist poured their heart and soul into.

More and more people adopt the P4K mentality, but forget about the time required to digest a record or understand the simple thought that maybe a record takes more than a single pass to really hit home. Instead, "first post" is the new mantra and minutes after a PR email lands in our inboxes, 20 blogs are already posting on it. I know I'm an old fogy when it comes to blogging, but the daily reading used to be a lot more fun when it was original, honest, and positive.

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Monday, January 5, 2009

Reviews:: Timber Timbre

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Right now, almost everyone in the blog world is freaking out over the new Animal Collective record leaking and Bruce Peninsula's deciding to offer up the download of their debut months earlier than expected. Normally, I'd be marching right in stride (well, for the Bruce Peninsula LP at least), but a couple of things are stopping me.

I'm anxious to start absorbing new BP material, but really want to experience the record in it's proper form - as a tangible piece of art, complete with artwork and liner notes - but more importantly, right now there is another release dominating my listening schedule and trying hard to be earn a spot as the first "must-have" record of 2009.

If you are familiar with Timber Timbre, you already know the impact Taylor Kirk’s songs deliver. Even on a passing listen to Medicinals, the way Kirk was able to transform his acoustic bedroom recordings into ghostly tales that resonated the spirit and imagery of the Deep South blues was remarkable. His spare arrangements left notes and words lingering in the shadows, openly exposed to the listener, but he was able to add bursts of horns and execute tempo changes that hid the fragility of the songs at just the right moments. Basically he was the type of artist that could be playing alone in a bar and stop you dead in your tracks.

So, to be honest, the change in sound he delivers on the new self-titled release was quite unexpected. Kirk still has the charisma to tell a compelling stories using little more than the muted, steady strums of his guitar, but the textures he adds accentuate the ominous tones of the record and really complete his songs. Organ, piano, percussion and beautiful string arrangements all add a density to Kirk’s compositions and fill some of the space once reserved for echoes and creaks. You can’t help but be surprised by the surging energy from the piano and choral vocals that complete the album opener, Demon Host. Instead of straining to hear the squeaks of fingers along the fret board that supports his freak folk vocals, you are excited, unsure of what might come next.

And what comes next is a perfect display of Kirk's new sound. Starting with a simple, banged out synth/piano line and subtle tambourine shake, Lay Down In The Tall Grass quickly becomes so much more than the sum of their parts. The minimal composition seems dark and desolate and provides a perfect canvas for Kirk to tell the tale of an insecure lover. As he confesses, “dreamin’ every night of you, shakin’ at the sight of you” he contrasts the coldness of the melody and adds guitar work and accompanying textures (layers that are used repeatedly over the course of the next seven songs) that pile emotion onto the track and shock the listener.

His warbled voice is backed by chimes and organ on the eerie Until The Night Is Over, but he executes the bolder arrangement nicely. Kirk knows when to strip away the sounds for impact and when to bolster the energy with crescendos and soft double tracked vocals. Even as he revisits the ideals of the blues by alternating guitar lines and vocals on Magic Arrow, it’s the kick drum that pounds over the rapid fire beat of and into your chest that paves the way for the guitar notes and synth static float around the vastness behind and resonate in your soul.

The larger arrangements Kirk favors alsogive the record more soul. The deep drum sounds and piano that work with the echoing synth give a more human feel to I Get Low, and as he admits that he “gets low, low, low on my own” you feel a sadness he kept inside on previous releases. The strings that lengthen each statement on Trouble Comes Knocking haunt the song, but the gentle piano that surfaces before the chorus softens the tension and as the synths and strings dance around for the last two minutes of the track, you find yourself being swept away in an inspired melody, forgetting the tension he built so well in the first half of the song.

People say the devil is in the details, and obviously Kirk has thought out each and every track. He controls to mood, pace and arrangements – case in point: the surprising choir and string arrangement that transforms the quick hitting two-minute Well Find Out - with a deft touch and displays his growth as an artist. This isn’t the Timber Timbre I first discovered a few years ago, but it’s one that I am happy to continue to grow with. It's also a record that is going to turn heads and will most likely be one making a lot of lists this time next year.

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