Sunday, March 21, 2010

Best-of '10:: Apollo Ghosts Mount Benson

For most music outlets, the last few days have been spent in the sweltering heat (or shockingly cold nights) braving lines and indigestion as a result of meal after meal of succulent BBQ in an effort to get into the buzz-iest of buzz shows. For the rest of us the grind goes on; as does the search for the next big thing. We are left without the memories, but also without post-SXSW hangovers and longing for ribs drenched in delicious sauce. Remarkably, with all the bands that migrated South, one of the best bands in Canada didn't make the trip so those searching for the next act to explode in Canada may have come up empty.

If I had to find a positive of not attending SXSW it would be that the last week has given me more time to fall in love with the new record from Vancouver's Apollo Ghost. The delightful three-piece has the potential to make bloggers swoon like a Zooey Deschanel collaboration. After achieving remarkable success (they sold out their original LP - Hastings Sunrise - and had it repressed by the terrific Catbirds Records) with nary a snippet of official press, Apollo Ghost has followed up with an equally impressive EP, a 7" and is now poised to convert the masses with the eclectic and energetic, Mount Benson.

From the opening moments of Wakesiah, the band grabs a hold on you with a kung fu grip. With a few strums of the guitar and a twinkling of keys, Adrian Teacher delivers a mysterious introduction of a man willing to scoure the globe in a clawfoot tub until he finds the love he lost. Remarkably, as odd as that concept seems, his writing style is one that makes the premise intriguing enough to keep you leaning closer to the speakers but never drifts into pretentious, art-y ideals that derails so many projects.

In fact, it's the joyous happy hooks - not the message - and styles the band reveals over the thirteen songs, none of which break the 3-minute barrier, that are the first thing you notice. Jangly guitar, infectious bass lines, transitions, hand percussion and spastics bursts (often in the same song like Coka-Cola, the charging Attaquez! Attaquez! Attaquez! and Witchcraft Lake) get you moving but tender moments of piano and admission are equally important to the flow of Mount Benson.

But as rewarding as the melodies and sing-along vocals are, it's not until you really settle into the narrative of Mount Benson that you are hit with the growing power of the record. Teacher, Amanda and Joy deliver fragmented bursts of love, nostalgia and pain, but never glorify the moment or let it linger beyond the fuzz of the chords that accompany it and as a result, never bog down the enjoyment of the listener with a force fed concept. No, Teacher penned tracks that hit with poignant observation and specific emotions and memories and then the band quickly moves on letting the past remain in the past.

What starts out as a search, ends with a goodbye. On the classic pop closer, Snow on Mount Benson, our protagonist finally reaches to the summit and bids adieu to all the love and pain he's held on to for years. The closure we are given is the perfect conclusion to the emotion and nostalgia that Apollo Ghost bombard us with over a near perfect 25-minute adventure. As the band shows, love, pain and hurt are just like November rain in Vancouver, local shows, drinking, growing up; just thing you go through. If you ask me, even if Mount Benson finds Teacher's character willing to finally throw all of those moments away, the record is something you will hold as close as those precious memories.

MP3:: Apollo Ghost - Samurai Chatter

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Thursday, March 18, 2010

Reviews:: Fred Squire S/T

It's not surprising that Fred Squire just released his latest record to little or no fanfare; that's kind of been the way the talented Sackville resident has approached his entire career. His purist vision (bordering on insane in today's "me first" market) that good music will eventually get heard is becoming less and less of a reality. Demos are sent to blogs within minutes of being recorded. Albums are traded freely months before release, but almost defiantly, Squire actually removes himself farther from the machine as the only "releases" this 7-song record gets is on cd-rs cased in a manila envelope, destined for only the most devout fans lucky to either know Fred or catch a show.

And that borders on a musical tragedy.

Squire's voice and subtle, distorted guitar should have pushed him to the top of the Can-Indie rock list by now - and underneath the barely audible vocals of the opening track What's That Over There, a Dead Rainbow? is the ever present chugging electric engine that has driven most of his previous work (and the bluesy stomp of We Are All The Middle Child I guess) - but it's the remaining songs that make this record so important in terms of how his music is judged.

The record plays like a moment of clarity; Squire is as honest and exposed as I've heard him. Piano ballads strips out most of the distorted safety net his Crazy Horse guitar style provides, and reveals subject matter is incredibly powerful and heart felt. The accordion, string laced instrumental End of Previous Song unsettles the listener and unshackles the chains that expectations have put on Squire's catalog. The droning melody reveals seconds of beauty, before Squire hits us with beautiful harmonies on the spiritual, acoustic/piano ballad You Sing High, We Will Sing Low.

It's so easy to forget that Fred's voice can pierce through the clunkiest of riffs and distorted energy, but on the stripped down tracks he provides here, it's almost hypnotic. The simple piano chord progression that starts Old Times Past Times is the perfect stage for Squire to grab the listeners before infusing the track with drums and tasteful electric. Fred walks us down moments of his life, never letting the pace or volume distract us from his words, and as he repeats, "the decisions that I made" you never get the sense he's heavy with regret, he's just finally willing to talk about some of the events that have stuck with him.

The truly amazing thing about this record is that even though the first few songs rank high among my favorite pieces he's ever written, Frankie & Albert might become the song that shows Squire reaching the summit of his potential. The effortless combination of piano and guitar are as honest a melody as I can remember and fit perfectly with the 5-minutes of heartbreak Fred sings about. Love, loss, pain, death and fear; these themes are ever present in music, but when they are delivered as perfectly as they are on Frankie & Albert, the results are enough to make you cry.

So is the fact that almost nobody will get to hear the song and share the experience.

MP3:: Fred Squire - Frankie & Albert

MP3:: Fred Squire - Old Times, Past Times
BUY:: Good luck

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Sunday, March 14, 2010

Sunday Morning Coffee:: Soft Copy

It's hard not to get nostalgic as Thrush Hermit preps to descend on Halifax in a mere six days. Not just for the band, but for the time and most importantly, the feelings we all took from those angular guitar anthems that seemed so plentiful only 5 years ago. Thankfully, as more and more acts hold onto the "quiet is the new loud", there are still a few acts like Toronto's Soft Copy that plug in and give fans heavy tracks with a sweet, pop center.

This three piece eschews superfluous layers for straight forward bass, drums and guitar anthems. They crunch, chug and shimmer, but the powerful trio writes hooks and choruses that keep you singing along. Vicious Modernism is the type of record that could have shaped your musical personality back when people bought records hoping to find something to hold onto, not just download and discard with little thought.

Even outside of the record, which is worth grabbing as soon as you can find a copy, First Date is one of the catchiest songs I've heard all year. Starting with soft drums, the shimmering guitar notes dance nicely before the band explodes into a driving hook. Timing out after an all too brief 2:26, this songs shows that Soft Copy isn't going to let guitar rock die... and for that we should all be thankful.

MP3:: Soft Copy - First Date

MP3:: Soft Copy - Extracurricular

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Monday, February 22, 2010

Best-of '10:: The Getrudes & PS I Love You - Sailor

It's hard to ignore the power of friendship. Whether it's that extra boost of confidence to try something new or knowing you have support when things go wrong, it's crucial for growth. For Kingston's The Gertrudes, friendship has stepped them out of the church setting they recorded parts of their last - and terrific - Hard Water EP. Now, the band strides defiantly into the bright light standing arm in arm, ready to face down down crashing waves, gusting winds and daring you, me and anyone else to try to break through.

From the outset - even when the band revisits the group harmonies and slow moving, multi-instrument melodies - you feel the difference. The song never relents, surging forward with strings, distortion and the support of their friends, PS I Love You. Over the six plus minutes, the harmonies and tradition The Gertrudes are built upon are still present, but the energy and angst the Kingston two-piece brings to the mix are vital. The final two-minutes swirl chaotically, adding a well timed boost that helps drive the track to the finish line.

The project itself is a fantastic meld of styles and bands. One 7" record, two songs and four bands. The Gertrudes and PS I Love You handle one side of the acetate while Muskox and Bruce Peninsula hold court on the other. I would suggest you order this fast, especially considering how well the last single PS I Love You recorded fared.

MP3:: The Gertrudes & PS I Love You - Sailor

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Monday, February 15, 2010

Reviews:: Corey Isenor Frost

Back in the winter of 2008, I humbled up and finally made mention of a young NB artist named Corey Isenor. His debut record - Young Squire - was a solid collection of indie folk that felt like the work of an artist with a solid back catalog and years of gigging under his belt instead of a fresh face. It was also one of the best self-released records I stumbled on, but despite the talent crammed into that DIY disc, I never saw Corey's name on posters here in Halifax, so he kind of went out of sight, out of mind.

That was until a few weeks ago when his new record, Frost showed up in my mailbox. Long story short, I didn't think Corey had this type of record in him. Thanks to some spirited product, drums and bass courtesy of Sackville's Shotgun Jimmie, Corey's songs blossomed into indie-folk gems that fall more inline with the nasally indie sounds he explored on Chores in the Summertime than the traditional hushed confessionals you expect from today's indie folkers.

Isenor still offers his take on the traditional sounds, like the banjo heavy As a Ghost and the echo-y chords of Rainsong, but he seems to have found his stride experimenting with bigger and bolder sounds. The drone and drums of the opener, Riverwoman, jump starts the record and he continues the surge on Baby Don't Go. He start tracks as intimate stories, but slowly build them into indie folk anthems without you even noticing. It's not hard to imagine someone singing along to The Weather or feeling the surprising warmth he adds to the lovely, epic title track when each layer is slowly added to the mix.

Sackville's music community is tight knit, almost like the indie-folk secret society of Canada, so it will be interesting to see if Corey's songs are able to push the boundaries past the confines of the beautiful college town. I've often wondered the same thing for people like Jimmie, Julie and Fred so my hopes aren't high - especially considering Corey is doing this alone - but if playing fields were equal, Isenor would be getting love on CBC and blogs all across the country.

MP3:: Corey Isenor - Frost

MP3:: Corey Isenor - Riverwoman

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Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Reviews:: Basia Bulat Heart of My Own

When Basia Bulat stumbled onto the scene a few years back, you couldn't help but fall in love her. Oh My Darling was the type of record you felt lucky to hear and instantly, Basia became one of the artists you wanted to do well. You wanted everyone to hear her sing, soak in her surprising confidence that balanced her quiet persona and ability to make you feel as she delivered her most tender of moments.

Thankfully, Oh My Darling got heard - and nominated for the Polaris - and that success has given Basia the time to grow as an artist and deliver a sophomore LP that exceeds even her amazing potential. Looking back, much like Zach from Rogue Wave, when you listen to her debut album you sometimes get the feel that even the biggest arrangements she put together grew from the most humble of beginnings; visions in her head that a studio band could play with if ever given the chance.

As Heart of My Own explodes out of the gate with the surging power of Go On, you see that Basia and her band are now a single, cohesive entity. The clacking rim shots, marching drum snare and deep hollow bass drum build a tension behind her voice that flows perfectly into collage of strings. It's not often you think of a folk artist that hooks you with an opening track, unless it's one of those 8-minute epic tales that details the human condition, but Basia manages to show she's still as talented as we remember, but she's stronger, more experienced and more willing to push her boundaries. Run is another perfect representation of her new sound. In theory, the song could have fit nicely amongst the tracks from her last record, but every note, every harmony, every idea seems to move in perfect step. Subtle flourishes chime in and out without distracting you, as if the band is one step ahead of you, knowing what you want next before you do.

Heart of My Own was born on the road, but more importantly, even as it grew from Basia's soul, it could have grown for ours. She embraces the happiness we feel amongst our friends as we share drinks and laughs, but understands life is hard and being alone is something that not only happens, sometimes is needed. She invigorates the listen (and the listener) with at just the right times - the uptempo, horn filled romp If Only You, a track so infectious you can't do anything but listen intently wishing it would run for about five more minutes - but also lets you retreat with personal, moving songs like The Shore. She still presents tender thoughts - Sugar and Spice is beautiful and the playful notes of Sparrow just exude the playfulness she can deliver so effortlessly - but even the gentlest of songs have a density.

Too much importance is put on that dreaded second record, but not only has Basia cleared that hurdle with Edwin Moses like precision, she shows that she will be an artist judged by a catalog not a single record. She shows she can write songs that will stand the test of time (If It Rains), and start speaking for everyone not just the young Toronto-based singer. Even with how much I loved her first effort, I don't think even I expected her to reach that level so quickly.

Hali readers, don't forget Basia is going to be playing with Owen Pallett on Feb. 10th @ St. Matthew's Church. I can't think of a better venue to hear her belt out the spiritual Hush, so I'd move fast and get your tickets now.

MP3:: Basia Bulat - Gold Rush

MP3:: Basia Bulat - Go On

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Monday, January 18, 2010

Reviews:: Owen Pallett Heartland

It seems almost impossible for the critics to separate what people think of Owen Pallett the man from the music he creates. His story, his views; when it comes to a critical eye (or maybe, more accurately, a compelling way to craft), his inner nerd is as crucial to describing his music as M.I.A.'s homeland is to hers.

The thing is, I don't really know anything about Pallett as a human being. Other than cursory references, most of the common talking points are things I've never been interested in. That probably has a lot to do with my limited interest in much of Final Fantasy's previous work. Up until now, it's been impossible to disregard Palett's talent or not be moved by the power of seeing him perform live, but for me that's as deep as I've ever explored Final Fantasy.

As a result, Heartland sat in my inbox for over a week before I even downloaded the record. Obviously I knew it would be immaculately crafted, full of whimsy and staccato bursts that sound terrific in the intimate confines of my headphones, but I wasn't sure what else I would be able to say about the songs. What I didn't know was that Heartlands was a pop record that satisfies any immediate need for melody and power, but balances it with a sonic density built from a collage of sounds that seems bigger than life.

Ironically, as Owen drops his former moniker and offers himself just as a human being, the songs are much more involved than his previous violin-looped efforts. Owen has worked hard on arrangements for countless artists over the last few years and he puts that experience to work on Heartland, his concept album about a farmer. The record is a slow building arc that lets Owen fuses strings, percussion and electronics, displaying a deft orchestral touch, pop sensibility and an understanding of climax and power.

As the young artist moves us through his fictional world, the decision to step out from behind the curtain and reveal himself - not only by name, but by sound and emotion - helps this record immensely. The story - obviously yes, it's important to the record - isn't essential to the experience. Often times we focus on the narrative, not the beautiful sounds attached, but at least for now, it's Pallett's sonic palette that excites me. In a much different package, The Thermals The Body, The Blood,The Machine was the same type of record. If you focused on analyzing Hutch's words, it became easy to disregard the songs and I hope that doesn't become the case when people start digesting Heartland.

When you take a step back and simply listen to the delightful pop of Lewis Takes Action, the theatrical drama of or the electronic driven lines of the poignant and surging The Great Elsewhere you realize that Owen may be a complex human being, but more importantly he's a truly gifted artist. There's not a moment of the record that I don't find riveting, which is as shocking to me as any of the changes and decisions Pallett made on this effort. Heartlands makes me feel like I know more about Owen as a human being than any interview or analysis ever could.

MP3:: Owen Pallett - Lewis Takes Off His Shirt

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Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Reviews:: Woodpigeon Die Stadt Muzikanten

When it comes to defining Woodpigeon's sound, force feeding genre lists into the mix is a pointless exercise. The beauty of Mark Hamilton's compositions are the subtle shifts he and the band execute, transforming their orchestral pop goodies into folk, rock, and country in a way that seems effortlessly. Every record - and the countless EPs and covers offered to fans - finds Hamilton uncovering inspiration in new sounds, new places, and new emotions.

Die Stadt Muzikanten is no different, in that it's rooted by the same touch points - Mark's heartfelt vocals and meticulously constructed arrangements - but proves Hamilton refuses to sit still. The record - a walloping 17 songs - is beautiful, but harmonies and strings share the spotlight with energy, fuzz and power. My Denial In Argyle surges forward with a confidence not often found in the hushed vocals and gentle melodies Hamilton has delivered in the past, but completely invigorates the listen. Such A Lucky Girl showcases the band's ability to build to a perfect climax that doesn't waste a note of the 7-minute run time.

Of course, there are still tons of terrific hushed melodies that would sound as inspired if Hamilton was simply playing on a stool with his guitar (Our Love Is As Tall As The Calgary Tower) and that's why Woodpigeon albums need to be consumed in complete listens. You realize that strength of the songs don't require all the additional layers (The Street Noise Gives You Away would still be enjoyable with just a single guitar line, but once the huge sonic experiment starts you simply relent to the greatness), they just sound complete and better as a result of the time the band spends fine tuning the mix.

The poppy feel of Duck, Duck, Goose is a smile inducing combination of female vocals, strings and tambourine that you want to start replaying before it even ends but the transition into the tender piano/acoustic ballad (Spirehouse) makes you keep moving forward, building so patiently and naturally, you barely realize you are caught in another crescendo. Redbeard has a country feel, but the ivories that plink along switch the feel ever so slightly before another sound explosion.

In short, Hamilton is one of our country's most original and seasoned song writers; one that gets better each time he puts paper to pen. Hopefully this is the record that helps the band start gaining traction with a bigger audience, one that includes more than just Canadian music critics and fans of CBC3.

MP3:: Woodpigeon - Empty Hall Sing-along

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Monday, January 11, 2010

Reviews:: Kate Maki Two Song Wedding

There comes a time for most artists, at least those that venture out into the unforgiving world of touring, that inspiration for songs shifts from the sketches and emotions you hold close to fragments of diner conversations or late night, after show drunken exhaustion scratched on napkins and stuffed into your jacket pocket.

The excitement of playing shows is overpowered by a longing for home and missing people you had only the most banal and casual of interactions slowly starts to consume your every thought. Thankfully, for the artist's that continue to grow, that odyssey last only as long as the dreaded second album and doesn't become Homer-esque.

That's why when Kate Maki repeats "home sweet home" on her new album - Two Song Wedding - you never get the feeling she is longing for the comforts of her own bed, more that she is completely content to spend her nights writing songs and playing music in those friendly confines. The difference may seem subtle (or even insignificant), but that little distinction allows Kate to supplement her songs with the efforts of tons of talented musicians - Howe Gelb, Nathan Lawr, Nick Luca, Thoger
Lund, Tommy Larkin Dale Murray, Jeremy Gara
to name just a few - without losing focus or ever offering tracks that sound muddled. Remarkably, these songs were written alone, and must of the musicians had never heard the songs (although several had collaborated with Maki on her last record) before they started practicing for the recording, but instead of a gloomy, personal journey, Maki's emotions can be shared by almost any one that listens.

On the slow burning opener, Bloodshot & Blistered, Maki tries to process exhaustion and sadness, but instead of alienating us, the harmonies and traded vocals, piano, banjo and drums, Maki somehow transforms the song so we never get dragged down by the loneliness. The summery, sun-kissed melody that follows (In Comes the Light) or the rollicking, fuzzed our density of Message Delivered (how great is the horn that shows up out of nowhere?) are invitations to listen, and make dusty trail numbers like the From Below hit with a much harder impact.

Maki changes pace extremely well on Two Song Wedding, and even when she is at her most sombre - like the dreary Carved in Sand - she balances the melancholic with interesting strings, blasts of electric or an unexpected texture. Ripped Out of the Moon starts as a grim, dark tale, but slowly and confidently Maki and the band add a surprising build that energizes the song and gives the record another layer.

The success of this record is simple. Maki was able to write a collection of songs that probably shouldn't fit together as well as they do - the gentle picking of Upon a Time should stand out and disrupt the record, but it doesn't - and never loose steam. Maki's decision to reveal the emotion and ideas she has when she sits at home alone expands her sound and provides the freedom for a table of talented guests to experiment with her and offer their own emotion to the process. The end result is personal and intimate, but at the same time accessible and spontaneous. The 41-minute run-time feels more like 25 and you eagerly let the record loop over and start again; which is a wedding gift most song writers would love to receive.


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Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Reviews:: Yukon Blonde self-titled

I'm currently reading Chuck Klosterman's latest collection of essays, Eating the Dinosaur. So far, the most interesting is his analysis of svelte NBA post man and one half of the original twin towers, Ralph Sampson. His basic premise is that despite his relative success, Sampson was a bust simply because he had so much talent that anything less than super stardom should be viewed as failure.

While I disagree with that notion - and certainly will never let anyone talk smack about Ralph's awesome mini fro / moustache combo or his killer high top Pumas - the two points that resonated with me were 1) the idea that Ralph made it look to easy you naturally assumed he didn't want to be great and refused to make the required effort to take it to the next level and 2) that because he wanted to be a 7'4" PG, he was trapped in a body that prevented him from being the player he wanted.

Klosterman's argument focused on how Ralph never won a big game and despite making the NBA All-Star team and several moments of success he never delivered on his potential. Because he was so talented and made things seem effortless, we assumed it came easy to him and he was above us and that any failures were his own fault. When it comes to Vancouver rockers, Yukon Blonde, I feel a lot of the same - and in their case unfounded - criticism may occur. Jeff, Brandon, Adam and Graham bang out shimmering melodies so consistently that you can't help but think it comes easy to them.

The Kelowna quartet - now based in Van city - is a name few music fans have heard, and their infectious 60's pop will constantly compared to timeless acts like Fleetwood Mac and CSNY. Unfortunately, with the rise of bands like Midlake and Fleet Foxes, Yukon Blonde is probably going to suffer from the "another band revisiting 60's sunshine and multi-layered harmonies" dismissal, simply lumped in with the bands trying to take the easy way to mediocre success. In reality, the band works their ass off as they drive back and forth across the country, fine tuning their craft. A name change probably (they used to be known as Alphababy) doesn't help establishing credibility to their back story, but for anyone thinking success and the purity of their sound came easily, you are sadly mistaken.

On the ear candy that is Babies Don't Like Blue Anymore, they reinforce their working ethic as they repeat, "I would do anything you would do" but in reality this band is making the effort that countless bands balk at. Leaving the comforts of your own scene. Getting back in the band to play a show for the headline band and sound techs and no one else. Yukon Blonde has done this, and if need be, will continue along the same hard path.

But when it comes to tying in this odd (and probably ill fated) comparison of Yukon Blonde to Ralph, the most glaring similarity is that the band can't help who they are. Does the fact that countless shitty bands try to add harmonies now that Fleet Foxes exploded onto the scene make their efforts any less satisfying? It shouldn't, because these guys have perfected their sound and despite the touch points people will gravitate towards, it's more unique and experimental than a casual listen may reveal.

The synths and harmonies that jump start the LP trigger countless memories of a time where music mattered to people - to make it easier, lets just all remember the moment where Zooey Deschanel hooks her nerdy little bro with a candle and a copy of Tommy - but band is determined to prove that they are more than the sum of their influences. Sure, if I had to I could probably find a song similar to Blood Cops or Trivial Fires in my parent's record collection but I'm more than ok with that. For some reason people embrace bands borrowing from the Fab Four or Neil, but other sounds get dismissed out of hand as the overused flavor of the month.

Honestly, if you cant get into this record you are simply trying too hard. The hat trick of hooks that is Trivial Fires, Brides Song and Babies Don't Like Blue Anymore can stack up against any fourteen minutes of Canadian music you will hear this year, but the unexpected highs are just as important to the success of the band. The surging power of the anthemic Loyal Man moves you from the breezy, sun filled days you expect and makes you think anything is possible. When it comes to Yukon Blonde, I'm starting to think that it just might be.

MP3:: Yukon Blonde - Wind Blows

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Monday, November 30, 2009

News:: DUZHEKNEW 7" and tape on the way!

Usually around December the pickings are pretty slim for the bloggers. Instead of new music it is list after list - yes, we will have a few, but trust me, you will want to tune in for some super holiday treats we have - or albums that the plebs wont be able to buy until February or March. I was just starting to settle into that short winter's nap with visions of Kelp's 2010 release schedule dancing in my head when an email from Adam O'Reilly showed up in my inbox.

I've never met Adam, but he's been involved in two local projects I have fawned over (Roomdoom and Fall Horsie if you are asking). A quick glance showed that he's branching out with a solo effort under the cryptic moniker, DUZHEKNEW. The name may be impossible to spell first time around, but the tracks are impossible to ignore. Mashing enough Talking Heads to please the masses with a oddly distinct Halifax feel, Adam's first few tracks are the type of shit that gets me excited about music again.

The two tracks he sent over are only the tip of the iceberg. For these recordings he played every note himself, but when he gets back to Halifax he's going to join forces with herohill favs Cousins to play a few shows, and in early 2010 he's going to release a tape in a ziplock bag on Stacy Lloyd Brown's new label, Drawn Daggers. Honestly, this post could have been as simple as "listen to Came out the other side, ok, find one of your new favorite Hali bands and pre-order the tape right now". Vanish/Banish is going to be a doozy folks.

MP3:: DUZHEKNEW - Came Out the Other Side, OK

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Posted at 7:32 AM by ack :: 0 comments

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