March 2019 Playlist

 

Nicotine is a hell of a drug. Cigarettes have been my safety valve, my stress relief. A constant companion. My secret exit strategy. My reward. If I want to be honest with myself though, tobacco has also been my jailor, locking me in a yellow-stained, foul-smelling cell for far too many years. 

But friends, smoking is awesome. It’s three or four minutes of total peace. I’ve somehow trained my brain to problem solve at a high level and to be ultra-creative with a smoke in hand. I wrote that lead, and first paragraph whilst puffing away. I’ve devised some of my best recipes during those 120 seconds. I’ve solved conflicts and strategized.  

Lately, this warm cocoon I’ve created for myself to justify my addiction is letting me down. I’ve slowly switched to vaping with some degree of success (or at least commitment) and come to shatter a few of my preconceptions. Namely, I can be creative without tobacco. My brain still churns the same way with a vape in hand. I’m acutely aware that I’m merely trading habits for the moment, however I’m starting to see what life can be like without cigarettes. It’s a start at the very least. 

There are so many associations to be broken. Cigarettes and coffee. After a meal, or with a beer. After sex, during sex—wait, scratch that last part. I associate tobacco and music in a very romanticized and, frankly, cliché fashion. The artist slumped over a piano, a full ashtray seeping blue smoke. A guitarist, shoulders low, cigarette dangling from his/her mouth—I instinctively think of Slash every time. 

Nick Waterhouse’s music could easily soundtrack a Mad Men episode, complete with martinis, chauvinism, beehives and plumes of cigarette smoke. It’s proudly 1950s rockabilly and rhythm & blues. I can’t escape that cliché when I listen to tracks like “Song For Winners” and “I Feel an Urge Coming On.” Side A is the clear winner; the songwriting, and tempo, drops substantially as the record comes to a close. 

Should an artist try to recapture lightning in a bottle? I have a lot of respect for artists who are confident enough to try something different on their second record. Durand Jones & The Indications have expanded their sound on American Love Call. Whereas their debut had a garage soul sound, high tempo and pulse-pushing, this record detours to orchestral soul. Violins and falsetto harmonies have replaced the punchy horns, creating an AM radio sound. His voice has taken a quantum leap forward too. 

If you’re a fan of Alvvays, you might like Moving Panoramas. I dismissed In Two for most of the month, however, every time it came on, I liked it more and more.  

Helado Negro’s This Is How You Smile produces a current that forces you to slow down. It’s gentle and lovely. Tracks like “Imagining What to Do,” “Sebana de luz” and “Please Won’t Please” will have you floating along in a blissful haze in no time.  

“Woman,” the standout anthem from Lux Prima, Karen O’s collaboration with Danger Mouse is the front-runner for song of the year. It begs to be played very loud. Along with “Redeemer” and the Pink Floyd-inspired title track, I was nearly convinced that the album would be something truly special, but unfortunately it falls flat. Most other tracks are anemic and devoid of anything resembling catchiness.  

Nilufer Yanya could be this year’s Courtney Barnett.  

I was really hopeful that I was shedding my predilection for mopey singer-songwriters, and then Strand of Oaks releases Eraserland. It’s a stormy, turbulent listen, best typified on “Moon Landing” and “Weird Ways.”  

February 2019 Playlist

The stage was a clear cultural divide. To the left, African American dancers hopped and skipped, leapt and spun. To the right, their Irish counterparts kicked out a fury of flailing legs, steps heavy and arms tight. It was a dance-off: African Juba vs. Irish stepdance. Their movements were the storytelling vessel; telling the audience that while different, these people were indeed the same, united by different sides of the same hardship and grief.

Set in Civil War-era Manhattan, Paradise Square is based on a true story of a place where whites and blacks co-existed (mostly) happily together during a time when that seemed impossible. We traveled to Berkeley, California, to see it and it’s also a play that my brother stars in. I hadn’t seen him on stage in a very long time, and witnessing his performance live was an incredibly proud moment for me. It’s a powerful play, one that lingers long after the curtain falls.

 

Great art should spark an emotional response. It should piss you off, or inspire you. It should bring joy and challenge you. A few days later in Oakland over dinner, the conversation subject matter was still firmly rooted around racism and how, sadly, the work is nowhere near complete. It veered to our own country as we discussed our Great Shame: residential schools and Canada’s horrible treatment of Indigenous culture. We certainly didn’t solve anything, but we were inspired to examine these issues with gusto.

It must be gratifying to know that the art you produce gets people talking. I know my brother is proud, but how does that feel? To know you’ve provoked that kind of depth of conversation. Paradise Square made me question some of my own choices. My musical tastes have veered away from hip hop for some time and I feel the need to ask myself why and what does that mean? In response I’ve tried to seek out some new hip hop and came across Third Root’s Thrill Pedagogy: Winter Flex. The sound is 90s hip hop, shades of The Roots, but the message is very 2019, criticizing MAGA America. It makes me wonder if hip hop is the true platform for today’s protest songs.

I love it when a song ends and you instantly wish it was longer. Adia Victoria’s “Nice Folks” is carried by the drumbeat and right before it ends, the drums explode, horns sweep in and her vocals take a back seat to this perfect unsettling mess. When it’s over, you’re begging for more. Silences of full of confident songwriting in tracks like “Dope Queen Blues” and “The Needle’s Eye.”

Perhaps as a way of making up for no Field Trip this summer, Broken Social Scene released Let’s Try The After (Vol. 1). It’s a nice little EP. “Remember Me Young” and “1972” crackle and swoon, galloping towards hands-in-air crescendos reminding you that very few bands can capture that sense of elation better than BSS.

Blending elements of post-punk and 90s shoegaze, FEELS’ Post Earth pulses with feedback and reverb.  Their sound is muddy and dark but the call-and-response chorus of “Find a Way” and the clean harmonies on “W.F.L” infuses their songs with energy and lightness at the right times.

Singles of the month: “Song for Winners” by Nick Waterhouse, “Cherry Bloom” by Club Kuru, “Lighthouse” by Doc Robinson, “Time Rider” by Chromatics, “Sisyphus” by Andrew Bird and “Fools” by Drugdealer.

Thanks for reading and happy listening.

January 2019 Playlist

I’m not a thrill-seeker. The notion of jumping out of a plane or rappelling down a mountain is totally absurd to me. My idea of risk usually involves a big board game. 

Earlier this month we travelled to Panama. We were staying in the pristine valley of Hortino, a dormant volcano to the north and lush rainforest to the south. We took a ride to a secluded waterfall—not on any guidebooks, but not by any means secret either. When we arrived, there were no signs, just a weathered trail through the forest. But what a sight! Crystal clear water, thundering down a 30-foot cliff into a lagoon. And, it was all to ourselves. No crowds or tour groups. A young boy who lived on the private property followed us, most likely to ensure the gringos didn’t crack their skulls on the slippery rocks. 

There were no illusions of safety: handrails or guides or emergency phone numbers. If we slipped, that little boy was our only lifeline. After splashing in the water, letting the current propel us around the lagoon and under the waterfall, we perched ourselves on some rocks and readied a picnic. That first foray was pretty timid, every step measured, watching for signs of danger.  

A local family arrived an hour later, they fearlessly hopped and skipped across the rocks like gazelles. The appearance of more people made us feel safer, we rushed into the water. One teenager disappeared up a hill and emerged on a ledge just below the cliff above. Then he jumped. Then he did it again. And again.  

I will say I considered it. But alas, there was to be no cliff jumping for me that day. However, it did inspire me to think about what it means to be taken out of your comfort zone. To assume a little risk, with the hope of gaining an outside perspective I would not have otherwise seen. I’m not certain if that’s even the goal, perhaps the end result doesn’t matter as much as simply doing it. I can tell you, at the moment, I’m still safely in my comfort zone on most fronts. But it’s on my mind. 

If only Weezer could have taken a risk when they recorded their surprise cover album. (Teal Album) should be titled the beige album. I was hoping I could add a track to my 2019 cover playlists, but the record is blander than white bread. I remember I played my mom Eddie Vedder’s version of “Last Kiss” a long time ago and her response was perfect: it sounded like a weather report. There are no stormy skies brewing on Weezer’s version of “No Scrubs,” likewise for “Africa.” If you want to hear unique reinterpretations of old songs, check out Whitehorse’s The Northern South Vol. 2 instead.  

Sharon Van Etten has released the first great album of 2019. Remind Me Tomorrow bursts with so much deep production noise seeping just below the surface of her melodies, but there’s also restraint—a clear mark of confident songwriting. “Seventeen” hums with intensity and punches out a great chorus. “You Shadow” is dark and booms like a thunderclap. 

Deerhunter’s Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared? is his most accessible release to date, but because of the message of the album that’s probably a good thing. Images of crumbling rust belt towns dot the lyrics, infusing the songs with a steady dose of unease and helplessness in his trademark way. “Element” and “No One’s Sleeping” are great tracks. 

Rock n’ roll can be a joyous thing and Mattiel celebrates that fist-pumping ferocity on Customer Copy. Equal parts Jefferson Airplane and White Stripes, this is an album meant to be heard loud. Crank up “Detroit Riot.” 

Is it a cop out to classify Toro y Moi as “modern music”? Probably. You be the judge. 

I would be remiss to communicate my excitement for Vampire Weekend’s first release in six years. The new record arrives in April and the band are releasing two tracks a month. “Harmony Hall/2021” shimmers and sways, but leaves me wanting more. Both Radiohead and Broken Social Scene have also teased new releases this year, so 2019 is shaping up to be a good one. 

 

 

 

 

 

Black Moon Rising – Best Songs 2018 Playlist

You picked a bad time

You picked a bad time to listen to me

That part kills me. Every time I hear it. All great songs have one. That moment you know is coming up but it still surprises you, makes you smile or belt out a lyric at the top of your lungs.

Maybe it’s just a key change or a sweeping horn or a distant yelp. It can last for a second or a minute but the result is always the same: man, I love that part.

Every song on this list has a moment like that for me. Whether it’s the aforementioned lyrics from “Hey Mama” or the chorus on “Middle America” or the way the strings float just out of focus in “Black Moon Rising,” each song gets me every time.

Composing a list of the year’s best music is self-indulgent by nature. So dear friends, please, indulge me.

Top five albums of the year in order:

Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats • Tearing at the Seams

U.S Girls • In A Poem Untitled

Twin Peaks • Sweet ’17 Singles

Parquet Courts • Wide Awake!

Durand Jones & The Indications • s/t

Song of the year: “Black Moon Rising” • Black Pumas

Biggest disappointments:

Jack White • Boarding House Reach

Jim James • Uniform Distortion

A Perfect Circle • Eat the Elephant

Father John Misty • God’s Favourite Customer

Best side A: Wilder Maker • Zion

Best side B: Parquet Courts • Wide Awake!

Album whose hype I can’t understand: Soccer Mommy • Clean

Concert of the year: Iron & Wine at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre

And just for fun I’ve added a second playlist for the songs that didn’t make the cut.

Thanks for reading and happy listening.

Covers/Originals Playlist 2018

Many moons ago I was a long-haired hippie. I remember seeing Phish at the Molson Amphitheatre and they debuted a cover of “Misty Mountain Hop” by Led Zeppelin. They were famous for their reinterpretations of song and full albums and it really sparked my love for a great cover.

For years I scoured Napster for covers and that’s continued over the years.

I’ve secretly been building a playlist of new cover songs from the past 12 months. It’s ripe for sharing now but I thought it would be fun to build a playlist of the originals as a counterpoint.

Listening to the two back-to-back has been an interesting experience. Hearing how artists choose to make a song their own tells a lot about who they are. Some have chosen play the song note for note while others have completely reinterpreted.

Of course the question is always can you improve on the original? The answer makes a lively debate to be sure, however I will leave it up to you to decide.

For the sake of argument, I’m going to say Andrew Combs’ version of the The Strokes’ “Reptilia” is a vast improvement.

I’m interested to hear your opinion.

October 2018 Playlist

Black lights traced the ceiling. A disco ball spun crazily, reflecting the glowing neon in the otherwise dark, cavernous bar. I could feel people’s eyes on us. A hulking, ornate hookah sat between us, we passed the pipe’s tentacles, exhaling sweet smoke. Smoke rings curled and seemed to dance in the black light.

It was getting increasingly difficult to use the pipe with the masks on. Mine was Crouching Tiger. Hers, Hidden Dragon. It was hot, furry and cumbersome. I lifted it up and rested it on my forehead, finally getting a clear view of our surroundings. A few tables over, a group of young men were staring at us. One of them walked over, reached out his hand and on his phone was a picture of a jack-o-lantern.

“Halloween?” He asked in broken English. We cracked up. Yes! Exactly! We all shared a chuckle—his mates at the table cheered. This was Halloween in Pingyao, a small walled-in city that time forgot a few hundred kilometers from Beijing.

As the night went on, we became acutely aware that not only were we the only people in costume, but there were no women in the bar. It was just young Chinese men, many of whom were drinking heavily. We had stumbled on the only gay bar in Pingyao, apparently. On Halloween. Dressed as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Last year, my prep cook was aghast when her daughter scolded her for dressing up as a Geisha for Halloween. She accused her of cultural appropriation. Looking back at our hookah smoking costume and considering our environment at the time, I must ask myself: were we guilty of the same? I really hope not.

This notion of exploiting someone’s culture for personal gain springs to mind when I listen to The Teskey Brothers. Half Mile Harvest could have been produced by Stax Records fifty years ago. It is proudly Motown, to the point where you could accuse Josh Teskey of wearing an Otis Redding costume. That Detroit sound was a beacon for civil right strife, so it begs the question: how could four privileged, twentysomething, white Australian dudes make music with this much soul? Can a musical style be culturally appropriated? It’s not up to me to identify where you draw the line between inspiration and appropriation. But I can ask the question. What I can tell you is this a great record. It sounds authentic and, to me, it comes from an honest place.

It’s rare and surprising to come across a record that can’t be pigeonholed. Richard Swift’s The Hex sounds as if David Lynch filmed a 50s sock hop in an opium den. Its dark, lush and really creepy. The closest contemporary would be Grizzly Bear, as Swift glosses songs like “Sister Song” and “Dirty Jim” in a chamber pop sheen.

I wish Kurt Vile would try harder. He’s clearly poured his soul into crafting a densely textured record, with guitar tones shifting out of focus in really interesting ways (the highlight being the nine-minute opus “Skinny Mini”), but after all that songcraft it sounds like he just showed up at the recording studio hungover as hell, made up the lyrics on the spot and recorded them in one take. I’m fully aware that this is his style and it’s worked in the past, but Bottle It In is unfortunately a little too loose this time.

Phosphorescent has recorded a deeply personal record. Themes of graceless aging (“Around the Horn”), overcoming addiction (“There From Here”) and fatherhood (“New Birth in New England”) come to life on C’est La Vie. The first four tracks comprise one the best Side As of the year.

I love it when an opening track announces the spirit of entire record. One note into “Dark Saturday” and you know Metric has plugged in for Art of Doubt. It’s heavy and anthemic. The synths still flesh out Metric’s sound, but Emily Haines and company have made the six string the star of the show. This is a record that’s meant to be cranked, it sounds better loud.

Matthew Dear’s secret weapon has always been his vocals. Over the years his voice has been heavily synthesized and buried beneath layers of reverb, often sounding like David Bowie, but on Bunny it’s driven to the forefront. Tracks like “What You Don’t Know” and “Modafinil Blues” put him firmly in Lead Singer territory. A master of creating unease in his brand of techno, on “Horses” he uses vocals from Tegan and Sarah to scrub clean a song that pops and fizzes like soda.

I will wrap things up with a sneaky picture from that fateful Halloween night.

September 2018 Playlist

It was a historic hangover. So mind-bending that I think it made me cross-eyed. We attended a fish fry the night before and according to reports I skipped and danced my way home. I can neither confirm nor deny such reports as that I have zero memory of getting home or going to sleep that night. I do recall the fish being tasty and the reggae boogie, but that’s about it. Daylight came early, and somehow I was the one in better shape to pick up the rental car for 7am.  

We were vacationing in Eleuthera, a tiny, crescent-shaped island in the Bahamas. We packed the car with all manner of hangover snacks, our swim trunks and hit the road to explore. A single lane highway ran the length of the island—so thin that at points you could see nothing but palm trees and ocean on either side—but once the car hit 50mph it was clear we had rented a lemon.  

The engine would rev loudly like a lawnmower ready to explode, it would buck and shudder trying snap into the next gear. But nothing would happen. We stared at each other, fearing it would burst into flames. But a few seconds later—an eternity, trust me—the gears would catch and we’d be cruising comfortably. 

For some reason we never returned the car (we rented from a local and never got a phone number) so we were stuck with it. The frightening gear change would happen so often that we’d lovingly rub the console or whisper words of encouragement to the engine in hopes of smoothing over the process. “Cmon, cmon baby, you can do it!” When it would finally catch we‘d erupt in cheers. “Way to go baby! We knew you could do it!” It was like winning the World Series. Every time.  

Perhaps it was the hangover coupled with a crippling fear of automotive calamity, that I had an out of body experience on the road. As we drove past a family on a beach, my foot planted on the accelerator, the engine revving its terrifying scream, I pictured myself as one of them. Suddenly I was with them, and like a needle screeching off a record, my head snapped back with all of them and we watched the offending car race by, then finally it bucked, trembled and quieted. Hoots and hollers of sheer joy rang out from the windows. 

No road trip is complete without the right soundtrack. I had just discovered a band called Cayucas from Santa Monica, they had a sunny, Beach Boys vibe and it seemed appropriate at the time. We instantly adored their album Bigfoot and played it all weekend. To this day Cayucas is played on every road trip and now finally they have released two new songs. “Jessica WJ” takes me right back to Eleuthera, endless miles of surf and sunshine. On your next road trip, I encourage you to research their back catalogue but I hope your car is in better shape than our former jalopy. Of course, if it’s not, just gently rub the console and chant a few kind words; works every time. 

Some artists are so personal to you that it’s hard to be objective. Iron & Wine have been producing gentle indie folk for 15 years and for me its irresistible. Sam Beam is one of America’s greatest lyricists, a true poet. He weaves tales of the dusty South, of crumbling graveyards behind pizza parlours in his breathy delivery on Weed Garden. “Waves of Galveston” is Beam at his best.  

Big Red Machine is comprised of members of The National and Justin Vernon of Bon Iver. On paper it’s grounds for a great record but it’s a bit hit and miss. Vernon still dabbles with auto-tune a little too much but “Hymnostic” is a song where everything comes together perfectly. 

On their third album, Young Sick Camellia, St. Paul & The Broken Bones are poised to really break out. They have one of the tightest brass sections out there and on this album there’s as much Donna Summer as there is Marvin Gay. Leading the charge with artists like Leon Bridges, The War and Treaty and Nathaniel Rateliff, they are bringing soul back in a big way on tracks like “Apollo” and “LivWithoutU.”  

It’s hard not to compare Night Shop to Kevin Morby or Kurt Vile or Chris Isaak, and that’s not a bad thing. In The Break has all the heartache and late night woes of those contemporaries, but it’s just honest music. I only discovered this album a few days ago and it’s been in heavy rotation since. The title track is lush and textured and I think sometimes you have to let go of how much an artist sounds like another and simply enjoy it.                                                 

Two songs that I’m listening to a lot: “A Perfect Miracle” from Spiritualized’s new album And Nothing Hurt and “Straight Shot” from DeVotchKa’s The Night Falls Forever.  

Thanks for reading and if you like what you hear please follow the playlists.