May 2019 Playlist

It’s impossible for me to analyze new music in a vacuum. I can’t mute my own expectations. Neither can I ignore a band’s discography. Nor can I stop making comparisons. But I’ve tried. In order to drop the weight of wanting to like something because I’m a fan comes down to the most personal of observations: how does it make me feel? If the songs evoke an emotional response then I think the band has done its job, and, I’ve done mine.  

I tried to pretend that listening to Father of the Bride was the first time I heard Vampire Weekend. Not an easy to task—ignoring an outstanding bunch of records that I’m inherently attached to—it was like trying to nail French Onion soup to the wall. I autopiloted to comparisons (can they top “Unbelievers?” Will there ever be another “M79?” Can they match the frenzy of “Cousins?”) I just couldn’t let go of their shared history with me.  

Eventually, after many listening, I found myself singing along to almost every song. I discovered that this record really makes me happy, it’s like distilled summer. It’s about feeling after all; songs like “This Life” and “Unbearably White” are pure pop bliss, and they still pay off after many, many listens. But it’s the deeper cuts that are the real earworms. There are a collection of 90-second-ish songs scattered throughout (“2021, “Big Blue” and “Jerusalem, New York, Berlin”) that highlight short, confident songwriting. These songs glue FOTB together, like little excursions off the larger trip. It’s an expansive listen, and yes there are a few terrible songs, but the real test of an album like this is how I will feel about it years later. Only time will tell.  

Adrianne Lenker’s hushed vocal delivery has an imperfect quality that’s equally disarming and deeply personal. Every time I listen to U.F.O.F I’m transported to a place where I feel like I’m right there with her, as if we were passing a flashlight to one another, telling ghost stories, like kids at a campfire. It’s an otherworldly, transformative experience. The album is a masterpiece, it swells with tension and its emotional core is hypnotic. The one-two punch of “UFOF” and “Cattails” might be the best I’ve heard all year. “Jenni” will haunt you, it’s a song that smolders like embers from a dying campfire. 

It sounds ridiculous when I type it and re-read it, but ALASKALASKA have found a way to blend electro-pop with jazz. And it works. Throughout the songs on The Dots there are instrumental moments that are just astounding. Walls of synths and beats pulse so high and loud, then suddenly wash away into screaming saxophone scales. “Moon,” “Monster” and “Meateater” are excellent tracks off a very surprising record. 

A great opening song should be like an amuse bouche. It should burst with the first bite and hint at what’s to come. “You Had Your Soul With You” achieves just that; when Gail Ann Dorsey’s voice comes out of nowhere supplanting Matt Berninger’s baritone, it announces that I Am East to Find is a different kind of National album. Each track feature’s a woman’s voice and it’s a welcome change because this would have been a really boring record otherwise. I applaud the riskiness and the song-craft, songs like “Oblivions” and “Not In Kansas” are a seamless harmony of two very different singing styles. The real standout is “Where Is Her Head,” a propulsive number where Berninger plays seconds fiddle to Phoebe Bridgers’ powerhouse vocals. It’s demonstrative of a band that seems re-energized.  

If Springsteen played an 808 instead of a guitar I think he’d sound like Operators. Montreal’s Daniel Boeckner is a savant. He’s been in so many innovative bands over the years, from Wolf Parade to Divine Fits to Handsome Furs, that you forget he can also be the star of the show. Radiant Dawn is peak Boeckner, “Faithless” might be the best song he’s ever written.  

IGOR is a super weird record. It’s unclassifiable. I think Tyler, The Creator wants to annoy and challenge you. Just when you are head-nodding to a beat, it breaks, changes and morphs into completely different. It’s manic and clearly intentional, he wants to take you on a couple long, strange trips, the best of which are “I THINK” and “RUNNING OUT OF TIME.” 

I have a bottle of Icelandic aquavit called Brennivin that I’ve never opened. You’re supposed to shoot it with a bite of pickled herring. I would like to drink this spirit with Justin Townes Earl because The Saint Of Lost Causes is moonshine blues. It’s wood smoke, lonely nights, regret and redemption. Whether he’s weaving a murder ballad (“Appalachian Nightmare”), a country barn-burner (“Flint City Shake It”) or sad, sad blues (“Over Alameda”) his pedal steel swoons and sings. If you’ve never given Justin Townes Earle a good listen, this is a good place to start. 

April 2019 Playlist

 

I feel like I’m an old man yelling at a cloud here, but it’s all Vampire Weekend’s fault. Or maybe it was Justin Vernon first. Both of these artists started using studio trickery like autotune many years ago (see Bon Iver’s “Skinny Love” and VW’s “California English”) and as a result opened the floodgates for everyone else to exploit, copy, rearrange and eventually change the course of indie rock. 

Sanitization is in full swing. A clean, bright white sheen has painted over the rough spots. It’s been happening so gradually that not until you reach the end can you actually witness it. I can draw a straight line from Bon Iver to Broken Social Scene’s abuse of autotune on their new EP Let’s Try The After (Vol. 2). The same line can be drawn from Vampire Weekend to Local Natives’ over-produced abomination Violet Street. And now it’s happened on Cayucas’s latest Real Life. All three records have virtually no guitar, instead it’s all shiny strings, keyboards and drum machines.  

The guitar’s slow death in popular music has left us with a sound that feels canned, clinical and often times heartless. But I need to step off this soapbox because I know I sound like Grandpa here. Music changes. Bands change. I get it. Indulge me and listen to the aforementioned new releases and ask yourself, does it have to sound so perfect? I think there’s still room for a little grime, or the smallest pop of colour on an otherwise pale, sandy landscape. 

Ignore the hideous cover, this is a fantastic record from one of the most prolific songwriters of the past five years. Kevin Morby has also set his guitar aside, instead he sat down at the piano to craft a warm, lush rumination on religion, loneliness and gun control. He’s not a God-fearing man, but he’s praying for change like a snake-charmer in a dusty tent. Oh My God radiates on the gospel choir-tinged “No Halo” and the standout “Congratulations.” 

People Under The Stairs have mysteriously returned and have brought back some old school hip hop with them. Full of tricky rhyme schemes, record scratching and head-nodding beats, Sincerely, the P is the antithesis of modern hip hop. That classic jazzy, 90s era vibe returns on tracks like “Reach Out” and “The Effects of Climate Change on Densely Populated Areas.” 

Sweden’s The Tallest Man On Earth has one of those voices that’s so emotive and vulnerable. He’s once again laid himself bare on I Love you. It’s a Fever Dream. It’s a quiet album, and occasionally suffers from  sad-guy-with-a-piano/guitar-syndrome, however the tone and tempo ramps up on the excellent “I’m A  Stranger Now.” 

If you’ve ever been to the Dakota Tavern, Toronto’s temple to the Nashville sound, then you’ll know what I mean when I say that every time I walk by it, I instantly feel hungover. Shovels & Rope feels like a band that’s made for the Dakota and its consequently foggy morning/afternoon after. By Blood bursts with such fist-pumping, bourbon-swilling anthemic power on tracks like “Mississippi Nuthin’” and “C’mon Utah,” that I think I need a need some hair of the dog. 

Josh Ritter has teamed up with Jason Isbell and his band The 400 Unit on Fever Breaks. It’s a plugged-in, turbulent record. At times Crazy Horse (“Losing Battles”) and other times Paul Simon (“Old Black Magic”), but this is a perfect synergy between two outstanding musicians. 

I know very little about Craig Finn. His album I Need a New War was recommended to me by a friend with great music taste. I’ve resisted researching who this guy is because sometimes context doesn’t matter when something comes out of the blue and sounds this good. “Magic Marker” might be my favourite find this month; I won’t spoil it for you, just give it a spin and enjoy.  

 

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.