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. 

August 2018 Playlist

A few days after Aretha Franklin died we rented a car to escape the city on a sunny Sunday afternoon. We drove to Niagara and as endless vineyards looped by, The Queen of Soul’s discography boomed. The power of her voice is undeniable, but for me, it’s the feeling that it creates when you hear it that’s her true strength.  

Uplifting or perhaps transformative are the words that spring to mind. Soul comes from a place where positivity and sadness co-exist; blended together by emotive voices and that classic Motor City sound, it reverberates into something magical. When the music swells and harmonies rise higher and higher, as the tempo gallops faster, as the horns pop and crackle, the feeling it creates just drowns out negativity. It’s as if the vibration of the planet changes, shaking away the gloom, like sunlight streaming through clouds.  

As we returned to the city, traffic snarled, but soul carried us home. We ran the gamut from Otis Redding and Aretha to Bill Withers and somehow the traffic and clamour of the city just melted away.  

Soul is made for a Sunday.  

As I listened to The War And Treaty today, it reaffirmed my theory. Their backstory is sensational, two disparate people coming together by music. Michael Trotter was homeless, joined the US army and was sent to Iraq. When his superiors found him singing on a broken piano in Baghdad he was taken off the front lines and started performing songs for fallen soldiers. It’s probably what kept him alive. When he returned home he met Tanya Trotter at a festival. Her voice channels Aretha: vulnerable, powerful. They soon married and formed The War And Treaty. I’ve been told their live show is not be missed either, a hip swingin’ mess that boarders on cathartic. Listen to them on a Sunday. 

The song of the month is unquestionably “New Birth in New England,” by Phosphorescent. It’s a breezy number that I hope signals more new material from him. I can’t stop listening to it.  

Murder By Death makes very cinematic music. Perhaps it’s because the cello is so prevalent in their songs, making their arrangements sweeping and grandiose, that I can picture it soundtracking a thrilling battle sequence or a nightmarish flashback. You’ll understand after hearing “True Dark.” 

You’ve probably seen the videos of Brass Against floating around the internet. Shot in their studio, the band with the mammoth horn section covers Rage Against The Machine and Tool among others.  Well, now they have finally released a full LP. The real gem here is their reinterpretation of Living Colour’s “Cult of Personality.” They have inspired me to build a playlist comprised of covers that have been recorded this year. Recommendations are welcome, dear listeners. I will release it in a few months. 

When brothers fight it can get ugly. Rich and Chris Robinson famously never got along during their time in The Black Crowes. When they finally split, Chris kept the name and barred his brother from using it so out of its ashes came Rich’s band The Magpie Salute. They play Crowes songs but also produce new material that’s predictably Southern rock. And it’s pretty good, but imagine how great songs like “Take It All” or “Send Me An Omen” would sound if Chris were singing.  

The hallmark of that nineties alternative rock sound was the abrupt shift from quiet to loud and it’s resurfaced with band like Soccer Mommy, Snail Mail and now Campdogzz. In Rounds hints on that influence (Liz Phair immediately comes to mind), but it’s still an engaging listen with numbers like “Souvenir” and “Dry Heat.” 

As always friends, thank you for reading and if you like what you’re hearing please follow the playlists. 

July 2018 Playlist

I think it was a piano that drew us in. Or it could have been the raised voices, swelling together in harmony. We were wandering the narrow, winding lanes of Bergen when we stumbled across the choir. We stood motionless in the stairway of a nondescript Norwegian row house and just listened. The world melted way as we witnessed a truly beautiful, but intensely private moment. A stained-glass window above us was the only indication that this was a church. We cracked open the door a few inches so we could peer inside. 

The music had a modern tempo, scales rising and falling with the harmonies. It reminded me of Arcade Fire mixed with Sigur Ros somehow. Of course, the lyrics were in indecipherable, but you got the gist easily enough as the group sang their graces. Through the six-inch vista in the doorway we could see clusters of people singing, guitars, drums and big piano. A few singers swayed, their heads raised, arms out in poses of blissful celebration.  

We were clearly intruding, we knew that. But it was such a surprising, powerful moment that we were locked in its orbit, unable to turn away. Eventually, a nice young lady invited us in to watch their performance. A few quick smiles from the parishioners let us know we were welcome.  

That’s a how a great song feels to me: like you’ve stumbled into a secret meeting. It’s just for them—the artist—but they’ve let you in.  

Jim James has tried to capture that immediacy with mixed results. More than a few times you hear him stumble or laugh on Uniform Distortion, as that he was trying to record something raw, loose. It works marvelously on Throwback or the Crazyhorse inspired No Secrets, but other times the songwriting is muddy like you’re trudging through a swamp with heavy boots.  

Sometimes an artist wears their influences on their sleeve. Rowland Baxter blends Paul Simon’s conversational tone with the Kinks to perfection because he has such a great voice. Wide Awake swings from anthemic (Hey Larocco, Casanova) to deeply personal (Amelia Baker) to John Lennon-esque protest songs (79 Shiny Revolvers) with grace and honesty.  

A great EP leaves you wanting more, that’s exactly what Sam Valdez does on Mirage. Her music is sexy, it breathes warmth and tension like she’s whispering to you on your pillow before sleep takes you. 

I’ve become pretty obsessed with Wilder Maker. There’s so much great composition crammed into Zion‘s seven tracks. It’s a dense listen. A times they remind me of Broken Social Scene (Woman Dancing Immortal), other times Fleetwood Mac (Multiplied), but Wilder Maker are distinctly their own band. Impossible Summer is a song that begs to be heard. Their music takes so many unexpected twists and turns, one moment euphoric and revelatory, then quiet, somber, then a sax solo explodes from nowhere. I can play this record all day. 

Some of the best production I’ve heard all year can be found on Almost by The Ophelias. It’s dark and textured, with strings or harmonies vibrating just out of focus, all the while rooted by a strummed guitar or marching drum. Put your headphones on for songs like Night Signs, Lunar Rover and General Electric. 

Thanks for reading and listening. If you like what you’re hearing please follow the playlists. 

Bring the noise

It was the whistle that made my parents crazy. That shrill, ear-splitting blast. Part siren, part boiled kettle. High pitched and looped from Bring The Noise all the way to Prophets of Rage.

A Nations of Millions… was my first CD and this week marks its 30 year anniversary. Three decades later there’s still nothing that sounds like it. That unmistakable delivery from Chuck D, Flav’s clock-swinging swagger. Hip hop production back then sounded clean but the Bomb Squad managed to capture something raw.

I think I was a little young to truly get its meaning. (Of course, I do think that anyone from my age group knows every single lyric of Bring the Noise–with or without Anthrax.)

But, Chuck and Public Enemy exposed me to Dr. King and so many other potent civil rights touchstones that I would have otherwise missed as a suburban white kid in the 80s. That has to mean something.

If you listen to it now the message is eerily pertinent today. It’s like a Polaroid that’s come back to life reminding you that the work is not done.

June 2018 Playlist

It’s always the smell of rain rushing over Lake Ontario that I remember. Before the clap of thunder and the crowd scrambling for cover under the band shell. Summer nights at the Harbourfront stage all those years ago were often fraught with bad weather but it never dampened the shows. There were some unforgettable performances: the Greyboy Allstars (we invaded the stage to boogie with the band), The Constantines, Broken Social Scene among so many others tore the roof off summer after summer.  

Memory is a little fuzzy, but I think we were watching The Herbaliser Band when Mother Nature wanted to join in the fun. You really could smell the rain coming. Lightning streaked the sky. We all got pretty wet. A few weeks after the show, friends would tell me they saw me on City TV. The NewMusic filmed it and I somehow found my way onto the clips: there I was, my unruly hippie hair tucked under my cowboy hat, dancing up a storm. I was pretty into it, apparently. My “moves” back then were basically T-Rex arms swinging incomprehensibly, my head shaking wildly and my butt wiggling terribly out of time. I am many things, but graceful is not one of them. To this day I’ve still never seen the footage. 

A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to attend Field Trip at Fort York with some excellent people. It’s such a well-organized event. Food trucks everywhere, beer wagons galore, kid friendly playgrounds, and of course the performances from The Barr Brothers, Bahamas and Metric were outstanding. Usually I’m taking pictures of the band, watching the show through my screen. This time, however, the phone stayed in my pocket. I was surprised by how much more engaged I was. Instead of trying to find the perfect shot I instead melted into the music.  

This isn’t an indictment of those who use their phones, nor is this a soapbox imploring you to put them away. I’m not Jack White. Rather, this is a recognition of mindfulness, of being in the moment and holding on it. I think that’s a rare experience, perhaps one that I didn’t even know I needed. On the other hand, I have a music blog that’s entirely bereft of photos or video from Field Trip. So maybe I need to strike a balance there.  

I fear that Father John Misty has started taking himself too seriously. His last two releases have sucked all the air out of the room. God’s Favorite Customer is pretty grim, he used to lighten things with humour or self-depreciation but now he’s just a downer. 

So, Scarlett Johansson released a record with Pete Yorn. It’s pretty good. “Bad Dreams” is a breezy pop tune that’s sure to get caught in your head. 

Neko Case’s voice is so powerfully emotive, shifting from whimsy to sadness from one note to the next. While Hell On has quite possibly the worst album cover of the year, it boasts exceptional songwriting. “Curse of the I-5 Corridor” shimmers and sways with such force you will need to sit down. 

Snail Mail’s Lush manages to capture distance while feeling wholly in the moment—an impressive feat for a teenage debut. It reminds me of early Smashing Pumpkins as well, which is surprising.  

Two songs I can’t stop listening to: “Health Machine” by Sam Evian and “Tenderness” by Parquet Courts. 

For all those road trip junkies, allow me to recommend Australia’s Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever (yes, that’s a mouthful). It’s easy to picture endless blacktop, the world whizzing by with “Talking Straight” pumping from your radio. 

Yukon Blonde’s Critical Hit makes me want to watch Street Legal or maybe Night Court, it’s all 80s synths and big choruses. To be fair, side B is very diverse, running the gamut from electro to the Beach Boys. The album is eclectic and never boring.