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. 

 

May 2018 Playlist

Eighteen years ago, four of us were huddled together in a stuffy flat in St. James Town. We had just picked our collective jaws off the floor after listening to Kid A for the first time. After the opening bars of “Everything In Its Right Place,” it was clear this was an album that begged to be listened to again. So we did. Well this is different, was my first thought. Where are the guitars? was my next. Much discussion followed, very little of which do I actually remember—there was a lot of weed smoked in that apartment. I wasn’t convinced that I liked this new sound, but I knew I had to.

Fans, critics and casual listeners are a fickle lot. We’re hard to please. And I think artists are the same. We bemoan lazy songwriting and celebrate a hard left—only if it’s done right. Kid A introduced a new direction, but in doing so it torched the past; I’ve always viewed that record as Radiohead’s middle finger to the radio single. Was that their intention? I don’t think they care one way or another, this was simply the record they wanted to make. It’s that kind of confidence that I love and hate about musicians. Because sometimes I just want to hear “My Iron Lung” instead being challenged by flickering vocals and drum loops.

I tell this story because I had a similar experience listening to the new Leon Bridges. “Good Thing” sets fire to his old sound and out of its ashes arises a record that’s much more Prince or The Weeknd than Sam Cooke. Just as Radiohead traded guitars for sequencers, Leon traded 60s soul for club jams. Even his voice is different: falsetto replacing his velvety, smooth croon. I knew I wanted to like it, so I listening to it a lot. I asked myself, what motivated him to change so early in his career? The best response I have is some records feel like they are flag posts, marking the end of an era and leading you to the next.

There’s something refreshing about listening to a song from an artist that isn’t trying too hard. “City Looks Pretty” by Courtney Barnett is a no-nonsense, toe-tapping number that’s catchy as hell.

It’s a good day when Chromatics releases new music. “Black Walls” hits all the right notes: breathy vocals, just enough 80s synth and a driving tempo you can’t deny.

Band Name of Year: Low Cut Connie. Trashy music from a trashy band. I feel hungover just typing their name here.

Beach House is one those bands that can do no wrong. “7” is everything you’d expect from them, but nothing more.

I’ll admit it: I never got into Pavement. But the new Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks is excellent. “Middle American” is a perfect summer song with a chorus that burns slow and lazy like long shadows on the park grass.

Thanks for reading and happy listening.

April 2018 Playlist

I think it is time to come clean. Vinyl is my new addiction. And for those who know me, when I get into something, I really get into it. As music has become completely disposable, floating out there in the ether like so many other 1s and 0s, my urge to collect it has gone through many shifts. First, I stole everything (thank you Napster), then I started buying the occasional indie MP3 (you’re welcome iTunes, but it was mostly out of shame), then finally I starting paying to rent it from the sky (Spotify has dug its claws very deep). 

And in the end, I don’t have a physical collection anymore. Hence my $400 a month vinyl habit. It’s a daunting task, trying to rebuild a collection that spans a couple decades. And vinyl isn’t cheap. I’ll find myself in the record store holding OK Computer, The Traveling Wilburys and Marvin Gaye. My wallet can only afford one, but my heart wants them all. Helplessly, I just end up walking out with all three, Visa bill be damned. 

Just today I searched my neighbourhood for the new Durand Jones & The Indications. Endorphins rushed through my brain at the thought of adding it to my tiny collection. Old school soul like that would sound great on vinyl, Geoff, I promised myself. Three stores later I ended up with the new Leon Bridges instead as I had to special order Durand Jones.  

There’s lots of soul and rhythm & blues this month. 

The James Hunter Six album cover is a picture of the singer puffing on a cigarette and its really lazy to describe his voice as smoky, but unfortunately, it’s a fact.  

Ben Harper put out a proper blues record and it is excellent. 

It’s hard to disassociate Lord Huron from Thirteen Reasons Why; Netflix did a lot of good for his profile. Vide Noir is a lot of high gloss and sheen, but beneath it all, there’s still good songwriting. 

Song of the month: Black Moon Rising by Black Pumas. Just listen. 

I haven’t the faintest where she’s from or what she’s saying but Serol Serol is lovely, dreamy late-night music.  

Oh Maynard where are thou and why did you lend your voice to that steaming pile of trash that is the new A Perfect Circle. 

Thanks for reading and happy listening. 

 

Twice Removed and Other Diversions

Oakville Place in a mid-90s typified the suburban nightmare. No windows but somehow clinically bright. Cotton Ginny. The It Store. It was a free babysitting service for parents. Drop off the mall rats, clad in Club Monaco and Treetorn, for a few hours to gorge on Manchu Wok and NY Fries. Yet the mall had one redeeming feature: A&A Records.  

I clearly remember buying Appetite For Destruction, License to Ill and It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back there, among countless cassettes and CDs. Full disclosure: Glass Tiger and Moist were purchases too. While Records on Wheels on Kerr Street was the mecca for independent music—it was the place for tape trading, bootlegs and concert tickets—I lived much closer to the mall.  

Oakville had a pretty impressive indie scene 25 years ago. I asked a friend to remind me of some the bands from that era, many of which had hilarious names. Pineconesexface. Neon God. Sister Sloth. 10grade2s. Gorp. Porch Climber. Most weekends someone was putting on show somewhere, it progressed to the point where bigger bands were playing locally. hHead (Brendon Canning of BBS fame), The Inbreds and Treble Charger graced the stages of Masonic Temple or the Waterfront bandshell. 

But back to A&A. I remember meeting Rosie from Treble Charger there and thinking that was coolest thing ever. He gave my friend Jenn and I a flyer to a show at a wedding hall. Dusty memories of a dark DIY venue full of cigarette smoke, flannel and Dock Martins floats in my brain. Those were heady days. All this gooey nostalgia has led me to ask: who’s left? Who has survived intact and still produces music? Outside of cash grab reunions from Our Lady Peace and artists of that ilk, the only band that I can think of is Sloan. 

They released 12 in early April, and after some quick math, it marks a 27-year career. They never broke up or lost a drummer. No one overdosed. Sloan may just be the most PG Canrock band ever—even the Barenaked Ladies have a drug scandal.  

Sloan can still write a great pop song. Their harmonies are as crisp as ever on “Right To Roam” and “Gone For Good.” I found myself listening to 12 a lot more than I expected, perhaps subliminally out of respect to their career. Give it a listen. 

Of course for good measure, take a trip down memory lane.