One-on-One with Oxford Blue

 

Oxford Blue (photo by Bill Pond)

Oxford Blue (photo by Bill Pond)

by Eleni Armenakis

When I reach Pat Lefler, the man behind the now Toronto-based Oxford Blue, over the phone he’s in the middle of a kitchen jam. He and Dawn Redskye from the Blackwood Honeybees are still working out the remainder of the setlist from their upcoming Black & Blue Variety Show, which will be making the rounds of Ontario (and Montreal) at the beginning of September.

The tour sees Lefler reuniting with his former band—he was their second guitarist before moving from London to Toronto. While he’s been playing consistently throughout the city at venues like The Cameron House and Horseshoe Tavern since the move with a new band, going on a tour with the group was harder to coordinate. Instead, he turned to the Blackwood Honeybees to see if they’d be interested in coming along. To make it work Lefler is also trying out crowdfunding to raise money for the tour.

“There’s five of us going so it’s going to be fairly expensive to feed and water and accommodate us all as well as pay for gas,” he says, explaining the reasons behind the Indiegogo campaign. “I’m generally fairly wary about crowdfunding. Lately I’ve been hearing a lot of people saying crowdfunding is the new record label—I don’t think that’s fairly how I feel about that, but I think that it’s a good way to get the crowd involved—whether or not it’s a way they want to get involved, forking over money—but it’s a good way to keep people in the loop, so I figured we should take a stab at it and see how it goes for future endeavors.”

Like many Canadian musicians, Lefler has made the musical rounds, first with From Now Til Forever when he 15 and later with Neon Cowboy while at Fanshawe College studying music industry arts. “We were playing kind of, Westerny, very Sadies influenced songs,” he says about his decision to go solo. “And I didn’t really have an outlet for my acoustic stuff.” It was a combination of classes at Fanshawe and the push for another project that played a big role in the birth of Oxford Blue, from the name to its first song.

“We were trying to come up with names for individual artists,” Lefler explains. “I had to sit at the front of the class and people would yell out names. None of them were any good, so I got back to my seat and I just, right there, had an inspiration for a song. I wrote the song ‘Oxford Blue’ sitting in a lecture class and so that’s where I got the name.”

He adds: “I used to perform just under my name, Patrick Lefler but I like the idea of having a bit of a pseudonym to go under [...] I don’t like my name in the performance aspect. I think Oxford Blue is more characteristic and more accurately describes the way I sound.”

The way he sounds on (Introducing Oxford Blue) is a cross between country and surf—a balancing act that teeters between the two genres throughout the album’s seven songs, merging together for some of its strongest moments. In many ways, the tightly produced album is another by-product of his time at Fanshawe as it let him have more of a hand in the result as he directed a fellow classmate and then-girlfriend, Olly Pavlova, through the mixing. Still, it was chance that gave him the biggest opportunity when it came time to record.

“I met Aaron Goldstein at a show in London that I played with Dan Griffin from The Arkells,” he explains. “And then he asked me if I wanted to make a record with him and Dan Romano, and obviously I said yes. At first I was going to record it myself, but obviously when you’re approached by someone that you appreciate their work and you’d like to work with them, I just jumped at that opportunity.”

Lefler will be playing six songs from that album during the Black & Blue Variety Show, while the Blackwood Honeybees will be featuring two from their album and several new songs, bookending an acoustic set by Lefler and Redskye. But another part of the plan for the variety show is to cover a handful of traditional songs, bringing us back to that kitchen jam.

“We’re going to do the ‘In the Pines’ song that there’s a video for of us doing, and we’re doing ‘Carmelita’ by Warren Zevon and a Bob Dylan tune. We’re still working out a couple of other ones.”

But while it seems like Lefler should really have his hands full at this point, the near-inevitable discussions about recording at least some of the creations coming out of The Black & Blue Variety Show are already underway and he’s already talking about getting back into the studio in October for a release later this winter.

“I find it’s very random,” he says about writing for the upcoming EP. “This particular song, ‘Another Blue Morning,’ there was a series of pictures on Flickr and it was re-coloured images from the Great Depression. And there was just one photo with power lines and a bunch of old-looking houses and general overcast of the day. The picture looks very blue, it’s a very cold picture, and I don’t know. I took a look at it and I wrote that song right there, 10-15 minutes. I just get spurts of writing material. Sometimes they’re good, sometimes they’re great, sometimes they’re not so good—that’s how it works.”

Oxford Blue will also be playing the next Grayowl Point show in conjunction with Doc Pickles Presents in October.

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Review – “Neuroplasticity” – Cold Specks

Layout 1reviewed by Michael Thomas

On July 31, Cold Specks played an intimate show in Toronto to preview her new tunes, and also gave the audience a window into her thoughts. Seems her soul-laid-bare “doom soul” isn’t something she wants to stick with, and Neuroplasticity is all the evidence needed to support that assertion.

The album title is a medical term that refers to the brain’s ability to adapt to changes. It’s also showing how Cold Specks’ songs have changed shape into something darker, while not losing that which makes Al Spx such a thrilling figure in Canada’s music scene.

“Dark” is the easiest way to describe Neuroplasticity—from the funereal opener “A Broken Memory” to the unexpected change in “A Formal Invitation.” Spx’s voice, which can easily bring on a good case of chills, adds an extra layer of mysticism to the at times chaotic instrumentals. In short, a lot more “doom” in “doom soul.”

First single “Absisto” is a good indication of both how much darker the music has gotten and also a reminder of how commanding Spx’s vocal presence is. While the the guitar at the beginning of the song is great at setting the mood, the song’s master stroke comes in a split second—for that split seconds, it sounds like the song will “simmer down,” but then it explodes into a frenzy.

“Exit Plan” and “Let Loose the Dogs” also both benefit from  their unpredictability. “Exit Plan” begins with the simple guitar picking you’d hear on I Predict a Graceful Expulsion, complete with beautiful lines like “An armful of love, we could not grasp.” But suddenly the drums come in and the songs gets more powerful. It features another momentous line as the song get bigger: “This will be an indecent year.” “Let Loose the Dogs” starts with a simple synth backing Spx’s voice, and it gets a little louder once the first minute rolls around.

The album features plenty more lyrical gems, like in the aforementioned funereal “A Broken Memory,” Among mournful trumpet and crunching guitar are lines like “All is calm, nothing is right.” “Old Knives” is positively sinister; while a much calmer foil to the propulsive “Bodies At Bay,” its sparser melody allows Spx to drive in the proverbial knife. “Every old knife rusting in my back/I will drive into yours,” is an eerily poignant image and unforgettable lyric.

Closer “A Season of Doubt” closes the album in a style Spx has never done before. With a few notes of piano behind the same mournful horn from the opener, the song brings to mind Radiohead’s “Life in a Glass House.” While the Radiohead track was a take on global warming, this track is filled with confusion and sadness. “And we move like wolves in the bleak night/And we dance like ghosts deprived of flight” is another couple of lines that show an uncanny knack for grasping memorable phrases. “I’ve got an unrelenting desire to fall apart” are the last lines of the album, ending on the same gloom that opened it.

This is a completely different Cold Specks. And that’s okay.

Neuroplasticity will officially drop tomorrow, on August 26, 2014.

Top Tracks: “A Quiet Chill”; “A Season of Doubt”

Rating: Hunting Call (Excellent) +*swoop*

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Review – “Coming Down” – Jessica Chase

jessicachasereviewed by Elena Gritzan

Jessica Chase says that writing music is all about being in the moment. She describes the seven songs on her first EP as making her “feel like she’s standing outside in the wind and leaves, and there’s a dark sky and a big rain storm coming.” It’s a dramatic mental image, anticipating all-encompassing emotion, and she captures the feeling well in her music.

There’s drama all throughout the sound: off-beat echoing drums, crescendos, and sighed harmonies sung by layers of her own voice. She cites artists like Ellie Goulding and Florence and the Machine as influences, which can be heard most readily in her vocal performance. A powerful, yet sweet, presence that strains with emotion and gains incredible power on the choruses.

She deals lyrically with a range of dating woes. “The Only One” is a hesitant admission to someone decidedly more interested that they aren’t the only person the narrator is seeing. “Long Haul Baby” details some emotional manipulation on the narrator’s part: lying every time she says “I love you” while admitting to herself that she doesn’t want to stay with the person she’s with. The songs deal in specific stories delivered with effective emotional truth.

The EP ends with a song called “God Made Lana Del Ray”. It claims that a list of people and material things, including mansions and Kanye West in addition to the titular singer, are touched with the divine. But the chorus closes with the phrase “but God didn’t make me”. This is either a claim for her own authenticity by suggesting she found her sound without otherworldly help, or a self-deprecating admission that she’ll never reach commercial heights.

Jessica Chase has more in common with the pop deities she’s distanced herself from than she seems to think. A great voice, clean production, and a bright pop sensibility will take her far.

Top Track: “The Only One”

Rating: Strong Hoot (Good)

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Review – “Aging Boy” – Little City

reviewed by Laura Stanley a0848927201_10

It’s hard to believe that it has been three years since Little City was reviewed on the blog. Filled with a friendly folk-pop sound, the band’s debut EP, The Going and The Gone, was easy to fall in love with. Although the music style has largely remained similar as this debut offering, what is most apparent in Little City’s newest EP is the band’s lyrical maturation. With varying poignant  themes covered within, Aging Boy is an example of how a band can age gracefully.

Where Frances Miller was the primary singer in The Going and The Gone, in this candid three song output, Shaun Axani is the leader of Little City. With Miller’s voice, and others’, cropping up now and again and a full instrumental soundscape throughout, Little City clearly has some talented and versatile band members.   

Aging Boy is bookended with two quick-tempo, moveable track that summarize the vibrancy of the band. Despite its contrasting downtrodden lyrics, “I Was A Runner” matches this fast beat to a tee.

In an energetic final number, the boyhood tale of “Do You Believe” closes the EP off with a bang. Moving between Axani testing out a rougher timbre, a great verse sung by Miller with the standout line, “It’s an Abercrombian life at 16. He’s all alone except for the void on the other end of the phone,” and some fun group vocals towards the end, “Do You Believe” is a powerful collective. 

Clutched between these songs is the strongest emotional showing from the band so far. “Hospital Visits” starts off in a hushed guitar + piano + vocals combination before the rest of the band jumps in. Its lulling verses and chorus match the emotional pitches of the song while the horn inclusion at the end and the return of the hushed combination, let’s “Hospital Visits” drifts off into a fitting and reflexive unknown.

Little City’s Aging Boy shows a new side of this big band.

Top Track: “Hospital Visit”

Rating: Strong Hoot (Good)

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Review – “Reply 1994″ – Korean Drama

Korean Drama - Reply 1994 - coverreviewed by Michael Thomas

The idea of Toronto as a punk hub becomes more viable as the scene expands. The city has already produced top-notch acts like METZ and Pup, but there’s also a growing number of punk bands that also present singalong opportunities, like Pkew Pkew Pkew (gunshots). These types of bands have pretty much every member singing, with enough hooks in the chorus to inspire the crowd to sing/scream along with them (in addition to the debauchery found at any punk show).

Korean Drama seem to be aiming to be this kind of band, and Reply 1994 is a good indication that they can pull it off. In true punk fashion, this four-song EP doesn’t even scratch the 10-minute mark, but the band manages to pack plenty into its short running time. Chances are a live set of theirs can pack plenty of sweat into, say, 15 minutes.

The band first came to our attention with the song “Jimmy,” which is apparently about a world where Drake gets pissed off over being called by his character name from Degrassi. That song is on the EP, in all its one-minute glory.

Before that, however, is the opener “There She Goes,” which is easily the catchiest song on the record. As with “Jimmy,” the track is simple—a few strums on the bass open the song before the main, drum-thumping melody comes in along with the simple refrain: “There she goes again.”

“Shotgun Legs” goes heavy on the fuzz, and accordingly the vocals sound like they’re being sucked into a vacuum on the choruses as the members sing “You got legs like shotguns” before a catchy chorus that sounds like “When the dance is on the safety’s off.”

The band thankfully doesn’t let the energy fade with closer “Don’t Talk to Me.” an aggressive attack of plunking bass and driving guitar. The vocals here are deliciously screamy as the band sings the song’s title repeatedly as a refrain.

The band’s hasn’t revealed a lot about themselves yet, but if they they keep up the catchiness they’ll be sure to have an audience in no time.

Reply 1994 will be released August 26, 2014.

Top Track: “There She Goes”

Rating: Strong Hoot (Good)

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Review – “Grey Matter” – Chersea

reviewed by Eleni Armenakis a3226819294_2

Canadian Music Week offered up plenty of gems this year, but one of the most enjoyable finds for me came when I hit up Toronto’s The Rivoli to catch the previously reviewed The Lion The Bear The Fox and was subsequently introduced to Vancouver’s Chersea.

Chersea, who’s real name is Chelsea Laing, is a one-woman band thanks to her loop station and while she’s still routinely described as a newcomer to the music scene, she’s a classically trained artist who’s already taken home third and first at the Boss Loop Station Championship over the past two years. Her debut EP came out in April, right before she started a summer of festival bookings, and it offers up just a taste of her infectious live performance.

The nine months she spent working on Grey Matter also marked a time of growth. The version of “Chemical Polarity” that appears on the EP comes out much fuller than her winning submission from only a year ago. The song, like the rest of the EP, is full of extensive, rich layers—and the intensity of that has pushed Laing’s vocals to the forefront.

The album’s “Prelude,” a quick, Imogen Heap-esque minute sets up Laing’s flair for the electronic, segueing neatly into “I Could Lose It All.” Still, it’s Laing’s unaltered voice that becomes the most compelling element of the song. There’s a playful depth at work that sets Laing apart from her other female contemporaries, whose softer voices tend to blend more. The final minute, as she layers her voice over itself, is one of the fullest on the album.

“Grey Matter” comes closest to capturing the energy that comes with watching Laing perform live—though more stripped down than the first two tracks, there’s a bubbling drum that adds a sense of optimism to Laign’s repeated “I called home/you didn’t answer/The light shines bright/It doesn’t matter.” While that carries through “Chemical Polarity,” there’s another shift for “You Caught My Eye.” Echoing lyrics and added effects soften the poppy beat even as the song builds to a crescendo. Then again, ender “Requiem” packs nothing but punch—the kind of pulsating track that tends to indicate the night is just getting started.

While Grey Matter can’t capture exactly what it’s like to hear and watch Laing live, the EP comes close to showing off exactly what she’s capable of. The poppy beats and vocal sincerity are what will stand out—an excellent sample of both her debut and performance.

Top Tracks: “Grey Matter”; “Requiem”

Rating: Proud Hoot (Really Good)

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Review – “Dead Soft” – Dead Soft

Reviewed by Jack Derricourt

Dead Soft

Dead Soft have been a source of pure entertainment for what feels like half a decade now. That’s a long time in Canadian indie music. The Vancouver three piece are heavy, introspective, airy, and always guitar-laden. And they have just put out a new self-titled record that promises to show it all off.

Dead Soft the album sounds like a timely step forward for the group. While the two EPs recorded last year provided powerful documentation of the band’s live approach, the nine newly produced tracks on this year’s release elicit a deeper sort of atmosphere. The stacking of vocal parts and the placement of the guitar effects abstract the sound in interesting ways. It feels like a mature sound for a mature record: the song structures are thoughtfully complicated, belying expecatation, causing delight.

The album possesses a sombre tone. Songs like “Death Is At My Door” and “Emergency” get about as heavy as the band has ever been, with guitar crunch of superior proportions to accompany the darker lyrics. The opener “Phase” is a crowd pleaser that was originally featured on the band’s first cassette release, and the track helps establish the journey taken on the record: the movement is away from the familiar, into darker territory. By the close of the album, “Come Back,” as ghostly backing vocals trail through the choruses, and the Kim Dealesque bass line keeps the pulse going, things feel richer, deeper, more coloured.

The track that stands apart from the rest for me is “Everything.” It sways in every direction with gusto: Graeme McDonald’s drums have the sweetness of girl group predictability, except played with the power of a jackhammer; Keeley Rochon’s bass work sets the course of switching dynamics, like a pioneer paddler in the water; and of course Nathaniel Epp’s jangling guitar pyramid of solid rhythm and lead is wonderful to behold. The song is the most laid back pop track on the album, and maybe I’m just showing my true enthusiasms when I say that I connect with this one the most, but I also believe that “Everything” is exempletive of the wonderful choices made all over the record. The song starts without any kind of extended intro, getting right to the meat of things — a novel approach to structure. The melodic guitar work also plays with a distinct sound, one of the many sonic treats found all over the record. The middle eight’s stacked vocals are perfectly balanced. There’s a lot to “Everything.”

Dead Soft have made a solid late summer release, filled with all sorts of goodies for the independent music man or woman of Canada. What I’m really excited to see is if these songs can get to the places they should be heard: in pizza delivery boy car stereos, on the backs of mini-cabs, playing out of boomboxes of all shapes and sizes. The album feels like a classic, and it deserves to be treated as such. If you don’t believe me, check it out for yourself. But you will, oh, you will.

Rating: Proud Hoot (Really Good)

Top Tracks: “Everything” , “Death Is At My Door”

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Review – “Unrest” – Make Haste

makereviewed by Elena Gritzan

The first striking thing about Make Haste’s new EP is the portrait on the cover. It’s too bad for Joseph Bloore that re-taking unflattering photos was more challenging in 1850! The look of angry disgust on his face works comically well with the title – Unrest – which also reflects the restless heart of this set of six songs.

Musically, though, this is classic synth pop with a heavy side. Distorted and filtered vocals, magical beats, textures everywhere. Crackling noises, ornamental bleeps, grand choruses.

A high point is “Get Back Home”, the story of a break up told with two different and conflicting versions of the story. She thinks he was resentful, making up stories. He thinks she is living in a fantasy and was unfaithful. It all adds up to a dramatic back-and-forth as both parties realize they need to focus on getting back to a comfortable state, becoming themselves again apart.

There’s some great vocal collaboration all throughout the EP, outsourcing vocals from singers like Zoe Sky Jordan and Lesley Davies, though the constant filtered presence of Make Haste/TK Dallman is powerful and emotional enough to pull off the unhappy subject matter of the lyrics. And unhappy it is: realizing you should have left a relationship a long time ago, being caught in a web of your own lies, and being resentful of someone’s advantage are all situations explored.

It’s exciting to see a significant release from the Toronto-based artist – do you remember when he played our Crosswires show last summer? – and at its core, Unrest achieves the same thing that the live show does: an impressive amount of dancing.

Top Tracks: “Get Back Home”, “Stakes”

Rating: Strong Hoot (Good)

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Review – “High Noon” – Arkells

high noonreviewed by Michael Thomas

Despite living about an hour away from Hamilton for my entire life, it wasn’t until last year that I finally visited the city. Until then, all I thought about when I thought of Hamilton was factories, steel, smog, B.A. Johnston—and Arkells. Of course, the city is quite nice once you visit it, but it’s no coincidence that Arkells are one of the first bands you’ll think of when you think of the Hammer.

Arkells’ workman-like approach to rock quickly made them a Canadian gem. If you haven’t heard the phrase “I’m John Lennon in ’67” you probably haven’t lived in Canada for the last five or six years.

When bands “make it big” like Arkells did, it’s easy to come under the assumption that a band can stop trying new things and stagnate. With Arkells, the complete opposite has happened. On High Noon, the band is sounding more spirited than ever. Plenty of hooks to sing along with and sly commentaries on matters past and present.

Sounding like the beginning of an 80s soundtrack, “Fake Money” opens with piano, and Max Kerman’s gruff and distinctive vocals somehow then make it sound like something from the east coast. But as the guitars come in, the song transforms into a powerful opening statement. At one point, Kerman sings “You’re praying to gods who are meaningless to me.”

The band pays tribute to its hometown (and maybe past eras?) with “Cynical Bastards,” that namedrops Jackson Square and says “If the 80s were tough then the 90s were mean.”

For those looking for crowd-moving numbers, look no further than “11:11″ or “Dirty Blonde.” The former’s chorus of “You made a wish at 11:11, I held your hips at 12:34″ is sure to get caught in your head and the latter’s tempo is just about double the rest of the album, allowing for maximum grooving.

Arkells are at their most fun when they’re slyly joking around on songs that sound earnest and serious. “Leather Jacket” may have one of the cheesiest choruses ever, but the song takes on a whole meaning with the last line Kerman sings, almost as an aside. “Hey Kids!” is so much fun because it manages to make its old-timey, classic-rock vibe a poignant societal commentary with the chorus: “Hey kids! You’re so precious/You’re just a boy like the rest of us.”

Of course the band isn’t above seriousness either. Single “Never Thought That Would Happen” is a look back at lost youth, and may even be a meta-commentary on how the band has grown up over the years.

Though it’s maybe not the soundtrack to an old-west shootout, High Noon is perhaps the strongest entry in Arkells’ discography thus far.

Top Tracks: “Fake Money”; “Hey Kids!”; “Systematic”

Rating: Strong Hoot (Good)

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Review – “Flagellation Honey” – Expwy

flagellation honeyreviewed by Michael Thomas

Well, shit. This is it. This is the last Expwy album ever. Whether Matt LeGroulx is going to focus on Galaxius Mons or do something is unknown, but either way, as Expwy he’s done a hell of a lot. He’s mixed lo-fi pop with bossa nova. He’s released a conceptual double EP about an expressway. He’s tackled pop with earnest. And that’s just the stuff this blog has reviewed.

In a way, you should know by now exactly what to expect from Flagellation Honey. The enigmatic song titles are back (just try and figure out what “Mountains bleed the proud eunuch” is going to be about) and once again, it’s a new sound for a new album. As if LeGroulx is as sad as I am for this last Expwy album, the joy of Deep Joy becomes wistful, and the clean pop turns into sludgy, almost gloomy pop.

Just from the opening chords of “Take the pills and kill the exchequer (cheer up Angie),” the chord progression evokes a feeling of looking back on something. As usual, LeGroulx and Ian Jarvis (with Christian Richer as recording engineer) weave a twisted path with words. Lyrics like “When you asked me for a glass filled with nightmares, swarming asps/I didn’t know you twinned the connections,” come around, you can’t help but remember the strangeness. And nothing is more wistful than “In poisons lay a latent saccharinity,” which has a repeating few lines ending with “Taking me back, take me back to youth.”

The songs take it relatively easy compared to songs like “Throbbing with unnatural light” and “Hold on (Don’t stop),” both featuring punishingly heavy guitar but with that Expwy lyrical touch (the latter has phrases like “Drink the water, rightful smoke.”

The points in the music where LeGroulx and Jarvis partially emerge from the sludge is when the music becomes unexpected. “The sun stood up to scorch the massive capstan cradle berth” is the kind of earnest that Deep Joy is, only the sludge comes in so late in the song that it’s like it was there since the beginning. “You drank the lemonade in tears” reverberates with a punk energy that would almost make this one a road trip song.

Flagellation Honey is a fitting way to say goodbye to a hugely prolific act. Do yourself a favour—when you’re done listening to this album, go explore the back catalogue. You never know what you’ll find.

Top Tracks: “The sun stood up to scorch the massive capstan cradle berth”; “You drank the lemonade in tears”

Rating: Proud Hoot (Really Good)

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