Review – “New Inheritors” – Wintersleep

reviewed by Anna Alger

For Throwback Week, I was drawn to the darker, far less easy to sing along to than its predecessor, New Inheritors, by Halifax natives Wintersleep.

Pensive strings open the album, leading into understated guitar followed by a fleshed out sound taking over “Experience The Jewel.” The strings strengthen the lyrics, “It’s bigger than you,” as they soar over the rest of the music. Next is “Encyclopedia,” which features nearly spoken word vocals telling a chilling tale. “Blood Collection” is full of melancholy, which has a calming quality to it despite the sinister turns within its melody. The title track has a lightness to it, in contrast to the more serious lyrics.

The album’s high points lie in the back-to-back tracks, “Mausoleum” and “Echolocation.” The former has an anticipatory quality musically coupled with lyrics that are very visual in nature. Strings swoop in at just the right moment to heighten the song’s drama. “Echolocation” has a laid back sound, and rollicks along with confidence.

With New Inheritors, Wintersleep expand and diversify both their sound and lyrical content. The misshapen image that is used as the album’s artwork depicts the stillness that can be found in a clutter of sound, which in the case of the band’s music is an experiment in contrast – one with enlightening results.

Top Tracks: “Mausoleum,” “Echolocation”

Rating: Strong Hoot (Good)

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Review – “Great Loves” – Better Friends Than Lovers

MI0001780745reviewed by Elysse Cloma

In late 2007 a friend of mine slipped a copy of Great Loves by Better Friends Than Lovers into my tote bag. With its cute and unassuming artwork done in watercolour, I could not have predicted that this album would ignite the flame of my great and fiery love for independent music.

Better Friends Than Lovers was a 5-piece band once nicknamed “Strathcona’s unofficial house band” for playing shows at house parties in Vancouver’s Strathcona neighbourhood. I went to one of their shows and I was deeply inspired by how music brought a rad community together and how Better Friends Than Lovers seemed to be in the middle of it all. Great Loves was Better Friends Than Lovers’ only long-playing album, and it continues to make me pine for what could have been.

First, Great Loves is a display of good songwriting and skillful playing. A tender piano solo on “Cut & Try” opens up the album beautifully. Laura Hatfield’s steady drum fills are confident and intricate – never overstated. Also, the album is extremely dynamic. “Nightbus”and “Sailor” are melancholic and ballad-like, while “Cold Sheets” is a sweaty dance track with a heavy synth lead. “Teeter” is a song about crushing on someone, while “Forget Everything” is a darker tune about giving up on a relationship. Great Loves is a busy album, but any sense of chaos is held down by strong musicianship.

When there’s not an infectious piano or synth melody being played, there are flawless two-part harmonies between bassist Jeremy Pelland and guitarist Eli Leary, who sound like they were made to sing together. Their collective style of shout singing and the timbre of their voices make for the perfect blend, whether they’re singing together, in rounds, or in a call-and-response style. On the more playful tunes “Pine Falls” and “People Watching,” the duo shares most, if not all of, the singing parts. Their tight vocal blend only adds emphasis to each lyric.

The songs on Great Loves are undeniably catchy, with hooks and lyrics that are undoubtedly convincing. Great Loves displays all of Better Friends Than Lovers’ best qualities: a wide variety of danceable pop rock tunes, musicianship, and impeccable vocal harmonies.

Top Tracks: “Forget Everything”; “Pine Falls”

Rating: Hunting Call (Excellent) + *swoop*

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Review – “The Con” – Tegan & Sara

reviewed by Laura Stanley theconcover

In the throes of my awkward adolescent years, Tegan & Sara’s The Con was released. It was 2007 and I was beginning to shake off the faux-goth attire that had been a staple in my pre-teen and early teenage wardrobe. Though the colourful American Eagle/Abercrombie/Hollister polo shirts cut through my mass of black clothing (with and without chains and studs), the typical teenage angst could not be replaced as easily.

Like many, the emo-indie-pop-rock sound that had begun to crop up in the early 2000s was an easy step for me to take after leaning on emo-pop-punk bands (too embarrassing to name here) a few years earlier. The Bellingham, Washington band Death Cab For Cutie was the mainstay in both the rise of the music trend itself and the reason why I fell in love with its sound.

When I heard that DCFC’s guitarist Chris Walla and drummer Jason McGerr were involved in the production of the new record from Tegan & Sara, I was intrigued. Pair this with my emotional attachment in the medical drama Grey’s Anatomy, numerous songs from Tegan & Sara’s 2004 record So Jealous are used in the show’s early seasons, and congratulations, I’m invested.

More bitter than the beer being consumed during those same teen years, The Con stayed with me like a coating on the tongue, a taste in my mouth that when I re-listen to the record today, comes back to me.

The Con is the product of a period of emotional struggle for both Tegan and Sara. Following the death of their grandmother and varying relationship issues, The Con remains the darkest Tegan & Sara record to date. Between the title track – with the repetition of, “Nobody likes to but I really like to cry/ Nobody likes me/Maybe if I cry”- “Hop A Plane” and the line – “All I need to hear is that you’re not mine,” all of “Dark Come Soon,” and pretty much every moment in between, The Con carries tears, frustration, anxiety, and uncertainty. It feels so heavy but to dive into that darkness feels liberating. I’m not alone.

Despite their obvious similarities, the melancholic tapestry throughout The Con is woven by two very distinct voices that have only grown in following releases. Although it’s not always the case (see Tegan’s “Soil, Soil,” or Sara’s “Back In Your Head”) Tegan’s songs are often straightforward pop songs while Sara’s tend to be more complex.

Tegan’s title track, “Nineteen” and “Call It Off,” all fan favourites, are incredibly catchy folk-pop songs that don’t lose their fragility or sacrifice their emotional power. Long before “Same Love” came out, Sara’s “I Was Married” is an under appreciated anthem. Grappling with love and hate, the song reaches new heights with the lyric, “I look into the mirror for evil that just does not exist. I don’t see what they see. (tell them that, tell them that).” Other Sara songs, “Knife Going In” and “Like O, Like H” in particular, pair more carefully worded lyrics with arrangements that push the band as a whole out of their comfort zone.

After all, The Con is Tegan & Sara testing their use of electronic elements. They are subtle and buried underneath sadness but they are there. What is not hidden, and what really has never been hidden (see If It Was You and So Jealous), is how Tegan & Sara know how to write a pop song.

The Con is the bridge between their albums with a darker folk-rock sound, Sainthood‘s flirtation with synth-pop, and of course their mainstream sugary pop smash hit, Heartthrob. It’s dark, dense, angsty, unapologetic, and still wonderfully poppy. The perfect combination.

Top Tracks: “I Was Married,” “The Con,” “Call It Off”

Rating: Hunting Call (Excellent) + *swoop*

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Review – “Fables” – Immaculate Machine

reviewed by Chris MateiFables-Immaculate_Machine_480

OK, time to date myself: I had just moved away from home for the very first time in the year Immaculate Machine released Fables. 2007 was a simpler time! An honest time! A time of new beginnings! A time when irreverent, excitable indie of the ilk of Peter, Bjorn & John, Franz Ferdinand, Hot Hot Heat and the Shins dominated the storage capacity of the first-generation iPods of myself and many a friend. It was pretty dang good.

Enter Immaculate Machine. This was a few years before Victoria, BC’s Kathryn Calder began writing achingly beautiful solo material (starting with 2010’s Are You My Mother?) – and relatively early in her tenure having taken over for an increasingly solo-project-focused Neko Case in the well-established New Pornographers. Compared to either of those projects, Immaculate Machine’s Fables looks decidedly oddball and free-spirited, a weirdo slice of life sandwiching all manner of exuberant instrumentation between Calder’s youthful brightness and the slightly awkward croon of fellow vocalist Brooke Gallup. It’s a record that deftly balances cheekiness and gravity, effervescent power-pop, slashes of zany discord, and wistful lyricism.

“Jarhand” puts Calder front and centre right away. It’s a song that quickly brings to mind the lyrical quirkiness and earnest pop sensibility of the New Pornographers themselves. Her smooth, airy delivery makes songs like “Roman Statues,” “Northeastern Wind” and the slow, moody “Blinding Light” shine from within. On the other hand, in turns like those on “Nothing Ever Happens” and “Dear Confessor,” Gallup has a knack for delivering wry, slightly despairing lyrical missives with a deadpan cleverness that belies their meaning. “Maps won’t show us where we’re going, all they are is just the boring facts – x’s lead us to the treasure, what you gonna do when you finally find it?” The two harmonize sweetly over an array of dynamically groovy keyboards, energetic guitar chops, and even a few sweeping string arrangements courtesy of fellow Canadian wunderkind Owen Pallett.

The songs are a little messy, a little wild, a little dark, and Fables is all the better for it. Immaculate Machine are unafraid to let their songs roll and swell toward rapturous conclusions (“Come On, Sea Legs”) or straight-up slay pop-punk riffs with their hair flailing (“Pocket.”) The album sketches out a distinctly Canadian tension: small-town ennui and sweeping prairie, contagious release of pent-up energy and moments of hushed reflection.

Immaculate Machine would go on to release High on Jackson Hill in 2009 before officially disbanding, influenced by Calder’s mother’s illness and the emergence of a variety of other projects in the works for its other members. Fables remains an intriguing, endearing, idiosyncratic high point for the band.

Top Tracks: “Nothing Ever Happens,” “Roman Statues,” “Jarhand”

Rating: Proud Hoot (Really Good)

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Review – “Baby” – The Burning Hell

coverreviewed by Michael Thomas

In 2009, a year before the word “Baby” on its own would conjure images of one of Canada’s most reviled pop musicians, The Burning Hell was still a project with Mathias Kom at its centre but a rotating cast of musicians otherwise. The band’s catalogue goes deep, but Baby seems like a perfect album to look back on.

It’s got a song about birth, and another about the end of the world. It continues the saga of “The Things That People Make” and “Grave Situation.” It’s got weird vocalizing courtesy of Wax Mannequin. It’s got a meta song that tells you as it’s about to undergo a chord change.

Oh yeah, and it’s endlessly inventive musically.

There’s a reason the Burning Hell Bandcamp page has so many odd genre descriptions, “Hawaiian neo-swing” and “Doom gospel” being just a few. There are arrangements that take the band into baroque-pop territory, but at the drop of a hat it could become tropical or even medieval.

“Old World” is a perfect song to start of the album both because of its misleading name and propulsive, ukulele-driven instrumentals. The aforementioned old world is in fact the womb, and is written from about a baby whose world consists of blood cells, the placenta and amniotic fluid. And if the baby’s ambitious goals to visit “New Brunswick, the mall and the Toronto Zoo” weren’t enough for you, there’s also some kickass horn solos ably set up by the unborn narrator.

And that’s just the beginning! If you need something apocalyptic, “When the World Ends” has you covered, and might be one of the most upbeat-sounding songs about the planet’s destruction. Synth and percussion guide Kom as he wonders whether there will still be country songs and if the DJs will all play disco. “Dancer/Romancer” may not sound like a scary song with its smooth sound backed by an organ, but it appears to exist in a world where dancing is a method of survival and that’s just terrifying.

And while we’re still on the subject of death, let’s not forget the minstrel-y “Grave Situation Pt. 3″ (featuring Wax Mannequin) that tells the tale of a group of people attending a Wax Mannequin show, only for a frustrated audience to start killing each other.

“The Things That People Make, Pt. 2″ is on par with Joel Plaskett’s “Through and Through and Through” as a call and response with two vocalists, and its constantly shifting music makes it even more unpredictable. “Precious Island” is the musical equivalent of stepping out onto a beautiful summer day, and the sounds imitating steel drums will transport you to an island of your own imagination.

Every Burning Hell album has to have at least one moodier song, and that’s without a doubt “Everybody Needs a Body (To Be Somebody),” a song that’s now a staple of the band’s live set. As Kom contemplates his musician’s life, the song eventually becomes a bit more uplifting with a singalong in the form of a round.

After the Berlin conference and animal hides there’s the seven-minute opus “Everything Will Probably Be Okay,” featuring Jenny Mitchell and Mathias Kom singing about trying to be hopeful, and with little more than a little bit of backing track behind them. Cute line: “If live gives you old tomatoes/You can make ravioli.” As it goes on, it notes the album is almost over and warns the listener when the key changes from G to A.

Baby proves that with or without a core band, Mathias Kom’s style of songwriting is rare to hear in Canada; along with the Burning Hell, really only Blimp Rock and B.A. Johnston are carrying the torch. It’s the type of music that transcends—it’s heartfelt, hilarious and incisive.

Top Tracks: “Old World”; “Grave Situation Pt. 3″

Rating: Proud Hoot (Really Good) +*swoop*

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Review – “Alta Falls” – The Barr Brothers

reviewed by Lisa Wiklundbarr10

Montreal folk quartet have surprised fans with the release of Alta Falls, the EP of “misfits” according to the band.

The EP consists of the band’s favourite cast-offs from their sessions recording Sleeping Operator (released October 2014), which produced an incredible 40 songs total.

Sleeping Operator explores a complexity different from their first self-titled album—perhaps a reflection on the growth and life changes each member has experienced since its conception. The songs on Alta Falls similarly reflect a more mature sound. The band juxtaposes lyrical intricacy with stand alone acoustics and percussion, while simultaneously experimenting with different instrumental combinations courtesy of harpist Sarah Page and multi-instrumentalist Andres Vial.

The opener “Oscilla” eases listeners into the rest of the EP by introducing the textured acoustics and vocal harmonies that are layered throughout all five tracks. Its length affirms it role as the prologue to the album, blending seamlessly into “Burn Card.”

“Burn Card” is Alta Falls’ strongest song and could easily have held its ground on Sleeping Operator. Regardless, its presence creates a well-rounded EP that would otherwise be lacking a hit track. Similar to Sleeping Operator’s “Even the Darkness Has Arms” in its use of strings and fast-paced vocals, both songs contribute heavily to the folk vibes of their respective albums. Lyrics like, “I asked the moon for orchids/she said how about a drop of blood from a rolling stone” illustrate the band’s quirky way with lyrics that is complemented by Barr’s vocals. The faint loon calls sprinkled throughout make for the perfect cottage song, accompanied best with cold beer and a northern Ontario sunset.

The final track, “May 4”, is most comparable to “Oscilla” in its minimal lyrics and emphasis on acoustics and sudden moments of percussion. As such it provides a cohesive structure to Alta Falls as listeners come full circle in their experience with the EP. The track evokes similar feelings of curling up in bed on a lazy, rainy day with a steaming cup of tea– utter peacefulness.

The overall folk aesthetic combined with richly varied instrumentals makes for easy yet interesting listening—a pleasant surprise coming from an EP of rejects.

Top Track: “Burn Card”

Rating: Strong Hoot (Good)

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Review – “Love Songs For Robots” – Patrick Watson

reviewed by Anna Alger

Montreal’s Patrick Watson is onto his fifth record, which comes three years after 2012’s Adventures In Your Own Backyard. Soft, introspective, and intricate in composition, the album is a marked contrast to some of his more grandiose, orchestral earlier work. Featuring more traditional rock instruments, Watson still achieves a calmer sound, yet it is not without moments of elation.

The album begins gently via the atmospheric, wavering title track. An stripped back ballad lead by curious bass, the song sets a somber tone. More robust instrumentation is featured in “Good Morning Mr. Wolf,” its bombastic intro contrasting Watson’s stripped back verses. The song meanders some in between these clear switches of emotion. “Bollywood” has a strong bassline, complimented by restrained horns and the piano used for ornamentation at the ends of phrases. The energy spikes during a raucous, percussive bridge which flows seamlessly back into the laid back verse led by the bass. Intricate guitar and intuitive percussion standout in “Hearts.”

“In Circles” has lush piano paired with light synths, creating a haunting soundscape. A similar feeling is conveyed in “Turn Into The Noise,” the slightly redundant following track. Burbling synths, simple guitar, and soft percussion flesh out the sweet yet deceptively titled, “Alone In This World.” Warm bass again provides the foundation for the romantic “Know That You Know.” The album closes with “Places You Will Go,” somewhat of a return to Watson’s classic songwriting style.

Love Songs For Robots pairs the deeply human with more detached electronic sounds while still retaining both the warmth and diversity of instruments in Watson’s live band. Slightly self-indulgent, the album lacks some immediacy but still proves to be a fairly developed reflection on the heart.

Love Songs For Robots is available now via Secret City Records.

Top Track: “Love Songs For Robots”

Rating: Strong Hoot (Good)

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Review – “Reflections” – Annie Sumi

reviewed by Elysse Clomaalbum artwork annie sumi

Annie Sumi is an up-and-coming folk artist based in North Bay, Ontario. Her debut album Reflections is tightly produced. Recorded in North Bay with Juno award nominated producer Ben Leggett (who’s worked with Craig Cardiff), Reflections is a debut that’s bursting with Annie Sumi’s range and tremendous potential.

At 21 years old, Annie Sumi may be Canada’s new folk darling. On top of her sweetheart appearance – a winsome smile that brings out her pronounced dimples, wispy honey-coloured hair – she brings sincerity to her vocal performance, which is strong, vital, and multi-faceted. On Reflections she goes from singing in a soft whisper on some songs, to wailing in high-pitched coos, to bravely belting in a blues style. Regardless of the way she alters her voice, her youthful energy and spirit come across in her recordings.

The diverse offerings on Reflections make for a captivating listening experience, and it’s clear that Annie Sumi has found and honed her sound. Leading with her well-controlled voice and acoustic guitar, her music is tinged with blues and country. With help from some accompanying strings and slide guitar, she tells evocative tales that almost always have a positive and uplifting message. “Wild Things” is an upbeat tune with a catchy chorus and excellent analogies, which celebrate having a free spirit. “Reflections of Me” is a mid-tempo country waltz about self-acceptance and self-love. One standout track on Reflections is “Vandevi”, which sounds like an ambient experimental song. The soundscape is airy and percussive; the guitar plucks quietly as Annie’s voice builds and releases the tense instrumentals, backed by an intense drum solo.

No matter what style, message, or sound of Annie Sumi’s songs, her sweet character and contemplative point of view are delivered all throughout Reflections. Reflections shows us that she’s a young and emerging Canadian talent to look out for.

Top Tracks: “Vandevi”; “Wild Things”

Rating: Hunting Call (Excellent) + *swoop*

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Review – “Loyalty” – The Weather Station

reviewed by Laura Stanleya0287339591_16

On the way home from seeing Tamara Lindeman’s (The Weather Station) Loyalty release show in Toronto last week, a man on the streetcar spotted the vinyl I had bought at the show and was holding and reached over (yikes!) to see it. He looked it over and, noting the front cover and the similarities between my and Lindeman’s hair, asked, “is that you?” I laughed and said, “No.”

“Is that you?”

In a way, yes, I suppose it is. Lindeman’s songs are incredibly rich and detailed, sometimes happy but often tragic. They are human. They are so relatable that it’s easy to see yourself amongst her narratives. A shy woman or like a sister. 

Arguably all songs contain a story but for Lindeman each of her 11 new songs really could be short stories. An emotionally fraught car ride (“Way It Is, Way It Could Be”), making a change (“Personal Eclipse”), and a tale of a startling discovery (“Tapes”) are just a few of the compelling vignettes from the album. They are worded with such care that you see the “two brown dogs,” smell the “smoky cups of coffee,” and hear the original tape owner sing, “Oh.”

Kicking up the romanticism of the album a little bit more, Loyalty was recorded during the winter of 2014 in Paris with Afie Jurvanen (Bahamas) and Robbie Lackritz assisting Lindeman in its creation. The sound in turn is noticeably different from All of it was Mine. At times it’s more expansive but most notably it’s softer and more confident than other recordings. 

The picked acoustic guitars in “Loyalty” and closer “At Full Height” are bolstered by a piano and “Floodplain” uses drums and gorgeous harmonies to uplift the song to the hopeful place it deserves to be. In “Like Sisters” or the stark “Tapes,” Lindeman’s voice is also the strongest I’ve heard – clear and powerful – making her already weighty words have more depth.

For those who know me, the follow is not a surprise: Tamara Lindeman (The Weather Station) is the best contemporary folk artist in Canada. I almost said just that in my review of Lindeman’s EP What Am I Going To Do With Everything I Know, released last year, but chose my words a little less boldly. With the release of Loyalty though, there’s nothing left to say.

Top Tracks: “Way It Is, Way It Could Be,” “Personal Eclipse,” “Tapes”

Rating: Hunting Call (Excellent) + *swoop*

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Review – “Mascarade” – Rose Fargo

mascaradereviewed by Michael Thomas

If this Montreal trio is what happens when three people spontaneously get together, man oh man do we need to have excellent musicians run into each other more often.

I have a theory—musical taste is an ever-changing thing, but as it goes through its many permutations one type of music becomes more and more appealing: louder rock music. So naturally, “rock-garage-pop francophone” band Rose Fargo are just what the musical doctor ordered. Marie-Hélène Longpré on vocals with François Dufault and Marc-André Beaudoin on instruments make magic.

Mascarade is over in a shade under 12 minutes, but its huge guitars and general “rock like it’s no tomorrow” attitude will leave you returning to it frequently. The word “mascarade” in French can mean a number of things, from a masked ball (ie masquerade) or even a mockery or farce, and that clear snarl (even if my Anglo mind can’t understand all the lyrics) is evident in any language.

Opener “Velvet” is the perfect calling card for the band—hazy, summery guitars over slick bass and steady drums make it a perfect garage-pop song.  Longpré’s guides the rhythms along, with little sprinklings of synths in between phrases. Words like “speakeasy” and “bling bling” suggest Longpré couldn’t care less about being a rock star.

“Tombe” and “Nina” are both thunderous rock songs, but evolve in different ways. “Tombe” keeps up the pace throughout with keys and drums in the foreground and guitar in the back and is sure to generate some stomping along. “Nina” trades in hills and valleys, starting off strong with blazing guitar before quieting down a little in the middle—but of course that doesn’t last long, and the guitars come back in with a vengeance.

“Bal des ifs” is the most experimental of the bunch, starting with dream-pop guitars and a wave of disorienting synths. Longpré’s sounds a bit more distant and echo-y, and the guitars come in during the first chorus and stick around for the rest of the song.

Mascarade is a hell of a tantalizing little EP, and I hope there’s plenty more to come from this kickass trio.

Top Track: “Velvet”

Rating: Proud Hoot (Really Good)

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