Review – “Kind Forest EP” – Alexia Avina

reviewed by Laura Stanley a0761333876_2

I dream of living in a large home, ideally with three stories, that doesn’t fit in with the rest of the street. Transported from a different era, the outside architecture is just the beginning of its quirks. Inside, lies plenty of small nooks and crannies that hold odd artifacts and books. Ever visitor who dares to explore the house will stumble upon something new and interesting.

This dream, which upon reading, sounds an awful lot like the home that holds the wardrobe in C.S. Lewis’ fantastical The Chronicles of Narnia, is brought to song in Alexia Avina’s debut EP, Kind Forest. In hushed tones, lo-fi creaks, and slightly glitchy experimental beats, the Montreal-based musician pairs gentle curiosity with the comforts that can be found at home.

The opener, “(bored) Summer” matches the melancholic restlessness of summer with the sweet summer heat. The most appealing of the four songs, the melody really lets the song shine. Until the rain takes over, that is. The following song “Rain + Boy” is instrumentally heavy, minus a few “oohs,” and prominently features the sounds of the rain maker you probably got to play with in elementary school music class. This touch adds to the childish curiosity mentioned early.

In another instrumental song, “Walk Home” sounds like a less polished Sufjan Stevens creation a la “Alanson, Crooked River” from his Greetings From Michigan record. A second space to pause, Avina clearly shows her talents to create interesting soundscapes.  

As its name would suggest, “Bedrooms” has a lulling quality to it. As the longest song from the EP, “Bedrooms” is also the most complex. Around the two and a half minute mark, the plucked string melody that makes up the bulk of the song blends is accompanied by an electronic beat and a layered vocal effect. In the final two minutes, Avina entrances you by repeating the, contrasting line, “didn’t sleep though” and some sweet “oohs” for a gorgeous closing song.

Come home to the sounds of Kind Forest EP.

Top Track: “Bedrooms”

Rating: Strong Hoot (Good)

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Review – “Who Knows Where to Begin?” – Prairie Cat

who knows where to beginreviewed by Michael Thomas

Sometimes you look for a complex and challenging album, but sometimes one that doesn’t act like something it’s not is equally as nice to hear. Prairie Cat is definitely the latter, and has released a playful and honest new album in Who Knows Where to Begin

Prairie Cat is the west-coast answer to Will Currie and the Country French (or perhaps vice versa)—refreshing keys-based melodies and honest, memorable songwriting. Who Knows is undeniably a song all about relationships—from songs based on the “if you’ve got nothing nice to say…” aphorism to navigating a series of fights to a song about being clumsy. Every song has some kind of memorable lyric, like “One bad love to another, I left your house for the comfort of friends.”

From the music box that opens up the title track to the almost entirely electronic closer, it’s clear that this will be a pretty album, and it never once slides into something less than that. The piano-focused music already distinguishes the music from a large part of the pop market, and a very sensible use of strings and trumpet elevates it further.

The title track’s breeziness belies the song’s less-than-cheery subject matter, as the narrator seems to be taking stock of a relationship. The kind of jazzy melody speeds up at one point in the song as the narrator’s frustration grows. The same cheery instrumentals mask “Beautiful Baby.” The emphasis on guitar here already makes the song pretty unique, but then there’s the biting opening lyrics: “It must have been a beautiful baby, you’ve got your mother’s eyes/It must have been a beautiful baby, you’ve got your sister’s lies.”

Vocalist/front man Cary Pratt’s voice is affecting, to the point where every line seeps with emotion. In one of the album standouts “Bad Storm,” you can feel Pratt’s hurt as he sings about going from “one bad storm to another” and retreating to the comfort of friends when the relationship goes sour. “You Weren’t There” focuses on the relationships between friends, and defines them by how willing a friend is to stick up for another.

Elsewhere, Pratt is a bit less serious, like on “Upright Beast.” Sweeping strings give the song a nice way to open, but once the keys come in Pratt compares himself to an ape coming down from the trees and dragging his knuckles. “On a Lamb,” the uncharacteristically electronic song that ends the album, repeats the ironic phrase “Busted, for something I never did.”

The answer to the question the album asks is simple: start at the beginning and go right to the end. You’ll likely be repeating this process a lot.

Top Tracks: “No Bedroom”; “Bad Storm”; “On a Lamb”

Rating: Proud Hoot (Really Good)

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Review – “It’s All Shaken Wonder” – The Provincial Archive

reviewed by Eleni Armenakis image004

For their third full-length album, Edmonton’s The Provincial Archive opted for something new. For the first time the band went into studio to record their upcoming release It’s All Shaken Wonder, set to come out later this month as a follow up to June’s Hide Like a Secret EP. Both releases from the indie rockers feature the moving and rhythmic “Daisy Garden” about singer/guitarist Craig Schram’s grandmother and her experience with Alzheimer’s, with part of the proceeds of June’s EP going to the Alzheimer’s Society of Canada through Boom Charity.

Considering how closely the two albums are being released, it makes sense that there’s an overlap with the sound on the pairing. The four-piece of multi-instrumentalists keep to their folk roots with steady beats and authentic, simplistic vocals that create a somber, if peaceful, aesthetic.

There’s a definite folksy touch to Hide Like a Secret as “The Pointe Work” leans heavily on the band’s well-known use of the banjo, while “Young & Bloodless” taps into the charismatic repetitive-style chorus that later reappears on It’s All Shaken Wonder’s catchy “In The Morning.” Even with a cover of Elliot Smith’s “Son of Sam,” the EP is in many ways a set up for what’s to come later this summer, beginning with the first track.

But “Daisy Garden” is the only duplicate track from The Provincial Archives’ summer releases as It’s All Shaken Wonder grows outwards from that. There’s a noticeable shift between the two albums as “Full of Water” offers up a synth-heavy open. While “Land Machines” goes back to the band’s roots, “The Market” offers up a fusion of both that moves past the duality of “Full of Water” and fully merges the sounds.

The rest of It’s All Shaken Wonder follows through with that, as though the opening songs were acting as a bridge from their older material to this. Throughout, Schram’s vocals remain a consistent, fixed mark for The Provincial Archive with their semi-strained, melancholic quality. On tracks like “Lay The Keel,” his voice adds the band’s newfound sound over a more traditional folk song, while other tracks rely more on the instrumentation for that effect.

There’s something to be said for how seamlessly the band has transitioned through to their upcoming release. Hide Like a Secret flows into It’s All Shaken Wonder, thanks primarily to the band’s ability to blend their folk roots with more modern sounds. While each obviously stands on its own, there’s a unity and thoughtfulness to the releases that makes for a captivating, introspective listen.

Top Tracks: “Daisy Garden”; “In The Morning”

Rating: Proud Hoot (Really Good)

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Why Mac DeMarco Should (But Won’t) Win the Polaris Prize

By Jack Derricourt

Mac DeMarco, Polaris Prize 2014

Polaris season is upon us. The long list has become a short list, and soon the short list will become the shortest list possible: one. There are plenty of good Canadians up for the award this year. Am I playing favourites? Of course I am.

I have never cared much for awards. When I was slated to receive the English Literature award at my high school, I stayed home and watched movies with friends. The whole nature of award culture seems too political and far from the true value of hard work — that tingly feeling in your gut when you know you’re good, damn good.

I’m here to preach to Mac DeMarco’s tingly feelings, all eleven as they stand in playing order on the masterful 2014 release, Salad Days. The title of the record comes to us by way of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, which is enough to send me into fits of literary glee; but there’s a whole lot more going on here. At times the record is truly unique, avoiding classification like a champ, processing wistful nostalgia with brooding promises for the future.

The record begins and ends with Mac’s voice. The title track is an upstart groove, yet for an opener to begin with a smooth vocal phrasing is bold and intriguing. The tracks shift and wander as they play out, producing a soft spoken account of life as an anxious human being, coupled with a bag of guitar effect tricks that are singular. The album has a playfulness at its core, and the trip it takes you on is a tender, joyous one. Mac’s final farewell at the end of “John’s Odyssey,” ten tracks later, demonstrates how personal this sonic journey has been: you’re safe at home with Mac, and he’s glad you’ve joined him along the way. These elements of personal voice on the record are declaritive: this record is meant to be familiar, confessional. This is not a grandiose Arcade Fire record. It’s something better.

The range of sounds featured on the album make for strange dinner guests — we are talking salad fixins here, after all. The wooden block work on “Let My Baby Stay” creates a space akin to a kindergarten classroom: sweetness oozes from the slick clicking of the blocks and Mac’s beguiling pleas. On the other side of things, “Passing Out Pieces” follows directly, wading through Abbey Road synth pomposity and flair. The songs share a similar sentiment, yet take entirely different approaches to a confession.

The record stands out in the landscape of 2014 guitar pop. It’s carefully crafted, and demonstrates Mac’s range as a songwriter while staying fixed on powerful themes. Anyone who ever said the man was nothing but a dick joke and a guitar has got a thing or two to learn, and Salad Days is the gospel that will set the truth free.

Now, a sad prediction: DeMarco will not win the prize this year. We were very lucky that the committee offered the Polaris up to Godspeed last year, a truly alternative voice in Canadian music. It is unlikely that our conservative music industry will award its highest commercial recognition to a flat-capped, lewd, tender-hearted troubadour, no matter how varied his musical output might be from his live antics. Salad Days is an incredible record, that can be revisited again and again, always gaining something in the next deep listen — but that’s not what awards are about. The winner this year will more than likely be someone tidier, someone more timid, and someone who’s on a different kind of Odyssey than the Mac.

“…My salad days, / When I was green in judgment, cold in blood…”

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Cold Specks @ the Drake

Cold Specks

Cold Specks

by Michael Thomas

Whenever you can see an act of Cold Specks’ stature at a venue like the Drake, jump at the chance to attend. At a Cold Specks show, the question is not “will I get chills?” It’s actually “how many times will I get chills?”

A little under a month before Neuroplasticity is set to drop, Al Spx et al. paid a visit to Toronto’s Drake Hotel Underground for a sold-out show. It was part album preview, part window into Spx’s feelings on her first record and all powerful songs.

Her music has been called “doom soul” and that unique genre title is even more apt on her new material. The set opened with a Neuroplasticity song that sounded like a funeral dirge, and several other songs were also ostensibly steeped in darkness, like “Old Knives.” Spx explained the latter was about a dream she had where she decapitated a lover while he slept. “It’s really a love song,” she said dryly.

But while her music has gotten darker, Spx clearly hasn’t, as she managed to find time to do an a cappella rendition of the Backstreet Boys classic “I Want It That Way.”

Mandated goofiness aside, the loudness continued with “Exit Plan,” a song that at first sounds like it could have been on I Predict a Graceful Expulsion but then balloons into something more ferocious. “Absisto” is an absolute masterstroke of a song, reveling in bleakness and boiling over during the brief few seconds before the instruments get louder.

cold specks july 31 2While Neuroplasiticity dominated the setlist, Spx certainly didn’t forget about her old material. She played “Hector” and “When the City Lights Dim” early on before closing the set with a reworked “Winter Solstice,” which she told the audience she hated. “We changed it into a prog-rock song,” she said, and while the lyrics remain powerful, this new version adds a lot more kick.

She returned for an encore, first playing the touching “Blank Maps” solo on guitar before closing with the a cappella stunner “Old Stepstone.” At the end of the day, Al Spx could do an entire set with nothing but her voice and still manage to stun each and every person in the audience.

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Why Jessy Lanza should with the Polaris Prize

Jessy Lanza, Photo: Tim Saccenti.

Jessy Lanza, Photo: Tim Saccenti.

by Elena Gritzan

In its eight years of existence, the Polaris Music Prize has only gone to one electronic artist. Caribou took it home with his 2007 album Andorra, but even that was back in 2008. While there have consistently been one or two electronic short list nominees –  like Purity Ring, Austra, or Miracle Fortress – the genre has been wholly underrepresented when it comes to the grand prize. I think that it’s about time that changed.

Canada has a thriving electronic scene, producing creative and highly acclaimed music for years now. (Notice how one of our most loved musical exports of the past couple of years was Grimes?) It’s an accessible form of music for anyone to dabble in, requiring little more than a laptop and some free software, but in its best form it can both inspire wonder and create fun and social cohesion in a way that no other genre can – I’m talking about dancing, my friends!

I’d venture to say that the Caribou album isn’t even fully entrenched in the electronic genre. Why is the Polaris Prize so afraid of rewarding the hip-grabbing, sleek synth branch of electronic music? The Junior Boys record nominated in 2007, So This Is Goodbye, arpeggiated its way right into listeners hearts but failed to be rewarded for its brand of highly effective and carefully edited song construction.

Hamilton’s Jessy Lanza has released the natural predecessor to that album, and not just because it was co-written and co-produced by Junior Boys’ Jeremy Greenspan. Every sound on the album is perfectly essential, a combination of space-filled melodies overlaying into one highly controlled whole. It’s not minimalistic – there’s pulsating basslines, moving arpeggios and Lanza’s mood-enhancing voice – but it never goes over the top.

Lanza writes and performs her music on a range of analog instruments, moulding the instruments of the garish early days of the genre to fit an understated and decidedly cool sound inspired by her love of R&B. She starts by writing the drum part, literally basing her songs around the foot-tapping beat that defines them. Her voice is a stand-out element, despite her quiet delivery; its airiness comes off as dreamy and focussed, setting the mood for the entire album.

Subject matter-wise, Pull My Hair Back deals with love and longing. Classic and well-explored subjects due to their universal relatabilty, and Lanza does them well. In “5785021” (is that her actual phone number?), she is possessed with a desperation that can only come with having unrequited feelings, “Keep Moving” details an unwillingness to stop and examine your feelings about a relationship, and “Kathy Lee” brings out the l-word proper.

I don’t think that Lanza’s album reinvents the wheel, though it is a fresh combination of electronic melodies and an R&B sensibility. Instead, I think that it is an excellent representation of a valuable genre that deserves more recognition in the Polaris Prize process.

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Audible Hoots: Snoqualmie / Hawk and Steel, Mulligrub

Snoqualmie / Hawk and Steel Split 7

Part-time musician, part-time blog pal, and full-time beer and Attack in Black enthusiast Blake Enemark (Snoqualmie) has released a new single as part of a 7″ with the Victoria band Hawk and Steel. Featuring the steady band line-up of Dave Joseph, Adrian Vieni, and Ted Turner, “Fantôme Saison” (also the name of a Belgian brewery) appropriate tells the tale of troubled love and being “too hung over to sing” all in an upbeat rock style that feels much fuller than previous Snoqualmie material. On the other side, Hawk and Steel’s “Year After Year” burns much slower. A rich and melancholic tune, where “Fantôme Saison” may be a good song for your night out, “Year After Year” will be the perfect fit for the next day. Listen to both singles via Bellemare Records.

Mulligrub – “Canadian Classic”

Released ahead of their upcoming full-length record, the new single from Winnipeg pop-punk band Mulligrub is an energetic outpouring of lovesickness. In “Canadian Classic” lead singer Kelly Grub’s vocals oozes with bitterness and, dare I say, a swagger for fantastic results. Paired with the cover art depicting lawn chairs and plants that have seen too much summer sun, any nationalistic thoughts paired with the title “Canadian Classic” are thrown out. Put simply, make room for Mulligrub on your (sad) summer playlist.

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Review – “Heart of Love” – Surprise Party

heart of lovereviewed by Michael Thomas

Bands like Surprise Party are the reason for the phrase “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” As worn out as the phrase is, it’s hard to keep that in mind visiting their Bandcamp page, complete with a bloody take on “The Last Supper,” a black background and purple and red writing. What do you think you’re about to hear? Hard rock? Metal. Nope.

You’re about to hear a fuzzy psychedelic pop band that wouldn’t feel out of place playing on the beach.

It’s a surprise (hahaha, get it?) at its most pleasant. Over 12 songs you will get a consistent batch of fuzzy guitars, swirls of organ and energetic drumming. Mischa Decter has a pleasant voice that carries the hazy summer vibes, with many of the songs bearing simple messages of navigating crushes and relationships.

One could almost see Heart of Love as an album centred around the various stages of romance. “I Fall in Love” features a flurry of guitar and a pinch of sunshine, and captures that rush of happiness when first realizing you have a crush on someone. “Super Cool Girlfriend,” with its fuzzy, garage-rock-y vibe and lyrics about how she’s, well, super cool.

Except that’s immediately countered by “I Hate Girls,” which slows things down a little bit and lays on the organ. “I hate girls and I wish I was gay,” Decter laments, though maybe it’s not all the girls’ fault. “I wish they would be more receptive/I don’t know how to compliment them,” he says later.

While the summery vibes are great, the band shows strength outside the realm of songs you’d listen to on a beach. “Cut Me” starts off with downright menacing guitars and shimmering organ. The guttural “huh” sound Decter utters sets up a much darker tone, reveling less on the beach and more in the gutters of 90s grunge. And while the band doesn’t seem like it would lend itself to the remix treatment, AudioOpera does a bang-up job with “Saturday.” The initial song features some sweet bass, but the remix strips away 1/3 of the song’s running time and trades the instruments for sparse but effective synths. Can we get this entire album remixed by AudioOpera please?

Winnipeg may not be the first place you think when you think “surf-rock” but thank god the province that freezes over in the winter has this band to keep them warm.

Top Tracks: “Surprise”; “Super Cool Girlfriend”; “I Had a Dream”

Rating: Strong Hoot (Good)

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Review – “Steady Sun” – Collette Andrea

reviewed by Eleni Armenakis a1362320189_2

It was almost two years ago that Collette Andrea (Collette Falk) first made an impression with her debut, Luna. The Brampton songstress and former GTA-resident who has just recently moved to Hawaii has just released her long-awaited follow up, Steady Sun. For fans of Luna, there’s plenty of promise here as she reunites with Hannah-Kin Studio for another five-song EP that yet again showcases her rich vocals and ability to captivate through a simplistic touch.

From the first notes of “Give Me All Your Lovin,’” Falk seems to be setting out to prove that she’s gained nothing but confidence in the two years since we’ve last heard from her. There’s an added edge to her voice as she sings, belting out the titular demand and reshaping the slow-moving country beat for her own indie blues twist.

That sort of growth is evident throughout Steady Sun, from the hypnotically philosophical “A Song About Spring” to experimental “You and Me.” Along the way, Falk soulfully puzzles over time as her guitar chords roll through the pictured landscape and her lyrics thumb over unmet expectations. It’s on those slower, wandering songs like “Water” that her most impressive instrument—her voice—really steps out with the kind of presence that made certain tracks on Luna stand out for their potential.

Typically an acoustic performer, Falk has maintained a stripped down approach to her instrumentation with a lone guitar offering up the only accompaniment she really needs. While her slower tracks may add the occasional flourish of backing vocals or ambiance that emphasizes the imagery, there’s a sense that Falk understands the balance she’s keen to strike. That’s not to say the entire album is a delicate acoustic journey as the last two songs on the EP strike out in a darker, more fevered direction.

Eponymous “Steady Sun” marks the transition with a slow build up to a crashing shift a minute in. Falk’s vocals, typically clear and smooth take advantage of some effects to roughen them up as she aggressively pleads her case. While closer “You And Me” returns to Falk’s even-handed approach, there’s a divergence from her usual sound as she plays with more eastern sounds, layering them over background clatter to set a scene in a way her other tracks have only hinted at.

Yet again Falk ends her album with the promise of more exploration in the future, expanding and delving into new ideas and sounds and seamlessly tying them into what has come before. And as her voice comes out stronger than ever, it’s certain that whatever direction she chooses to go in she won’t lose her most captivating sound.

Top Track: “A Song About Spring”

Rating: Strong Hoot (Good)

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Review – “Highway” – Hey Mother Death

Reviewed by Jack Derricourt

Hey Mother Death

It’s really no surprise that the text for Highway was mostly written in the wintertime. Hey Mother Death’s Paris/ Halifax death grooves are like wolves skulking through the snow: vicious and mysterious. Spoken word pieces in French and English are crafted into music by the repetitive language of new-no-wave licks, and the words grow bolder as the tracks get quieter.

Sometimes trying not to say too much too loud ends up communicating more than all the rest, and that’s how this album stands out. The melodic constructions within each track are minimal, yes, the percussion is muted and molasses-slow, of course; but the real understatement comes from somewhere else entirely. The heart of each Hey Mother Death piece acts out a sinister drama, distressing the pieces in play within the music. “Bad Sex,” the third track in the procession, does this plainly; by track’s end, the lyrics have been challenged into submission by the cries of synthesizers and dub drum echoes.

“The fire of passion” is the name of the game for Hey Mother Death. They have built a shelter in the monoculture wasteland to gather under and speak quietly into the coming twilight. There are strange visitors to be found in the substance of this record, ones that will tell you stories to give you chills. Check it out online for now, with an impending vinyl release this September.

Rating: Proud Hoot (Really Good)

Top Tracks: “Bad Sex” , “Snake Power”

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