Friday, January 25, 2013

This should be on your RADAR

Winnipeggers, mark your calendar for February 22nd. That's when Calvin Love brings his latest record, New Radar, to town and plays the revitalized and Sam Smith-ified Windsor Hotel. And yes, this is the first post in hella-long. My apologies. I've been plugging away at Reductive Reviews where I can bang out posts at a steady & quick clip, but finding some time to write longer, more considered pieces has eluded me what with the raising of children and operating of radio. That said, I will be making an attempt to post about albums here and singles there with a little less meat on the bone here at ETTS than in the past so that I can strike a balance and keep this concern going. I'm leading off my radio show (Thank God It's Free Range) tonight with "Treasure Hunters" from Love's record and while it's my favourite track, there are enough quality tracks on New Radar that it's not head-and-shoulders above the rest, just a couple inches. That's all I've got to say for now as I've got some more stuff to prep for radio, but thanks for coming back to ETTS and excusing me my hiatus. It's over.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

One man's loss is the world's gain.

Evening Hymns are no strangers to Ear To The Sound readers. Back when I started this blog (over 4 years ago, yikes!) with the whole "A is for.../ B is for..." conceit and didn't know what this blog would become, the E was for Evening Hymns. Though it never got its own blog entry, Spirit Guides - the debut album under the Evening Hymns moniker - was #15 on my Top 20 of 2009 post.

"Cedars" from Spirit Guides served as a primer to what the sophomore record, Spectral Dusk, would be like and how heartbreaking and heartbreakingly beautiful it would prove to be. The new album - like that song from the first record  - was written in the wake of the death of Jonas Bonnetta's father, and serves as a meditation on grief, loss, and memory.

On The Line Of Best Fit, Bonnetta went through a track-by-track examination of the roots of this album and explains how even the wordless field recordings that open and close Spectral Dusk are connected to his late father [they were recorded at The Burn where his dad shot his first deer]. Some of the songwriting is explicit in its attempt to address Bonnetta's loss ["Arrows,""You and Jake," "Spectral Dusk"], while other songs are more elliptical and metaphoric (though no less affecting) ["Moon River," "Family Tree"].

Midway through the album the explicit and the elliptical become enmeshed on "Cabin In The Burn." I don't think it's a coincidence that the cabin in the wilderness is central to the landscape Bonnetta and co. have created, and that the song finds a place at the heart of the album. The lyrics describe the spirit of Bonnetta's father inhabiting the cabin ("you are the four walls / you are the bear-claw door / you are the wood stove") while the rocking chair he used to rest in sits empty, looking out onto the wilderness. Pere Bonnetta can no longer sit in the chair so his son lets him lie down in his mind ("and there you can be anything") - it is a deeply touching gesture and the point at which the son truly seems to come to terms with the loss of his father. It's only after this acceptance that Jonas is able to find rest ("Asleep In The Pews"); though even that rest is fitful and leaves him "waiting for some strength."

When he sings that "those nights in the woods / they were dark / and they were deep," on "Asleep In The Pews"  Bonnetta could be describing the recording of Spectral Dusk as well as his memories - he and bandmate Sylvie Smith were joined by a group of friends / musicians at a cabin near Perth, Ontario where the group hunkered down in the winter of 2010. The album seems as remote and self-contained as the cabin must have been, and while you can actually hear the ice in a drink crack on the title track, you can practically hear the floor-beams creak underneath the weight of the emotional load that these friends help Bonnetta carry. Everyone does their very best in contributing to this beautiful tribute - particularly Mika Posen's expressive, evocative violin work on "Irving Lake Access Road, February 12th 2011" which conveys both the loss and the hope of the lyrics elsewhere on the record as it soars and dives wordlessly.

I hesitate to say that I have a "favourite" track on this album because it's not the kind of album you can pull apart and reduce to individual elements (and each listen reveals new elements and sounds that make one song or another stick out at different times), but from the very first time I listened to Spectral Dusk, "You and Jake" was the song that hit me the hardest. In it, Bonnetta reflects on the special relationship that his brother Jake shared with their father, "smoking smokes and just dreaming big." But rather than begrudging that relationship (as some of us would), he instead chooses to draw on the lessons his father taught him to help overcome the grief associated with his death. When Bonnetta sings "you taught me how to be a working man / now I'm gonna work on you" (a line he echoes on "Spirit in the Sky" later on the record), my heart breaks each and every time I hear it. The resolve he displays in that line makes me want to be a better man and a better son - I didn't have the relationship with my father growing up that Bonnetta clearly did with his, but I still have the chance to get over myself and get past my youthful jealousies around my dad and brother's relationship. We're all set to take our first-ever trip together this fall and I find myself wanting to play this song for him and explain what it draws up in me. It's not often that an album has that effect, but it's not often that an album like this gets made. For Bonnetta's sake, I wish that circumstances meant he never had reason to make it, but I'm grateful that he was able to channel his pain into something this beautiful.

You can buy a digital copy of the album at the Evening Hymns Bandcamp page, where the album stream below comes from.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Brothers already worked it out...

Released this past May, the self-titled effort from the Colman Brothers seriously could have been released in 1965 on Fania and I wouldn't have been surprised; it sounds that timeless. It also sounds alive, as the energy of the percussion pulses through it.
"Mr. DG" shuffles into the frame first, a laid-back stroll through the neighbourhood before "Another Brother" dashes down the street with a muted cornet in hot pursuit. I'm not sure if it's brother Andrew or brother Mat on the horn, but kudos to whichever brother is responsible (my guess from this picture is it's Andrew...). While the horn line is the call, the organ line is the response, giving a real point/counterpoint interplay between the instruments on this number - kind of like sparring partners in the ring, roped in by the drums.
Organ is traded for piano at the beginning of "MOMO" and a Grant Green-esque guitar joins the brass section (now augmented by trombone) before the organ reappears. There's a lot going on within this track and it really starts to show just how talented at spinning plates the brothers Colman are (and leaves me to wonder just how many musicians they employ to take this show on the road).
"Sem Amor" is credited to Sara Colman as well so this family affair isn't just a bro-mance. The song is also the first to feature vocals, with Sister Sara and without love.
"The Chief" (a personal favourite) feels like it could have come off a mid-period Jimmy Smith Blue Note record - particularly a record like Home Cookin' where the dynamic between Smith's organ and Kenny Burrell on guitar vacillates between partnership and duel with each showing up and showing off while the rhythm section just underpins and undersells - it's a dynamic "The Chief" has in spades.
"She Who Dares (Remix)" is a bit of a departure from what has come before it on the album, but still walks with the funky strut "Mr. DG" first displayed.
Speaking of remixes, it's actually because of Detroit producer Tall Black Guy that I got hip to this UK act in the first place. After connecting with him on Twitter and checking out his great Hollyweird records and his remix of Maylee Todd, I happened upon his "On A Better Day I'm Dreamin'" remix and decided to burrow deeper into the source material.
I'm so glad I did, and I'm pretty sure that after listening to Colman Brothers, you'll be glad for serendipitous journeys and discoveries as well.

You can listen to the Bandcamp stream of the album below, and a special edition vinyl is available for order that features the Tall Black Guy remix that got this post started.

Thanks for reading, now start listening...

Friday, July 20, 2012

The summer lives forever

Listening to the latest effort from Winnipeg hip-hop duo The Happy Unfortunate, I can't help but think of A Tribe Called Quest's Midnight Marauders. I know that comparing THU to one of the giants of the rap game in ATCQ may seem overblown or like a reach, but bear with me.

When ATCQ debuted with People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm in 1990, they came out of the gate swinging and between Ali Shaheed Muhammad's inventive, crisp production and some tight rhymes on cuts like "Bonita Applebum" and "Can I Kick It?" helped birth the daisy age. At it's root, Instinctive Travels... was just a fun record. They quickly followed their debut with 1991's darker The Low End Theory, an album that mined some of the same jazzy production but which also found the group exploring darker themes (date rape, the ills of the music industry) lyrically. Two years down the line, Midnight Marauders found ATCQ striking a deft balance between 'fun' songs and lyrical complexity - in other words, fully-realized maturity.

The Happy Unfortunate are now three albums into creating their own catalog (I'm not counting the beat-tapes they've released sporadically) and they appear to be following the same trajectory, just reversing the gaps between albums. 2009 saw their debut Stand Up Or Fall Down and two years later came No Time To Sleep.

Now with July Never Dies, the talented pair demonstrate a similar maturity in both their content (failed relationships, patience and perseverance, long-distance love) and their production. Soulful vocal and horn samples float around for the first few seconds before the boom-bap snap of the hi-hat and snare kick in on "Yesterday's Fool."

I don't think the yesterday they're talking about in the lead-off track is '89 (particularly considering the ages of The Happy Unfortunate), but a lot of the beats will take you back to the daisy age with the jazzy, gentle beats found on this baker's dozen of cuts. A harmonica that feels like a Stevie Wonder sample on "Mistakes To Be Made," the floating synths on "Long Shot," and the rolling piano line on "Through The Day" all have that old-school vibe without sounding copycat and in service of laid-back beats, they're perfectly paired with Wilson & Caneda's relaxed delivery.

 The title is also perfectly paired with the collection of tracks - it feels like summer has been caught on record in a way that few albums or songs have since DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince dropped "Summertime" back in '91. The Happy Unfortunate will officially drop July Never Dies next Friday at the Urban Forest in the Exchange (just across from Market Square on 93 Albert St.) with a party that features Saint Kris, M-Kaps and Len Bowen. Don't sleep on the record (which you can preview below) or the show. Pre-order July Never Dies on their Bandcamp page.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Beats me to my next post...

I'm going to be dropping a new ETTS post about the forthcoming record from Winnipeg rap duo The Happy Unfortunate in the next few days, but I just got the link to this beattape from Envoy - who is one-half of the group - and figured I'd share it here and promote the fact that (a) there will be a new post shortly, and (b) it will be about The Happy Unfortunate... who I am happy to say will be playing a free Friday night show on August long as part of Islendingadagurinn (aka Icelandic Fest) in Gimli. This is the first summer I'm in charge of booking that night and I couldn't be happier to include this act in the line-up.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Hell yes, Way Yes.

From the folks that brought you past ETTS act  Dominant Legs, Lefse Records is back and starting the summer off right with a little EP from Columbus, Ohio trio Way Yes called - appropriately enough - Walkability. As the title suggests, this is perfect for adding to your mp3 player, slipping on a pair of ear-buds and taking a stroll through your neighbourhood. The tropical vibes propelling off-kilter indie-pop songs remind me of past favourites Secret Cities' Strange Hearts album, their Western Vinyl label-mates Callers, and even Victoria, B.C. act Chet - whose Kauai is a criminally overlooked record.

At a brief 5 songs and seconds shy of 20 minutes, striding to the pace of Walkability will get you two-thirds of the way to your daily recommended 30 minutes of exercise, and you'll likely want to hit repeat at least once and give 133% effort.

The title track (below) shimmers into view like heat rising from the hood of a car on a sun-baked stretch of highway and then the band intones its 'go it alone' lyrics: "don't need no breakups / don't need no friends at all / they'll just bring heartache ... it's walkability / it doesn't matter to me." The subtly reverb-ed and ringing guitar line surfs above the waves of percussion before washing ashore on a beach of electronic noise that bends itself into the beat that pushes "Important" forward.
  Way Yes - Walkability by yvynyl 

I believe I've made mention in the past of having a bit of a dark fascination with composing the playlist for my own funeral, and I may just have to include "Singing" with its optimist outlook on going out on a positive note: "I get older every day / I get closer to my death / and I hope / that when I go / I'll be singing." Maybe that'll leave the crowd in a positive place as they scatter my ashes in the South Saskatchewan River valley.
  Way Yes - "Singing" by Some Kind of Awesome

I may be writing about Lefse label-mate Teen Daze and his great new record All Of Us, Together in the next few days (he plays the LO Pub here in Winnipeg next Wednesday, June 20th), but in the meantime, you can pre-order Walkability at Lefse Records web store.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Poised for the Polaris?

Last week - June 7th to be exact - the polls closed in one of the biggest votes of my life (I would count voting in the last federal election, only that didn't go so well - seriously Canada, WTF?!). For the first time ever, I submitted a ballot for the Polaris Prize. The Long List will be announced tomorrow in Vancouver, and when the world learns about which 40 albums made the cut, I will learn which (if any) of the 5 records I voted for are included for consideration in the winnowing down to a shortlist of 10 and eventually a winner for the 2012 award.

I was super-excited to be included in a batch of new jurors for the prize, and both witness and participate in the discussion that goes on among jurors about which albums are being and should be considered for the Polaris. As someone who has tried to predict the award-winner on an annual basis and once tried to guess the shortlist a year in advance based on release dates for albums from established Canadian acts that were due to be released during the following Polaris 'calendar' of June-to-May (I did pretty well considering I had the eventual winner and a few other albums make my 'cut'), it's exciting to be an active participant in determining what album will snag the prize. But it's also become clear that I'm no more likely to know what exactly will be on the list tomorrow despite being privy to the discussion among jurors than I was on the outside looking in. And that's because ultimately my ballot is MY ballot and I'm not voting as part of some hive-mind. The five records I put on my list were the ones I believed were the best of the bunch and I am certain that these specific picks, in this specific order, were not replicated by any other juror - and it's quite likely a fact that holds true for every juror. There are just far too many albums to be considered, jurors' perspectives to account for (and likely some other variables I'm not even thinking of) to say with certainty that the Long List will reflect my opinion.

**Speaking of how many albums were under consideration, please know that I listened to every album my fellow jurors recommended (at least once) as well as a great number of records that were never mentioned. My job at UMFM allows me the luxury of having a huge number of albums cross my desk and so a good eighty-to-ninety percent of the 'nominated' titles were already familiar to me, but for those I hadn't heard previously, I took the time to familiarize myself with the argument for the album and the contents of the album itself. This will likely make voting for the shortlist a bit easier as I fully expect to have a few of my personal picks not make the cut and require me to 'fill out my five' from among the Long List titles.

Without further ado, here's what I voted for:

Number 5: Yamantaka // Sonic Titan - Yt // St [Psychic Handshake]

This is an act that made my own long list when it came time to select my Top 20 albums for 2011 (which is, I should point out, not Can-Con exclusive like the Polaris), and one for which my fondness has only grown since the calendar turned to 2012. Yt // St is a captivating listen with a lot of disparate elements working in a weird harmony. The band describes themselves as:

a psychedelic noh-wave opera group fusing noise, metal, pop and folk music into a multidisciplinary hyper-orientalist cesspool of 'east' meets 'west' culture clash in giant monochrome paper sets.

It bears up to repeated listens, revealing layers with each new play - the band has packed a lot into these seven songs.
You can listen to the album on the bands' Bandcamp page.

Number 4: Kathryn Calder - Bright and Vivid [File Under: Music]

I wasn't too big on Kathryn Calder's first solo effort, Are You My Mother? While I understood her attempt to deal with the period in which she took care of her terminally ill mother, and put a voice to the feelings and experiences, the songs themselves were a bit flat. A little more time and distance gave the former Immaculate Machine member and sometime New Pornographer the opportunity to develop her songs more fully and the results are exactly as the title suggests.

Number 3: Slim Moore & The Mar-Kays - Introducing... Slim Moore & The Mar-Kays [Marlow Records]

When I'm not writing here or on Reductive Reviews, I try to contribute to Airtimes, UMFM's online culture zine. In fact, when we were building the site, I wrote a review of the Slim Moore record to test the back-end because I wanted more people to know about this album. With Light In The Attic and Numero Group reissues and brand new release from Daptone Records, the past few years has seen a renaissance in the soul music realm and Introducing... is a really fine addition to the canon. Moore's got a supple baritone that moves from croon to growl, while his band shifts from smooth shuffle to funky hustle, all with aplomb.

Number 2: Cannon Bros. - Firecracker / Cloudglow [Disintegration Records]

I'm really hoping that the full-length debut from Winnipeg duo Cannon Bros. isn't just a "Peg City pick" and their Pavement-era guitar rock appeals to jurors from across the country. Certainly the album will appeal to those who came of age in the early nineties (i.e. me) and look fondly back at the music coming out of Chapel Hill, Athens GA, and other college towns. Hard to believe that Cole and Alannah (aka the "Bros.") were just toddlers at the time.

Number 1: Jos. Fortin - Typewriter [Shuffling Feet] 

Had this album come out last year, it would likely have unseated Cookie Dough by Freddie Cruger and Anthony Mills (aka Wildcookie), as my top album of 2011. I actually had the good fortune to hear a rough version of Typewriter last August and heard the mastered copy before the calendar turned to 2012, but the album wasn't released until this March. I've had a long time to fall in love with this record - and unlike some crushes, this one hasn't worn off; it's only gotten deeper. I feel that Fortin decided on the title of the album because when people wrote on typewriters, words carried more weight and had more permanence than they do in an era when a "Delete" key can make a thought disappear in an click. People can revise their thoughts in an instant and leave no trace of the original. In contrast to that, Fortin's lyrics (and songs) demonstrate an understanding of how finely-crafted words can stick with a reader/listener. I have listened to this record dozens of times and find new elements to appreciate each time. You can hear the record for yourself below via Bandcamp.

**One last thing - winnowing this list down was arduous and I certainly left several albums I really, really like off . I just want to give shout-outs to (in alphabetical order):
Apollo Ghosts - Landmark [You've Changed Records] - really strong rock record, classic and catchy.

BADBADNOTGOOD - BBNG2 [Independent] - how disappointed am I that these guys cancelled their Winnipeg Jazz Fest appearance...

Cold Specks - I Predict A Graceful Expulsion [Arts & Crafts] - Al Spx voice is incredible and these songs are simple, unadorned vehicles for that voice.

Fraction & Fresh Kils - Extra Science [KilZone] - I thought this was a very strong year for Canadian hip-hop and this is one of two records that really grabbed my attention this year. Plus Fresh Kils production on numerous other records / singles was seriously on point.

Japandroids - Celebration Rock [Polyvinyl] - I honestly didn't get enough time with this one. I got my first full listen about a week before the ballots were due. It's very strong.

Moonface - With Siinai: Heartbreaking Bravery [Jagjaguwar] - pretty much everything Spencer Krug (Sunset Rubdown, Frog Eyes, ...) puts to tape is of interest to me, but his Moonface gig is poised to be my favourite. After the very solid Organ Music Not Vibraphone Like I'd Hoped was released last summer, he followed up with this stunner which may be his best work under any name.

Teenburger -  Burgertime [Droppin' Science] - a collaboration amongst Timbuktu, DJ Jorun Bombay and one of my favourite rappers, Ghettosocks that took me back to the days when thematic hip-hop didn't mean a masters thesis set to beats, just a whole lotta fun songs that play well together.