Monday, October 20, 2014

Canadian songbook: Zunior, Oh Susanna, Grey Lands

Canada has always been known as a songwriters’ nation, ever since the days of Ian and Sylvia, Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell and the rest of Yorkville scored hits via covers of their songs, even before their own careers took off. (You should read about this scene in Jason Schneider's excellent book Whispering Pines.) And yet, we rarely celebrate our modern songbook: for all the camaraderie and cross-pollination our best artists do, they rarely, if ever, cover each other’s work.

Earlier this year, Montreal songwriter Michael Feuerstack enlisted a bunch of his considerably more famous friends to cover some of his songs. Geoff Berner did the same thing, assembling a tribute album to himself to help launch his first novel. This fall, Great Lake Swimmers’ Tony Dekker, Cuff the Duke’s Wayne Petti and Oh Susanna continue the trend, covering their favourite songs and songwriters. (See reviews, below.)

Three years ago, I assembled a compilation of my favourite modern artists covering Canadian songs from 1985-95, a time period covered in my co-authored book, Have Not Been the Same. It’s an amazing record. Kevin Drew. Corb Lund. Hidden Cameras. Bry Webb. Great Lake Swimmers. Jill and Matthew Barber. The Burning Hell. Jim Bryson. Forest City Lovers. Cuff the Duke. Mark Davis. Selina Martin. Light Fires. Snailhouse. Veda Hille. Andrew Vincent. Geoff Berner. Bruce Peninsula’s Neil Haverty. Arcade Fire’s Richard Reed Parry. You should buy it. All proceeds go to CAMH.

I chose to put out that compilation via Zunior, the online record label and e-retailer run by the Inbreds’ Dave Ullrich. For 10 years now, he’s been selling independent Canadian music at decent prices (albums are $8.88), paying artists much more than they’d make through iTunes or other American outlets. All the major and minor indies are there: Arts and Crafts, Paper Bag, Constellation, Nettwerk, Kelp, Mint, Secret City, Six Shooter, Sonic Unyon, Weewerk, You’ve Changed, White Whale, Flemish Eye, and much more—even Jagjaguwar, a U.S. label with plenty of Canucks on it. If you buy indie Canadian music, you should buy it from Zunior. It’s also Stuart McLean’s preferred retailer; all his Vinyl CafĂ© products are available there.

Zunior also curates new compilations, usually around Christmas: one year featured its artists covering the Charlie Brown Christmas album in its entirety. This year, however, to celebrate its 10th anniversary, Zunior put out a cookbook, organized a festival, and commissioned a comic book. Zunior also got their BFF Tony Dekker, of Great Lake Swimmers, to cover some of his favourite Canadian songs of the last 10 years. The result? It’s almost as good as my album. ;)

These reviews ran in the Waterloo Record last month.

Tony Dekker – Sings 10 Years of Zunior (Zunior)

Great Lake Swimmers’ Tony Dekker has always tossed out oddball covers that counter his reputation as a sad-eyed, dreamy crooner. (Perhaps you once heard him on CBC Radio covering the Dead Kennedys’ satirical classic “Kill the Poor.”) Here, he celebrates the anniversary of Zunior; their 10 years as a business happen to coincide with an incredible decade of Canadian music, and so Dekker has plenty of incredible material to choose from.

Other than Chad Van Gaalen and Martin Tielli, neither of whose work is much different than Dekker’s day job, Dekker goes for the underdogs: Christine Fellows, The Burning Hell, Rae Spoon, Old Man Luedecke, Ohbijou. He also gives two nods to Guelph, covering Jim Guthrie’s “3AM” and Jenny Omnichord’s “Growing Too.” The one WTF moment is a silly and strange cover of Cadence Weapon’s “Do I Miss My Friends”—you may not think Tony Dekker should be rapping, and maybe he shouldn’t, but it has to be heard to be believed.

Dekker could have made this record in his sleep; he didn’t. He invests the same time and care he would on one of his own records; it’s obvious this is a complete labour of love. It’s also essential listening not just for Great Lake Swimmers, but for anyone who cares about the Canadian songbook. Your favourite acts of the last 10 years didn’t, with few exceptions, rise in isolation. They came from a community, and this is one man’s version of what that community sounded like. I can’t think of a better man for the job .

Download: “At the Airport” (Old Man Luedecke), “My Sweet Relief” (Martin Tielli), “The Woods” (Ohbijou)

Oh Susanna – Namedropper (Sonic Unyon)

For her sixth album, Oh Susanna commissioned her many talented friends to write songs for her, enlisting Joel Plaskett, Jim Cuddy, Ron Sexsmith and more. How could she go wrong?

She can’t. She enlisted producer Jim Bryson—who also happens to trump everyone else here by penning the album’s highlight and opening track, “Oregon”—and some of the songwriters into her backing band (as well as Kathleen Edwards, who, sadly, doesn’t contribute a song). Perhaps it goes without saying that Plaskett writes the album’s other surefire classic, “Into My Arms.” Amelia Curran, Melissa McClelland (Whitehorse), Old Man Luedecke and Royal Wood also stand out; Jay Harris’s “1955” has one of the catchiest melodies but some of the most unfortunate lyrics (it’s a peppy love song with the chorus: “Your love’s like suicide/ the kind of love you can only buy / 1955.” What do those three things have to do with each other, and why are they set to a country-rock anthem?)

Dropping names, stacking the deck, and being shameless about it—no harm in that, especially with company like this.

Download: “Oregon,” “Into My Arms,” “Mozart for the Cat”

Grey Lands – Songs by Other People (Paper Bag)

Grey Lands is a new solo project for Cuff the Duke’s Wayne Petti; the title of the debut album is self-explanatory. Here, Petti dips into psychedelic country in ways I’d been hoping he would ever since Cuff the Duke’s still-stunning 2002 debut album. Even though he’s doing it by covering some obvious songs—Bob Dylan’s “My Back Pages” (with Greg Keelor) and “Girl From the North Country” (with Joel Plaskett), even Sloan’s “Coax Me” (with Mike O’Neill)—he also digs deep to find obscurity’s like Jim Sullivan’s “UFO” and Lee Hazlewood’s “Sand” (with Sarah Harmer), and puts his own distinct stamp on each one. Whether or not Grey Lands starts including Petti’s own songs or not, the sound he gets here is well worth sticking with.

Download: “Outta My Head” (feat. Hayden), “My Back Pages” (feat. Greg Keelor), “Sand” (feat. Sarah Harmer)

All three titles are available from

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Our Love: Caribou and Owen Pallett

Caribou – Our Love (Merge)

Usually electronic producers start out making dance music and get more esoteric as they get older. Dan Snaith started out sampling jazz and psychedelic records, and now that he’s the father of a three-year-old—and probably not spending the wee hours out at raves—he’s making straight-up club music.

Well, not quite. There’s still a dreamy, psychedelic haze hovering over every track here, and the pretty pop melodies that began on 2006’s Andorra album percolate throughout. Much of Our Love stems from his alter ego Daphni, where he creates dance tracks in a single day using analog synths and puts them out on 12” singles (compiled on 2012’s Jiaolong). This material doesn’t sound as raw or spontaneous, but it shares the same repetitive techno pulse and influences from Africa and Asia. Owen Pallett provides some subtle string arrangements; a flute loop helps propel the hypnotic “Mars.”

Even when the tempos are sliced in half (“Dive,” “Silver,” “Back Home”), the rhythm still pushes along in 16th notes instead of 8thnotes: you can dance to these ballads, if you like. Like the best moments of Caribou’s 2010 masterpiece Swim, everything here but the beats and the bass sound sun-kissed: slightly out of focus and fading before our ears.

Snaith takes that to an extreme on “Second Chance,” featuring Jessy Lanza on vocals. It’s a beatless track where both Lanza and the synths surrounding her sound like they’re being shifted out of phase manually and unpredictably: it makes me feel nauseous.

If you’re new to Caribou, Our Love is lovely, lilting and likely the best electronic album you’ll hear this year. As someone who’s followed Snaith closely since his 2001 debut, and loved everything he’s ever done, I have to admit that Our Love leaves me a bit cold. Maybe just because it’s hard to top Swim or the visceral pleasures of Jiaolong. Maybe the ballads fall flat. Or maybe just because “Second Chance,” situated in the middle of the running order, literally turns my stomach. But I have a hard time believing Dan Snaith could ever put out a clunker—and seven albums in, there’s no sign of that yet.

Download: “All I Ever Need,” “Mars,” “Your Love Will Set You Free”

Our Love is not the first time Snaith and Pallett have collaborated;
two tracks by Daphni surfaced this summer hinted at how well the two work together. They have long been mutual admirers; Pallett covered Caribou’s “Odessa” live (a song Sarah Harmer also recently reinvented). I emailed Snaith to get background quotes for a Pallett profile I wrote earlier this year; I didn’t end up using them, but here’s some background on their relationship.

Dan Snaith
April 21, 2014

How did this new single come about?

I've been friends with Owen for a long time and always loved his music and could hear his unique talents in everything he did. He was always someone I wanted to work with. When I was in Toronto over Christmas a couple of years back I rented a studio for a few days and on different days I had different friends come in to work on recording something from scratch or from very basic loops that I'd started working on. Owen liked the drum loop from “Julia” and added the violin riff and we talked through and recorded other elements and ideas that formed the basis of the track. The final track was assembled later by sending parts back and forth. I started playing “Julia” in DJ sets a while ago and it always kicked off when I played it so I kept pestering Owen—who is a very busy man—about finishing another track to accompany “Julia.” “Tiberius” came together recently and very quickly based on discussing a few ideas over email and then sending parts back and forth.

Owen has a reputation for being a perfectionist, and someone whose music is often elaborate and meticulously planned. What did he bring to this session?

Owen is wonderful at saying what he thinks without reservation but equally wonderful, in my experience, at accepting other peoples' opinions and not needing to be in control of every decision. The music he makes sounds like the work of a perfectionist in that it's so meticulous and, well, perfectly realized, but I think he's a wonderful and natural collaborator—which is not the hallmark of a perfectionist at all. Working with him was a genuine pleasure, not just because of the music we made but also because the process: the discussion, the laughs, his insights into various musical things. That was a lot of fun and not at all like work.  

Isn’t Daphni supposed to be you by yourself making one track a day before you go out for a DJ set?

Yes, that was the original impetus and still pretty much the case with these tracks. Despite the fact that they were recorded a couple years apart, they each were recorded quite quickly: lots of fast arranging and live effects processing, etc. That's the thing that tends to happen quickly with the Daphni stuff: not necessarily coming up with the central motifs but the process of arranging the structure of the whole song tends to happen quickly so I can feel the excitement of the tension building in almost real time.

What was your reaction to his cover of Caribou’s “Odessa”?

I was really flattered. I saw it on YouTube before I got to see Owen play it live. Honestly, I thought he'd improved it! There were several ideas in his version that if I'd heard them earlier I would have stolen for the recorded version!

Why do you think so many people from different genres want to work with him?

I'm pretty sure everyone who hears Owen's music is immediately struck by his unique vision and capabilities. I first met Owen in 2002 (I think?) on the Exclaim! tour when I was playing as Manitoba with a laptop and he was playing with the Hidden Cameras. Then I sublet a room in his house at one point when I was rehearsing in Toronto. I knew of him as being a talented arranger and violinist but it wasn't until I heard his solo music that I really appreciated just how scarily talented he is. Well, also when he annihilated me at Scrabble at a party on one occasion. 

Any plans for future collaborations?

I am sworn to secrecy on the particulars of my future.

Friday, September 26, 2014

September 2014 reviews

Highly recommended this month: Robert Plant

Worth your while: The Wooden Sky, Ventanas, Moonface, Tricky

The following reviews ran in the Waterloo Record in September.

Hiss Golden Messenger – Lateness of Dancers (Merge)

M.C. Taylor of Durham, N.C., is, based on his lyrics, probably the kind of guy who works long hours at his day job, is a family man at night, leaves his mandolin in the rain and lives for the moment every week when he and his buds get together for a few smokes and some epic jams. Taylor has a Dylanesque drawl, not unlike Adam Granduciel of The War on Drugs—but where that band filters their Americana through driving Krautrock beats, Taylor and Hiss Golden Messenger slide easily into the grooves of The Band and Southern rock. The performances are better than any of the actual songs here; the keyboardist and drummer in particular give these sparse songs plenty of subtle soul. (Sept. 4)

Download: “Lucia,” “Saturday’s Song,” “I’m a Raven (Shake Children)”

Vance Joy – Dream Your Life Away (Warner)

It’s frosh season. Our cities are overrun with 19-year-olds entering unfamiliar environs, meeting new friends, missing old ones, and singing songs together at closing time. Once the party spills back into the dorm rooms, there will be someone with a guitar playing, among other things, Vance Joy songs.

It’s most likely to be “Riptide,” a hit earlier this year; it might also be “Mess Is Mine,” the song most likely to be played at weddings five years down the road by couples meeting this week. Joy may be riding on a post-Lumineers zeitgeist moment, with his slightly Celtic melodies and largely acoustic instrumentation, but his songs are less gimmicky. There’s nothing in a Vance Joy song that could possibly ruffle any feather (sample titles: “All I Ever Wanted,” “Best That I Can,” “We All Die Trying to Get It Right”); he’s an everyman making pleasant music that never descends into the treacly. Just because this is the kind of music that surfers might play around campfires in Joy’s native Australia doesn’t make him a new Jack Johnson. It makes him a lot better. For the frosh today, he’s probably going to be the soundtrack of their lives. (Sept. 18)

Download: “Mess is Mine,” “Riptide,” “First Time”

Lowell – We Loved Her Dearly (Arts and Crafts)

A 23-year-old, globetrotting Calgarian who dropped out of the University of Toronto’s music school to write songs for the likes of the Backstreet Boys (yes, in 2013), Lowell comes with an impressive resumĂ© even before this, her debut album. She’s every bit the modern girl: part Tegan and Sara, part Lykke Li, part, um, Bananarama. A sunnier and peppier Cat Power, slave to no genre, writing occasionally candid personal songs to upbeat poppy beats. It’s smarter than (what’s presumed to be) teen pop; it’s too juvenile for anyone over 30 (i.e., the chorus that goes, “Money, hey! Money, woo!”). One of the catchiest songs is “LGBT”: a simple, sing-songy trifle with the chorus: “Hello my name is LGBT / don’t take out your misery on me / I’m happy, I’m happy and free.” It all sounds tailor-made for a spot on the Girls soundtrack. As a bold new artist, Lowell is one to watch. And while half of all frosh students will be learning Vance Joy songs on guitar, the other half is probably dancing to Lowell. (Sept. 18)

Download: “Cloud 69,” “LGBT,” “Words Were the Wars”

Moonface – City Wrecker EP (Paper Bag)

Moonface is the most recent moniker for Spencer Krug, late of Wolf Parade and Sunset Rubdown. It’s supposed to be a catch-all name where every record sounds different from the last—until now, where this EP follows lockstep behind 2013’s Polaris long-listed Julia With Blue Jeans On, in its stripped-down piano-and-voice arrangements. Krug has gone full-on piano lounge, except this lounge is in a run-down hotel in smalltown Finland, where a misplaced Anglophone is pouring his heart out over minor chords. The title track is as personal as Krug has ever been, speaking frankly about why he left Montreal for Helsinki several years back (he recently relocated again, to Vancouver Island). “We all know safety is a blessing and a curse,” he sings. Which is why he is unafraid to sing whatever’s on his mind: even when the lyrics fall flat or he’s uncomfortably frank, his piano playing is beautiful—despite odd, ham-fisted outbreaks that shatter the mood—and he’s singing better than he ever has. Moonface is confounding, deliberately so, it seems. It’s raw. It’s honest. And Spencer Krug is making some of the best music of his storied career. (Sept. 18)

Download: “City Wrecker,” “Running in Place With Everyone,” “Daughter of a Dove”

Karen O – Crush Songs (Sony)

The debut solo album from Yeah Yeah Yeahs singer Karen O is not new. She says she wrote and recorded these songs when she was 27, when she “crushed a lot. I wasn’t sure I’d ever fall in love again.” There’s no official word on whether this has anything to do with a leaked demo CD (stolen from a suitcase misplaced by TV on the Radio’s Dave Sitek) made in 2006—the year Ms. O was 27. Either way, why is she choosing to release this time capsule now?

Crush Songs is a lo-fi affair, seemingly recorded on a four-track tape deck, featuring just O (and her own backing vocals) and a guitar, not unlike “Modern Romance” or “Subway” or any time the Yeah Yeah Yeahs have included a hushed, Lou Barlow-ish bedroom recording amidst their usual rock’n’roll maelstrom. The only difference is that the Yeah Yeah Yeahs are a three-headed songwriting partnership; O on her own can offer only half-baked ideas. Being the charismatic vocalist she is, of course, she doesn’t have to do much more than show up; she’s a compelling presence no matter the circumstance. Sadly, this serves more as a historical curiosity rather than a statement from a major artist. It’s no Nebraska. (Sept. 18)

Download: “Ooo,” “Body King,” “Sing Along”

Robert Plant – Lullaby and… the Ceaseless Roar (Universal)

Never mind Led Zeppelin. Or even Alison Krauss. Remember the Afro-Celt Soundsystem? Robert Plant sang on a 2001 track by that cross-cultural experiment—the template for 1,001 folk festival workshops ever since—and it informs much of this new album, where African blues, Celtic banjos and fiddles (actually a Gambian riti), and electronic beats dominate the sound. It could easily fall flat on its face—and sometimes it does. But Robert Plant is a classy guy these days (see also: his excellent 2010 album Band of Joy), and here he’s assembled an impeccable band—featuring collaborators of Jah Wobble and Portishead—to execute his plan. (Reassembled, actually; many of them were part of his Strange Sensation band in the early 2000s, including guitarist Justin Adams.)

There is more lullaby here than ceaseless roar: Plant is a zen state, even if his recent divorce from Patty Griffin finds him singing about “the breaking of two hearts” on “House of Love (Is Burning Down).” The only time he attempts to pick up the tempo is on “Turn It Up,” a track about as imaginative as its title; it’s the only clunker on this remarkably consistent record, which channels its intensity in much more subtle ways—especially on the stark piano ballad “A Stolen Kiss,” where the 66-year-old singer delivers one of his loveliest vocals, perhaps ever. (Sept. 11)

Download: “Little Maggie,” “A Stolen Kiss,” “Up on the Hollow Hill”

Sloan – Commonwealth (Yep Roc)

Sloan titled their 2008 album Parallel Play, a term for toddlers who have yet to learn how to interact, who play side by side. It was a self-deprecating dig at the fact that Sloan’s four members were increasingly working in isolation, developing their own individual visions independent of each other while still in the same band. On 2011’s The Double Cross, however, Sloan had never sounded so collaborative and coherent; it was a hands-down highlight in their 20-year discography.

Here, they’re back to their old ways. Parallel Play was not a great Sloan album; neither is this one, where each member is given one side of a vinyl record with which they can do whatever they please. Jay Ferguson and Chris Murphy opt for five songs each. Master of concision Patrick Pentland offers four. Oddball drummer Andrew Scott delivers an 18-minute Syd Barrett-ish suite that’s easily the strangest thing in the Sloan catalogue (it involves barking dogs and a children’s choir).

Ferguson is first up to bat, followed by Murphy, Pentland and Scott—was this an alphabetical decision? Or maybe some outside mediator decided to order the album by quality: Ferguson’s songs are all lovely, rich with classic Sloan harmonies, and likely to be the most enduring. Murphy opens his set with one of his best, “Carried Away”; the rest don’t rise to that standard, though in “So Far So Good” he does score the album’s best lyric: “Don’t be surprised when we elect another liar / did you learn nothing from five seasons of The Wire?” Pentland can usually be counted on for surefire rockers; this time, only the amusing “13 (Under a Bad Sign)” is likely to raise any fists. Meanwhile, his clunky rock ballad has the unfortunately accurate chorus: “What’s inside is dead.” Scott’s suite, for all its obtuseness, is not a solo act: it at least sounds like the band is capable of working together and pushing their creative boundaries, even if it doesn’t always work. (Sept. 11)

Download: “You Got a Lot On Your Mind,” “Carried Away,” “13 (Under a Bad Sign)”

Tricky – Adrian Thaws (False Idols/Arts and Crafts)

Trip-hop pioneer Tricky’s golden period was in the mid- to late ’90s, when he put out five albums in six years and helped define the era’s sound—one that’s now back in vogue as mainstream hip-hop and R&B have taken turns into darker, downtempo material (see: Drake, The Weeknd, Frank Ocean). Then came a decade of diminishing returns. Now he’s on his own label, answering to no one, and this is his second album in 18 months. He claimed that 2013’s False Idols was his best work since his 1995 debut: he was right. This album, titled after his birth name, is just as strong. The man is on a roll once again.

As usual, he does so with the help of powerful ladies: newcomers Tirzah and Francesca Belmonte, and MC Bella Gotti, who spits furious verses on “Why Don’t You” (chorus: “Why dontcha come and get f--ked?”) and a cover of an obscure 1990 single by London Posse (“Gangster Chronicle”), which Tricky cites as a life-changing influence. Even more powerful are Tricky’s forays into house music, notably on the single “Nicotine Love,” which counteract the delicate, sensual downtempo tracks, the likes of which he made his name—but, as evidenced by this album’s breadth, no longer define him. (Sept. 11)

Download: “Sundown” (feat. Tirzah), “Nicotine Girl” (feat. Francesca Belmonte), “Right Here” (feat. Oh Land)

Ventanas – s/t (Fedora Upside Down)

Jewish music in North America is often marketed as klezmer. That’s only half the story, as klezmer is the exclusive domain of the Ashkenazi Jews of Europe. For Sephardic Jews of Iberia, North Africa and the Middle East, there’s an entirely different musical tradition, and that’s what Toronto quintet Ventanas tap into. With some players borrowed from raucous East European party band Lemon Bucket Orchestra, Ventanas is led by flamenco student Tamar Ilana, the daughter of an ethnomusicologist: clearly she knows her material well. These are not dabblers. Ilana is a strong vocalist, and the percussion shares equal space with virtuosic performances on violin and clarinet; the production is superb. If anyone can carve out some space for Sephardic music in folk and jazz festivals in this country, it should be Ventanas. (Sept. 18)

Download: “Tha Spaso Kupes,” “Gusta Mi Magla,” “Oy Que Buena”

The Wooden Sky – Let’s Be Ready (Chelsea)

Toronto’s The Wooden Sky is full of piss and vinegar on this, their fifth album. They’ve always juggled rootsy instrumentation and epic stadium rock, but never as effectively as they do here: hushed ballads one minute, Tom Petty rockers the next, Radiohead-esque guitar textures the next. Sometimes the influences are too obvious: “Maybe It’s No Secret” sounds suspiciously like the Constantines’ “Young Lions” as covered by Blue Rodeo. No matter; it works. Singer/songwriter Gavin Gardiner has been moonlighting as a producer for other local acts; he also works as a mastering engineer at one of Canada’s top facilities. Listening to this, it’s clear he saves his best work for his own band: the whole record sounds like a million bucks. His voice is a commanding instrument, one that quivers and quakes at all the right moments; the rest of the band’s backing vocals, especially on the call-and-response closer “Don’t You Worry About a Thing,” provide extra colour. This band has played second banana to many of their more successful peers over the years, but now it’s time to light up The Wooden Sky. (Sept. 4)

Download: Saturday Night, Maybe It’s No Secret, Our Hearts Were Young

Zeus – Classic Zeus (Arts and Crafts)

They don’t make bands like Zeus anymore. Childhood friends who grew up learning how to play and sing together, their chemistry—and harmony—is impeccable. They later cut their teeth as sidemen for Jason Collett; their ear for arrangements is egoless. If their first two albums saw them indulging the classic rock influences of their youth, Classic Zeus finds them tinkering more in the studio, toying more with structure and dynamics. Even though there are fewer riffs and hooks this time out, the attention to detail and craft make this a far more rewarding album than if it had shot for the obvious. They sing about someone who is “old enough to make a difference but young enough not to care,” but it’s clear that they do care—a lot. (Sept. 4)

Download: “Straight Through the Light,” “Miss My Friends,” “Old Enough To Know”