Category Archives: Album Reviews
A Year in My Ears
The year started off on a high note with a release from my all-time favourite band. While at first suffering from the usual anxiety that they wouldn’t live up to their legacy, it wasn’t long lasting. I should know by now that this band doesn’t write songs that are immediately catchy, but ultimately forgettable. Those who were fans of their earlier punk years will be happy to hear some of their former angst returning, in addition to their signature layered sound.
It’s natural to be a little weirded out by the idea of an AFI-No Doubt mash up, after all—what is that supposed to sound like? As it turns out; a dark and flamboyant 80s dance pop album with high caliber of composition and production. Largely comprised of the flagrance Davey Havok has been trying to suppress for the last 12 years, it showcases his ever-expanding vocal range, and is bound to win over the purest of AFI fans.
3. Whitney Rose – Rule 62 & South Texas Suite
If you told me that I’d end up falling in love this year, I probably wouldn’t have believed it. Especially if the object of my affection were to be a female country singer, but here we have it. After stealing my heart at the Horseshoe in February, I was prompted to seek out her entire discography. Oddly enough, 2017 brought about her LP South Texas Suite, as well as the EP Rule 62 – both of which have been on heavy rotation, along with her previous release Heartbreaker of the Year. A little bit Nancy Sinatra, a little bit motown, and a whole lot of vintage country, she’s a master storyteller without relying too heavily on dead dogs, cheatin’ hearts, and trucks. But don’t mistake her for just a sweet-voiced angel either, she’s known to blow the roof off with her timely cover of You Don’t Own Me.
One thing you really need to know about me is that I love girl punk bands. Particularly ones that have multiple singers and vocal styles. This Winnipeg two-piece caught my ear long ago, but it wasn’t until I came across their sticker on a hand dryer in a decrepit venue washroom early this year that I looked them up in earnest. A perfect combination of call-and-answer screaming and singing, they evoke visions of a young Brody Dalle, and angsty late 90s punk. In fact, they cram so much awesomeness into each track, it’s hard to believe that they’re just a guitar/drum duo.
This album came out in October, and I think I may have had it in my ears 75% of my waking life since then. While Matt has been releasing albums for well over a decade, it’s been his last couple of efforts that have really tickled my fancy. Relying heavily on a sense of romance and nostalgia, the passion he pours into each and every track is palpable. Put this one on, go for a long road trip and think about all the ones that got away.
Oh hey, it’s another chick punk album! This one is literally an 11th hour—err—12th month addition to the list, thanks to a friend’s apt recommendation, and a perfectly timed tour with my friends Dearly Beloved. Boasting three female vocalists (one being the drummer, goddamn), this album is the musical version of a Sweet & Salty bar. With an unrelenting pedal-to-the-metal pace from start to finish, you might say they are…like a motorcycle. (Sorry).
You may have noticed that I’m a big fan of supporting small, Canadian bands. Luckily for me, I’m exposed to loads of them every year through my work with every music festival ever. My top discovery this year at CMW was this Quebecois two-piece. Mixing desert rock, 50s pop, and rockabilly, they have that spacious lo-fi sound particular to early-days White Stripes.
Foos may have released Concrete and Gold in September (which is good, and takes the band in an interesting new direction), but I spent the greater part of the year getting to know Sonic Highways a little better. Once deemed as just a generic radio rock band, I’ve been really feeling the extra flare they’ve put into their productions since 2011’s Wasting Light. Someone must have told Dave Grohl that I’m a fan of the heartstring-plucking guitar lines, and piles of vocal harmonies, because this album is full of them.
John Carpenter may be the father of horror, but the casual fan may not know that he is also one of the best soundtrack composers out there. Off the heels of his original albums, Lost Themes I and II from 2015-2016, he’s now released an anthology of his most notable movie hits. Not to mention, getting to see him performing these pieces live to film clips, with his cool-Dad stage persona only made this album more special.
Every year, I seem to file one band under “oh, they’re responsible for all those songs” category. In 2017, Tears for Fears was it. A soundtrack to my childhood, their signature melancholy pop sound perfectly encompasses the feeling of the 80s. Give this album a listen, you’ll know way more tracks than you thought you would.
A Musical Journey
Now that the year of death is officially over, it’s time to look back on the good things that happened in 2016. Since I tend to swim upstream, I’ve put together a list of 10 albums that made up the soundtrack to my year – not necessarily the ones that were released within those 12 months (though many were). And because my opinion matters, you should definitely check out all of these and thank me later.
1. Tuns – Tuns
Upon hearing the first few notes, this album delivered a swift drop-kick to my heart. I shouldn’t be surprised how hard I fell for it either, considering my love for 90s alternative, east coast sounds, and songs about heartbreak. A typical Canadian supergroup (by which I mean downplayed), Tuns is comprised of Sloan’s Chris Murphy, the Inbreds’ Mike O’Neill and Matt Murphy from The Super Friendz. Soaked in nostalgia, don’t be alarmed if this album tears open a few old wounds. Keep the bandaids and tissues handy.
2. Honeyrunners – EP II
Did I mention that I really seem to like local bands? These guys are bound to blow up any minute with their energetic and soulful indie rock, so it’s best that you get on this soon in order to claim those elusive “I knew them when” bragging rights. After all, very few albums have harmonies so rich, and hooks so catchy that you can sing along to each and every one after only one listen. Check out EP I while you’re at it, because it’s kind of weird to start on a sequel (and it’s just as good).
3. Phantogram – Three
Perhaps one of the few “radio” albums that has made my lists (but one of the many number-titled ones), I was unabashedly hooked as soon as You Don’t Get Me High Anymore started playing on heavy rotation. A dark synth pop romp, this album contains enough instrumentation to keep them out of the MDMA-and-beat-drops category. While there are some sentimental moments, most of the tracks boast an unabashed sexuality that will likely prompt a lot of hair whips and sultry half-naked dancing around your apartment (uh, so I’ve been told). We all got a little bit of ho in us, after all.
4. Tommy Hawkins – Amy
This album came out of nowhere, even to those who (thought they) keep up with the goings-on of Hawksley Workman. Having paired up with Thomas D’Arcy, a fellow Canadian producer/songwriter (and not a Jane Austen character, incidentally) they’ve birthed a passionate six-song EP. Rich with fervent vocals and screaming guitars, it’s hard to tell where Tom ends and Hawk begins. One can only hope that this will be more than just a one-off side project.
5. Tiger Army – V
A longtime Tiger Army fan, I was very excited to get a hold of new material after nine long years of silence. At first, I was less than enthused with the dreamy pace of the album and seeming lack of their bass-slapping psychobilly roots, but it grew on me. Haunting and melodic, it draws more from their past alt-country explorations (think ‘In the Orchard‘), with a dash of mariachi. And while it may be an overall slower album than previous efforts, the intensity remains.
6. Dilly Dally – Sore
There are flash-in-the-pan buzz bands, and then there are the few that live up to the hype. Dilly Dally is among the latter. Having heard their name from the mouths of every indie music snob for months, ye olde “why haven’t I been listening to them forever?” lamentation set in this April when I finally checked out a few tracks. Simultaneously pulling off girlish and grungy, lead singer Katie is such a perfect combination of Courtney Love and Kurt Cobain that she should probably just change her name to Frances Bean. Commence swooning.
7. Whitehorse – Leave No Bridge Unburned
This band seems to follow me wherever I go lately. The sickeningly cute couple Melissa McLelland and Luke Doucet are prolific artists in their own rights, and twice as awesome as Whitehorse. Best described as country for city-dwellers, they’re a mix of exceptional guitar work, inventive instrumental loops, and a vocal harmony that could only be spawned by an intensely deep relationship.
8. Dearly Beloved – Admission
At this point, you’ve probably caught on that this band makes my list almost every year. But it’s not my fault that they’re a non-stop music machine (the next album is apparently already written). Keeping up with their patented unisex call and answer vocals, riding a rollercoaster of bass notes, Admission explores new regions. One of them being Dave Grohl’s Studio 606 (seriously, that’s where it was recorded), which provides a richness of sound that is audible throughout.
9. Alice Cooper – Welcome to My Nightmare
Obviously this album didn’t come out in 2016, but it’s one that spent a good portion of the year in my ears. Arguably one of his best (and he has a lot), it’s not as creepy as you might expect from a guy who lives in face paint and regularly executes himself onstage. While there are are some necrophiliac themes, and a guest appearance by Vincent Price, the overall sound is rooted enough in classic rock for your “normal” friends to appreciate it as well.
10. Misfits – Walk Among Us
You probably know that this album didn’t come out recently, either. But when a band that influenced many of the things you love—and hasn’t really existed since before you were born—reunites, their stuff ends up on constant repeat for many, many months. A clever hybrid of punk, horror themes, 50s rock and roll, and a whole lot of whoahs, this one’s a must-own for anyone that refuses to ‘fit in’.
It’ll Burrow, It’ll Shake You Down
Most of us are guilty of yearning for the rockstar life at one point or another. But what does it mean to make music your life? We tend to ignore what being saddled with artistic drive is actually like, to use creative output as a salve for inner turmoil. Toronto’s Dearly Beloved know this existence well; forever putting pens to paper and mouths to mics, trying to reach some indeterminate place of peace. Having found inspiration in the desert during the production of 2012’s Hawk vs Pigeon, the band returned to Dave Catching’s Rancho de la Luna in Joshua Tree, California to see if lightning would strike twice. It did—resulting in the release their fifth album, Enduro.
At first blush, the title hints at the notion of enduring, something with which frontman Rob Higgins is familiar. Having formed the band as a way to deal with the death of his father, and his own medical tribulations, Higgins’ music reflects a “one foot in front of the other” approach to life crises and daily melancholies. A dreamer, he harbours a passion for escape—a desire to flee to places unknown with little else than a motorcycle. (Enduro also happens to be brand of motorbike). Needless to say, his band is one that lives for life on tour.
True to both interpretations of its name, Enduro is emotional and adrenaline-fueled. A brain-scrambling, teeth-chattering, bone-shaking off-road trip, it leaves the heart thumping and lungs begging for air. The album takes off like a shot, accelerating wildly through the opener ‘Enduro’, turning into a veritable freight train on ‘Olympics of No Regard‘, and mimicking the whine of a motorbike engine on ‘Seven Plagues’. Finally—eight tracks in—we’re given a chance to slow down and catch our breath on ‘All Sins Are Forgiven’. Appropriately, each song was road-tested, played loud while speeding over sandy plains. If it didn’t feel right in that environment, it didn’t make the cut.
What’s most striking about this album is its unapologetic sense of being made by a band that knows who they are and what they do well. Age, and a few trips around the proverbial block have left them without the wannabe rockstar air that plagues so many newer bands. Higgins and co-vocalist Niva Chow helm the project, which features a revolving door of drummers and guitarists. This isn’t so much indicative of the ol’ “creative differences” plea, than it is of Dearly Beloved being a collaborative of talented friends—some of which happen to be Canadian music heavyweights. Brendan Canning returns on this album to contribute his guitar talent on ‘Between Finger and Thumb’, while the “godfather of desert rock” Chris Goss tears it up on ‘Enduro‘, and punk rocker Eamon McGrath peppers his vocal, guitar, and writing skills throughout.
While many of the lyrics seem slightly pissed off, they are in equal parts evidence of healing. The repeated “do whatever it takes” (‘The Guile of Pricks’) and “you’re getting better every day, and you’re not out of your mind” (‘Enduro’) shine light at the end of the dark tunnel. A cunning wordsmith, Higgins has the genius capability of being simultaneously specific and vague. Songs that sound like they’re about a girl have an equal probability of being inspired by European history. He also somehow manages to sneak in highbrow words like ‘egregious’ without sounding like a total douche.
Rife with signature bass note roller coasters, guttural screams, and dreamy psychedelic guitars, Enduro expertly links Dearly Beloved’s past work with their current sound. Building on her growing vocal presence from album to album, Chow not only provides the ultra-femme melodies, but shouts and growls along with the boys, too, even finding herself in a fantasic vocal tug of war with both McGrath and Higgins on ‘Seven Plagues’.
After a mere 30 minutes, the road trip comes to a screeching halt. Breathless, invigorated, we’re left wanting more. Not due to dissatisfaction, but from being given a taste of life, freedom, and things to come.
Sometimes life gets in the way of writing about a great album. Case in point—Wildlife’s …On the Heart. Since releasing this sophomore effort early in 2013, this Toronto band has reached a promising echelon of indie rock stardom; getting to perform in volcanoes and having their songs used in beer commercials. Haven’t heard them yet? You need to change that.
…On the Heart is hard to pinpoint; while marinated in glowing nostalgia, it also manages to be a present-day, youthful rallying cry. It’s the soundtrack to that night many of us have had—when you get into the car just to drive, to think, with nowhere in particular to go.
Staying true to the title, this is a collection of songs for lovers and the heartbroken alike. Contemplative and calculated, it’s an older, wiser version of the reckless teenager that their debut album, Strike Hard Young Diamond was. Hurt for the first time, they’re less eager to wear their heart on their sleeves, replacing blind emotion and angst with a reserved sense of experience. And with this new sense of maturity comes a more refined sound. The layers stripped away, intensity emanates from the brooding melodies, and silence between beats.
While Dwayne Christie’s signature palpitating drums, and the adrenaline-infused gang vocals make a return on this album in some respect; there is nothing formulaic here. Just when you think you know where a song is going, it breaks down, or builds into something wonderfully unexpected.
Refusing to settle into the familiar patterns of their previous work, Wildlife has made conscious and pointed moves in new directions on this effort. ‘One for the Body’ and ‘Dangerous Times’ toy with a blue-collar rock vibe, channeling Springsteen, and The Arkells. A few others teeter dangerously on the edge of becoming ballads. ‘Don’t Fear’ in particular, saves itself with one of lead man Dean Povinsky’s patented tear-your-heart-out vocal wind-ups.
‘Lightning Tent’ may unravel into repetitions of “I will always let you down”, but don’t let that lower your expectations for this album. Polished, smart, and powerful, …On the Heart is a pensive journey through loss and love, and a natural next step for Wildlife as a band.