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’.
This Ain’t Your
Hawksley Workman’s Milk
Tracks from Hawksley Workman’s Milk have been released online, weekly since the release of Meat in January of this year. However, the physical album was not released until Aug 10th, and since I’m the sort of person who prefers HMV to iTunes, I’m only now recognizing this as an album worth reviewing.
Where Meat was dark and bloody, full of heartache and anger; Milk is pure and light, full of dancing and happiness. At least on the surface. Further exploration unearths heavy topics like suicide, politics, love and religion. ‘Suicidekick’, ‘Stay Drunk and Keep Fucking’ and ‘Some People’ all shun the shallow, materialistic and sometimes ugly world we live in. They also contain an uncharacteristic amount of F-bombs. Almost like Meat leftovers, ‘Devastating’, ‘Robot Heart’ and ‘Wayside’ show a real vulnerability; “Be kind to me, my robot heart is fragile too” and “my eyes want nothing but to see you home again”. The latest single, ‘Chemical’ balances out the sadness, telling a love story to a techno beat, perhaps reflecting Hawksley’s recent marriage.
‘Animal Behaviour’ opens the album, reviving the sexuality he first displayed in his best known single, ‘Striptease’. Both of these songs, among others, are explicit and lyrically straightforward, yet he never sounds sleazy. The following track, ‘Who Do They Kiss?’ takes things in a completely different direction with family-friendly lyrics and a clap-along beat. In fact, almost every song on this album will make you snap, clap or sway along to the music, whether you want to or not.
Not one to stay serious for long, ‘Warhol’s Portrait of Gretzky’ and ‘We Dance to Yesterday’ show off Hawksley’s kooky side. The former is exactly what it sounds like- a song inspired by Andy Warhol’s portrait of The Great One, which apparently is “pretty fucking sexy”.
Some of Hawksley’s longtime fans may not be too sure what to think of his recent affinity for techno beats and vocoders, or the inclusion of ‘Not Your Parents’ Music’ in a Virgin Mobile ad. Luckily for us, his brand of dance music has nothing to do with T-Pain. In fact, most of the tracks have an 80’s theme to them; ‘Some People’ definitely channels Bowie, ‘Google Jesus’ sounds like a primitive video game and ‘We Dance to Yesterday’ celebrates, well, enjoying retro music.
All in all, Milk is the perfect companion to Meat, or even as a standalone album. If you’re initially thrown by his change in sound, give it a few more listens. Eventually you’ll notice that the quality of music production, the deep lyrics and the wacky sense of humour from the Hawksley we all know and love is still there.
(Original publication: Bring Back the Boom Box Magazine- Oct 20 2010)
“It Was an Acoustic Razor,
It Wasn’t Even Electric”
A Night of Silliness and Sheer Brilliance with Hawksley Workman
If there’s anyone who represents the talent, humour and hardworking nature of Canadian musicians, Hawksley Workman is the, uh, man. As he strolls onto the iconic stage of Toronto’s Massey Hall, he seems completely at ease. His arrival is prefaced by a spectacular piano arrangement of his hits, courtesy of keyboardist Mr. Lonely.
‘Maniacs’, from 1999’s For Him and the Girls, opens the set. This song rarely gets played live, for no good reason. How can you not get into the show when you’re being pummeled with pounding drums and yodeling? “It’s the last night of the tour!” he gloats in a singsong way afterwards. He’s glad to be home, even though performing for the people he flips off whilst biking downtown makes him a little nervous.
Early on in the set, it becomes clear that Hawksley has a cold when he loses his voice during ‘(The Happiest Day I Know is a) Tokyo Bicycle’. Will he end the concert early? Cancel it altogether? Of course not! He plays through it, downing entire bottles of water between songs and sampling from the array of cough candies, pills and cups of liquid on the makeshift table beside his mic stand. “I’ve tried to get every variety of cold this year” he quips, “I go to the airport and lick the door handles, I take my boarding pass and touch it to my eye…” an expert segue way into ‘Common Cold’ from 2001’s Almost a Full Moon.
Since he’s promoting his two new albums; the dark and brooding Meat and the lighter, digital-only Milk, we hear a lot of new material. Meat’s ‘The Ground We Stand On’ is one of the first new tracks and its low, humming sadness brings tears to my eyes. He offsets this with happier tracks like ‘We Dance to Yesterday’ and ‘Warhol’s Portrait of Gretzky’. It’s his older hits however, like ‘Your Beauty Must Be Rubbing Off’ that really get the crowd going.
There’s no denying that Hawksley is an artistic genius; he even creates an impromptu rhythm on his giant water bottle between songs. His band is just as talented. There’s a sense of teamwork about them, like they’re a collective of artists rather than Hawksley’s backup band. All blazered and bespectacled, these guys look more like professors or an IT department than rock stars.
One expected element of the night is Hawksley’s sense of humour. His silly, erratic and tongue-in-cheek anecdotes are reminiscent of the comedy director/brilliant live storyteller, Kevin Smith. “I’m a hunter-gatherer,” he says, “I built a platform for it in my backyard. I caught this one out there”, holding up his Flying V guitar. “It came through my backyard, eating my blueberries…There’s gonna be a triangle of dirt on my body when I die because I shower with this thing on.” Seemingly ego-less, Hawksley treats the concert as if it were a casual performance in his living room. “And you thought this was going to be a professional show!” he laughs after stopping mid-song to hack up a lung. He seems to enjoy chatting back and forth with the crowd. He even indulges the mentally unstable woman who jumps on stage during the encore to profess her love.
Despite playing for well over two and a half hours, the crowd isn’t ready to let Hawksley off the hook. They pull him back onstage for not one, but two encores. ‘Smoke Baby’ from 2003’s Lover/Fighter is the highlight of the first encore. During the rap breakdown (which isn’t performed), Hawksley and drummer Brad Kilpatrick switch instruments. Unfortunately, his cold makes an encore appearance as well, coming back with a vengeance. “I have never felt, quite this close to hell” he sings/croaks with an ironic shake of the head. He returns to the stage once again to do an acoustic version of ‘Ilfracombe’. Not prepared for this second encore, he gets the audience to help him with a few of the lyrics. The fans let him end the show after this as he’s really struggling with his voice and deserves a rest. After all, he just spent the last three hours giving us everything he has.
(Original publication: Bring Back the Boom Box Magazine- May 11 2010)
In-Store Performance @ Criminal Records
Some of the best concerts I’ve ever seen have been both impromptu and free. There was AFI’s surprise show at the Reverb in 2006 and last summer’s two-hour Broken Social Scene show at the Harbourfront Center which featured not only Feist, but members of Metric and Stars as well. Having just released his new album Meat on January 19th and in the process of releasing a digital album, Milk, Hawksley Workman is poised to promote these releases across Canada. And now he has joined my best-of list by kicking off his tour with a free in-store performance at Toronto’s Criminal Records.
Hawksley opens his set with ‘Maniacs’, a catchy, yodeling song from 1999’s For Him and the Girls. A few bars in, I am entranced. Nothing about his sound suggests that he’s performing in the back of a narrow hallway of a record store. Effortlessly, his voice fills the room, almost negating the need for a microphone. A wide variety of admirers have come to see him tonight, including a tiny baby. His devotees are the epitome of polite Canadians, sitting quietly (and mostly camera-less) in rows on the floor so that everyone can see and hear the performance.
While many artists approach these performances with no more than an acoustic guitar in hand, Hawksley has brought a four-piece band with him, complete with keys and a violin. Rather than stripping down his complex songs to make them easier to perform live, he gives them a slight twist instead. This is especially noticeable with ‘(The Happiest Day I Know is a) Tokyo Bicycle’, which he gives a snazzy bass groove. He even performs the vocally difficult ‘We’ll Make Time (Even If There Ain’t No Time)’, despite admitting that his recent “band practice” has been more like “sitting around drinking beers”.
‘Maniacs’ is the only old song on the set list. Out of nine songs, four are from Meat and four are from Milk– a digital album that is being released online, one single every week. This includes ‘We Dance to Yesterday’, which he just shot a video for, and ‘Snow Angel’. Currently unreleased singles ‘Suicidekick’ and ‘Warhol’s Portrait of Gretzky’ also make it into the performance.
Obviously a very humble artist, Hawksley is flabbergasted at how many people have showed up to see him at 6pm on a Friday night. “I’d be home on my couch, stealing my neighbour’s internet” he says, joking that these days people scream out their internet passwords during sex. His nutty sense of humour also seeps through in ‘Warhol’s Portrait of Gretzky’. According to him, Warhol thought Wayne was “pretty fuckin’ sexy”. Despite coming off as a chatty, happy guy, it’s obvious he went through a dark period during the production of Meat. He hints at this after performing ‘The Ground We Stand On’, but we’re assured that things are better now.
It’s impossible not to be drawn by Hawksley’s talent. He exudes artistic confidence; it’s obvious that this is what he’s meant to do. Many have told me that he is a genius artist who absolutely needs to be seen live. Now that I’ve gotten a taste, I cannot wait to see Hawksley and crew return for a full show on April 24th at Massey Hall.
(Original publication: Bring Back the Boom Box Magazine-Mar 15 2010)
I always thought I should like Hawksley Workman by default. The mere mention of his name incites passionate raving amongst his fans. He’s also produced Canadian darlings Sarah Slean and Tegan and Sara, both of whom I adore. However, it’s taken until now, and his newest album, Meat, for me to understand his genius. And even though this album is largely about break-ups and heartache, I fell in love.
‘Song for Sarah Jane’ (he seems to know a lot of Sarahs) opens the album. Though it’s a slow, quiet, and simple piano-driven ballad, there’s nothing dull about it. His voice resonates with emotion as he mourns the loss of his girl. The track that follows, ‘French Girl in LA’, could not be more different. This one is full, rich and fast. Crooning, “I can’t believe you’re almost mine”, this one is like a rebound; the chase of a new relationship.
Hawksley’s lyrics show off his worldliness, mentioning places like Sydney, LA and Paris. In fact, Meat was recorded in six different studios across the world from Winnipeg to London, to Stockholm. In some ways, these references can seem a little braggart and pretentious. On the other hand, this album is very relatable. Anyone who has survived a break-up will identify with at least one song. Hawksley somehow makes simple words poetic. He taps into his listeners’ collective experience; infusing his lyrics with their emotions. A good example of this is ‘The Ground We Stand On’, “It’s so cold here and I miss you/ and I can’t help but feeling broken.” Keeping Kleenex handy while listening might be a good idea.
The flow of this album rocks back and forth between slow, soft songs and upbeat, abrasive tracks. The track list is divided into Side A (#1-5) and Side B (#6-11). Side B deals more with politics- ‘And The Government Will Protect The Mighty’ and society-‘(We Ain’t No) Vampire Bats’. In my opinion, the best track is ‘You Don’t Just Want To Break Me (You Want to Tear Me Apart)’. At eight minutes long, it’s almost two different songs. After three minutes, the lengthy title is the only line that is sung and screamed, winding up to a screeching, cathartic guitar solo. This might sound ridiculously overdone, but you have to trust me on this one, just listen to it.
Hawksley’s style is best described as “eccentric”. He uses some strange sounds and references like “chocolate mouth” and “Tokyo bicycle”. Not many artists can write lines like “Baby mosquito…the firefly nights and the bats without sight will believe/ and malarial nightmares that keep you from sleep next to me” and still be taken seriously. He also has some pretty odd and extensive song titles. I think he may love parentheses as much as I do (though I’ve tried to cut back), often inserting them in unexpected places.
This album is front to back an amazing piece of work. Hawksley not only fosters great Canadian artists, he’s proven that he is one of the best. Even though we’re not even through the first month of the year, I have a feeling Meat will be topping a lot of “Best Album Release” lists at the end of the 2010.
(Original publication: Bring Back the Boom Box Magazine- Jan 21 2010)