Bonjay – Broughtupsy (Mysteries of Sound)
Sometimes it pays not to rush your debut. Bonjay got no shortage of hype when they first arrived in Toronto from Ottawa, thanks to the powerful voice and undeniable stage presence of singer Alanna Stewart and the beats by DJ Pho. That was over three years ago, but no amount of anticipation and praise managed to rush them into releasing their first proper EP until now. And by waiting, they outlasted the remnants of electroclash that they were slotted into at the beginning (like their peers Thunderheist, who turned out to be little more than a really exciting one-night stand). Bonjay also developed their songwriting; the highlights of their early shows were their covers of TV on the Radio’s “Staring at the Sun” and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Maps.” Here, they’re tapping into Caribbean rhythms run through modern electronic filters, with Stuart’s vocals alternating between seductive and soaring, always filled with confidence and bravado that never descends into showboating. Stuart’s range and command of her voice makes her a class act through and through, like a 21st century West Indian Annie Lennox. The five songs on Broughtupsy are worth the wait; here’s hoping they can build on this sooner than later. (Dec. 9)
Download: “Stutter,” “Frawdulent,” “Creepin’”
Braids – Native Speaker (Flemish Eye)
Smack dab in the middle of Hillside weekend last summer, after countless folk, rock and country acts, a young band from Montreal via Calgary took the stage in the middle of the afternoon. At a normal show in a club, they might not have stood out so much, but that day Braids was such a delightfully weird relief to the rest of the festival’s lineup that they were one of the weekend’s highlights for this seen-it-all writer.
Mind you, we have seen some of this before, but not for a long time; Braids’ closest comparison points are the Sugarcubes and the Cocteau Twins, both of whom peaked 20 years ago before fizzing out forevermore. No one in the band is over 21, however; Animal Collective is their preferred reference point, and they manage to outshine that overrated band on almost every level. Singer Raphaelle Standell-Preston is far more engaging and less yelp-y than the likes of Avey Tare and his imitators, while her bandmates instrumentation avoids any traditional guitar sounds or cliché keyboard patches.
The music is propulsive and bright, but far removed from any pop music convention. All of this makes Braids a love/hate sort of band, but they’re one of the most creative new bands on the Canadian landscape in 2011, and their immersion in Montreal’s ever-fertile community of weirdoes promises to make these high school friends even better in the future. (Jan. 13)
Download: “Lemonade,” “Lammicken,” “Same Mum”
Brandt Brauer Frick – You Make Me Real (!K7)
Making techno music on live instruments isn’t new; Ontario alone boasts two bands who have done it very well, and very differently: The New Deal and Holy Fuck. While those bands focused on the more visceral elements of house music and psychedelic rock, respectively, Brandt Brauer and Frick is a German trio who are more academic in their approach, and, fitting in with the aesthetic of German electronic music of the last 15 years, much more likely to sound crisp and clean and smooth out any rough edges.
Brandt Brauer and Frick—a pianist, a bassist and a percussionist—claim a background in classical composition and they’re big fans of Steve Reich. So while they’re ultimately aiming for a dance floor, it’s obviously not their home. Prepared pianos, Wurlitzers, tympani and the clicks of the bass strings are all made to sound otherworldly and electronic, while traditional piano provides most of the riffs.
It’s all more interesting in concept and execution than it is a solid album, albeit a promising one. Before its release, Brandt Brauer and Frick were voted one of the top five audience favourites at the 2010 Mutek Festival in Montreal; no doubt much of the thrill is seeing them pull this off live, as this YouTube clip for “Bop” (with 11 musicians involved) easily demonstrates. (Jan. 13)
Download: “Teufelsleiter,” “Bop,” “You Make Me Real”
Come and Get It: The Best of Apple Records – Various Artists (EMI)
So the Beatles are now on iTunes—so what? Was anyone really waiting by now? Instead, turn your attention to this gem of a collection, from the archives of the Beatles’ vanity label, Apple Records, which ran from 1968 to 1972. Most of the artists here were either produced by Beatles, feature Beatles performing, or are covers of Beatles songs. Only the latter category stumbles: especially an identical version of “Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight” by the band Trash (and released the same week as the Beatles’ version on Abbey Road), or a terrible reggae version of “Give Peace a Chance” (by Hot Chocolate Band, of “You Sexy Thing” fame).
Otherwise, it’s a wonderfully mixed bag of weirdoes (Chris Hodge, Brute Force), forgotten pop classics (Badfinger, Mary Hopkin’s “Those Were the Days”), and incongruous indulgences in other genres (Cajun, brass band music, Indian pop). Almost everything has the Beatles’ touch to it—sonically, if nothing else. There’s never a dull moment. Except for maybe James Taylor. (Dec. 9)
Download: Mary Hopkin – “Those Were the Days”; Badfinger – “Day After Day”; Black Dyke Mills Band – “Thingumybob “
The Decemberists - The King is Dead (EMI)
What started out as a folksy, somewhat fey band performing songs about characters and scenarios far removed from modern life evolved had into a prog-rock monster with heavy metal flourishes, heard on 2009’s sprawling The Hazards of Love, which proved to be the Decemberists' most divisive album yet.
On this, their sixth album, frontman Colin Meloy retreats and writes a series of four-minute pop songs that are remarkable not only for their economy—Meloy describes it as “an exercise in restraint”—but how he still refuses to dumb it down; these are complex as anything the Decemberists have ever done, but they pack a far greater punch as pop songs.
Meloy says he was inspired in part by hearing the reissue of R.E.M.’s Reckoning album, and it’s not hard to pick out some similarities (the fact that Peter Buck plays guitar on three tracks doesn’t hurt). It’s part of an overall Americana feel, which is a bit unusual for this group of Anglophiles; other than the Celtic sound of “Rox in the Box” and the nod to the Smiths’ Queen is Dead in the album title, this aims straight at the heart of American music, with traces of Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, and plenty of country music—Gillian Welch provides perfect backing vocals on “Down By the Water,” and the album closes with weeping pedal steel on “Dear Avery.”
Aside from surface aesthetics, The King is Dead manages to be the Decemberists’ most accomplished album, merging the muscle of its recent work with the folksy charm of their earliest records. And Meloy is in top form, as a melodicist and lyricist. He may use the phrase “panoply of song” to describe a lover walking in a room, it more than describes The King is Dead as well. (Jan. 20)
Download: “Rox in the Box,” “January Hymn,” “Down by the Water”
K.C. Accidental – Captured Anthems for an Empty Bathtub / Anthems for the Could’ve Been Pills (Arts and Crafts)
Broken Social Scene had a fantastic 2010, with a powerhouse new record, a concert film, and an acclaimed live show. Here, however, is a reissue of the band that sparked the genesis of Broken Social Scene, and, if nothing else, it proves how far they’ve come.
K.C. Accidental was a bedroom-recording collaboration between Kevin Drew and Charles Spearin, with contributions from drummer Justin Peroff and Metric’s James Shaw; when Brendan Canning and others were added, it evolved into Broken Social Scene. But listening to these two albums again now (packaged together), it’s mostly notable for how loose and nebulous the project was.
There are barely any vocals or much songwriting to be found—which would be fine if each instrumental track wasn’t little more than a meandering jam, and not a particularly interesting one, either, unless you happened to be in the room at the time. Later on, their arrangement skills and production quality would be able to elevate even the slightest material, but these merely sound like sketches with no one carrying the weight.
It sounds like guys who probably had amazing record collections, but were only beginning to process how to put it all together. This was music made for guys exactly like themselves, and today it remains for serious collectors only. (Jan. 13)
Download: “Anoxeric He-Man,” “Silverfish Eyelashes,” “Them (Pop Song #3333)”
Gabe Levine – Long Spun Thread (independent)
What would happen if Phillip Glass produced a Bruce Cockburn album? Toronto-via-Montreal songwriter Gabe Levine has the answer. The vocal resemblance to Cockburn is striking, and the largely acoustic songs wouldn’t sound that out of place on any of the Canadian legend’s ’70s recordings. And yet on most of the tracks here—with help from some of Toronto’s finest musicians, including Sandro Perri and members of Timber Timbre, Feuermusik and Steamboat—there is a distinct pulse and reliance on repetitive arpeggios (largely on the keyboards provided by Levine’s brother Jesse) that sets Long Spun Thread apart from dozens of other singer/songwriter records. That said, Levine’s past, as a member of alt-country and experimental klezmer bands on Montreal’s Constellation Records, isn’t noticeable here at all; this is a pleasant, slightly tropical take on Canadian folk (check the calypso of “Nesting Bird”) by a musician making the most conventional, and to date the most rewarding, music of his career. (Jan. 6)
Download: “Believe Me,” “Bitter Wine,” “Honey All the Way Down”
Kate and Anna McGarrigle – Oddities (independent)
Kate McGarrigle passed away a year ago, and there’s no better way to celebrate her life than dipping into this collection of outtakes assembled by her sister, Anna. Despite their stature and fan base, the McGarrigles were never terribly prolific—11 albums over 35 years—and some of this material appeared in different versions elsewhere, notably the four songs by turn-of-the-century American songwriter Stephen Foster that open the album (the sisters had proposed scoring a biopic of him at one point). But there are also originals, like the surprisingly rollicking “As Fast as My Feet,” and the well-loved cover of “The Log Driver’s Waltz,” which was featured in an NFB short much-beloved by anyone who attended elementary school in the late ’70s and early ’80s.
Most haunting, however, is a haunting, lo-fi recording of “A La Claire Fontaine,” an old French folksong that the sisters would always close their encores with. Why it never appeared on a proper album before is a mystery; why it only exists here, in a ghostly and chilling version recorded in 1976 at McGill with only Chaim Tannenbaum’s harmonica and group harmonies from family and friends, we can only guess. It’s a song Kate’s son Rufus Wainwright has also performed live many times, and it’s fitting that it finally appears here—amidst many other treasures that longtime fans and newcomers will cherish. (Jan. 6)
Download: “The Log Driver’s Waltz,” “As Fast as My Feet,” “A La Claire Fontaine”
More or Les – Brunch With a Vengeance (Fuzzy Logic)
And you thought Shad was nerdy? There is no topic too dorky for Toronto MC More or Les, who spends entire songs complaining about the state of public toilets (“The Bathroom Song”), bad fashion (“Busted Gear”), and a 50-year-old man picking his nose on public transit (“Gold Digger Part 3”). But don’t let his often lightweight subject matter distract you from his MC skills and verbal dexterity, both in his flow and as a storyteller. The music is a delightful throwback to 1990 East Coast hip-hop, the playful, occasionally jazzy grooves making a perfect match for More or Les’s rhymes. (When he’s not performing his own material, he hosts a monthly old-school Hip-Hop Karaoke event in Toronto.) Les shares the spotlight with several up and coming Toronto MCs, and British beat specialists The Herbaliser pay him back for guesting on their last studio album by backing him up on “A Lotta Talk.” It’s his bottomless charisma, however, that ties it all together. (Jan. 20)
Download: "Get Back," "Busted Gear (feat. Ambition and the Wordburglar)," "A Lotta Talk (feat. the Herbaliser)"
Nicki Minaj – Pink Island (Universal)
Nicki Minaj is this year’s Drake—o wait, is Drake still this year’s Drake? Or is that so six months ago now? Like Drake, Minaj made her name with mix tapes and guest appearances on high-profile singles by some of the biggest heavyweight MCs in hip-hop—most notably on Kanye West’s single “Monster.” And now, with her debut album, she almost (stress: almost) surpassed the wave of hype that greeted West’s own album this same month. Toronto’s Now magazine called her the “most hyped new MC in hip-hop history”—a phrase that when seen in the headline of a cover story is self-fulfilling, at the very least.
Does she deliver? Minaj is a monstrous MC, when she tries: she has the foul mouth of Lil Kim, the quivering vibrato of Ol’ Dirty Bastard (whom she quotes directly on “Roman’s Revenge”), and she revels in role-playing and adopting various accents. She easily goes head to head with Eminem on the aforementioned “Roman’s Revenge”; he tries to keep up by upping his shock jock shtick, culminating with a line about bondage and golden showers (something that’s not out of character in Minaj’s own raps, as on “Did It On ’Em”).
But if Minaj comes out swinging on the opening three tracks, she spends much of the rest of the album sounding like a watered down Lady Gaga or Robyn, with a series of glossy pop songs that, in some cases, come across like a Europop Sarah McLachlan. Lost in a sea of cheese, where’s that tough street chick now? By the time the shameless sample of the Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star” dominates the single “Check It Out,” Nicki Minaj sounds one step away from the Black-Eyed Peas—whose will.i.am produced that track, naturally.
More power to her for not sticking to one thing, but the galling thing is that Minaj’s formula sounds remarkably familiar. The singer/MC straddling bouncy pop and hardcore hip-hop who got a major career boost from Kanye West? Could be Kid Sister, whose 2009 debut album scored well with critics but was nowhere near the meteoric sensation that Minaj is—and Kid Sister did all of this far, far better. (Dec. 9)
Download: “Here I Am,” “I’m the Best,” “Roman’s Revenge”
No Joy – Ghost Blonde (Mexican Summer)
Montreal’s No Joy are riding the wave of adulation from hot California band Best Coast; that group’s singer, Beth Cosentino, has hailed No Joy as her favourite new band and got them signed to the Mexican Summer label, and they’re now touring together. While the appeal of Best Coast is easy to understand—’50s-style melodies set to fuzzy, lo-fi guitar rock with heavy, heavy reverb, a Californian haze lingering overhead, and dorky bubblegum lyrics—No Joy taps a similar aesthetic, only without the sing-song melodic approach. And hence rarely has a recent band lived up to its name the way No Joy does.
Much of Ghost Blonde merely drifts along: the vocals are indistinguishable, the guitars sound like a mid-level ’90s grunge band run through plenty of reverb, to no particular effect. Much of this kind of music—brought back to life in recent years by the likes of the Vivian Girls, the Dum Dum Girls, and to some degree the Raveonettes—relies on a sweetness and innocence, a pining for days past, with a darkness lurking underneath. In the case of the unfortunately named No Joy, the only thing they seem to be nostalgic for is the time back when they were teenagers still trying to figure out how to be in a band. (Jan. 20)
Download: “Pacific Pride,” “Hawaii,” “You Girls Smoke Cigarettes?”
Querkus – Spaces Between the Leaves Make Way for the Stars (independent)
Querkus describe themselves as “electro art pop noir from the Canadian Prairies”—certainly there is truth in advertising. Singer and keyboardist Karen Asmundson shows off her classical training and love of sombre songs with the help of guitarist Edgar Ozolins. Like many piano chanteuses, Asmundson can lay the affect on fairly thick, but it’s well-suited to the material, which is dramatic by nature. After all, this is a duo who formed after attending an event celebrating David Lynch’s 60th birthday. It’s a bit overcooked, however; the album was four years in the making, and it shows. (Jan. 20)
Download: “Half Acid Lee,” “There Will Always Be,” “I’m Gonna Break You”
John Southworth – Human Cry (Barnyard)
Unheralded Toronto singer/songwriter John Southworth unleashed one of the freakiest albums of 2009, a power pop album named after a subatomic particle accelerator (Mama Tevatron), with suitably fantastical lyrics and driven by rusty old keyboards. This year, Southworth has decided to strip down and play it straight—sort of.
Human Cry was inspired, says Southworth, by a friend telling him that all singing was a form of crying. The album is not an entirely sad sack affair—despite titles like “River of Tears in Everyone,” “Sadness Came Back,” and “Day of the Dead”—but Southworth treads mostly in torch song territory, with gentle acoustic touches from backing band the South Seas (seasoned jazz players Andrew Downing, Justin Haynes and Jean Martin). Backing vocalists Daniela Gesundheit (Snowblink) and Felicity Williams (Thomas, Broken Social Scene) lend a Leonard Cohen-esque air to the recording. Significantly, Southworth’s own voice adapts remarkably well: he sounds much more mature here, his often-boyish voice suddenly rich and resonant, especially on “Tender Mountain Eyes.”
Many people don’t know what to make of John Southworth, but that should change here: there’s nothing mysterious about the simple magic at the core of Human Cry. (Dec. 16)
Download: “River of Tears in Everyone,” “The Kiss,” “Precious Metals”
Suuns – Zeroes QC (Secretly Canadian)
This Montreal band purposely waited three years before recording their debut album. It’s not hard to hear why: Suuns’ music is not about pop hooks—although it occasionally has those—it is about performance. And by amassing three years of live experience behind them, Zeroes QC sounds all the better for it. Suuns love dark, mysterious and moody sounds, whether those are created by massive washes of guitar or entirely electronically. At times they can sound like the distorted pop of The Jesus and Mary Chain, the improv electro dance rhythms of Holy Fuck, the propulsive tension of Clinic, or even the weirder side of Beck (singer Ben Shemie shares a vocal resemblance). But if some of their influences may be easy to spot, Suuns don’t stay in one spot for very long, making Zeroes QC much more rewarding than most rock bands who pick one particular strain of noisy experimental dance music and milk it for an entire album. (Dec. 16)
Download: “Arena,” “Gaze,” “Up Past the Nursery”
Frederick Squire – March 12 (Blue Fog)
Fred Squire makes it sound easy. In the liner notes to this, his debut solo album, he lists the equipment used to make this home recording, including: “Realistic cassette recorder, Maxell high-bias cassette tape, leggings wrapped around a bent coat-hangar frame” and the odd piece of high-end gear from Audio Technica or Sennheiser. And while the bland cover image is of a blank manila envelope against some basement rec-room panelling, the music inside is rich and warm and intimate: the sparseness and haunting quality of ’90s indie singer/songwriters (Smog, early Elliot Smith) with the production values of the best ’70s singer/songwriter records by the likes of Bob Dylan and Tom Waits that Squire also draws inspiration from.
Squire can be a deeply personal songwriter; the verses in the track “Old Times Past New Times” detail a litany of events and non-events in the life of a narrator who lives his life “in only two blocks of a seven-and-a-half-block town”; the chorus simply repeats the line “decisions I have made.” Much of March 12 avoids the confessional, however; “It’s All in the Water” aims to be a unifying gospel song, despite its hushed, low-key delivery.
March 12 proves that it’s high time this Sackville, New Brunswick songwriter made a solo statement: he’s spent the last five years as one half of scrappy indie rock duo Shotgun and Jaybird, appeared with Julie Doiron on the Mt. Eerie album Lost Wisdom, and again with Doiron and Attack in Black’s Daniel Romano as simply Daniel, Fred and Julie. There are no favours called in here, however; Squire plays everything himself, and sings layers of stacked harmonies that Daniel Lanois would be proud of. There are times, in fact, when one is reminded of the missed opportunities of the recent Lanois/Neil Young collaboration; though March 12 and Le Noise bear little resemblance to each other, Squire successfully navigates traditional folk music and roads less travelled, guaranteed to appeal to both Young’s generation and, well, the young generation—and anyone in between who’s ever had a date with 3 a.m. existential angst and old country records. (Jan. 6)
Download: “Old Times Past New Times,” “Pretty Bird,” “The Future of Tradition”
Victoire – Cathedral City (New Amsterdam)
Composer Missy Mazzoli doesn’t wait around for commissions from Carnegie Hall, the Whitney Museum of Art, or for her work to be performed by the Kronos Quartet, the New York City Opera and many more, or for teaching gigs in composition at Yale—although all of those accomplishments already appear on her resumé. Instead, she writes for and performs with Victoire, a New York City quintet with two keyboards, clarinet, violin and double bass, along with a healthy dose of electronics and samples. Mazzoli’s work is largely textural and abstract, at times owing more to experimental electronic dance music than classical tradition—despite the absence of percussion. (Jan. 6)
Download: “Like a Miracle,” “The Diver,” “I Am Coming For My Things”
Joey Wright – Hatch (Black Hen)
Talented instrumentalist Joey Wright is an in-demand session player, having been hired to tour with Sarah Harmer and Amy Millan, and he’s released two previous albums of acoustic music, one of which nabbed him a Juno Award. Four years later, Wright steps up to the mic and introduces vocals to the mix, but he also steps away from traditional folk. Here, he creates dreamy pop music and ragged, slightly psychedelic rock instead. He still draws from bluegrass, folk and country, but the textures are much richer, thanks in part to lap steel player Christine Bougie and a rhythm section borrowed from Stars (Evan Cranley, Pat McGee). His longtime partner Jenny Whiteley co-writes two songs and sings back-up vocals. Where his previous work sounded like an instrumentalist flexing his muscle, the songs here are much more solid, and not just because many of them feature his soft, crooning vocals. Hatch is a low-key, late-night gem that should shine a light on Wright as more than merely a stringmaster. (Jan. 13)
Download: “The Scar,” “Expectations Are the Killer,” “Hives”