Well worth your while: Iceberg Ferg, Lee Harvey Osmond, Tre Mission
Good times: C & C, Kathryn Calder, Calexico, Whitney Rose
Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit (Sony)
Courtney Barnett often sounds bored. That doesn’t make her music boring. The deadpan Aussie is just as likely to be rambling over a furious, garage punk stomp as she is over a languid, jazzy waltz or mid-tempo Americana, her thoughts tumbling out of her mouth, her melodies formed just as often from inflections in her voice as they are from specific notes.
Barnett is an unlikely rock star—meaning, in part, that she’s the first major-label female artist in recent history who doesn’t appear to have been sent to wardrobe and makeup. But it’s more than that. She’s seemingly a slacker stumbling into greatness (see: the album title), yet it’s precisely her nonchalance that’s most enticing—and deceptive. “Put me on a pedestal, and I’ll only disappoint you,” she howls in “Pedestrian at Best.” “Tell me I’m exceptional and I promise to exploit you.” Here we are now—entertain us.
Barnett has been open about her battles with depression. She tried medicating for a while, then decided against it, turning instead to writing and shaping her thoughts into songs. “I’m not suicidal, I’m just idling insignificantly,” she sings. Except that there’s nothing insignificant about this, her first full-length (last year’s compilation of two EPs included her breakout track, “Avant Gardener”). Barnett is confident, curious, funny and raw, and a unique, valuable voice. And her record rocks. (April 9)
Download: “Pedestrian at Best,” “Nobody Really Cares if You Don’t Go to the Party,” “Depreston”
C & C – Surffactory (Six Shooter)
Surf rock gets a bad name. Yes, it’s an instrumental subgenre pretty much confined to the early ’60s. Yes, it’s reliant on reverb and whammy bars and will probably always make you think of Duane Eddy or the James Bond theme or “Wipeout.”
There’s a reason why guitarists love surf rock: it’s where they get to shine not just as a lead instrument, but as the keeper of the melody, tasked with making repeated motifs interesting every time, using the most minor inflections to inject variety into an inherently limited framework. All their favourite country, blues, jazz, psychedelic and even metal tricks can be deployed judiciously.
Little surprise then, that one of Canada’s greatest guitarists of the last 30 years has taken a second stab at a solo career with this new band. Colin Cripps has played guitar with Crash Vegas, Blue Rodeo, Kathleen Edwards and others; his first album fronting his own material a couple of years ago was met with mostly crickets. Here, however, he teams up with Champagne James Robertson (a.k.a. the other “C”) from New Country Rehab and Lindi Ortega’s band, along with a rumbling rhythm section and ace producer Chris Stringer on keyboards. Together, they dive right in and start riding the waves with ease; Cripps and Robertson sound like they’ve played together for years, such is their chemistry.
The elephant in the room here is the ghost of Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet, the wildly inventive ’80s Toronto band who pushed boundaries in the genre with a giddy irreverence and a guitarist, Brian Connelly, who had as much raw energy and guts as he did technical skill and melodic mastery—plenty. C & C are polished players, maybe a bit too much so for my tastes. Connelly is alive and well and still making music, somewhere around the corner from these guys. But the more the merrier, right? Surffactory is a rollicking, rocking good time, a band guaranteed to electrify every stage they invade this summer. (April 30)
Download: “Takeshiesque,” “Cobra Basket,” “Dirty Skirty”
Kathryn Calder – s/t (File Under: Music)
Just because she plays in a long-running, internationally acclaimed band doesn’t mean Kathryn Calder can’t be underrated. The keyboardist and singer in the New Pornographers now has three solo albums under her belt (and earlier records with her first band, Immaculate Machine), where her lovely melodies and bell-clear voice are surrounded by striking and occasionally dense layers of sound. On this and her previous record, that sound has been crafted with help from her husband, Colin Stewart, one of the most talented producers and sound sculptors in Canada or elsewhere (Dan Mangan, Black Mountain, Veda Hille, Yukon Blonde). With his other clients, Stewart usually tacks to a more straightforward approach; with Calder, both of their imaginations run wild.
It’s been four years since 2011’s Bright and Vivid—which received merely a perfunctory amount of attention, like its predecessor, 2009’s Are You My Mother?—and there’s a reason for the gap: there’s a lost album in between. Calder’s first two records were informed by the loss of both her parents in succession; after Bright and Vivid she wrote and recorded an album’s worth of songs taking stock of her life. Then she scrapped it. She felt like she was just going through the motions. What we hear here began with synths and loops in the home studio she shares with Stewart.
That explains why texture triumphs over songcraft here. Calder will always be a melodic songwriter, of course, but the songs this time out sound like sketches onto which she and Stewart paint with aural watercolours. On the rare occasion they throw a strong rhythm track underneath (“Take a Little Time”), pleasant shades of Stereolab start to surface. Mostly, however, they’re happily lost in their own sound world, somewhere by the Pacific Ocean, surrounded by possibility. (April 16)
Download: “Beach,” “Take a Little Time,” “My Armour”
Another Calexico album—their eighth—and another round of ponderous reviews about how exactly the desert and Arizona landscape informs its music. Which is true, of course. And there are precious few American acts nominally described as “rock” that incorporate Latino influences as effectively as Calexico—which is, frankly, weird, considering the demographics of the U.S. Turns out that country’s not exactly a melting pot after all.
The state of Calexico, however, is. There are the expected mariachi and cumbia influences, but also a shade of Jamaican rock steady, an appearance by the Greek band Takim, weeping pedal steel guitars, experimental sounds just beneath the surface, and cameos from old friends Neko Case, Sam Beam of Iron and Wine, and Nick Urata from Devotchka. Guatemalan singer Gaby Moreno and Ben Bridwell from Band Of Horses join the cast because, well, the more the merrier. This band has always operated as more of a social club than an island.
After the mildly disappointing 2012 album Algiers, where Calexico appeared to be smoothing over any remaining rough edges, Edge of the Sun returns to the eclecticism that made modern classics out of 2003’s Feast of Wire or 2008’s Carried to Dust. Is it just more of the same, then? Sure—as much as you could ever say that about a band with this level of musical curiosity. (April 16)
Download: “Tapping on the Line,” “Chinchon Ciudad del Sueno,” “Moon Never Rises”
Gonzales – Chambers (Gentle Threat)
Chilly Gonzales: The man who helped shape Feist’s songs into the classics they became, the man called upon by Daft Punk and Drake to add a touch of class to blockbuster albums, the self-declared musical genius who became an unlikely star in France with an album of tiny, perfect solo piano vignettes.
Gonzales used to want to be a pop star himself, but by following up his Solo Piano II album with this, another instrumental album, this time featuring strings alongside his piano, he seems content to let the grand gestures go to his collaborators while he focuses on his neo-classical reputation: no less than the Royal Conservatory of Music has commissioned him to write new work for them, and he’s published a book of etudes and released instructional videos.
Lately, however, Gonzales has been more interesting to discuss, or to interview, than to listen to. Chambers is perfectly pleasant and features some of the melodic elements that made Solo Piano so compelling, but it doesn’t come close to matching Gonzales’s visions of his own grandeur. If he’s going to set such high standards for himself, he should try to meet them. Closing with the album’s sole vocal track, he puns and lisps while he promises that “you’re going to myth me.” Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe next time. (April 9)
Download: “Advantage Points,” “Solitaire,” “Sample This”
Who is Iceberg Ferg? Most people on this side of the Strait of Georgia have no idea. He’s a solo artist from Victoria who made this album in a cabin on Pender Island and … that’s all I got. He’s a local secret, beloved by the local campus radio station and programmers for Calgary’s Sled Island festival, but that’s it. Ferg is a finger-picking guitarist with a falsetto voice who moves between straight-up acoustic blues and folk to reverb-drenched, lo-fi psychedelic pop songs, falling somewhere between Chad Van Gaalen and the guy from Canned Heat, with a bit of the outsider weirdness of Willis Earl Beal. It’s haunting, arresting and completely engaging. Part of me wants to know a lot more about him and where this music comes from; part of me believes that fragile beauty like this is best left unexplained. (April 30)
Download: “Let’s Make It Real,” “All Night Long,” “Stranger As the Days Go By”
Tobias Jesso Jr. – Goon (Arts and Crafts)
The 1970s in California produced dozens of top-notch songwriters: some famous, some not-so-famous, many of which are rediscovered by subsequent generations, and revisited by young songwriters. The latest is Tobias Jesso, Jr., a 29-year-old Vancouver native who retreated home after four years in L.A., only to write songs that suddenly got attention from the calibre of people he’d been trying to impress for years. So here we are, with a debut album of piano ballads for sad sacks on sunny days, produced by John Collins (New Pornographers, Destroyer), the Black Keys’ Patrick Karney, and the man behind hits by Vampire Weekend and Haim (Ariel Rechtshaid), released by Broken Social Scene’s Arts and Crafts label.
Naturally, it sounds great—on the surface. A songwriter’s album has to have great songs, however, and here Jesso sounds like a green lightweight who needs more time to cut his teeth. The songs are pleasant, but, with few exceptions, hardly memorable; the lyrics never leap out at you. On top of that, his own piano playing sounds clunky and forced. Jesso might have a lot of heavyweights in his corner, but he doesn’t sound quite ready for prime time. (April 2)
Download: “Can’t Stop Thinking About You,” “Hollywood,” “For You”
Are scars beautiful? I’m sure the scarred rarely feel that way. But the older we get, the more wisdom we gain, and hopefully we learn to love who we are, no matter the emotional or physical beatings we’ve endured. I don’t know if Hamilton singer/songwriter Tom Wilson (Junkhouse, Blackie and the Rodeo Kings) has any actual physical scars, but he sings like he’s rode a few emotional rollercoasters in his time. This is Wilson’s third album as Lee Harvey Osmond, a collaboration with Cowboy Junkies’ Michael Timmins and the Skydiggers’ Josh Finlayson, in which Wilson leaves his loud guitars behind and digs into spooky blues and the underbelly of the Canadian folk tradition, with jazzy horns and flutes, weeping pedal steel guitar (courtesy of the masterful Aaron Goldstein), haunting vibraphones and beatnik hand percussion. More than a few hellhounds appear to be on his tail.
Ever since this project’s inception, Wilson’s been churning out the best songs of his career (and cherry-picking from his past, as he does here with the title track of his 2001 album Planet Love), letting his luxuriously rich baritone wrap itself around tales of regret, mystery and renewal. It’s a bit odd that Timmins’s sparse arrangements here surpass those heard on recent Cowboy Junkies records; while that band moved on, for better or worse, it’s Lee Harvey Osmond who has inherited the lessons learned from the first two Junkies records.
There’s nothing about Beautiful Scars that’s any better or worse or different than 2010’s A Quiet Evil or 2013’s The Folk Sinner—there’s no need. Wilson and Timmins have hit a groove and they’re making some of the best music of their career. And the longer they do it, the more records they make that sound like this, it won’t seem like an odd side project—but instead one of the greatest Canadian bands of the last 10 years. (April 9)
Download: “Blue Moon Drive,” “Shake the Hand,” “Black Spruce”
Whitney Rose – Heartbreaker of the Year (Cameron House)
Charlottetown native Whitney Rose is getting a lot of attention for this, her second album, because it was produced by Raul Malo of Miami’s legendary Mavericks, one of the most commercially and critically successfully country bands of the past 20 years. Malo is an undeniably talented and classy guy, and his word goes a long way. His band provides the rhythm section here. But the big names in the room all pale next to the sweet songbird voice of Ms. Rose, who would have no problem blowing away audiences all on her lonesome.
She’s not lonely here, however. In addition to the Mavericks, she has some of Toronto’s finest players: guitarist Nichol Robertson (who put out an underrated instrumental record a few years back; he also plays in Devin Cuddy’s band), pedal steel guitarist Burke Carroll (whose resumé is too long to list) and violinist Drew Jurecka (Jill Barber).
The production, players, and especially Rose’s voice all shine. The songs aren’t as strong, and covers of Phil Spector and Hank Williams seem superfluous, even when Malo duets with her on “Be My Baby.” But there’s no doubt that Rose is bound for the big time. (April 30)
Download: “Heartbreaker of the Year,” “My First Rodeo,” “The Devil Borrowed My Boots”
It’s hard enough for Canadian hip-hop MCs to get noticed in America; rarer still is the MC signed to a British label. In this case, it’s Big Dada, home to Roots Manuva, Young Fathers and Wiley. (They’ve also put out records by Canucks Cadence Weapon and Thunderheist.) This debut by Toronto’s Tre Mission came out months ago, but despite some favourable notices and a Juno nomination, it’s safe to say that it’s still flying far beneath the radar.
Shame, then: Tre Mission has immense skill and flow, and easily carves out his own niche in this country. That’s because he grew up listening to U.K. grime, a hip-hop style that never really caught on in North America but is still thriving there; scene veteran Wiley took Tre Mission under his wing, on tour, and guests here, as do other Brits. But Tre gets hometown love too: Saukrates and K-OS also drop by.
Most impressive, though, is Tre’s production: he’s a master beatmaker, with depth and texture framing the melodies underneath his rhymes. He’s versatile, too: some tracks here could go pop, while others are rooted in underground sounds. Stigmata would be just as compelling as an entirely instrumental album; if for whatever reason his flows fall on deaf ears, he easily has a backup plan as a producer for others. (April 23)
Download: “Real Grind,” “On Road,” “Boy in the Corner”