Friday, August 27, 2021

Coke Machine Glow at 20


Gord Downie's first solo record, Coke Machine Glow, came out 20 years ago. It's being treated to a deluxe double-vinyl release, with an extra disc of outtakes, and another disc of his friends and family reading excerpts from the book of poetry that accompanied the album. (In 2001, Downie insisted the book-album bundle be sold only at bookstores, not record stores, something that some booksellers still fondly remembered when I was doing my book tour in 2018.)

More information about the reissue here

 


 

Coke Machine Glow is, to me, one of the greatest things Downie ever did. I loved the people he chose to work with. I loved the songs. I loved the fact that the mainstream absolutely fucking hated this record. I wrote The Never-Ending Present, in part, because I knew most other people writing about the Tragically Hip would not give Coke Machine Glow the time of day, or treat it as anything other than a footnote. (The title of my book comes from a song on this record.) While touring the book, I was amazed to learn that there were many Hip fans who had never even heard it. On the flip side, I know there are many Coke Machine Glow fans who would never identify as Tragically Hip fans—some of whom only discovered the album after reading my book. On my book tour, I invited many local performers at each stop to play Hip and/or Downie songs at my readings. More than I would have expected picked songs from Coke Machine Glow. (Especially in Sackville. You can read my tour diaries, starting here.)


This is the chapter I wrote about Coke Machine Glow. I'm proud of the entire book, of course, but I'm particularly proud of this one. Thanks again to Kevin Hearn, Dave Clark, Julie Doiron, Dale Morningstar, José Contreras and Steven Drake for their time and their endless talents.


More information about The Never-Ending Present, which is an awesome book you should buy if you haven't already, is here


News about my new book, due out next spring, is coming soon.


CHAPTER FOURTEEN

Is the actor happy?

2001: Coke Machine Glow

 

“You must experiment. You do things in which you eliminate something which is perhaps essential, but to learn how essential it is you leave it out. The space then becomes very significant.” —Henry Moore

 

In 1999, Gord Downie was restless. He was tired of playing arenas. He’d been inspired by the opening acts he’d curated for Hip tours and Another Roadside Attractions. He was writing songs he knew wouldn’t fit with the Hip. He had itches that couldn’t be scratched. It was time for artistic infidelity. 

 

In any other band with 12 years of recording behind them, this wouldn’t be a surprise. It’s more unusual when this doesn’t happen. But inside the Tragically Hip, it was blasphemy among brothers. Several sources say that Downie’s decision came at a time of poor communication and passive aggression, and it caused a degree of discomfort for much of the next decade. When Gord started doing solo albums,” Rob Baker admitted in 2017, “none of us liked it, because he had a voice with us.” 

 

I put the question to Jake Gold: what led to Downie’s decision to make a solo record, and how was it received inside the band? The normally forthcoming Gold slightly paused, gave a steely glare and responded, “I’m not going to talk about that.” 

 

Coke Machine Glow came out in March 2001 and caused as much confusion as it did excitement. The Tragically Hip could still be heard constantly on every classic rock station in Canada; those stations did not play Coke Machine Glow, with its dirgey country songs and poetry set to soundscapes, an album where there are only two uptempo songs: one sounds like the Velvet Underground’s “White Light White Heat,” the other is a polka with a tuba and banjo. Mainstream press were likewise baffled. The indie scene was inherently suspicious of a rock star slumming in its world. The new band was scrappy, loose and exploratory, not a tight rock’n’roll machine. “Maybe Downie wanted the creaky-boards feel of a coffee-house poetry reading,” wrote the Kingston Whig-Standard reviewer (and later Michael Bublé biographer), who cited the “clompy percussion with timid acoustic guitar and Downie’s hesitant vocals in an under-produced sound that has the deliberate unfinished feel of a demo tape.” The Globe and Mail wanted to know “how someone so demanding of his words can be so complacent about the music.”

 

Gord Downie would never make another record like it again. Yet it became one of the most beloved albums in his discography . Musicians who played on it say that strangers ask them about it all the time. Coke Machine Glow is to Downie what Nebraska is to Bruce Springsteen or Tonight’s the Night to Neil Young: an album full of songs shunned by radio and rarely performed live, yet adored not only by certain fans but by people uninterested in almost everything else by the artist in question. Coke Machine Glow became a secret whispered from one sympathetic ear to another. Like its title, it was a beacon of light in unfamiliar surroundings from a widely recognized brand name.

--

The album was born on a train. Travelling from Kingston to Toronto, Downie asked Steven Drake for ideas about how to make a solo record. Drake told him to just get a good group of people and record it all live. A solo project would inevitably be a home for songs that fell outside of the Tragically Hip’s oeuvre. But Drake says Downie was “more interested in a certain combination of people and what that would bring about.” 

 

The first person he had in mind was Josh Finlayson of the Skydiggers. “He was really the first friend I made in Toronto,” Downie said. “We’ve been like brothers ever since.” It was Finlayson who convinced him the project could work. Drake was hired as producer, engineer and bassist. Recording at the Bathouse was out: Downie wanted something totally fresh. Not a single piece of equipment, not even a guitar, would be borrowed from the Hip’s clubhouse. 

 

Downie booked the Gas Station studio, at 53 Fraser Avenue in Toronto’s Liberty Village, run by Dale Morningstar and Don Kerr. Kerr was in the Rheostatics and had toured with the Hip on Another Roadside Attraction in 1995 and on an arena tour in 1997. On the last night of that tour, there was an after-party at the studio, which is where Downie first fell in love with the space. Morningstar and Kerr had once been bandmates in the Dinner Is Ruined, an often chaotic, noisy avant-garde band that started out on the outer reaches of grunge, with nods to Sonic Youth, and got progressively stranger with each record. The Gas Station was their playground, stocked with junkyard instruments and odd artifacts. When Kerr left the Dinner Is Ruined, Morningstar and keyboardist John “Dr. Pee” Press continued as a duo until original Rheos drummer Dave Clark signed on. Kerr remained a partner in the Gas Station, a studio that birthed many beloved records of the late ’90s, including Thrush Hermit’s Clayton Park, Neko Case’s Furnace Room Lullaby and Godspeed You Black Emperor’s Slow Riot for a New Zero Kanada EP. 

 

In the 1990s, Liberty Village was full of disused factories and loft spaces. It was a corner of Toronto that time forgot, colonized only by film crews and artists looking for maximum space at minimal rent. Today, it’s a bustling village of towering condos, prime office space, upscale bars and high-end grocery stores. At the Gas Station in 2000, you still had to load your gear onto an old freight elevator and down a dusty hallway before entering the magical playroom, with its 12-foot-high ceilings and huge windows that offered a panoramic view of the city. “It was a Fibonacci room,” says Drake, “meaning the height of the ceiling to the width of the wall was 1:618, the Golden Ratio. Those proportions are comforting for people.” The acoustics are inherently impeccable in such a room.

 

Morningstar was assisting Drake with the studio set-up in late March 2000 when he got a call saying the studio was being evicted. The next week Morningstar staged an anti-gentrification protest outside his landlord’s office, which rallied other artists and got some local media coverage. That night he had a Dinner is Ruined gig at College Street venue Ted’s Wrecking Yard. Having always been the kind of band to walk a tightwire act, with no script or plan, the Dinner is Ruined was known for having an erratic live show. “DIR is like someone plugs the thing in and you never know if it will hop, buzz, fizzle or explode,” said Dave Clark. When they were on fire, however, as they were that night at Ted’s, they were mind-blowing. Gord Downie was in the audience that night, witnessing Morningstar, Clark and Press channel their eviction blues into a strange performance piece about the birth of the universe. Downie was grinning in the middle of the room; one could almost see a light bulb going off over his head. 

 

That week was the first of two scheduled sessions for Coke Machine Glow, with Kerr on drums and Kevin Hearn on piano. It started out, recalled Hearn, as a series of “very mellow, stoned afternoons.” Until it wasn’t. “The people directly below the studio were having some sort of eviction party,” said Hearn. “They were trashing the place—hurling couches, smashing appliances, throwing bottles at the wall. Gord was trying to do a vocal take, but the noise was too much. He took off his headphones, walked downstairs and calmly walked into their party. I tagged along. Everything stopped when Gord walked in; it was like an old Western movie. Wearing a plaid shirt, jeans and cowboy hat, he politely asked if they could please give us an hour, so he could finish his last vocal take. Everyone in the room, a little shocked, said, yes, of course, sorry et cetera. We went back upstairs and finished his vocal, accompanied by beautiful, reverent silence.” 

 

It resulted in only two songs, “Chancellor” and “SF Song,” along with a rocking, Lou Reed–style take on “Vancouver Divorce” before both Hearn and Kerr had to leave for tour commitments with Barenaked Ladies and Ron Sexsmith, respectively. They were scheduled to return for a second session in June, but the Gas Station was being evicted by May 15. Morningstar called Downie with the bad news; Downie begged to reschedule for any time available before the eviction.

 

Dave Clark heard about this and knew that Kerr couldn’t finish the record. He asked Morningstar to tell Downie he was available if needed. Morningstar was reluctant; he didn’t feel he knew Downie well enough to put in a word for a friend. But he did. “The Dave Clark?” asked an enthused Downie. “I didn’t think he’d be into it—but yes!”

 

Dave Clark joined the Rheostatics when he was a teenager, in 1980. His last three records with the band—1990’s Melville, 1992’s Whale Music, 1994’s Introducing Happiness—garnered a massive word-of-mouth cult audience, comprised mainly of fellow musicians, including Neil Peart of Rush. Clark was one of four very different and charismatic characters in the Rheos, whose live shows would veer from the triumphant to harrowing to downright silly. He would often play around the beat rather than delivering a standard rock pulse.

 

He joined the Dinner Is Ruined on the day he quit the Rheostatics in 1995. He then focused on his improv band, the Woodchoppers Association, while also doing “different joe jobs: a lot of office cleaning and deliveries, some consulting for music festivals,” he said. “I was still delivering Now magazine at that point.” 

 

Many people didn’t understand why Dave Clark would leave the Rheos for the Dinner is Ruined, or why Gord Downie would possibly hire that band to comprise the majority of his. “With DIR,” said Dave Clark, “it gave me the ultimate faith in any sound, any thought: just make it, if you believe in it. Playing with that band, I learned how to give in. I used to delineate between improvisation and playing songs. I was wrong. You can do what you want.” That freedom was what Downie went looking for. 

 

When sessions resumed, Morningstar started out plucking the strings of the piano with a guitar pick on “Blackflies” and ended up playing on most of the tracks. “He was like fungus,” said Steven Drake, when talking about Morningstar. “He just grew into it.”

 

Musicians sat in a circle. Finlayson and Drake knew the songs; Morningstar and Clark were learning as they went. Overdubs, including vocals, were minimal. Drake conducted the band while playing bass; at the end of a take, he’d run back to the control room to work the board. No one wore headphones except Downie, who used a small set of what Clark described as “airplane Walkman headphones, just to get a bit more attenuation on his vocals. We played at a whisper. The record sounds much bigger than what it is.” 

 

“We didn’t have any amplification,” said Drake. “We were playing at an acoustic level, so we could hear Gord singing in the room. I just had a kick drum mic and a single overhead on the drums. Gord was singing in a Beyer Dynamic Ribbon mic from the ’50s, the same kind of mic Stan Getz used on his horn for ‘Girl From Ipanema.’ He was playing his Martin nylon string [acoustic guitar], and he was quite awkward on his guitar.” 

 

“I’d never experienced that before,” said Clark, “but the sound was phenomenal. The tones are so clear and we’re playing together, so it’s very dynamic.” 

 

“There was a magic on that record,” said Morningstar. “There was a map, but I don’t think anyone knew the direction. That’s not a bad thing; we were just moving forward. Some things just happened. The original title [track] was ‘Insomniacs of the World, Goodnight.’ That song came about when I was in the other room, jamming away on the pump organ by myself. Gord was walking through and said, ‘Hey, is that something? Can I use that?’ So he got Steven to come in, mic it up. Gord had his lyrics and they just did it, right then and there. Then they layered on Dave doing some swells and Julie [Doiron] on backing vocals. Gord was so open to stuff like that, the spontaneity of those moments.”

 

Some of those moments were glorious mistakes—mostly from Dale Morningstar. “If Dale plays what sounds like a wrong note at first, he’ll lean into that thing until it’s the right note,” said Clark. “He’ll bruise that note until you stop feeling the pain and it starts tasting sweet. He’s magical that way.” By Divine Right’s José Contreras, who played organ on two songs, was there when Morningstar played an atonal, screeching note right before the third verse of “Vancouver Divorce.” “I remember Steven Drake: [makes pained face, covers ears] Fuckin’ HELL,’” said Contreras. “I was sitting there going, ‘That’s fucking beautiful.’” 

 

“Dale was the studio rat character,” said Drake. “He’s a funny guy. I don’t know if he was shitting me or not, but I remember I turned to him and said, ‘Oh, that’s a D.’ He said, ‘Huh? I don’t know what that is.’ Then he played a D. If I played it, he could play it, but he didn’t know the names.” 

 

“What’s beautiful about the record is the vulnerability, and surrendering to these people that [Gord] trusted,” said Morningstar. “Nobody there sounds like a session player, or like they’re phoning it in or following orders. And there are songs like ‘Trick Rider’: I can’t imagine the Hip doing something that delicate. That set of lyrics also strikes me as the strongest.”

 

“Trick Rider” is one of the most beautiful songs about parenting ever written, and the most straightforward, emotionally vulnerable set of lyrics Downie had penned since “Fiddler’s Green.” It’s not particularly original subject matter: the narrator marvels at the innocence of his children, long before the hypocrisies and failures of the future can corrupt their idealism. He cannot bear to watch them perform dangerous, carefree acts, even as he admires their fearlessness. In Downie’s hands, of course, the song avoids cliché, and the harmonies with Julie Doiron of Eric’s Trip make it even more haunting. 

 

“I absolutely adore ‘Trick Rider,’ which I think is one of the greatest songs he ever wrote,” said Clark. “Julie is amazing on that song. The lyric is heartbreaking. I liked that it addressed being an adult with children. A lot of people hide who they are, and Gord did not. He’s a dad. There’s nothing more rock’n’roll than being a dad—oh, wait, yes there is: being a mom!” Clark’s daughter is the same age as Doiron’s and Downie’s eldest; all were about five years old at the time of Coke Machine Glow. The song would routinely move Clark to tears while playing it live, even 10 years later. Doiron called it “one of the most beautiful songs ever written.” She’s not wrong.

 

Doiron was not given much notice before the session: when she got the call, she was leaving for a Swedish tour in two days, so she went to Toronto a day early before her flight. “Trick Rider” just happened to be the song scheduled for that day. “No one said, ‘We’ve been waiting for you to do this one,’” Doiron recalled. She played piano, which she rarely does, only because there were three other guitarists there. 

 

Doiron and Contreras were two of several players outside the core band brought into the main session. Jaro Czerwinec, who played accordion on the Cowboy Junkies’ Trinity Session, provided a direct link to one of Coke Machine Glow’s inspirations. Andy Maize of the Skydiggers played trumpet. Filmmaker Atom Egoyan played classical guitar. Los Lobos drummer Louie Perez co-wrote one song. The Sadies’ Travis Good played fiddle and mandolin. 

 

For a record that was supposed to be entirely Hip-free, one guest was more than conspicuous in his presence: Paul Langlois, Downie’s oldest friend in the band, contributes his unmistakable harmonies on “Lofty Pines” and “Yer Possessed.” It was a last-minute decision. Because the entire album was being recorded to only eight tracks, Travis Good’s fiddle got wiped from those two tracks to make room for Langlois. 

 

Contreras credits Downie’s faith and Drake’s expertise with the album’s success. “It was incredible, musically,” he said. “‘Vancouver Divorce’ was three takes: every take, different set of lyrics. No lyric book in front of him. Maybe he’d have some papers to look at. But he’d sing a lyric and you’d think, ‘That verse is incredible.’ Then he’d not do that verse in the next take. And you can’t be like, ‘Oh, don’t forget that verse.’ Because these other verses are just as great.” 

 

That said, Contreras felt a clash between what he perceived as the straight half of the band—Drake and Finlayson, both coming from musically conservative rock bands—and the weirdoes from the Dinner Is Ruined. “Steve very much believed in the songs and thought it could be a hit record,” said Contreras. “Because that’s what he does. You can take that really any way you want. There was a lot of tension in the air because Dale and Dave did not click with Steven Drake. I’d had a video hit and I was twenty-nine and Steven pulled me over to get me onto his team: ‘C’mon, José, you like hit records, buddy, we want to make a hit record here, don’t you think?’ Then Dale and Dave did the same thing, pulling me into another room and grouching about ‘fucking corporate rock’ and how shit it is, and the attitude. There was real tension in the studio, but Gord was either oblivious or rose right above it. Not a word about it, zero.”

 

Contreras was only in the studio two days. The others dispute his version of events. “The sun would be shining in the windows,” said Clark. “Everyone was very happy, joyous, very relaxed. Gord and Steve had a vibe together that made sense. There were times when I wasn’t sure if Steven was making the right decisions, but I listen to the record, and it really makes me happy.” 

 

“I don’t think there was any uneasiness,” said Morningstar. “I think we were all trying to harvest those songs. I was trying to play as sparse as I could and not overstep. I was the colour man. That’s how I saw myself. It was the first chance I’d had to play with a singer, an outside singer, and really try to play off his voice, or complement it. That’s what everyone was trying to do: not step on the music.”

 

“I mean, Steven Drake did an amazing job,” said Contreras. “If you listen with the idea that one person in the room was producing and engineering and also in close touch with Gord about what the idea was, and he’s playing bass while looking around the room, too—and then you listen to the bass playing—you realize he’s a fucking master.”

--

For his first solo performance outside the Tragically Hip, Gord Downie could not have chosen an environment more unlike the rock clubs where he cut his teeth. That said, it did involve beer. 

 

Held on February 3, 2001, at the newly opened Steam Whistle Brewery in the shadow of the CN Tower, the Do What?! Festival was curated by Dave Clark and Terence Dick of the Woodchoppers Association. Downie was a featured performer, alongside performance artist Sook-Yin Lee, Toronto avant-garde veteran “sound poet” Paul Dutton, dance performances by Andrea Nann and Lisa Prebianca and art installations including one by Reid Diamond of Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet, who’d died of cancer months before. Tickets were $10, available only at College Street record store Soundscapes. They sold out immediately. Judging by the dress code of the crowd at this freaky event, a significant majority were mainstream Hip fans unsure what they were in for.

 

“It was the kind of gig I’d normally do with the Woodchoppers,” said Clark, “dancers, singers, visual artists, musicians all together. Gord worked out these dance pieces with Andrea Nann, who is one of the greatest living exponents of modern dance Canada has ever produced. He improvised with the Woodchoppers. We had a huge band, and everyone was dressed up in everything from hockey gear to princess and fairy outfits. Gord kicked it through the post, man. It was really good. I remember some people being beside themselves, freaking out at how much fun it was, and others were just shocked.” Nothing about the evening was predictable or rote. Downie looked delighted, completely at ease in this environment. 

 

In July 2001, Downie debuted his “Goddamned Band” with Finlayson, Morningstar and Clark, as well as John “Dr. Pee” Press from the Dinner Is Ruined on keyboards and Julie Doiron, who would alternate between guitar and bass with Finlayson. Their first gig was playing a webcast for the Umbrella Music site. “We’d rehearsed a bit, but I didn’t feel like I really knew the songs yet,” said Doiron. “I went up to Gord and said, ‘I’m sorry I’m so nervous! I’m freaking out. What am I doing here? Why me?’ He said, ‘Julie, you’re here because I need you here.’ He could have easily had any studio musician who would know all the parts. But he didn’t want that. I don’t think he’s ever looked for that. He wants people he wants to be around, creative people, not necessarily technically good. That’s what makes working with him so cool, because he trusts whatever it is you’re going to do. I’ve never been given any guidance. He’s like, ‘You know what to do.’”

 

That was followed by a few select dates at summer folk festivals, starting the weekend of July 27 at the Calgary Folk Festival and the Hillside Festival in Guelph, Ontario. Those shows threw a lot of Hip fans for a loop, even if they had bought Coke Machine Glow a few months earlier. “Sure, some hardcore Hip fans just hated it,” said Morningstar. “But I’m sure some thought, ‘This is different, this is great.’ People didn’t shout out for Hip tunes. We thought that might happen, but it didn’t at all. Gord was just proud— proud of the band and what we were doing. He would say stuff like, ‘I love this band. I believe in this band. This is my band. I’m really good at putting bands together.’ He didn’t give a fuck what anyone thought. He wanted to make it good from his own perspective and from ours.” 

 

The Goddammed Band, later renamed the Country of Miracles, was a relief valve for Downie. If the Hip had become entrenched in an all-too-familiar working method, with audiences cheering the loudest for songs written 10 years prior, this new band had something to prove every night. And they were fearless players. 

 

“Things would get outside,” said Clark. “That band was able to go in on a dime. Lots of vocals, some really bluegrassy stuff. I ended up playing tuba; we all played different things. When we went to New York City, we’d play in the middle of the audience. We’d stretch things out; Gord would extemporize. Every time we’d go on tour there would be a lot of taking the piss out of each other and loads of jokes. After gigs, we’d put on some music and dance and sing on the bus. We’d hang out and talk about music. Everybody in that band is a hyper nerd.” 

 

It wasn’t just Downie learning from his band; the exchange was mutual on all fronts. Clark praised Doiron for influencing his own playing. “She’s a monster of a musician,” he said. “She’s one of the hardest-working musicians I’ve ever met and manages to raise a gigantic family of kids. She had this vibe, this groove, this pocket she could get into, which helped me out as a player a lot. I tend to get adrenalized and can push things too hard. She made me aware of some things that could work better, and I thought, ‘I should listen to this person. She knows what she’s talking about.’”

 

It was also a band of singers. Having just toured with Kate Fenner as a temporary member of the Hip, Downie relished the even bigger harmonies his new band could provide. So did Clark. “I love singing with people, probably more than I love drumming,” he said. “Sometimes I’d be on stage and it would be like, ‘Holy fuck, man, I’m singing backups with Gord Downie!’ I’d look around, and there were all my friends I’d known for years and we’re on stage together and the whole thing’s bouncing and we’re having a good time. Then my brain would shut off and I’d start listening and be part of the band again.” 

 

Cover songs appeared in many of the sets, the first time since he had a record contract that Downie regularly sang other people’s songs live. The Goddammned Band did some Randy Newman, some Bob Dylan, some Taj Mahal, some CCR. And one particularly memorable version of Neil Young’s “Tonight’s the Night.” 

 

“We ended up headlining the Edmonton Folk Festival, at night,” Clark recalled. “The ampitheatre there is on what looks like a ski hill, and people light candles so it’s like looking at stars at night. The band before us was Baaba Maal’s big band, from Africa, an eighteen-piece band with dancers. I remember standing at the side of the stage with Dale and saying, ‘Jesus. Who thought this was a good idea, to put us on after these guys?’ But we got up and had, to my mind, the best set of the tour. We started with ‘Tonight’s the Night.’ Gord walked out there and just grabbed it—every night.” 

 

When there was time, the Dinner Is Ruined booked shows for off nights in the same town. Again, Edmonton was a highlight. At a gig at the Liquid Lounge, Finlayson joined them on bass, and Gord commandeered the mic while the five of them improvised an entire set of music. In an odd twist, said Morningstar, “One big DIR fan after was like, ‘Ah, man.’ He was bummed out that Gord Downie was on our stage. I’m like, ‘Oh, c’mon.’” 

 

Something similar happened in Yellowknife. “They put us up in a house for five days,” recalled Morningstar. “One night, a Monday or Tuesday, we went down to the local watering hole, where they had an open mic. We went and said, ‘Can we hit the stage?’ Josh was home sleeping. We took over that room. It was Gord freestyling. It was the DIR with Julie on bass. The crowd had no idea Gord Downie was going to play. They were all standing on tables. No songs, we were just jamming. It was the peak of his freestyling, just going for it.” 

 

Whether or not Downie knew what he had been looking for when he stepped outside the framework of the Hip, he had most certainly found it. This was a new family of freaks, of dancers, of kindred spirits. Even if they never took precedence over the Tragically Hip, even if they only did two other records and tours over the next 16 years, these were people with whom Downie felt at home. The feeling was more than mutual.

 

“The time we spent together was special and intense and instructive,” said Clark. “More than anything, we developed a lifelong friendship. I don’t have to see Julie for years and when I see her it’s beautiful. I go out walking with Josh, and I start laughing before we even open our mouths. All those people who played on the first record: Andy, Don, José, Kevin—they’re all friends. My whole point for playing music personally is to commune with people. I don’t go to church; I’m not a religious person. Where I go to church is when I get on stage with people. I want to be with people. I want to sing. I want that endorphin rush. I want to be a part of something. With Gord and that crew, there was a real community and a real family and I’m deeply grateful for it.”

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Moneyballing the Polaris longlist 2021

Well, this is quite the list. It's wild. I love it. 

I would understand if you don't: there are only two "names" on the list of 40 that most people who don't work in the music industry will recognize (Daniel Lanois, Kathleen Edwards). There's only about eight others that might register (Tobi, Weather Station, Mustafa, Art Bergmann, Charlotte Cardin and previous shortlisters Cadence Weapon, Besnard Lakes and Dominique Fils-Aime). That leaves (at least) 30 underdogs. This field is wiiiiiide open. 

(UPDATED) No one in the Polaris Hall of Fame is on this longlist (nor were they eligible this year). But Cadence Weapon now enters with his fifth nomination (including two shortlists). The Besnard Lakes now have four appearances, with two shortlist nods and two longlist nods. 

Current Hall of Fame stats:

6: Dan Boeckner of Wolf Parade, Handsome Furs, Operators (2 shortlists, 4 longlists)

5: Drake (3 shortlists, 2 longlists); Joel Plaskett (2 shortlists, 3 longlists); New Pornographers (2 shortlists, 3 longlists); Cadence Weapon (2 shortlists, 3 longlists); the Weeknd (1 shortlist, 4 longlists); Tom Wilson of Lee Harvey Osmond and Blackie and the Rodeo Kings (5 longlists)

4: Caribou (winner, 3 shortlists); Owen Pallett (winner, 2 shortlists, 1 longlist); Shad (4 shortlists--a record); Patrick Watson (winner, 1 shortlist, 2 longlists); Basia Bulat (2 shortlists, 2 longlists); BadBadNotGood (2 shortlists, 2 longlists); Besnard Lakes (2 shortlists, 2 longlists); Daniel Romano (4 longlists)


Take the rest of this post with several grains of salt; I'm deep in another project and don't have a lot of time to get too far in the weeds here. Corrections are welcome.

The 2021 list is full of new blood, even with 68-year-old Art Bergmann on there: from what I can tell, 26 artists here have never been on a long list before. 

24 are either female, female-fronted, or non-binary.

From what I know, five are Western Canadian (Art Bergmann, Sargent X Comrade, Vagina Witchcraft; Yu Su; the trio of Shabason, Krgovich and Harris are two-thirds Vancouver). I don't think Cadence Weapon identifies as Western Canadian anymore, seeing how he's writing to his MPP and roasting Toronto mayor John Tory. (UPDATE: the rapper messaged me to say that he's "Edmonton for life.")

I don't see any Atlantic Canadians here, other than those backing up Toronto artist Fiver. Montrealer Russell Louder grew up in P.E.I.

15 artists are from Quebec; one of those is from a remote community north of Quebec City (Laura Niquay). Three are francophone (Sagot, Klo Pelgag, Thierry Larose); Charlotte Cardin has sung in both English and French, though her 2021 album Phoenix is largely in English.

Allison Russell, formerly of Po' Girl and Birds of Chicago, was born in Montreal, lived in Vancouver and Chicago, and now lives in Nashville. Daniel Lanois is living in Toronto these days, though he has a place in L.A.--which is where Torontonian Rochelle Jordan lives now. 

That leaves a whole lot of Ontario on the list. Which is fine by me, if you look at the diversity of people and sounds: the Indigenous electronic music of Zoon, the anthemic pop of Nyssa, the stunning modern balladry of Mustafa, the punk of OBGMs, the gorgeous roots music of Julian Taylor, the new-school hip-hop of DijahSB, the nerdcore art folk of Bernice.

From what I can tell, more than half (22) of the longlisters are racialized minorities; four of those are Indigenous.

Aggressive music is usually marginalized. This year there are two incredibly heavy records by Montreal's Big Brave and the Winnipeg band with the best name on the entire list: Vagina Witchcraft. 

There's more instrumental electronic music than usual: CFCF, Zoon, Yu Su. I didn't really see any of those coming, but that's just me. The Shabason/Krgovich/Harris album is not instrumental, though it certainly taps some Eno/Hassell vibes, and was accompanied by a full-length instrumental version. 

Coupled with those polarities are the more folk-festival sounds of Julian Taylor, Allison Russell, Dominique Fils-Aime and Mustafa.


Shout out to the 40+ crowd for hanging in there: LAL (second longlist in a row), Julian Taylor (who just had his best year ever), Art Bergmann (Order of Canada), Kathleen Edwards (this makes up for the Juno snub), Daniel Lanois (career best), and dark horses the Besnard Lakes. I'm guessing the youthful Allison Russell is over 40; she was in Po' Girl 20 years ago. I have no idea how old Sagot is; he's always sounded at least 70 (glad he's finally getting some overdue Polaris recognition). 

Shout out also to the influence of Jane Siberry, whom I've been thinking about a lot while listening to Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, Bernice, Thanya Iyer, and Helena Deland. 

And much love to eight great records I've been listening a lot that didn't make the list:
C. Diab - White Whale
Alias Ensemble - s/t 
Greg Keelor - Share the Love
Serena Ryder - The Art of Falling Apart
Fly Pan Am - Frontera
Vanille - Soleil '96 
The Garrys - Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (Original Score)
Jennifer Castle - Monarch Season

My totally random guess for the ten spots on the shortlist? I'm not going to do that, other than to place money on Mustafa. The other nine? I have no idea. 

Short list is announced July 15.

In other news, goddammit I miss music festivals, the kind where I could see all of these artists this summer. 





Friday, April 02, 2021

Soundscapes RIP

I’ve been inside dozens, possibly hundreds, of record stores in my life. Soundscapes is the only one where I’ve wanted to own every single thing on their shelves. 


The staple of College Street in Toronto for the last 22 years announced this Easter weekend that they’re closing their doors. Greg Davis opened Soundscapes in 1999—the dawn of file-sharing. Music soon became irreparably devalued, a process that only continued to accelerate. But Soundscapes was where the true believers rallied. It was a destination. When I didn’t live in Toronto, every visit to town had to include a trip to Soundscapes. Every gig I saw at Ted’s Wrecking Yard was usually preceded by a trip across the street to Soundscapes. I still remember the first CD I bought there: the Weakerthans’ Left and Leaving, right before my own band’s gig at Ted’s. Soundscapes was open late, a late-night record shop, to which one might drive downtown in the rain. Am I right, Steven Page?


The curation at Soundscapes was impeccable. Unusually, it was all-new: this record store did not have a used section. You can find a lot of what you’re looking for and more at Sonic Boom, but that store’s Amoeba-style warehouse approach can be overwhelming. Not that I’m complaining, it’s just not always what I want. Rotate This was and still is a vital hub, but that store’s reputation always depended on being the hippest place in town—invaluable, but a vibe of its own. You want International Anthem vinyl or the new Kikagaku Moyo on import? Go to Rotate. You want Exclaim’s and Mojo’s current picks on CD? Go to Soundscapes.


Soundscapes was small, brightly lit, welcoming. Attention to detail marked not just the new releases but the reissues and classic records that should always be in stock. If you were a 60-year-old who’s heard it all, there was always some new collection of R&B Beatles covers, and clipped-out record reviews next to the listening stations to help you with new artists. If you were an 18-year-old who just discovered Irma Thomas and Aphex Twin, those records were always there, too, and easy to find. If you were a local musician, you’d find all your peers in the stacks at the back—and often at the front. Soundscapes was a place where music felt alive, where every shelf felt like a history lesson—about either the last seven months or the last 70 years. The store played an invaluable role in Toronto's exploding music scene at the time: Three Gut Records, Broken Social Scene, Feist (who lived upstairs when she was writing "Let It Die"), Great Lake Swimmers, Fembots, Blocks Recording Club, and others.


The staff were super helpful, especially last man standing "Flipped Out" Phil Liberbaum. Some of them were sorta famous. Steve Lambke of the Constantines was a frequent sight behind the counter, even at the height of his band’s success. John Crossingham of Broken Social Scene was guaranteed to talk your ear off on a slow afternoon (he's probably writing a 10,000-word store obit right now UPDATE: here it is, it's beautiful, please read it). Colin Medley, who’s now one of this country’s finest video directors for the likes of U.S. Girls, worked there for years. Folk singer Isla Craig, of Bruce Peninsula and other projects, worked there. Ubiquitous drummer Jay Anderson, ubiquitous jazzbo Mike Smith.
I'm told Derrick Vella of local death metal heroes Tomb Mold was there also. Julie Fowler, Craig Dunsmuir, Iris Fraser, so many others. My friend Sylvie Smith of the Magic (no, not that one) not only worked the counter but designed many of the gorgeous window displays promoting local artists’ new records. At one point I knew enough people who worked there that I was invited to the store’s Christmas party (the playlist was amazing, of course). Although, you know what? I'm now old enough that I'm not entirely sure that even happened. But dreaming of a Soundscapes Christmas party is not out of character for anyone who spent a lot of time (and money) there.


I’m also not sure I ever went to an in-store, but looking at the list of people who played, I have no idea why not. I did, however, host my own in-store: Greg graciously allowed me to host an event for the revised edition of Have Not Been the Same, where Shadowy Men’s Don Pyle, Julie Doiron, and Alison Outhit had a lovely panel discussion. If the store were still to be open when I finish my current book, about the early 2000s, Greg himself would be on a panel, because he’s almost as essential to the story as the musicians I’m talking to.


We’ve all heard about how bookstores and record stores are cultural hubs, where clerks can help change lives, yadda yadda. That was all true of Soundscapes as well, but it really did feel like a community where you ran into friends in the aisles, or you randomly found yourself chatting to someone in one of Canada’s biggest bands. When writing The Never-Ending Present a few years ago (its third anniversary is this week), I learned that when Gord Downie played his first-ever solo gig, months before the release of Coke Machine Glow (20 years ago this spring), he insisted the tickets be available exclusively at Soundscapes. Diehard Hip fans from across the GTA had to high-tail it to the tiny Little Italy shop to see what weird adventure their hero was up to next.


Soundscapes wasn’t just a place to find music, it was a place to read about music. The magazines were the best (Wax Poetics, The Wire) and cheapest in town. I was told that Greg barely marked them up because he considered them a loss leader: the more people read about music, he figured, the more they were likely to come back and buy it from him. Soundscapes was the first record store I’d ever been to that had an extensive book selection (this was before Sonic Boom’s Spadina location). Looking for that exhaustive new Can bio? It’s at Soundscapes.
My recent trips were usually to buy books and magazines—and still the occasional CD, as recently as a few months ago. When Have Not Been the Same first came out in 2001, our publisher had never heard of Soundscapes; I insisted that they reach out to Greg to stock it, which of course he did. I didn't really care where else the book was stocked: Indigo? Of course, whatever. As long as it was at Soundscapes.

I'd guess that most of the store's visitors in the last 10 years were there primarily to buy tickets without exorbitant Ticketmaster fees—the loss of live music last year likely hurt the store almost as much as plummeting CD sales. I’m pretty sure that one day the taxman is going to ask this freelance writer why, for years, the majority of my business expenses consisted of Soundscapes receipts.

This closure hurts—a lot. (As much as all the other horrible shit happening right now? Suicides, evictions, loss of livelihoods, mass malfeasance? No, of course not. But grant me a minute of myopia here before we return to our general grief.) It’s not that I should be surprised that a store selling physical copies of music is endangered, Covid or no Covid. I’m also not surprised that an inept provincial government—one that claims to be business-friendly—managed to blunder its pandemic response in ways that irreparably harm every business but the box stores. This closure hurts even more because it’s likely a domino, the first before a cascade of closures render my corner of the world unrecognizable. One down, two to go: Soundscapes is one of three downtown record stores that, until now, have been essential components of music fandom in Toronto. I hope that will continue to be true for future generations. I’m not counting on it.


Thank you, Greg Davis, for creating a space that felt like home to many. Thank you, Soundscapes staff through the years, for your warmth and gab and helpful pointers. And thank you, Rotate This (my local) and Sonic Boom and all the smaller shops—hang in there. We love you all. 

 

Raise a glass for the late-night record shop.


And be sure to read John Crossingham's thoroughly excellent appreciation of Greg Davis as a person, and how and why his curiosity set his shop apart. It's here.



Thursday, March 18, 2021

Crocks N Rolls: Five Bucks at the Door



Frank Loffredo
photo by Brent Linton
FIVE BUCKS AT THE DOOR

The Story of Crocks N Rolls

Directed by Kirsten Kosloski

I once co-wrote a book about Canadian music from 1985-95. It talked about a lot of people, a lot of places from coast to coast. After watching Kirsten Kosloski’s new documentary Five Bucks at the Door (link to full film below), I realize I could have set the entire book in Thunder Bay, at a bar called Crocks N Rolls. The main character, as it is in the film, would be the club’s owner, Frank Loffredo.

If you were a touring Canadian musician in the late '80s and early '90s, you played at Crocks N Rolls. You had to. The distance between Toronto and Winnipeg is 21 hours. Sudbury and Winnipeg: 18 hours. Hell, even between Sault Ste. Marie and Winnipeg is 14 hours. You have to stop in Thunder Bay

You’d be happy to see it. And the approximately 300 freaks and weirdos who live there, surrounded by thousands of hockey players and hunters, were more than happy to see you. Frank Loffredo is the guy who ran it, booked it, and literally slept there to keep it going. His wife (and mother to their three children) worked late shifts at the bar before getting up at seven in the morning for her day job as a nurse. Loffredo wanted to create a community, a refuge for both local outcasts and travelling artists, located at the tip of fabled rock’n’roll roadway Highway 61. He succeeded.

Kosloski grew up as a nerdy, shy kid who taped CBC’s Brave New Waves late at night and listened to it on the bus to school the next day--so she’s already someone after my own heart. The first night she goes to Crocks N Rolls, when she’s 16, her life changes. The fact that she was allowed in is itself a miracle: all-ages shows in bars were hardly the norm anywhere else in Canada. (I had to grow a beard to have a similar experience in Toronto, at the same age.) There, she sees all kinds of freaks: NoMeansNo, Bob’s Your Uncle, Jr. Gone Wild, Change of Heart, Bob Wiseman, Rheostatics, the Inbreds, 13 Engines, Furnaceface, Acid Test. Years later, she interviews them all for her film.



Even if I didn’t write a similar book, can I possibly be objective about this film? I’m between the ages of 45 and 55, had my life changed by Brave New Waves, went to see way too much live music, and my main goal in life when I was 25 was to tour Canada. Which I did--but Crocks N Rolls happened to close the very week my band left on tour. So we drove from Sudbury to our next gig… in Regina (ouch). But the fact I never entered its doors doesn’t diminish the effect this film has on me. This is as nostalgic as I can possibly feel about a place I’ve never been to.

This film is clearly a love letter to the wonderfully weird side of Thunder Bay (which is a welcome respite from the avalanche of horror stories out of the city in recent years; for better or worse, that aspect of the city is not addressed here). The queers, the punks, the metalheads, the jam bands, the tree-planters: all were welcome, with girls to the front. But it’s also an ideal microcosm for every Canadian city that isn’t Montreal, Toronto or Vancouver. If you’re lucky, your town had that one club, or one arts space, or one radio station or record store, that acts as a hub, a lifeline and a pipeline to the outside world. Some use it as a launching pad for escape; some use it to empower a local existence. God bless those like Loffredo, who stick around, who make something happen, who don’t give up on the place that they live.

Kosloski brings the story to life not just with candid chats with Loffredo and the artists mentioned above, but with a wealth of photos and original animation. She also puts herself in front of the camera, a technique I normally find grating unless absolutely necessary--which she is. She’s the heart of this story, even more so than Loffredo; without her testimonial, his story would be far less effective. And her (perhaps too long) tribute to Brave New Waves is perfect (and therefore not a single second too long): the national radio show helped her imagine a bigger world, and Crocks N Rolls brought it to her directly. I grew up in a suburb of the biggest city in the country, and even I know what it feels like to find those lifelines. She makes a strong case for how much more important those things are when the next town is an eight-hour drive in any direction.



I loved this film. If you’ve read either Have Not Been the Same or The Never-Ending Present, or listened to Brave New Waves during the Brent Bambury years, or watched Bruce McDonald's trilogy of Roadkill / Highway 61 / Hard Core Logo, I can guarantee you’ll love it as well. (You’re also likely to be a dear friend of mine.)

I have a few minor quibbles: there’s some minor repetition in the storytelling (not uncommon in current docs), and there’s some Thunder Bay inside baseball that’s not fully explained: Who is that guy? Why was his band important? But to be fair, those locals don’t resonate for me only because I know all the other talking heads extremely well, some of them personally. If you came to this film cold--as a mainstream music fan, as a non-Canadian, or even as a Canadian under 40--the composite portrait is still effective. And while obviously it would be great to have had more video footage, Kosloski does a fantastic job with photographs--and the fact she doesn’t have much video makes the whole time period seem further away than it actually is, therefore more exotic. (The amazing photos, by Brent Linton, are in vivid B&W.)

It’s such a tired cliche of historians talking about events from 30 years ago to provide qualifiers about how “of course, this was pre-Internet”--but it’s a tired cliche that’s entirely necessary, especially here. This really does seem like ancient history now. As Sook-Yin Lee points out in the film, it’s ephemera in dire danger of fading away entirely. 


So thank you, Kirsten Kosloski, for capturing Crocks N Rolls. It’s unlikely we’ll get films or books or oral histories about similar venues across the country unless it’s the Commodore Ballroom or Massey Hall, but maybe that’s okay.

Maybe the story of Crocks N Rolls says it all.

A Calgary Herald story by Eric Volmers is here.

Watch the whole glorious goddam thing here:




Thursday, March 04, 2021

2020 catchup

Yes, I'd like to forget 2020 as much as everyone else. But in the first two months of 2021, as I pored over various lists posted by my favourite writers and outlets (shout out to Bandcamp, the venerable Said the Gramophone and the always-fascinating Aquarium Drunkard), there was a lot I'd missed. And next to nothing interesting came out in Jan/Feb this year anyway, which allowed me to spend more time with this music.

The list I made in November is here.

Here are 10 records I only recently discovered that blew me away:

Alias Ensemble – A Splendour of Heart

I’m not on the Daniel Romano bandwagon, by any means, though I should be: we have many mutual friends, people I admire in turn admire him, and in theory I should be a fan of his various projects—but I’m not, for entirely subjective reasons. Yes, it’s impressive that he released at least 10 records in 2020, and I wish I could say they struck some chord with me, but they didn’t. This is an exception, perhaps because the lead vocals are all tackled by Kelly Sloan, or perhaps because it bears no resemblance to the indie rock, retro-country, or punk rock that Romano normally pinballs between. This is British Isles folk music, which is also not normally my thing, but this record is so goddam charming it’s impossible for me not to fall in love with it. If I had to compare it to anything contemporary, it would be Dublin band Lankum, though there’s a lot more sunshine on this record than there is on that Irish band’s incredible 2019 album The Livelong Day. Kelly Sloan is a stunning singer, the harmonies are even better, the string playing (and accordion) is all very strong, and on top of all that the production is perfect, neither slick nor raw.

  

 

 

Eddie Chacon – Pleasure, Joy and Happiness

That title pretty much sums up how I feel about this record. A comeback record by a guy I’ve never heard before, this is laid-back, synth-y R&B with a Shuggie Otis vibe that sounds entirely out of time and place. The “Long Hot Summer”-ish synth bass on “Hurt” just kills me. Song title of the year: “My Mind is Out of Its Mind.” Great profile in the New York Times I stumbled upon after falling in love with this music.

  

 

 

The Garrys – Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages

A new soundtrack for a silent film: this has been a trend for decades, and it’s mostly been a pleasant experiment in the moment—you had to be there. This, however, by three women from Saskatoon working with a 1922 Dutch documentary about the occult, easily stands on its own. Elements of Dirty Three, spooky Sadies, and the Morricone side of Godspeed are all run through an Echoplex, with some trombone and accordion thrown in for good measure.

 

 

Matthew Halsall – Salute to the Sun

British hippie space jazz with harps and kalimbas and, yes, even some fucking rainsticks, with song titles like "Joyful Spirits of the Universe" and, I shit you not, "Mindfulness Meditations." Part of me should hate this with a passion, but it's really goddam gorgeous and I was listening to it constantly in December and January. Though obviously inspired by Alice Coltrane, Halsall's smooth trumpet is a much gentler instrument than Pharoah Sanders's saxophone, for better or worse. In a year like the one we just had, I'm perfectly fine with gentleness. Now excuse me while I meditate.

 

 

Nyssa – Girls Like Me

How did I miss this? Totally up my alley, quite literally (she’s in my Toronto neighbourhood). Nyssa is a modern pop singer with serious old-school vocal skills, the kind that would have once put her in Pat Benatar/Annie Lennox territory. Her songwriting is full of pop hooks, big choruses and is illustrated with home electronics (with some pedal steel on the side) that could easily be scaled up to Springsteenian stadium level in less subtle hands—but they're inherently more charming because she never succumbs to the super-obvious and corny grand gesture. It's the kind of record I'd love Lady Gaga (I'm a fan) to make. "You're not going to get what you came for," she sings. Nyssa has been in bands since she was a teen, from the community that spawned Frigs and Ice Cream, but from what I can tell this is a entirely self-produced affair. Fans of US Girls should take note; there's plenty of social critique in the lyrics here, not surprising on an album that opens with the line: "Start this story with a dead girl / that's what makes it just like the others." Would love to see Nyssa on a double bill with Winnipeg artist Boniface, whose record earlier in 2020 mined similar sonic territory of classic-rock-through-modern-pop sounds. As a guy who lived through the 80s, I'm wary of twentysomethings in period-specific clothes, but everything here is pitch perfect and rings true—clearly part of a continuum and entirely contemporary. And outside of Dominique Fils-Aimé, I feel unlikely to hear a better vocal performance among this year's potential Polaris Prize picks.

 

Population II – A La O Terre

Psychedelia from franco Quebec par excellence, somewhere between Kikagayu Moyo and Dungen, if that means anything to you. Yes, the guitarists are both excellent, as they’d have to be to pull this off, but it’s the rhythm section here that really makes this work. I’m also wondering if I prefer non-anglophone psych because then I can ignore the lyrics, which are usually downright embarrassing in English.

 

 

Shopping – All or Nothing

Is it time for yet another revival of early ’80s post-punk pop? The genre got mighty tainted in the last 20 years, with too many watered-down replicas of the Slits, ESG and Gang of Four paying more attention to fashion than tunes. This band has a monstrous bass player and British-accented women singing like the second coming of Delta 5. But also: great songs. I’m prone to liking bands like this on aesthetics alone (see: Bodega), but I do believe this is a step above.

 

 

Teenanger – Good Time

This Toronto pop band sounds like a 21st-century version of Queen Street West in 1984—Pukka Orchestra, Martha and the Muffins, et al—and that’s fine with me. Even better: the mixing and mastering job on this record sounds like a million bucks—which nothing in Canada ever did in the ’80s.

 

 

Widowspeak – Plum

Enchanting, dreamy pop with an anchor of a rhythm section that ensures the songs don’t drift away, like a more muscular Mazzy Starr. “The Good Ones” is positively sublime. 

 

 

Sven Wunder – Eastern Flowers

To satiate my recent hunger for Turkish psych music, I spent 2021 waiting for new albums by Altin Gun (Dutch-Turkish) and Gaye Su Akyol (actually Turkish) and then found this record by a Swedish guy (not remotely Turkish) whose other 2020 record was comprised of Japanese music. Make of that what you will, this is a great record.

 

 

And 10 more that really stuck out:

 

Tony Allen and Hugh Masekela – Rejoice!

What, did we have to wait until both giants were dead before this album saw the light of day? Anyway, regardless of timing, this is utterly—and entirely predictably—awesome.

 


Analog Players Society – Tilted

With Donny McCaslin (Bowie’s Blackstar) on sax, the Bad Plus’s Orrin Evans on piano, bassist Devron Douglas (Ravi Coltrane) and drummer Eric McPherson, this is an inspired one-off where they tackle three songs: one by Monk, one by Joao Gilberto, and one original. I’m a bit confused as to the nature of this project, which usually revolves around a different duo entirely, but this is certainly an inspired collection of gentlemen.  

 

 

The Chicks – Gaslighter

I’ve never listened to a full Chicks record before now, for whatever reason, though I’ve obviously admired them for various reasons from afar. This, however, hooked me right away; sonically, it sounds much less like mainstream country than I expected, and it’s also not a super-glossy pop record. I’m totally projecting here, but it sounds like three women who don’t give a shit what anyone expects them to do anymore. “Julianna Calm Down” and “March March” are the tracks that did it for me.


 

 

Chouk Bwa & the Angstromers – Vodou Ale

A few years ago, I loved the debut by Mbongwana Star, a Congolese band working with Belgian producers. Last year I loved the Ugandan band Nihiloxica's record, which was recorded by U.K. producers and came out on a Belgian label. Now there’s this Haitian band also working with Belgian producers. Do I need Belgian producers to make this music accessible to these North American ears? Not sure, but I do like this record quite a bit.

 

 

Aquiles Navarro and Tcheser Holmes – Heritage of the Invisible II

This Panamanian-Canadian trumpeter and NYC percussionist use samples, field recordings and electronics to take a little trippy trip as a duo away from their regular gig in Irreversible Entanglements.

 

 

North Americans – Roped In  

Meditation music from acoustic guitarist Patrick McDermott and pedal steel player Barry Walker, with contributions from like-minded peers Mary Lattimore on harp and guitarist William Tyler. It’s music for dreaming of the continent’s open roads that we’re advised not to travel right now.

 

 

Eric Revis – Slipknots Through a Looking Glass

Sparse and funky jazz on acoustic bass with plenty of tickles and tinkles.

 

 

Roots Magic – Take Root Among the Stars

Italian jazz band, who sound Mingus-y to me, tackle songs by Skip James, Ornette Coleman, Sun Ra and others.

 

 

Skinny Dyck – Get to Know Lonesome

Homespun Albertan country music recorded to ¼” tape in a Lethbridge living room. The name is gimmicky, but the music most definitely is not.

 

 

Waxahatchee – Saint Cloud

I’ve been lukewarm on this critical favourite until now. This is a very strong record, though I think it sounds a lot better if you’re listening to it in the American South; it sounds like the soundtrack to a North Carolina road trip I haven’t taken in a few years now. See also: H.C. McEntire’s Eno Axis.