Saturday, June 30, 2018

Dennis Ellsworth – Things Change

Dennis Ellsworth – Things Change (Pyramid Scheme)

Right after Bruce Springsteen finished 1987’s Tunnel of Love, he recorded a legendary, long-lost album with fellow New Jerseyites Yo La Tengo, which for its 30thanniversary in 2018 is finally being—oh, wait, no, that’s not it at all. 

No, this is a new record by P.E.I. songwriter Dennis Ellsworth, his fifth.

Ellsworth is a new name to me, as I suspect he is to you—although his last couple of albums came out on Kitchener label Busted Flat, and were produced by either Josh Finlayson (Skydiggers) or David Barbe (Bob Mould’s Sugar), and featured many of my favourite Ontario musicians. This time out, he headed east to Joel Plaskett’s New Scotland Yard studio in Dartmouth, N.S., with other Halifax Pop Explosion veterans Charles Austin and Dave Marsh. So, yes, fans of ’90s indie rock and singer-songwriters will find plenty to love here, with shades of Lucinda Williams and Ryan Adams. Ellsworth’s songs are as worthy as any found in the canon of those artists: he has an incredibly strong sense of melody, writing songs to be sung at the top of your lungs, whether they’re anthems like “The Bottom” or “Stoned,” or dream pop songs like “Caught in the Waves.” Plaskett once again proves his mettle as a producer—as heard on his own work as well as Mo Kenney and others—giving Ellsworth a gritty rock’n’roll backdrop with rich, Big Star vocal harmonies.

It’s hard to imagine topping Things Change, but the good news is that I—and likely you—also now have a whole lot more music by Dennis Ellsworth to discover. (April 20)

Stream: “The Bottom,” “Save All Your Tears,” “Cruel But Beautiful”

Friday, June 29, 2018

Canadianambient: Jean-Michel Blais, Jonas Bonnetta, Peppermoth

Jean-Michel Blais – Dans ma main (Arts and Crafts)
Jonas Bonnetta – All This Here (independent)
Peppermoth – Glimmer (Six Degrees)

Where were these records in the deep, dark winter, when we needed them? These three new releases form an ambient trifecta of calming musical therapy, each of them elevating a musical genre that’s been diluted by too many sparse piano records underscored by lapping waves.

Jean-Michel Blais is a Montreal pianist whose debut album topped classical charts with his original compositions and minimalist approach. On Dans ma mains, he expands his sonic palette to include electronic textures and occasional drum machines—a far cry from the sound of one man alone in his apartment, which is what comprised the debut. The change is more than welcome: Blais is no one-trick pony, and elements of Tim Hecker and Sigur Ros work seamlessly with his natural talent. The only time the album stumbles is when he ventures into Moby territory on tracks like “Igloo,” which are fortunate outliers on an otherwise consistently pleasing album—one that you’re likely to hear soundtracking tear-jerking moments on screen in the next couple of years, but works just fine on its own.

Jonas Bonnetta usually performs as Evening Hymns, a project features many quiet, beautiful moments, albeit rooted in the indie rock singer-songwriter mode. On this album under his own name, Bonnetta fleshes out sketches he composed for a documentary about Fogo Island, off the coast of Newfoundland, where he also made this music. It’s suitably evocative, in part because many tracks are based on field recordings made on the island, which Bonnetta used as a “spirit guide” to the music he made in a saltbox house while reading Michael Crummey’s poetry and R. Murray Schafer’s book The Tuning of the World. Droning strings by former Guelphite Mika Posen (Timber Timbre, Merganzer) were added later, to great effect. Can’t afford to head out to Fogo Island? This album might be the next best thing.

Peppermoth is Guelph’s Andrew McPherson, whose Juno-nominated project Eccodek crosses many cultural borders set to electronic beats. (He’s also put out folkie singer-songwriter records under his own name.) As Peppermoth, McPherson indulges his love of Brian Eno’s work in the ’80s, along with the textural explorations of the 4AD catalogue. If Eccodek is all about sequencing and loops, Peppermoth is performed live on acoustic instruments (piano, guitar, trumpet, upright bass, Tibetan bells), with all manipulations done with tape delays and analog synthesizers. As with the debut, Now You Hear Me, McPherson proves to be a master of this genre: not only for his choice of sounds, textures and the high production values, but for the melodic composition and for creating ambient music that functions equally well as active listening as it does background music. (May 25)

Stream Jean-Michel Blais: “Outsiders,” “Dans ma mains,” “Blind”
Stream Jonas Bonnetta: “Fogo,” “Island Harbour,” “Joe Batt’s Arm”
Stream Peppermoth: “Whirlpool,” “Follow Me,” “Abyss”

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Bonjay – Lush Life

Bonjay – Lush Life (Mysteries of Trade)

Much is made of the modern “Toronto sound,” as supposedly represented by Drake, the Weeknd, et al. It’s supposedly an icy, detached sonic approach to hip-hop and R&B, with slight Caribbean and African influences, with emotionally vulnerable lyrics.

But along comes vocal powerhouse Alanna Stuart and producer Ian Swain, who as Bonjay make thrilling modern R&B inflected with Jamaican dancehall rhythms and German electronic music, somewhere on the spectrum between Solange and Kate Bush, but decidedly funkier than either, with some of the sci-fi soul of South African Toronto expat Zaki Ibrahim in the mix as well. This should be known as the Toronto sound.

Stuart is nothing short of stunning: soulful and seductive, with the occasional operatic flourish. (Check out her revelatory take on k.d. lang's "Constant Craving" with the Queer Songbook Orchestra, which impressed the icon herself.) The music underneath her rarely goes for the obvious; despite Stuart’s clear star appeal, these aren’t straightforward pop songs, and they’re stronger for it.

Lush Life arrives several years after this duo’s debut EP. The wait was entirely worth it. (May 18)

Stream: “Ingenue,” Chelsea,” “Night Bus Blue”

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Sloan – 12

Sloan – 12 (Universal)

It takes a lot of gall to call the first single from your 12th album “Spin My Wheels.” After all, that’s a phrase applied to many a new record by bands who are long in the tooth. I’ve used it myself. Often. Because when you get to a certain age, you’re inevitably going to fall back on cliché. (As I do, every time I use that phrase in a review. Mea culpa.)

Sloan have been together for 25 years, and there have certainly been times when they have spun their wheels. This is not one of them. Close observers will note, however, that it falls into a consistent pattern of the last 20 years, in which every second record finds the band sounding energized and coherent, while the ones in between often have fans wondering why Sloan are still a band at all—and perhaps some members of Sloan might have wondered that themselves, like on 2014’s Commonwealth, where each of the four members penned and performed a side of a double record on their own.

But back to “Spin My Wheels”: it’s one of the finest singles Sloan has ever released (which puts it in excellent company), and also sounds like one of the oldest; both it and “The Day Will Be Mine” could well have come from 1992’s Smeared. “Spin My Wheels” is by bassist Chris Murphy, who recently played hooky with a new group called TUNS with Matt Murphy and Mike O’Neill; that band’s collaborative approach and spirited debut record seems to have ignited some competitive spirit in the rest of Sloan. Guitarist Jay Ferguson didn’t need prompting; he’s often come up with the killer hooks on the last few Sloan records, and here “Right to Roam” doesn’t disappoint. Guitarist Patrick Pentland comes out swinging with “All of the Voices” and “Have Faith.” Drummer Andrew Scott gets dreamier and psychedelic on “Gone for Good” and “44 Reasons,” the latter of which references the death of Gord Downie.

Even better than the strong songwriting this time out are the performances and the harmonies—not to mention the economy, as they cram all their ideas into 12 songs (of course), only one of which breaks the four-minute mark. This sounds like a band entering a whole new creative period of their career—together. Which is not something either the band or their fans should take for granted. (April 6)

Stream: “Spin My Wheels,” “Right to Roam,” “The Lion’s Share”

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Jeremy Dutcher – Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa

Jeremy Dutcher – Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa (independent)

“When you bring the songs, you’re going to bring the dances back. You’ll bring the people back. You’ll bring everything back.”

That’s a tall order to hear from an elder in your community, a community where the past 400 years of colonialism have left fewer than 100 people speaking the Wolastoqiyik language of the Tobique First Nation in New Brunswick. Those remaining people are known as the “song carriers”—needless to say, they are all elderly.

Except one. His name is Jeremy Dutcher, a young, classically trained tenor singer and pianist who lives in Toronto and hangs around experimental circles. His debut album is not merely an academic project that involved him listening to his ancestors singing these songs, stored on 100-year-old wax cylinders at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Quebec. If it was merely an interesting and culturally significant history project, that would be enough. But Dutcher’s voice and arrangements transform these songs into a stunning contemporary classical record—which was entirely the point. Even without the high concept, this would be a stunning work.

“In the period around the time these songs were collected there were a lot of what I call death narratives or the idea of Indigenous people as fading people,” Dutcher told theNoisey website. “I wanted to challenge that stereotype and say, ‘No, we’re here, we’ve been here. We’re still doing it’… and challenge that idea of death.” And by creating such stark and emotionally affecting music that has more in common with Diamanda Galas and Perfume Genius than A Tribe Called Red, he’s also challenging stereotypes of Indigenous music. “When you think about Indigenous music, a lot of people go straight to big drum songs,” he told The Whole Notemagazine. “So I think a big part of this project is also education: to blow up people’s ideas about what Indigenous music is, and what it’s going to be.”

Those ideas have evolved considerably in recent years, and Jeremy Dutcher’s dance with the dead is nothing short of transformative. That it’s his debut record makes it all the more remarkable. (April 6)

Further reading by Sarah MacDonald for The Walrus is here

Jeremy Dutcher is longlisted for the Polaris Music Prize. Expect him to also be on the shortlist; he also has a good shot at the prize itself. 

Stream: “Mehcinut,” “Essuwonike,” “Pomok naka Poktoinskwes”