Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Alanis Obomsawin

The legendary documentary filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin makes an incredibly rare musical appearance at this week’s Pop Montreal festival, playing Friday, Sept. 28 at Monument National. (Tickets still available here.) This year Constellation Records reissued her remarkable 30-year-old recording, Bush Lady. I had the immense pleasure of interviewing her for this piece in Maclean’s: about the album, about the time she stopped a riot with just her voice and a drum, about her performances in prisons and residential schools, and about the 1976 film Cold Journey—which, as I write about in The Never-Ending Present, was really the only work of art about residential schools made before an avalanche of hard truths came cascading forward in the late 1980s.

[FYI I didn't know until this year that her name was pronounced Ala-NEECE. I'm not alone. But now you know.]

The full, unedited text of our conversation follows this excerpt from the Maclean’s piece, as a way of introduction:

“Even as a child I was always singing,” says filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin, who has won every award possible in this country for her 46 years making documentaries for the National Film Board. Such is her reputation as a director (she’s now working on her 52nd film) that you’d be forgiven if you didn’t know she was also a musician—not only that, but she’s an unbelievably captivating performer who can hold an audience of hundreds spellbound with just her voice and a single drum. That’s exactly what she did at the National Arts Centre this past February at the Megaphono festival, where the 85-year-old performed a 15-minute set that was one of the most powerful performances I’ve ever seen in my life: part Edith Piaf, part PJ Harvey, entirely herself. …Her musical career is almost as impressive as her filmography, and yet it’s a secret side of Obomsawin that few even know about. Until now. On June 15, Montreal’s Constellation Records reissued Obomsawin’s one and only album, 1988’s Bush Lady, on its 30th anniversary. Much like another 1988 debut record by a woman who would never record a full-length again—Mary Margaret O’Hara’s Miss AmericaBush Lady is an astounding, genre-blurring work with an otherworldly female voice at the centre. It sounds remarkably contemporary, and not at all out of place on the same record label that birthed iconoclasts like Godspeed You Black Emperor and Colin Stetson.


Alanis Obomsawin
May 28, 2018
Calling from the NFB Montreal office

Bush Lady has had several lives: first a version for the CBC, and then you redid it, and then it's coming out now. 

That album came out in 1988. Previous to that, the CBC did [a version of] the album. It was wonderful that they did that. Of course, I didn’t get much money out of it, maybe $250. Then I wanted different music for Bush Lady. Over the years, a lot of people used my voice for selling all kinds of things, and I never got anything. I’m not complaining; that was just the time and I didn’t know any better. Then I thought: I’m going to make my own. I asked for a grant, and got money, and I did my own Bush Lady album with different music for the Bush Lady song. This time, I thought, I’m going to distribute it myself, then I would have the control. Then I found that so humiliating, having to sell the record in stores and then go and collect, and they’d say, ‘Oh, the manager is not here today. We don’t have any more, and you’ll have to go speak to the manager.’ So I just packed up everything and said, ‘That’s it, I’m not going two feet into a store.’

Every musician has gone through that.

I guess you have to go through that yourself to understand. So I never went any further. It’s only because [the NFB’s] Frederic Savard went to someone’s office here [at the NFB] and saw the cover of my album and said, ‘What’s this?’ The woman said, ‘Oh, Alanis did this a long time ago.’ He asked me for one, he wanted to buy one. I said, ‘Buy one? I’ll give it to you.’ Then he went on to sell every one I had left. The first person who bought one was the commissioner for [Utrecht festival] Le Guess Who. I ended up doing a concert there. I was so afraid. I had not done a concert in many years. I still sing, a chant or two, but not a full concert, which is what I did. I don’t mind telling you that I was so scared that I was dying before getting on the stage. But I was very well received there. It was incredible. I’m 85 years old!

So the CBC record went only to radio, or was it for sale?

No, it was for sale.

I know they did a whole series recording people like Willie Thrasher.

Yes, it was part of the same series.

The arrangements around you and your voice are so lovely. It struck me how much it has in common with the music that comes out on Constellation, the label that’s putting it out now: droning violin, very atmospheric, very contemporary. Were you familiar with other music on Constellation?

I didn’t know them at all. Just lately that I met them. When I was at Le Guess Who I saw a performer they had done an album with, it was very interesting [Jerusalem My Heart]. It was again through Fred Savard that I met those people. Radwan [Moumneh], they were very nice to me.

Was that Radwan’s band backing you up?

No, it was some musicians they found there, local musicians. They were really wonderful.

Around the time you made that record, you made the film No Address, which I just watched, I’d never seen it before. The music in that sounds similar to me.

It’s the same musician, Dominic Tremblay, who plays the violin. In those years, in the ’80s, there were times where there were performances in Montreal where I would sing, and he would come up and accompany me and I just loved his music. When we did the festival in the ’70s, when the James Bay dam was in question, and the Cree people were going to court, someone organized a big festival here to make the situation known. They asked me to be in charge of Indigenous performers, inviting them here. We did a lot of concerts.

We did a big one at Places des Arts and one at Arena Paul Sauvé. There was almost a riot in there. There was a poet, [Claude] Péloquin, who had written a poem about the James Bay dam, about the Cree people. It was horrible. It said things like, ‘There are no more Indians. They eat beans out of a can just like we do. They don’t hunt anymore. There is going to be a dam.’ I thought a riot would occur, the first time he did it at Concordia.

Then when we were at Paul Sauvé, the people said, ‘Oh, Péloquin is here. He wants to do something.’ I said, ‘I do not want him around. I do not want him coming on that stage.’ This person kept coming back and saying, ‘Oh, he’s so upset. His audience is waiting for him.’ I said, ‘Well, I’m sorry, but that poem is going to create a war. I do not want him here.’ He came back and said, ‘He said he’s not going to do the poem.’ I said, ‘Well, if he’s not, that’s okay, then.’

He comes on, the first thing he did was say, ‘The people in charge don’t want me to recite my poetry, and I have this poem and they’re against it.’ And he starts reciting the poem. I was so scared, I thought there was going to be a riot. The sculptor, [Armand] Vaillancourt, was in the audience. When Péloquin started reciting the poem you could hear all these chairs moving, there was a lot of Indigenous people in the audience. I thought, oh God, there’s going to be a massacre. Vaillancourt ran to the stage—it was a high stage, with no stairs, he looked like a spider getting up there, I don’t know how he did it—he grabbed the microphone from Péloquin and he said, ‘That’s not true what you’re saying! There are Indian people here, and it’s their territory,’ and there was this big fight on the stage. These guys came on and removed the two of them.

I’m standing in the sidelines watching this and I am so disturbed. So they said, ‘Alanis, you gotta go on! You’re the only one who can stop this riot!’ They practically pushed me on the stage with my drum. I was shaking, I was so nervous. All this noise in the audience: people yelling, chairs moving. I start playing my drum and start singing slowly. It got quiet and people sat down. I was still full of very deep feelings. Dominic Tremblay then comes on the stage and starts playing violin with me. I will never forget this as long as I live. It was so beautiful. He had accompanied me before, but I cannot explain the feeling I had this night. I really felt he understood my feelings when I’m singing, and what I was talking about. This is why I wanted him to redo the music for me.

So that was in Paul Sauvé?

Yes, it’s a big place. At the time it was a very important place for concerts. It was a big hall. [held 4,000 people, near Beaubien Est., demolished in 1992]

The film you made about the James Bay concerts, that was called Amisk, yes?

Yes. Did you see it?

No, I don’t know how—it’s not on the NFB website, and it’s not in my library system.

They’re supposed to have it on the site now. [ed: they don't.] That’s what they told us. I didn’t have a lot of money to make that film, so it’s not as rich as the films I make today. But the performances are wonderful. It helps us have something about the history of the James Bay dam.

I was wondering if that’s the only time you’ve made a film about music?

The film was not about music, it was about the injustice of the dam and how they were treating the Cree. We did these concerts and this festival in Montreal to attract people to the story. “Amisk” means beaver in Cree. Amisk make lots of dams.

But there is a lot of music in the film, yes? From the concerts?

Yes. From Places des Arts. I don’t think we filmed the Paul Sauvé Arena. We have the sound from that, but not images. It was so awful, I tell you.

Why did Péloquin want to be there?

There was a side of the festival where they had entertainers from the States and all over who came to perform for free, to support the Cree people. There was that section, and my section. At Paul Sauvé it was a mix of Indigenous and non-Indigenous. At Places des Arts it was only Indigenous people who performed, which is the one you see in the film.

So this album is coming out officially 30 years later. In the past five years, likely longer, there are many high-profile younger Indigenous performers, and the Native North America compilation made a connection to another generation of performers, some of whom came out of retirement to perform and promote it. I can’t help but think the musical regeneration and the political regeneration of Idle No More go hand in hand. Do you think there’s anything to that?

I think that’s true. It’s the time. There is so much talent everywhere in the country. It’s a very rich scene. Even that time when I was performing a lot, I had my own stage at the Mariposa Folk Festival. I could invite who I wanted. For a lot of them, it was the first time they took a plane. We had so much fun, even beside the fact we were all performing. What people did to get there, what they went through, it was very special.

Was that one year or several years you booked that stage?

Nine years.

Through most of the ’70s?

Yes. I was singing there before, also. By the time I got my own stage and could invite my own people, it was the ’70s.

You were singing in the ’60s in Montreal, yes? Coffeehouses and such?

In Montreal, not really. I did in Toronto a lot. At folk festivals and sometimes at a place in Yorkville, not a bar, but a place people could eat and drink. I did a lot of festivals beside Mariposa, all over Canada.

You played New York City in 1960. The program was called Canadiana?

It was done by Folkways. It was at the Town Hall. I nearly died from being scared! (laughs) My mother was in the audience, and she practically fainted because of how nervous I was. I was learning English then—not that I speak very well English now, I’m still learning—the artists were all reading the newspaper, and someone said, ‘Alanis, did you read the review?’ I didn’t know what ‘review’ meant. I was too embarrassed to say I didn’t know. Apparently it was a great review, but I had no clue.

Who else was on the bill, do you remember?

Ti-Jean Carignan was, who was a very famous fiddler here in Quebec. Alan Mills. I have the pamphlet at home. I think there were seven people. Some very well-known, wonderful entertainers.

You started out singing in schools?

Oh yes. My main reason for singing was schools, to educate. I was so disgusted with the educational system and the books written about our people. They were designed to create hate for our people. There is no other way to explain it. I was a very young girl. I figured the children have to hear another story. I know my history, I can sing, I know games: this is how I started.

Were you writing your own songs?

Not at first, but it didn’t take long before I started. Especially with all these women disappearing, it was terrible. This is why I wrote “Bush Lady” then, in the early ’60s.

There’s a nod to the Sixties Scoop in that song, with the baby being taken away.

Everybody was challenging the Indian Act at that time. If you had a child outside your tribe, it was a big thing.

My French is not great. What is “Theo” about?

It’s about the history of a massacre that occurred in Odanak, the reserve I come from. It was in 1759. That was when the Battle of the Plains of Abraham occurred. The English won that battle. But people don’t know that same year, a few months later, there was a massacre on my reserve. They killed a lot of people and burned a whole village except for three houses where corn was preserved for the winter.

Was this the English or the French?

The English, the Americans. There were wars for 300 years for our people, Wabanaki. Originally New England was our land, and the Maritimes and the southern part of Quebec. There were many groups who belonged to the Wabanaki people, but with different names, like the Mi’kmaq. Many across the land. The English took our land and our people kept going back and fighting and lost the land. That song is about the massacre in October 1759, which very few people know about. I wanted people to learn that it wasn’t just the Plains of Abraham, that Odanak suffered a terrible genocide.

Recently I was researching the representation of residential schools in popular culture, and the only film I could find before Where the Spirit Lives in 1989 was Cold Journey, in 1975, for which I understand you played a role in getting it released. Is that correct?

They wanted to shelve it. The people in charge here [at the NFB] didn’t like that film. I didn’t want them to do that. A lot of our kids were performing or helping with making the film.

Was it the first with an all-Indigenous cast?

I think so. They showed it to me and wanted me to approve them shelving the film. I said, no, you can’t do that. Even myself when I did a series of six short films for education, first time shot on video, I had gone to shoot a film in Old Crow in Yukon. My producer said, ‘Alanis, will you do six? Let’s do a video of you and we’ll make a film about Old Crow later.’ I agreed to this, and I shouldn’t have, because the film was never made, there was a video made of it. I asked the director of Cold Journey if I could make a half hour with some of the material, and he gave me permission. This was also to make it known that there was a film and that the story was important.

Am I correct in thinking that there were very few stories in the public sphere about residential schools?

It’s true, there was nothing. When I was singing a lot, we did tours across the country and played in a lot of residential schools. One tour was professionally organized, and there were 11 of us on this bus. There was a family from Poor Man’s Reserve in Saskatchewan, the Rey family, an old couple plus one of their daughters and her husband and her two children, and two younger children who were 12 and 14, and Dottie Francis who was a storyteller, and there was me. The person who set up the tour overbooked us: we did 64 concerts in one month.

I’m sorry, what? Did you say 64 concerts in a month?

Yes, in this bus, going school to school in the Prairies. Sometimes two shows a day, plus travelling time. It was exhausting, but we did it. That’s quite a history, that tour.

What year was that tour?

I’d have to look that up. I’m terrible with time. I’d say late ’60s, early ’70s. One time I received an honour from the Ontario College of Art, a long time ago. The president of that time was Timothy Porteous. There was an Indigenous professor of art there, Robert Houle. Wonderful artist.  Timothy asked him, ‘Do you know Alanis?’ He said, ‘Oh, yes.’ They asked him to write something to introduce me. I was shocked, because I’d known him before but he never told me this: he wrote, ‘I was in a residential school and when I was a young boy, Alanis came to sing there. My sister and me were so impressed and we loved her. When my sister got married and had her first child, she named her Alanis.’ I was so touched. Can you imagine? It was so long ago, and I didn’t even know that I went to his school and that I left that feeling. It was so moving.

Well, it does sound like you went to almost every school there, so it’s not that surprising you would have been at his school.

You know, for me, that’s the most dear thing to me, the decision to have done all those schools. In the ’60s I was told in the prisons that 68% of the prisoners were Indigenous. I thought, ‘Oh my God, my relatives are in jail! I should go visit them.’ I played a lot of prisons in Canada. In a lot of them, I was the first person to go in there as entertainment. I could write a book just on that.

One of the prisons I did, a maximum security prison in Quebec, it was the first time someone had come there to do a show, or whatever you want to call it. I was supposed to perform from 2 p.m. to 4. I got there: nobody. One of the guards said, ‘You know, you might not have anybody, because the population is telling each other, “Oh, you’re a faggot if you go to this.”’ I said, ‘That’s okay, I can be until 4, and if no one comes I’ll just leave.” 2: nobody. 2:30: nobody. About 20 minutes to three, 500 men come in. It was like in a gymnasium, with a cement floor. The sound of the chairs on the cement was awful. The person setting it up had put a long table at the front, with a microphone on a post on one side, and a chair on the other side. It was ridiculous.

So I put a chair on the table, got another chair and stood upon that to get on top of the other chair. Not only that, I was so scared of looking sexy, so I put on a nun’s apron. It’s like a dress but it’s cotton. I sat there with my drum. There were two guys in the front row, laughing at me. It reminded me of going to church with my mother and I’d laugh at the priests and my mother would get so angry at me. So these guys are laughing like that, because I must have been quite a sight. I’m singing and watching them laughing, I’m having a hard time concentrating.

After one song I said, ‘It’s not easy sitting here. I might look funny, but these two guys are sitting here laughing at me. If they do it again, I’ll have them take my place up here. We’ll see how funny it is.’ I start singing again, and they were laughing but not as much. I ended up teaching the prisoners some words in my language so they can sing with me. Then it turns out to be so wonderful: the prisoners were tapping their feet, singing with me. Then it was time for them to go back to their cells. I got off my stage, and not one prisoner left there without shaking my hand or kissing me on the cheek and thanking me. It turned out great. Even the two laughing guys thanked me. I wanted people to feel good about themselves and to know that our history is not told the way the truth was. I wanted to create some other things in the minds of these people other than what they were hearing.

I had asked [Native North America curator] Kevin Howes why there were no women on that album; he said it was an extremely male-dominated scene, other than yourself and Buffy Sainte-Marie. Did you interact much with Buffy in Yorkville?

I knew Buffy. She came to Montreal a few times and I took care of her while she was here. I loved Buffy. She is it. She’s still singing, too, and it’s wonderful what she’s done.

Were there other women on the scene that we should know about?

There were women doing traditional singing from their own community.

People writing songs?

I’d have to think. There were a lot of guys. Not as many women. All those guys: Tom Jackson, a lot of them. Inuit people, too, were a part of it. It was great. If you watch Amisk, you’ll get an idea of that.

Are there people you’ve been inspired by in recent years, musically, that you’ve been taken with?

There are lots of them. I’m terrible with names. I could think of it and then write it down for you.

You’re full of other people’s stories, but I’m really enjoying hearing your own stories. Have you ever considered turning the camera on yourself or writing a book?

There is a lot of pressure on me to write a book, which I will, if I don’t drop dead before. Starting in September, I’m getting organized to start doing that. Every month someone wants to make a film about me or write about me. I want to write my life myself. It will happen.

Great Lake Swimmers – The Waves, The Wake

Great Lake Swimmers – The Waves, The Wake (Nettwerk)

Tony Dekker can do a whole lot with just his acoustic guitar and his
absolutely stunning voice. That’s all that appeared on a sparsely
packaged CDR in 2003 that became the Great Lake Swimmers’ debut album. Over the past 15 years, the band expanded, increased both the tempo and the volume, and by the time of 2015’s A Forest of Arms, the band had morphed into a solid roots-rock outfit that didn’t sound all that different from dozens of their peers in Canada, for better or worse.

So it was time to throw out the acoustic guitar and start all over.

For the seventh Great Lake Swimmers album, Dekker doesn’t rely on any of his usual tricks—except his voice, which is front and centre, as it should be. Piano plays a key role, as does the banjo of his longest-serving bandmate, Eric Arnesen. But on the first track and lead single, “The Talking Wind,” Dekker is accompanied only by a woodwind ensemble. On the absolutely devastating “Falling Apart,” a classical harp provides lilting arpeggiation, with little else adding texture on the chorus. Most naked of all is the a cappella “Visions of a Different World,” featuring what sounds like Dekker laying down at least a five-part harmony underneath his lead vocal. On all these performances, the resonance of the 145-year-old church in London, Ontario, where this was recorded, is as much of a character as any instrument; this is by no means unusual for Dekker, of course, who has made his career out of finding odd places to record, starting with the abandoned Lake Erie grain silo where he made his debut record.

On what is no doubt a thrill for Dekker, one of his teenage musical heroes—Kevin Kane of the Grapes of Wrath—provides atmospheric electric guitar on several tracks. (Disclosure: I commissioned Great Lake Swimmers to cover a Grapes of Wrath song for a compilation promoting my 2011 book, Have Not Been the Same.)

The Waves, The Wake is the most creatively invigorated this band has sounded in years. But there’s definitely a darkness beneath the calming surface. “Side effects aren’t worth the health you get / when you need all the help you can get,” sings Dekker on one track. On another he talks about how he “couldn’t smile when I needed to.” And neither of those lyrics even appear on the song called “Falling Apart.” Maybe they’re autobiographical, maybe not, but most people don’t need to look too far outside their family and circle of friends to find signs of mental illness. Heck, the last two years of hellish headlines and uncertain times have been enough to send anyone unravelling. The music of Great Lake Swimmers has always been a balm; this time the lyrics imply that the tone and tempo of this album were more necessary than ever for their creator.

But whether or not the musical shift was triggered by a mid-life crisis documented in the lyrics, Tony Dekker threw out his rulebook and came up with his best record in years. Those are deep waters, those Great Lakes, perpetual providers of inspiration and sustenance. Dive in. (Aug. 17)

Great Lake Swimmers are touring North America and Europe from now until December. Full dates here.

Stream: “The Talking Wind,” “Falling Apart,” “Visions of a Different World”

Monday, September 24, 2018

May-June 2018 reviews

These reviews ran in the Waterloo Record in May and June.

Kiran Ahluwalia – 7 Billion (Six Degrees)

The title refers to the population of the planet. While this Toronto singer builds bridges in song, she wisely doesn’t try to represent the culture of all those seven billion people in what can easily (and dismissively) categorized as “world music.” The Indian-born Canadian effortlessly mixes the music of her parents’ country with West African blues and North American pop conventions, particularly on closing track “We Sinful Women,” with lyrics adapted from the work of feminist Urdo poet Kishwar Naheed. There, Ahluwalia’s band takes full flight while the singer addresses the concept of “nasty women” through history. (May 18)

Stream: “Khafa (Up in Arms),” “Raina (Night),” “We Sinful Women”

Courtney Barnett – Tell Me How You Really Feel (Mom + Pop Music)

When this 30-year-old Australian singer-songwriter burst on to the scene, she was most definitely a child of the ’90s: the melodicism and aggression of Nirvana, the speak-singing and absurdist wordplay of Pavement and Beck, the storytelling of Lucinda Williams and Liz Phair. That hasn’t changed here—if anything, the ’90s quotient has been upped, with the presence of both Kim and Kelley Deal from the Breeders, a band to whom this album owes quite a bit. Barnett was in danger of becoming a one-trick pony—rattling off what seemed to be a series non sequiturs over big grunge choruses—but here she’s singing more than she’s speaking, although her droll delivery remains her trademark. She also gets deadly serious on songs like “Nameless, Faceless,” which riffs on a famous Margaret Atwood quote about how “men are scared that women will laugh at them / women are scared that men will kill them.” The not-so-cheery chorus: “I wanna walk through the park in the dark … I hold my keys between my fingers.” Musically, nothing here is as explosive as “Pedestrian at Best” from her debut, but Barnett is not playing for pop audiences: she’s in this for the long game. (May 18)

Stream: “City Looks Pretty,” “Crippling Self-Doubt and a General Lack of Self-Confidence,” “Nameless, Faceless”

Jill Barber – Metaphora (Outside)

Metaphora marks the continuing metamorphosis of Jill Barber from winsome folk singer to French chanteuse to jazz vocalist and now to modern pop star. Her career has always gone on an upward trajectory (she headlines Roy Thomson Hall later this year), and she claims her shift to pop was entirely unintentional, and not a bid for even bigger commercial success—although that might be exactly what it gets her.

Barber is approaching the age of 40: she’s a professional who’s been around a few blocks and around the world, is now a wife and mother, and found herself increasingly politicized in recent years. So instead of writing songs that sounded like they could have been written 60 years ago, which could be said of her last few releases, her new lyrics needed a modern sound. She turned to Ryan Guimond of Mother Mother, who co-wrote four songs, and to producer Gus Van Go, who’s made well-polished recent records by the likes of Whitehorse and Terra Lightfoot. Hitmaker Gavin Brown (Billy Talent, Metric) was also brought on board for a couple of tracks.

Barber wears all these changes well, while writing feminist anthems that could easily slip onto the radio. “The Woman” and “Girl’s Gotta Do” are both pop triumphs, while “Mercy” is a Sarah McLachlan-esque ode to self-healing, with a message to “show mercy to myself.”

Jill Barber has built her career on her own terms, and continues to do so—and Metaphora will take her to another level. (June 29)

Stream: “The Woman,” “Girl’s Gotta Do,” “Mercy”

Brownout – Fear of a Brown Planet (Fat Beats)

An instrumental Latino funk band covering music from Public Enemy’s first four albums. I probably don’t even have to say anything else.

Brownout is a band led by Adrian Quesada of Grupo Fantasma, a Texan Latino band most famous for once backing up Prince. With Brownout, whose first two albums paid tribute to Black Sabbath, he and his bandmates (who once backed up Prince, by the way) deconstruct the density of the Bomb Squad’s production and untangle the original samples to interpolate the PE compositions in revelatory ways. This is not an entirely untested premise: a funk group called the El Michels Affair did something similar with Wu-Tang Clan’s Enter the 36 Chambers, to great effect. It worked there, and it works here. Unlike PE’s (glorious) originals, there is no audio claustrophobia here: the funk is deep, spacious and psychedelic. Now we just have to wait for a new generation of crate-diggers to discover this record and create something new yet again, a hyper-modern musical ouroboros. A gift that keeps on giving. (May 25)

Stream: “Fight the Power,” “By the Time I Get to Arizona,” “Welcome to the Terrordome”

Carlo – s/t (Magnephonic)

Here’s your summer BBQ soundtrack right here. Carlo is a trio from Ottawa and Toronto, who, despite apparent geographic challenges, are an incredibly tight instrumental funk band that bring back the best memories of the Meters and Booker T and the MGs. Led by Kelsey McNulty on keyboards, with James Taylor (no, not that one) on guitar and Scott McCannell on bass—no fewer than five drummers fill that chair on this record—and with occasional slight excursions into spaghetti Western, surf and reggae territory, along with some songs could be TV game-show themes from the ’60s, Carlo is ready to play your next beach party. And if you know any old-school soul singers looking for a backup band, point them in Carlo’s direction. But if that doesn’t happen, they’re more than just fine on their own. (June 8)

Stream: “Ride,” “Corolla,” “Meathead”

Jennifer Castle – Angels of Death (Idée Fixe)

This Toronto singer-songwriter released one of the most beautiful records to come out of that city in years, 2014’s Pink City. On it, she embraced jazz phrasing, lush string sections, and utilized some of the city’s best players to frame her unique narratives. To follow it up, Castle embraces more of a psychedelic country-rock direction, with shades of vintage Memphis R&B, both of which suit her increasingly soulful vocals. Castle’s music used to be considerably more introverted; she now sings like she can see the sunshine. Which is odd considering the lyrical content here, much of which, as the title would suggest, deals with morbid matters. But death is not something to be feared, in Castle’s view. It’s something that’s ever-present, something that informs every decision and therefore worth singing about. She dances with these ghosts and celebrates life: this is not at all a dreary downer of a record. It is, however, a work by an artist deadly serious about her craft: "No one said poetry was easy / living with a song inside your heart / living with the muses all around me / waking up to soothe them in the dark." (May 25)

Stream: “Tomorrow’s Mourning,” "Texas," "Rose Waterfalls" 

Coeur de Pirate – En case de tempete, ce jardin sera fermé (Dare to Care)

The last album from multi-million-selling Québecois artist Beatrice Martin was called Roses, her first (largely) in English. The title of her new one translates as “in case of storm, this garden is closed.” A peak behind the curtain reveals why: extended touring to push her further into the English marketplace drove her to drinking. Coming out as “pansexual” years before Janelle Monáe did the same thing, and entering into a relationship with trans activist and fellow musician Laura Jane Grace, added a public dimension to the drama.

The storm has now passed, but Martin is no longer tending to the anglos for whom she planted Roses. Or at least, not the fair-weather ones, anyway: from the beginning, Martin leapt over language barriers on the strength of her songwriting and welcoming pop arrangements, and her latest should prove to be no exception. There’s no major shakeup in sound—these are big, minor-key pop songs built for radio but which would be just as effective with Martin sitting solo at the piano—but a cameo from franco rapper Loud (see below for a review of his record) is a welcome twist. Martin is one of the brightest pop stars this country has, even when most of the country isn’t paying attention. (June 1)

Stream: “Prémonition,” “De honte et de pardon,” “

Frog Eyes – Psalms (Paper Bag)

For 17 years, Frog Eyes has been a curious obscurity in Canadian music, a challenging and sometimes obtuse musical project capable of curious beauty and cathartic explosiveness. Now they’re calling it quits, shortly after frontman Carer Mercer survived throat cancer. He has said that for its swan songs, “We were trying to pretend it was our first record, when there’s no expectation that anyone will actually listen.” Considering the commercial prospects of Frog Eyes, I’m not sure that was ever a concern, but regardless: Psalms is an eccentric elegy, a fond farewell to one of the most intriguing Canadian bands of the last 15 years. (June 1)

Stream: “A Strand of New Stars,” “Don’t Sleep Under Stars,” “Itch of Summer Knees”

Galaxie – Super Lynx Deluxe (Lazy at Work)

Fuzzed-out guitar rock with plenty of psychedelic and dream-pop textures mixed with electronics and drum machines and turntable-scratching and (from I can tell) rather silly lyrics in French—that’s a formula that seems bound to fail. Yet here is the fifth album from Montreal band Galaxie, led by guitarist Olivier Langevin, which manages to combine all those elements into a cohesive whole. At times it’s a throwback to the punk rock tracks on Check Your Head-era Beastie Boys, with more of disco direction than funk.

At the very least, Super Lynx Deluxe sounds like a fantastically ridiculous night out on Boul. St. Laurent. (May 11)

Stream: “Phenomenal,” “Magie Magie,” “Manitou”

Greg Keelor – Last Winter (Warner)

Greg Keelor spent 2016 and 2017 dealing with death in his family and circle of friends, including that of his peer Gord Downie, while also experiencing pain related to his tinnitus, which made playing music live with Blue Rodeo an increasingly excruciating experience. It’s got so bad that he now wears earplugs just to walk down the street, and can no longer listen to his beloved car radio.

In the midst of all that, he made this four-song EP, which is no slight effort: each of the four songs is eight or nine minutes long. It opens with “Gord’s Tune,” a fond farewell to the Tragically Hip singer, which Keelor posted online after Downie’s death was announced. It closes with “3 Coffins,” inspired by the death of his mother. In between is a cover of a Peter, Paul and Mary song, and the hypnotic “City is a Symphony.” Last Winter is a slow, psychedelic dream, with lush string arrangements that elevate simple songs into something enchanting.

Keelor’s condition makes it unclear if he’ll be able to continue making music. If this meditative mood-piece proves to be a swan song, it’s a lovely way to go out. (May 11)

Stream: all of it. It’s four songs.

L Con – Insecurities in Being (Wildlife Sanctuary)

Lisa Conway is the singer in the cinematic band Del Bel. As L Con, Conway collaborates with partner Andrew Collins to create late-night torch music that draws from ’90s trip-hop and film composer Angelo Badalamenti, as well as modern R&B. The stark sound and atmospherics are a huge part of the appeal here (she’s sometimes accompanied only by a small woodwind ensemble), but the fact is that Conway’s voices is absolutely stunning—especially in such a sparse context, as opposed to the large ensemble in Del Bel. (The production by Scott Merritt, whose most recent solo album employed incredibly effective minimalism, is also a major plus.) Her phrasing, her pitch, her nuance, even in the quietest moments, is a rare feat. It’s probably also why she’s confident enough to cede the lead vocal on “The Art of Staying Tough” to fellow singer/songwriter/producer Casey MQ (Cadence Weapon, Zaki Ibrahim), who shares all of Conway’s strengths as a vocalist. Conway is highly underrated and works largely under the radar; while that’s unfortunate, it’s also music that exists best in the shadows and devoid of hype, a secret between performer and listener. (June 29)

Stream: “Try,” “The Art of Staying Tough” feat. Casey MQ, “Cogs Awry”

Peggy Lee – Echo Painting (Songlines)

This prolific Vancouver cellist has an extensive discography, but this 10-piece ensemble pulls together various threads in her career in an enchanting and hypnotic work. Written for a 2016 Vancouver Jazz Festival performance, the songs on Echo Painting employ bold and lush orchestration—a four-piece horn section, along with Lee on cello, Meredith Bates on violin and Bradshaw Pack on pedal steel guitar, over a nimble rhythm section including longtime Lee collaborator Dylan van der Schyff on drums—with plenty of room for improvisation showcasing each individual player, including long sections for one naked instruments, as well as more cacophonic and noisy outbursts that prevent the perfectly polished record from getting too polite. Oddly enough, Lee’s own cello rarely steps to the forefront—but she does plenty of smaller ensemble work where she shines more brightly. Here, all the strength is in numbers. (June 15)

Stream: "Out on a Limb," “Hymn,” “Incantation”

Loud – Une Année Record (Joy Ride Records)

The fact that this Montreal MC has a cameo on the new Coeur de Pirate record is the least of his accomplishments this year. Une Année Record is reportedly the hip-hop record of the year in that province, with a crossover pop hit (“Toutes les femmes savent danser”) and waves being made in France. Apparently his European label wanted him to take out his regional peculiarities—including an effortless skill in flipping between English and French in the middle of a phrase—but he declined, and he’s all the stronger for it. There are serious skills on display here, and may well be the first Québecois hip-hop record to put the province on an international musical map. (June 1)

Stream: “So Far So Good,” “Toutes les femmes savent danser,” “On My Life”

Priscilla Renea – Coloured (Thirty Tigers)

Barriers between country music and R&B have collapsed in the last few years—which is a pleasant and unexpected turn while the rest of the U.S. stratifies into polarities. But with the exception of Beyoncé’s “Daddy Lessons,” there have not been many African-Americans welcome on country radio. If anyone has the skills and charisma to change that, it would be Priscilla Renea.

Renea is a successful Top 40 songwriter, having written for Rihanna, Kelly Clarkson, Miranda Lambert and a huge hit for Carrie Underwood (“Somethin’ Bad”). She’s also an incredible, soulful vocalist from the gospel tradition and a bit of Southern drawl. Her second album is stacked with potential hits: pop songs that draw as much from country traditions as they do from modern R&B and trap. Renea told country publication The Boot that “every song I have ever written, no matter whether it turns into a rap song, an R&B song, a rock song or a pop song—everything I've ever written is a country song,” she says.

That also means a weakness for cliché: sometimes it works, like on the catchiest song here, with the chorus, “I want a big, strong man with gentle hands.” Sometimes it’s completely cringe-worthy: “You’re a gift in a you-shaped box.” But Renea is also unafraid to address autobiographical pain, as in the opening track, “Family Tree.” And on the closing track, “Land of the Free,” she directly addresses the racial divide in her country, in ways more explicit than she does on “Let’s Build a House.”

Priscilla Renea might just be the pop singer the U.S. needs in 2018. (June 29)

Stream: “Family Tree,” “Gentle Hands,” “Let’s Build a House”

Dana Sipos – Trick of the Light (Roaring Girl Records)

Dana Sipos was born under the northern lights in Yellowknife. She longs for the Blue Ridge Mountains of Appalachia. In between, she spent time in Montreal and Banff and Ontario’s Grand River and, in her words, spent time “getting down low and pressing my head into the side of the earth, fire eyes and seashell ears help me translate what I hear in the trails of luminescence, in the walls of the old farmhouse, through the tangled waterways and in the threads of the past into a collection of sonic stories.” That about sums it up.

On Trick of the Light, Sipos makes psychedelic folk music with shimmering organs, eerie violins (by Tagaq’s Jesse Zubot) and a hypnotic rhythm section, all produced by Sandro Perri (Polmo Polpo) and featuring various players from the folk and improv community at Toronto’s Tranzac Club, including Mary Margaret O’Hara. Sipos stands in the middle of her talented collaborators with songs that could work a cappella, singing in a voice on the same spectrum as Cat Power, Natalie Merchant and Jennifer Castle. The arrangements are haunting, sometimes nudging into noir-ish jazz, sometimes dipping into the darker corners of country music, always perfect for late-night drives through rural countryside. “The road needs more songs like you,” she sings. It also needs more singers like her. (June 15)

Stream: “Blue Ridge,” “Lighthouse Nights,” “Lean Times”

Tracyanne & Danny – s/t (Merge)

Tracyanne Campbell was the lead singer of acclaimed Scottish indie pop band Camera Obscura, a band that came to a tragic end in 2015 with the death of 33-year-old keyboardist Carey Lander, from bone cancer. After a while laying low, Campbell rekindled a casual musical acquaintance with Danny Coughlan of Bristol band Crybaby; their debut as a duo continues her fascination with the “countrypolitan” era of American country music, with lush string sections and saxophones amidst the pedal steel and heartbreak. They also come up with possibly one of the greatest country song titles ever: “It Can’t Be Love Unless It Hurts” (which, thankfully, proves to be just as good as its title). Campbell sounds melancholy even on her most buoyant songs; Coughlan shares lead throughout, and proves to be a perfect foil. This is a rich return for one of the great unsung singer/songwriters of the aughts, whose music always sounded older than her years—in a good way. (June 1)

Stream: “It Can’t Be Love Unless It Hurts,” “Deep in the Night,” “2006”