Photograph by Rod Moraga

In the early throes of spring and in the wake of the recent supermoon, Sean Nicholas Savage’s newest release, Trippple Midnight Karma, arrives right on queue to inject a warmer, brighter bounce into our usual fare of bedroom pop. Inspired by a binge on soul and Motown music, and borrowing heavily from the smooth pop of the 1970s, the Montreal-based singer’s songs bubble and charm just the way modern AM radio should. The eclectic album pops harmoniously over synthesized bass and drum kits in its more up-tempo moments while crafting lush, echoing vibes in its bonfire ballads.

For me, Savage’s greatest asset is his unique, inviting voice, which I’ve always preferred at its most raw and warbling. The comparatively heavy production techniques here, then, can certainly feel abrasive at times, and a little kitschy too. But on repeat listens this unapologetically guilty pleasure sound has steadily grown on me. By the time a real midnight sun arrives, I won’t be surprised if I find myself seeking out this album some more. What felt initially like a potential wrong turn onto the beach boardwalk from Sean Nicholas Savage now feels more like being taken by the hand below the boardwalk and past the crowds to a swinging little beach party you aren’t sure you were invited to.

Montreal’s consistently excellent Arbutus Records have made Trippple Midnight Karma available on cassette or by download with optional donation, and it’s well worth checking out these quirky little jams, even if only to act as a friendship bracelet-style introduction to some of Savage’s more folksy releases. As is the case with other bands on the Arbutus label (including Braids, who we interviewed earlier this year), Montreal’s got one heck of a secret on its hands – but with buzz building through performances at higher-profile festivals like Canadian Music Week and SXSW, it’s going to get harder to keep it that way.

Sean Nicholas Savage – Common Get Off My Mind
Sean Nicholas Savage – Getting to Know Myself

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— , March 24, 2011    Comments Off on Sean Nicholas Savage: Trippple Midnight Karma

I want to start by saying that Kaputt – Dan Bejar’s ninth full-length release under the Destroyer moniker – is my favourite Destroyer album, and that it might well be yours too. And not just because that seems like a perfectly adequate way to kick off a review. No, I want to tell you that up-front because I’m afraid that if I don’t and you read on, you’ll never believe me. See, the problem is, while I’m certain that Kaputt will feel to you like an “album” in the classic sense, and while I’m hopeful it will become a favourite, I’m less confident you’ll even believe that this is a Destroyer album in the first place.

What should Destroyer sound like? I used to think I had him more or less pegged. And you might have your own Destroyer box, too. But the first striking thing about Kaputt is that it forced me to revisit some of those earlier Destroyer releases, and to realize that this coherent, linear musical narrative I had in my head was a lot more superficial than I had thought. Sure, structurally, it’s not tricky to identify that unique Destroyer sound; and, indeed, it’s really not that difficult to pick it out all over Kaputt here either. What matters, however, about this fresh new direction – and, as it turns out, about all those previous directions – is the vastly different places they have taken me to.

Kaputt could certainly take a listener many places. To you, it might be the soundtrack to a gritty police procedural. It might be Twin Peaks. Hell, it might even be The Red Shoe Diaries. But however it feels to you, it’s certainly the kind of thing you only expect to see if you find yourself on the wrong channel at the right time of night (or vice versa). And once you’re there, you’ll hardly notice it, even though you won’t really have to look for it either. There’s Kaputt, a little ways down the dimly-lit street, past the puddles and the piles of refuse, rising up into the night with the steam from the manholes.

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— , January 25, 2011    3 Comments

Photograph by Angus Rowe MacPherson

For long-suffering fans of the Russian Futurists, the five-year wait for new material is finally over. But while there’s lots to like about The Weight’s on the Wheels, this new album feels more like an update or expansion of Matthew Adam Hart’s signature synth-pop sound than it does the great leap forward some had hoped for. Much has been made of Hart’s predilection for tinkering and experimentation, but it turns out the brightest moments here come from songs that would not have sounded out of place on his previous releases.

Emerging with a swagger from the lo-fi bedroom sound that characterized earlier Russian Futurists efforts, Hart’s sound certainly benefits from the more polished production that’s gone into The Weight’s on the Wheels, and the result is an innovative and exuberant – if uneven – album. Unfortunately, some of the direct appeals to more eclectic musical influences – in particular the stylistic borrowing from early hip-hop and R&B – go over with all the subtlety of the era’s classic “colourful vest over a puffy white shirt” combination. And they fit about as well, too. For example, with apologies to the four or so people on the planet yearning for a new jack swing renaissance (and especially to any of those four who had envisioned a bearded ginger electro-pop wizard as just the man to lead it), the disposable ‘100 Shopping Days ‘Til Christmas’ provides the low point on the album. It would on its own, like most stocking stuffers, be perfectly innocuous; but it’s the fact that the song breaks up a brilliantly energetic run of momentum that makes its inclusion here in the album so unfortunate.

Thankfully, there’s still plenty here worth listening to at all times of the year. The album’s opener, ‘Hoeing Weeds Sowing Seeds’, is an instant gem that should remind fans of the Russian Futurists at its best: colourful lyrics bounce playfully off driving synth-beats, culminating in whatever is the bedroom-pop equivalent of an anthemic stadium-rock chorus – probably the sort of thing you wouldn’t mind your roommates hearing you sing in the shower. Other standout tracks on the album, such as ‘Register My Firearms? No Way!’ and ‘Tripping Horses’, also showcase Hart’s ability to mix crisp, clever lyrics into swirling, textured pop classics.

Fans of the Russian Futurists will likely enjoy this latest, most imaginative release, while the exciting and infectious melodies of The Weight’s on the Wheels will surely win Hart some new converts as well.

The Russian Futurists – Hoeing Weeds Sowing Seeds
The Russian Futurists – Register My Firearms? No Way!

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— , November 18, 2010    1 Comment

Photograph by Ryan Walter Wagner

There is a moment – a silent pulse – nearly four minutes into ‘Rollercoaster’, just before the song careens headfirst over a cliff into a chorus, that nicely situates Black Mountain’s newest album, Wilderness Heart (out September 14 on Jagjaguwar). Standing at the edge of a vast expanse of critical acclaim and popular marketability, the band has opted for a tighter, more elemental sound, which remains at its throbbing best when driven by bombastic rhythms. On this, their third full-length release, Vancouver rockers Black Mountain continue to deliver their signature brand of heavy riffs and sonic swirls, a melange of psych-metal for the sophisticated stoner set. No doubt benefitting from the use of an outside producer for the first time, Black Mountain have released their most succinct and focused album yet. While this quality both enhances and detracts from the product as a whole, the band has once again succeeded in creating some shimmering and memorable songs that should appeal to anyone with a healthy rock pulse.

Lead singer Stephen McBean has described the album as both the band’s most folk and their most metal release to date. However, far from each song being a heaving mess of contradictions, as such a description might suggest, the band has here sought to traverse genres from song to song, while giving increased focus and concentration to each individual effort. Where the band had previously used malleable song structures to spread its swirling sounds across different musical styles within each song itself, an unfortunate consequence of the distinctive shift is a choppy and uneven feeling throughout the album. Here a blissed-out folk song, there a rampaging metal tune, now a wander into psychedelic forest, then back out the other side. Their talent in bending sounds is undeniably powerful, but this new approach is less successful, creating cracks in the sonic worlds that Black Mountain loves to create with each album.

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— , September 7, 2010    Comments Off on Black Mountain: Wilderness Heart

Photograph by Alex Felipe

With their decadent new release, Talking Sporty, Times Neue Roman cut a long slit down an elegant dress and remind those who would dismiss so-called “nintendo-rap” that sometimes the senses are drawn most to what’s not there. Stripped down to the barest digits, the sparsity at the core of these songs serves primarily to clear a space for the style to ooze through. Alexander The’s brash staccato beats hold up a mirror to the percussive precision of Arowbe Arowbe Arowbe’s vocals, and while there is always a paradoxical danger with any of the most metronomic music that it can start to drag, here the duo are content to let lush lyrics take the wheel and drive the tracks along. Far from aiming to provide what the lyricist describes as “the customary narrative or braggadocio content a rap vocal might usually tote,” Times Neue Roman utilizes the vocal instrument for shape, mood, and dressing.

Whatever the emphasis on creating space, though, this is music that consciously craves an audience, and above all else, Times Neue Roman seem intent on opening up that extra room for the audience to pile into. Listeners, envisioned by Arowbe Arowbe Arowbe as “spruce and dapper,” are elevated to participants in standout tracks ‘Roq Roq’ and ‘Hands No Hands’, as each drip of sweat that leaps off the stage and into the front row helps to put the human element back into a style of music that can be accused of being too electronic or glitchy. This is a release that teems with playfulness and energy, slapping glossy paint all over the art deco geometry that underlies each track.

With Times Neue Roman’s raucous live shows fast becoming one of the worst kept secrets in Toronto, it might be tempting to say they’ve cleaned up nicely for this, their most polished release to date. Cleaned up? They’ve simply cleared the room of all its furniture, covered the walls in colour, and flung open the front door.

Times Neue Roman – Roq Roq
Times Neue Roman – Hands No Hands

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— , July 16, 2010    Comments Off on Times Neue Roman: Talking Sporty EP