Photograph by Reuben Cox

Photograph by Reuben Cox

There are two distinct and equally great sides to Belle & Sebastian’s career: 1996 to 2003 and 2003 to now. Their fifth album, 2003’s Dear Catastrophe Waitress found Belle & Sebastian jumping to Rough Trade Records with a new clean and slickly produced sound. Gone were the standard album openings of whispering vocals backed by a quietly strummed acoustic guitar; Belle & Sebastian came out to delightfully shock everyone with modern pop songs. The Third Eye Centre collects the b-sides to Belle & Sebastian’s three albums from this period: 2003’s Dear Catastrophe Waitress, 2006’s The Life Pursuit and 2010’s Write About Love. 

Much like their DVD, this release is very much “For Fans Only”. Though there are a good handful of tracks that very much hold their own, I can’t imagine a casual fan gravitating to this as a standalone record. Seeing that I am not a casual fan, I will praise this collection as an interesting look in to their later years and the creation of their last 3 records. What gets left behind is sometimes more interesting for wondering why it was left behind.

Starting with a batch of Dear Catastrophe Waitress b-sides, we can understand why some were left off, not for of any weakness of the song, but for just not fitting in. Guitarist Stevie Jackson’s “(I Believe in) Travellin’ Light” is a quiet gem that would have fit in great with say, Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant, but doesn’t quite fit in with the other hi-fi pop songs. “Love on the March” is a strange jazzy number that works on its own, but would have stuck out like a sore thumb if included on Dear Catastrophe Waitress. “Desperation Made a Fool of Me” and “Your Secrets” are definitely the closest you’ll get to songs that were worthy for Dear Catastrophe Waitress, their shimmering guitars and groovy baselines would have fit right in, but I guess album length always plays a part in decision making,

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Tags: Belle & Sebastian

— , October 28, 2013    No Comments
Photograph by Shervin Lainez

Photograph by Shervin Lainez

The first Dismemberment Plan song I heard was an incredibly unique version of The Cure’s “Close to Me” that still ranks among my favourite covers. From there, I delved into their back catalogue, most notably their latter albums Emergency & I and Change. This was a sound I’ve never heard before; the Dismemberment Plan managed to condense a vast field of influences into something both familiar and remarkably ahead of its time. Beyond the idiosyncrasies and complexities of the music itself, the tone and lyrics were equally refreshing. Blending a sense of melancholy and frustration tempered by a wry sense of humour, songs like “Spider in the Snow” spoke to me like no other band has.

As the band had broken up in 2003, seeing them live wasn’t a possibility, and I had to remain satisfied with recordings of the “Death and Dismemberment Tour” they did with a pre-fame Death Cab for Cutie. When they announced a brief reunion tour in early 2011, I made my way out to New York to witness one of the best shows I’ve ever seen, and of course, rumblings of new material being recorded began. A few years later, The Plan’s fifth album, Uncanney Valley has emerged.

Reunion albums aren’t new; however, going against the norm, recent years have spoiled us with excellent albums by Dinosaur Jr. and Superchunk. There’s also been a particularly bad EP released by the Pixies. Sadly, on that scale Uncanney Valley is closer to the Pixies. It’s not an unmitigated disaster, but it’s by far the weakest album The Dismemberment Plan has put out. The idiosyncrasies and freneticism that characterized their earlier work is in short supply, traded for a poppier turn drenched in omnipresent keyboards. It’s much closer to frontman Travis Morrison’s solo albums than anything else, which were by no means worthy of Pitchfork’s infamous 0.0, but were also not his best work. “Waiting” was the first track released from the album, first heard on a call-in hotline. It’s quirky and goofy, but ultimately lacking in substance. “Invisible” and “Mexico City Christmas” best connect the band back to their past, but for the most part, the album just sounds flat. It’s missing that unique energy, and suffers for it.

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Tags: The Dismemberment Plan

— , October 14, 2013    No Comments

The Weeknd

No matter how good he may be in years to come, Abel Tesfaye’s music will always be doomed to comparisons with his breakout trilogy of mixtapes. It’s an inevitable fate. Those mixtapes ripped apart the skin of a genre that had grown a little too safe, and injected it with a generous dose of innovation. We heard it in the grimy nightclub party vibes of House of Balloons, in the noise-meets-acoustic mashup on Thursday, and in the sprawling yet epic Echoes of Silence. But let me stop myself before I too fall victim of these comparisons.

On Kiss Land, The Weeknd’s major label debut, the production is cleaner and the sounds are more ambitious. Album highlight “Belong to the World” opens with a crack of thunder and the chirping of birds, only to fade into a jarring, sped-up beat sample of Portishead’s “Machine Gun”. The vocal overdubs on the chorus are angelic yet dark, and Abel comes through with the lyrics, painting a somber love story full of heartbreak and regret. Another high point is the title track. It starts off mysterious and nocturnal, accompanied by haunting screams and shimmering wind chimes, but at the halfway point the beat picks up and the song descends into a hypnotic nightmare of blurred moans and swirling synths. I can’t help but think of Abel running through the dank, smoke-filled alleyways of Neo Tokyo, his figure illuminated by the neon signs that line every storefront.

Unfortunately, the songwriting and imagery run thin on Kiss Land. “Professional” could not be a more unfocused opener as Abel struggles to fuse two separate ideas. Its abrupt end doesn’t help either, and leaves much to be desired. “Live For” boasts an overly-repetitive chorus, and Drake’s verse, while not a bad one, doesn’t seem to fit the off-kilter beat. And when we’re on the topic of not fitting in, “Wanderlust”, with its straightforward beat and funky melody, sticks out on the album like a sore thumb. The song is catchy, and I find myself singing along with the chorus, but it should’ve been released as a separate track.

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Tags: The Weeknd

— , October 8, 2013    No Comments
Photographs by Alexandra Valenti

Photographs by Alexandra Valenti

Growing up with a band is a rare, weird thing. It makes you feel special, and entitled, and old. For the past 15 years Okkervil River have been providing the soundtrack to our lives, so when they hit the stage at the Phoenix in Toronto this Saturday, we at Ca Va Cool feel we’ve earned the right to shout out a few numbers. Short of demanding they shut up and play the hits, here’s what we want to hear:

MP3: Okkervil River - For Real

In Pitchfork’s review of this month’s The Silver Gymnasium, Stephen M. Deusner bemoaned the fact that frontman Will Sheff seems to have abandoned his patented rock and roll hysteria. Let’s go back to Black Sheep Boy for our fix: on “For Real” Sheff is a tight coil of manic energy, and the band backs him up on each slammed riff, egging him further into madness.

“Plus Ones”

Sheff’s lyrics can be long on wit and short on feeling, but here he nails both. The double conceit–a date to a rock show, or an additional number to timeless rock songs–plays out brilliantly: he sings of “a 100th luftballoon” and “the fourth time you were a lady” with a smirk on his face and a tear in his eye.

MP3: Okkervil River - It Ends with a Fall

This swoony track is still the highlight of 2003’s Down the River of Golden Dreams. The violins are moaning, and Sheff’s words are strung so tightly together they seem to be spilling out of his mouth. The pros know that the song’s melodrama works well: Charles Bissell chose to cover this track several years ago in response to Sheff’s near-perfect version of the Wrens’ classic “Ex-Girl Collection.”

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Tags: Okkervil River

— , September 26, 2013    No Comments

FKA twigs

There was something very exciting about The Weeknd’s ascent in 2011. R&B had finally outgrown its ’90s persona. It no longer had to be about tender love making, or cutesy courtship. Its performers no longer needed to be dancers first, and singers second, or spend the majority of their music videos displaying abdomen wet with sweat, rain or both. Its emotional pallet could be more broad than the template: triumph, love, heartbreak. Perhaps most importantly, it no longer had to play on radio. This was the new R&B, presented to the world by Abel Tesafaye, a shrouded 19 year old, whose first four songs hit the internet, and instantly caught the eyes of millions in months.

When I came across FKA twigs earlier this summer, it took me back to the same excitement I had when hearing “What You Need” two and a half years ago. Much like Tesafaye, Twigs’ music often feels like quiet inside a smut-filled storm. She’s an observer to the seedy scenes of London’s clubs, where she’s tended bar for the better part of a decade. Like Tesafaye, whose vocals have drawn comparisons to Michael Jackson (particularly after his “Dirty Diana” cover), Twigs has already been compared to Janet.

Framing Twigs’ music in the context of R&B, however, is limiting. With only one eclectic EP and an excellent lead single for a forthcoming full-length out, her choice in production veers from the tenants of current R&B, instead drawing more from London’s dub scene. And that might be what makes her sound most exciting.

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Tags: FKA Twigs, The Weeknd

— , August 13, 2013    No Comments