Magic Central

Breathe Owl Breath // Magic Central

We’ve got two new discoveries this week that are blowing our mind.  Both albums have been out for a bit.  But you need to hear them.  Now.

First up comes Michigan’s Breathe Owl Breathe and their first album for Portland’s Home Tapes label.  (We’re not the only one playing catchup with this band now.) I’ve been to Michigan – it has surprisingly dense and rich forests, the perfect places for a band like this to hide out until the time is just right.  And the time is right.

Born on the breeze of the Yann Tiersen tour, this record came recommended by Michael over at Ear To The Sound.

Intimate vocals married to plaintive acoustic picking dominate the landscape, and this record would not sound out of place next to Mojave 3/Neil Halstead or Sun Kil Moon.  What really sets this band apart is  lead singer Micah Middaugh’s lyrics and delivery.  Earthly, yet obsessed with the otherworldly.  Immediate, and yet looking beyond.

“Look down – there’s a welcome mat over a trap door. Whats on the other side? The spirit world.”

For our next piece of evidence, we present from House Of Gold: “Paralyzed by beauty. Don’t leap from the balcony… oh yes, there are handclaps.”  And then handclaps kick in.  Its this irreverence that helps set this band apart.  The playfulness, the lack of pretension, the happy-go-lucky vibe… we’re smitten.

Dragon pretty much seals the deal on our new love affair. The fairy-tale introduction to the song is the most endearing and whimsical thing we’ve heard in ages.  And a playful introduction to the little worlds that Breathe Owl Breathe create.

Andrea Morena-Beals’ voice is the perfect contrast to Micah’s plaintive whisper, sounding like some combination of Feist and Julie Doiron.   Effortless arrangements and a refreshing lack of clutter help make Magic Central an outstanding and accomplished debut.

Catch Breathe Owl Breathe opening for Yann Tiersen at The WECC on Feb. 27.

(Skip the first 15 seconds of the video. The rest of the song is gold.)

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Wool On Wolves

Edmonton’s Wool On Wolves show the early signs of being one of the bands that we’ll revere in ten years.  With plaintive and evocative songs played with a lot of fuel, this debut album has all the charm of early Wilco or Son Volt.  Here we are on the third track and the band has the balls to just let it all hang out for a couple minutes of noise, drum cacophony and general discomfort.  Perfect.

Some parts aren’t played terribly well, and really, we wouldn’t want them to be.  So many bands suffer the curse of perfection. Its refreshing to hear a record that sounds like a band playing music and not like it was painstakingly neutered in some computer for months.  A band willing to revel in the moment as it stood, on that day in that place with those people.

They’re not breaking new ground, but they’re treading the alt-roots-rock path with honesty, dirty socks, unwashed hair, and all the energy they can muster.  And that’s pretty much all we need.

If Thick As Thieves is any indication –  these guys live together, they play together, and if all goes well they’ll die together.  No, not in some Lynard Skynard fashion, but old and grizzled and perfectly content on the porch of some cabin in the Alberta mountains, still strumming out songs about a Bird In The Bush or Red Roses.

Collect all 7

A quick browse through most reviews for Arcade Fire’s newest – The Suburbs – reveals an ironically short-sighted focus on the sounds within.  Sure, they’ve been listening to some Depeche Mode to go with their Springsteen influence.  Sure, they’ve got some cool arpeggiating synths and a leaner, tougher sound.   Sure, its a welcome left turn after the heavy-handed bombast of Neon Bible and youthful yelp of Funeral.

But what about the underlying forces moving this record.  Shortened attention spans in a tech-mad world?  Lets choose We Used To Wait as our first single and reminisce about writing letters through the mail.  Everyone talking about singles and the death of the ‘album’?  Lets release a 16-song concept album about the very geographic phenomenom at the root to society’s current shortcomings.

The heart of this album is, surprisingly, hopefulness.  Win Butler is calling out for a more meaningful existence, for deeper connections, and some sense of rightfulness in a society slipping further into sectarianism.

“Now our lives are changing fast.  Hope that something pure can last.”

Half Light II (No Celebration) calls out “Some people say we’ve already lost.  They’re not ready to pay the cost.”  Later summed up “One day they’ll see its long gone.”

And my favorite, a gentle swipe at Seth Godin, or his lackey Bob Lefsetz: “The music divides us into tribes… you choose your side and I’ll choose mine.”

Alienation from a world that lacks a meaningful centre – “They keep changing all the names of the streets I grew up on.”

A call for purpose instead of posturing – “The kids are still standing with their arms folded tight.  I know its heavy, I know it ain’t light, but how you gonna lift it with your ams folded tight.”

Its not all a cohesive, barbed and reflective trip down childhood memory lane – but given the subject matter, its oddly fitting that there are a few dud songs.  Cul-de-sacs of incomplete ideas (Sprawl I) and, well admittedly, the never-ending references to ‘the suburbs’ and ‘sprawl’ get a little monotonous.  Maybe thats the point?  If so, its a clever way to diffuse criticism.

Oddly, its the most specifically topical songs which fall the flattest – “The Suburbs”, “Suburban War” and “Sprawl I” all lack the reflective immediacy and swagger otherwise dominating the album.  Its as if the concept ultimately got imposed onto an otherwise impressive and cohesive song-cycle.

The raw urgency of Ready To Start, Half Light II, Month Of May and Sprawl II contain new magic for a band that could’ve rested on its laurels and proven formula.

So yeah, sure, there’s a different sound.  But this isn’t a band dealing with the shallow surface, so its a disservice to the very nature of art to approach this album on such shallow terms.  Its time to move downtown in your listening.

Alex Chilton

I still feel the great rumbling of sadness at the passing of Mr. Chilton. My eyes are moist even now. I am becoming more cognizant daily that we have lost the ultimate cult hero. Few people properly belong in that category in our time. I would count Sam Phillips, Go-Betweens, Suicide, even Wanda Jackson deserves a higher throne. A man so worthy of the Memphis legacy and the great ambassador of the Ardent Studio sound.

Every decade seems to have that one band that changed the world and, very often, didn’t live long enough to really see it. Link Wray in the 1950’s. The Velvets in the 1960’s, The Go-Betweens in the 1980’s. The 1970’s – well that’s Big Star. Their contribution is still being surmised by the music community.

The world we live in aids and abets the discovery of such treasures among a plethora of “musicians” who have no more business singing a note for the masses than I do picking up a scalpel, designing a building, repairing a car or refereeing a world cup soccer game. If I grew up in Winkler in the 70’s, where would I have heard bands like Big Star? Certainly not on CISV, CKY or the like. Perhaps they played some Raspberries or Marshall Crenshaw. There were no video shows on then. Sure, I might have lucked out on an appearance of Hank Snow or Ian and Sylvia in a local gymnasium for another rousing rendition of The Western Hour.

It’s unfair, but a necessary evil to make sure the whole thing goes – the way it SHOULD. The cult status also ensures an artist stays true to its roots – or fights against them. Both can bring about thrilling results. Isn’t it a beautiful thing, though, when this band gets to be “yours” for a while? When no one understands why “Thirteen” rattles the heart because it flies true and free into the fading nucleus of young love; the courage of writing such a rousing anthem in “Ballad Of El Goodo” about dodging the draft, or the fragile angst of the twisted love song “Kanga Roo”. The career of Alex Chilton continues to be, largely, in the words of master linguist George W. Bush, misunderestimated. But not by you and I. We were fortunate to find him. We beat the gold rush and our harvest is plentiful. And I, for one, am grateful.

For those of you, my dear public, who feel #1 Record and Radio City are the only Big Star records you need, I beseech you to reconsider. Unlike many, that was the first record I actually heard by them. That’s right. this writer didn’t begin with “Thirteen”, “Ballad Of El Goodo” or the like. For me, the genesis of Big Star was in the sad beauty of their rough demise.

Here lies the rub with Third/Sisters Lovers – Big Star’s final record. Big Star made two flawless records – loaded in blue-eyed soul, Beatles psychedelia, proto-type power-pop, and the early blueprints for what would emerge as cosmic americana and alternative country. They sustained a huge change in the exit of Chris Bell after #1 Record – kind of like if John Lennon, Jimmy Page, John Cale, Tony Iommi, Grant McLennan, or Rick Nielsen (for example) had left their writing partners. One could argue his talent dominates the first record. This is not surprising as it was Alex Chilton who joined the party in the Icewater/Rock City days (the first real magic of the Chilton/Bell partnership being the beautiful “Try Again” on Rock City’s only album). Bell was heartbroken, even suicidal, about the indifference #1 Record met. He left, contributing to only a few tracks on Radio City. Chris still played with drummer Jody Stephens on demos (later to become “I Am The Cosmos”, one of my favourite records of all time) and Chilton appeared on his solo work as well.

But Chilton and Bell had lost the foils in one another that made their work so great together. The apparently faithful supporters began to jump ship. Chris Bell recorded demos with his brother and Beatles’ engineer Geoff Emerick (who went on to be a great producer himself, ie. Elvis Costello’s Imperial Bedroom) – mixing the demos at Abbey Road Studios. But the record company didn’t like what they heard. Andy Hummell had enough of the spotlight (or lack of it). Big Star was reduced, basically, to Jody Stephens and Alex Chilton.

Here’s where the parallel becomes so rich between Paul Westerberg and his hero, Alex Chilton. They’re both stuck in a band that has all but fallen apart and they’re contractually obliged to finished the next record. Drunk, tired, broke, with many of their supporters turning their backs in boredom and discouragement, they’re forced to paste their fresh and weary wounds on magnetic tape and squeeze blood from a stone. Like “All Shook Down”, the fans and critics (well, the precious few who know about them) cried “what a mess!” and “where’s the THIRTEEN we’ve been waiting for?”. Or they didn’t bother listening at all. The expecting public, and their unambitious distributors, quashed a very fragile, honest, and beautiful record.

Why listen to this record? It doesn’t “flow” like the rest of the records. It’s difficult to listen to. Jarring even. If one is looking for a smooth and pleasant ride, there are any number of records by George Benson, The Manhatten Transfer and James Taylor one can be pointed to. Looking for the perfect album? Well – there’s Blood On The Tracks, Aja, Revolver, Court And Spark, and Pet Sounds, then. The point I vehemently dispute is that a work of art should be “perfect”; no flaws, no blemish; a perfect experience from beginning to end. I find this approach to art will simply allow a one dimensional approach – no more. The sum. But what of its parts? The great geniuses of the world have created many imperfect films, books, songs, paintings, etc. It can’t always be a home run.

So, what about the parts? Daniel Day-Lewis is peerless in the underwhelming mess that is The Gangs Of New York. Shall I tell someone to miss this performance because the movie is disappointing? Shall I direct someone to not listen, then, to the lack-luster Let It Be? Would the Beatles canon be complete without The Long And Winding Road, Get Back and Let It Be? Certainly not!

Sure Henry Miller’s Tropic Of Cancer is spellbinding. But what about tackling Tropic Of Capricorn? Perhaps the latter will serve to enrich the experience of the former. Sometimes the context of the artist’s life can enrich what is perceived as “weak” work. Are there bad films? Sure. Godard didn’t always hit his mark. I’m going to watch all his films anyway, because I have already found that history has been wrong. Constantly. I find the Mona Lisa is incessantly boring. It does not intrigue me or put me in awe. It’s a woman staring back at me. I couldn’t give two shits whether she’s smiling or not. Is your favorite Bob Dylan record Saved or, stranger yet, your favorite Joni Mitchell record Dog Eat Dog? Joni doesn’t even play guitar on that record. It’s all studio wizard Michael Landau! But it has The Three Great Stimulants and Wayne Shorter on it. It doesn’t matter. If it kisses your heart and rattles your soul, play it every day for the rest of your life. That’s all that matters. Hence, this earnest apology for what is my favorite Big Star record, Third/Sisters Lovers.

Save, perhaps, for “Thirteen”, this is Alex Chilton at his most vulnerable, naked self. He is defeated. He is painting wildly, desperately on his canvas – like Pollock in a fit of rage. He is longing for escape from his demons. “I hate it here. Get me out of here.” (from “Nighttime”). “Thank You Friends” is a sly and bitter wink at the small few in the audience who couldn’t keep the Big Star ship afloat (a song many of them never bothered to hear). “Jesus Christ” is an honest to goodness re-embracing of his blue-eyed roots – and a fantastic Christmas song to boot. Alex is so tired he’s “resorting to covers”. There’s no crime in singing others’ songs! “Femme Fatale” is both more fragile and playful than the Velvets’ original. Why not a reverent version of the standard “Nature Boy”? There’s even early Glam Rock in “Kizza Me”! And what about the intimate, desperately broken love song that is “Kanga Roo”.

A friend asked the other day on the internet which Big Star record he should start with, as he was disappointed he had missed out on their career. Inevitably, many felt the first two records were all one needs. I’m sorry, but it is unconscionable to consider oneself a Big Star fan without, in the very least, listening to all THREE Big Star records. #1 Record and Radio City are a gimme – you can buy them as a “twofer” for goodness sakes! The real test is the challenge Alex put to us all in Third. It’s not easy, there is a bounty of beauty and unrest waiting for you. There is something for everyone – if they will only dig.

We all pass these towns a thousand times. This time, I ask you, traveler, to stop and look. Get to know the place. There is much for you here. And if you don’t like it, won’t you love the others that much more?

Kafka said the crowd has a common purpose. The individual is harder to control. Mr. Alex Chilton was certainly an individual.  And so are you for having found him in the rough. What a gem he has been. It is so sad to know he will not add to the story, but the legacy will live and breath on for a long time.

Alex Chilton Forever!

-Darren Day

It opens like cheap date at a pizza pickup window.  And then wham, harmony.  Thick, saccharine, Fab-Four harmony.  Oozing in and out of the live groove, swapping melodic stories with vintage synths and jangling guitars.

There’s a lot of talk about Lawrence Arabia and that this album should be trumpeted from the rooftops.  Given his associations with Okkervil River and his Destroyer-isms, I can see why a certain set gets all hot and bothered by these throwback melodies.  I’m not that kind of guy.  So I’ll be nice and say that there aren’t many original ideas here.  Catchy?  Yup.  Fun?  Yup.  And hey, maybe thats all you need in your life.  But I need a record that I can listen to more than twice before having exhausted its emotional and intellectual offerings.

Aukland CBD is an awkward and tense experience.  “I touched most of her body cuz I knew I could” – a great lyric that doesn’t get the musical fine-tuning it deserves, and changes tense to sing “You’re the girl of my dreams” before washing into retro lounge organ.

Apple Pie Bed is admittedly catchy as all hell, and the groove is the album’s highlight – able to insight sing-a-longs on road trips, to be sure.  If the rest of the songwriting was this strong, we’d likely have more positive praises to sing.

The Crew Of The Commodore is the only song to transcend the stylistic limitations of Chant Darling’s production.  It warrants repeat listening, speaks to our hollowed out tv memories, and musically seeks out something more evolved than 60’s rainbow rehash.

Fans of Belle & Sebastian, Destroyer, Telepathic Butterflies and New Pornographers will probably find more to latch onto than I did.  Low marks for innovation, but top marks for stylistic execution.

Laura Viers - July Flame
I remember the first time I heard Laura Veirs. I was listening to KCRW’s Brave New World With Tricia Halloran and on came “The Cloud Room” from Laura’s first record for Nonesuch, Carbon Glacier. So catchy, darkly humorous and such a pure voice. That proved to be one of the best releases of that year. The next record, A Year Of Meteors, while containing another batch of brilliant songs, seemed overproduced by comparison. 2007’s Saltbreakers was, perhaps, a step closer to Carbon Glacier.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I haven’t heard a Laura Veirs record I don’t love yet, but I’ve been waiting for an album that would impact me on the level that Carbon Glacier did. I’m happy to say that July Flame is that album.

When word came that she had re-signed with Bella Union, a great label run by Cocteau Twins’ Simon Raymonde (and formerly Robin Guthrie), I had mixed feelings. Nonesuch seemed a perfect artistic home for her, yet Bella Union was the home of my favorite album of hers.  Was Laura Veirs about to make a noise pop record?! Alas, Laura Veirs simply has made a record that Laura Veirs would make. Very wisely, she has kept the same producer she’s had since Carbon Glacier, the brilliant Mr. Tucker Martine. His treatment of Veirs’ material is perfectly graceful, knowing when to dress up a joyful moment and strip a solemn one to a pure voice in an empty room.

The record begins with the sparse and beautiful I Can See Your Tracks, adorned with the echo-laden voice of My Morning Jacket’s Jim James. It is followed by the record’s finest song and title track, July Flame. With driving bass and percussion pulsing below, Veirs’ voice soars in the chorus with the refrain “Can I Call You Mine?”. It’s the finest song I’ve heard in 2010 and it even bests “The Cloud Room” in her canon. One would be remiss without mentioning her beautiful tribute to session musician Carol Kaye, entitled, well, Carol Kaye. Smile if you know who she is.

This record is a quieter one for Veirs. There are flashes of 99.9F-era Suzanne Vega and Neko Case, but Laura Veirs walks a unique path of her own. Beautiful support is provided by James, Martine, Karl Blau, Steve Moore, seasoned string arranger Stephen Barber and John Zorn/Bill Frisell regular (and former Winnipegger) Eyvind Kang.

I used to tell people to start with Carbon Glacier. That has now changed.

Kissaway Trail - Sleep Mountain

Kissaway Trail - Sleep Mountain

The first of a three-part spotlight on British label Bella Union.

When a band’s influences seem obvious it’s easy to dismiss them as unoriginal or unchallenging. But when a band can take those influences, embrace them and craft them into something their own that comes across as a balanced musical undertaking this is a sign of their true creativity and self awareness. The Danish indie rock quintet The Kissaway Trail are a good example of a band that have embraced their musical influences and turned them into a solid album.

Sleep Mountain is The Kissaway Trail’s 2nd album released on Bella Union, intermingling rich multi-instrumental songs and strong vocal harmonies. From the monumental church bells on the opening track SPD it’s apparent they are fans of anthems. This and other tracks such as Friendly Fire, New Year, Don’t Wake Up & Enemy show why they draw obvious comparisons to the likes of Arcade Fire, Flaming Lips & the Polyphonic Spree while other tracks such as Beat Your Heartbeat are reminicent of early Death Cab for Cutie, especially vocally. Lead singers guitarist Soren B. Coreneliussen & Thomas Fagerlund’s sharing of vocal/ guitar duties (along with Daniel Skjoldmose on guitar/ keyboards & Hase Mydtskov on drums) are one of the albums strong points. While this album is very strong vocally, lyrically it doesn’t challenge or impress as much. The lyrical themes of the album are singular and narrow – loving love or the idea of love is not exactly breaking new ground.

With so many stylistic and vocal arms pulling in different directions, renowned producer Peter Katis manages to reign in the homages and bring focus and direction. The only seemingly disjointed track is the cover of Neil Young’s Philadelphia – beautiful, but somewhat out-of-place and failing to improve on the original.

If you can get past the obvious modern indie pastiche, you will see what this album is at heart: a balanced and solid undertaking with strong vocals and beautiful anthemic songs. If you can’t get past the influences then just continue listening to the Beginning Stages of… and Neon Bible. But you’ll be missing out in the end.

Majestic!

Courtney Wing’s new album The Bouquet Of Might & Fury is a mighty impressive opus.  Conceived as a response to a request to perform on CBC Live, Courtney has turned that corner from “an artist with potential” to “an artist”.  Bouquet Of Might & Fury magically weaves heartfelt vocals into string section backdrops with operatic ornaments.  It is undeniably intimate, holding your focus while the grandeur swirls behind you.

Amid playful melodies, whimsical flair and otherworldly imagery, Courtney sings of the heart’s trials and adventures.  And he’s found an outstanding cast of supporting friends to flesh out the big vision – members of Godspeed You Black Emporer, Torngat, Arcade Fire, Be Good Tanyas – and even the Record Of The Week Club (transplanted Manitoban Jen Thiessen).

Check out Courtney Wing with Royal Canoe & Dryer – Tuesday April 6 @ the WECC.

An Horse - Rearrange Beds

An Horse - Rearrange Beds

Mere hours before the first of their two Winnipeg shows opening for Tegan & Sara, my copy of An Horse‘s Rearrange Beds arrived in the post.  I’ve had the good fortune of seeing them twice already — opening for Wintersleep in Edmonton, and a few months ago when I mixed their show at the Lo Pub.

After a bit of good luck being at the right place at the right time, the tide seems to be breaking for this Australian duo.  While there are some melodic similarities to Tegan & Sara, Kate’s delivery is more deliberate and forceful and Damon’s drumming powerfully and skillfully fills any arrangement holes left by the absence of a bass player.

Thanks to An Horse’s raw energy, their debut album succeeds on these same terms.  A great drummer and great melodies dominate throughout, never letting down, never letting go, and always pushing forward.  Urgently calling out the trials of the heart and the desire for more meaningful connections, Rearrange Beds is a bullet of honesty shot from the streets of Brisbane.

Lyrically, Kate explores the heart’s successes and failures, as set against a physical world, with the steady combination of self-effacing wit and wry poetic slight of hand.  Fans of author Jan Braun’s novel “Somewhere Else” will appreciate a similar sensibility.

There are no frills on this album.  No gimmicks, no studio bullshit, and no letdowns.  Its refreshing — and kind of amazing actually — that so much vitality can come from such simplicity.

Patrolling The Heights

Patrolling The Heights

Marvins Revolt bears uncanny resemblance to Winnipeg’s kings of sloppy punk-influenced pop – The Paperbacks.   I can’t stop thinking that Doug McLean would really love this album.  But what attracted me to this band is the not-as-contrasting-as-one-might-think references of early REM and Manic Street Preachers before Richey Edwards’ unfortunate disappearance.  Earthy melodies and jangling guitars, presented with honesty and exuberance.  Yelping vocals set against strong guitar melodies and playful rhythms.

There is an infectious and unabated obsession with life that reminds me of the Rheostatics .  Like all these far-flung and unlikely reference points, Marvins Revolt places strong value on personal politics – the experiences of individuals in a world that doesn’t quite meet their standards or expectations.  This album is intensely political, but never preachy – instead choosing to personalize the effects of the global economy and nationalism.

“Make no mistake, because we won’t accept it.”

“We woke up with eyes shut.”

“Nothing we can say sets the whole world free.”

“Take a wild guess what went wrong here.”

Marvins Revolt is a Danish band, relatively unheard here in Canada.  I stumbled onto them through the Play/Rec label while following Greg MacPherson’s trail.  Patrolling The Heights is their third album.  Only question: who was Marvin, and what did he revolt against?

(ps: The louder you turn it up, the better it gets.)

(pps: To the Danes reading this blog and concerned about whats going on at the Copenhagen Climate Conference.  I apologize for our Prime Minister.  He’s a total bummer.)