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Saturday, May 23, 2020

Fresh picks: The Jayhawks, Gracie and Rachel, MBG, July Talk and introducing The Criticals

The Jayhawks: This Forgotten Town

Photo: Vivian Johnson
The upcoming album XOXO represents a deliberate effort by the band to equalize its members' contributions to the music. On this song, written by Marc Perlman and Gary Louris, the lead vocals are shared by Louris and Tim O’Reagan, with Karen Grotberg harmonizing. The band's blend of American roots and 60's pop influences (referenced by the cover art) remains intact. The lyrics of this song are a bit obscure -- "I like to leave space between the lines for interpretation," says Louris -- but the theme of living on the economic edge comes through in lines like "Living in a makeshift tent / Couldn't find money for the rent."

Gracie and Rachel: Trust

The Brooklyn-based duo of keyboardist Gracie Coates and violinist Rachel Ruggles has been part of our mix since they began releasing recordings in 2016 (and we caught one of their live shows). Having toured with Ani DiFranco, they have now signed with her Righteous Babe Records label for their upcoming sophomore album. They just released a pair of singles (remember two-sided 45s?), "Ideas" and this track. As they describe it: "Sprouted from a writer’s block that caused Gracie and Rachel to doubt their songwriting abilities after a lengthy tour, 'Trust' blossomed into an empowered reflection on learning to speak your own language, believe in your instincts, and write your own narrative, regardless of any self-imposed walls your mind builds up."

MBG: Too Slow

Last summer we featured music from this Toronto-area one-woman-rock-band's debut LP,  Have a Alright Day, produced at MB Studios (that is, her house). For her new single, Leena Rodriguez recorded there and at Human Tourist Records (also a house - that of musician Phil Hirst, who engineered the track). Of course, she's back to working at her own home now due to the coronavirus, unable to bring her music to live audiences. A shame, since this track - although it starts slowly - builds into a wild rocker that would liven any club. Webzine Last Day Deaf calls it an "undeniable, garage/alternative rock banger, which gradually picks up to its zenith, unleashing more tension than a classic alt-rock quartet could achieve."

July Talk: Governess Shadow

More Toronto rock: This single from Peter Dreimanis, Leah Fay and their band is billed as a broadside against misogyny and social inequality. “This song is about my great-grandmother Alice and her two sisters Marie and Anna, who were sent to finishing school in Moscow as teenagers to learn how to serve the wealthy families of the day,” Dreimanis told Billboard. “It’s also about the deep imbalances of power in our world, and specifically how people are separated by wealth and gender.”

The Criticals: Talk Now

This Nashville-based band was formed in 2018 by Parker Forbes and Cole Shugart, veterans of that city's DIY music scene. They cite The Stone Roses, Janes Addiction and The Doors among their influences. Their sound has also been compared to The Strokes - and the lead vocal here reminds our ear of Cake's John McCrea. Although they put out a stream of singles last year, this catchy track is the first to reach us, with a boost from Deuce Music.

Saturday, May 16, 2020

Jason Isbell, Billy Porter, Badly Drawn Boy, Phantom Planet, Waxahatchee in New Music bin

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit: What've I Done to Help

The opening track on the new album Reunions is bound to resonate with people trying to find ways to be helpful in a world gone mad. Written, of course, before the pandemic, it nonetheless captures the sense of survivor's guilt: "The world's on fire and we just climb higher / 'til we're no longer bothered by the smoke and sound." AllMusic writes that the album "is steeped in tales of folks whose lives feel unrooted, not knowing just where fate is taking them and wondering which turn they should take." David Crosby chimes in with Isbell and his wife and bandmate Amanda Shires on the choruses.

Billy Porter: For What It's Worth

The song isn't new - it's instantly recognizable from the very first note - but Billy Porter demonstrates that Stephen Stills' lyrics about social unrest are just as relevant now as when the Buffalo Springfield recorded it in 1966. "There was a time where the artists of the day were really responding to what was going on in their world, and I wanted to, as a very engaged political person, speak to what's going on in the world today," Porter told USA Today. At the end of the track, he adds a call for "change." He told Rolling Stone that was improvised: “I knew I wanted to say something and it needed to be positive and hopeful ...Yes, things are happening, but how do you change it for the good?”

Badly Drawn Boy: Is This a Dream

So many songs emerging these days reflect the sense that the world is off kilter. Here's another, from the new album by British singer/songwriter Damon Gough, Banana Skin Shoes, the first Badly Drawn Boy release in seven years. The lyrics are at least as hallucinatory as "Bob Dylan's 115th Dream." Gough calls the track "a sound collage of chaos and confusion to reflect the ridiculous times we live in. A deliberately cartoonesque sonic poke in the eye, to those in whom we place trust, yet instead supply constant barrage of misinformation followed by bad decisions.” Come to think of it, the world seemed quite crazy at the time of Dylan's 1965 song, too. Not sure if that's good (we've been through this before) or bad (we're no better off).

Phantom Planet: Only One

This Los Angeles indie-rock outfit returned from a roughly decade-long hiatus with a single last year, and has now put together its fifth studio album, Devastator, due for release next month. After working on various other projects, the band members "feel like we’re returning home,” says singer and chief songwriter Alex Greenwald. “The boys in Phantom Planet are my brothers, and we figured it was time for a full-fledged family reunion.” This single is a easy-rolling, you're-the-one-for-me song with a summery, tropical lilt.

Waxahatchee: Lilacs

We previously featured "Can't Do Much" in the New Music bin, and we've been spinning this track from Saint Cloud on the Birch Street Bistro. Katie Crutchfield’s lyrics fit the theme of the album - a struggle to set aside self-doubt and worry and find contentment. She describes a day in the life as like a movie she's playing in her head: "I run it like I'm happy, baby / Like I got everything I want."

Saturday, May 9, 2020

New releases by Cassie Noble, Peter Serrado, Nick Lowe, Arkells and No Time for Reason

Cassie Noble: Move On, Grow

Ontario artist Cassie Noble is about to release her second EP, Madness, described as "a thoughtful collection of mixed metaphors and strong emotions," dealing with "how it feels to be utterly taken aback by the beautiful nature of chaos." Noble's debut EP, Find a Way, came out just last October and has been featured on The Birch Street Bistro. On this new track, her folk-rock, singer-guitarist sound is rounded out with ringing electric guitar, bass and subtle percussion.

Peter Serrado: Run

This Toronto native with Portuguese roots has just released his debut album, Sunset and a City. His bio says Serrado "gravitated to music at an early age, discovering a deep love of retro soul and funk, European crooners, Americana roots and R&B." He's developed a sound described as "soulful acoustic pop" that drew attention in a Eurovision TV competition and won him “Best New Artist” honors at the 2019 International Portuguese Music Awards. On this track, his raspy voice grounds the bright, easy-going guitar and keyboard accompaniment.

Nick Lowe: Don't Be Nice To Me

Another breezy mid-tempo rocker, this one with a retro sound, is this single from the upcoming album by veteran singer-songwriter-producer Nick Lowe. Lay It On Me is his third LP with Los Straitjackets, a Nashville-based combo that specializes in 60s-style instrumentals. The lyric is the lament of someone who just lost at love but doesn't want any sympathy. "When I find a rock big enough for me to crawl under / I'm gonna hang a sign outside to the world: Stay away."

Arkells: Years In The Making

Someday when stadium concerts are a thing again, songs like this will have crowds dancing and chanting together. Frontman Max Kerman says the track "is meant to encourage us to find ways to embrace the bumps in the road, because all of our challenges are ultimately there to help us work towards the dream – whatever that may be."

(By the way, we didn't plan to have three Ontario artists among this week's five picks for the New Music Bin; it just turned out that way.)

No Time for Reason: Supersonic Nightmare

Over to the UK now for a crank-it-up anthem from this Newcastle-based alt-rock quartet. This is the latest in a planned string of singles, a couple of which we've featured on The Detour. Frontman David Stoker says this song "describes how the younger generation are being affected by political decisions and media coverage. The whole song is very political, and tackles subjects that we haven't previously addressed as a band."

Saturday, May 2, 2020

Our latest picks: New music by the Rolling Stones, Shawna Caspi, High Grass, Forest Sun, Nada Surf

Rolling Stones: Living in a Ghost Town

Besides making old songs about solitude seem newly relevant, the coronavirus pandemic will inevitably inspire new songs. Surprisingly, one of the first is a solid rocker by this veteran band that hadn't released an original song in eight years. According to Mick Jagger, it was written before the outbreak, with lyrics “about being in a place which was full of life, and then now bereft of life." He updated it a bit, with lines like "life was so beautiful / then we all got locked down." But the song avoids the common mistake of being too tied to the moment. Like, say, Prince's "1999," it will hold up when this, too, has passed. The music, writes The Guardian, "feels appealingly sleazy," and Jagger's voice, "with Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood’s guitars weaving around him – seems immune to the kind of ravages you might expect to have been visited on a 76-year-old singer." The accompanying video is made up of scenes of empty streets in cities around the world, intercut with glimpses of the band in pre-lockdown recording sessions.

Shawna Caspi: One More Chance

Many artists have had recording projects interrupted by the health crisis. Toronto singer-songwriter Shawna Caspi and producer-musician Joel Schwartz had started work on Caspi's next album when the world shut down. "Much like the pantry meals many of us are piecing together with whatever we've got on hand," Caspi says, they cooked up this single, starting with vocal and acoustic-guitar tracks they had already recorded. Schwartz added his own parts and they video-conferenced for the mixing. The result is charming, as Caspi's clear voice and finger-style guitar plus Schwartz's mandolin sharply contrast with sustained notes from his electric guitar.

High Grass: Tonight

Music brings people together - not just audiences, but the musicians themselves, sometimes from far-flung places, as is the case with Kristina and Mariel Miranda. Mariel grew up in Cuba and was making, teaching and producing music when singer Kristina moved there from Russia. They began working together in 2012, forming High Grass as an underground alt-rock band. By 2016, they had moved to their current base in Los Angeles. "We wrote the song 'Tonight' back in Cuba in 2012," Kristina says. "This song is about finding your path and being true to yourself. It was inspired by my decision to move from Moscow to Havana."

Forest Sun: Something You Got

We've played several tracks by this California-based singer-songwriter on The Birch Street Bistro, taken from his most recent album, Brighter Day. In the six months since that release, he's been bringing out a new song each month. While most are originals, this latest is a cover. "So much of the music I love comes from New Orleans," he writes. "This song was originally written and recorded by Chris Kenner in 1961." He's also heard renditions by New Orleans singer Alvin Robinson, Ramsey Lewis, Wilson Pickett and Harry Connick Jr. "I love how a deceptively simple song like this can live on on in new incarnations with a life force of its own." It's brought to life in this laid-back, soulful treatment featuring Alex Budman on saxophones, Rob Hooper on drums and co-producer Gawain Mathews on electric guitar, bass and organ.

Nada Surf: Live Learn & Forget

We dip again into the band's recent LP, Never Not Together, and pull out one if its more philosophical songs. While we are formed by our pasts - "Every age you've ever been / We carry on our backs," Matthew Caws sings - "It's always what you do next / That's where the ship is steered." PopMatters writes that the track "begins with a chiming minor-key guitar riff, which quickly opens up into a driving full band song where the most distinctive part is (Louie) Lino's prominent, simple piano accompaniment on the chorus."

Saturday, April 25, 2020

New Jackson Browne + The Thank Yous + HAIM + HAARM + Michael Kiwanuka

Jackson Browne: Downhill From Everywhere

What's downhill from everywhere on planet Earth is the ocean, and what flows downhill is all the crap of civilization. That's the message of Browne's latest song of alarm. "Do you think of the ocean as yours? / Do you think about it at all?" The verses take the form of a litany* of the mundane and the scandalous: "Downhill from the mall ... from the factory farm and the hospital ... from the fruity plain and the bottom line, downhill from Columbine." (*See also: REM's "The End of the World," Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start the Fire," etc.)

The Thank Yous: These Things Happen

The influence of The Beatles on this indie band from Norway is clear in its music and the nickname of member Petter Folkedal: Sergeant Petter. He and Lars Lundevall are the singing-songwriting duo behind The Thank Yous, joined by drummer Frode Unneland and producer/bassist Tommy Haltbakk. This track from their just-released debut album, Good Times Killing Us, is a nifty piece of power pop with a lyric that shrugs its shoulders at the pain of a breakup: "All the music that reminds you of her is forever painted black / Yeah I know, these things happen every day." Mixes well with: Barenaked Ladies "It's All Been Done."

HAIM: The Steps

The new album from the sisters Haim was scheduled for release this week, but that's been postponed, along with plans for promotional touring, due to the ongoing pandemic. Women In Music Pt. III will include three singles released last year along with this new track and several that are still under wraps. This latest song describes a relationship that's out of sync - "You don't understand me" - but might work out in some fashion: "If I go right and you go left / Hey, I know we'll meet up again." NPR wrote: "Electric guitars squeal and wobble over a ramshackle acoustic strum and garage drums — the texture's rough and messy, but loved and lived-in."

HAARM: Take Me Away

Relationships going or gone bad are often the theme of this Liverpool trio's songs - but this one is a change of pace. Says vocalist Jen Davies: "‘Take Me Away’ is intended as a moment of euphoria; a release from those [negative] thoughts. Of course, we wrote it several months ago now, but it feels more important than ever to have written something uplifting in the current situation.” And how can anyone not be uplifted by the sunshine-y sound of steel drums underpinning this track?

Michael Kiwanuka: Rolling

The third album from the London singer-songwriter, titled simply Kiwanuka, was released last fall to rave reviews: Rolling Stone called it "his most fully-formed work, a meditative, expansive collection of synth-psych, blues-rock, stately folk." The Guardian declared it one of the decade's best albums, "a contemplative song cycle intended to be listened to in one extended sitting." Perhaps that's why it's taken a while for any one track to find its way onto radio playlists in the Americas. That's how we caught up to "Rolling," which now lands in our New Music bin.