Daniel Romano, Modern Pressure

Daniel Romano, Modern Pressure

Daniel Romano has a complicated relationship with love. Don’t we all, though? Love is complex, crazy, and contentious. It stems from our most base instincts, spurring us on to the grandest, drippiest of gestures or the ugliest, darkest decisions of our lives. Who among us has not been made a fool in the name of love?

On Modern Pressure, his seventh album in as many years, Romano bravely wonders aloud what’s to become of love in the darkening atmosphere of our present times. Bravely because, increasingly, pessimism, ignorance, and hatred are winning out on every social media battleground and in every political arena. Romano confronts this modern malaise armed with a nostalgic, starry-eyed mysticism. He takes up the mantle of the socially-conscious troubadour, a role previously embodied by artists like Neil Young, Leonard Cohen, Joan Baez, and Bob Dylan.

By the end of the album’s second song (it’s anthemic title track and poetic mission statement), you get the sense that Modern Pressure isn’t only an exercise in art-making like some of his previous releases. There is a purpose behind this album that’s as much personal as it is political. It’s what makes Modern Pressure Daniel Romano’s most fascinating and frustrating record to date. His musical mood swings across the first three tracks also makes it his least accessible album, but forging through the classic country stomp of “Ugly Human Heart Pt. 1” and on past the protest folk of the title track and reverent balladry of “Roya”, rewards the listener a thousandfold.

The inventiveness and visionary nature of the record’s sequencing won’t be as apparent to digital listeners as it will vinyl consumers until they get to track seven, “Ugly Human Heart Pt. 2”, and realize that the record’s two sides are spiritual siblings of one another. Song eight, “Impossible Green”, shares the Dylanesque poetry of song two, “Modern Pressure”. The melodic motifs of “Roya”–which Romano says represents “the femininity in nature and the universal She”–reappears on “Jennifer Castle”, a song dedicated to another strong female spirit in his circle of musical friends, which falls in the same sequential slot on Side B. “The Pride of Queens” and its counterpart “Dancing With the Lady in the Moon” both play fast and loose with tempo and tone. “When I Learned Your Name” and “I Tried To Hold The World (In My Mouth)” are a pair of musical pastiches (the former of which works better than the latter). Closers “Sucking The Old World Dry” and “ What’s To Become Of The Meaning Of Love” both shudder with an activist’s fervor. Romano saves the album’s two best and most impassioned tracks to deliver Modern Pressure’s thematic punch: the pressure’s never going to let up. Just as the album’s two halves bring a harmony to Romano’s vision, we need to cultivate love in order to balance out the daily barrage of negativity and pessimism all around us.

Romano calls his sound “Mosey” music (naming his last album after it), and Modern Pressure further refines and defines what that sound is: a manipulation of genre and form; intricate layers and wild arrangements; the kinetic energy of inspiration and creativity. The history of popular music is malleable in Romano’s hands, and he crafts songs that are both familiar and challenging. Modern Pressure isn’t meant to be loved at first listen, but once you familiarize yourself with its stylistic shifts, it’s the kind of record that gives you a butterflies-in-the-gut feeling with every repeated listen.

If that’s not a sure sign of being in love, then I don’t know what is.

Manners, Motions

Manners, Motions

It didn’t take a village to help Elliot Kerr raise his brainchild Manners , just a handful of helpful friends from the fringes of Montreal’s music community. Over the course of two EPs–2015’s EP and the latest, Motions–Kerr’s accompanied by buddies Ian Jarvis (Chairs), Matt LeGroulx (Expwy), and visual artist Max Wright (on drums) to flesh out his quirky indie pop. In an email exchange, Kerr also mentioned that he tapped Preoccupations’ Scott Munro for some sinewy synth work on the track “Formicarium”: “I actually forgot to credit him come to think of it,” he said, adding that “it was kind of overwhelming and awesome to have a pretty accomplished guy from a pretty great band help out with a song.”

Kerr’s modesty sells his own accomplishments and abilities short. Motions is a succinct, sharp, slice of idiosyncratic pop. Opening song “Gone Missing” has a slinky, almost sexy groove courtesy of LeGroulx’s bass that’s emboldened by Kerr’s spot-on vocal delivery. “Hollywood and the Obscene”kicks off with chunky guitar riffing and soaring synth lines before settling into a love song melody line.

Closing song “Motions” moves like a dream, measured and methodical but free to wander wherever inspiration dictates. It’s fitting as a conclusion to Motions and the jumping off point for whatever Manners does next. Measured and methodical are apt descriptors for Manners’ work as a whole. While his output may be minimal, Elliot Kerr has maximized every second of Manners’ two EPs thus far.

The Acorn, Glory Hope Mountain (10th Anniversary Edition)

The Acorn Glory Hope Mountain

Everyone has an origin story. A unique set of chapters that chronicles life’s journey. It starts with an egg and sperm, and the woman that bore us into the world, but from there, our paths diverge, plotting their own course across time’s landscape.

Glory Hope Mountain is a musical map of Gloria Esperanza Montoya’s remarkable life, tracing her journey as a Honduran refugee to Canada and translating her incredible stories into song. It is an ambitious and touching love letter written by Montoya’s son, Rolf-Carlos Klausener, first brought to life by his band, The Acorn, in 2007. Glory Hope Mountain was born from hours of recorded conversations between Klausener and his mother, rendered in The Acorn’s unique musical shorthand: Klausener’s evocative lyrics set against a blend of modern pop music experiments and more traditional Central American folk sounds. In the absence of lyrical narrative, The Acorn floods these songs with the overwhelming emotion of family and connection. It’s there in the palpable tension of Klausener’s voice on “Crooked Legs”. His fine tenor mirrors the determination and drive that fueled his mother’s escape to Canada, the country in which he was born: “I won’t feel the pull of the coming day, or the compromise of sleep, ‘cause I’ve got a fire on the soles of my feet.”

It all starts with and egg and sperm, and a woman that bore us into the world, but that’s hardly the extent of the influence our mothers play in our life. Whether or not your birth mother played a significant role in your upbringing, she’s left an indelible mark on your psyche. She is our starting point, her origin story inextricably linked to our own. It’s this biological, maternal connection that makes Glory Hope Mountain so compelling. A decade on, that fire on the soles of Gloria Esperanza Montoya’s feet still burns through the song’s her son wrote about her. Glory Hope Mountain–its music and origin story–is as captivating today as it was upon its initial release; it’s timeless, enduring, and bathed in the beauty of motherly love.

Viewing Party, On

Viewing Party, On

There’s less than a month to go before the new iteration of Twin Peaks hits the airwaves, and though I wouldn’t say I’m anxiously awaiting the show’s return, it’s got me thinking back to my high school years, when original run debuted. My circle of friends and I gravitated towards David Lynch’s surreal, suspense-filled, cinematic sense of scope, as we had never seen anything like it on network TV up until that time. Watching Twin Peaks turned into a ritual, and we often held viewing parties, where dressing up as a character, serving apple pie, and other show-themed treats became common occurrences.

Winnipeg art rockers Viewing Party recently released On, a record loosely connected by the band’s shared love of television (the medium) that plays on the influence of Television (the band), Bowie, Nick Cave, and other musicians with a flair for the melodramatic and a penchant for creativity. Samples of vintage TV programs frame Viewing Party’s off-kilter, post-modernist pop songs. Opener “Prologue” is an exceptional example of this often-used aesthetic, blending the opening narration from 1950’s PSA educational film Habit Patterns(albeit as spoken in an oddly terrifying male voice) and the band’s woozy musical sensibilities. The television theme extends through “The Evening News”, a glammy, trashy romp, to the funeral organ filled “End Credits (78)”, an oddly satisfying coda to Viewing Party’s bizarro musical adventure.

The endless stream of entertainment options available to us makes filtering out first-rate content a challenge. To paraphrase The Boss, there’s millions of channels out there, but it’s next to impossible to find something as on point and engaging as Viewing Party’s On.

Boat Culture, Marble

Boat Culture, Marble

After re-reading what I last wrote about Boat Culture, I don’t know whether to cringe in embarrassment at my overt nautical references, or pat myself on the back and say “Well done, sailor.”

What I know for sure, is that congratulations are in order for the Toronto-via-London, ON four piece’s first full length, Marble. Picking up where Boat Culture left off on last year’s Half Old EP, Marble is a fresh slab of refined jangle pop that reaches back beyond the recent musical past. There are some slick 70s guitar licks on “Cousins” and “Cry” that play off Boat Culture’s winsome harmonies. The AM radio influences add depth and dimension, particularly on the sprawling “New Song” and Marble’s title track, an engaging post-punk-pop torch song. At 5:04 and 5:44 respectively, they are the album’s longest and most anthemic tracks, both verging on being all-out epic rockers. The crescendoing code of “New Song” alone could have a stadium sized audience eating out of Boat Culture’s hand.

Even with those moments of big, arena-ready sound, there’s an intimacy on Marble that draws you in. Boat Culture are absolutely playing to the back row, but they have a wink and a smile for those up front, as well. The ease with which Boat Culture connects with the listener is the secret ingredient that makes Marble such a satisfying affair.

Donovan Woods “Could I Be Your Girl”

Donovan Woods
Grant Martin

There’s a certain cliché about assuming that I’m assuming you’ve heard, so I won’t assume that, just because you’ve made your way to our blog and are reading this particular post, you’re familiar with DOMINIONATED’s journey and the story behind how it came to be a blog.

In 2006, I started a music blog called Quick Before It Melts, that over time focused exclusively on covering Canadian music. Not content with just writing about Canadian artists and their music, I started a project in 2014 that invited a number of musicians to record a cover version of a song from a fellow Canadian artist they admired and respected. I compiled the cover songs into a free digital download and released it on July 1 of that year. The compilation was called DOMINIONATED: a Compendium of Classic (or near Classic) Canadian songs covered by Contemporary Canadian Artists, and was intended to be a celebration of Canadian music across generations, honouring the artists and songs that have inspired and soundtracked our lives. The DOMINIONATED compilation was so well-received and fun to work on, that I turned it into an annual event, releasing two subsequent editions: DOMINIONATEDdeux in 2015 and DOMINIONATED the THIRD 2016.

On July 26, 2016, just after DOMINIONATED the THIRD was released, and 10 years from the day of its first blog post, I posted to Quick Before It Melts for the last time. That same day, Mac Cameron and I officially launched DOMINIONATED.ca, a new blog directly inspired by the spirit of collaboration that made the DOMINIONATED compilations such a success. The emphasis of this new journey was on having conversations and making human connections to Canadian music rather than reporting on release dates and regurgitating press releases.

One thing that becomes exceedingly clear on a journey like ours is that the internet is a vacuum. When you put thoughts out into the online world, it can often feel like you’re engaged in a one-sided conversation. It’s easy to make assumptions about whether your blog posts are (or are not) connecting and resonating with others on the web when you don’t get feedback beyond thumbs-up and retweets. Every once in awhile though, the universe gives you a sign that a connection has been made.

This brings me to Donovan Woods’ cover of Jann Arden’s “Could I Be Your Girl” which was featured on last year’s DOMINIONATED the THIRD compilation. While we were prepping for the official compilation release at the end of June, a private Soundcloud link to Woods’ version ended up in Jann Arden’s hands. Now, I always get a little apprehensive when releasing the compilations, nervous that the artists being covered will react negatively to the interpretation of their song. Thankfully, reactions have always been positive, as was Jann Arden’s when she heard Woods’ version of “Could I Be Your Girl”. She loved his take on her classic single, and jumped the gun on me, sharing the link via social media well before DOMINIONATED the THIRD was to be officially released. Arden’s positive reaction led CBC Radio 2 to add Wood’s “Could I Be Your Girl” to its rotation, bringing the song and our compilation project to a wider audience. And now, almost a year later, it landed Donovan Woods an invitation to perform the song at Jann Arden’s CMW Hall of Fame induction last Thursday evening in the grand ballroom of the Sheraton Centre Hotel in Toronto.

It was a result beyond anything any of us involved in the project could have anticipated. Hearing about Woods’ performance at the induction ceremony stirred up a mixed bag of emotions in me: pride, modesty, and gratitude all in equal measure. Seeing the opportunity and attention Donovan Woods received from being part of the DOMINIONATED project has been a validation for us, showing that the connective power of the internet and our work on this blog can remedy some of the cynicism that comes from sending messages out into the void of cyberspace.

You start a project like DOMINIONATED (both the blog and its namesake compilation project) and assume you’re on one journey, then find the road has taken you somewhere unexpected. A new edition of DOMINIONATED is coming soon; a new batch of cover songs bringing with them a slew of opportunities for our contributing artists. We can’t wait to see (and hear) what connections and conversations DOMINIONATED IV will bring.

Bobby Uzóma “Alone”

Bobby Uzoma, Alone

Though Calgary can claim Bobby Uzóma as its native son, a voice as crystalline and pure as his can’t be contained by any borders. He is a meticulous songwriter and performer whose output, although limited, has been stellar.

Uzóma recently set up shop in Toronto, where he’s been working on a new EP. On his latest song, “Alone”, his timbre quivers with emotion. From verse to chorus and back again, Uzóma swings from heartache to resignation, always with steadfast determination. “Alone”, like his previous work, is built from simple elements, but has a rich and deep emotional life. Just how he is able to ride such an intense rollercoaster of feelings and come out unscathed remains a mystery. The song’s minimalist arrangement is a perfect fit for Uzóma’s voice. With each successive release, it’s clear that Uzóma’s style–basic beats, sparse rhythm–belies the true depth of his creativity and skill.

Ghostkeeper, Sheer Blouse Buffalo Knocks

Ghostkeeper Sheer Blouse Buffalo Knocks

Sarah Houle and Shane Ghostkeeper are originally from Metis settlements in Northern Alberta. They are from families familiar with each other, who always believed the two should meet “…“because apparently we are perfect for each other,” as Houle recently told the Calgary Herald. Whatever reasons their families may have had for thinking they were a good match, the pair’s three albums as Ghostkeeper are evidence enough of their chemistry.

Ghostkeeper’s latest, Sheer Blouse Buffalo Knocks, mirrors real life through its narrative concept: Houle and Ghostkeeper play the roles of Sheer Blouse and Buffalo Knocks, respectively. She is a “spiritualist/explorer of realms”, he a “benevolent warrior”, and the album that bears their name “…[chronicles] their battle against environmental destruction and the burden it places on their homelands in Northern Alberta.” Both performers and their personas are warriors up against incredible odds, taking on an entrenched establishment in hopes of reversing unspeakable damage to preserve the world for generations to come.

Despite the urgency of its subject matter, Sheer Blouse Buffalo Kocks is a record of wildly romantic music. The Houle-led songs “Oceans” and “Cold Hands” are what 60s doo-wop and girl-group pop would have sounded like if everyone back then was on MDMA. I imagine “This is Our Love” and “Muskeekee” are the kind of songs that would have appealed to the makers of the doomsday clock, both showcasing Ghostkeeper’s warped pop sensibilities.

Sheer Blouse Buffalo Kocks is spiritual music in the loosest, most abstract sense of the word. Its geographic centre may be Northern Alberta, but its mystical core can’t be found on any mortal plane. Along with drummer Eric Hamelin and bassist Ryan Bourne, Houle and Ghostkeeper subsume traditional pow-wow music, electronica, African pop, and North American indie rock to create music that is highly stylized, deeply political, and fiercely idiosyncratic. Like the partners at its core, Ghostkeeper’s disparate musical elements form an unparalleled and formidable combination.

The Jins, The Jins

The Jins

I don’t write posts with a particular theme in mind, but this week my focus appears to be on trios, and the magic that comes when three like-minded musicians gel. That would be the elevator sales pitch for Vancouver band The Jins. Roommates Jamie Warnock and Ben Larsen got the notion to put together a set of songs to perform at a Halloween party in 2014, and they went down a storm. When Hudson Partridge moved in, they found their permanent bassist and locked in on making their own brand of distorted punk-pop.

While The Jins may be a band born out of necessity, they’ve managed to become a growing concern. Their boisterous live show and semi-telepathetic connectedness on stage has become the paradigm many bands in Vancouver’s underground scene strive for. The Jins recently self-released their full length, self-titled debut, which compiles their best original material from the last three years. Though I’ve not seen them live, songs like the blistering “Give Into the Pain” and pounding “Taking Shots” suggest their songwriting ability is every bit as dialed in as their frenetic performances.

In a recent interview, the band credit their success to the fact that the three bandmates continue to live together. “Rather than building a relationship twice a week like some bands, we see each other every day,” says Partridge (who has the best bassist name in the world, IMHO), “I think it’s just made us tighter; it’s been a positive.”

Brunch Club, Brunch Club EP

Brunch Club EP

Without any investigation and based on zero statistical evidence, I’ve determined that the happiest and most successful bands in the world are trios. Solo artists get wrapped up in their own cult of personality and develop a paranoia that everyone is out to get them (they are); any even-numbered musical combo–duos, quartets, sextets and so on–are all doomed for deadlocked failure; seven members or more makes you Broken Social Scene; quintets are okay, but really, when you’re five, there’s always someone on the bottom whose one rehearsal away from quitting and turning the band into a quartet (and we know what happens then).

Edmonton’s Brunch Club are a trio, and their newly released self-titled EP is all the evidence I need to know that they’re loving every minute of making music. Opening number “Bed Bugs” is all about that magic number: three. A long-faced lament about finally having a place of your own and missing your old roommates, “Bed Bugs” is a charismatic jangle-pop crowdpleaser. It’s 125 seconds of pure, youthful exuberance, laced with the nervous expectation of burgeoning adulthood.

In just over 12 minutes, Ellen Reade (bass and vocals), Patrick Earles (guitar and vocals), and Clay Francis (drums) cover all the emotional bases of what it feels like to bounce back and forth across the border of adolescence and adulthood, never lingering too long on either side of the line. The same can be said of their sound and style; Brunch Club’s musical touchstones tap into the classic pop triumvirate of surf rock, C86, and twee pop, and the trio performs it with genuine heart and warmth.