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.

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.

Napalmpom, The Core Competencies of Napalmpom

Napalmpom, The Core Competencies of...

The first time I heard Calgary’s Napalmpom reminded me of the first time I heard another Albertan-born rock band: The Pursuit of Happiness. Both introductions left me blown away by each band’s unabashed love of rock ‘n’ roll, big melodies, and broken-hearted laments. Napalmpom’s classic rock leanings feel slightly out of step with their time, but like their forebearers, they play it with all their heart. It’s as if the band knows something the rest of us don’t; a secret reserved only for those who let rock ‘n’ roll into their heart and accept it as their personal saviour.

The Core Competencies of Napalmpom is their comprehensive catalogue of rock knowledge, and end-to-end, no-filler-(almost)-all-killer collection of heart and soul. On their Bandcamp store, each individual track is lovingly detailed and described: album opener “Get Love” is  ‘…about a shame and judgment-free rebound and the importance of every relationship, no matter how short”; on “Her Own Wings” they “…tried to write a Superchunk song but it sounds kind of like early Judas Priest and 80s AC/DC, but in a good way?”; and proudly acknowledge that closer “Pretty Great Machine” is “…an honest-to-goodness slow jam and a perfect end to an album about being self-assured in the search for love in a world that kind of likes to shit on everything you do.”

“Self-assured” doesn’t begin to cover just how brilliantly clever and confident The Core Competencies… is. In the end, that’s Napalmpom’s special secret: if you’re going to play rock ‘n’ roll, make it big, make it bold, and make the world believe it’s what you were born to do.

Nature Of “Bottom Line”

Nature Of
Dale Bailey

Is it chance or design? A universal question without an easy answer. Are differences in philosophy and ideology an inconvenient truth or a manufactured disaster? When you say you love me but treat me like the dirt under your feet, should I take your words or your actions at face value? I could abandon my cat alone in the house for days (I would never) and still get unconditional love when I return (for about five minutes before he’s totally over me). The human heart, sadly, is more fickle than a feline.

Edmonton’s Nature Of steadfastly explore the nature of human relationships. They won my heart in 2014 with their debut LP and have returned in 2017 with “Bottom Line” to melt it into a gelatinous mess. Its rhythm is a casual, confident strut; its winsome folk melody conveys hope and disappointment in the same breath and the sense that even after misunderstandings and missed opportunities, two parties can build connections and find common ground. Personally speaking, a more affecting song couldn’t have come my way at a better time. Was it chance or design? That’s an answer only the universe knows, but either way, I’ll take it.

Tropic Harbour “New Life”

Levi Manchak

Do you feel it? It’s time for another spring awakening. Earth is itching with new growth and the sun’s getting ready to show off its buffed up, super hot summer body. Edmonton’s Mark Berg is ready to move on, too. “New Life”—the newest song from Berg’s recording project Tropic Harbour—is an ode to starting over that blossoms with a radiant positivity.

Berg’s blissful synthpop melodies can thaw the coldest of hearts. “New Life” is a smooth blend of looking backward and forward all at one time. Berg’s lyrics reflect an understanding that the past informs the present and future. The song springs from the dissolution of a relationship but never dwells in depression and self-pity. Tropic Harbour’s naturally sunny musical disposition impresses “New Life” with healthy optimism about how even the most difficult situations in life can lead to growth.

100 Mile House, Hiraeth

100 Mile House, Hiraeth

Listening to Hiraeth is like leaving your front door open in the middle of the night. You won’t see what’s coming in until it comes across the threshold. Haunted memories. Long-lost loves. The dearly departed. In the dark of night, our familiars cast alien shadows and cloud our memories. Like the Welsh word it’s named for, Hiraeth is a record of reminiscence for a time, place, and people who may never have been. It’s a word with no English equivalent, and it perfectly captures the mood and feel of this record.

It’s in the way 100 Mile House play out these songs of vulnerability, drawing back gauzy veils to reveal the truth at the music’s core. They keep things as simple as a pair of voices and some strings (“Brighton Beach”), and frame poignant lyrics in unadorned, poetic arrangements (“Last Branch”). At every musical turn, though, Denise McKay and Peter Stone offer listeners an entry point into their world.

“If all we have is each other” they harmonize on “All We Have”, “then that’s enough.” It’s more than enough, though, isn’t it? Having someone there to sit with you through the cold nights, and warmest days, and the bleakest seasons; that’s everything.

J Blissette “Love Letter”

J Blissette, Alberta
Meghan MacWhirter

There really was a Deathbridge in Lethbridge in 2016. A much beloved venue called The Slice closed its doors concurrent with a number of local bands folding, including The Ruby Plumes, the former outfit of J Blissette (aka Jackson Tiefenbach). From the outside, the seismic shift in Lethbridge’s music scene may have seemed like the end of an era, but for Blissette, the end of one band afforded an opportunity for resolutions and renewal.

Backed by a band of music scene veterans (guitarist Cory Fischer is formerly of bands Participation and Internet Love; drummer Matthew Rederburg is also formerly of Internet Love and Saint Street; bassist Arnaud Sparks is currently of Bummer Club and formerly of Saint Street), J Blissette set about sobering up, inventing a new musical persona, and investing all their energy into learning how to “…to be a bit more of a frontman, and make better music.”

“Love Letter” is the first dispatch from a reinvigorated J Blissette. Its glammy, trashy, snarling punk attitude is spiked with charisma and spirited playing.  Blissette and bandmates take themselves seriously enough to infuse their music with passion while maintaining punk’s jocular attitude. It is the fresh start Blissette was aiming for, fuelled by the free-spirited fun of the city’s musical heritage, and setting a high bar for Lethbridge’s music scene to aspire to.

Various Artists, Taking It To Heart Volume One

Various Artists, Taking It To Heart Volume 1

As fans, we get a lot from music. Solace. Sympathy. Support. Strength. It’s heartwarming to hear stories about fans being able to return the favour, or as in the case of Treeline RecordingsTaking It To Heart compilation, paying that kindness forward. Label owner Ryan Montemurro recently released Treeline’s first album, a collection of new and unreleased original music by various Canadian artists, on both digital and vinyl platforms, with 100% of its net proceeds going to the Heart & Stroke Foundation.

For Montemurro, it’s all about creating win/win scenarios. As a Canadian music enthusiast, he’s approached artists he respects and admires to contribute their work to the project, a fanboy approach I totally appreciate. Any chance to share new music alongside other musicians gives artists the opportunity to reach new listeners (and for fans to discover new favourites). That the whole endeavour is designed to do some good in our world is the cherry on top.

There’s sweet treats from the likes of Operators, Kevin Drew, The Besnard Lakes, and Nap Eyes on Taking It To Heart, but I’ve taken a shine to Trapper’s remix of Woodpigeon’s “Devastating” (a song originally from this year’s T R O U B L E album). It’s an intimate, homey reworking of the original; more an enhancement than the typical exaggeration remixing implies. I suspect that on 180 gram coloured vinyl, the Trapper remix of “Devastating” will sound even warmer and lush than it does digitally.

There’s a lesson to be learned from Treeline’s Taking It To Heart project, one that we’ll be sure to mull over as the DOMINIONATED team starts thinking about where our own compilation project goes next. It’s a #CanadianMusicConvo worth having. We welcome any input you may have, and are sure that Treeline Recordings would welcome any financial input you’d like to make to Taking It To Heart as well.

Preoccupations, Preoccupations

Preoccupations, Preoccupations

We have to talk about Preoccupations. We have to talk about preoccupations, too, but first we have to talk about Preoccupations.

With uncompromising focus, mildly unsettling moments of tension and angst, and wildly exhilarating catharsis, Preoccupations is the kind of debut album any band would die to release. Most bands, though, wouldn’t have the opportunity to release a second (or even third) first record the way Preoccupations has. To trace the record’s creative arc, you need only look to its first four song titles in sequence: “Anxiety”, “Monotony”, “Zodiac”, and “Memory”.

All that Matt Flegel, Danny Christiansen, Scott Munro and Mike Wallace knew and believed about being in a band together fell away and threatened to break them apart as they worked on what started life as the second Viet Cong album. Doing what any good band would do in similar circumstances, they circled the wagons, blocked out the noise, and found a new sense of normal for themselves. The best course through a shitstorm is to plow straight through it. You have to go through the tediousness and repetition in order to find signs that mark your way out of the past and into the future.

The “sense of urgency and unease” of “Anxiety” is only heightened by the cyclical feeling that “Everybody’s waiting, cautiously optimistic” for “Monotony” to break the tension. It’s not until the band pummel their way through “Zodiac,” “Thrashing so weakly, so close to exhaustion, While hopelessly holding our breath,” that there’s even a sliver of light at the end of the tunnel. Those familiar with the Women/Viet Cong/Preoccupations story know that Flegel and Wallace have been down this road once before. Like a lesson learned from the past, “Memory” tells them “You don’t have to say sorry for all the things you failed to do, You don’t have to say sorry for all the times when everything fell through”; you just have to take your licks, own your shit, and decide how to move forward.

Maybe it’s reading more into Preoccupations than the band wants us to. Maybe not. The fact of the matter is you can only separate artist from art in the case of Preoccupations if you’ve no idea who Preoccupations are or who they were. Even then, the allegory of this album’s first half will be evident to anyone who listens all the way through. With that soon-to-be-iconic opening line, Matt Flegel (singing with more unease than urgency), Danny Christiansen, Scott Munro and Mike Wallace take listeners on an intense journey, one that truly starts with the siren-like whistle that kicks off “Degraded”, an alarm waking Preoccupations up to a new reality.

From there, they move through the last half of the record in creative leaps and bounds, with a brilliant new clarity and vision. “Sense” burns briefly, but hauntingly so. “Sense”, together with the schizophrenia of the equally short “Forbidden”, mirrors “Memory”’s multi-movement structure from the first side. But it’s “Stimulation”an epic, post-punk/prog-rock mindfuck that does what minutes earlier seemed all but impossible: stealing the title of ‘best moment’ on Preoccupations from the Dan Boeckner-sung, middle third, new wave movement of “Memory”.

We have to talk about Preoccupations the art because it’s uncompromising, emotionally unrelenting, and expertly rendered. We have to talk about Preoccupations the artists, who set about disassembling themselves, deconstructing their method, discarding ideas and concepts that were no longer relevant, in turn re-discovering themselves. We have to talk about our preoccupations as music listeners, as consumers of art. We have to go to where discomfort lives within us. Like Preoccupations the artists have done with Preoccupations the art, we have to sit with our preoccupations, know them, and then decide what we’re going to do with them. We have to do all of this all at the same time it seems, but first, we just have to start talking.