Blessed, II

Blessed, II

Whether they care to admit it or not, musicians who have any aspirations of long-term sustainability are in a constant battle for tiny morsels of our attention. And when you consider the sheer amount of music available, the relentless pace of its dissemination, and the frenetic nature of our shifting attentiveness, the battle has never seemed more ruthlessly or arbitrarily contested.

If you’re one of the countless numbers of acts slogging it out on the fringes, how do you even begin to contend with the uncertainty and the indifference? If you’re not hardwired to partake in the vacuous social media circus, unwilling to ride the cresting wave of current trends, and altogether more interested in challenging both the listener and your own musical capabilities, how do you expect to stay afloat in a sea of content?

I think about these questions when I listen to Vancouver’s Blessed, a band whose strategy for sustainability seems to hinge on playing the long game: put in the work, tour your ass off, put on an unforgettable live show, write great music, and eventually, if the conditions are right, the breakthrough will happen. It’s a daunting prospect, compounded by the fact that Blessed writes challenging music that doesn’t give way to immediate gratification. In fact, their work ethic as a band is echoed in what they ask of the listener: put in the work with these songs, truly listen, and the rewards will come.

On their self-titled EP released last year, the band paired eclectic songwriting with reserved technical wizardry, resulting in a brilliantly focused collection of songs. On their second EP in as many years, simply entitled II, Blessed broaden their scope while managing to retain the aspects of their sound that made their first EP so effective.

Clocking in just shy of a half hour, II is a meandering, schizophrenic listen brimming with exhilarating technical salvos and drastic changes in tone. It exudes a freewheeling spirit of experimentation that, as referenced earlier, has the potential to bewilder or repel the casual listener. And yet, Blessed counterbalances their more unhinged tendencies with infectious melodies and rewarding sections that recall bands like Television, Preoccupations, Talking Heads, and Ought. II’s opener “Phase” nearly hits the eight-minute mark and shifts gears more times than most full-length albums, but it is bookended by Drew Riekman’s excellent hooks and beautiful guitar lines. Time and time again –the punchy chorus on “Headache”, the airy vocals and the cathartic ending on “Body”, the duelling clean guitars on “Endure”–Blessed exhibit songwriting instincts that only serve to heighten the effect of their technical abilities.

While it’s always possible that artists this good will never get the exposure they deserve, I’m optimistic for Blessed. Hard work and tenacity aside, I’ve seen the effect they can have on a room. Last year, they played a show in Toronto to a bar that was both half-full and half-interested. But slowly, as they settled into their methodically airtight set–simultaneously awing and embarrassing the opening bands (my own included)–you could feel the energy in the room start to swell. Passers-by were drawn into the venue; stragglers from a private party happening in the upstairs portion of the bar began to flock down the stairs; spontaneous cheers went up during songs. Soon, the room was full and hanging on every note. There was no bullshit, no gimmicks, no matching outfits or guitar flips; hell, the band barely even spoke. Still, you would be hard pressed to find anyone in that room who wasn’t entirely captivated with what they were seeing.

You can only hope that as the tours and the releases pile up, so too does the band’s momentum. “Making it”, whatever the hell that means anymore, is secondary so long as a group of talented musicians continues to do what they love. If that can happen, it’ll be that much sweeter knowing that a band like Blessed did it not through begging for attention, but by genuinely commanding it.


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.”


Spirit of the West “Save This House”

When Spirit of the West wrote “Save This House” as an environmental call to action 27 years ago, they probably never fathomed 2017’s brand of social unrest and the upside-down/inside-out world we currently find ourselves in. Today, as in 1990, the enemy is humanity. Greed, corruption, consumption, and consumerism. Ignorance, fear, insolence, and denial. When John Mann howls “Wake me up! Wake me up!” it’s not a warning that the world is teetering on the brink of irreparable environmental damage from climate change, it’s a realization that we’ve already gone beyond the point of no return.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s been watching democracy and human decency decay before my very eyes on the screens that surround me, all the while thinking “This isn’t possible. This isn’t the way it’s supposed to happen.” I’m seeing the news, and the unimaginable is happening every day. Mann’s lyrics were written about environmental issues, but they’re just as applicable and relevant today. We’re living in the hottest and most volatile social climate of our generation. The change is not happening a million miles away, but right in the neighbourhoods we live in. Last week’s shooting in Québec City was a sobering example of hate and discrimination writ large. Added to the the less publicized accounts of racially motivated violence and discrimination that have been popping into our newsfeed recently, it amounts to a tidal shift. I keep hearing politicians and pundits commenting that these acts are not reflective of who we are as Canadians, even though these acts are being carried out by Canadians.

Is, to paraphrase Mann and Spirit of the West, the party over? Have apathy and hatred won over over empathy and human decency? Do we follow America’s lead and change the locks? Something tells me it’s too late for that. We’re closer to our collective house being a disgrace now than we’ve been in my lifetime, but there’s still time.

An event like the Québec City mosque shootings can rouse a society from numbness and apathy. Canada has reacted admirably and stoically in the face of hate, but if we are to sustain our fight against discrimination, we need to be proactive. We need to feed the fire of our fury and fervor beyond the newscycle. Am I suggesting that a 27 year old song is the answer to combating apathy and ignorance? Not all on its own. But before there is a fire, there must be a spark that can burst into flame. “Save This House” sounds like an ignitor to me.


Matt and Sam’s Brother “Spacesuit (Live)”

Chris Hadfield recently asked Roberta Bondar where humankind should explore next, to which she somewhat predictably replied the Moon, Mars, the Arctic and the oceans. If you ask Charlie Kerr, an intrepid artistic adventurer, he’d say the next undiscovered country we need to explore is the self.

Kerr, a member of Vancouver’s JPNSGRLS, is suiting up and taking a giant step into the darkest reaches of one’s psyche on “Spacesuit”, the first single from his new solo project Matt and Sam’s Brother. Kerr says the song, like the whole of his new album, My Brain Hurts A Lot, is his way of expressing the mind’s cosmic commute between “existential dread and delusions of grandeur.”

That’s an interstellar journey I’d sign up for. The idea of exploring one’s self is fascinating and frightening. With the potential to reveal unwanted truths, it’s no wonder we don’t often look inward and explore why and how our minds can lead us to feel isolated and alone on a planet of six billion people.

In a new acoustic version of “Spacesuit”, Kerr takes a leisurely, gravity-defying space walk around the block in his mind, strolling through Depressive Cynic Crescent, Manic Egoist Street, Hopeful Romantic Road, and back around again. “The song ends where it starts,” Kerr tells me, “Nothing too profound. Such is life.” But there is a sage wisdom in knowing that this journey has no beginning or end. Through this mellow and meticulously performed live version, he captures in song what it feels like to drift without momentum or direction, find yourself suddenly hyper-aware and scared about mortality, momentarily crashing into reality before rising up and floating away again.

“Singing this song makes me feel like a frightened child,” Kerr says, “So naturally I had to decorate the room with glow-in-the-dark stickers so I didn’t get too scared.” As a child, nighttime was the right time for my brain to go into overdrive and fill me with all kinds of worry and dread, so I sympathize with him there. But adult me finds the ebb and flow of the live version of “Spacesuit” as soothing as a lullaby.


Fancey, Love Mirage

Fancey, Love Mirage

No, you’re not hallucinating. With a harmonica riff ripped right out of the 70s, “Baby Sunshine” flips us right back to the heady and hairy heyday of slick, sophisticated pop and disco, and properly introduces the world to Todd Fancey’s Love Mirage. It is the New Pronographers’ guitarist’s third solo album as Fancey, and is bursting with meticulously sourced sounds from the era.

At first blush, songs like “Dream All Night”, “Disco Angel”, and “Carrie” feel like perfect hybrids of nostalgia and novelty, but you’ll swiftly realize that they’re neither. In much the same way polyester resists wrinkling, Love Mirage is 100% irony-free. Performed with vintage instruments and strictly adhering to bona fide period production and style, Love Mirage is an impeccably crafted record above anything else. The smooth studio production techniques the 70s became known for can only do so much to dress up sub-standard songs, but Fancey’s tracks are a top-notch blend of saccharine pop sensibility and bittersweet songwriting.

I would be remiss if I didn’t point out the intriguing coincidence that Fancey released Love Mirage, a record whose album art references the opening credits to The Mary Tyler Moore Show, in the same week that Mary Tyler Moore died. It’s happenstance of course, but poignant that these two events coincided. There’s an enduring easy-to-love, hard-to-forget attitude coursing through the album that in some ways feels as if Fancey has taken a baton that’s been passed him, and doing his part to keep a certain dream alive.


Little Sprout, Little Sprout EP

Little Sprout EP

 

Let’s talk. Addiction and mental health are no laughing matter, but a positive perspective and healthy sense of fun are two of the keys to overcoming the tortuous spiral they can catch you in. Amie Gislason on Vancouver trio Little Sprout was frank with an interviewer about her experience with addiction and substance abuse recently, and how it informed the music of Little Sprout’s debut, 5-song self-titled release.

Balancing weighty, introspective lyrics (some of which were written during Gislason’s addiction, some inspired by it) with angular guitar riffs and light-as-air, melodies Little Sprout isn’t afraid to make art out of personal experience. Gislason, drummer/keyboardist Sean Gordon and bassist Reese Patterson are all visual artists, too, which would explain the penchant for brightly coloured, pop culture referencing art they employ. It’s not about downplaying or diminishing the seriousness of the themes and subject matter Gislason writes about; it’s all about approaching it from an honest frame of mind. Whether singing about an alien boyfriend or vomit on the carpet and drunk mothers, Little Sprout’s sound and vision complements the blend of fantasy and realism in their work.


The Courtneys “Silver Velvet”

The Courtneys, Vancouver BC
Andrew Volk

There’s nothing Vancouver’s The Courtneys can say or do that will stop comparisons of their dynamic pop to that of their legendary Flying Nun label mates. You don’t sign to an iconic, underground recording company and get away without any RIYL summations and simplifications. In The Courtneys case, the comparisons are reasonable, if not out and out warranted. Still, there’s an element of the trio’s sound and style that transcends the mid-80s model of jangly guitar and romantic melodies Flying Nun is known for.

I don’t know why, but lately my conversations about pop music always come down to a comparison to food. In the case of The Courtneys, it fits; their essence tends more towards savoury than sweet. “Silver Velvet” finds the trio’s angelic tones powered by a monster rhythm section, not unlike voices from the recent past, but unequivocally rooted in the present.

Find yourself craving the combined kick of eating caramel and cheddar covered popcorn at the same time? Does the thought of honey and hot sauce set your senses on fire? I highly recommend you wrap yourself up in the Courtneys’ “Silver Velvet”.


Elisa Thorn, Hue

Elisa Thorn, Hue

 

Interpretation and inspiration can be integral to an artist’s vision. For musicians, especially in the streaming age, every song is available and ready to be reimagined by cool upstarts who have done their homework but have little vision of what is next. The most exciting music takes its inspirations and does more than copy them, they shove it all in a blender and hope that the resulting sonic smoothie isn’t too chalky or too much like every other smoothie you’ve drunk this month. While this can be an extremely successful method, finding inspiration outside of music through other art forms can be just as exciting and often more rewarding and interesting.

Elisa Thorn is a harpist from Vancouver and her latest project, the aptly named The Painting Project and the subsequent album Hue is directly inspired by her father, Bruce Thorn, and several of his paintings. Each song is named after the painting it was inspired by, all of which are abstract and colourful. The project is not a mere gimmick. Each song has an abstract feel to it, and the collection feels warm, loving and exploratory. Accompanying Thorn’s magnificent harp playing is the highly efficient rhythm section of Justin Devries on drums and James Merger on bass.

I’m no jazz aficionado, but Hue feels well informed by the classics while still featuring modern flavors and experimentation. With Thorn’s harp as the lead instrument, there is a delicacy to these songs that would sound a bit more bombastic fronted by a sax or even a piano.  On “She Was Always Late”, one of several high points on the album, there are long, noisy breakdowns that would be much harder to enjoy and endure if they featured harsher sounding instruments. “Night Song” has a laid back and melancholic Cuban feel to it, Thorn’s harp acting as the guitar and horn section, and shows the depth of her musical knowledge.

Thorn’s true potential is most prominently displayed on “Reds”. It could pass as a post-2000 Radiohead tune, musically complex yet propulsive and emotional. Inspired by jazz, sure, but an incredible example of an artist using their influences and skill to create something magic. It also highlights how important risk taking is in music today. People love to feel safe in every aspect of their lives, including musicians, but Thorn is clearly a risk taker and a doer which in turn has made her an exceptionally creative force. Perhaps this fearlessness is inspired by her father and his own glaring ability to create beauty out of nothing and maybe that is why Hue feels so inspired and masterful. Despite being a master in a different medium than her father, Elisa Thorn has picked up her family’s torch and found her own voice. If Hue is any indication, she will keep running with it beyond jazz into her own sonic and artistic territory.


Loscil, Monument Builders

Loscil, Monument Builders

Scott Morgan, the Vancouver-based composer who records under the name Loscil, has made a career out of interpreting abstract ideas, images, and objects into sound. Whether inspired by scientific concepts or submarines, Loscil finds the right sonic language to communicate not only what he sees and feels, but also what he’s thinking.

Monument Builders is sourced from the apocalyptic landscape photography of Edward Burtynsky and Philip Glass’s 1982 score for Koyaanisqatsi, an experimental film filled with time-lapsed images of cities and landscapes from across the United States. Borrowing the movie’s glacial pace, Monument Builders slowly descends into the dark abyss of modern industrial decay. There’s movement in these seven compositions, but not forward momentum.  Its rhythm comes from the vibration of energy through concrete blocks. Its voice is the sigh of escaping gases. It shudders and pulses like machinery choking on viscous oil.

Monument Builders is desolate. Dramatic. Devastating in the unmovable inevitability that our Earth is forever marked by abandoned cenotaphs to humanity’s greed and petulance. It’s small comfort that art as profound and thought-provoking as Loscil’s would come from industrial rot.


Dante DeCaro, Kill Your Boyfriend

Dante DeCaro, Kill Your Boyfriend

There’s multiple conversations taking place on Kill Your Boyfriend, least of which is between Dante DeCaro and listeners who know him primarily as one-fourth of Wolf Parade and a founding member of Hot Hot Heat.

What strikes me first is the exchange between the characters DeCaro brings to life through his poetic, narrative lyrics. Songs like “Rwanda” and “Rachel” are populated in the first-person, lending a Springsteen-like authority to DeCaro’s storytelling. Like a seasoned novelist, he’s invested time and emotions into his creations, and we can’t help but be drawn into their tales.

To punctuate and propel his stories forward, DeCaro engages in a subtle (but highly effective) heart-to-heart between acoustic guitar strumming and authoritative lead guitar lines, and the swelling progression of chords into soaring choruses like the one on “On The Loose”. His instrumentation tells his tales as clearly as his lyrics, each perfectly in time with the other. He’s dubbed the EP ‘a collection of songs’ on its cover, but that doesn’t quite do Kill Your Boyfriend justice. It is a collection of songs, yes, but also a collection of love and longing, of ideas and influences, secrets and confessions.