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.

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.

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.

Single Mothers “East Van Band Van”

“Maybe we did die back in 1999”

You’ve got to hand it to Drew Thompson. While his Craig Finn-esque sentiments have a tendency to bleed into one another, he is still more than capable of penning one-liners that perfectly capture an all-too familiar feeling of malaise.

His nod to the Y2K clusterfuck comes at the start of Single Mothers’ newest offering “East Van Band Van”, which is off a two-song teaser that anticipates the band’s new LP entitled Our Pleasure, out June 16th. Produced by Alexisonfire’s Wade Macneil, the track finds former Single Mothers guitarist Justis Krar and current Dirty Nil bassist Ross Miller filling out the vacant spots in Single Mothers’ studio roster. The choices pay off, as instrumentally, the band has rarely sounded better. The slower tempo gives drummer Brandon Jagersky ample room to move around his kit, which sounds enormous alongside Krar’s and Miller’s tones. The immediacy of the music allows “East Van Band Van” to be more than just a platform for Thompson’s nihilistic conceits, though there’s still plenty of them to be had.

If it’s possible to sound simultaneously invigorated and defeated, Thompson has figured out how. His delivery is subdued, yet strangely melodic, mostly yielding to the song’s massive instrumentation. The vocals exude a passivity that’s mirrored in the lyrics, which concern losing control of one’s purpose in life. Thompson has stated that the song is a response to watching his friends fall into the supposed trap of “family, marriage, kids and excitement over earning the corner office”, but there seems to be a broader scope to his overall point. The monotony of contemporary touring life, ripe with its own form of existential dread, comes into question as well. After all, whether you’re absently gazing out the window of a high-rise office, or you’re “living out the band van”, we all can come to “hate the way every day feels the same”.

For me, it all comes back to that first line, where we all died back in ‘99. After the paranoia of the impending millennium passed, and the socialization of the internet began to run rampant, perhaps we lost the ability to define meaning in our lives by our own standards. In a time of carefully curated online personalities and lifestyles, it’s become far easier to doubt the legitimacy of the individual paths we’ve chosen. Against the standards set by the new realities of filtered social interaction, everyday life—no matter what your vocation—can often seem downright miserable and pointless. From these daily nadirs, the only option is to block out the cacophony in an attempt to relish the aspects of life that truly hold meaning. There’s no use wallowing in stagnancy; as Thompson suggests: “you gotta keep going man, we can’t just leave the van here.”

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.

Lydia Ainsworth, Darling of the Afterglow

Lydia Ainsworth, Darling of the Afterglow

It’s easy to forget how big My Chemical Romance were. The too-cool type may lazily write them off as emo–the most taboo and redundant of the genre tags–but their importance to a generation of music lovers and not-quite-cool kids trying to make sense of the post-9/11 world cannot be overstated. They were the over-the-top, fun, awesome, theatrical and yes, emotional band that we needed. I try to avoid assuming the influences of artists, but when listening to Lydia Ainsworth I can’t help but think that she found inspiration in MCR. Not necessarily musically–My Chemical Romance were like a pop-punk Queen fronted by a man who at various stages of his career looked like a vampire and a skeleton–but the dramatic catharsis of Ainsworth’s music has a similar emotional effect and grandiosity to it; and damn do I love it.

The striking thing about the music and instrumentation on Darling of the Afterglow, Ainsworth’s second album, is how many ideas and sounds are packed into its eleven songs. There are club-worthy pop numbers, groovy slow jams and gothy meditations. It’s an album that needs repeated listens to unpack and fully digest everything that is going on.

“The Road” sets the mood of the album perfectly, showcasing Ainsworth beautifully layered vocals, but the album really kicks into gear with “What Is It?”–a delightful wouldbe late 90s pop number whose chorus is propelled by some brilliantly funky bass playing topped up with whimsical banjo and horns for accent. “Afterglow”, the album’s standout track is constructed around a minimalist beat and carried along by some quiet synth drone and Ainsworth’s apocalyptic, layered hums. “Spinning” is the album’s best contender to get people dancing, but it avoids any radio-ready tropes; the songs remains distinctly Ainsworth’s.

When the chorus of the album’s lone cover, “Wicked Game”, kicks in, it is breathtaking. Ainsworth’s incredible take on the sexy Chris Isaak classic, placed between ten creative originals, grounds the album and proves Ainsworth to be a great interpreter as well as a songwriter. “I Can Feel It All” sees the album reach its peak with some almost heavy metal drumming and an appropriately stadium-ready chorus. “Nighttime Watching”, the weirdest cut on the album, brings Darling of the Afterglow to an end but not before leveling the listener with one more infectious chorus.

Darling of the Afterglow is a powerful display of creativity, great song writing and smart production. While current rock music, especially the stuff the veers toward pop, feels devoid of drama and grandiosity, Ainsworth is filling a worthy space and is doing so with passion and individuality. Her songs might not change the colour of your black heart but they will certainly fill it up and inspire you to sing it out.

The Wilderness of Manitoba “Brigden Fair”

The Wilderness of Manitoba
Zuzana Hudackova

For my money, there’s not been a better chamber folk record than The Wilderness of Manitoba’s 2009 debut, Hymns of Love and Spirits. While their sound evolved and expanded on subsequent albums, founding member Will Whitwham’s voice always retained the whispery intimacy first displayed on that debut.

Whitwham’s all that’s left from the iteration of The Wilderness of Manitoba that made Hymns of Love and Spirits, and his new single, “Brigden Fair” harkens back to the band’s origins, stripping away excesses and extravagances to reveal the soul of his songwriting. He says it’s meant to feel as if “…Donovan wrote the lyrics but it was sung and recorded by Simon and Garfunkel.” It does, echoing that dynamic duo’s version of “Scarborough Fair” in tone, title, and tempo.

“Brigden Fair” finds The Wilderness of Manitoba in familiar musical surroundings. Like the amusement ride Whitwham reminisces about in the song’s lyrics, The Wilderness of Manitoba are coming full circle, their new hymns of love and spirits sounding rejuvenated and renewed.

Various Artists, Cha Cha Cha: The Songs of Shotgun Jimmie

Various Artists, Cha Cha Cha Tribute to Shotgun Jimmie

I steadfastly believe it is impossible for anyone named Jim to be anything but a good guy. As proof, I present Exhibit A: Cha Cha Cha: The Songs of Shotgun Jimmie, a 30-song, 15-year career retrospective tribute album covering the songs of Jim Kilpatrick, aka Shotgun Jimmie. The project may seem excessive in print, but the finished product is an engrossing and captivating encapsulation of Shotgun Jimmie’s impressive musical canon.

Kilpatrick is the consummate Canadian songwriter, touring cross-country multiple times and making connections with fellow musicians from Surrey, BC to St. John’s, NL and all points in between. Admired by fans and musicians alike for his consistency and dedication to crafting smart and memorable music, the Shotgun Jimmie catalogue is ripe for reinterpretation. Songs this well written and constructed offer the perfect canvas for others to impress their own visions.

Former Shotgun & Jaybird partner Frederick Squire starts things off with a pared down interpretation of the early unreleased “There is a Line Girl I’d Like To…”. Squire’s trademark stripped down presentation further confirms what Shotgun Jimmie fans have known for years: he’s a fantastic storyteller whose eye for detail comes through in his vivid lyrics. From there, friends By Divine Right, Spencer Burton, Bruce Peninsula’s Misha Bower, The Burning Hell’s Ariel Sharratt and Mathias Kom, and Jon McKiel each explore their own favourites from Jimmie’s prolific back catalogue.

All 30 songs are faithful covers that manage to avoid feeling like carbon copies of the originals. Whether you’re familiar with the tunes or experiencing Shotgun Jimmie for the first time, Cha Cha Cha: The Songs of Shotgun Jimmie is sure to put the whole country in a party mood. The feel-good vibes extend all the way to The Yukon, too; all proceeds from sales of *Cha Cha Cha…” benefit Dawson City Music Festival’s Songwriter in Residence initiative.

Eiyn Sof, Meadow Thrum

Eiyn Sof, Meadow Thrum

At 6:28 AM Eastern Standard Time on March 20—the Vernal Equinox in the Northern Hemisphere—Eiyn Sof released Meadow Thrum, an album pitched equidistant from full-out folk and mind-melting psychedelia. Meadow Thrum is a consistently riveting, occasionally confounding collection of escapist sounds and musical textures. File Meadow Thrum next to the most verdant and lush folk records or the most transcendent of alternative records in your collection; Eiyn Sof sits comfortably in both worlds.

Eiyn Sof is the moniker of Waterloo, ON-based musician Melissa Boraski, who’s structured Meadow Thrum to play out like the disembodied soundtrack of someone’s long-lost, home-made Super 8 reel: each track a brief scene that quickly cuts to the next. The perspective changes slightly between some songs (like “Two Thousand Paws” and “Bogland”) while others juxtapose Boraski’s fondness for freaky found-sounds and absorbing acid-folk (“In the Fount” and “Pyre”). “Battleaxis” bristles with a half-minute of backward incantations before the record takes a sharp left turn into further trippy, esoteric territory on “The Heirophant”. “You’re on a Hill” is a wild mix of ancient hymn and mystic spell, bound together by unspooling guitar strings and a second-hand theremin.