Album Reviews

Robert Graham: Storm In A Teacup

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Independent


This album’s sunny disposition makes for a nice fit with the Spring-ish weather currently in fashion. On this debut outing, singing piano man Graham, a transplanted Aussie now based in rural Ontario offers up 10 doses of tight, incisive pop rock, with some on the sunny side, some on the bittersweet.


Well schooled in narrative song writing as befitting a man who’s scored an Honourable Mention in the 2010 Billboard world song contest, Graham’s crafty about making his points without sticking them in your eye. He avoids sounding like generic pop by not so much bending the elements of the formula as blending them into catchy combinations.


That card’s dropped right off the top by opening the album with Gershwin’s melancholy ‘Blue Lullaby’, suggesting late late night’s slow drift into the jaunty early morning brightness of ‘Reaching You’


No great vocal heights scaled but the pipes do have the immense likeability of a fun loving pal or well-worn sweater. Graham makes a bigger impact when he goes a little harder, especially when the piece throws electric guitar into the attack. On that front, he gets stellar contribution from Teddy Kumpel, Dan Charbonneau and Eric ‘Da Doctah’ Schenkman, who collectively set fire to the funkalicious ‘In Love with a Girl’ and the fiery  ‘Living in a Coma’.

The Elwins: And I Thank You

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Independent


Toronto indie pop outfit the Elwins has been catching the buzz almost from the get go of their fledgling career. They debuted in 2008 with a self-titled EP of bouncy, hooky Sixties-inflected pop rock not a million miles form Sum 41 country that instantly found an audience. That and a string of well-received big name opening slots made their debut one of the year’s most anticipated in the pop head community.


It’s here, it’s now, it’s just what we expected and a wee drop more. That being the smash single ‘Stuck In The Middle’, which jacks up the bar to a wicked height that it alone attains.
Some fairly large names showed up for the birthing of the album, which was done in Seattle under the guiding hands of co-producers Bill Moriarty (Dr. Dog, Man Man) and Ryan Hadlock (Blonde Redhead, Islands, Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks) with L. Stu Young (Prince, Sum 41) doing the mix.


The result is a more refined, hook-enhanced version of the EP’s sound with a more muscular dynamic courtesy of all that live gigging. It’s packed with bright sunshiny jams, jaunty rhythms and the vocals have a self-assurance just this side of bravado. And everywhere, fun, fun, fun.

So yeah, "Stuck in the Middle" is da bomb, but "Forgetful Assistance", "I Miss You and I" and "Sitting Pretty" are damn explosive too.


James Lizzard

Woodpigeon: For Paolo

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Boomps


For Paolo is the latest effort from Calgary’s Woodpigeon, aka mostly Mark Andrew Hamilton and on it, the listeners get everything they would expect from the harmony-rich band. They also get some very interesting arrangements featuring Hamilton getting down to the roots of songs and then tweaking the organics


The EP’s experimental bent comes right at you with the opening title track returning in stripped-down acoustic format to close out the album. An interesting and hypnotizing musical arrangement coupled with the band’s trademark vocal harmonies picks up right where their previous effort left off.


Between the two are four tunes hovering above the shaky line between vintage Woodpigeon and indie-pop experiments, of which ‘By Lamplight’ and ‘One too Many’ come off the best.
None get too far away from the smooth, clever indie pop that’s the band’s main cruise. That said, there’s enough balance here to please the fans and attract new ears. F’r instance, “Are You There God? It’s Me Mark” offers beguiling female backing vocals, fluttering violins, dramatic acoustic guitar runs and a decidedly Sufjan Stevens feel.


All in all, while it’s not a great departure, there is in this collection a sense of moving on to bigger soundscapes, larger songwriting canvases. Stay tuned.


James Lizzard

The Strumbellas: My Father and the Hunter

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Independent


This Toronto via Lindsay On septet’s debut album puts them right in the front rank of the post-Elliott Brood roots rockers. Granted it’s a shade more countrified, even bluegrassy than EB but like all the bands in this sub-genre, they bring the stomp to the hoedown.


There’s hollerin’, gangbuster choruses with that country thang and fleet-fingered fretwork aplenty.


So tracks like floor filling "Underneath a Mountain" and "Left for Dead”, utilising all those elements which make the band a live attraction, are to be expected.


Not so much are the poignant “Diane” and “The Bird That Follows Me”, on which the crew tone down the boogie and rely on nuance.


Still and all, The Strumbellas know what brought them to the party and Simon Ward’s touch with the good bluegrassy rock hooks are never far away and all over “Rhinestone” and “The Sheriff”.


One little thing; The Strumbellas love of playing together just jumps off the album. Consequently, while the songs address the genre’s trad subject matter such as sin, redemption, loving, losing, death and near-death, the execution too often trumps the content of certain songs.


The Strumbellas play a CD release show at The Rivoli in Toronto tonight (February 17th).


James Lizzard

Compact DISCovery

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Jaimie Vernon


Kingdom Of Few: Kingdom of Few
Independent

Compact DISCovery

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Jaimie Vernon

The Soles
Broken Ghost EP
Independent

Once upon a time alternative rock was an actual counter-culture that wasn’t a genre bands aspired to just so they could fit a radio format. It was an underground cottage industry created by College radio in response to the bloated corporate pop and rock radio playlists owned and controlled by major record labels.
Back then record companies weren’t looking for cutting edge, genre bending guitar bands; they waited for College and University radio stations to find them first. When critical mass started turning airplay into record sales and indie record shops began selling out vanity vinyl pressings made in someone’s basement, alternative rock turned into an industry.  The progenitors of the early movement, out of no fault of their own, were R.E.M., Hüsker Dü, The Replacements and Sonic Youth. However, with the exception of R.E.M., labels soon found that underground popularity doesn’t necessarily translate into commercial success and they abandoned the ‘project’ almost as quickly as it began, to go back to their formula of slick, groomed, manufactured pop rock.

Six Volts: Fred Eaglesmith

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Sweetwater Music

Ramblin’ troubadour Fred Eaglesmith never met a roots music genre he didn’t like. Over the course of 18 albums he’s switched up styles seemingly every time he drops one. So it makes total sense that this ‘un, album 19, comes in the form of a Fred Eaglesmith sampler collection.

Every genre and roots subgenre he’s ever worked in is represented here; alt-country, stone cold folk, dry as dust roots, road songs, Gospel and it’s alter ego the murder ballad, all get their moments in the Eaglesmith sun and that’s a special place.

Backed by a full band, featuring quick pickin’ mandolin player Mike Zinger, and recorded with the group gathered around a single microphone, the sound is stripped down and warm, made edgy upon occasion by bursts of skronky electric guitar and made vital by Eaglesmith’s lived-in vocals.
Subject matter includes stories of the down and the downtrodden, cheating wives, truckers on amphetamines, singers, crazy women, nights on the town, days on the road and da country music life.

Highlights include but aren’t limited to the technically flawlessly constructed murder ballad. ‘Katie’, the Gospel-inflected “Cemetery Road”, a poignant road song ‘Stars” wherein he recollects, “We played like we were stars/Willie played mandolin and we thought it would never end.”

Compact DISCovery

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Jaimie Vernon

EMMA-LEE: Backseat Heroine
eONE Music

Backseat Heroine is the sophomore release by Toronto’s Emma-Lee and by all accounts is a major departure from her 2008 debut Never Just A Dream that was a decidedly jazz-pop record that hinted at alt-country and blues. 
 
Backseat Heroine is a different beast altogether. The jazz elements have been abandoned (with the exception of the crooner “Bring Back Your Love”) and the alt-country gets a little more face time. “Not Coming By” recalls The Cowboy Junkies’ Margo Timmins in its quiet passages but those don’t last long as the song turns into a rollicking competitor for Blue Rodeo’s less somnambulistic ‘rockers’.

COLLEEN BROWN: Dirt

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Independent

There’s much to be said for sticking with what you know and that’s the point of Dirt, the third album from this Edmonton singer/songwriter. Or Nickleback for that matter. Except that Brown puts a whole lot more effort into updating her folk-pop. It helps that she has the vocal range to stretch out into jazz and get all soulful, as the material demands.

The lady put us on notice with the well deserved re-release of Foot In Heart last year and this ‘un builds on that like Mike Holmes. There’s muscular rhythm patterns aplenty backing up a melodic assertiveness, which allows for more humour to quirk up the introspection.

Which is just about where the going gets tricky as the edgy, jazzified readings of "Happy Love Song" and "Singing in the Garden" in particular conjure echoes of boho-era Joni Mitchell. Thankfully that’s effectively balanced by Brown’s club girl tendencies like bringing horny horns to the up tempo workouts of "Good Girls” and the ultra-grabby "Fight!Fight!Fight!"

Plus she has the range and inclinations to do that type of tune justice, something that’s setting her further apart from the current crop of femme singer/songwriters.

A little more slip slidin’ in the lyric writing and Colleen Brown be coming at you even harder.

James Lizzard

KATHLEEN EDWARDS: Voyageur

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Maple Music

Here’s an item that’s everything the Internet buzz says it is. Part She & Him romantic, part jagged little thrills, Voyageur is a whole other trip for Edwards. As in roller-coaster ride of breaking up, breaking out, new love and reaching for far horizons.

The reigning redhead queen of Canuck country/roots rock came at this album fresh from the break-up of her five-year marriage to guitarist Colin Cripps, which may or may not have triggered a period of intense soul-searching and creative reassessment.

This could easily have set up as the ‘divorce’ album but Justin ‘Bon Iver’ Vernon’s involvement in the project changed all that. The Grammy-nominated, high-voiced neo-folk singer/songwriter initially came on board as a writer/producer but his involvement with all aspects of the album as well as with Edwards deepened considerably.

Listed as co-producer Vernon’s influence is all over the project; stylistically, lyrically and in the production approach. Given that he was working with the usual folk/roots instrumentation, Vernon did a great job of keeping the essence of Edwards’ music intact while bringing other dimensions into the picture. The result is a very good thing indeed and those dimensions make it possible for Edwards to stretch her vocals into surprising and rewarding areas. Check how tall she stands dueting with Norah Jones on album closer ‘For The Record’.

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