Listen to this track by Nova Scotian power pop scensters and Canadian national treasure now based in Toronto, Sloan. It’s “I Hate My Generation”, a key song as taken from their breakthrough second album Twice Removed.
This album was one of a few that helped to draw the spotlight to the fertile East Coast scene of bands centred in Halifax doing interesting work during the early to mid-nineties and at once compared to their American Pacific Northwest counterparts. Yet, the scene had a distinct sound of its own, and with as much diversity when you took a closer listen. Thrush Hermit, Jale, Superfriendz, and Eric’s Trip were a select few other players on that scene from the early to mid-nineties that provided a touchpaper effect in the Canadian music press, if not always setting charts ablaze south of the border.
Although not a single, this tune from Twice Removed sounded like the flagship song to a hard won hit album. It reflects that struggle of trying to find a voice when all those around were clamouring for the same old thing. It’s also something of an anthem of that hated generation, too.
Listen to this track by Hamiltonian singer-songwriter and guitarist Terra Lightfoot. It’s “Never Will”, a storming track as taken from her second record Every Time My Mind Runs Wild. Nurtured by a pile of classic rock and pop records, and by roots heroes that may account for a distinct R&B meets folk- influenced swagger you can hear on this song, this tune is a concoction of indie rock approach meeting blues-stomp cajones.
Terra Lightfoot, who is in fact not related to one of Canada’s most famous Gordons, has honed her craft while on stages shared with that particular Gordon, along with others like Ron Sexsmith, Sloan, Arkells, and Daniel Lanois among many others. Taking her craft very seriously, the songs on this new record were written and heavily re-written, partially with thanks to the lessons laid down by those others as represented by that aforementioned pile of classic rock records.
The musical DNA of a those albums that served as examples to Lightfoot’s craft can’t be traced with any real precision here. But, the raw power that created them sure can be. Read more
Listen to this track by Ottawa-born former folk-psych guitarist turned mystical folkie singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn. It’s “Let Us Go Laughing”, the centerpiece to his 1971 album High Winds, White Sky, his second.
This song is a culmination of where Cockburn had come by this time in his career. Behind him were his days at Berklee College of Music in Boston where he studied jazz improvisation and composition in the mid-sixties. Also behind him was his journeyman period as a guitar player and keyboardist in folk rock and psych bands, some of which appeared as opening acts for The Lovin’ Spoonful, Cream, and The Jimi Hendrix Experience by the end of that decade.
But something else had risen to the surface by the time this song was written; a feel for lyrics that reflected his rich inner life and his gravitation toward the spiritual.
Listen to this track by singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and arranger and producer with an ear for detail Ben Wilkins. It’s “Day To Day”, a track as featured off of his newest record All From Hello, his follow up to 2011’s self-titled début.
Like that début, this song and the rest of the record is lushly arranged with a slight nod to eras gone by. With this song, we get a special treat; none other than Bonnie Pointer formerly of The Pointer Sisters and a solo artist in her own right singing with Ben on a decidedly R&B-influenced song that shimmers with positivity. Mixed into that are hints of the shades of grey which can characterize the course of a life, with certainty and doubt constantly in flux; the pleasure and the pain from the heavens, yet falling down the drain, too. Ben recorded the new songs in his one-time base city of Montreal, embracing new textures, and yet with no less of an emphasis on intricate arrangements that hold a balance of their own; for all of their intricacy, they still allow the songs to breathe, and to get stuck in the heads of listeners. That’s always been one of Wilkins’ strengths. Yet this new record isn’t a case of more of the same.
I got a chance to talk to Ben via email about the new record, the business of writing a follow-up, and about a shift in sonic vocabulary that involved analogue synthesizers and an archaeological expedition to the record store on the hunt for mythical 12-inch R&B singles.
Listen to this track by supposed melancholic singer-songwriter Ron Sexsmith. It’s “Saint Bernard”, the lead single from his most recent record Carousel One, to be released next week in the United States and in Canada.
The new record is the follow up to 2013’s Forever Endeavour, which was kind of like the Sunday morning album from his Saturday night-before flirtation with a wider audience as depicted in the 2010 documentary Love Shines and the associated album Long Player, Late Bloomer. Both of those records helped to bring Sexsmith out of what he considered to be a career funk in terms of sales and exposure, although much of their content framed that sense of struggle that his career was getting away from him.
Often pegged as a melancholic songwriter (incorrectly, in my view), these albums seemed to confirm him as one who deals in the bigger questions in life, the weighty themes that humanity has always wrestled with; the nature of success, of happiness, and an ever-present sense of mortality that presides over our lives. I suppose it makes sense that critics have pigeonholed him in the sombre section of their inner record collections after hearing these two albums from him, even if the songs themselves never sound as weighty as the themes with which they deal.
But, this single cracks all of that open, and shows a side of Ron Sexsmith that isn’t quite as available on the F-keys of most rock journalists’ laptops. Read more
Listen to this track by Vancouverite indie quintet Said The Whale. It’s “Emerald Lake AB”, a shining gem as taken from their 2009 record Islands Disappear, their second.
The band formed in Vancouver and very soon became recognized as being an important addition to the scene after their initial release Talking Abalonia in 2007. From there, they scored awards locally and eventually on a national scale, too. Being on that level in Canada, they had two agenda points to cover.
The first point was the business of selling to America. Every band in this country who is looking for a wider audience has to consider that goal; it’s an economy of scale thing. Their involvement in the 2011 documentary Winning America was a snapshot of their efforts on that front at SXSW. They subsequently made headway with their recent 2013 album Hawaii, and with the single “I Love You” charting in the States.
But, what about that second agenda point? Well, that’s the one this song seems to capture best. Read more
Listen to this track by studio wunderkind hailing from Dundas Ontario and now proud Londoner, Dan Snaith, AKA Caribou. It’s “Melody Day”, a kaleidoscopic slice of fantastical neo psychedelia re-imagined as a folktronic piece as taken from 2007’s Andorra.
The record was looked upon as his best work under the Caribou name (he’d previously gone by “Manitoba” until The Dictators’ “Handsome Dick” Manitoba took issue …). It was the winner of the 2008 Polaris Music Prize, going up against acts like Basia Bulat, Black Mountain, and Stars, among others, which certainly indicates its considerable quality.
The song itself hearkens back to a time when pop music was expanding inwardly as times were a-changin’ in the mid-1960s; think late-period The Zombies, Soft Machine, and Syd-era Pink Floyd. This Anglicized style of yesteryear may or may not be a result of a move that Snaith made from Canada to London in 2001, where many a great British psych record was made. Regardless, Snaith is a modern artist, using the tools of his own era to somehow evoke the spirit of that earlier analogue era, which is no mean feat. This certainly shows that the sound of the past can still make an impact, regardless of the tools it takes to make it.
Snaith may have used another arrow in his quiver as well, of course; his PhD in Math! Read more
Listen to this track by Queen Street West Toronto scenesters and new wave social commentators Martha & the Muffins. It’s “Women Around The World At Work”, a single as taken from their 1981 album This Is The Ice Age, their third.
This album is one that began something of a new phase for the band. First, they’d taken on a new member in bassist Jocelyn Lanois. And second, they hired her brother, Daniel Lanois, to produce their third album recording it in Toronto and in Hamilton where he was based. It wouldn’t turn out to be as big as Peter Gabriel’s So, or U2’s The Joshua Tree, which Lanois would also produce later on in the decade. But, it would prove that the band had plenty in the tank creatively speaking other than their most widely-known song “Echo Beach”.
One of the things that allowed them to expand on their sound, was a new exploration of politically motivated subject matter. This is one of their finest examples, a discussion of an issue that is still very relevant today, unfortunately. Read more
Listen to this track by wise beyond his years Canadian singer-songwriter and eventual radio broadcaster Murray McLauchlan. It’s “Child’s Song” as taken from his 1971 record Song From The Street, his debut album. The song was famously covered by fellow folk performer Tom Rush the year before on Rush’s 1970 eponymous record, where it tends to be better known outside of Canada.
As for McLauchlan, he would be among the first signees to True North, a label based in Toronto that is loosely the equivalent of Asylum in that it was meant to be a place for singer-songwriters. In this case, it was the artists coming out of the Yorkville folk scene there in Toronto in the late 1960s, songwriters with emotive and introspective points of view and with roots-oriented sound and arrangements that would characterize the True North stable for many years afterwards. Murray McLauchlan was certainly among the finest early examples, along with fellow signee Bruce Cockburn who was the first artist on the True North roster before McLauchlan joined him.
By the time McLauchlan wrote and recorded this song, he was a tender 23 years old seemingly with something of an old-soul and keen sense lyrical detail and emotional undercurrents. It seems to tell a very personal story about outgrowing the place where one grew up. But this song distinguishes itself in a way that standard “I wanna be free” songs written around this time do not. Read more
Listen to this track by Montreal-born poet, novelist, and singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen. It’s “Almost Like The Blues”, the first single from his new record Popular Problems, released this year on the anniversary of his 80th year on earth; September 21st. The record follows 2012’s OldIdeas, which was the highest charting release of his entire career along with extremely positive reviews across the board; not bad for a guy in his late seventies at the time.
By then, there’d been an eight-year gap in releases. So, this new record and its single has enjoyed some momentum in terms of its creation riding the wave of his previous one. Yet despite this success, Cohen is still dealing in the shadows when it comes to subject matter.
And where does this new song fit into to things where Cohen’s intimidatingly potent back catalog is concerned? Read more