Listen to this track by Kelowna, British Columbia folk-and-psych-pop purveyors The Grapes of Wrath. It’s “All The Things I Wasn’t”, the lead single from their 1989 album Now and Again, their third and most commercially successful album to date. At barely two minutes and not exactly fitting in with the over-the-top production style which was rampant at the time, this tune was an unlikely top twenty hit in Canada. Even the band weren’t convinced that it would do the business for them after their label insisted it be a single. I guess sometimes “the money” is right. Stopped clocks and all that.
This was a big tune, seeming to channel a late-sixties folk rock vibe and full of images of isolation and loss. The warmth of the production which is marked by restraint and space that anticipated the very same that would be very common in the following decade of the 1990s, and reflecting what I consider to be a golden age in Canadian pop music from the late-eighties to the mid-nineties, with many bands putting out unique records that also garnered serious radio play. This tune certainly appealed to my post-teen sensibilities. There’s something about the onset of early adulthood that brings out the melancholy in a lot of people, I suppose. And this song has melancholy to spare.
I think if you’d asked me at the time what this song was literally about, I might have been hard-pressed to tell you. That would have been missing the point anyway. The fact is, this tune and the rest of this album represented something very personal, and at a crucial time in my own life. Read more
Listen to this track by British folk-pop outfit The Lilac Time. It’s “Return To Yesterday”, a single as taken from their 1988 debut The Lilac Time. The band was led by singer-songwriter Stephen Duffy, AKA Stephen “Tin Tin” Duffy, one time synthpop solo artist (“Kiss Me”), and (as not everyone knows) a founding member of Duran Duran in their pre-fab five incarnation. He left in 1979.
The Lilac Time owes less to either project than it does to British chamber folk and American-style roots music, both of which are inextricably related of course. The band was formed by Duffy with his brother Nick in 1986, leaving the new wave sounds he once traded in well behind and taking the name of his new band from Nick Drake’s “River Man” (going to tell him all I can/About the plan/Lilac time …”). Musically, the band’s material is very Anglocentric in an age that preceded Britpop by the better part of a decade. The Lilac Time would even release an album on Alan McGee’s Creation label in 1991, although in a trend that would mark this band’s lack of good timing, that would be before Britpop reached its zenith.
One thing that Duffy kept as far as his early career in new wave was a high tension between melody and lyrical themes using a stark contrast between the two as artistic fuel. For instance, this song presents a bouncy, country-ish feel while simultaneously touching on a pretty weighty theme; the future and the loss of innocence where the future is concerned. Read more
Listen to this track by top-charting London folk-pop purveyors The Dream Academy. It’s “Life In A Northern Town”, a top ten hit in the US and top twenty in the UK that scored placement on the international pop charts. It’s taken from their 1985 album The Dream Academy, co-produced by singer and guitarist Nick Laird-Clowes and Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour.
The band released three albums. But this song is the one by which they are most widely known, with a gauzy and nostalgic atmosphere that is supported by an undeniable wordless vocal hook that makes it instantly recognizable. They were noted at the time through that song of bucking the pop music system somewhat in terms of arrangements, eschewing the standard synth and drum machine approach popular during the time, and relying on acoustic guitars, tympanies, and Cor Anglais instead. That’s a far cry from the DX7.
Another notable thing about this song was how contrary it seemed to the times in terms of its themes, providing a narrative that stretched wistfully into an idealized past during a period when the world was embroiled in some very present problems. Read more
Listen to this track by Vancouver folk-pop institution Spirit Of The West. It’s “Home For A Rest”, their signature song and musical highlight as taken from their 1990 album Save This House. This record was their breakthrough, having been together since 1984, and finally signed to a major label in Warner Music Canada by 1989. It was practically a government issue release across our country, gracing the record collections of many in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Unlike many new bands signed onto a major, the band didn’t make too many changes to their initial sound; the skin of traditional Celtic folk music as fused upon the bones and muscle of pop/rock musical structure. In the early nineties and in scenes all across Canada, a lot of bands were attempting to strike this very same balance. But few of them had the same impact as this band, full as they are of punk energy and musicianly chops that place them into Pogues territory. There wasn’t any need for them to do anything other than what they had been doing all along, which was to write songs full of thematic gravity and wit, touching on issues of social justice, sure, but not forgetting to infuse their work with humour as well.
This song is a travelogue and drinking song all rolled into one, certainly a reflection of where the band were at during that time, touring with British pop band The Wonder Stuff. This took them to London, to the pubs, and presumably to the bottom of a lot of glasses. In an important and very Canadian way though, this song is less about over indulgence and more about a sense of identity, which if you know anything about our country, makes a whole lot of sense. Read more
Listen to this track by sisterly Watford, Hertfordshire trio The Staves. It’s “Black and White”, a single as taken from this year’s If I Was, their second full length record. The band is led by the voices of three sisters; Emily, Jessica, and Camilla Stavely-Taylor. Shortening their name for the stage one night on the sign-up sheet at a regular open mic night, the three sisters became The Staves.
This second album comes after the release of several EPs, and an eventual debut record in Dead & Born & Grown in 2012 (produced by two generations of famous Johns’ – Glyn and Ethan!). In the middle of all that, the band served as an opening act to The Civil Wars and Florence & The Machine, and provided back up duties on recordings by Tom Jones, and Fionn Regan. Additionally, The Staves gave performances at SXSW that exposed them to an American audience. They also supported Bon Iver, which led to Justin Vernon producing this record, capturing their harmony-centric feel that bypasses traditional British folk-rock, and instead connects with a sound that is more transatlantic instead.
There’s a sense of menace in this song, which on first listen may not be immediately apparent, just because the combination of voices is so compellingly beautiful. There is also something to be said for local music scenes that encourage young musicians to create this kind of alchemy together, which is certainly the case here, with a single venue serving as a platform for an international path to success. Read more
Listen to this track by Los Angeles folk-chamber-pop vehicle with a moniker laced with irony, The Negro Problem. It’s “Bleed”, a key track as taken from their 1999 album Joys & Concerns.
“The band” is more of an artistic vehicle for songwriter Mark Stewart, professionally credited and known as simply “Stew”. Being black in LA, his decision to record music that is inspired by more by Jimmy Webb than by Sly Stone is a rebellion against the undrawn lines of demarcation around who makes what kind of pop music and with whom — specifically if you’re not white.
Yet, Stew is a part of a continuum of music made in that city, most notably by Arthur Lee who made some of the same stylistic moves as Stew over thirty years before. Along these lines, maybe the name of the band isn’t all that ironic after all, or at least not in the way that one might think. That aside, this song is hinting at themes that go beyond all that still, out of the realm of musical divisions and into one of human foibles.
Listen to this track by Portland Oregon indie-folk paragons The Decemberists. It’s “Make You Better”, the new single off of the upcoming album What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World, due out on January 20. The record and single is a return to the field after a rest since 2011’s The King Is Dead.
Side projects ensued during the planned hiatus period, including singer Colin Moloy’s series of Wildwood books, which he creates with his wife, illustrator Carson Ellis. But, a return to the Decemberist fold was always in the cards. As you can tell, it was worth the wait. Read more
Listen to this track by super-studenty Scottish pop band with a fey streak a mile-wide Belle And Sebastian. It’s “If You’re Feeling Sinister”, the title track to their 1996 sophomore record of the same name.
When I say “studenty”, I’m referring to a common, totally made-up sounding adjective often used by the British music press that describes bands who could otherwise be described as bookish, a bit earnest, full of musical loose ends, or in fact formed while in university. Sometimes, it’s just that last one, which certainly describes this band. Belle And Sebastian not only formed in university, but they submitted their first demos to the school’s label!
Needless to say, groupies, blow, and throwing T.Vs out of hotel room windows would not be in this band’s future (that we know of!). So, where were they heading? Well, for one thing they were headed to critical acclaim. Read more
Listen to this track by Calgary-based folk-pop songcrafter Lauren Mann and her associated and moderately eccentric troupe the Fairly Odd Folk. It’s a cut as taken from their first record as a collective Over Land And Sea released in April 2013, and a single too; “I Lost Myself”.
The band recently appeared at CBC Live in Deer Lake Park last month, an event I was lucky enough to attend. They made their appearance in distinguished company along with a sterling line-up of bands including Tegan and Sara, The Arkells, and Spoon. They played their own set, and later Lauren Mann took to the main stage alone, carrying her ukulele and proclaiming “this is the biggest audience I’ve ever played for!”
She was a charming presence on stage, and even more so when she presented this very song as a solo spot that captured everything that’s good about her music; heartfelt lyrics, melodic, and despite the acoustic and folky texture, decidedly pop too, all conveyed by her clear-as-a-bell voice, and deft playing.
So, how did Lauren Mann come to appear on that stage, the largest of her career? Well, it has a lot to do with an important Canadian value; championing our own. And what does this song represent in all of that? Read more
Listen to this track by Vancouver violinist/loop technician and singer-songwriter Hannah Epperson. It’s “Murder of Crows” as taken from her 2011 EP Home Batch.
The EP was self-recorded and self-released. All the while, Epperson served in opening act slots for acts like Dan Mangan, The Zolas, Shane Koyczen, and others. Earlier this year, she played at Uptown Live, which is a musical event right here in New Westminster, just outside of Vancouver. I missed her slot!
But, I wrote a piece for the event that introduced me to her music while I was writing it. Epperson’s sound touches on similar neo-classical, ambient, and folk-pop territory as Andrew Bird and Kishi Bashi; atmospheric, delicate, and intertwining melody lines that seem to suggest a grand sense of narrative, even without the lyrics.
In those lyrics, the crows are “violently voyaging home”. They also seem to represent the inevitability of change, too. The song hooks into some primal imagery, with dreadful portent that is contrasted against a light-as-air arrangement, played and sung entirely by Epperson alone.
Musically speaking, her approach that puts the electronic/acoustic split to rest when it comes to figuring out what kind of artistic slot to put it in. This music is both acoustic and electronic, with each texture balanced out against the other. Figuring out which camp it belongs in becomes beside the point.
You can catch up to Hannah Epperson on Facebook for upcoming shows and releases.