i. Young Galaxy - “Pretty Boy”
Somewhere between 2011’s joyous "We Have Everything" and the incredible run of singles leading up to this year’s Ultramarine, Young Galaxy quietly turned themselves into one of my favourite bands. They paint with broad lyrical strokes that often walk the line between banal and uplifting, spinning simple, high-stakes narratives of primary colour emotion. When I first listened to songs like “Fall For You” and “New Summer” earlier this year, I dismissed them for those very reasons; their lyrics were too bland, Catherine McCandless’ voice too brassy, the instrumentals too glossy and lacking subtlety. Essentially, Young Galaxy bored me.
Thankfully, something changed, and it wasn’t the music. A few months ago, I started falling for someone, hard, doing things I thought I’d never do and feeling things I thought I’d never feel. The optimism that radiates from within Young Galaxy’s best singles was suddenly apparent in my own life, allowing me to connect with their music like I never had before. It’s simple, big-hearted stuff, but fuck it, so is attraction, and boy does it ever feel good when it works out. "New Summer" and "Fall For You" grew on me immensely, but it was “Pretty Boy” - the greatest testament to love on an album full of them - that stood above the pack. Its ecstatic synth line was a heartbeat, its magnificent chorus became a personal anthem: “I don’t care if the disbelievers don’t understand / You’re my pretty boy, always.” It was that us versus them, adversity-rejecting sentiment that I held tightest during those first few weeks; for once I didn’t let personal insecurities hold me back. I let my guard down, I forgot (or kissed goodbye to) stigmas surrounding same-sex teenage relationships and I finally allowed someone else in. That initial high may have been fleeting, but the lingering memory is anything but; “Pretty Boy” sounds like personal triumph, like believing in both the power of emotions and the importance of myself.
Dog Day - “Rome”
Dog Day come about as close as you can get to universally-adored celebrities here in Halifax. They’ve been around for about a decade now - Fade Out, their fourth album, comes out on December 10 - and after years of putting out some of this city’s best music they show no signs of slowing down. Preparing myself for that album’s release, I’ve been listening to a lot of their older stuff recently and, unsurprisingly, I’ve fallen back in love with much of it.
Concentration, their second and greatest album, was released just as I was really getting into local music and as such carries bagfuls of nostalgic, early-adolescent memories. When I was twelve or thirteen, I would spend my nights binge-reading Halifax-based blogs, hitting repeat on Bandcamp and Myspace pages and dreaming of one day being half as cool as the people in these bands that I admired so much. Though it was being made only fifteen minutes down the road, something about the music felt distant, as if it inhabited a different level of coolness that my suburban existence could never achieve. Of course, that was all an illusion; as I grow closer to becoming the person I so desperately wanted to be five years ago, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that the image and lifestyle I idolized as a preteen isn’t always as great as it had seemed. That’s not to say I was completely misguided - I’ve discovered even more to love about the local scene as I’ve gotten more involved, and I’m sure I’d have been thrilled to discover the person I’ve become - though I do sort of miss that lovely, soft-focus image of Halifax’s arts community that I once held.
"Rome," Concentration's beautiful, chiming centrepiece and by far the best song Dog Day have ever made, sounds like those idealized dreams, like feeling simultaneously trapped and inspired by my immediate surroundings. Everything is perfect: the kick-drum opening, the gorgeous guitar playing, the chilly husband-wife vocals; all of it clouded with memories of my past romantic ideals. At twelve years old, Dog Day sounded irreproachably cool, like a distant, unattainable future; now, at seventeen, these songs provide a rare moment of self-actualization, serving as a genuinely touching reminder of how far I've come.
Alvvays - “Adult Diversion”
The jangly, autumnal style of guitar pop played by Toronto’s Alvvays has a tendency to fall flat for me. It often seems empty, driven more by image than anything substantial - although, the fact that I’m unimpressed by music of this ilk probably says more about my cynicism than it does about the quality of the music itself. Something about this band, however, just melts every single cold bone in my body. Lead singer Molly Rankin has a fantastic voice, filled with joyful inflections of naiveté and already tinged with a sort of teenage nostalgia that permeates the mix. It sounds like the memories I feel like I should be creating, like careless nights and shared milkshakes and clumsy romance. “Adult Diversion” may only be their second single, but as far as I’m concerned Alvvays are already on the verge of greatness. “If I should fall / Act as though it never happened” is an awkward line on paper - and honestly, it doesn’t sound much more poetic on record - but in a way its flaws are kind of endearing. Sure, the track is simple, but in many ways I am too. Often I fear that I think too much about the life I’m living instead of actually living it; it’s songs like this that allow me to embrace the simplicity of my adolescence.
Jay Arner - “Don’t Remind Me”
“Hi, this is Jay, it’s 2013 and this is my artist statement.
I have music playing in my brain all the time. Sometimes something catches my attention and I do my best to follow the melody along and turn it into a song. I can’t say what it sounds like to other people, but to me my music sounds like the inside of my head. Claustrophobic but cavernous, no easy resolutions, confabulated music history.
I’m a naturally shy person; I’ve always submerged my identity in the idea of a band. But I also recognize the value of making myself uncomfortable (personal growth), so I’m shedding the pretense of being anything but myself. I wrote, recorded, and performed all of my first record. The cover is a giant fucking photo of my face and the album is called Jay Arner.”
Vancouver’s Jay Arner is about to emerge from relative anonymity with his self-titled debut record of 80’s-indebted synth pop, out this week on Mint Records. I usually dislike opening posts with quoted press releases, but Arner’s - taken from the Mint website - showcases an element of his persona that was crucial in my appreciation of his music. One of the biggest - and, arguably, most deserved - complaint wielded against “throwback” artists like this is that they are apathetic in their approach. They’re focused almost exclusively on sonic elements, but good sound, while important, cannot constitute an album alone. My first impressions of this record were probably tainted by this idea that nostalgia and sincerity were almost entirely mutually exclusive; I”m ashamed to admit it, but I was put off by Arner’s music because of what I thought it represented.
After reading his artist statement and a listening to the album a few more times, my impressions have changed completely. What had originally seemed pretentious or uninspired - the reverb, the lounge-y bass, the Aloof-Looking-Self-Portrait-as-Album-Cover - now comes across as heartfelt, warm and, above all, genuine. “Don’t Remind Me”, a gorgeously simple pop song and the strongest track on the album, serves as a microcosm of everything that Arner does so well. Sure, there’s definitely an element of nostalgia to the palate that he’s using, something some might argue distances the listener from the song itself. But behind the cheesy synthesizers, unnecessary fade-out ending, and slightly muddy production, it still sounds totally sincere. Jay’s voice is well-suited to this sort of music; despite layers of effects, he still sounds fully present and emotionally accessible. Perhaps the biggest compliment I can give this album however is that there is no disconnect between Jay the man and Jay the artist. For better or for worse, there is only Jay, the music-loving introvert who has crafted on of 2013’s most refreshingly honest recordings.
The New Pornographers - “High Art, Local News”
My piece about the New Pornographers’ “Turn” went over quite earlier this year, so to emerge from the recent drought of posts on this blog (sorry!), I thought I’d share another overlooked gem from my favourite band. “High Art, Local News” might not match “Turn” in its obscurity or its beauty, but it does offer its own set of quirks. The track was included as a bonus on the Japanese and iTunes versions of 2005’s Twin Cinema, and while I don’t appreciate the idea of anything following “Stacked Crooked” - one the best songs the group’s ever written, and surely their best album closer - it is a pretty good little tune. I love the way the guitar riff stumbles about before settling in with the rhythm section, a nod to Kurt Dahle’s inestimable importance in grounding Carl’s often indecipherable lyrics. Unlike most of Twin Cinema, the hook here is slightly underwhelming, but I suppose that’s why it was relegated to bonus track status. In any case, here’s three minutes of breezy power pop for a slow Sunday afternoon. I hope you’ll enjoy it, and I’ll be back here soon.
As an aside, if any of you know where I might be able to pick up a vinyl copy of Twin Cinema, please get in touch! It’s one of my favourite records, but it’s been out of print for a while and I can’t seem to find it used.
Braids - “In Kind”
Raphaelle Standell-Preston is having one hell of a year. She’s already put out one great album - Untogether, as one half of Blue Hawaii - and now she’s announced Flourish // Perish, the second album from her more rock-leaning project Braids. It’s yet to be seen if that album will be as enjoyable as either Untogether or Native Speaker - Braids’ 2011 debut - but if this song is any indication, there’s reason to be excited. “In Kind” will appear on both Flourish // Perish and an upcoming 12”, also featuring the already-released “Amends”.
I’ll admit that I was underwhelmed by “Amends”, which saw Braids abandoning the guitars that characterized Native Speaker in favour of an electronic approach. Having sat with that track for a month, it’s definitely grown on me, and its bass-heavy production definitely sets it apart from Blue Hawaii’s quieter sounds. Raph’s vocal performance was intriguing as always, but I still felt myself yearning for the more organic sounds that made Braids so interesting to me in the first place. “In Kind” is a satisfying - albeit temporary - return to form.
Of course, guitars alone aren’t enough to make a fantastic song. Here, they’re used as a sort of jittery undercurrent that complements the track’s grounded rhythm section. Bass and drums are used expertly; the percussion is diverse and often ornate, yet the band still manages to create a noticeable and welcome groove. On top of all of this sits Raphaelle’s marvel of a voice. I don’t usually pay much attention to vocal performances themselves - I’m more interested by melody and lyrical content - but here it’s too good to ignore. Her lyrics are often hard to understand, let alone decipher, but frankly when a track sounds this fantastic I couldn’t care less. Raph’s style and phrasing is adventurous but still tasteful - unique both within and outside of Braids’ genre, and especially exciting when paired with such a solid instrumental backdrop. It’s a rare and dare I say perfect combination.
The In Kind // Amends 12” will be available on June 11, with Flourish // Perish set to follow on August 20. Both can be pre-ordered here.
I hate apologizing for any sort of lacking in my blogging presence, so to make up for it I made you all a mix of nine of my favourite songs for the springtime. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a way to assemble all of these tracks into one streaming playlist, but along with each song I’ve…
A spring playlist. :)
Is it possible to stop writing about Grimes? Don’t get me wrong - I’m as much of a fan of Claire Boucher’s little pop project as the next blog-loving high school student, but at this point I think independent music and its respective cultural circles have become a touch too saturated with…
A review of the new Blue Hawaii album Untogether.
Do you guys know Cold Specks? If you don’t you, certainly should; her debut album I Predict A Graceful Expulsion was one of last year’s most woefully overlooked releases, despite modest critical acclaim and a spot on the 2012 Polaris Prize shortlist. One of that record’s best tracks, “When…
My hometown of Halifax isn’t a city known as a hotbed for electronic music. If you asked someone from out of town about Halifax’s scene, they might mention our abundance of folk and bluegrass, or the 90’s explosion of rock and roll that saw the likes of Sloan and Thrush Hermit become the…
Foxygen - “San Francisco”
Fresh-faced rock experimentalists Foxygen just dropped a new video for the song “San Francisco”, off of their great forthcoming LP We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic. While simpler than I would have expected from the band, the video does a great job of complementing the track’s underlying sombre narrative.
Foxygen will release their new record on January 15. Expect a review of the album sometime around that date. Also, the guys have a VEVO page now. I don’t even know what to say.
Hey look a new Foxygen video!
Wilco - I Am Trying To Break Your Heart
Although I’ve heard it described as Wilco’s “epic” before – its seven minute running time may commend this distinction – I’ve always felt that this track lacks a certain confidence that would warrant such a title. “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart” is the intense, honest and intimate story of one man’s experience with heartbreak. It doesn’t provide a universally relatable message or a transcendental musical experience. Instead, frontman Jeff Tweedy explores the dark underbelly of an essential human experience that is far too often chalked up to just roses and romance. This may be a song about love, but it is decidedly not a love song.
The story is built around a noisy backdrop that is as fragile as the protagonist whom it is supporting. Gentle layers of organ and guitar hide behind a piano part that plinks its way throughout the song, sometimes shy and others bright. The instrumentation grows more amelodic with each verse, matching the lyrical progression. Glenn Kotche’s drumming is artful, restrained and powerful. Meanwhile, Tweedy paints a poignant portrait of a man pushed to his limits by desire, turning in some of the most emotionally potent lyrics of his career:
“I’d always thought that if I held you tightly / You’d always love me like you did back then / Then I fell asleep and the city kept blinking / What was I thinking when I let you back in? / I am trying to break your heart”
Just as he sings the aching titular refrain, surrounded by dissonant, scraping guitar, a gorgeous and full-bodied chord pulls the song out of its own sadness and drives it towards a more melodic place. This, however, is just a temporary respite; soon enough the band dives back into dissonance, spinning a tasteful and sharp web of sound around distantly shouted lyrics. Pushed to his breaking point by the necessity of intimacy, Tweedy eventually collapses in a mess of noise and feeling. “I’m the man who loves you” he sings, his voice tinged with hints of desperation and loneliness.
I’ve always been fascinated by this song’s opening status on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Originally, I had thought that it would be the perfect way to close an album: a falling apart of sorts, slow and painful. However, I have since realised that there is also something admirable to be found in its current placement. The song is about an ending, but it is also a beginning. On its own, “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart” is a tragic and shocking rumination on the destructive powers of love. At the top of an album, however, it is a welcome reminder that every ending, no matter how disastrous, will always be followed by something new.
As I mentioned earlier this week in my Songs of 2012 post, I do not see this list as being in any way comprehensive or perfect. In making it, I didn’t take into consideration every record released this year nor did I concern myself with making choices that were too safe or too adventurous….
My favourite albums of the year!
This is the first year that I’ve ever put together a list such as this one, and before I started I don’t think I realised just how difficult it would be. It was quite easy to list most of the songs that I enjoyed this year, however as soon as I began to edit that list down to a manageable…
My favourite songs of the year!
New Jersey-based dream pop act Memory Tapes (Dayve Hawk) just put out the excellent Grace/Confusion,their third LP and second for the D.C. label Carpark Records. The album is filled with sprawling tracks that push the group towards a level of ambition and inventiveness that is rare within…
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