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Arts & Crafts
Canada has a long history of great troubadours, and it seems Toronto songsmith Jason Collett is gunning for a place on that list. On his fifth album, Collett continues to play with the concept of Canadian iconography in both his lyrical imagery as well as his sound -- while his gravelly drawl and country-blues approach might most obviously evoke Dylan, the songs on 'Rat a Tat Tat' also owe some debt of gratitude to the likes of Neil Young, Bruce Cockburn, or Gordon Lightfoot. Whether crooning about 'Lake Superior' or 'Winnipeg Winds,' Collett's knack for an enduring melody always shines through. He's a little bit country, a little bit rock'n'roll, and often a little bit of both on his best tracks, like the funky 'Love Is a Chain,' which struts around like a lovesick fool high on booze and regret. "Rave on, sad songs," indeed.
It's tough to keep up with the prodigious output of Woodpigeon main main Mark Hamilton, given that he seems to release material like it's going out of style. But on Woodpigeon's third LP, Hamilton continues to give his Calgary collective some marvelous material to play with. A song cycle inspired by the war-torn history of Hamilton's émigré grandparents, 'Die Stadt Muzikanten' evokes the detail of a tiny, perfect novella, full of characters, colour and emotion. At 15 tracks -- and nearly as many players -- there's a lot to take in, but it all flows beautifully, from the chugging guitar and choral vocals of 'Empty-Hall Sing-Along' to the epic build of '...And as the Ship Went Down, You'd Never Looked Finer,' which features the kind of hold-your-breath climax that most songwriters spend a lifetime striving for.
Having ditched the Final Fantasy moniker in favour of his own name, Toronto violin wunderkind Owen Pallett got a little experimental on his third full-length, an ambitious song cycle about a "young, ultra-violent farmer" named Lewis who resides in the fictional world of Spectrum. Lest that sound a bit too high-concept, luckily the album's musical outlook is as epic as its lyrical backbone, neatly introducing electro flourishes into Pallett's usual classically-influenced mix for a sound that feels truly modern. Pallett's choirboy vocals and looped violin take centre stage on the disc's best track, 'Lewis Takes Off His Shirt.' "I'm never going to give it to you," he insists on the chorus, but as the listener, we only want more. The boy wonder grows up -- and it suits him.
Singer-songwriters may be a dime a dozen, but it's rare to find one as accomplished as London, Ontario chanteuse Basia Bulat, whose burnished folk-pop gleams with the vitality of her dusky vocals and rich, classically-tinged instrumentation. On her assured sophomore effort, Bulat bolsters her dulcet acoustic melodies with lush arrangements and just the right mix of sounds: a smattering of strings here, a dollop of gypsy-folk there. "Poetic" is easy shorthand to praise any emotive songwriter, but Bulat's evocative lyricism lives up to the tag, sketching out tales of joys and sorrows both big and small. The sombre ringing of Bulat's trademark autoharp provides the backdrop for one of the most indelible songs of the year, the heartbreakingly beautiful 'The Shore.' With every ping of each minor key resounding under Bulat's velvety voice, it's the very sound of your heartstrings being pulled, slowly but surely.
Few artists ever manage the depth and breadth of the man known as Caribou -- in fact, it's next to impossible to categorize the music of Dundas, Ontario's Dan Snaith from album to album, given that he continues to defy convention with each subsequent release. The 2008 Polaris Prize winner's latest record, 'Swim,' draws on his penchant for marrying psychedelia with electronics, but still manages to sound completely different from anything he's done before. Few do melody quite as well as Snaith, though, and 'Swim' burbles with the kind of tuneful soundscapes that prove just as irresistable as any pop hook. Tunes like the spacey 'Odessa' and the funky 'Leave House' show off Snaith's increasingly confident vocals -- it's hard to believe the musician once known as Manitoba used to be more of a faceless producer type. Inspired by a gift of swimming lessons, Snaith has said he wanted to create "dance music that sounds like it's made out of water." Given the fluid, immersive feel of the songs on 'Swim,' we'd say that was mission accomplished.
Five albums in, Montreal soft-popsters Stars have carved out their own template of a certain brand of indie-rock: unabashedly grandiose and romantic, doused in melodic pop and dusted with glittery electro. If that all sounds perhaps overly saccharine, the band also boasts an appealingly dark edge to offset all the emoting -- the quintet's best work has always found a balance between light and shadow, and 'The Five Ghosts' does just that. Dedicated to singer Torquil Campbell's late father, actor Douglas Campbell, 'The Five Ghosts' delves into Stars' favourite themes -- sex and death -- utilizing the best weapon in their musical arsenal: the stirring girl/boy tag-team vocals between Campbell and Amy Millan. On first listen, the propulsive 'We Don't Want Your Body' comes off as an awkward sex jam, but just try resisting its warm-blooded disco beats. And what would a Stars record be without the requisite shimmering ballads, represented here by bookends 'Dead Hearts' and 'Winter Bones.' A decade into their career, Stars are still doing what they do best: shining on.
Sometimes taking a little more time ends up being more than worth it. That's clearly the case with Ontario songstress Sarah Harmer's most recent release, which was five years in the making. Not like the veteran singer-songwriter hasn't been busy -- she's spent the past few years rolling up her sleeves as an eco-activist -- but it's clear the time away from the spotlight hasn't dulled her razor-sharp perceptions and poetic pen, as 'Oh Little Fire' boasts songs as memorable as any from her career to date. Harmer's folk and alt-country shadings are still present throughout, but it's her return to rocking out that's most welcome, with the guitars nicely turned up on sparklers like 'The City' and 'Careless.' While most songwriters mine heartbreak, few manage to do so as effectively as Harmer, who's content to merely suggest instead of scream. "All the words that I've held so close to my chest/Are calling on me now/To get through," she sings, and we hear those words ring out clear and true.
In a year when rap records seem to be defined by just how over-the-top they can get (hello, Mr. West), coming across an MC who's not just old-school in his sound, but also his overall approach to the craft of hip-hop, is refreshing indeed. Enter London, Ontario's Shadrach Kabango and his irresistibly catchy, charming, even (gasp!) humble rhymefest of a record, which sketches out tales of everyday life and love set to nimble singalong melodies and head-nodding beats. Broken Social Scene songstress Lisa Lobsinger turns in a memorable guest spot on the summery gem 'Rose Garden,' which marries a note-perfect soul sample with an equally breezy chorus, while Shad's dexterous wordplay gets a workout on girl-power anthem 'Keep Shining.' A smart, funny, and self-deprecating rapper? From Canada? Not just novel, but truly special.
Arts & Crafts
Canadians seem to do collectives best, and of all the ensembles littering the indiesphere, it can certainly be argued that Toronto's Broken Social Scene helped pave the way for the multi-headed-beast approach. In recent years, however, one wondered if BSS had inadvertently crafted its own demise, given the meteoric rise of much of its membership (Metric, Feist, Stars, etc.) in their own right. But even pared down to a smaller core, you can't keep a good group from jamming, and the long-awaited 'Forgiveness Rock Record' proved BSS are still all about the songs -- nobody does the sprawling pop epic better, whether it's a fist-pumping rocker like 'Forced to Love,' or the narcotic haze build-up of 'The Sweetest Kill.' It may have taken BSS five long years to finally put out this album -- but that's forgivable, considering it's anything but forgettable.
How does a band live up to impossibly high expectations? By largely ignoring them and making a record that's unmistakably theirs. Preceded by endless hype and followed by rave reviews and a rabid fanbase to match, 'The Suburbs' catapulted Arcade Fire from indie iconoclasts to veritable chart-toppers -- and the strange but wonderful thing was that the Montreal collective's rise seemed both utterly natural, and completely deserved. Examining the places from whence one came isn't exactly a novel concept, but 'The Suburbs' sees Win Butler & Co. eschewing simple nostalgia for a more clear-eyed look at growing up and fighting back. By turns tough and tender, 'The Suburbs' showcases the group's trademark epic rockers and classically-tinged statement pieces while also pushing their sound forward with unexpected turns like the spun-sugar discoball gloriousness of 'Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains).' In a word: incendiary.