Saturday, July 18, 2009

Jason Schneider's Whispering Pines

Books about Canadian music are few and far between. And frankly, many of them suck. I can count the best ones on one hand, starting with Nicholas Jennings’ Before the Gold Rush and Dave Bidini’s On a Cold Road.

Jason Schneider’s new entry on this short list is called Whispering Pines: The Northern Roots of American Music from Hank Snow to The Band. In it, he tells the tales of what some call “Canadian Americana” by detailing the rise and influence of Ian Tyson, Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Neil Young and The Band, with detours about Hank Snow, Wilf Carter, Bruce Cockburn, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, and others.

Full disclosure: Jason and I co-wrote a book together (with Ian Jack) in 2001 called Have Not Been the Same: The CanRock Renaissance 1985-1995. In many ways, it was a reaction of sorts against the notion that the baby boom generation produced the only Canadian musical history worth mythologizing. Artists such as the Rheostatics, The Tragically Hip, Blue Rodeo, Sloan, Eric’s Trip, Mary Margaret O’Hara, Jr. Gone Wild, Nomeansno, Deja Voodoo and others were the soundtrack of our youth, and we felt that no one was going to stand up and vouch for their proper place in the history books.

The book sold out of its print run and was received extremely well; we’re still being asked about regularly it by a younger generation of musicians and fans. Schneider went on to write his first novel (3000 Miles), before setting to work on what became Whispering Pines.

When he first told me about the idea, I knew he would do a great job, though I’ll confess I was skeptical about covering what I felt were stories that were already entrenched in the canon. What could he bring to the table?

As it turns out, Whispering Pines is fascinating look at how integral Canadians were to the American folk-rock scene of the ’60s, and also at the cultural context that informed not only the work of these songwriters, but their motivation for leaving. Schneider goes back to the dawn of the recording industry in Canada, to sheet music collections of Canadian folk songs, and to the “urge for going” that informed the work and career path of so many Canadian icons.

A review appears here.

Jason Schneider will be reading from the book and hosting a launch party this coming Monday, July 20 at the Dakota Tavern in Toronto.

Jason Schneider
July 15, 2009
Locale: my kitchen

Whom did you come to appreciate much more while writing this?

Hank Snow, for many reasons. Mostly because I went to the place where he was born and saw what he had to overcome. He had a horrible family. And today, there’s nothing there, and I can only imagine what it was like in the ’20s and ’30s. The idea of a kid there with a dream of becoming a country singer and busting out of there, it’s incredible. From there, putting all that into perspective tied everything together. He was no different than any other kid today with a dream. I started hearing his music in a much different way after that.

How familiar were you with his body of work?

Just the basic hits. I really wanted to find and hear the stuff he recorded in Canada, because that’s hard to find outside of the Bear Family box sets, which I eventually got my hands on. I wanted to find as many of the original 78s as I could and get the feeling from them of what he was doing.

How different were they?

Aside from the technology, the performances sounded like four or five guys playing in a room. Hank was an incredible guitar player too, and I think that gets overshadowed in his work. You don’t think of a lot of country singers as being great instrumentalists, but Hank can hold his own with Chet Atkins, and they recorded instrumental albums together. He was doing it all back then. By the time he got his chance in Nashville, it didn’t take him long. [My girlfriend] Wendy made me a photocopy of a poster of Country Song Round-up’s top artists of 1953, which is the year Hank Williams died. Hank Snow was #1 in fan votes, and Hank Williams was #2. You can’t deny how popular and influential he was. And now there’s the whole story of Dylan’s “Little Buddy.” Did you hear about that?


It was about a month ago. I wish I could have stuck it in the book, because it would have been perfect. The story went like this: at the summer camp that Dylan went to as a kid, I guess he has nieces and nephews that work there now. Someone had this handwritten lyric by Bobby Zimmerman, which got printed in the camp newspaper or something. They’d been hanging on to this for years, knowing that this could be the first song he’d ever written. They finally decided to put this thing up for auction to raise some money. So his relatives asked Bob if it was okay to do this, and he said, yeah, sure, do whatever you want. They gave it to Christie’s [auction house] and spread the word about this rare Dylan manuscript. They posted it on the Internet, this song called “Little Buddy.” And the Post and the Times started talking about this unearthed Dylan masterpiece. A day later, all these Hank Snow fans said, “Wait a minute, this is a Hank Snow song that he cribbed the lyrics from.”

Had he changed them slightly?

No! He just wrote it out verbatim.

So it’s not an original song.

Not at all. And he didn’t say anything about it to his relatives, so it turned out to be a big joke. But it proved that Hank was a big influence on him as a teenager. And Leonard Cohen said that too, in his first band the Buckskin Boys, they played Hank Snow songs.

Hank Snow’s signature song was “I’m Moving On,” and there’s a line about moving on in “Four Strong Winds,” and departure is a common theme for Joni and Neil, and then through to the Demics singing “I wanna go to New York City” through to Cowboy Junkies’ “200 More Miles.” Maybe it’s reading too much into it to shoehorn that old trope into this context as a Canadian theme, but at the time of Hank Snow there was no Canadian music industry, nobody toured coast to coast. Canadian musicians left; they moved on.

That’s something I gained a lot more perspective on, too, what it was like to live in that era. Living in suburbs or satellite towns, we grew up with everything within a short distance available. To start thinking about things in that way, of being isolated, it can’t be avoided when you’re talking about songs from that era. Everyone had to move somewhere if they had any hope of doing anything.

Now everyone gets hung up about stuff like this—either about Canadians who leave Canada, or people in smaller cities about people who leave for larger cities. There’s a real grudge held there about how they’re no longer one of us, and this narrative runs right up to current discussion of Michael Ignatieff. If you leave Canada, then you’re not Canadian.

When you think of these artists at this time, it was not a question of choosing your country, it was simply the fact that there was only one place you could go if you wanted to make it. And all these artists are now beloved internationally, in part because they hustled. Then if you look at the period from where your book ends, in the period after that, I can only think of Rush and anyone managed by Bruce Allen, in terms of people who made a huge international impact. The list is really small.

When you and I were growing up, Canadian music was considered a joke around the world, and that’s why we had an inferiority complex about music of our generation. The paradox is that after the industry in Canada was established—which, as you say, was the late '60s at the earliest—we stopped having international stars of any artistic significance or impact. I don’t know if we lost the entrepreneurial nature, or if it just became easier to focus on Canada, or what it was.

I didn’t get a sense of that until I talked to Brian Ahern [Anne Murray's early producer; ex-husband of Emmylou Harris], who was really great.

He was one of my favourite interviews in the book.

What he said was that it was around Expo ’67 that he decided to become a producer, and he made a conscious choice to make records that didn’t sound like they were made in England or America. To me, that’s brave. That whole sonic element was something new to me. He couldn’t really explain to me how he did it; he just knew what he didn’t want to do, which arguably is a common trait in most Canadian art.

Affirmation through negation.


Because there wasn’t much domestic recording until into the 70s.

Nobody really had a handle on what they were doing, except him and [Guess Who producer] Jack Richardson. And everyone loves to dump on Anne Murray—even me, most of the time—but Brian heard something in her voice that was different and that he could do something with. It’s a shame that after “Snowbird” that became the sound of easy listening, which a lot of people end up copying.

But was her work that far removed from countrypolitan at the time, stuff like Lynn Anderson? I guess no one else had a sitar, as Anne Murray does in “Snowbird.”

No (laughs). That was the thing about Brian, was that he was still the psychedelic scene where he could bend the rules a bit. The idea of a “sound” came about through him, and Jack Richardson too on the rock side. Brian was conscious of using Canadian songwriters; he didn’t want to rely on the standard material, and he knew that there were a lot of guys here writing great stuff and he wanted to use them, no matter what any record company thought.

My major discovery in the book was this: when we think of the singer-songwriter movement—spearheaded by Dylan but also Cohen, Mitchell, Tyson, Lightfoot—we think of an integrity linking the singer and the song; the impact of the Beatles is as responsible for this idea as Dylan, where if you don’t write your own material, then you don’t have that integrity. But all these Canadian writers got their start selling their material to vocal stars who don’t have a reputation for their own material, most of whom are barely remembered today. Judy Collins is, to some degree, but who remembers Tom Rush? George Hamilton IV? [All three covered Leonard Cohen, Gordon Lightfoot and Joni Mitchell.] I don’t know who those guys are, but they were huge stars in the day who had huge hits with these Canadian songs.

They obviously had a sound that was palatable at the time for American tastes. I hadn’t thought about that, to look at it from the perspective of what Americans were hearing in those songs is a whole other thing.

Well, they’re obviously great songs with universal sentiments. But there was also this notion of sharing songs that was very prevalent—sometimes to an artist’s detriment, like the case of Bonnie Dobson that you talk about. There was a great exchange going on, and no one felt threatened by covering another up-and-coming songwriter; whereas in the last 40 years there’s been this unspoken assumption that you, the artist, have to be the complete package all the time. Back then, there’s such an openness to new writers; with Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen, other people were covering some of the first songs they ever wrote, well before they cut their own versions.

That is an amazing thing. I do wonder why that doesn’t happen more often nowadays. That happened a bit with Norah Jones—but I can’t think of that guy’s name off the top of my head, even though I’ve reviewed his records. (pause) Jesse Harris! But to take something as raw as that, when the folk world wasn’t so separate from everything else and so distinct as its own genre, that might be the biggest change. Folk doesn’t have that kind of influence nowadays. It’s so geared toward summer festivals now, it’s a pleasant little diversion from other forms of music. Back then, the song ruled.

People blame the Beatles for this, but their early records were all covers. And Motown was a pop machine with a clear distinction between artists and writers, and we think of that in some ways a model for how pop music works today. But as the context of this book reminds us, that was true in the folk world as well.

That’s why I really wanted to tell the story of [Bob Dylan's manager] Albert Grossman, too. I’ve always been fascinated by him, and not a lot has been written about him.

And you interviewed Mary Martin. [Martin was a Canadian working in Grossman’s office, managed some acts on her own, and introduced Grossman to Ian Tyson, Gordon Lightfoot, Leonard Cohen.]

Yeah. And everybody says Grossman was an enigma. Once he figured out how to make money off of folk songs, that changed everything. He was the first guy to have a foot in both those worlds: folk and the mainstream music business. Other people might have had the idea, but he was the only one with the muscle and the connections to pull it off, to get these songs into the laps of artists who would see the value in those songs. Whether that can happen again nowadays, I don’t know.

There’s so much ego now and expectations that the artist has to be the complete package. That was even at the centre of that Sarah McLachlan court case, that they didn’t want to taint the idea that this young, 18-year-old singer with no prior songwriting experience may have collaborated. Whether the specifics of the case had validity or not, I don’t know, but her management painted it as if her reputation was threatened by the whole idea. But the flip side of the song sharing you talk about here is the case of Bonnie Dobson and “Morning Dew”; she got seriously shortchanged. That was a new story to me; I can’t say I’m familiar with the song.

As I say in the discography, it’s hard to find a version of her doing her own version. She recorded it at least three times. The one she did with Jack Richardson—I was so happy I found that, it’s a good record. She has that pre-Dylan sort of more childlike approach with her voice, so I can understand why she didn’t become more famous than she was. I’ve always been fascinated by that song, and the amount of people who have covered it. One of the big motivating factors for the book was after laying out the territory of what I wanted to cover: here are all these songs that Canadian artists wrote, and they were covered so many times. That’s inconceivable now, to hear a song be covered so often—in the same year.

And that happened right up to The Band and “The Weight.” You write about how other people had bigger hits with that song than they did, right off the bat.

Every artist I talk about, they had at least a couple of songs where it was instant: everybody had to do a version of it. People automatically say something about how it must be something Canadian about these songs, which is ridiculous—they’re great songs, period.

What’s interesting, however, is the question of who are the analogous American songwriters? Kris Kristofferson is the only one I can think of, in terms of an acclaimed songwriter with many successful cover versions who is also a [moderately] commercially successful artist in their own right. All the people you’re talking about may have found initial success through other people’s versions, but they all went on to be far more famous for their own recordings. But a lot of the Americans remained songwriters, first and foremost.

Doing the research got me into a lot more obscure folk music that I had never really listened to before, people like Jackie DeShannon and this guy Bob Lind, who wrote a song called “Elusive Butterfly” that everybody had to cover right away. But what else did [Bob Lind] do, really? There were a lot of people like that back then. A lot of it had to do with the Dylan and Albert Grossman connections. If you had a guy like him on your side, it was easy to get yourself out there.

Later on in the book you talk about people like David Wiffen, who never really did get a big break.

With that chapter, I lump him in with the way singer/songwriters evolved into the early 70s, as more of an overtly poetic thing. I compare him to the Texas guys, like Townes Van Zant and Steve Young. Ironically, the success of all these singer/songwriters led to a more regional identity for a lot of these people in the ’70s. It wasn’t so much writing songs about “I gotta get out of here and see the world,” it was more “Here I am, waiting around to die.”

For reasons that fit into your thesis—and I’m sure, considerations in marketing the book—everyone in here is internationally known. I’m curious if you had more pages or if you were targeting a more specifically Canadian audience, if there were people you would have shoehorned into here. Willie P. Bennett and Stompin’ Tom get mentioned in the discography.

That was a tough call, because you can’t ignore Stompin’ Tom. But he is a Canadian phenomenon.

He wouldn’t argue with that, I’m sure. He would likely argue about a lot of things, but not that.

The same with Willie P. and Stan Rogers.

Although Stan Rogers is outside of your time frame. What about people in the '60s?

I’m not too sure. You caught me off guard on that. I did try to find out more about the Stormy Clovers. There’s a guy who lives in Kitchener now who was in the band for a while, but he was so burned out that he couldn’t remember anything.

Sorry, who are the Stormy Clovers again?

They were the Toronto band who first recorded [Leonard Cohen's] “Suzanne,” and Mary Martin managed them for a while. David, the guy in the band, I asked him if he had any demos or anything. He was like: (slow drawl) “I can’t remember; I think we did something.” I ran into that problem a lot, actually.

’60s burn-out?

There was another guy, a drummer who lived in town who played with Ian Tyson for a while and plays on Jesse Winchester’s first record, the one Robbie Robertson produced. He gave me some good insights about Tyson and Albert Grossman, but again, he was another guy who couldn’t really remember anything.

Did you go to Woodstock again? I know you did in 2001 to talk to Garth Hudson.

No, I didn’t go again. After being there for a few days, you’ve seen it all. It’s the size of Elora. I’m hoping to go see Levon do one of his Midnight Ramble things.

Were your Garth quotes from back then?

Yeah. The thing that Greil [Marcus] said in my interview with him is true: the similarities between Woodstock and smalltown Ontario are obvious. There’s a bit more of a redneck vibe—overtly, anyway. But other than that, it makes sense that they chose to live there.

What struck me in reading the book is that you have a “show don’t tell” approach for the most part. You resist the academic analysis and answering a lot of the whys. The book is more about narrative and context. Do you think it’s lacking in answering the whys? Do you think people expect you to provide that? Or do you choose to let people infer what they want?

That’s something I struggled with, and even more so after I read Carl Wilson’s book [Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste]. That book blew my mind, and I emailed him to tell him that he raised the bar for everybody. I’ve come to terms with the fact that I don’t think I’m that kind of a writer. I like the narrative, I like people telling stories about themselves and using that to provide the context.

It reminds me more of Peter Guralnick.

Yeah. The one night I was looking at articles online, and I found an old interview with Greil Marcus where someone asked him what he thought of Peter Guralnick’s Elvis biographies [Last Train to Memphis, Careless Love]. He said he didn’t really enjoy them because Guralnick made Elvis sound like a normal person. Which is odd, because that’s what I found interesting about them. I don’t mind hearing the details of people’s everyday lives, and a lot of the books I kept going back to were books like that, that were more chronological and not necessarily the mundane facts of being a musician, but…

Less mythology. It’s interesting that Greil Marcus would say that, because some of his writing drives me crazy with his projections and myth-making—his piece on Sly Stone and Stagger Lee, specifically. It doesn’t enhance my appreciation of the music, and it’s more of a wild fantasy of what the artist is, rather than being about the artist themselves. Sometimes that can be great and revelatory, and other times I wonder: who are you writing this for?

From the outset, looking at the information that was out there, it surprised me that most biographies of these people were written by British or American writers. [The Neil Young biography] Shakey was an exception, because [author] Jimmy McDonough came here and went to all the small towns and talked to everybody. He did a great job.

You were jealous of that book, weren’t you?

[laughs] I was.

I remember when it came out, you were saying, “Dammit!”

Oh yeah. But other than that, re-reading Barney Hoskyns’ Band book [Across the Great Divide]—there’s so much wrong in that book.

What, you don’t think there’s a link between The Band and the Dream Warriors? [a link Hoskyns makes in the book]

There were things in that book that I wanted to correct personally, and getting to actually pose those questions to Robbie was a big breakthrough. I believe I’m the first source to get his father’s full name. I’m proud of that!

Has he been cagey about that?

No, he answered the question. The thing about his father is how he died; I don’t think even Robbie knows for sure how he died. But I got it on good authority from their booking agent, Harold Kudlats, who was pretty sure it was a hit-and-run. The story about him being gunned down was fantasy.

That was another great interview in the book: Harold Kudlats [who first brought Ronnie Hawkins to Canada and booked The Hawks/The Band]. How old is he?

He’s got to be at least in his 70s, and he lives in a retirement home in Hamilton. His mind is sharp and he remembered everything. He clarified many things too, that I knew were a little foggy in some of the other books. That felt good to talk to him.

Were you worried at all about people having read some of this stuff before?

A little bit. I was thinking more that the audience would be younger people. I know this book will appeal to baby boomers, but I wanted to write something for the people younger than me who are crazy about The Band and Neil Young.

A strength of the book, I think, is that it’s not written by a boomer. When you live through something, you experience it differently. For you, having been born in the year that Blue came out, there’s a remove there, that gives you tabula rasa. Some of this music you no doubt heard via your parents, but a lot of it you came to on your own terms.

I did think about that, and about how difficult it would be for me now if we were to embark on a sequel to Have Not Been the Same. I just don’t have that kind of emotional connection to a lot of the bands that have come out in the last five to ten years. I know a lot of them; I know them as people; I know the influences.

When we get to this age in our writing careers, so many things just appear obvious to us now, and there isn’t that romantic wonder so much anymore. “Of course they did that. Of course they listened to that. What do you want to write about?” Whereas exploring a different time period, it’s more interesting to find out the genesis of how all these things happened. Even in our book, I found that writing about artists in the '90s was less interesting to me than writing about artists in the '80s from when I was in high school.

What kept me going was constantly talking to young bands that want to be The Band or Crazy Horse. This music is still relevant. To throw Hank Snow into that mix and hopefully broaden that base, that was a lot of my intention.


Friday, July 17, 2009

June-July 09 reviews

Reviews from the last six weeks in the mainstream daily newspapers the Kitchener-Waterloo Record and Guelph Mercury.

A Hawk and a Hacksaw – Delivrance (Leaf)

When drummer Jeremy Barnes first started playing accordion and writing songs that borrowed heavily from traditional eastern European music, he was very much an interloper trying on a new set of clothes and creating something that didn’t aim to be authentic, but something new entirely. Several albums later, Barnes has been fully immersed in this culture to the point that there are many points on Delivrance where the flying dulcimers, Romanian violins and haunting melodies appear interchangeable with anything by legendary Roma band Tarif de Haidouks. The only time Barnes stumbles is when he sings—in English—in a voice even more nasal than Colin Meloy of the Decemberists, which ruins the illusion; thankfully, he only does this on two of the ten tracks here. (July 9, K-W Record)

Apostle of Hustle – Eats Darkness (Arts and Crafts)

Apostle of Hustle’s Andrew Whiteman has always been an insatiably curious musical soul, and the best and worst thing about him is that he’s tried to do everything. But the older he gets—he’s now 42—the more successful he is at distilling the breadth of his influences into three-minute songs that focus on deceptively simple riffs and rhythms that are packed with attention to minor detail. He’s also getting wonderfully weirder with age: woven through the songs are sound collages that recall the radio art of Negativland, that convey as much thematically as Whiteman’s lyrics do. Musically, dub rhythms, Latin guitars, pop hooks and rock guitars are all rearranged into a unique hybrid driven by the versatility of Whiteman’s powerhouse backing duo of Julian Brown and Dean Stone; each of them is invaluable to the whole, making Apostle of Hustle much more than a solo project outside of Whiteman’s work with Broken Social Scene. Apostle of Hustle pack more into the 30 minutes of this album than most groups do in their entire careers—and still leave the listener space to breathe. (June 11, K-W Record)

Bat for Lashes – Two Suns (EMI)

Ignore the horrible moniker, about which the only positive thing you can say is that it’s purposely vague and lowers expectations considerably. What a pleasant surprise then, to hear Natasha Khan’s musical vision unfold over the course of this, her stunning and singular second album.
Kate Bush comparisons are inevitable, for reasons that start with her operatic, British art school approach to singing and songwriting, as well as the ’80s textures that weave their way through Two Suns. Kate Bush’s influence may be on the rise overall—witness acts like Fever Ray, St. Vincent, My Brightest Diamond, Katie Stelmani—but only Bat For Lashes is fully worthy of ascending to the role of High Priestness of Pop Weirdness.

Listening to Two Suns is like the last 25 years never happened; Khan has emerged with the kind of album that Peter Gabriel should have continued making after his third album. Khan is as delightfully unconventional as Bjork without teetering near the edges of cliffs; she writes songs that fall somewhere between the classical ambition of Rufus Wainwright and the shoegaze-y new wave textures of Robert Smith of The Cure. There’s nothing resembling rock arrangements, but nor does she fall into any other set patterns; each song is a world unto itself, and Khan’s layers of vocals light the path through mysterious forests of sound. (June 11, K-W Record)

Billy Talent – III (Warner)

Billy Talent have platinum albums. They sell out the Air Canada Centre. They’re a #1 act in Germany. They could easily rest on their laurels. Instead, they’re getting better.

Producer Brendan O’Brien (Bruce Springsteen, Pearl Jam) has clearly pushed every member of this band to be better songwriters and players. Every one of the 11 tracks here boasts the kind of killer hooks that their best singles have always had; don’t be surprised if they spin a half-dozen radio hits out of this record. But even more importantly, they’ve matured to the point where they can maintain their trademark intensity at half their normal tempo—lead single "Rusted by the Rain" being the best example.

Elsewhere, they leave much more open space and use dynamics to help build tension in ways that all the best rock records do—or should, anyway. Other influences have started creeping in: "Tears Into Wine" and "Pocketful of Dreams" have vaguely Celtic guitar melodies. Not that they’ve mellowed: Saint Veronika boasts some furiously arpeggiated metal riffing, and "Turn Your Back" and "Tears Into Wine" are the kind of barnburners that Billy Talent built their reputation on.

Some things don’t change: Ian D’Sa’s one-note backing vocals are still inflected with a hilariously overwrought sense of frustration, like he stubbed his toe immediately before stepping up to the mic. Lead singer Ben Kowalewicz, on the other hand, has moved far beyond his signature screams—which he still lets out of the bag on a couple of tracks here—to become a much more engaging vocalist; he’s no longer a one-trick pony.

This is not just the album that will elevate Billy Talent above their mall punk fan base and present a convincing case for their longevity—this is the rock record for the summer of 2009. (July 16, K-W Record)

Dinosaur Jr. – Farm (Jagjaguwar)

Reunion albums aren’t supposed to sound this good. When a beloved band gets back together, fans usually grant them one grace album for old times sake, but would really prefer it if they sticked to the hits in the live set. Nothing could be further from the truth for ’90s proto-grunge band Dinosaur Jr., who are writing and playing better than they ever did.

J Mascis is one of the only guitarists of that era who ever took guitar solos seriously, not afraid to flex his virtuosity while focusing primarily on feel—like some perverse cross between Neil Young and Eddie Van Halen. Mascis was out of step then as he is now: well over half of the eight-minute track "I Don’t Wanna Go There" is full-on noodling. As always, his slacker snarl is incongruous with his raging rhythm section, and the strength of his songwriting elevates this band from hundreds of others who merely hide between distortion and destruction.

There are no bells and whistles here: this is a straight-up guitar rock record, the kind you need for long summer drives, the kind that reminds you that maybe the ’90s weren’t the musical wasteland that they might seem like now. (July 2, K-W Record)

Dirty Projectors – Bitte Orca (Domino)
Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest (Warp)

Dirty Projectors’ singer, guitarist and songwriter Dave Longstreth acts like he’s making up all of his own rules as he goes along, which he may well be; he is undeniably idiosyncratic and unique in ways similar to Bjork or David Byrne (both of whom have sought him out to collaborate), and may well be crazier than both of them put together.

He has an astoundingly versatile and slippery voice, which means that he could easily pull off an R&B ballad if he really wanted to—if he wasn’t trying to simultaneously juggle his interests in British folk, electronic composition, Asian string music and Led Zeppelin III. All these influences are there if you probe deeply enough; yet on the surface, Dirty Projectors don’t sound like anyone else at all.

The track "Remade Horizon" sounds like several disparate African recordings being pulled apart in ProTools: the Soweto-style female vocals, the hi-life guitar lead, the stuttering funk of Afrobeat rhythm guitars. And yet at the same time, there’s nothing remotely African about the end result; it’s a piece of music that could only have come from Longstreth’s oddball vision and reimagining of existing forms.

There’s no question that Longstreth is immensely talented and capable of creating wondrous magic, which makes Bitte Orca is an easy album to respect, but a hard one to love—immediately, anyway. This could easily be either a future classic that will influence generations, or a passing fad for people who like difficult music for its own sake.

Grizzly Bear will likely suffers the latter fate, with the disadvantage of being more overly mannered than the Dirty Projectors, who at least sound like they’re being playful. Grizzly Bear is the epitome of an art school band—deadly serious and downright stuffy, they sound like the taxidermist has already got to them. There’s nothing particularly linear nor repetitious about any of this material; sadly, it lacks any other charms or mystery to make up for that. Lovely though his voice may be, singer Edward Droste is more distracting than anything, if only because his presence gives the listener some expectation of normalcy, instead of the atonal art-folk that is Grizzly Bear’s specialty. (June 18, K-W Record)

Elephant Stone – The Seven Seas (independent)

This Montreal band is named after a Stone Roses song, which explains much of their musical template: early ’90s British guitar textures with nods to dance rhythms and ’60s psychedelia. Bandleader Rishi Dhir knows a lot about the latter, which was the focus of his former band the High Dials. His own studies of Indian classical music also come into play here, and it’s his sitar playing that sets Elephant Stone apart from other Britpop bands, especially on the raga rock of "The Straight Line." But even the tracks that play down that influence have plenty going for them, drawing on early Blur and Spiritualized influences with the help of fellow Montrealers in The Dears and The Besnard Lakes.
(June 18, K-W Record)

Grand Analog – Metropolis is Burning (Urbnet)

Perhaps you’ve been to those workshops at any folk festival where hip-hop artists are paired with local folkies and a funk band and magic is expected to happen—and it rarely does. Grand Analog sound like the product of just such an experiment, but they actually gel their genres together in a seamless summer blend of reggae, pop, funk, and hip-hop, with frontman Odario Williams proving to be a commanding microphone presence whether he’s crooning or rapping. The kazoo solo in the first song—titled, uh, "I Play My Kazoo"—hints that they’re willing to try anything, no matter how ridiculous. Fortunately, it never gets more ridiculous than that; many of these tracks deserve a spot on Top 40 stations, especially the breezy reggae of "Take it Slow" and the electro-’80s R&B track "Stir Crazy," featuring the smooth female vocals of Maiko Watson. (July 2, K-W Record)

Hypnotic Brass Ensemble – s/t (Honest Jon’s)

In a live setting, this Chicago ten-piece will grant you a quick, informal schooling in the possibilities of brass music, from New Orleans to klezmer to funk to hip-hop to jazz. And while all those come into play on this, their first official full-length album, much of this sounds like a sweeping ’70s urban drama with a soundtrack co-written by Curtis Mayfield and Bill Conti (Rocky, An Unmarried Woman). There are more than enough party tunes here to bolster the live show, but this self-titled album is also rich with dynamics, recognizing that the home listeners might not want to be constantly be subjected to the full-blown intensity that is the Hypnotic live show. (July 9, K-W Record)

Iron and Wine – Around the Well (Sub Pop)

The well in question appears to be dry. This is a two-CD compilation of cast-offs from a consistently strong artist; over seven years, Iron and Wine’s Sam Beam has released three full-length albums and three equally worthy EPs. Considering that volume of output, it’s not a sign of weakness that his leftovers are so uninspiring; it is worth wondering, however, whether even Iron and Wine completists need any of the material found here—most of which didn’t cut the mustard the first time around to even appear on CD singles.

Iron and Wine began as a bedroom project, featuring just acoustic guitar and Beam’s hushed vocals, recorded while his baby daughters were asleep. Since then, he’s managed to avoid many singer/songwriter clichés and evolve successfully into a multi-dimensional artist drawing from eclectic textures and rhythms while maintaining a singular sound and identity. Too many of these tracks, however, are still in the solo-man-with-guitar mode, and, by the measure of Beam’s own quality standards on his official releases, the material simply isn’t as strong.

The handful of covers are also uninspiring and predictable—not in their source material (Stereolab, Flaming Lips, New Order) but in the way they sound like every song Sam Beam ever recorded before he evolved into a bandleader.

Material from recent years is slightly more rewarding, if only because one can hear Beam breaking his own formula and arriving at the subtle dub reggae and psychedelic textures that coloured 2007’s The Shepherd’s Dog. (June 11, K-W Record)

Jennifer LFO – Songs from the Alien Beacon (Kanda Kid)

“How close can you get without f---ing up the friendship?” So asks Jennifer LFO on one of the catchiest songs on her debut album (under this name, anyway; she used to record under her given name, Jennifer Foster). But the question may well be metaphorical, as throughout this album she takes her pop songs and stretches them into ’70s prog territory, with tasteful heaps of sonic decoration courtesy of her producer Michael Philip Wojewoda, and a cast of Toronto all-stars. Together, they push this material to extremes and then pull it back to a more straightforward piano ballad or three-chord rocker. Foster’s lyrics stray from conventional fare as well, which makes her all the more believable when she sings: “I know the girl you look for/ you won’t find her too soon/ She’s teaching string theory on Saturn/ she’s playing her synth on the moon.” (July 16, K-W Record)

La Patere Rose – s/t (Grosse Boite)

La Patere Rose could hail from no other place in Canada except Quebec: an eccentric and girlish vocalist/keyboardist (nom du rock: Fanny Bloom) who is well-studied in chanson, absurdist pop and cabaret, backed by two gents (noms du rock: Roboto et Kilojoules) who ensure that no two songs sound alike. If acclaimed acts like Fiona Apple or Regina Spektor were actually as unpredictable and unusual as they’re made out to be, they still wouldn’t sound as inventive as La Patere Rose, especially when Bloom starts shrieking like a theremin on La Marelle. This isn’t dark and mysterious like Bat For Lashes; it’s too goofy for that. It’s not abrasive or aiming for any kind of shock factor, and it’s too off-kilter to be safe and radio-friendly. And once you’re through figuring out everything that it’s not, it’s just to best revel in their unusual pleasures. (July 2, K-W Record)

Lee Harvey Osmond – A Quiet Evil (Latent)

It’s one thing when a veteran artist returns under a new guise and puts out the best record of his career. It’s another thing entirely when he ropes in a group of all-stars who rally for the cause and sound creatively re-energized in ways that their main projects haven’t in quite a while.

Tom Wilson has been the bandleader of Junkhouse, one third of Blackie and the Rodeo Kings, and put out solo albums; here, he enlists Cowboy Junkies’ Michael Timmins as producer and engineer, the Skydiggers’ Josh Finlayson on bass, and various people drawn from each of those three men’s extended musical families. Together, the music they make as Lee Harvey Osmond is a dark and spooky Canadian gothic roots gumbo: sombre folk meets swampy blues meets late-night ambient country music all made for midnight drives, with covers of Lou Reed and David Wiffen thrown in for good measure.

Though Wilson may be front and centre, Lee Harvey Osmond is very much a collective effort, and it succeeds just as much on atmosphere and Timmins’ arrangements as it does on the songs co-written by Wilson with many others. The decades of experience shared between these players works magic when it sounds like they crashed in the studio after a long night of whiskey and decided to let their imagination run wild. This isn’t so much “dad rock” as it is “creepy, weird old uncle music”—and it suits Tom Wilson perfectly. (July 9, K-W Record)

Micachu – Jewellery (Rough Trade)

Micachu is as wonderfully weird as the Dirty Projectors’ Dave Longstreth, but makes music for a much more raucous dance party. Bandleader Mica Levi sticks to 4/4 rhythms and conventional harmony, but her unusual approach to sound sculpture finds her constructing pop, punk and dance music from clipped samples, toy instruments, and any household item that can be transformed into percussion. She gets help from producer Matthew Herbert, who uses a similar approach in his own politically charged electronic jazz and performance art; here, however, he applies his attention to unusual detail toward much more visceral thrills. Micachu doesn’t have any agenda except playful tomfoolery—which makes Jewellery one of the most delightful debuts of the year. (June 18, K-W Record)

Moby – Wait For Me (EMI)

Moby’s landmark album Play turns 10 years old this year. And though its sound quickly became a cliché, it’s worth noting that when it was released, Moby had given up hopes of pop stardom, and made the album as a personal project. And as he admits now, he’s spent much of the last decade trying to second-guess the marketplace and somehow replicate its success. He hasn’t failed per se, but nothing he’s done in the past decade is remotely remarkable—or memorable.

Until this. Wait For Me was recorded at home, and his only motivation was to make an personal album that wasn’t tailored to any pop radio standard. And lo and behold, it’s a lovely, warm, engaging album, which in part revives the template of lush strings and gospel vocals heard on Play, but with nary an uptempo beat to be found; the liveliest number is the only one sung by Moby himself, and it’s about as cheery as Joy Division. Wait For Me is a luxurious mind massage that sounds like Brian Eno producing Pink Floyd. For the most part it’s too sumptuous and sedate to be co-opted by lifestyle advertising, like much of Play was; it is much more intimate and interior—and ironically, by pleasing no one else but himself, Moby may have made his most universal album in a decade. (July 9, K-W Record)

Stuart Murdoch – God Help the Girl (Beggars Banquet)

Belle and Sebastian’s Stuart Murdoch woke up one morning and heard his songs being sung by an all-female chorus, which prompted this, his first solo album, on which he writes the songs and hires various ladies to sing them. The material here sounds like it’s from a ’50s stage play; there’s nary a sign of rock nor R&B influence, instead relying on featherweight piano melodies with saccharine strings and mannered, polite vocals. Belle and Sebastian don’t exactly boast a muscular reputation either—much of their discography is on the lighter side of twee—but this material might be too well-scrubbed for even that band’s biggest fans. It doesn’t help that a couple songs from the last B&S album, their punchy pop masterpiece The Life Pursuit, are recast here in considerably weaker versions; other songs are feeble rewrites of earlier B&S classics ("Lazy Line Painter Jane," "I’m Waking Up to Us") set to new lyrics. That the songs aren’t up to Murdoch’s recent standards is one thing; the fact that none of these arrangements and vocalists are particularly compelling is another. (July 9, K-W Record)

Nomo – Invisible Cities (Ubiquity)

Nomo are a Chicago band who started out playing relatively straightforward Afrobeat, but are all over the map on their latest album. And that’s a good thing. Their horn section is unleashed to allow for jazzier excursions, the rhythm section has become more muscular—even if many of the tempos are slower this time out—and the synths and treated kalimbas that colour around the edges help define the 21st century funk that Nomo is creating.

This album was spawned from the same sessions as their 2008 release Ghost Rock; that album is a better entry point for beginners. Invisible Cities is less of a party record and more of an esoteric head trip for fans of late ’60s and early ’70s jazz, where dissonance and tension are more prevalent in both the solos and the riffs. And while African influences are still paramount, traces of Balkan brass and Asian scales also creep into the mix. (June 11, K-W Record)

Peaches – I Feel Cream (XL)

In 2009, Peaches should be mouldy by now. And yet on her third album, the Berlin-via-Toronto transplant can be heard crooning: “Seems you got a little bit more than you asked for.” After years of maximum personality and minimal musical promise, that statement finally holds true.
What started as an electro-punk performance art construct, based on dirty beats and dirtier lyrics, turned into an underground pop and fashion sensation. Peaches is many things: proudly pansexual, smart, sassy, “so sexual and so conceptual.” She’s also an unconventionally attractive older woman who invites you to “lick her crow’s feet”—the polar opposite of the parade of Lolitas peddled in the mainstream.

And yet until now, her message of inclusive sexual liberation was articulated mainly through lugheaded repetition of phrases meant to poke and provoke. No matter how addictive her primitive beats and punk rock guitar may have been, Peaches the songwriter was nowhere near as powerful as Peaches the performer.

I Feel Cream isn’t exactly the sound of Peaches cleaning up her act, but it does drop the sillier side of her shock value and ups the musical ante considerably. She’s moved well beyond simple riffs into fully developed pop songs worthy of early Prince ("Mud," "Talk To Me," "Trick or Treat"), and her buzzing synths and dirty techno puts similar acts to shame—including upstart Torontonians like Thunderheist and MSTRKRFT. Lyrically she’s just as brazen and intentionally ridiculous, but she’s digging deeper by cramming each track with hilarious one-liners—instead of milking each one for three minutes at a time.

The early ’00s electroclash trend that she arrived in the middle of may be on the wane, but seeing how she was one of the only bonafide personalities of that era—coupled with the strength of this album—I Feel Cream should rise to the top. (June 4, K-W Record) (June 4, K-W Record)

Royal City – 1999-2004 (Asthmatic Kitty)

Royal City were always bridesmaids back around the turn of the decade. Feist was in their band. Sufjan Stevens, Broken Social Scene and Hidden Cameras opened for them. They were the impetus to launch Three Gut Records, a Guelph label that helped make Toronto cool again and inspired many of that city’s current success stories. Royal City broke up just as the world’s eyes were turning toward Toronto.

But much more important was the legacy of unforgettable shows that live on in memory: sometimes a total trainwreck, often completely brilliant, always indifferent to whatever people might expect. Arriving as the Canadian music industry was collapsing, they offered a complete alternative to everything around them, including many of their squeaky clean alt-country peers. Dissonant and delicate, fragile and ferocious, Royal City conveyed naked emotion, and demanded that you either love or hate them. There was no middle ground.

The three studio albums they left behind all have their charms; 2001’s Alone at the Microphone is a masterpiece. But this collection of odds and sods captures the overall spirit of the band in their raw glory. Some of their best songs never made it onto albums ("O You With Your Skirt," "Postcards"); they appear here along with revelatory alternate takes and covers of Iggy Pop and the Strokes—the latter’s song is turned into a lilting waltz.

The album closes in the most perfect way possible: a long, slow fade of the band singing their eponymous song (inexplicably titled "In the Autumn" here), chanting “c-i-t-y Royal City” as they march on into eternity, oblivious to the fact that the tape is running out, that the audience has gone home, that soon all we’ll have left is cherished memories and a few records. But now we have one more. (June 18, K-W Record)

Sonic Youth – The Eternal (Matador)

Here’s a little secret about the avant-garde: no matter how groundbreaking you were at an early stage in your career, the older you get, the more boring you are. There’s no better example than Sonic Youth, a band who did nothing less than rewrite the rules of rock’n’roll in the late ’80s, by combining the nihilism of the no-wave movement with Rolling Stones riffs, free jazz and hardcore punk rock. At that point in time, nobody sounded like Sonic Youth.

By the mid-’90s, however, everyone was trying to. Their descendents are plentiful, as is Sonic Youth’s discography: both their “official” releases and their myriad side projects and art projects. So plentiful, in fact, that what was once thrilling and mysterious is now almost as innocuous as, well, as a new Rolling Stones album. And the alternative press prove themselves just as gullible as mainstream media when an old warhorse trots on the stage talking about getting back to their roots and referencing earlier, beloved works—a routine Sonic Youth has been milking for at least 10 years now.

There’s something to be said for sticking to your vision, and tracks like "What We Know" and "Anti-Orgasm" will resonate with anyone who’s ever loved the band. But with the group of cultural sponges that compose Sonic Youth, you’d think their palette would be wider at this point. While there’s some comfort in hearing new songs that are interchangeable with anything they’ve done in the past quarter century, it’s neither weird nor accessible enough to excite or polarize fans. It’s just there.

Which, for former revolutionaries, is faint praise that proves most damning. (June 18, K-W Record)

Regina Spektor – Far (Warner)

Regina Spektor must have heard the word “quirky” used often enough to describe her, that she’s decided to tone down her vocal tics on this, her third album. She still specializes in piano songs best suited for the closing credits of movies set in New York City autumns, with a decidedly more reggae lilt to them this time out, however subtle. Musically, Far is impeccable, aided by an ace list of producers: Mike Elizondo (Fiona Apple, Eminem), Jeff Lynne (Tom Petty, Traveling Wilburys), Jacknife Lee (U2, R.E.M.), and returning collaborator David Kahne (VP of Warner Records, incidentally).

It’s Spektor’s lyrics that distract. She’s fine with opening a song with the sentiment: “no one laughs at God in a hospital/ no one laughs at God in a war.” But she starts to get lazy and loopy when she follows it up with the mouthful: “no one laughs at God when it’s getting late and your kid’s not back from that party yet.” Alanis, your ghostwriter is calling. (July 2, K-W Record)

Street Sweeper Social Club – s/t (Warner)

Tom Morello was considered one of the most innovative guitarists of the ’90s for his work in Rage Against the Machine. Since then, however, his career has largely consisted of wasted opportunities: the non-starter supergroup that was Audioslave, an agitprop solo acoustic act called The Nightwatchman, and now a collaboration with MC Boots Riley of political hip-hop crew The Coup. The idea of returning to Rage-style riff-rock with anthemic choruses and fiery rhymes sounds good on paper, yet Street Sweeper Social Club serves as a reminder at how good Rage Against the Machine was at what it did. There are no guitar pyrotechnics from Morello, and Riley’s politics are plodding and punctuated with far too many “motherfuckers” to be taken seriously. Red Hot Chili Peppers b-sides sound better than this, and at least that band's songs are supposed to be about nothing, rather than ankle-deep agitation and leftist suggestions that add up to something neither instructive nor constructive—nor particularly destructive. Just dull. (June 4, K-W Record)

Sunset Rubdown – Dragonslayer (Jagjaguwar)

What instrument would you use to slay a dragon: a piano or a guitar? Why, a guitar of course, which is why Sunset Rubdown’s bandleader and keyboardist Spencer Krug straps one on for the bulk of this, the fourth album for his main musical outlet.

Piano-based songwriters who migrate to the guitar usually do so with mixed results: either they get deliberately reductionist after discovering the power of three-chord simplicity, or they become overly obtuse. Krug uses the guitar every way he can: as harmonic and rhythmic texture, as an adrenaline shot and power boost, and to continue to write the unique songs that set him apart from almost all of his peers.

If parts of Dragonslayer sound slightly more conventional and accessible than previous Sunset Rubdown recordings, all the trademarks are still there: the epic songwriting with plenty of twists and turns, the impenetrably surreal lyrics, Krug’s hiccup-y vocals, the rich harmonies of keyboardist Camille Wynn Ingr, the melodic guitar lines and unconventional drumming. New bassist Mark Nicol brings added depth on his recorded debut with the band.

Krug has a long and dense discography—including two albums with Wolf Parade and two with Swan Lake on top of the Sunset Rubdown output—but Dragonslayer is the album most likely to convert new ones and satisfy old ones. (July 16, K-W Record)

Think About Life – Family (Alien 8)

There are more than enough indie rock bands shouting and screaming about disco infernos, but Think About Life are one of the few who can boast “I’ll set your world on fire” and actually pull it off. This band had extremely shaky beginnings; I’d go so far as to say that they’re one of the worst opening acts I’ve ever seen, back when Wolf Parade took them on tour in 2005. In the time since, Martin Cesar has become not only a wildly engaging frontman, but a serious R&B singer with a killer falsetto. The pop smarts that guitarist Graham Van Pelt put to use in his other project, Miracle Fortress, come to the forefront here and give Cesar some actual hooks to sing. Tracks like "Havin’ My Baby," "Set You on Fire" and "Young Hearts" are all polished enough to be Top 40 hits, or at the very least fodder for a N.E.R.D. remix.
And while much of Family is fodder for an all-night dance party, Think About Life show themselves capable of much more, both texturally and dynamically. They may love their four-on-the-floor beats, but they also love pulling everything apart and tweaking every minor sonic detail, which they do to great effect during the long-decaying closing track, "Life of Crime." (July 2, K-W Record)

Allen Toussaint – The Bright Mississippi (Nonesuch)

There are a lot of musicians vying for the title of Mr. New Orleans, but Allen Toussaint is certainly one of them. The pianist and arranger has been in the employ of all the greats, and though he may not be as recognizable outside musicians’ circles, he’s revered among his peers—and with good reason.

Which is why Toussaint gets help here from the top notch team of producer Joe Henry (who also pens insightful liner notes), clarinetist Don Byron, guitarist Marc Ribot, bassist David Piltch, trumpeter Nicholas Payton and drummer Jay Bellerose, who help him romp through songs that would be tired standards in anyone else’s hands: "Just a Closer Walk With Thee," "St. James Infirmary," and songs by Duke Ellington, Jelly Roll Morton, and Django Reinhardt.
Toussaint, however, renders all the material here virtually unrecognizable and completely enchanting. The 71-year-old is rhythmically inventive and melodically playful, especially with Thelonious Monk’s title track. And he’s a generous bandleader, though when he grants solos, it’s often his rhythm part that is still stealing the show. (June 4, K-W Record)

John Vanderslice – Romanian Names (Dead Oceans)

John Vanderslice grew up in Florida and lives in California. Little wonder, then, that his music sounds so sunny—on the surface, anyway. Sunny not necessarily in the way of surf rock and saccharine ’70s singer/songwriters—although there are some obvious vocal debts to the Beach Boys here—but in the way that spending too long in the sun can create a squinty, skewed take on reality where the simplest things appear complex and vice versa. There are certainly nods to normalcy in Vanderslice’s delightfully unconventional approach to pop music. But he is a producer first and foremost (Spoon, Death Cab for Cutie), using the studio to play with sound in the subtlest of ways: these are still pianos, guitars and drums, but there’s always something slightly off about them. His songs used to be busier than they had to be; over the course of seven albums, he’s learned to lay back and let the textures set up the action, leaving the melodies plenty of room to drape themselves or two or three chords. His lyrics are imaginative and suggestive, if not downright cryptic; not many songwriters would try and string a chorus out of the phrase: “fetal horses gallop in the womb.” Fewer still would pull it off. At the age of 42, Vanderslice still likes to mess with his formulas—not out of desperation, but because he continues to improve with age. (June 4, K-W Record)

White Rabbits – It’s Frightening (TBD)

White Rabbits are a six-piece rock band with two drummers—yet ultimately, it’s the entire band that thinks like a drummer, approaching their parts rhythmically rather than filling every dozens of tracks with layers of harmonies. Less is always more with this album, which could just as easily been made on an analog eight-track machine, leaving plenty of space for catchy pop hooks, melodic guitar leads, and piano breaks. That this minimalist approach works so well is due in part to producer Britt Daniel, who employs many of the same tactics in his band Spoon; while both bands share an aesthetic and attention to minute detail, White Rabbits sound like Spoon’s slightly weirder cousins—and yet original enough not to be overpowered by Daniel’s shadow. (June 11, K-W Record)

Wilco – Wilco (The Album) (Warner)

Wilco’s dramatic days are over. After years of line-up upheavals, label battles, drug abuse and controversial artistic shifts, this eponymous album marks the first time in ten years that two Wilco albums have been made with the same line-up, which now includes colourful guitar virtuoso Nels Cline. The Wilco heard here is in full-on dad rock mode—even Feist drops by for a duet on the lovely "You and I"—with the more artsy, soundscape-y side of the band fully integrated into ’70s soft rock that serves as perfect comfort food on a summer’s day. Nothing here raises the temperature, but nothing disappoints, either; where 2007’s Sky Blue Sky shared a similar sound, it was too noodly at times and some of the rockers fell flat. Wilco (The Album) sets modest goals and exceeds them. This is their strongest work since the game-changing Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and finds them settling into a new stride that shows how mellowing out doesn’t mean giving up. (June 18, K-W Record)