Noah’s Arkweld – Names for Shapes That Don’t Exist

noaksarkweldPick up any album out of Toronto’s indie scene over the last decade and you’ll likely find Noah Mintz’s name buried in the credits. Mintz has spent a decade building a reputation as one of Canada’s top mastering engineers, working with acts like Broken Social Scene, Stars, and Apostle of Hustle. With Names for Shapes That Don’t Exist, Mintz is finally stepping out from behind the mixing board to craft something of his own. The album sits in an uncharted middle ground, somewhere between alt-country, folk, and minimalist indie pop. Biting acoustic guitar is frequently matched with swirling synths and layered over sparse bits of cello. That is not to say that this is a schizophrenic or directionless album by any means, and even with all of these elements plucked from different genres working at once the songs never manage to come across as overwrought or cluttered. Instead, Mintz manages to expertly weave them in and out of tracks without overemphasis. The subdued “Square Peg” is a gentle solo-acoustic affair up until the song’s power-pop infused final moments, and “Small Fires” features tribal bongos and maracas driving the track atop slowly burning guitars. The lyrics may evoke the odd eye-roll and some numbers may occasionally feel a bit too twangy for some, but inventive melodies and some strong vocal work make it easy to ignore any glaring flaws. All of this exists within the album’s relatively small scope, which feels close and intimate despite the large range of sounds. Mintz manages to stay above indulging himself too much in any one genre, and it certainly pays off. His work sounds all the better for it. (Independent, Kevan Hannah

Daniel Merriweather – Love & War

merriweatherNot to be confused with Dan the Automator’s fictional alter-ego Nathaniel Merriweather, Daniel Merriweather is very much a real person—and a really talented person at that. Having first popped up on Mark Ronson’s Version, where he provided the vocals for “Stop Me,” the 27-year-old Australian now releases his debut record for the revived Jive Records. Ronson continues to play kingmaker though, as he serves as producer for Love & War, and it’s not some vanity credit, either. His touch is all over this record, such as his enlisting Binky Griptite and the rest of the Dap-Kings to drop the funk on a number of cuts. Love & War is replete with the same polished nü-funk that Ronson displayed on Version, chock-a-block with hooks, punchy rhythm guitar and snappy drums. But those are just the stage atop which Merriweather stands and he manages to carry the album on the strength of his vocals. At times they soar, but still they’re always muscular and grounded. Check out the hook on “Impossible,” where he reaches the high-notes of “your love” and you can picture him standing on tip-toes to hit it but never taking his foot off center stage. Guests Wale and Adele contribute capable but understated vocals on “Change” and “Water and A Flame” respectively, but Merriweather never allows himself to be overshadowed—not by this pair or the legion of musicians who lend their instruments to the battle (including Sean Lennon on guitar!). This is polished pop music at its finest. (Jive Records, Michael Elves

Dan Mangan – Nice, Nice, Very Nice

danmanganVancouverite Dan Mangan’s second LP is a little bit country and a little bit rock ’n’ roll and a lot better than what that suggests. The gruff-voiced singer-songwriter covers familiar ground; love, doubt and his hometown in distinct style and effectively varied instrumentation. Named after a Kurt Vonnegut poem, Nice, Nice, Very Nice actually is quite nice. Dan Mangan’s lyrics share the earnest sincerity that gave Vonnegut’s satirical weight, yet refreshingly lack the irony. The standout tracks “Robots” and “The Indie Queens Are Waiting” showcase Mangan’s skill with catchy choruses and full arrangements, while later tracks “Pine for Cedars” and “Set the Sails” are intimate and sparse. Nice, Nice, Very Nice makes a good case for the folk-rock genre in a court that is inclined to condemn it, jail it, and stop its soul-searching. Thumbs up for our Queen’s profile on the album art. (FUM, Paul Beriault

Fruit Bats – The Ruminant Band

fruitbatsI’ve had this record in the CD player of my car for the last three days. I’ve listened to it on long car rides. This album is sublime and psychedelic, worming its way into your ears and making permanent lodging in your brain. It is an album that demands to be heard over and over again. Not just in your car, but sitting in the sunlight on the back porch, sipping on lemonade, getting lost in the melody of the band. It should be the last thing you play before going to sleep, the tenor of Eric Johnson providing the soundtrack to your subconscious. Always sunny, rarely cloudy. Mellow, rather than melancholy. The Ruminant Band is music tailor-made for the summer nights at the cottage, while you’re watching the sunset. I am rarely disappointed by a release from Sub Pop. This is easily one of my favourite albums I’ve heard all year, if not my favourite. (Sub Pop Records, Charles Lefebvre

Grand Analog – Metropolis is Burning

grandanalogThere are always a few things you can rely on in Winnipeg on a yearly basis: the Blue Bombers will be mediocre at best, the weather in January will push your commitment to living in this fine city to the brink, and Grand Analog will release a record that will be enjoyable. Metropolis is Burning, the fourth release from Winnipeg ex-pats in as many years, sees the group continue its on-going exploration of the jazz, dub and rock-infused hip-hop. The songs on the record range from the up-tempo “I Play My Kazoo” to the soulful “I’m on Fire” to the pounding “Light So Bright,” which features guest vocals from Edmonton’s Cadence Weapon. The result is a song cycle that shows the band maturing in its interest in traditional African-American musical forms. With Metropolis is Burning, Grand Analog finally doesn’t sound like borrowers from outside forms, as the music displayed throughout the record illustrates a band that understands well what it is trying to do, which is making traditional forms fit seamlessly into its more contemporary aesthetic. This is the music Grand Analog was made to make, and the results are most delightful. Don’t let his consistency lull you into listener apathy, Grand Analog’s Metropolis is Burning is more than worth the listen. (Urbnet, Jeff Friesen

Helado Negro – Awe Owe

heladoRoberto Carlos Lange is the creator and leader of the Helado Negro project. It is difficult to describe the music that Lange has created. My iTunes lists “Unclassifiable” as the genre, and that is a pretty apt description, considering the amount of styles that Lange and guests play on the album. There is definitely a lot of influence from Lange’s Carribbean upbringing on the album, especially in the reggae-ish guitar playing and Spanish singing on the album. There are also elements of avant garde and electronic music on the album with Lange’s use of tape loops, samples, and computer synthesizers. The music itself is pleasing and very soothing music. It is an album that should not be blasted in your car in the city, but rather to have on in the background while reading or writing. A musical score for your daydreams. I recommend Awe Owe for fans of Land of Kush or Sigur Ros. Fun Fact: Helado Negro is Spanish for “Black Ice Cream.” (Asthmatic Kitty, Charles Lefebvre

Cass McCombs – Catacombs

catacombsCass McCombs has made his career on developing fascinating song cycles that at all times catches the listener’s attention while keeping them at arms-length. He’s proven himself a master of writing songs which confuse more than explain, that leave the listener with more questions going out of the song than they had going in. This is why his latest record Catacombs, which was supposedly written as a tribute to his wife, could be considered one of the more pleasant surprises of the year. With this record, McCombs has written confessional songs, opening himself to the listener more than he has ever done previously. Not to slight his previous material in any way, but seeing how well he writes confessional songs —being introspective without being sappy, avoiding clichés at every move —it’s a wonder why McCombs hasn’t made this move earlier. The songs on Catacombs carry a very personal tone with them without every sounding like another run-of-the-mill singer-songwriter album. Oddly enough, allowing himself to become so confessional in his songwriting has resulted in McCombs releasing arguably his most uncomfortable and confusing album to date. He lets you in so far you start questioning whether you actually want to be there at all. It’s fascinating. “Dreams-Come-True-Girl”, the lead-off track for the album is particularly stunning as McCombs sings in the chorus of his wife being his dreams come true, forcing the listener to deal head-on with his open expression of love, something seldom done in independent music today. Coming from such a previously opaque and confusing songwriter, it’s startling to hear him speak so openly, unafraid to sound a bit cheesy. It’s an honesty that’s refreshing to hear, making Catacombs one captivating listen. (Domino Records, Jeff Friesen

Magnolia Electric Co. – Josephine

magnoliaIt’s a shame that an album this strong is already destined to get overlooked, but in a time of flippant hype and internet buzz, a band like Magnolia Electric Co., the current vehicle for Jason Molina, is bound to get lost in the mix. Following the death of their bassist, Evan Farrell, Magnolia Electric Co. started piecing Josephine together. It’s concept album about loss and loneliness, two themes that are no doubt common to Molina’s work. But on Josephine, Molina really seems to have his act together. Things here are more subdued than 2006’s What Comes After the Blues, which found Molina and company following after Crazy Horse, and more consistent than the unfocused Fading Trails. The opening track, “O’ Grace” is one of the best displays of Molina’s trademark vocals and his skilled songwriting. “Map of the Falling Sky” is a dark and brooding testament to the power of loneliness, while the brief album closer, “An Arrow in the Gale,” asks who is freer, the narrator or the ghost that haunts him. Recorded by the legendary Steve Albini, Josephine is fitting tribute to a fallen friend and a strong effort from great band. (Secretly Canadian, Jonathan Dyck

Dust Poets – World at Large

dustpoetsWorld at Large is the Dust Poets’ fourth offering and continues the group’s run at finding recognition within Canada’s folk music community. With this release, the local quintet takes aim at various socio-economic issues while concurrently steeping their work in personal matters. This is nothing you haven’t heard before, but the expert musicianship found on this album is what draws focus and sets the Poets apart. Swaying accordions, mandolins, and even a clarinet ensemble are all mainstays on World at Large, as it blends elements of roots, country, and occasionally Celtic effortlessly. There’s a very tangible passion here, and the album succeeds almost solely because of it. It’s the other elements found here that don’t hold up quite as well. In particular, the songwriting tends to fall flat in places, especially when it addresses those global issues World at Large is so concerned with. Tracks like “Deceived by Gasoline” and “Codeine Dreams” feel toothless in face of the subject matter they attempt to address, and with cutesy lines such as “I’m all goofed up/ on these Tylenol Threes,” it seems like the Poets are somehow missing the mark. It also should be said that for all the styles the band is so adept at, they rarely move beyond their comfort zone. The tracks are polished to the point of being sterile, always carefully inoffensive and delicately handled. They never reach the point of being bland, but it can become numbing after a time. Still, if you can manage to look past these problems, and can appreciate the album as a showcase in skill rather than in creativity, there’s likely enough in the talent and enthusiasm behind these songs to keep it likable. (Productive Apathy, Kevan Hannah

Destroyer – Defiance

destroyer666After seven years, Destroyer 666 has released a new album with increased musical complexity. The guitar riffs are more brutal and crunching than their last album; the vocals are dry mid-range growls echoing as if they came straight from hell; the overall mood is angry and dark. This is not to say that the album doesn’t leap away from consistency; in fact there are some quite melodic guitar riffs especially on the sludgy “Blood for Blood” and the depressive “Human All to Human.” But watch out, because immediately after that your face will be ripped away by the blasting machine gun anthem “The Barricades are Breaking.” The album ends in a triumphant epic with choral-like vocals and a repetitive Burzum-esque guitar riff. This album is for anyone who enjoyed the more depressing mid-’90s black metal, not because it was depressing but because the melody was captivating. (Season of Mist, Paul Nordin