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

Dead Letters – The Dead Letters EP

deadlettersConsisting of long-time collaborators Jim Demos and Alex Janusz (National Monument) and recent addition Jill Winzoski on the violin, the Dead Letters are an instrumental trio that pay homage to the likes of Ennio Morricone and other spaghetti western composers through original compositions. From the riding-high tones of “Ghost of a Thousand Battles” to the graceful and spellbinding “Cathedral of Leaves” and finally the haunting and masterfully conceived “War,” each epic track is loaded with atmospheric tension and beautiful dramatic intensity. Although some of their previous live material was a lot more loud and rockin’, this three-song EP is no less powerful or enchanting as any of their live shows. (Independent, Kent Davies

Youthanize – The Color of Violence


This band lost most of their members to the hardcore group From First to Last. After a few years’ hiatus, the two remaining members began writing songs again and putting them up on the band’s MySpace page. Soon after, the demand for an album was high and the duo promised that they would bring one. I am here to tell you that it was worth the two-year wait. This may be one of the most well-crafted screamo/grind/rock albums of the year. Every song has heavy guitars, pounding drums, deranged screams, and something catchy enough to make each song stand on its own. The lyrics are mostly literal and deal with unpopular political standpoints (example: Recycling is wasteful.) This album never loses its intensity, which is rare for the genre. Usually bands like this have some sad song in the middle with a slow tempo and a singing voice so injured sounding that you can actually see the emo comb over. The only time this album slows down is in the hidden song, and even that one feels just like another heavy track. All in all, this album sounds like only listening to the really fast and scream-y songs by the Blood Brothers and Showbread. (Epitaph, Paul Nordin

Castanets – Texas Rose, the Beasts, and the Thaw

castanetsThe simplest way to describe this album (other than garbage) is to imagine if Pink Floyd decided to record a country album. Castanets creates mixture of space-y soundscapes with traditional country vocals and acoustic strumming, which attempts to evoke the image of a cowboy riding in a sprawling desert. I’m making this album sound a lot better than it actually is. This is a country album created by a hipster, for hipsters, who are upset that a large majority of people like country music, and hate the pretentious crap associated with their scene. Listening to this album, I felt like I was being punished for actually enjoying country. Despite clocking in at 39 minutes, the album felt more like three hours. I could actually hear my brain sizzle as I tried my hardest to stay awake while listening. This album is such a bore, I don’t even think the hipsters would enjoy it. (Asthmatic Kitty, Charles Lefebvre

Blitzen Trapper – Black River Killer EP

blackriverkillerThis EP’s namesake, one of the best tracks from last year’s breakthrough, Furr, is given special treatment here and allowed to kick off a new batch of songs. While it proves worthwhile to revisit a fantastic track like “Black River Killer,” that darkly whimsical tale of a killer who can’t help but evade redemption, this EP feels a little thrown together and lacks the propulsive energy that made Furr so likable. Here, Blitzen Trapper show a willingness to branch out and expand their influences. “Preachers Sisters Boy” features a synth line that has to have been stolen from the Cars, but still sounds like more of the same. The mid-tempo “Going Down” sees Blitzen Trapper starting to recycle their melodies, while “Shoulder Full of You” could pass for one of Beck’s more sentimental acoustic numbers. At this point, Blitzen Trapper appear to have settled on a formula that’s worked quite well for them, but this EP leaves me wondering where they can go from here, whether they have the ability to take their classic rock Americana to the next level. (Sub Pop, Jonathan Dyck

The Antlers – Hospice

This remarkably assured album from the Brooklyn-based band The Antlers is all about space and atmosphere. What started out as a lo-fi solo project for Peter Silberman has evolved into an epic collaborative project over two years in the making. Though not a particularly difficult record, Hospice rewards patient listening with a tightly bound narrative about isolation and terminal illness. Melodically, it’s a pretty straightforward chamber-pop record, and at times it even sounds a bit formulaic, but on a song like “Kettering” (which, on its own wouldn’t be all that interesting) there’s so much going on thematically, and such a careful texturing of sound, that the track takes on a new life, slowly building into something almost raucous, almost hopeful. “Bear” features the same sort of upbeat flickering, with a cutting chorus (“We’re too old / We’re not old at all”) that disappears as quickly as it emerged. This haunting quality is the most powerful aspect of Hospice, which teeters between vacuous drones and lush flourishes, and finds The Antlers at their best in the echoes and whispers of songs like the beautiful “Shiva” and the inspiring “Wake.” Hospice is pretty heavy and perhaps a bit too serious. As one critic has said, it’s “music for people who like hospitals,” which doesn’t strike me as a compliment. Indeed, it will be interesting to see where yhe Antlers go from here, to see if there is, after all, life beyond hospital walls. (French Kiss, Jonathan Dyck

The 2009 WCMAs

Stylus heads to Brandon, avoids fights

By Michael Elves

They say you can never really go home again, but since Brandon hosted this year’s Western Canadian Music Awards, I returned to the Wheat City—where I haven’t lived for over a decade, but where I spent my formative years—to take in the sights and sounds at showcases and sessions held during the weekend of September 17-20.
While much of Brandon remains the same as when I left, there have certainly been changes in the intervening years; 18th Street North now looks like Kenaston at McGillivray, with its big-box stores replacing what was once a great tobogganing hill. The Keystone Centre has been re-branded the Westman Communications Group Place and fused to Canad Inns like a conjoined twin.

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