Shannon Stephens – The Breadwinner

stephensAn old friend and former bandmate of Sufjan Stevens (no relation), Shannon Stephens’ new album, The Breadwinner, is full of hymns to domestic life, where small is beautiful and love is learned the hard way. Stephens has been covered by Bonnie “Prince” Billy on his 2008 album Lie Down in the Light, and has been lauded by critics for her “gut-punch” lyricism. After nearly a decade in hiding, The Breadwinner is her attempt to give songwriting and recording another go. On top of the clucking of hens and short orchestral blasts, “Hard Times are Coming” is an instructive testimony to her daughter, on which she warns “all kingdoms go and flourish, then they decline, all that they’ve won unrighteously becomes their own undoing eventually.” The Breadwinner provides plenty of fertile ground to explore the meaning of love, home family with an apocalyptic eye to the future. Although some of these songs, like “In the Summer in the Heat,” remain unmemorable, the albums shortcomings are quickly made up for with the spiritually resonant “Come to My Table,” which finds Stephens at her most affective, crooning like Eva Cassidy, pondering work, rest and communion. The Breadwinner can be rather bland at times, but if soft-spoken, spiritually aware singer-songwriters are your thing, this one’s a winner. (Asthmatic Kitty, www.asthmatickitty.com) Jonathan Dyck

Spiral Beach – The Only Really Thing

spiralbeachSince their appearance in the 2008 teen film Charlie Bartlett, Toronto dance rock band Spiral Beach have gained a number of fans that probably would not have discovered their music otherwise. Since the film was a box office bomb, we can be thankful that there are not a number of bandwagon jumpers who are “totally their number one fan!” On their third album, Spiral Beach tone down the use of electronics in their music, favoring a more organic sound that can only be achieved through the use of actual instruments. It is a good thing they did that, because I am getting sick of this electronic dance rock craze. The music is catchy, easy to dance to, and should definitely be played at night clubs in place of whatever is currently being played. If you ever get a chance, see this band live. Maddy Wilde, Airick Woodhead and the rest of the band put on an energetic live show that deserves to be seen by many. (Sparks Music, www.sparksmusic.com) Charles Lefebvre

Sights and Sounds – Monolith

sightsSights & Sounds are breaking into the music industry with their debut Monolith, which was produced under the knowledgeable guidance of Devin Townsend (of Strapping Young Lad fame), which is worth mentioning mostly for the subtlety and airiness of ambient passages and thunder of heavy sections that he has sculpted. The production is in the vein of many Devin Townsend recordings, the bass guitar and the drums locking into a thundering production which ensures that both drive themselves into one’s ears equally. Slower instrumental and ambient passages are reminiscent of similar pieces recorded in Townsend’s other work, yet in a more repetitive and less alluring way. Some songs have moments which find the band in a place where a heavy groove, ambient background guitar and impassioned vocal melodies combine to create a monstrous and grey atmosphere, but these moments are too often over-shadowed by typical metalcore trappings such as understated double-kick rhythms, relationship-centric lyrics and vestiges of that infamous screamo-esque nasal vocal delivery. The biggest annoyance of this album is the fact that at times it comes so close to transcend commonalities of the genre. If it were merely a blatant exercise in mimicry it could be easily discarded, but the band shows great ambition, and it is for this reason that this album is disappointing. (Smallman Records, www.smallmanrecords.com) Dustin Danyluk

The Savants – Absolver

savantsThe Bible-burning, shit-disturberin’ punk-rockers known as the Savants return with 12 boozed-up, super-charged tunes guaranteed to satisfy. Though Absolver features a cleaner sound, it’s easy to hear the musical evolution from their last EP. Various reworkings of old Reality Show songs like “That Was Easy” and the trio’s bad-ass epic “Black Cadillacs and Death Make Up” sound louder and harder than before. Newer songs like “Shock and Awe” and “A Skip in the Record” offer a musical range missing from previous efforts. Absolver even takes a break from the booze-fueled mayhem with a rare acoustic cut, “Half Assed Apology.” Although the Savants are known for their relentless wacky hijinks and tomfoolery, Absolver proves that they are at least serious about making a good record. (Transistor 66, myspace.com/thesavants) Kent Davies

Uli Jon Roth – Under a Dark Sky

rothUli Jon Roth is best known as former guitarist for the German heavy metal band Scorpions from 1974-77. Obvious details aside, Under a Dark Sky is Roth’s sixth solo release and his thirteenth including his work with other bands. This album is mostly a mixture between mid-’70s pop and progressive metal sensibilities mixed with well-orchestrated symphonic passages. Roth attempts to convey a sense of grandiose by melding the emotional wail of arena rock with neo-classical guitar acrobatics and stirring symphonic backdrops. While the classical instrumentation is carefully executed, well-produced, and effective in creating an epic landscape, the more pop-influenced passages can come off as dated plastic. As “The Magic Word” morphs into a biting guitar riff and dramatic stops, the operatic wails are ill-placed, badly executed and naively produced. One can actually hear the vocalist back away from the microphone as he sings. At times stirring and effective, Under a Dark Sky is altogether abrupt in its conception and transitions and it fails to conjure the same revelatory imagery that the album cover exhibits. (SPV GmbH Records, www.spv.de) Dustin Danyluk

Omar Rodriguez-Lopez – Old Money

Omar Rodriguez-Lopez’s Old Money, his first album on the normally hip hop and funk-oriented Stones Throw Records, was recorded around the same time as his other projectrodriguezlopez El Grupo Nuevo de Omar Rodriguez Lopez’s debut album, Cryptomnesia. Old Money is mostly a venture in dazed-out, jagged psychedelic rock and cascading bursts of heavily-effected dynamic crescendos. Rodriguez-Lopez utilizes a more Krautrock-inspired and repetitive style of song-writing as compared to his work done with the Mars Volta. Slower parts of the album give one the impression of embarking on that typified mystic journey to the deserts of southwestern United States. Strong moments of the album find that special place where the noodling of lead guitars combine with the cyclical rhythmic passages to create a sweeping testament to the power of genre-bending melodic exploration. Rhythm instrumentation often tirelessly repeats phrases for minutes on end while dizzying sonic experiments typical of Rodriguez-Lopez rage in the background. The variance of tonalities used maintains the listener’s interest, but can become mundane static after extended listening. While Old Money is certaintly a success in the fields of sound manipulation and tonal creativity, the fact that these were obvious goals in the recording of this album can at times turn one off of the increasingly over-done sounds of knob-twisting and pitch-bending. (Stones Throw Records, www.stonesthrow.com) Dustin Danyluk

Pissed Jeans – King of Jeans

pissedjeansIt’s amazing what a little playfulness will do. King of Jeans, the third full-length from Pennsylvania’s Pissed Jeans has been billed as a meeting place for fans of early ’90s grunge bands like the Jesus Lizard, Mudhoney and Shellac. On first listen, such a billing seems to be dead on. Everything from the guitar tones to the vocal performances carry that frantic and, appropriately, pissed-off frenzy displayed by many of the grunge greats. Even the production of the record is reminiscent of that haunting hollowness made famous by Shellac’s Steve Albini. This is clearly an album designed to reign in lost fans of grunge. However, what makes this album work so well is that while it’s definitely made to be listened to in conversation with earlier grunge bands, at no point does the record come across as being a period piece. This is music that sounds new and fresh today, in spite of being so heavily indebted to earlier forms. There is a playful apathy exuding throughout King of Jeans. The record features lyrics displaying well the indifference arising out of the hopelessness of living in a dying factory town—vocalist Mat Korvette proclaims at the beginning of the record, “I know there are things going on tonight, but I don’t bother; only ten minutes across town that’s right, but I don’t bother.” Heard next to other contemporary musicians who seem to take themselves too seriously (Bono, I’m looking at you!), this playful lethargy sounds surprisingly refreshing. Here is a band that is more interested discussing their own apathy and hopelessness in the current condition than going out and trying to change the world. Here is a band that understands well what’s at stake with their band—not very much. With such an acceptance, Pissed Jeans have freed themselves from the constraints of trying to say or do too much with their music. In actuality they don’t care about much at all, except to make surprisingly catchy rock tunes, that will make you laugh and punch things as soon as you start listening. Make no mistake, this is definitely a band trying to recapture the grunge and sludgy ethos of early ’90s rock. Yet by doing so, Pissed Jeans have made one of the freshest and most exciting rock records recorded in recent years. (Sub Pop, www.subpop.com) Jeff Friesen

The Paps – Not Looking for Romance EP

papsGimli girl group the Paps have upped the pop and downed the punk for their sophomore release. The EP still retains some of their fun, fast and fierce rhythms from their previous release with songs like “Make Up Your Mind.” However, songs like the lead-off “Here’s What You Wanted” seem to indicate the band is gradually venturing towards the pop world. The six tracks are full of catchy hooks, choruses, solos and an overall cleaner sound. It’s only really a matter of time before this talented, hardworking foursome eclipse the likes of Avril Lavigne, Fefe Dobson and other so-called rock superstars whose albums can’t do in a few full-lengths what these girls can do in a couple EPs. (Independent, www.myspace.com/thepaps) Kent Davies

The Other Brothers – Points of View

otherbrothersDonovan Giesbrecht and Chris Neufeld, the pair of singer songwriters behind the Other Brothers, throw their first album right into the crowded folk scene of Winnipeg, and in doing so, quickly establish themselves as one of the better bands of the genre. The Simon and Garfunkel comparisons quickly come to mind when hearing this album, but the Other Brothers are also reminiscent of musicians who would appear on Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion,” like Robin and Linda Williams. Their songs are simple, but have a nice sense of melody. When the Brothers sing together, like in “Suit and Tie,” their voices compliment each other. Neither one tries to outshine the other brother. (Yes, I wanted to use that pun. Roll your eyes and move on.) In addition, a good majority of this album feels more upbeat, and less morose than other folk artists. They, however, still have a hallmark of the folk genre: the social issue song (“Sargent Avenue”), but even that song is well done. Giesbrecht and Neufeld are a truly good duo that has crafted an interesting first album. I’d gladly listen to their next one. (Independent, www.theotherbrothers.ca) Charles Lefebvre

Ohbijou – Beacons

ohbijou“We are where the seasons meet,” Casey Mecija sings on “Eloise and the Bones.” On Beacons, the second album from Toronto indie pop ensemble Ohbijou, seasons are the stuff of human relationships, the maps we follow to find one another. In other words, there’s something that seems refreshingly Canadian about Ohbijou’s sound and approach. “Wildfires” is an anthem that sparkles and soars with urgency. Following hot on its heels, “Black Ice” is chilling love song, in which “the winter brings a heaviness, this weight.” Beacons is all very moving, and, as you might expect, a little melodramatic, but such sentiment usually comes with the territory. On another standout, “Make it Gold,” Mecija urgently asks her lover to “Bring back the wind that blew the fire into the woods where I wait for you.” The snow that conceals and the flames that expose are channeled through Ohbijou’s tightly crafted collection of Canuck pop pipe-dreams and the result is an album is often just as moving as it is intriguing. (Last Gang Records, www.lastgangrecords.com) Jonathan Dyck