Cedric Noel – Hang Time

Cedric Noel
Hang Time
Joyful Noise Recordings
Montréal, QC
RIYL: Pedro the Lion; Low; late night conversations that go deep

Cedric Noel’s music has a striking sense of intimacy, like he’s performing several feet away or whispering his lyrics into your ear. I first fell under his spell when I heard the heartrending single “Nighttime (Skin)” in summer 2020. Though Noel has worked in many sounds and musical styles, that song’s tender approach to slowcore indie-rock with understated instrumental arrangements punctuated by swaying choruses is carried throughout the 13 tracks of his latest album, Hang Time

On “Dove,” Noel’s rich baritone is doubled by the lilting voice of Common Holly‘s Brigitte Nagar as they tackle the weighty task of caring about “trivial things like love.” He is joined once again by Squirrel Flower‘s Ella Williams on “Bass Song,” trading off lines against a backdrop of gentle octave chords. As a mellotron swells, their voices come together to sing about the difficulty of sharing honest thoughts: “I don’t get to say the truth / When I want to / But I want to.” By using the least words possible, each one has weight.

The album’s duets are undoubtedly standouts, but Noel is most powerful when he sings on his own. On “Allies,” he repeatedly asks a simple question: “Are you on my side?” The other voice here comes from Malcolm X’s speech “The Ballot or the Bullet,” delivered at a Detroit Baptist church in 1964, one year before his death. When the song reaches one of Malcolm’s most famous quotes (“We must understand the politics of our community and we must know what politics is supposed to produce”), it is subsumed into a coda of shouts and clattering, lo-fi drums. Noel’s music might be intimate, but there’s a passionate flame blazing just below the surface.

– Jesse Locke 

Casper Skulls – Knows No Kindness

Casper Skulls
Knows No Kindness
Next Door Records
Toronto, ON
RIYL: Mazzy Star; Built to Spill; the space between soft and heavy

Casper Skulls have transformed dramatically since their first single in 2015. Throughout each of their releases in the past half-decade, the quartet’s brooding strain of Sonic Youth-inspired post-punk has been polished into an array of understated gems. Vocalist/guitarist Melanie Gail St-Pierre initially traded lines with her partner Neil Bednis (now focusing his efforts on playing guitar), but she sings all 10 songs on their latest album, channeling harrowing memories from a childhood growing up in Northern Ontario mining towns into crystalline, confessional art-rock.

Though Casper Skulls’ original drummer Chris Anthony gave the band a jolt of pounding propulsion, the feather-light touch of their latest recruit Aurora Bangarth suits this album perfectly. On quieter songs like “Thesis” or “Witness” (based on St. Pierre’s experiences testifying in court when she witnessed the murder of her best friend’s father), they use space as a compositional tool, borrowing a trick from Mount Eerie’s quiet echoes

The best songs on Knows No Kindness find Casper Skulls splitting the difference between their old and new approaches, such as the conclusion of “Rose of Jericho,” which rings out with an emotionally resonant guitar solo that sounds like it was played by Dough Martsch. In these moments when they mine the space between soft and heavy, Casper Skulls strike gold.

– Jesse Locke

Full Disclosure: From 2017 to 2018, Jesse Locke worked for the public relations company Hive Mind PR that currently represents Casper Skulls.

Simon Provencher – Mesures EP

Simon Provencher
Mesures EP
Michel Records
Gatineau, QC
RIYL: Flaming Tunes; Golden Retriever; “jazz”

As the guitarist of supercharged post-punk band VICTIME, Simon Provencher drenches his shark-toothed riffs in an array of effects until they’re nearly unrecognizable. The trio’s abrasive sound stands in stark contrast to Provencher’s solo debut, an understated diversion into left-field jazz where every element can be clearly identified.

On the EP’s three opening songs, Provencher welcomed clarinetist Elyze Venne-Deshaies and percussionist Olivier Fairfield (FET.NAT, Last Ex, Album) to freely improvise. For his own oblique strategy, the guitarist replaced his effects pedals with twine tied to strings and metal objects wedged into the instrument’s body. The woodwinds provide a melodious foundation as Fairfield crashes and clatters, while Provencher wanders freely across the frets.

Mesures concludes with a trio of songs that emerged as happy accidents. When Provencher mistakenly pressed play on multiple clarinet tracks simultaneously, he was struck by the eerie polyphony these sounds created. Keeping the horns exactly as he heard them, Provencher added sparse strains of feedback, transforming the EP’s back half into a buoyant electro-acoustic collage. Emphasizing results over intention, the proof is in the pudding with this playfully experimental release. 

– Jesse Locke

OBUXUM – Bravery Network Online Soundtrack

OBUXUM
Bravery Network Online Soundtrack
Independent
Toronto, ON
RIYL: J Dilla; Flying Lotus; RPGs

OBUXUM made a splash in 2019 with her album Re-Birth, injecting elements of spacey ambient music, twitchy footwork, and head-nodding hip-hop into a dazzling collection of instrumental beats. The Somali-Canadian producer’s songs shift and mutate, occasionally introducing spoken word samples such as Viola Davis’s politically charged Golden Globes speech. In an interview with The FADER, OBUXUM explained how “each track on that particular album tells its own stories, and they have their own feel and their own pace.”

For its follow-up, the soundtrack to the fighting strategy game Bravery Network Online, OBUXUM’s approach is far more cohesive. Each track clocks in at two minutes or less and is named for the location where players will hear it (“The Stadium,” “Sparring Room,” “Main Menu”). Her musical palette initially feels limited to shimmering synths pushed forward by boom-bap drums and auxiliary percussion, until she departs from this formula with the moody pianos of “Locker Room” and jazzy thump of “Deep House.” While not quite as expansive or exploratory as OBUXUM’s previous work, the soundtrack stands alone as a highly enjoyable listen worth reaching for the replay button.

– Jesse Locke   

Various Artists – Big Bonky Tones

Various Artists
Big Bonky Tones
Tone Bonk
Toronto, ON
RIYL: radical covers; CanCon nostalgia; watching MuchMusic when they used to play videos

To sarcastically celebrate the 25th anniversary of MuchMusic’s best-selling Big Shiny Tunes compilation, Tone Bonk Records add fresh flavours to the pop hits forced down our throats. Throughout 26 songs spanning selections from the first five BST comps, members of Toronto’s backing band and their extended musical family travel back to the era when Rick the Temp reigned supreme. 

Though the songs chosen by each artist are largely approached from a place of sincerity, it’s easy to hear just how much fun was had. Vibrant Matter rewires the Chemical Brothers’ “Block Rockin’ Beats” into pointillist glitch, while Ko T.C. transforms Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android” into pitch-shifted hyperpop. Omeed Goodarzi’s cover of Rob Zombie’s “Dragula” is freak-folk at its wooziest, as multiple voices collide like a five-Munster pile-up. Bram Gielen’s take on Fatboy Slim’s “Praise You” is the compilation’s joyful peak, capturing the communal spirit of its original video with a gentle chorus of voices drifting through mellow waves of synthesized boogie funk.

Elsewhere, the most impressive moments on Big Bonky Tones transcend ironic appreciation to create something entirely new. Thom Gill’s “Sour Girl” turns Stone Temple Pilots’ alt-rock weeper into lush electronic pop. Robin Gill renders “My Hero” into something much more closely resembling her band Bernice than the Foo Fighters’ bro-rock anthem. Ben Gunning reboots Big Wreck with a sputtering videogame jazz fusion approach to “That Song.” Yet nothing here is as glorious as Christine Bougie’s “Tahitian Moon” guitar instrumental—it might be the first time the word “tasteful” has been used in connection to Porno For Pyros.

Jesse Locke

Population II
À la Ô Terre
Castle Face Records
Montréal, QC
RIYL: Amon Düül II; Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd; the feeling of staring at an album cover while you’re baked out of your skull at age 17

Population II left a heavy impression on me with their performance at this year’s Taverne Tour, the accidentally pre-pandemic timed music festival spread across various Montréal venues in the last weekend of January. The young trio’s timeless approach to psychedelia was also impressive enough to land them a coveted spot on John Dwyer of Thee Oh Sees’ Castle Face Records. Their full-length debut is a seamlessly orchestrated rock ‘n’ roll timewarp, not resembling anything remotely linked to the year 2020. 

Showcasing their instrumental agility, Population II flow from one section to the next with passages of dreamy ambience turning on a dime into tumbling drum fills and earth scorching riffs. An eerie wash of organs floats underneath the slow drip of songs like “Ce n’est rêve” and “Attraction” as the band mesmerizes with snaking repetition. Singing drummer Pierre-Luc Gratton pulls off an impressive trick with agonized moans produced like “I Am The Walrus” delivered at the same time as his relentless motorik, letting loose in moments like the delirious conclusion of “À la porte de demain.” 

Until the days when the words ‘psych festival’ no longer sound like a distant memory, spark one up to À la Ô Terre and relive the hazy memories.

Jesse Locke 

Kass Richards
The Language Shadow
Good Cry Records
Toronto, ON / Boston, MA
RIYL: Julia Holter; Palace Brothers; the lost cities of your imagination

In 2017, Kass Richards was welcomed into the ever-swelling ranks of the U.S. Girls live band, becoming one of 20 collaborators surrounding Meg Remy for the recording of her latest album, Heavy Light. That collective experience at Montreal’s storied Hotel2Tango studio proved to be so creatively fruitful that Richards decided to continue the experience in the same location with a smaller version of its congregation. Her debut full-length features co-production and keys by Basia Bulat, the Arcade Fire’s Tim Kingsbury on guitar, and U.S. Girls’ Geordie Gordon adding to the atmospheric instrumentation.

The Language Shadow has the bones of a rustic singer-songwriter project, with Richards initially recording her vocals and nylon string guitar live, yet by improvising its accompanying arrangements the album is imbued with a mystical quality. This is reinforced by the sacred source texts she chooses to adapt, including passages from Shakespeare’s The Tempest on opener “Full Fathom Five,” which sets a gorgeous tone for the album with its shimmering Appalachian dulcimer. She continues to pay tribute with a wonderfully sparse cover of the Kinks’ “Strangers,” but it is Jennifer Castle’s immortal “Nature” that receives the most reverent treatment thanks to the sweeping cellos of Zou Zou Robidoux.

Sara Ludy’s surreal 3D animated video for “Atlantis” provides a fitting visual to the song’s weightless, meditative sound with a shadowy figure levitating into an otherworldly aurora borealis. Rather than searching for a literal lost city, Richards seeks an experience of forging connection between open hearts through the timeless power of creative expression. As the song swells towards its mournful conclusion, she intones a universal plea: “I don’t wanna die alone with my own thoughts.”            

Jesse Locke

Jennifer Castle – Monarch Season

Jennifer Castle
Monarch Season
Toronto, ON
Idée Fixe/Paradise of Bachelors
RIYL: Linda Perhacs; Kath Bloom; dad-mode Bill Callahan

Over the past 15 years, Jennifer Castle has quietly built up a devoted following with her beautiful, humane folk music. From her early days at intimate Toronto venues like the Tranzac Club and Double Double Land to her jam-packed winter solstice concerts each December, she has spent the past decade recording and performing with a large band, adding pieces to her caravan until it became a choogling country-rock chuckwagon. That changed in 2019 when Castle’s solo tour dates opening for Neko Case inspired her to make her sixth LP completely on her lonesome, returning to the spare sound of her origins as Castlemusic

Finding time away from work as a doula, Castle was joined by producer Jeff McMurrich in her rural home by Lake Erie. Recording with the light of the moon and the sound of the water lapping through her windows, she wove together the understated sonic tapestry of Monarch Season with only her voice, acoustic guitar, piano, and a healthy dose of harmonica. On these nine songs, Castle’s quivering voice and unhurried melodic approach meditates on big ideas including justice, the environment, and how cities aren’t changing fast enough to keep up with their problems. 

In a sly nod to soul singer Jimmy Ruffin, Monarch Season closes with Castle posing the question “what becomes of the broken hearted?” She might not have an immediate answer, but does believe in bringing troubled people together, packing sheet music inside copies of the album so anyone can sing and play along. 

Jesse Locke  

Aquakultre & DJ Uncle Fester – Bleeding Gums Murphy

Aquakultre & DJ Uncle Fester
Bleeding Gums Murphy
Black Buffalo Records
Halifax, NS
RIYL: A Tribe Called Quest; The Pharcyde; Songs in the Key of Springfield

Hot on the heels of his excellent May 2020 album, Legacy, Aquakultre returns with another electrifying full-length collaboration with DJ Uncle Fester. As Gary Suarez wrote earlier this year, the one-producer-one-rapper format is a storied recipe for sonic consistency. Bleeding Gums Murphy proves this point, serving up jazzy, Native Tongues-influenced hip-hop with socially conscious lyrics from a crew at the top of their game.

While Legacy found Aquakultre’s Lance Sampson backed up by his band of hyper-talented instrumentalists, here he’s joined by a gaggle of guest rappers that includes fellow Haligonians Ghettosocks, Tachichi, and Corey Writes. The scorching sound of live sax played by Anthony Rinaldi bolsters Uncle Fester’s boom-bap production on album standout “Hard Reset” and the crackling, sample-filled “Eye To Eye.” 

Another recurring element filtering throughout these 11 songs is the voice of Bleeding Gums Murphy himself. The genius jazz man behind Sax On The Beach was misunderstood by everyone except Lisa in his lifetime, but Aqualkultre’s second standout album of 2020 should propel him in his rise as a musical hero.

Jesse Locke