Deep Digs: The Hidden Cameras – The Smell Of Our Own

Deep Digs: The Hidden Cameras – The Smell Of Our Own (2003)

By: Sarah Chodos | Art by: Michael Rancic

The memory is still so clear to me. It was around 2000 and I was 19 years old, living in a Campus Co-op house with a bunch of artsy students. I remember how Toronto looked as the sun set over the city. I’d stay out all hours of the night before finally heading home. Hearing the Hidden Cameras’ “Day is Dawning” brings me right back to memories like that, a haunting musical number from an album that encapsulates the grace and the turmoil of what it felt like to be young in Toronto at the time: The Smell of Our Own

In the early 2000s, The Hidden Cameras were the quintessential Toronto band. The Smell of Our Own was not the first Hidden Cameras album, but it was their debut as a musical collective, one which formed around multidisciplinary artist and activist Joel Gibb and was powered largely by his artistic vision. The musical collective movement of the early ’00s arose alongside the receding of rock stardom and the inaccessibility of the traditional music industry, and was telling of these changes. In Canada, the popularity of this dynamic in contemporary music originates with the post-apocalyptic post-rock of Godspeed You! Black Emperor in the mid-’90s, and began to coalesce with groups like Broken Social Scene, Black Mountain, Henri Fabergé and the Adorables, and later Yamantaka // Sonic Titan. 

In Toronto, the collectivism rampant in Will Munro’s Vazaleen parties merged the punk and alternative arts movement that took place in the neighbourhoods west of Yonge Street with the queer subculture that centred around the Church/Wellesley intersection just to the east. While  punk rock was always queer, this was a revolutionary act in Toronto at the time. Less a band than an “artistic moment in community,”  as remembered by writer, playwright, and band member Maggie MacDonald in an interview with Michael Barclay, the Hidden Cameras were the spark at the rubbing together of these movements. This “artistic moment” was not simply concerned with breaking down barriers but in finding the undercurrents the barriers hindered.

The Hidden Cameras have described their music as “gay church folk music.” Indeed, that might aptly describe much rock and roll and popular music emerging from World War II. The early trend-setters combined gospel with sexual transgression, meeting the influences of honky-tonk, the blues, and country.

Walter Benjamin said that once art was separated from its original ritual(s), it would take on a different meaning and could be utilized in revolution. Technology, in this case records and radio in the post-war era, brought this transgressive art form to middle class, mainstream teenagers. It was still seen as transgressive, but the gospel origins of the ritual were unknown to many who took in the art form.

By the 2000s, radio, the recording industry, and glittering rockstardom itself, were all beginning to decline. The Hidden Cameras, really, are their own thing; different from a 1950s gospel-inspired drag show where Little Richard had his beginnings; different still from the “gay icons” of the 1980s such as Culture Club and Wham!; further different from a political movement that identifies with transgressive music but is unaware of its origins. The Hidden Cameras took threads from all of the above, wove their own ritual, and brought their audience along with them. 

Across The Smell of Our Own, the music goes from being extremely predictable to complex, to dissolving into cacophony, all while sounding like rainbows and sunsets, if they had a sound. Guitar, cello, synth, and glockenspiel against a robust chorus of voices, while Gibb’s vocals run from gritty to falsetto.

Post-rock implies music that does not “make sense,” does not follow the same formulae – the three chords, the blues scales, the three-to five-piece guitar/drums/bass configurations – of earlier rock music. This is true of many acts since around the beginning of the 21st century. The Hidden Cameras, while mostly sounding unlike anything else, also have catchy moments so predictable as to almost parody predictability.

In “Breathe On It,” The Smell of Our Own’s second last song, Gibb sings: “I may be damaged by the rod / And damned in the light / Sit with all the wicked / Untamed by holy rites.” Those lines speak to being marginalized and shunned in one way, but also to how there is transformative power in finding community among all others cast out for the same reasons.  “To me, the gay community is just a little microcosm of the rest of the world,” Gibb said in a 2005 interview with Exclaim! “So it’s not like I’m trying to represent homosexuals; it’s trying to use gay experience as a universal metaphor.” 

The Hidden Cameras included gay and straight artists alike, just as it did classically trained musicians and those with no prior musical experience. Gibb credits his introduction to music through the Orff method, which fosters a full engagement of mind and body, and dismisses much of the structure of formal musical instruction, as being foundational to his later work. “I was always interested in seeking people who weren’t formal musicians to play … I even hate using the word ‘musician,’” he said in the Barclay interview.

In the same interview, MacDonald recounts an early show; “I think the first moment when everything really came together was when we played at the Metro porn theatre on Bloor St. West, and we had local artists show films and some women did some dances about menstruation, and there were all sorts of masks and costumes. It was a real community event, a very different kind of concert.” 

Gogo dancers were a common addition to the shows, intended to help the audience feel less inhibited and more comfortable in their bodies. One of the few negative responses the Hidden Cameras got at their shows, as relayed by Gibb to Butt Magazine, concerned audience members wishing for dancers who were more conforming to society’s beauty standards.

When I attended a show of theirs around the The Smell of Our Own days, the Hidden Cameras were known for playing in both churches and porn cinemas; this was neither — a dance theatre in Cabbagetown. The venue was packed, both the seats and the stage, with no separation between the two. At one point, MacDonald led everyone — and I mean everyone, in a dance. If, however, this conjures up images of the wildest parties, that would be a misunderstanding. The whole performance seemed like a family affair. I went out for drinks with some of them afterward and, as we talked about school, religion (some of the band members were practicing Christians) and life, I remember their inclusivity: “Oh you play music too? Come and jam with us sometime! Bring your baby!”

Was the concert what I had expected? I don’t know if anyone could predict what to expect from a collective known for singing about sex in church. But I saw first hand how they challenged superficial distinctions between people to make everyone in the audience feel like they not only belonged, but should participate. 

Sometimes their words and actions challenged certain people more than others. “Ban Marriage” was something of a controversial song at the time. Same-sex-marriage hadn’t been legalized yet in Canada and wouldn’t be until 2005. The Cameras’ home province of Ontario legalized it in June of 2003, just two months after The Smell of Our Own was released, so the topic was front of mind for Gibb and company. Many queer-led rights organizations and activists had long been fighting for having those rights enshrined in legislation, to ensure that same-sex couples had the same sets of rights that straight couples had. But many queer people also balked at the idea, feeling as though the fight for the right to legally marry was an attempt at trying to legitimize queer love within what is effectively a straight institution. 

In the song, Gibb sings about a wedding day, and is struck by how rigid the institution is, between the bright morning light blinding and blaring against his night owl body, the tight formal wear, having to choose between his “fag hag” or lover (a nameless “him”), and on. It isn’t all bad: the lyrics fixate on the potency and truth within the church organist’s performance, which gives weight to the rising uncertainty Gibb sings of throughout the song.

Much of The Smell of Our Own is about resisting such forms of confinement and structure, and about how the mess of queer life can ecstatically upend those systems. The album is bookended with “Golden Streams” and “The Man That I Am With My Man.” 

Golden streams of ice

In the cold

Hold up a city of gold

That lives in broad daylight

“Golden Streams”

“Golden Streams” depicts a scene that almost seems embarrassing at first. As if walking out onto the streets of Toronto, with its cold, sterile grey concrete, and losing control of your body, urinating all over, isn’t embarrassing at all, but rather redeeming, like a baptism. Rainbows form in place of grey clouds. 

The Hidden Cameras take their name from the concept of the panopticon: the notion that we behave as if we are being watched, as if, otherwise, we will do the wrong thing, and we must remain on guard. The song “Shame” speaks of a secret relationship between two lovers, and the acts they felt they must put on in order to hide this relationship. We are all performers, and our identities are based on stories we have come to believe; scripts we have internalized.

As a musical collective that kept its feet on the ground, one could attend a Hidden Cameras concert and it wasn’t entirely clear who was the performer and who was the audience. The scripts were left at the door. This way the ritual — rock music, its gospel origins, the church itself — was brought to the ground, but it had been changed, and it had been politicized.

This idea, that we are all performers, is fundamental to 2SLGBTQ+ movements. Costumes are fundamental to parades and drag shows, also hearkening to the carnival. But the inverse is also true: 2SLGBTQ+ movements are fundamental to the idea that everyone is a performer, challenging heteropatriarchy’s narrow life script, and fundamental to everyone’s liberation, too; which could also be what Gibb was getting at using the gay experience as a universal metaphor.

Twenty years have passed, and while gay marriage is no longer front of mind, conservatives and violent extremists alike have shifted to instituting drag and bathroom bans, harassing trans athletes in sports, and finding countless other ways to undermine the rights, personhood, and self-determination of queer people. 

Most societies have some form of carnival — a place where the nonpermissible is permitted, if only for a short time. In this way, things opposed always had a place in society; but a very specific place. Recorded music dramatically changed this carnival — brought it into the day-to-day, giving it the potential to do great changes or to fold into the mainstream. The rituals around the church, the carnival, and sexual transgression actually have much in common, particularly joy and the feeling of connecting with one another. 

The seeds of grace the Hidden Cameras planted in the turmoil of 20 years ago are blossoming into joy: the joy that people feel from family, community, and religion, all intertwined with the joy that people feel from freeing themselves from the confines that can come with these. The Smell of Our Own reminds us that aspects of the carnival are not carnival anymore: this joy can be something we all experience every day in the deeply personal spaces which connect us all.

Chamber Music

Chamber Music: Toronto Musicians Bring Pauline Oliveros and Deep Listening to City Hall

By: Tom Beedham | Art by: Tom Beedham

Early one Sunday evening in February 2019, strange sounds leaked out from the council chambers at Toronto City Hall. Inside, a score artists stationed between empty councillor desks drew sustained tones out of everything from traditional concert instruments like trombones and electric guitars, to ad hoc implements like street pylons. An audience watched on from the public seating gallery as meditative tones rooted in avant-garde consciousness-raising exercises  took the place of reactionary civic decision making. 

“I think [City Hall administration] thought we were just some punks,” says Christopher Willes, an associate artist and producer with artist-led collective Public Recordings who devised the project and performed flute in the production. According to him, ahead of the performance, city staff delivered him presumptuous, unprompted warnings that under no circumstances should the group stand on the desks, rigid but contradictory instructions about what lights they could and couldn’t switch off, even demanded they pay a prohibitive $5000 fee for staff that would supposedly need to be on hand to move council chairs despite no plans to do so (it was eventually returned). Then Willes asked what arrival instructions he should give the crew the CBC was sending.

Aisha Sasha John (voice), Christopher Willes (flute), Victoria Cheong (bass synthesizer), Ellen Furey (guitar), Liz Peterson (viola), Allison Cameron (electronics), Thom Gill (synthesizer), and Anne Bourne (cello) performing at Toronto City Hall. Photo by Polina Teif

Produced by Public Recordings and hosted by the Music Gallery, the public co-presentation was an ambitious staging of To Valerie Solanas and Marilyn Monroe in Recognition of Their Desperation, a 1970 orchestral score for light and sound by the late pioneering avant-garde composer Pauline Oliveros (1932-2016). Lovingly documented under the title Resonance Gathering on a deluxe double LP and book full of background notes, photography and archival materials now available from Art Metropole, the City Hall performance was the climactic finale of rehearsals and residencies spanning 2017-2019. But even on the off chance city staff passing by the chambers were familiar with the work, they would be hard pressed to identify it. 

Designed so musicians and non-musicians alike could participate, the composition is an inherently malleable and inclusive “open score” divided into three parts, each signaled by a different colour of light washing the event space continuously throughout the performance. It calls for any group (or groups) of instrumentalists from six performers to large ensembles playing any instruments, each performer tasked with selecting five pitches to deploy depending on their perceptions and cognitions of the actively changing group conditions (volume, loudness, timbre), thereby centring acutely active listening, subjectivity, and environment over pre-scripted progressions. As a result, performances of the music are often radically different from one another. 

Christopher Willes (flute), Brendan Jensen (cello), Thom Gill (synthesizer), Claire Harvie (lighting) and Germaine Liu (percussion) in rehearsal at the Gardiner Museum. Photo by Yuula Benivolski.

“There are so many decisions to be made,” Willes offers about the composition’s potentiality. He says he was attracted to the piece for its implications of organizational interdependence. “What you witness is groups of people grappling with their agency in relationship with this score and how far they can go. I feel like it’s a kind of experiment in navigating relationships.”

Willes always conceptualized the multi-faceted production as a roving series of rehearsals and residencies that would build toward a performance in a politically loaded centre of collective public decision making, but when he initially approached City Hall about booking the chamber, he could never anticipate how charged the space would be when it came time for the show. Then, in June 2018, former Etobicoke councillor Doug Ford was granted keys to the province, elected Ontario’s premier as the leader of the Progressive Conservative Party.

Weeks after taking office in Queen’s Park, Ford shocked the Toronto political landscape when he announced and then implemented plans to redraw the city’s ward boundaries, slashing council representation from 47 to 25 seats with the so-called Better Local Government Act. With a mayoral race underway locally for the October 2018 municipal election, critics and politicians alike called the move overreaching and anti-democratic, while the City of Toronto launched a failed Supreme Court challenge in response.

A work designed to propose a self-governing system for group music making where all actors’ voices have a direct and tangible impact on the collective sound, To Valerie… resonated even more in a council chamber redefined by Ford’s “Better” Toronto. If Ford’s revisionist bill effectively narrowed the civic listening potential of Toronto with less city councillors representing vaster swaths of political territory, Oliveros’s decentralized score was a defiant demonstration that built a case for the continual transformative potential of the widened amplification of voices and the deepening of cooperative listening.

Bee Pallomina (cymbals), Evan Webber (timpani), Heather Saumer (trombone), Ellen Furey (guitar), Aisha Sasha John (voice), Anni Spadafora (bass), and Liz Peterson (viola) performing at Toronto City Hall. Photo by Polina Teif

“The work gets at the human pieces of politics that are very elemental and basic and elementary, but crucial,” comments Anni Spadafora, who played bass guitar in the ensemble. Perhaps best known to New Feeling readers as the voice and guitar player at the front of the no wave-indebted Toronto post punk outfit New Fries, Spadafora, now located in Montreal, says the work Oliveros began pursuing with To Valerie…, departing from traditional composition methods and emphasizing openness and experimentalism, has informed her own music making since she first encountered it through London, UK’s Her Noise Archive around the time of the band’s formation in 2013. 

“There are no solos. It’s all about playing your instrument in a way that comes in and out of the group. And at any point if you’re too loud, you have to bring yourself down,” Spadafora explains. “It’s kind of this play with being very aware that it is not about an individual, but a group — and a sonic group. What’s required in making that composition true is listening. Really truly listening.”

This sonic production dynamic branches from the dialectical thinking that spurred the first feminist consciousness-raising groups in 1967. Emerging from second-wave feminism, these groups observed that patriarchy and capitalism is a social relationship organized to isolate and exploit women (in the home, in the waged working world; as producers of biological and social reproduction) so as to prevent them from familiarizing themselves with that power structure and thereby overcome their exploitation. Echoing (and challenging) the dialectics of Marx and Hegel, who broadly argued subjectivity and consciousness could only be achieved through reckoning with the intrinsic interconnected nature of being and struggling with objectifying power relations, they indicated that women’s liberation could only be achieved through elevating group consciousness, which begins with sharing and listening to experiences. Indeed, Oliveros herself said that in creating the work, she wanted to “express [her] resonance with the energy of the rising feminist movement.”

Anni Spadafora (bass) and Ellen Furey (guitar) in rehearsal at the Ontario College of Art and Design. Photo by Claire Harvie.

Arriving in San Diego for a job with the University of California in 1967, Oliveros sat front row as the counterculture of the 1960s was beset with tragedy and loss, Nixon and a new, fortified era of conservatism looming around the corner. “[T]he Vietnam War protests and atrocities were at their height. A student at UCSD sat in the plaza, poured kerosene on himself and burned himself to death. Then, I was watching my television set when Robert Kennedy was assassinated,” Oliveros told feminist art historian Moira Roth in a 1977 interview. “I felt the temper of the times. I felt the tremendous fear … I began to retreat. I didn’t want to play concerts. I began to turn inward.”

As a response, Oliveros took a hiatus from performing in public, but she was also active in nurturing some new connections, organizing the all female “♀ Ensemble,” a consciousness-raising group in its own right that centred what she would later label Deep Listening. It was with this group that she would eventually perform her Sonic Meditations (1974). “I had already been very interested in listening to long tones and listening to the environment,” Oliveros told Roth in the same interview. “I began to see these interests in a more extended way.” 

The Toronto ensemble rehearsing in Walter Hall, University of Toronto Faculty of Music. Photo by Claire Harvie.

Around the same time, the Music Department of Hope College, Holland Michigan, commissioned a score from Oliveros. Identifying Marilyn Monroe and Valerie Solanas as avatars for women’s desperation in the creative economy of the time — the latter of whom Oliveros encountered through her SCUM Manifesto via Judson Church Collective member Elaine Summers — Oliveros named the work after the two as a gesture to women struggling to be heard. “Marilyn Monroe had taken her own life,” she wrote about the work. “Valerie Solanas had attempted to take the life of Andy Warhol. Both women seemed to be desperate and caught in the traps of inequality: Monroe needed to be recognized for her talent as an actress. Solanas wished to be supported for her own creative work.”

Like any dialectic, To Valerie… insists on the concrete unity of the whole. In the second, yellow light section of the score, individual players are tasked with internalizing the dialectic’s manifold nature without atomizing its processes, continuously adjusting aspects of their sounds in relation to others, blending with and borrowing from the pitches and modulation techniques of the other players while continuing to play their original sounds — a continuous dialectical feedback system: contributing original sounds, interpreting the sound of the whole, and synthesizing the exchange.

Claire Harvie directing lighting at Toronto City Hall. Photo by Polina Teif.

Rather than composing works dubiously obsessed with reproducing objective precision, Oliveros made music that cherished the conjunctive nature of existence, itself an act of political economy invested in amplifying the molecular makeup of the lived environment. “The kind of music (organizing of sound) that I have been composing is aiding my concentration and my awareness of others,” Oliveros wrote in a heretofore unpublished 1979 archival note included now in the Resonance Gathering book via the Pauline Oliveros Papers collection at UC San Diego Special Collections and Archives. “It is a healing and socializing agent.”

Fifty years later and after nearly a decade of its own local conservative leadership, Toronto brought the score to City Hall to challenge its own ivory tower of decision making. “It felt like a bit of the streets and perhaps what the streets represent was really meeting the upper echelons of the city, where all of the power decisions get made and birthed and played around with,” performance artist Brian Solomon reflects, gesturing to street level activism and grassroots political organizing. Untrained as a musician, his instrument of choice was also loaded with symbolism, liberating a City of Toronto pylon, rigging it up with contact microphones, and playing it like a horn.

Brian Solomon (pylon) and Aisha Sasha John (voice) performing at Toronto City Hall. Photo by Yuula Benivolski.

Born with mixed Anishinaabe ancestry, he suggests the work’s openness resists colonial ways of thinking about expression and who can take part: “In our cultures, the time when you sing the story, speak the story, and drum it, are all very fluid. [The different art forms are] all just a different little tick on the spectrum of how to express anything — a story, a feeling, a ribbon of abstract manifestation.” As a result, he says it felt “natural” performing alongside more studied musicians in the rest of the Toronto ensemble, which also featured performances by Anne Bourne (cello), Allison Cameron (electronics), Victoria Cheong (bass synth), Ishan Davé (viola), Ellen Furey (electric guitar), Thom Gill (synthesizer), Claire Harvie (lighting), Ame Henderson (double bass), Ione (text/sound poetry and voice), Brendan Jensen (cello), Aisha Sasha John (harmonica, amplifier, and voice), Germaine Liu (percussion), Bee Pallomina (cymbals), Liz Peterson (viola), Heather Saumer (trombone), and Evan Webber (timpani and amplifier). 

“As a dancer and a performance artist, I learn everything from people who aren’t dancers and aren’t performance artists who don’t spend their time in that realm,” Solomon continues. “I think the same thing was going on with people in the room who maybe weren’t professional musicians.”

Brendan Jensen (cello), Christopher Willes (flute) and Allison Cameron (electronics) rehearsing at the Tranzac. Photo by Polina Teif.

That transformative quality was at the fore of Oliveros’s mind in carrying out her practice, once declaring “I’m not particularly interested in preserving my work. I’m interested in the event we’re involved in now, and how it can change me” (author’s emphasis; as a practicing Buddhist who so often demonstrated an understanding of the “self” as intersubjective and decentralized, we can reasonably assume that when Oliveros invoked the self here, she also also felt the change imposed on it would be extended to the world around her). Rather than suggesting her work could be complete or attempting to produce stable sonic art objects, Oliveros was concerned with producing new relationships.

While these conditions somewhat complicate the occasion of the physical release of documenting the City Hall performance, the spirit of Oliveros’s work is beautifully honoured within, Willes even acknowledging in a final note in the book that “in some ways, it’s strange to release a recording of her music.” 

A physical copy of Resonance Gathering (Art Metropole).

Designed by print designer Jeremy McCormick, Resonance Gathering is contained in a transparent plastic shell, while an undersized paper “spine” sits loose inside, wrapped around the vinyl’s white paper sleeves, the record’s label clearly visible. As a result, every time the listener picks up the record, they will experience its visual composition in a new way, each of its elements bearing smears and gradients representing the colours that guide the action in To Valerie… shifting or rotating within. But the artifact’s final gesture invites listeners even further inside with a locked groove flexi-disc and a series of stickers bearing text prompts for listening. Using these stickers, listeners are encouraged to construct new listening scenarios by applying the stickers to the flexi, forcing the turntable to skip and thereby constructing new infinite loops.

Now that it’s out, Willes is keen for listeners to do their own experiments.

“This isn’t about making monuments and making pieces to archive her thoughts,” Willes states plainly. “You have to go through the process.”

Review: CELL DETH – Demo

Sewercide Records
Charlottetown, PEI
RIYL: Antibodies; lo-fi hardcore punk; ringing in your ears

If you need any further proof that Charlottetown is still one of Canada’s most active and interesting punk scenes, look no further than CELL DETH!  This hardcore punk quartet formed out of the ashes of the much loved, and much lauded Antibodies, and underrated powerviolence duo UNCLE

Blink and you’ll miss this demo that clocks in at just over four whole minutes. In that time they pack in six ragers that are biting, funny, and vital. These songs tackle greed, body autonomy, global warming– among other topics– with blinding urgency (“Pickpocket”), and ring out like political anthems (“Who’s Choice”). Such a promising start from a band with hopefully much more to say. 

– Michael Rancic

Review: Chung & Cotola – Chung Shui II

Chung & Cotola
Chung Shui II
Montréal, QC
RIYL: Freddie Gibbs & Madlib; Cities Aviv; lounging in a smokey basement

The follow up to 2021’s Chung Shui, Chung Shui II is a masterclass in collaboration, featuring two artists whose distinct styles bring out the very best in one another. 

Across the record, rapper Chung’s savvy lyrical street sense meshes incredibly well with producer Cotola’s dusty throwback digs. Cotola’s heavily sample-based instrumentals place little-to-no emphasis on percussion, a small but significant decision that is felt as the resulting music snakes like a puff of smoke and hangs in the air, permeating everything (“You Know I Gotta”). This choice has a staggering effect, giving each song a relaxed feel that lets Chung bask in a loose flow that beams cool, collected confidence (especially on “Set the Tone”). It’s a kind of confidence built on trust between the artists, and one that’s evinced in the freedom and playfulness of the material.  

– Michael Rancic

Review: Gawbé – ciseau zigzag

ciseau zigzag
Disques Dure Vie
Québec City, QC
RIYL: Snail Mail; Ada Lea; worrying about your iron intake 

On the cover of Gawbé’s EP ciseau zigzag, band leader Gabrielle Côté is slumped over a table that’s littered with a chaotic mix of items including: bits of paper, a party hat, and a pepper(???). She also holds a pair of multi-coloured zigzag scissors, a prized item for crafters of any age. 

Côté has had the six songs of ciseau zigzag kicking around for the past two years. The disjointedness of the items surrounding Côté on the EP’s cover is perhaps what this group of songs feel like to her: scattered. ciseau zigzag is a mix of pining, love, and memories. On one track Côté remembers as a kid cutting up a cherished picture her grandmother had (“zigzag”) and on another (“Deux fleurs”) she spends most of the day in bed and asks a question that is a constant in my life: “C’tu l’ennui ou c’est l’anémie?”

ciseau zigzag never sounds scattered though. Like the jagged blades of the scissors she holds, Côté’s songs are roughly cut pop-rock songs with sharp hooks and, like on tracks “Les misettes” and “zigzag,” a little bit of grunge. It’s a convergence of slick tones and, ultimately, the sound of Gawbé cutting out jagged hearts and handing them to you. 

– Laura Stanley

Review: Kate Fenner – Dead Reckoning

Kate Fenner
Dead Reckoning
New York, NY
RIYL: Chris Brown & Kate Fenner, Norah Jones, Joni Mitchell

Both critics and fans alike tend to gravitate toward artists at the start of their career (so shiny and new and full of promise) and then again at the end (looking back at their legacy and impact) – but what about the musician in mid-career, with plenty of work behind them and still evolving creatively?

Toronto-bred, New York-based singer-songwriter Kate Fenner has lived a lifetime steeped in music, from starting out when only a teenager in Toronto indie collective the Bourbon Tabernacle Choir in the ’90s to forming a duo with bandmate and musical partner Chris Brown (no, not that one) in the early aughts and performing with the likes of the Tragically Hip and B.B. King.

Over the past 20 years, Fenner has also made a series of jazz-inflected solo albums that showcase her uniquely soaring voice and deeply poetic lyrics. The latest, Dead Reckoning, was released earlier this year and finds Fenner reflecting on that universal undercurrent of midlife: death and loss.

It’s certainly not a subject unexplored in music, but Fenner’s subtle, observant approach to capturing the wave of emotions behind losing one’s parents to aging, or friends to cancer before they even get a chance to get older, will resonate with any listener who’s also beginning to deal with grief as a common thread through life.

A stellar cast of veteran New York players flesh out Fenner’s folk-meets-jazz poem-songs, including producer/arranger Scott Harding, guitarist Tony Scherr, and pianist Jason Moran.

“My river’s going back to the ocean, no more bruising on the shore/The soul’s progression set in motion, yearning at its core,” Fenner sings on opening piano ballad “My River,” which starts off slow and stately with brushed percussion before unfurling into something a little more insistent.

Where the Bourbons used to be inspired by soul and R&B, Fenner’s solo work has always dialed back the tempo and even the big, belting vocal tone she was known for in that band – but her elegiac voice remains front and centre here, at once a lament and a balm on sparse, elegant tracks like “Ghost Moon” and “The Torch.”

The closest thing Dead Reckoning has to a pop song is “The Hawk,” bolstered by a retro drum-machine backbeat courtesy of Harding and a chorus about sorrow that somehow manages to be undeniably catchy.

Fenner’s writing – which often alludes to art and poetry (“Cautionary Tale” references artist Joan Mitchell and poets Elizabeth Bishop and Fanny Howe, for example) – is evocative throughout, with the kind of reflective wisdom only age can bestow.

Despite her decades in music – including her formidable presence in the popular (and otherwise all-male) Bourbons – Fenner has rarely received her due beyond fellow musicians themselves, who recognize her distinctive talent.

“Singing is my way of loving,” Fenner has said. “Here I sing to my friends, my parents, their ghosts – and to you. I hope you can hear it.” On Dead Reckoning, we hear an artist giving voice to the painful yet illuminating realities of midlife – in a way only someone well into their own personal and creative journey could ever realize.

– Tabassum Siddiqui

Review: KMVP – On the Cusp

On the Cusp
Nanaimo, BC
RIYL: horror and slasher flicks; critters; anarcho rock

Nanaimo punks KMVP have always railed against capitalism, maintained alignment with accountability politics, and expressed deep respect for the natural world. As capitalist greed, Earth’s climate, and anti-“woke” sentiment cross critical thresholds, it’s timely that KMVP have finally bestowed their debut LP unto the world, and it’s titled On the Cusp.

Across 11 tracks, Kristjanne Vosper—who founded the group in 2008 before they coalesced into a quartet in 2021—yelps, sneers, and snarls as she and Nxc Hxghxs unleash lashing guitars over Brendan Holm’s clubbing drums and Kellan McLaughlin’s bony bass lines. “Feminist 4 Beginners” and “Negative self talk therapy” acknowledge that personal growth comes with setbacks. “Stuck in A Ditch” wrestles with urban isolation. “The Truth About Mupets” resists conformity, which Vospers skewers as “peace of mind in predetermined plots.”

In classic KMVP fashion, the band dresses On the Cusp’s commentary in pop culture motifs, specifically from horror and slasher flicks. “They created a killer, and then they’re surprised,” Vosper sings about capitalism on “Jacking Off Orcas.” But such imagery comes off more as camp than macabre, adding levity to the memento mori.

To keep fighting the good fight, one must remain in light. Like all ecosystems, it’s a fragile balance. Walk the line with On the Cusp.

– Leslie Ken Chu

Review: Lune Très Belle – Ovale

Lune Très Belle
Boiled Records
Montréal, QC
RIYL: Bernice, Claire Rousay, bells of many sorts

While writing the song “Moisissure,” Lune Très Belle’s Frédérique Roy listened to church bells ringing near her home in Montreal. The bells maintain implicit and explicit presence throughout Roy’s hypnotic second record, Ovale, which is an experimental collaboration that feels guided by the repetitive rhythm of a clock striking or the dissonant resonance of a wind chime. 

Ovale’s jazz-inflected soundscapes feature collaborators including Robin Dann and Phil Melanson (both of the Toronto band Bernice), and the album shares Bernice’s playful pop sensibility, as well as the intricate intentionality of Talk Talk’s Spirit of Eden. The compositions often foreground guitar, keys, and Roy’s clear vocal, all woven together with electronic textures, scattered percussion, and found sound. The result is a style both organic and otherworldly. On “Maison,” a synth that sounds like a voice speaks to a flute that sounds like a loon. On “La Mite,” Roy apologizes to a moth she didn’t see, as guitar and piano imitate each other’s phrases. Ovale moves between the meditative and the jarring: soothing harmonies slip into discord and back out again. Listening to it feels like arriving at a clearing in a wood, sitting down and crossing your legs, and tuning into the life around.

Rosie Long Decter

Review: Sargeant X Comrade – Lo Fi Future

Sargeant X Comrade
Lo Fi Future
Mo Gravy Records
Calgary, AB
RIYL: Witch Prophet, Erykah Badu, zen futurism

“Catch me if you can / Cuz I’m a hologram,” Yolanda Sargeant teases over a relaxed bass groove, squiggly synths, and the patter of a hand drum in the opening title track of Sargeant X Comrade’s latest dispatch, Lo Fi Future. A playful challenge as much as it is an open invitation, the lyrics embody the spirit of the album at the same time as they capture its tension, Sargeant flattening time and space in a breath: “The perfect combination of past, present, and future.”

A play on the lo-fi soul epithet Sargeant and Evgeniy “Comrade” Bykovets have used to describe their music at least as far back as their 2020 full-length debut Magic Radio, Lo Fi Future suggests real-world applications for the laid-back intimacy the duo captures on its recordings while grappling with the technological dilemma of futurism itself.

The title track yearns to trade a digital footprint for physical connection, but “Travelin In Space” enthuses about leaving the world for another dimension; on “Whachu On” they praise “sweet songs that cannot be replicated by the cyborgs,” but “Incredible Science” advises “You better have that crypto if you wanna do business.” It can be jarring to hear the pair take jabs at technocracy two years after launching their record label with an NFT collection, but it gets at the truth of artists trying to navigate an economic landscape that devalues their work, and that isn’t always as chill and uncomplicated as the music might sound.

If it’s full of the kind of downtempo ease and cushy vibes that might inspire curators to drop similar sounding records into utilitarian mood playlists, Lo Fi Future resists such passive listening applications, declaring “This is the opposite of a lullaby” while clutching close the therapeutic pillows and weighted blankets that make modern life moderately manageable on album closer “Wake Up,” slowing down to share perspective instead of feeding the fire like it’s all well and fine.

If the pair imparts a kind of zen in the face of all this, it’s because they’ve emerged from those material conditions equipped with a standpoint that can dissemble them. So when Sargeant coos “Everything in this world is made up” on the chorus of the album’s two-part Prevail-featuring “Escape the Matrix” suite, it feels less like nihilistic hand-wringing than it does a revelation that these constructs are only as valuable as the meaning they’re imbued with. In an economy designed to atomize, Sargeant X Comrade rise above by investing further in the relationships around them (the album also includes features from Flytrap, K-Riz, and Odario) — slowing the world down to bring about the future they want to see.

– Tom Beedham