Group Chat: Ariane Roy; A La Una & Kimmortal

Art by: Laura Stanley | Ariane Roy photo by: Kay Milz; A La Una photo by: Lorenzo Colocado; Kimmortal photo by: Iris Chia

Welcome to New Feeling’s Group Chat. In this feature, we invite a panel of writers to give their takes on two songs selected by our editorial team, with the goal of offering a variety of perspectives of each track and discovering common threads of interest, analysis, and interpretation.

In our latest edition, Kaelen Bell, Megan LaPierre, and David MacIntyre do a triple-take of Ariane Roy’s swaggering piano-driven francophone track “Apprendre encore.” Tom Beedham, Jesse Locke, and Laura Stanley stare down the court at A La Una & Kimmortal’s thunderous anthem “On My Way.”

Check out the takes below!


Kaelen Bell: “Apprendre encore” immediately opened a wormhole to ninth grade, the kind of thing that I’d replay to death on many an early morning bus ride. Whether that’s a good or bad thing—I had pretty solid taste as a tween! Being 14 kinda sucks!—is still up in the air, but what’s certain is Ariane Roy’s refreshing disregard for the ticks of today’s pop music. A bit of ’60s Yé-Yé, a bit of Brill Building bombast, and a healthy dash of winking 2010s blog pop, “Apprendre encore” would be right at home between Grizzly Bear and Purity Ring on a 2011 BIRP! playlist. It’s certainly not anything new, but when “new” can be so uninspired, it’s kinda nice to look back for a couple minutes.

Megan LaPierre: “Encore” is a fun French double-entendre: in addition to “again,” it can translate to “still,” which semi-dramatically changes the song’s titular concept. (I had a great relatable anecdote about going to the dentist and being told I’ve been brushing my teeth wrong.) But “still” makes more sense sonically, since “Apprendre encore” suspends itself in mid-air with a bubble bath of guitar fuzz. Roy’s use of the ’50s doo-wop progression and a steady piano bounce give the song a retro-tinged aesthetic familiarity, like you might be hearing it encore—perhaps it could have played after “Operator” by Shiloh on a MuchMusic VideoFlow of yesteryear.

David MacIntyre: On this tune, the so-called queen of “sad dancing” muses about recognizing her character flaws and admitting she’s a work in progress. “Apprendre encore” (French for “still learning”) is a piano-driven, fairly straightforward indie-pop tune by the Quebec City native. Its sprightly instrumentation complements her higher register, and traces of indie, pop, soul, and jazz—she counts Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday among her influences—can definitely be heard, with a sprinkling of electric guitars in between. This song is pretty standard singer-songwriter fare, but it’s nonetheless a pleasant one that deftly showcases Roy’s talents, and it’ll feel right at home for fans of other francophone artists like Ariane Moffatt, Lydia Képinski, and Hubert Lenoir.

Tom Beedham: Living in the same city as producers Romeo Candido and Lex Junior, I’ve followed their evolution since retroactively happening upon the Santa Guerrilla project they belonged to and tracing their work through DATU. Abandoning that name for its patriarchal connotations (datu means “tribal chieftain”) and starting fresh (the group’s website explains A La Una means “back at one”), it’s exciting to hear the pair return with a track that channels kulintang gongs, distorted beats, and sirens for a sound that could fill blocks in the process, but it’s guest feature Kimmortal who steals the spotlight here. Rapping from a perspective of underestimation, flows like “Imma punch up, up, up / Underrated, underdog / I’m under the radar, above / I’m up and down and all around” roll off their tongue and land like a self-actualizing verbal Konami Code, begging to be contended with and disorienting challengers in the space of one breath.

Jesse Locke: A La Una were formerly known as DATU, a group fusing traditional Filipino instrumentation with modern pop flourishes. They maintain a hint of that sound in the beat for their latest song, “On My Way,” embedding chiming kulintang percussion within thumping drums and wailing sirens. Rapper Kimmortal joins the duo on this aspirational jock jam, entering the pantheon of songs about playing basketball when you’re not very tall (slide over, Skee-Lo and Aaron Carter). They sound ready to dunk on the competition with their first burst of braggadocio: “Small package, but I’m sicker than your average / Spitting fire, I’m inspired by the alchemist.” It’s unclear if the pint-sized MC is shouting out another beatmaker or writing bars about transforming base metals, but either way the result is gold.

Laura Stanley: I first heard “On My Way” because of SHORTY, a short film made for the NBA’s 75th anniversary celebrations and whose trailer aired regularly during Toronto Raptors broadcasts. The pounding tenacity of A La Una and Kimmortal’s track is the teammate of a father-daughter story about a girl who’s driven to make her school’s basketball team (even though she’s shorter than everyone) and motivated by her father and his stories about the best short NBA players of all time. The determination of the film’s story is mirrored in that of “On My Way” which is flooded with focused confidence: “Tell my competition quiet on the set,” Kimmortal raps.  

Whereas I gave up my basketball career in grade 7 when a 5 foot me (I somehow made my school’s team!) saw the height of my competition, the track’s looped siren sound and thunderous energy feel like a sold-out Scotiabank Arena has my back and makes me regret not pushing myself to be a better player. As you persevere through whatever challenges you’re facing, throw on “On My Way” and be reminded that you’ve got this.

Joseph Shabason and André Ethier come out of the kitchen with Fresh Pepper

Joseph Shabason and André Ethier come out of the kitchen with Fresh Pepper

The collaborators compare restaurant industry resumés, and the grind that connects music and service workers

By: Tom Beedham | Photo by: Colin Medley | Art by: Tom Beedham

Rattling off a handful of restaurant gigs he worked on College Street and Queen Street West, André Ethier is filling in a personal map of Toronto’s downtown when he lands on the time he quit a job to tour with the Deadly Snakes and ended up barbacking the original Silver Dollar Room through venue talent booker Dan Burke.

“I was complaining that I didn’t have a job, and Dan was like, ‘Come down to the Silver Dollar.’ That was horrific,” Ethier recalls. Before it was demolished and rebuilt to exact specifications as a sanitized cocktail lounge on the same site, the venue spent the best part of two decades enduring an era of sticky-floored underground guitar music and the occasional onstage brawl—not to mention the notorious after-hours party space downstairs. “My training shift was like, ‘The northwest corner is run by this gang, so don’t go in there; don’t clear any drinks.’ The previous busser had left because he had been given a concussion by some criminals that had picked him up and dropped him on his head on the cement floor.”

As Ethier offers his side of the Silver Dollar Room, Joseph Shabason is having trouble holding back his exasperation. Speaking over the phone from Shabason’s kitchen after lunch at Ossington falafel joint the Haifa Room, the pair is on the line to chat up Fresh Pepper, a band they assembled with peers between pandemic restrictions. The core members are rounded out with Kieran Adams on drums, Thom Gill on keys, and Bram Gielen on bass—familiar names for fans of Shabason’s solo records and work in DIANA; as well as vocalists Robin Dann and Felicity Williams, two more locally in-demand performers perhaps best recognized at the front of Bernice, which also features Gill. 

Like Ethier, Shabason has also put in his time in the service industry, waiting tables and working in kitchens. “I’ve also worked in so many wedding bands,” Shabason says, “[which is also] somewhat service industry—we’d be eating in closets and working with all of the servers.” In fact, Ethier and Shabason report, everyone on Fresh Pepper’s debut self-titled album has spent time supplementing their music careers in restaurants and kitchens.

“They’re very related,” Ethier reiterates. “Two perhaps enjoyed industries in Toronto, but underappreciated for how they grind people down and how difficult it is to grow up [around] and within those industries.”

Fresh Pepper provides a summit for service and music workers alike, toasting their interdependencies and challenging the conditions they bump against with metaphor-rich vignettes. “Dry your eyes Susie Q / An actor’s face at the window when it’s raining,” Ethier sings over a glassy set of keys before an upward saxophone swirl uproots the action and tosses it into glistering dream-like suspension on opening song “New Ways of Chopping Onions.” In the space of two lines, the song calls to mind film, music, and kitchen traditions and trade secrets; the antipsychotic drug Seroquel; even Rutger Hauer’s “tears in rain” monologue from the end of Blade Runner—a bouquet of gestures to some untold obstacles and indignities commonly endured in entertaining. 

On a similar tip, “Seahorse Tranquilizer” features a guest appearance from Destroyer‘s Dan Bejar, stepping in to sing about the meticulous, extravagant lengths restaurateurs will go to provide a comfortable dining experience—”We harvest insane roses,” Bejar sings, Dann and Williams echoing him before Ethier joins in: “Every table gets a rose / Every table gets a candle.” It all gets lost in the busy dining-room chatter that pervades the track, playing off like a floor staff’s collective fantasy. That invisibilized verisimilitude is baked into the Fresh Pepper project.

“It does relate to the pandemic,” Ethier says, though he and Shabason are reluctant to ascribe too much of the album’s influence to its pandemic origins. “Playing live shows and being a band took a hit during the pandemic—[we] more or less couldn’t play shows, and restaurants couldn’t open.”

Writing a record was all they could do to nourish themselves.

“We’d call each other every day and just talk through things in a really nice way, and the rest of the band was very much integral to the record being done, but at the end of the day it was André and I just in the weeds day in and day out—and it felt nice to be there with somebody because it had just been me by myself or with my toddler for so long that to sort of feel like an adult again was doing something meaningful,” Shabason reflects. “Not that raising a child isn’t meaningful, but it’s also fuckin’ monotonous and crazy-making sometimes. And this was just pure joy for me.”

“The time flew,” Ethier adds.

Time figures prominently across the record: screaming into the foreground at the close of “New Ways of Chopping Onions” as an alarm clock telegraphs the opener was all a dream, some ungodly non-billable overtime; closing in with mounting intensity on the jazz noir Davis nod “Walkin'”; sloshing through a lazy river of woozy guitar bends and hungover flotsam and jetsam on “Waiting On”; swirling down the drain after blasting drum skins and assorted percussion implements like so many dishes with hot, vaporous sax fumes on “Dishpit.” On “Prep Cook in the Weeds,” the titular narrator watches flies slowly accumulate on the hands of a kitchen clock—time appearing to slow so much the future erases itself, life disappearing under the weight of agents of decay, the kitchen’s very biochemistry under threat. 

“It’s a horrible thing to be at work,” Ethier says about his lyrics. “The flies have taken the wheel and they’re driving time.”

This could be pretty oppressive imagery, but the band diffuses the atmosphere with a sublime lightness, collectively conveying a kind of zen you could only arrive at through repetition, distance, and mutual support.

“For me, this record was the first time since the start of the pandemic where time kind of dissolved,” Shabason enthuses. “This was maybe the first time we had been allowed to be in a room together in a full year, so I think everyone was really excited, too. It felt joyful and fun and easy and like this kind of collective exhale of just being like, ‘Oh, this is so nice.'”

That’s felt in everything from the loose physicality to the folk wisdoms they elevate to oneiric guiding light. Shabason’s studio consists of one room, so to accommodate Adams’ drums, he and Gill recorded scratch parts on an MS-20 synthesizer and an early 2000s Yamaha MOTIF for the beds but ultimately kept them intact; Ethier’s guitar parts ring out without needing to be resolved. “Congee Around Me” builds itself up into an atmosphere of collective care and nourishment, its characters finding abundance in the elemental simplicity of pantry staples. It’s a dynamic that’s central to the song itself, Dann and Williams supporting Ethier’s vocals while the rest of the band patiently add their parts in brushes and swells.

“I hear it, and it makes me well up,” Shabason says about the song, though he might as well be talking about the album. “It’s everyone working in concert to make this thing that feels so emotional.”

Fresh Pepper‘s self-titled debut is out June 17, 2022 via Telephone Explosion Records.

Group Chat: Hotel Dog; SÜRF

Art by: Michael Rancic | SÜRF photo by: Marcus; Hotel Dog photo provided by the band

Welcome to New Feeling’s Group Chat. In this feature, we invite a panel of writers to give their takes on two songs selected by our editorial team, with the goal of offering a variety of perspectives of each track and discovering common threads of interest, analysis, and interpretation.

To kick off Group Chat, Jordan Currie, Karen K. Tran, and Jesse Locke answer the call to offer their thoughts about the runway-ready “Telephone” by Winnipeg’s Hotel Dog, taken from the band’s bedroom pop collection, the Isolation Inn EP. Meanwhile, Reina Cowan, Sun Noor, and Tom Beedham dive into deceptively deep waters on Toronto rapper/producer SÜRF’s “Bunda,” one of six minute-long riptides from his EP, Project.wav.

Check out the takes below!


Jordan Currie: Hotel Dog’s “Telephone,” from their debut album Isolation Inn, is a jovial blend of bedroom pop, electronic, dance, and house sensibilities. The offbeat track’s lyrics show singer Charlie Baby breaking free of their anxieties and celebrating their authentic “non-binary and hot” self. “I don’t do this for you / Not even if you’re my boo,” they sing. Light and tinny vocals contrast with the meaty bass line and clanging key chords in the background. “Telephone” is the type of song that could easily be played at either a late-night house party or a posh fashion runway show.

Jesse Locke: Hotel Dog’s Charlie Baby has a gently stoned sing-song quality to their voice that immediately disarms. On “Telephone,” they reach out for affection and assurance but never sound stressed out. Riding sputtering synth grooves reminiscent of Chad VanGaalen’s DIY dance music, the non-binary singer explains that it’s all for fun: “I don’t do this for you / Not even if you’re my boo / Not a guy or gal / Just write the songs with my pal.” Like Palberta’s Lily Konigsberg, Hotel Dog makes bedroom pop that could be a bona fide hit, if the world wasn’t so crummy.

Karen K. Tran: “Telephone” is a notable addition to the bedroom pop genre. It has it all: teenage lamentations, hypnotic vocals, and a pretty groovy bass line. Hotel Dog make good use of the tools they have available and possess an attentive ear for adding the right amount of production, without overthinking it.

Hotel Dog reinforce the telephone theme not only with the sample of the “This number is no longer connected” message but also with those ’90s phone keypad tones incorporated into the beat. The key change at the end gives the song an eerie edge reminiscent of a home dial-up internet service connecting.


Tom Beedham: SÜRF was only serving up a self-described appetizer with the November release of his Project.wav collection on Bandcamp, but he’s already weary of the tedium of hip-hop’s eternal self-marketing. Summoning a scratchy violin sample and room-shaking bass to boom and weave through high-pressure systems, on “Bunda,” the artist draws a line in the sand and washes away any notion of talent scarcity, insisting they can turn it on and off like the Human Torch: “I’m so done giving out my handles / I’m like an eternal candle / Johnny Storm in this bitch like flame on.”

Reina Cowan: You don’t often hear this type of instrumentation on hip-hop songs, but it works. The strings and percussion on “Bunda” give this track an international funkiness that refreshingly breaks out of the moody, dark, sing-rap sound that Toronto has become known for. Production-wise, “Bunda” has an demo-esque rawness to it. On a track with a 1:11 runtime, this style fits perfectly. Lyrically, lines like “Only ever here to raise the bar higher / Turn up, make the girls go, ‘Ahh yeah’ / Sauce like this is hard to come by, eh” feel like a good dose of solid (if a little simple) hip-hop bravado. There are some cleverly placed comic book, video game, and film references on this track and throughout SÜRF’s whole Project.wav record. See if you can catch ’em all. The punchy energy on “Bunda” makes it a strong introduction to SÜRF’s catalogue, making me want to hear more from this intriguing new artist.

Sun Noor: Fusing new sounds with the old and being open to new approaches during the creative process enables the creation of timeless music. SÜRF encapsulates that energy through his track “Bunda,” off his eclectic first release, Project.wav. With all six songs amounting to a minute or less, SÜRF redefines what an artist’s initial release should capture. “Bunda” is undoubtedly one of the stronger tracks off this project, given the beat’s infectious, violin-heavy instrumentation that is reminiscent of Sudanese jazz. SÜRF captures how letting go of a perfectionist mentality allowed him to embark on his newfound musical journey with ease.

Cadence Weapon’s Year of Radical Thinking

Cadence Weapon’s year of radical thinking

By: Tabassum Siddiqui | Photo by: Mat Dunlap

Given the ongoing interminable grind of the COVID-19 pandemic, few of us will likely look back on 2021 as a banner year—but for veteran Canadian rapper Cadence Weapon (aka Rollie Pemberton), the rollercoaster of the past several months included some career-topping moments to balance all the uncertainty facing artists during this strange time.

Winning the Polaris Music Prize after more than 15 years of making music—and two previous Polaris shortlist nods, including in the very first year of the prize in 2006—certainly tops that list, but his critically acclaimed, tough-and-tense fifth album Parallel World wasn’t the only breakthrough after years DIY-ing it within a ruthless industry. Always a wordsmith at heart, the former Edmonton poet laureate (now based in Toronto) drew on his sharp pen for more than just lyrics in 2021, starting a Substack newsletter and working on a book due out this spring that’s part memoir, part deep dive into hip-hop history.

Turns out Parallel World, with its unflinching examination of systemic and societal breakdowns set to moody electronic beats, was only a glimpse into what Pemberton had on his mind last year. In July, he wrote a revealing essay about the financial and artistic fallout from signing a 360 deal with an independent label at 19—a common enough agreement in the record industry, but one few artists talk openly about. The deal, he explained bluntly, allowed the label to profit off not only his music, but every other revenue stream, for years afterwards—an exploitative model that pushed him to the edge of nearly quitting music altogether.

His honesty resonated with musicians, other artists, and fans around the world—and reminded us that Cadence’s secret weapon has always been telling truths, no matter how uncomfortable.

It’s perhaps no surprise his output over the past year landed him on several year-end lists of the best in music in 2021—during a time when we all were trying to wade through the fog, his words and sounds offered much-needed clarity.

As 2021 wound down, New Feeling checked in with Pemberton about landing some big wins in mid-career after playing the long game, how community lies at the heart of what he does, and why coming together might just be the answer to so many of the questions that underpin where we find ourselves today.

Tabassum Siddiqui: You had quite a 2021, with a critically acclaimed album and the big Polaris Prize win—what were some of the highlights of the year for you?

Winning Polaris was the major highlight obviously, but also my first show back at SAT [Société des arts technologiques] in Montréal was a significant moment for me. Signing with Kelp Management was big because I had been doing everything mostly on my own for the past eight years. Getting the vaccine was really emotional for me and my partner. In April, I threw a virtual album release party on Twitch with my fans and that was surprisingly memorable.

TS: The Polaris win in some ways felt very full-circle, given that you were one of the very first nominees of the Prize early on and have been nominated several times over the years—what did it mean to you to win the award, especially now?

CW: It was extremely meaningful to win Polaris at this point in my career. I can’t help but compare the inaugural Polaris in 2006—where it was mostly white indie-rock bands—with this year, where the field was so much more diverse. After Hope in Dirt City was nominated in 2012, I didn’t release an album for six years. I had to rebuild my whole career after my former managers bailed and the label I was on collapsed. I worked tirelessly for years to make it back to this point, so it was incredibly gratifying to win this year.

TS: You mentioned after the win that you hoped to use some of the prize money to organize some voter registration events in the municipal/provincial elections. You’ve been very vocal, and also written about, your thoughts on our political policies and systems in recent years—why has it been important to you as an artist and a person to raise awareness of these issues?

CW: As we’ve seen throughout this pandemic, we’re all more connected than we realize. A world where artists are afforded the space to create is a world where everyone benefits. I started thinking more about the institutional forces behind inequality and gentrification—the deeper reasons for why it’s so hard to live in the city these days. Learning more about civic politics was empowering.

Seeing the power of collective action through the Encampment Support Network, Black Urbanism TO, the George Floyd protests and other initiatives really encouraged me to think about what kind of impact I could make by using my personal platform. These upcoming elections are rare opportunities to show our displeasure with the status quo and make a difference. I want to get to the end of 2022 and be able to say that I did everything I could to help improve life in Toronto and Ontario.

TS: As you know, New Feeling is a new music-journalism initiative centred in community-based values, so we’re keen to get your take on what some of the pressing issues are that we should all be mobilizing around. People can often feel a bit helpless to do anything to help foster change—what are some of the steps they can take?

CW: Canadian music publications need to actively seek out young BIPOC writers. Representation really does matter. I didn’t know what to expect going into this album run, but I was heartened to see so many amazing BIPOC journalists on the other side of the virtual screen. They routinely had the most thoughtful questions out of all of my interviews and I don’t think that’s a coincidence. I also think it’s important to chart your own path as a magazine and not feel obligated to cover what the American publications do. I find that I lose interest when I see Canadian publications trying to keep up with the Americans because they think it makes them look more relevant.

TS: One of the many compelling aspects of Parallel World is the collaborative approach—there are so many fantastic producers contributing, not to mention the few guest spots. Did you have a sense of what sort of production you wanted going into making the record, given that its overall sound is so hard and urgent, or did that sound come about more organically as you went along?

CW: The only songs on the album that were written before the pandemic were “SENNA” and “On Me”—the rest of it was recorded remotely in the summer and fall of 2020. That involved me reaching out to producers and artists around the world, discussing themes with them online and sending files back and forth. The beats I gravitate to are usually hard, minimal and futuristic. These were words I used when I talked to producers about what I was looking for. We would also discuss the overarching concept of the album. There were a couple examples where I would receive fragments of ideas that producers already had but mostly the beats were made specifically for this album.


The thing with me is that I’m always making songs and not always thinking in terms of whether what I’m making will end up on a record. But I’ll notice when songs start to have similar themes and maybe I’ve locked into a particular rhythm, and suddenly I know that it’s Album Time. That happened in a strangely intense way when I made Parallel World. I felt a deep sense of urgency to speak to what was happening in the world.

TS: Your essay on your experience with the music industry and being exploited as an artist went viral—particularly among fellow artists/musicians, who have been dealing with these issues for so long, but many were afraid to speak up. What made you want to write about that topic so frankly, and what did you find interesting about the response?

CW: It’s something that has weighed on me for years. I just woke up one day and decided to write about it—it felt like the right time to speak up. Seeing Britney Spears and her conservatorship drama inspired me a bit. I felt like I had survived what happened, and had gotten to a stable enough place in my career where I could openly speak about it and maybe help other younger artists so they could learn from my mistakes. I also rarely saw artists publicly discussing their contracts. I wanted to demystify that side of things because the secrecy allows the cycle of exploitation to continue.

The response really took me by surprise. I had dozens of artists in my DMs saying that similar things had happened to them with labels. The response was almost totally positive, too. People were really surprised that this kind of thing happens with small indie labels, not just the majors. I think it got folks thinking about the exploitation of musicians in Canada.

TS: Among all the other inequities the pandemic has shone a spotlight on, it’s also revealed many of the issues artists/musicians are facing in terms of everything from the ability to make a living to working conditions—what lessons can the music industry, and individual artists, take from this time?

CW: The number-one thing that needs to change is streaming. The system needs to be overhauled. Personally, I would like to organize a protest where as many Canadian artists as possible remove our music from every platform until things are fairer. The last thing these tech companies want is for us to organize, and I think that’s something I want to remind my fellow musicians of. These corporations are worthless without our labour—we’re stronger together.

TS: After live music was shut down for so long, you played two local Toronto shows right after the Polaris win, went on tour with Fat Tony, and were supposed to play a few shows back in Alberta to round out the year—how was the experience returning to the stage, but also then dealing with restrictions once again?

CW: The July Talk shows in Alberta were postponed because of COVID, which goes to show you how tenuous things are right now. It was amazing to play shows again and share that experience with the people. That’s what I wished for most during the early part of the pandemic, just to be able to play the Parallel World songs for a live audience.

Playing festivals over the summer and the tour with Tony was so cathartic and really fun, but the protocols were exhausting. Touring is hard enough, but it’s just another layer of uncertainty on top of everything else. Now with Omicron, I don’t see how a U.S. tour like the one I just did [this past fall] would even be possible.

The future looks unclear. I had a lot of cool shows planned for February and March [2022], but who knows if they’ll actually happen? It’s really just about carefully monitoring the situation and taking everything one day at a time.

TS: As if you’re not busy enough, you’re also writing a book, due out this year. Can you tell us a bit about your writing process, and what made you decide to take on more of a long-form writing project?

CW: I’ve finished writing the book! It’s called Bedroom Rapper and it comes out with McClelland & Stewart in May 2022. I started working on it in late 2019, but wrote the majority of it during the pandemic. My process involved a lot of getting up early, filling up a pint glass with ice water, and just letting it rip before my typical everyday obligations started knocking on my door. I’d be writing the book in the morning and afternoon and then recording Parallel World at the studio at night.

Writing this book was probably the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do. It involved a lot of research, going through emails from a decade ago, retracing my steps. It was interesting to take inventory of my entire career at a moment when the whole world felt frozen in time. I’m used to the flow of making a record after doing it for over a decade, but writing a book requires an intense level of sustained focus that’s unlike anything I’ve ever had to do before. I’m excited for people to read it!

Malaika Khadijaa – 18

Malaika Khadijaa
18
Independent
Toronto, ON
RIYL: Daniel Caesar; Cleo Sol; blowing out birthday candles

At the end of “Let Go,” the boldest track from Malaika Khadijaa’s 18, the voice of collaborator Alexander Gallimore emerges from the echoes of a ripping guitar solo and outlines the heart of the EP. Gallimore says:

You ask me big questions
“Why are you leaving?”
“Where will you go?”
“How will you get there?”
But I can’t tell you
I can’t tell you because I don’t know
Isn’t that beautiful?

Khadijaa’s 18 is full of the excitement, fear, curiosity, and beauty that’s coupled with becoming an adult. “Let Go” and opener “Need Me,” an outstanding R&B track that begins with a lone piano before drums and strings kick the song up a notch, are about setting relationships and expectations free. On the former, Khadijaa repeats “gotta let go” like she’s shredding pieces of paper. But within the warm rhythmic currents of “Nyota,” she is her own guiding light, and by the final song, “R4C (afterword),” Khadijaa embraces the uncertainties of the future: “I’m ready for this change.”

Khadijaa has a powerful presence on 18. Her voice is so dynamic that it’s in the EP’s quietest moments when the songs often shine the brightest. “Olive Tree” is a blissful acapella song where her vocal control is on full display, and when she welcomes change on “R4C (afterword),” Khadijaa is accompanied only by a simple guitar melody that allows her words to ring even louder. 

Laura Stanley

Tush – Fantast

Tush
Fantast
Do Right! Music
Toronto, ON
RIYL: Love Touch Records; Escort; Lisa Shaw

Some 40 years after it was pronounced “dead,” disco endures and is just as relevant today thanks to artists who understand the style’s transformative power. The opulence of the typically rich vocals, basslines, and arrangements can alter any regular checkerboard dance floor into a lavish and unforgettable dream. Toronto’s Tush draw on this power with their modern take on the sound, wielding it with an aspirational and motivational point of view.

With its encouraging bass and drums, “Don’t Be Afraid” anchors the record through both its original version and as a reprise on the second half. “There’s always time,” vocalist Kamilah Apong assures early on, as buzzing electronics offer an unsettling counterpoint, like drifting doubt. But her voice cuts through the uncertainty, and the live instrumentation (led by Tush’s other half, Jamie Kidd) rises in supportive response. Layer after layer the song builds to a decadent crescendo, as a chorus of voices repeat the song’s title, urging Apong to vamp it up and show off her vocal range.

The record is full of moments like these, where irresistible grooves meet thoughtful lyrical affirmation. Those highs are made all the more impactful by recordings Apong made of family members in Black River, Jamaica speaking to the way the songs encourage listeners to confront their challenges head-on. These interludes of personal conversation add a feeling of intimacy, strengthen the thematic backbone of the record, and give the album peaks and valleys that make it an exceptional listen. 

Michael Rancic

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.

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   

Three Headed Elephant – Queer Magic

Three Headed Elephant
Queer Magic
Independent
Montréal, QC
RIYL: Elevium/Doiron/Squire; Isaac Vallentin; Cedric Noel

Three Headed Elephant’s sophomore album is a study in doing a lot with very little. Songwriter Wolfgang Barbosa-Rocha is both a skilled vocalist and guitar player, and both talents are on full display on this collection of minimal songs. 

Barbosa-Rocha sings “I break so easily” on the album’s opening track, “Fantasia,” a fragility that is clearly communicated via the spare guitar and vocal arrangement. This no-frills approach pulls focus to the subtle changes that happen in each song and fosters a kind of intimacy, rather than lulling into a kind of sameness over time. 

Even at its most repetitive, as in the sprawling album highlight “Sunshine,” Barbosa-Rocha achieves a kind of beautiful hypnosis of wandering electric guitar and lyrical mantras that wax, flourish, and never outstay their welcome. The song clocks in at seven minutes but it could easily stretch twice the length and be just as divine. 

The minimal arrangements of the first half make the introduction of percussion on “Wild Thing” hit like a shock, giving an arc and shape to the album’s structure as the second side contains more performances with a full band. These nuances collectively affirm how thoroughly Barbosa-Rocha understands how even the slightest details make the world of difference, and make Queer Magic a truly affecting record. 

– Michael Rancic