Anda Zeng – Night Dress

Anda Zeng
Night Dress
Self Released
Toronto, ON
RIYL: Grouper; Teen Daze; a weighted blanket

The tranquility of sleep has been greatly exaggerated. Falling asleep has always been difficult for me. I first have to obsess over every single detail of the day, then worry about the next day and my purpose in life and then, maybe, I will fall asleep.

Anda Zeng’s Night Dress mirrors my anxious evening routine but she brilliantly disguises her songs with tranquil tones. Zeng softly plays the piano and the harp methodically as her hushed voice rolls through these relaxed sounds like a fluffy cloud moves across the sky. Night Dress is a beautiful sounding EP.

But under the covers, Zeng is far from placid, and she sings of loneliness and doubts. “Night falls heavy on me,” she admits on “Far Off, Night Falls.” On “Fever Dreamer,” she begs, “sleep right through this life for me.” Her words are abstract and hectic, like those panicked thoughts that fill my mind just as I am about to fall asleep. It is all best summarized on the closing track “Newborn,” a blissful and moody two minute power-nap, when Zeng sings, “I’ve been restless, dreaming of a perfect calm.”

Laura Stanley

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  

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

LAL – Meteors Could Come Down

LAL
Meteors Could Come Down
Coax Records
Toronto, ON
RIYL: Erykah Badu; Warp Records; the synth from “Welcome to the Machine”

On their seventh album two decades into the game, Toronto electronic searchers LAL’s pandemic record looks inward to radiate Do-It-Together utopianism. Starting at “The Bitter End” and working their way out, it also feels radically grounded in its articulations of time and humanity. 

While the hypnotic minimalism of “Still Movements” has sound designer Nicholas Murray set the steady tick of a clock against sparse piano notes and bowed strings to give the track a haunted sense of urgency, as singer/producer Rosina Kazi repeats the title phrase, it also feels like a comforting reminder of the dependability of change.

Like the album title suggests, catastrophe looms, but disruption often brings fantastic scenes: “Meteors could come down / Stardust all around.”

It’s an album about resilience, and LAL finds that in the collective with Kazi’s lyrics often situated in the first-person, then expanding to include universal “you”s and “we”s. Even after “Who You Are” and its alien synthesizer reach their peak, Kazi strips the chorus sentiment down to its essence and the track fades into the ambient hum of the listener’s immediate surroundings: “We can be / We can be.”

With its downtempo cinematic sweep and cosmic fatalism, Meteors Could Come Down finds hope in a moment stripped of capitalism’s routine, extending an open hand to show new searchers the way. 

Tom Beedham

Robin Hatch – Noise

Robin Hatch
Noise
Self-Released
Toronto, ON
RIYL: Kate Bush; Austra; Kelly Moran

Robin Hatch is perched atop a silver Ford Focus in a black vinyl jumpsuit and high heeled boots. It’s a commanding image, recalling a sword-wielding Neko Case from her 2009 album, Middle Cyclone. Just like the album art, Noise marks a significant departure for the multitalented Hatch, who’s known primarily as a classical pianist, frequent podcast guest, as well as her work playing in Sheezer, Dwayne Gretzky, the Rural Alberta Advantage, and Our Lady Peace. 

Hatch has experimented with synths previously on 2019’s Hatch, which featured the artist’s improvised explorations on a Jupiter-8 that sounded chilly and Cronenbergian. That album was a marked left turn from her first solo album released earlier that year, Works for Solo Piano, and now Noise is another such unexpected leap in both form and style. Here, Hatch’s talents are applied to a more overtly pop context, even taking on vocal duties. 

Across its eight tracks, Noise sounds like a revelation. Album highlights like the wandering odyssey “Hivemind” (featuring Blood Ceremony/Badge Epoque Ensemble’s Alia O’Brien), the shimmering assuredness of “Heatstroke” and the eerily desolate “The Mirror” all represent a culmination of everything Hatch has  done up until this point. Her classical background emboldens this synth pop with a sense of fearless experimentation.

Michael Rancic

Clara Engel Hatching – Under the Stars

Clara Engel
Hatching Under The Stars
Independent
Toronto, ON
RIYL: Ora Cogan; Aidan Baker; Ulvesang

Though this album came out in April, with the days getting shorter and as we head toward longer bouts of darkness and cold, it feels perfectly suited for fall. The stark toolkit of voice and guitar that songwriter Clara Engel has always evoked a nocturnal sensibility. With Hatching Under the Stars they lean into those darker proclivities to create a dreamlike expanse that’s among their best work.

For the better part of 16 years, Engel has plumbed the darkness of experimental folk, spinning tender songs that feel indebted to traditional or devotional music while still sounding wholly original. Here, Engel draws on that wealth of experience in an immaculately constructed and produced record. Highlights like “Preserved in Ice (for Marc Chagall)” and “Little Blue Fox” find Engel crafting distinct tableaus of poetic imagery. Their spare instrumentation gives plenty of space for imaginations to take hold, as each song blooms into a stirring beauty.

– Michael Rancic

Pansy Boys – Seasons of Doubt 

Pansy Boys
Seasons of Doubt 
Independent
Toronto, ON
RIYL: Fleetwood Mac; Blood Orange; harmonizing

I want to shake every person and tell them to listen to Seasons of Doubt.  In a healthier, pre-COVID world, my hands would (consensually) grab a stranger’s shoulders as I, out of breath, whisper out the album’s Bandcamp tags – “alternative pop…. folk… lush… queer…”, and faint into a bed of roses. 

Pansy Boys – twins Joel and Kyle Curry – simply have the range, extolling the minor tragedies of youthful infatuation across a seven-track EP that sonically elicits the colours and feeling of the sweeping sunset on the record’s cover. Beautiful, streamlined harmonies swirl around soft percussion, piano notes and Eliza Niemi’s cello bows to build the band’s self-described “lush” sound. 

Seasons of Doubt’s lyrics are equal parts gut-wrenching (“I want you to dance/without holding my tears in your hands”) and melodramatic (“Never felt like I belonged to anywhere/except maybe Montreal”), but what really ties the album together is its instructiveness. When you realize “We’re not each other’s property”, you’re likely well-graduated from the way you thought about love in your early 20s. 

Seasons of Doubt wants us to move on, mindfully. Yet it also gives us the opportunity to put on a song and remember it all over again. 

– Katerina Stamadianos

Shabason, Krgovich & Harris
Philadelphia 
Idée Fixe 
Toronto, ON
RIYL: Bill Callahan; Japanese New Age; mindfulness 

Philadelphia is both timely and timeless. Shababson, Krgovich & Harris lazer in on daily life and the mundane, turning inward back when it seemed like more of a choice to do so – the album was created pre-quar, between 2018 and 2019. Its opening song, “Osouji”, walks the listener through a deep-clean of the home not too unlike a mindfulness meditation exercise you may have turned to when you realized you were going to be inside for several months: “wiping baseboards / the radio on / and seeing things / that have been here / and considering them.”

Philadelphia’s carefully placed instrumentals soothe, achieving the group’s aspirations of paying homage to Japanese New Age music. The trio’s soft sounds meld perfectly with Krgovich’s vocal register and gentle lyric delivery, devolving into meandering loops on “I Don’t See the Moon” and “Friday Afternoon” that are reminiscent of Shababson’s solo saxophone work. A personal favourite from the collection, “Tuesday Afternoon,” comically yet earnestly documents a walk down the street set to Boards of Canada-esque synth leads. Philadelphia awards the concentrated listener, who may otherwise miss Krgovich’s subtle description of a man “Sippin’ on / Gatorade / exhaling.” 

It is these observations – the ones nobody usually writes home about – that make the album so special. While we’re all paying attention now, Shababson, Krgovich and Harris knew that we should have been all along. 

– Katerina Stamadianos

Untradition – Dark Summer

Untradition
Dark Summer
Independent
Toronto, ON
RIYL: Daniel Caesar; Prince’s “The Cross”; Slash laying out a guitar solo in front of a white church in the desert 

For anyone reading this in 2020 it’s abundantly clear why this album is called Dark Summer: Even as restrictions eased and cases of COVID-19 fell (albeit briefly) it was hard to not feel as though I was watching summer pass me by from my apartment window. Untradition’s latest begins in that headspace, with shimmering piano lines and moody guitar establishing a heady interiority. The Toronto artist’s own vocals run like an inner monologue, urgent and determined. 

“40” doubles down on that front with a repetitive groove and lyrics that fixate on Untradition’s own struggles: uncertainty, nerves, insomnia, among others. Then with the bombast of a gospel chorus, he sings the lines “pain, peace, love, loss, right, wrong, move, on,” like a reassuring mantra, with guitars chugging along in approval. Whatever air of self-doubt remained gets annihilated by swelling strings, impassioned organ and a kickass guitar solo to end all solos. 

Dark Summer is as much about breaking through moments of foggy uncertainty as it is a meditation on faith and a reverence for the creative process. This is a sharp, maximal record that cuts through the darkness in thoughtful and rewarding ways. 

– Michael Rancic