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

Westelaken – The Golden Days are Hard

Westelaken
The Golden Days are Hard
Independent
Toronto, ON
RIYL: wearing a Shania Twain shirt to a punk show; Waxahatchee; The Decemberists’ The Crane Wife

Westelaken’s The Golden Days are Hard is both chaotic and patient. Led by Jordan Seccareccia’s trembling voice, the punk-edge of this “post-country” band is at its hardest on “Mercy, ‘milk-of-human-kindness’” which squeals and plods like a fang-toothed beast and on the frantic “Ghosts Explode,” a grungy song that clocks in at under a minute.

Elsewhere, Westelaken nestle their riotousness in softness and are willing to linger in a moment: over nine minutes, Westelaken move from a honky-tonk jam into a distorted frenzy on “The October Song” and opener “The January Song” starts the album off with a surge of energy before, on the latter half of the track, the band slow things down and Seccareccia is practically whispering.

On “Grace,” a piano-led highlight and the band at their most tender, contributing vocalist Rachel Bellone sings of life in the face of death and describes numbness with great precision: “I don’t hate anything anymore but I used to love the morning.” It’s one of many moments on The Golden Days are Hard that emphasizes the clarity Westelaken has when it comes to the stories they want to tell and how they want to tell them.

Laura Stanley

Mother Tongues – Everything You Wanted

Mother Tongues
Everything You Wanted
Buzz Records
Toronto, ON
RIYL: Stereolab/Broadcast; psychedelia; being moody 

I’m not sure whether Mother Tongues would welcome or wince at a likening to psych-rock royalty Melody’s Echo Chamber. Like Melody, the Toronto band’s influences take centre stage on their debut release, where swirling, trance-like guitars, punchy synth lines, and distant vocals combine to form a nostalgic, psyche-kraut soundscape. If the album’s most interesting effort, “Fortunes,” is any indication, Mother Tongues know they aren’t reinventing the wheel – but that their subtle plays with timing and vocal delivery will make you want to get in the car and keep driving. Because, at the end of the day, any band aiming for mysticism (as per the album’s release pitch) is looking to take you somewhere else. Everything You Wanted gets you just there, whatever that means to you.

Katerina Stamadianos

Ian Daniel Kehoe – Rock & Roll Illusion // Charging The Stone // Disco Body Buzz

Ian Daniel Kehoe
Rock & Roll Illusion // Charging The Stone // Disco Body Buzz
Tin Angel Records
Toronto, ON
RIYL: Nicholas Krgovich; Sandro Perri; ‘80s Springsteen

In a rockstar move, Ian Daniel Kehoe released, in his words, “a casual trio of albums” in one day. While they differ in sound and mood, each album – Rock and Roll Illusion, Charging the Stone, and Disco Body Buzz – feels intrinsically linked. It’s like one adventurous night. Rock & Roll Illusion is a rock album that’s tender enough to listen to while drinking a sparkling beverage and wearing cut-off jean shorts in your living room. Disco Body Buzz, on the other hand, is moody and heavy with synths and electronic drum beats. It’s for driving around all night, wearing a leather jacket, and dancing with somebody you find cute. Charging The Stone is a record to put on when the sun is about to rise again but you’re still wide-eyed from your night out. It has a joyful twang to it, thanks to Aaron Goldstein’s pedal steel and there’s a deep ease present. On “Sometimes Feeling Means Goodbye,” Kehoe reaches a comradely high when he, alongside The Weather Station’s Tamara Lindeman (who is heard throughout the records), sings, “all that we can do is cry and cry together / cry where we are / cry together from afar.”

And then it is clear: what links Kehoe’s three albums is love.

Laura Stanley