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Montreal Dances Across Borders Vol. 2: Everything works

One of the great joys that Independent Clauses brings me is the ability to wander around musically and figure out what’s good in lots of different genres. In 2019, I got into the deep, dark techno of Traversable Wormhole. (Because I could.) That discovery took me down a path which led to the Montréal Dances Across Borders series. I reviewed the first collection of heavy, dark dance music in the series very favorably, and thus I am thrilled to hear the second collection in the series today.

Jean Grünewald, one of the curators of the project, explained that MDAB is “a series of solidarity compilations bringing together artists of ‘underground dance music’ in Montreal (originally Tiotia:ke in the language of Kanien’kehá:ka people). This project is to remind that this music, embodied in spaces, is above all political – and made to unite across all types of physical or abstract borders.” The solidarity aspect has a practical aspect: all profits of the compilations are donated to Solidarity Across Borders — a non-profit organization that works to protect human rights, active in Montreal since 2003, whose action has been intensified during the pandemic.

Intense is a good entry point into the music: these pieces are all in their own ways intense (except the closer). The genres here span straight-ahead techno, industrial, hardstyle and more; the throughline is that these are all nighttime pieces, primarily in minor keys. Opener “Irion (Live)” by HRT opens with an ominous blast of distortion cut through by complex bass kick patterns. Sounds reminiscent of hi-hats, various zaps, synths, and (eventually) snares slowly accrete to unexpectedly turn this into a banger of a techno cut–without ever losing the distortion undergirding it all. Follow-up “Rinçage” by LE SERVICE HUMAIN goes in the other direction, going minimalist–almost brutalist–in its stripped down core of polyrhythmic bass kick, buzz, and occasional other bits. These two show the wide range of the sounds on the comp.

Yet while these tracks are dark and intense, they only rarely dabble in machine-sounding industrial work. The closest is in the heavily reverbed percussive hits and distorted vocals of PULSUM’s “Demonic Nature, Depressive Misery.” Yet the four-on-the-floor bass gives it away as a techno track dabbling in industrial vibes and not the other way around.(The bio of LE SERVICE HUMAIN also references industrial, although their track here does not evoke as many sonic monikers of the genre as PULSUM’s.) “Red Wine (Live)” by AN_NA similarly dabbles in industrial vocal styles with dour, distorted contralto vocals, but the insistent hardstyle-esque backbeat and singable chorus again yank the sounds back into techno territory.

Given my fascination with the deep techno cuts of Traversable Wormhole, the standout for me is “Walk With Me” by s.talbot. This techno cut is sleek, punchy, and vibrant. The pace is quick without feeling chaotic, as the round tones of the leading synths and the distinctly chosen percussive sounds temper what could otherwise feel like a breakneck, out-of-control piece. Instead, it’s a demonstration of tight control of mood via subtle tonal choices. “Loki’s Flyting” by Inside Blur has a similar vibe, but with the restrictor plate taken off: this one relishes its existence as a techno cut and goes for it full bore.

Some more experimental cuts populate the back end of the record. “POLICE STORY (FEATURING SERIEU X) by HUMAN JUNGLE merges some warped ’90s big beat vibes with ominous, mumbled, distorted spoken word vocals for an unexpected experience. “10 Pixels” by K draws heavily from ’80s noir synthpop for its concept then merges it with Tron for fun. (It is a lot of fun!) “After” by Remote Access is a deconstructed techno cut reliant heavily on polyrhtyhmic snare programming and meticulously constructed atmosphere; bass hits come in sparingly, for release. Its unique approach is distinctive on the record; it’s a late highlight.

Closer “De L’Inconvénient D’Être Né” by DBY is the only track on the compilation that could be called dreamy, and the only one that even flirts with bright sounds key. (Is that … a major key?) As a result, the sounds evoke a heavier Ulrich Schnauss or Teen Daze. This track punches my buttons pretty strongly; I’m ready to hear a lot more DBY after this. It’s an excellent closer to segue the listener out.

Montréal Dances Across Borders Vol. 2 is an extremely well-curated collection. It displays a wide variety of sounds and approaches that all work together; nothing on this record sounds out of place or forced. Everything fits into the vibe of the overall set. This record has captured the energy and vibe of a great DJ set and turned it into a great album. Highly recommended.

Quick Hit: Courtney Marie Andrews

I dare say there is a quiet revolution in female folk singers happening. Even among such lights, Courtney Marie Andrews sways to the beat of her own drum and has for some time, from her 2010 debut No One’s Slate is Clean to 2019’s groundbreaking May Your Kindness Remain. Now, Andrews is on tour in support of her album Old Flowers.

To me, the best folk artists seem to battle with themselves, connecting with that authentic, shining, internal spark. Andrews’ connection with her spark results in a resilient beauty. Opener “Burlap String” sets the tone here. It’s softly sweet, with subtle longing wrapped in the scent of wildflowers, country lilt, and slide guitar. The song blurs genres with its perfectly simple front porch feel. “Guilty” steps in as a piano-driven siren’s song. Oozing emotions, Andrews sings like she owns the stage at the Grand Ole Opry. 

Songwriters like Andrews relish the poetry of their art form. “If I Told” is that wondering whisper many tentative lovers think to themselves. The evocative sonic disruptions throughout represent what we feel when our heartbeat overtakes fear. The heartfelt “Together or Alone” is a pandemic and/or self-actualization anthem. “Carnival Dream,” born of devastating pain and loss, reflects the drum we are all marching to and attempting to escape from. 

Much like Shakey Graves’ Can’t Wake Up reclaimed his freedom to be more than who his fans wanted him to be, Courtney Marie Andrews’ Old Flowers firmly claims her role as a prominent voice of women in folk music. It’s fluid, ever-blossoming, and reaching for the sun. —Lisa Whealy

Quick Hit: Sun Tailor

Music’s power is the universal language it speaks. Israeli songwriter, composer, and producer Arnon Noor (aka Sun Tailor)’s How To Say Silence Soundtrack provides a nuanced experience that undoubtedly enhanced the debut film How To Say Silence in this year’s Docaviv Film Festival.

The film itself spans three generations of women in one family sharing hopes, dreams, and secrets. The music portrays the emotions of growth and despair. Haunting at times, Tailor’s artistry as a Tel Aviv rock musician bleeds into the brooding soundscape that carries this instrumental experience. Featuring Keren Tenenbaum on violin, the sensory immersion highlights the energetic war cry of “Masa Laor” (“to the light” in Hebrew), and the Spanish-tinged dance of “Rivka.” 

Learn more about independent filmmakers and films like How To Say Silence at Docaviv’s website. —Lisa Whealy

Emily Hopkins, Harp Coolness-er

So ever since I discovered Andreas Vollenweider (thanks to Teen Daze including one of his songs in a DJ mix), I’ve loved hearing harps do weird things. I don’t know how I hadn’t heard of Emily Hopkins, given this specific interest of mine, but now I know about her work. She attaches guitar pedals to her harp and makes things get weird. This particular video has her playing around with a Rainger FX Snare Trap pedal and then linking that pedal to a Bit Crusher pedal for more coolness. It’s like lo-fi hiphop, but harp.  Incredibly fun to listen to:

She also has a video that turns her harp into an ambient/goth production outfit, one that turns out Sigur Ros sounds, and another that is like some twinkly-emo/glitchy combo. And tons more. Friends. You need to listen to this. It is fantastic.

Three Singles

There’s no denying that visualization and digitization have changed the global music scene. Forty years have passed since MTV’s August 1, 1981 beginnings. Do you live for curated playlists from trusted sources or hit YouTube Music’s improved sonic experience algorithms to influence your ears or move your soul? Today, the vibes your friends talk about are the ones sending us towards tracks like the jazz/trip-hop fusion brilliance of French-Canadian Caravan Palace’s “Melancolia”.  

“Fashion” from Berlin’s Flowers 15 (off their upcoming release Friends Team) is aligned with the avant garde artistic feel of Italy’s PINHDAR. Suggesting that Flowers 15 is only “flower pop” ignores its depth as social commentary unified with emerging visual arts. The latest singles “Twitter” and “I Hate Instagram” could fall into preconceived ideas of what the songs might mean, but there’s more there.

“La Reputación” – El Italiano. Alejandro Giannini’s El Italiano tells his own story of an Italian heritage whose family emigrated from Calabria, Italy to Argentina in this track. A songwriter who composes in Spanish, “La Reputación” tells the tale of love and its eternal pull, like a matador’s desire to battle to the death in the running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain. —Lisa Whealy

Crépuscule by Rêves sonores reveals unique treasures

Crépuscule by Rêves sonores is a beautiful, intriguing record. Stefan Christoff’s piano and Nick Schofield’s synthesizers form the basis of the ambient-adjacent works, with contributions from Ari Swan (violin), Devin Brahja Waldman (saxophone) and Nick Kuepfer (field recordings). The descriptions of the main instruments doesn’t tell the story of the record, though: the album is a wide-ranging sonic adventure that moves through many different states.

Opener “Alight” sets the tone through a complex set of electronically manipulated string runs, accentuated by an elegant base of slow-moving strings. The tension of speed and still that is depicted here runs throughout the album. Highlight “Mondial” builds out a fascinating piece from a speedy saxophone pattern, pizzicato violin, a dancing lead violin melody, and gentle synthesizers. It’s not ambient, because it moves; yet it’s still very peaceful despite its motion. It is a unique, wonderful piece.

“Soliloquy” contrasts the joyful “Mondial” with a slow-moving, ominous soundscape. Distant piano, eerie synths, and suspense-movie violin create a harsh, yet intriguing, space for saxophone to play around in. It sounds like someone having a good time in an empty lot at midnight, preferably under a single streetlight. “Seers Theme” and “Spirodon” continue this noir vibe, but they strip out even more action; these tunes approach ambient music via economy of notes, if not in lush washes of sound. (See “Svalbard” for those interested in as close as this album gets to “lush washes.”)

The rest of the album lives between these two poles of dancing movement and stark economy. “Swan Song” pits the motion of “Mondial” against the emptiness of “Soliloquy” and “Seers Theme,” creating a distinctive, unusual vibe that draws me in over and over. “Hearken” and “Lucidity” flow together neatly as a single track, with “Hearken” being an acoustic section and “Lucidity” being a distorted electronic version of the same noir-ish moods (if not quite the same theme). Closer “Reprise” is conceptually similar to “Alight” but for a minor-key song instead of a major-key one.

Crepuscule is a difficult record to describe but an easy one to enjoy. I’ve listened to it many, many times in the past few months, and its intrigue has not failed me yet. It’s not a grower, an album that originally doesn’t click but opens up after multiple listens (“it grew on me”). Instead, it connected easily with me at first, and then revealed further treasures on repeat listens. It’s a truly lovely and interesting work of art. Highly recommended.

August Singles 1

1. “maladaptive daydreams” – shn shn. I like ambient music that creates a meditative, calming state while still having more motion than is strictly necessary for an ambient piece. This calming word builds off floating pad synths but has percussion bopping around after 45 seconds of intro to keep things moving. shn shn’s vocals are beautiful and breathy, engaging the listener with a repeated question of “why don’t you stay here?” It’s a triumph. The visual is also amazing: harrybyharry creates a mashup of magazine collage, vaporwave visuals, and human poses to reflect busy, cluttered (maybe even maladaptive) daydreaming. It too is a triumph. Highly recommended.

2. “June” – Gerycz/Powers/Rolin. “What if bluegrass, but weird?” has a lot of answers. Balmorhea’s was “yea, post-rock!” Gercyz/Powers/Rolin’s answer is “post-bluegrass”; pastoral vibes still exist in spades, but the guitar tone has distinctly post-rock overtones. The feel is unique and interesting. Highly recommended.

3. “Skylarks” – Immersion with Ulrich Schnauss. I love Schnauss’s lush, wide-screen electronic landscapes. Paired up with Immersion here, you can feel Schnauss’s work pulling the precise, almost pointillist melodies into more open spaces. An excellent partnership. Highly recommended.

4. “Feted” – Falcon Arrow. Falcon Arrow’s distorted-bass-and-drums post-rock never fails to be acrobatic and impressive, but this time they add in an enormous amount of sludgy, doomy low-end to the mix. Falcon Arrow just always knows what’s up, and this time is no exception. Also, their album art is always fantastically evocative sci-fi stuff, and this piece of art is perfectly tuned to the sludgy musical content. Highly recommended.

5. “Planet B” – Steven Bernstein’s Millennial Territory Orchestra. “Planet B” offers us a jazz cruise through NYC. Richly visual, Bernstein’s composition seems the perfect enticement to his album Tinctures In Time (Community Music, Vol. 1) dropping September 3. Kit Fitzgerald’s visuals capture the varied essence of this track, adding new textures to the slow jazz groove. As the first of four planned releases on Royal Potato Family, Bernstein soars with his first original compositions in twenty years. —Lisa Whealy

6. “Balafô Douma” – N’famady Kouyaté. Whoa. This is a invigorating, surprising blast of balafon (a traditional wooden African xylophone), horns, percussion, and soaring vocals. This is maximalist work in the best way.

7. “Always” – E.VAX and Ratatat. Evan Mast (E.Vax) gives collab credit to his old duo here, and it makes sense: this one is a little more beat-heavy (like Ratatat’s work) than opening E.VAX single “Karst.”

8. “Aliso” – FLDPLN. Somewhere between Teen Daze and M83, FLDPLN is making evocative, immersive pop that makes me want to write phrases like “Cruiserweight creamy wave” and “saxophone dream state.” No apologies, no regrets.

9. “Momento Presente” – Mas Aya. Stuttering, fluttering, and chirping, this amalgam of beats, flutes, and shakers is a gentle whirlwind, an enveloping cloud, a chaotic puff, a punchy softness.

10. “I pulled the sheet back over my head” – The Chairman Dances. If you fuse the lyrical sentiments of The Mountain Goats circa The Life of the World to Come with squiggly indie rock guitar lines and a rattling rhythm section, you’ll come out with this left-field pop gem.

11. “Spooky Action” – Charming Disaster. The Brooklyn-based Charming Disaster are the goth folk duo of Ellia Bisker and Jeff Morris. Their latest single embodies the essence of pandemic, with desire for connection oozing through each lyric. Examining the role of connection in our lives, this sweetly simple acoustic beauty written during lockdown soars, vibrating with its embedded morse code. –Lisa Whealy

12. “Pretty” – Turn Zero. Turn Zero captures the essence of innocence in this 80/20 Records release featuring Nick Barker. This indie rock track connects grabbing the vibe of some of Warped Tour’s greatest such as  Paramour’s Hayley Williams.–Lisa Whealy

13. “Hidden – Merimell Remix” – Matthew Creed. Sometimes you just need a big, stomping, industrial-tinged techno cut to get things going. This is that pounding, fun cut.

Premiere: “Bloodstream” by Paper Man

I’ve always admired Clem Snide’s surrealist honesty; the band’s dreamy alt-country is/was equal parts earnest confessional and stream-of-consciousness metaphors amid generally light-touch arrangements. Paper Man’s “Bloodstream” evokes Clem Snide’s earnest lyrics and beautiful light-touch balladry.

Brian Sousa’s vocals jump out of the speakers with the urgent sincerity of a man who has gotten rid of all self-delusion. The lyrics reflect the vocal tone, as Sousa (ex-Strangers by Accident) starts off with “I don’t know if I’m a good man” and gets more incisively self-aware from there. The lyrics are addressed to a lover, a no more lies, here it is conversation that takes great risk to deliver. The clear and present vulnerability of laying it out there–a “Why would I do this unless I really, truly wanted to make this work?” feel–creates a love song without saying “I love you.” “I’ve got nothing without you” and ruminations on the future when they’re old are as close as Sousa gets to the stating the heart of the mood that his tone and the arrangement create.
The arrangement is truly lovely. The fingerpicked guitarwork is winsome while the bass, strings, and subtle percussion fill out the arrangement perfectly. The touch is light while still keeping the drama high. The musicians carefully balance the heaviness of the lyrical revelations with the underlying hope that impels the revelations in the first place.
“Bloodstream” is out today, from the forthcoming album Bad Karma.

Killa Maus and the Desert Rats emerge in a big swirl of desert strut

Killa Maus is one of those Arizona artists that defies genrefication. Part blues, part jazz, part spoken word with a big swirl of desert strut might be the best way to describe the music. The eleven songs from Killa Maus and The Desert Rats are a ticket to sonic paradise.

The man behind the art, Jesse Morrison aka Killa Maus, wrote and co-produced the album with Tony Brant. Brant is also an engineer at Highland Recording Studio, tackling the mixing board on this complex record. Billy Sutherland joins on stunning guitar, with Killa Maus adding bass, keys, guitar and his signature vocals. Ethereal, funky, and jazzy each describe the soundscapes that are achieved here. Opener “Picture” struts in with that throwback vibe, but just teases out groove to slide on into the next track. 

“Magnificent” flows with its horns and heavy bass line. The jazz oozes here, laced with the trademark Killa Maus falsetto. This feels like a New Orleans party until the abrupt end. Slipping into “Such A Mood,” featuring vocalist Haley Green, the tension builds to perfection here. The narrative seamlessly flows through follow-up “Hano Culture” featuring Human. These two tracks reflect Maus’s ability to create a completely relatable narrative experience. 

“Hold Strong” featuring Laura Hamlin shifts gears, revealing the depth of musical talent lurking in the desert. This sweet sonic treat with an Americana flair defies the notion that this album can fit into a box. Expectations are blown out of the water on this bit of brilliance. Tracks like this highlight mixing as a craft, and Brant handles the changes masterfully. With its tone of defiance, “L.W.Y.D.” hits the 80s rock vibe superbly, intentionally or not. This is one of the most lyrically meaningful tracks as well. 

The next section of the record is a sonic party, and sequencing plays an integral part of the listening experience. “Loosey Goosey” leads the chill out conga line. The angsty build leading up to “Sunshine Dayz” featuring Cori Rios slips a Caribbean cool in as well. Simple, like hitting the pool, the “Good Cookin’” party is back with horns. “Moonshine” seems reminiscent of the sonic palette of Pink Floyd’s Animals. Its ethereal rock mix fits here. Saying goodbye to a new friend can be difficult, as “Sonia” soars with its strings. The sweetly simple lyrics of love surround a chorus with subtle instrumentation.

Firmly nestled in the list of “best things I’ve heard in 2021” (even though the album came out in 2019; but who’s counting?), Killa Maus and The Desert Rats is brilliant!Lisa Whealy

July 2020 Singles 2

1. “This Train” – Opus Kink. Opus Kink has a delightfully fractured sense of pop music, splicing in all sorts of weird things to create their own unique mix. This one includes “Tusk”-esque horns over hectic punk energy poured into a wiry post-punk/indie rock scramble. The vocals are equal parts calm doom and frantic hurtle. It’s one of the weirdest, best songs I’ve heard in a long time. The lyrics are a blast (and put people on blast). Highly recommended.

2. “Methuselah Theme” – Unweather. Look pretty much anything can be a banger if it gets you going, and this piece gets me going. I love 8-bit-influenced video game soundtrack music, and this is an A+ version of that style. It’s beautiful in a very specific way.

3. “Orbiting Mercury in a Dream” – Joseph Sannicandro + Stefan Christoff. This is one of the tracks where the whole review is right there in the title. Do you want to know what this ambient track sounds like? It sounds orbiting Mercury in a dream. If that sounds appealing to you, inquire within.

4. “Akinuba / The Heart feat. Yusef Lateef” – Web Web x Max Herre. Adventurous and accessible, this jazz cut has two distinct sections (as the title notes). The first is a subtle, laid-back, winds-led piece; the second is a more interrogative, urgent groove that burbles with energy under insistent spoken word poetry.

5. “Kuyina” – Cameron Knowler. Just a lovely little flight of fancy on a guitar, a ray of sunshine 105 seconds long, a piece of the sky.

6. “Norweigan Dream” – Oslo Tapes. A five-minute psych-rock odyssey that churns and churns and churns. It’s woozy and groovy, yet also locked-in rhythmically.

7. “Tseudo” – Zahn. Some great guitar-soaring going on here in this rippin’, spacey rock track. The video is just dudes headbobbing to the track in the back of a car, which is honestly pretty perfect for this cut.

8. “Bedside Love Song” – Frank Moyo. Just an old-fashioned love song, celebrating healthy love.

9. “Amidst” – Jason Van Wyk. A murky, fuzzy, amorphous ambient piece with dark undertones and lots of static. The album art is a distant light surrounded by blackness. You know who you are.

10. “Previous Tape” – Giancarlo Erra. If creepy ambient isn’t your jam, the soft, mournful, mesmerizing tones of this ambient flutter might be.