The Neon Skyline (Arts & Crafts / Anti-)
In 1996, Scottish indie-pop duo Arab Strap bowled people over with The First Big Weekend, a low-key but startlingly refreshing story/song about a magically indulgent, Trainspotting-ish adventure sung/spoken by Aidan Moffatt in an affecting Falkirk burr. Arab Strap’s subsequent oeuvre was much the same — soft, intimate and melancholy without being morose.
The work of Andy Shauf, who’s originally from Regina but now calls Toronto home, captures the same moods. His two most recent solo records, 2016’s The Party and the just-released The Neon Skyline, are full of quietly affecting songs spliced together as scenes in album-length aural movies. The Party was acclaimed for its vignettes from a suburban house party and The Neon Skyline is similar, in that its jazzy, roots-pop song-cycle, narrated by Shauf’s frail, sing-song voice, also takes place over just a few hours. This time out, though, the tunes tell the story of a lonely guy who meets a friend, Charlie, for drinks at the Neon Skyline (based on the real Skyline diner in Toronto’s Parkdale neighbourhood).
As the first beers are sunk, Charlie mentions that Judy, our narrator’s ex, is back in town, sparking a wistfully nostalgic reverie. Plans are made to change the mood by moving to a bar around the corner — and then Judy walks in.
We won’t spoil the rest of the story, but it has to be said that the magic of The Neon Skyline, just like The Party, is that it’s a one-man album — Shauf played all the instruments and recorded it himself in his own studio. As such, he completely controls the feel of this record, so that every guitar strum, every piano chord, every clarinet note and every shift in tempo matches the narrative momentum and emotional timbre of each song. Executing every aspect of a work like this is a masterful feat, and this is a very early contender for album of the year.
STREAM THESE: Neon Skyline; Try Again; Fire Truck
— John Kendle
Thin Mind (Sub Pop)
Wolf Parade emerged from Montreal’s prolific indie scene in the early 2000s and the group’s new album proves it hasn’t shed any of its post-punk guitars, catchy vocal hooks or driving 4/4 post-rock beats.
Although the band — currently made up of Spencer Krug, Dan Boeckner and Arlen Thompson — never reached the heights of their friends in Arcade Fire, the 2005 album Apologies to the Queen Mary helped shape the template for hundreds of bands that came after them. Whether it’s crescendoing synths or guitars that pop out of your speaker, Wolf Parade mainly stay the course on Thin Mind, something longtime fans will probably love but that won’t do much to draw in new listeners.
This has as much to say about the state of rock music as it does Wolf Parade. From the vocals, which sound like Corey Hart on The Static Edge, to the joyous handclaps on Forest Green or the soaring synths on Against the Day, Wolf Parade still can conjure up the nostalgia of the oughts without sounding like a copy of themselves.
The trio has replaced the lo-fi Montreal art-scene charm of its early material with a gleaming guitar and synth sound that comes with time and money in the studio. The second half of Thin Mind probably provides a more dynamic range for the group, though not every song has the intensity or energy as Julia Takes Your Man Home or Forest Green. It’s these forays into the almost ‘80s synth from a John Hughes’ movie or new wave bravado on album opener Under Glass where you can see the group really shine.
STREAM THESE: Forest Green, Under Glass
— Anthony Augustine
Blue Wine (Cousin Jeb Records)
Toronto’s John Borra is no stranger to the Canadian music scene, having worked with a cluster of post-punk and alt-country bands such as Change of Heart, A Neon Rome and Groovy Religion, and recorded with Ron Sexsmith and Serena Ryder.
Blue Wine is his first solo album in 18 years and the 11 tracks here present a strong case for an artist with the experience and chops to make an impression beyond his local scene. Borra’s work isn’t easy to categorize, either. There are definitely some sincere folk-rock sensations emanating from the Band-informed The Wars (where Borra even rhymes "recalcitrant" with "leafy branch") and the delightful accordion and mandolin tandem used in the last-call lament Secret Time.
Borra gets full marks for wandering into out-of-the-ordinary musical territory. Tonight ("I will adore you, hold you, unfold you, explore you, celebrate you, consecrate you... tonight") takes its Phil Spector-ish beat and support vocals from Toronto scene regular Dani Nash to new levels of coolness; she naturally figures again on her self-penned rocker Way Back Home.
Credit must be given to pianist Mike Boguski (Blue Rodeo), as it’s his lyrical work on the 88s that drives the melodies of many of the best tracks. Hambre and Dolores and the strummy opening track Off My Feet feel a little mightier owing to his exceptional and authoritative fingerings.
As a link to his punkier roots, Borra even offers a cool cover version of the Velvet Undergrounds’ swinging Foggy Notion that connects the dots perfectly from his current state of musical affairs to his respect of what has come before.
The whole album is done in less than 40 minutes, but Blue Wine provides rock-solid proof this artist knows full well how to build on his strengths.
STREAM THESE: Trace in the Wind, Foggy Notion
— Jeff Monk
Ordinary Heroes (Self-released)
As a reviewer who doesn’t play in a jazz band, it’s fun to review a reviewer who does.
Ottawa-based pianist/leader Peter Hum is the food editor of the Ottawa Citizen and also reviews restaurants and jazz. His third album includes some fine Canadian folks: Kenji Omae on tenor saxophone, David Smith on trumpet, guitarist Mike Rud, Alec Walkington or Dave Watts on bass and Ted Warren on drums.
The title here references a quote from activist and actor George Takei, speaking about the internment of Japanese-Americans during the Second World War and offered as inspiration in a Trump presidency. The inference is that it’s the "ordinary heroes" who always offer support and hope in times of trouble.
Hum’s music — 10 original compositions — is offered in that spirit, to inspire and uplift all of us in a troubled world. Titles such as Crises and Reckonings, Tears for the Innocent are self-evident examples. Fake News Blues is especially compelling.
The music could probably be described as solid post-bop in style, with excellent writing by Hum and fine solo work by all members. The pattern of the music often involves tight two-part harmony, leading into various solo sections. Moae’s tenor is impressive in the way it maintains a driving edge.
It’s admirable and probably rare to find an individual who can work successfully on both the performance and review side of the arts. Hum has the skill and the courage to accomplish this combination.
STREAM THESE: Fake News Blues; Rabble Rouser
— Keith Black
Chut! Je m’endors avec Beethoven (Mirare)
Music lovers are well accustomed to the stormy, often turbulent waters of Beethoven’s passionate music, with the 250th anniversary of the German composer’s birth in 1770 being celebrated worldwide.
Chut! Je m’endors avec Beethoven, which translates to Hush! Fall Asleep to Beethoven, dares to pull back the curtain on the kinder, gentler side of the famous composer, with 17 tracks offered to (intentionally) lull the listener to sleep, in the spirit of the popular Baby Mozart recordings released in 2014. (It also has the cutest cover of the year.)
Naturally, there are the expected sleeper hits, such as the iconic Für Elise, admirably performed by Woanguy de Williencourt, and the luminous opening movement of Piano Sonata No. 14, Op. 27 No. 2, or "Moonlight," brought to life by Anne Queffélec.
Other highlights include the Adagio molto espressivo from Violin Sonata No. 5, Op. 24 and the always transcendent Adagio sostenuto central movement from Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto No. 5, Op. 73, nonetheless rendered at a relatively brisk clip by the Orchestre de Chambre Nouvelle-Aquitaine, featuring soloist Jean-Francois Heisser. The same pianist returns for another excerpt from Piano Concerto No. 3, Op. 37, a slightly brighter offering, with the album ending on a serene note with Piano Sonata, No. 30, Op. 109, Andante.
Purists will always rail at compilation albums that lop off sections from larger masterworks, and the fact that the lion’s share of these selections are for piano also creates a certain homogeneity — arguably a good thing for this type of sleepy-time album.
However, in the lazy, hazy horizons of dreamland, all that really doesn’t matter, with this recording providing a soothing port in the storm for all those — babes, tots or otherwise — needing a time out from the maddening world.
STREAM THIS: "Moonlight" Sonata No. 14, Op. 27, No. 2, Adagio sostenuto
— Holly Harris