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This article was published 28/11/2018 (350 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Roses on the Vine (Vivat Virtute/Outside Music)
This album from Winnipeg singer-songwriter Christine Fellows’ is aptly titled, since she says many of its 13 songs have been around for a while, written while she was working on other projects and then lovingly nurtured and carefully tended and finally coming to bloom on her seventh full-length studio recording.
Fellows makes baroque art-pop, she’s always been an adventurous artistic spirit and Roses... is certainly a musical expression of that trait, as she brings a rich melange of instruments to bear on the arrangements — everything from a traditional guitar-bass-drums rock configuration to pedal steel guitar, toy synthesizers, cello, gongs and exotic keyboards such as celeste and spinet. You’ll also hear a flock of geese, an old cassette snippet of her grandfather’s voice and even a duet with her life-partner, John K. Samson, on beautifully spare album closer The Swimmer.
Many of the songs started life as simple ukulele melodies and, as a result, this album is probably Fellows’ most accessible; even when stripped to their barest essence — as on Sunrise or Passage — these are hummable tunes.
Unlike her past two albums, Femmes de Chez Nous and Burning Daylight, there’s no narrative throughline to the songs. These are sonic paintings of life’s many journeys, inspired by observation, experience and imaginings of things such as childhood alliances (Me and Carmen), frolicking dogs (Unleashed), the spectre of mortal illness (Passage), Mennonite settlers (Dutch Blitz) and the kinship of womanhood (Roses on the Vine). If anything, the thematic link is Fellows’ unceasing sense of wonder at the beauty and frailty of the world.
Stream these: Cocoon; Spell to Bring Lost Creatures Home; Passage.
– John Kendle
Elastic Days (Sub Pop)
Dinosaur Jr. frontman J Mascis returns with his third solo album, Elastic Days, since the grunge powerhouse reformed and hit the road and studio. Trading in at times his signature electric guitar sound, he returns to the simplicity of the melody that always underlies Mascis’ methods. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t weaponize his guitar and blast off screaming melodic solos that can only come from someone who spent endless hours in the basement during their teens, he also knows where to hold back and where to let the song breath.
These slower cuts are a different vehicle for songwriting that allows Mascis to stay around the edges more, giving himself the freedom that isn’t possible anymore in Dinosaur Jr. now that Murph is back on drums and Lou Barrow returned on bass and songwriting duties. The group has never sounded better, the time apart has allowed old wounds to heal. That success gives even more weight to Elastic Days, where Mascis can bring his songs that wouldn’t fit with the recently reformed trio.
The deft guitarist is known for his melodic shredding technique, which usually is run through more effects unit than you can count, but he can still showcase his sound in a stripped-down acoustic approach as well on I Went to Dust, Sky is All I Had and Give it Off. Mascis may not be known for his softer side, but the album has all the hallmarks of Mascis’ revered songwriting and underappreciated skills with just a guitar.
Stream these: Pick Out the Seeds, I Went to Dusk, Sometimes
— Anthony Augustine
Boys Called Susan
Pennsyltucky (Cornplanter Records)
When fate and events collide sometimes it is the universe attempting to set you off in a certain direction by giving you some outsized hints.
Blood first cousins Bryan Russo and Christopher Shearer connected after the death of Shearer’s mom and she had been responsible for telling them both individually that they should make music together. After trading cellphone demos with each other and raising some independent funds the duo got together and created their fabulous first release Pennsyltucky.
Using members of Emmylou Harris’ Red Dirt Boys backing the guitars and vocals of Russo and Shearer the result can best be described as remarkable. Their sound is a distinctive blend of Americana/roots styles that pays certain regard to the inspirational feel of classic Little Feat, the fragile hardiness of the Band and a writer’s instinct for building a perfect song from a solid story. Many of the tracks like the lovely Unfinished Symphony, the folky Pretty Pantomime and the sweet and sad Girl From Pennsyltucky cause you to sit back and just listen as they weave their way into your heart.
On the more up-tempo side, Heaven Knows, Degrees of Misery and the brightly lit Company Man have a loose, almost funky jam-band spirit while maintaining a healthy sing along-ability. Lyrically the duo has come up aces full. Unfinished Symphony" ("Like a critic with nothing bad to say, like a cynic that thinks it’s all OK, like a preacher who’s forgotten how to pray, oh I’m not myself since you’ve gone away...") delivers but a tiny example of award-winning journalist Russo’s way with a lyric.
No matter what your current location Pennsyltucky is a place that you need to visit.
Stream these: Rodeo Cool, Company Man
— Jeff Monk
Ingrid Jensen & Steve Treseler
Invisible Sounds: For Kenny Wheeler (Whirlwind)
Canadian born trumpeter and jazz icon Kenny Wheeler died in 2014, but his music and influence remain truly alive. There have been several Canadian tribute albums for Wheeler recently, and this one is outstanding.
Both trumpeter Ingrid Jensen and saxophonist Steve Treseler worked with and were influenced by Wheeler. Here they have arranged a playlist of Wheeler tunes for quintet — pianist Geoffrey Keezer, Martin Wind on bass and Jon Wikan on drums fill out the band. There are brief guest appearances by Ingrid’s sister Christine on soprano, and vocalese by Katie Jacobson.
Wheeler’s music and trumpet style were always melodic, with a frequent tinge of melancholy. In a BBC interview, Wheeler once said, "Everything I do has a touch of melancholy and a touch of chaos to it. I write sad songs and then I get the musicians to destroy them." If destruction means beautifully constructed phrases with rhythmic edge and emotional depth as on this album, bring it on.
There is complete understanding of Wheeler’s music here. These are not simple covers of the tunes; they offer fresh interpretations throughout. The ballad Kind Folks, one of Wheeler’s best known tunes, is simply wonderful. Two tracks were recorded when the band appeared in Pacific Northwest concerts, and include a great up-tempo version of Old Time.
One wonders what Wheeler would make of the obvious love that permeates tribute albums like this one. He was hugely self-effacing, but revered in the global jazz community. Even if you’ve never heard of Kenny Wheeler this album will make you a fan not only of Wheeler but of this band that has made his music its own.
Stream these: Kind Folks, Everybody’s Song But My Own
Spoon Hanging from My Nose (Navona)
This debut album by J.A. Kawarsky — with admittedly one of the most attention-grabbing titles in recent memory — offers three orchestral works teeming with wit and humour, as well as a fourth with a more potent, timely message.
Fastidious Notes written for solo alto saxophone and chamber orchestra immediately demonstrates the Princeton, N.J.-based composer’s penchant for eclectic musical inspiration, with the 10-minute work including echoes of Britten, Copland and arguably Shostakovich all knitted together in his often dense orchestration often fuelled by rhythmic drive.
His arrangement of Brahms’s Liebeslieder Waltzes, Op. 52, originally scored as 18 short, text settings for vocal quartet and piano four hands features the Arizona Choir with an all-new orchestral accompaniment that infuses greater timbral colour while retaining the work’s intimate nature.
And We All Waited... for full symphony orchestra is a musical response to the lack of legislation following the horrific shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in December 2012, including more quotes from composers Nielsen, Shostakovich and Reicha. Conductor Petr Vronsky sensitively leads the Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra throughout the nearly 16-minute score, including militaristic snare drums, halting brass and penetrating winds that further heighten its sense of postmodern angst.
Finally, Episodes features pianist Peter Laul with the St. Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra led by Vladimir Lande, again showing the composer’s rhythmic skill with its 7/8 meter during its first section, while the second draws on a melody from the Jewish Yom Kippur services, alternatively Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. The third inspired by Gerald Finzi’s On Parent Knees, is brought to a close by Laul’s solo cadenza, helping to end the piece not with a whimper, but a fiery bang.
— Holly Harris