POP & ROCK
Make A Scene (Comino Music/Fontana North)
The essence of Sweet Alibi’s sound is in the vocal harmonies of its core trio — Michelle Anderson, Jess Rae Ayre and Amber Nielsen. As their sound has evolved from its roots-folk beginnings to its current incarnation as fully modern indie pop, their voices have continued to soar and blend as purely as always.
All the proof you need is in the video for Slow Down, the second track on the band’s brand-new album, Make a Scene. As the clip jumps from Ayre (who sings lead) to Anderson and then Nielsen singing harmonies and counter-harmonies, the intricacy of each singer’s part becomes readily apparent and the song’s Bahamas-like vibe (replete with a slinky beat from Sandy Fernandez, pumping bassline from Alasdair Dunlop, steamy saxes and a full-on breakdown) becomes a bewitching, irresistible whole.
Make a Scene is Sweet Alibi’s fourth album and, to the band’s credit, it is once again a fully local production. This time out the quintet worked with Matt Peters and Matt Schellenberg (Royal Canoeists whose production moniker is Deadmen) and the collaboration elicits some real musical sparks.
The Matts and Sweet Alibi manage to both isolate the group’s best attributes — harmony, melody, dextrous instrumentation and rhythmic fluidity — and blend them with elements such as synths and horns to create the band’s best work to date. ★★★★ out of five
Stream these: Make a Scene, Confetti, 9-5
— John Kendle
POP & ROCK
Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You (4AD)
Brooklyn-based indie rock band Big Thief seems to draw from a bottomless well of creativity. After releasing two records in 2019, the band’s fifth LP, Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You, is a sprawling 20-track double album.
While quantity does not always equal quality, in Big Thief’s case, the band never compromises the excellence of their songwriting. Instead of churning out carbon copies of the same song, they use each album as a playground for exploration — and it pays off.
In Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You, the group of four — Adrianne Lenker, Buck Meek, Max Oleartchik and James Krivchenia — recorded in four different studios with four different engineers and drummer Krivchenia as producer. The effect is a collection of songs that feel dynamic with unexpected turns throughout the track list. The soft love song 12,000 Lines is followed by the buzzing Simulation Swarm.
In Sparrow, Lenker’s writing is unmatched. The song, reminiscent of Johnny Cash’s Hurt with its biblical references and Lenker’s tenor, tells the story of Adam and Eve in a poignant way, tinged with a feminist edge in its examination of blame, shame and entrapment.
The reward of experimentation shows in songs like the hypnotic Blurred View and the mesmerizing Little Things, with Lenker’s vocals echoing over chugging, bright guitars. They also explore more bluegrass influences. While Red Moon melds well with the album, Spud Infinity is perhaps too on the nose, with the jaw harp almost satirizing the genre.
Lenker’s voice and songwriting really shine in the album’s quieter moments. Opener Change — unknowingly recorded while the band was rehearsing the song in the studio — is a striking analysis of change. Whether change is viewed through the lens of the end of a relationship or the end of a life, Lenker is able to find the beauty and necessity at the heart: "Would you walk forever in the light/ To never learn the secret of the quiet night?" ★★★★ out of five
STREAM THESE: Sparrow, Change
— Ragan Clark, The Associated Press
François Houle/John Oliver
Isolation Journal 3: Restless (Bandcamp)
Describing this album is a challenge, albeit one worth accepting. As the title implies, it is one result of an amazingly creative response to pandemic "isolation" by two remarkably talented musicians. These two Vancouver based musicians have assembled a stunning and adventurous journey through the experimental possibilities of contemporary jazz and new music generally.
Clarinetist François Houle is one of Canada’s jazz treasures, while John Oliver is a gifted guitarist, composer and conductor who has worked with distinction for jazz and classical organizations across Canada.
The concept here is both simple and very complex. Houle recorded a series of brief improvisations and sent them to Oliver, who expanded them into what he calls acousmatic or electroacoustic compositions. The brief tracks alternate between Houle’s improvisations (usually between a minute or two at most) and Oliver’s somewhat longer reworking of the mood of the music.
For example, Underwater becomes Submarine; What Next? becomes Now What?, and so on through the 20 tracks on the album. While frequently "melodic," that term needs to be defined within electronic realities. Dissonant and edgy, haunting and intense — there is much to absorb. Houle can communicate a lot of content in just a few seconds, as in Running, Sobbing, or 3 Memories.
The challenge to the listener therefore is not only describing the music but in the need to pay pretty close attention to what has been accomplished with this collaboration. I may not be typical here, but it took two or three times through the album before I could come close to fully appreciate how remarkable these short tracks really are. It was absolutely worth the trip. Being "restless" in "isolation" simply can’t defeat the creative processes of gifted musicians. This is "new music" across boundaries that simply aren’t there. ★★★★1/2 out of five
STREAM THESE 3 Memories/A Dream, A Nightmare, A Memory; Breathless/Catch Your Breath
— Keith Black
Nikolai Lugansky, piano (Harmonia Mundi)
On this simply titled new release — his second in an ongoing series on the Harmonia Mundi label — Russian pianist Nikolai Lugansky tackles three late Beethoven piano sonatas considered milestones in the 19th-century composer’s compositional evolution.
First up is Piano Sonata, No. 14 in C sharp minor, Op. 27, No. 2, a.k.a. the "Moonlight," with Lugansky skilfully bringing out the shimmering textures of its opening movement, Adagio sostenuto. A lighter Allegretto follows, before a driving Presto agitato that provides the first real taste of the artist’s bravura, performed at breakneck speed that risks blurring clarity at times.
The artist is arguably at his best with the album’s more fiery works, including Sonata No. 17 in D minor, Op. 31, No. 2 or "Tempest." Here, Lugansky attacks the Largo — Allegro with precision, navigating its cross-hand technical challenges while balancing the theme over its accompanying figuration. The Adagio provides welcomed contrast, brought to life with luminous voicing of chords and elegant phrasing, before a finale Allegretto caps the overall work with insistent drive.
His final offering, Sonata No. 23 in F minor, Op. 57, or "Appassionata," is the icing on the cake, including startling dynamic contrasts first heard during the opening Allegro assai before the introduction of its nobly rendered central theme. This same sensibility is carried into the subsequent Andante con moto, followed by another blistering Allegro ma non troppo — Presto, delivered with the passion, fire and fury of a man possessed.★★★★ out of five
STREAM THIS: Sonata No. 23 in F minor, Op. 57
— Holly Harris