Author Archives: Juliana Van Amsterdam

Artist Profile: Quivers

13458719_1629894047328539_3414254609416577598_o

It took them about 23 hours to reach North America from Melbourne, but for a week now Quivers has been taking Canada by storm with classic Aussie optimism: “we’re just happy to be on the other side of the world.” I was lucky enough to catch them on one of their off days in Toronto, where I chatted with Sam Nicholson, Mike Panton, and Angela Schilling from their hotel room. Quivers initially began when frontman Sam revisited his love for writing music after taking a hiatus in China. His older brother Tom passed away in a free-diving accident some years ago, and beginning to record again, for him, was a kind of catharsis: a way to celebrate life by just “making music with your mates.” Though originally from Hobart, Tasmania, Sam and Mike packed up and moved to Melbourne to explore the blooming music scene there, adding Ange, Jo, and Rohan on the way.

Despite the move, Quivers’ sound is still very much rooted in Tasmanian culture. Their album, We’ll Go Riding On The Hearses, was recorded on Mount Wellington in Hobart; the group rented out the Fern Tree Community Center and, in the middle of a hailstorm, hunkered down for two days and recorded. The themes of the album reference a lot of Tasmanian life and, according to Ange, is infused with a certain “Australiana sound.” We’ll Go Riding on the Hearses was made for road trips down wide-open highways, much like the Midlands Highway that runs through Australia; it was there that Sam saw a pale green hearse, “almost exactly like the one from [HBO’s] Six Feet Under.” While he didn’t end up buying it, the vehicle became a central theme and inspiration for the cheeky album title, which is a pun on Daryl Braithwaite’s 1991 hit “The Horses.”

Blending the macabre and the sanguine is an integral part of Sam’s approach to his music; the album certainly deals with grief and loss, but in an indirect way that views these indescribably difficult topics through the lens of reflection and nostalgia. Sam’s ultimate goal is for his songs to be relatable, even while they deal with incredibly personal aspects of his life. For him, it’s about adding a dash of fiction to the fact: “songwriters write a better version of what actually happened… [there are] certain things I’m afraid to write about in a too-honest way.” This sparked an interesting discussion about the differences of songwriting; all other members of Quivers are also involved in other projects, so opinions flowed freely. Ange admitted that she tended to write “very specific songs, lyrically,” adding that “I don’t mind if [the songs] aren’t accessible because I try so hard to make it just for me.” In her opinion, artists have to learn to overcome the barrier of self-consciousness in order to really connect with the audience. The guys nodded enthusiastically in agreement.

In discussing vulnerability in songwriting and performance, it is clear that Quivers is more of a conglomerate of individual artists, who all unite together over a common love: music. While they technically play jangle-pop, the group adores genres that “would never come across in Quivers,” such as R&B and Motown (I heartily approved). After collectively listing what could be considered the entire anthology of 70’s soul and 80’s guitar rock as influences (“Paul Kelly is our poet”), Mike added that “we’ve all kinda done a few things before… you pick up things as you go from other bands; I’m influenced so much by the other people I’ve played with.” This more personal aspect comes through when Quivers plays live; Sam admitted that each song has about five alternate endings, a kind of “choose your own adventure” approach to performance. He added that the point of the band is not to be perfectionists, but rather to have a good time in the hopes that the audience will, too.

When I asked them what was in store, Sam divulged that they were working with Dave Mudie, drummer for Courtney Barnett, on a possible EP or album. For now though, the world will have to wait; Quivers plans to do an official release of We’ll Go Riding on the Hearses later this year on bandmate Jo’s record label, Hotel Motel Records. As for their first North American tour, the group had plenty of good things to say about Canada and were quite excited to end on the east coast. Their one question? “I guess… where are the best bagels in Montreal at 3am?”

Look for Quivers in the 514 at Le Cagibi tomorrow; it’ll be a wild ride.

by Juliana Van Amsterdam 

Album Review: Swear I’m Good At This – Diet Cig

CS638275-01A-MEDAt the time of Diet Cig’s conception circa 2014, front-woman Alex Luciano had barely picked up a guitar. Now, the 21-year-old is rocking her way across the USA with her trusty drummer sidekick, Noah Bowman. The pair are an inseparable, insurmountable duo; it only took one meeting at a show of Bowman’s in New Paltz, New York to bind them in a friendship and partnership that has only grown since.

Bowman sets the fast, frenetic pace of these pure pop-punk tracks, while Luciano’s jagged guitar serves as an incendiary device as her voice ricochets from softly sweet to emotionally unhindered. She is at once an open book, wearing her heart on her sleeve, and a firecracker poised to go off at anyone (namely, any boy) who gets in her way. Lyrically, Luciano has a no-tolerance policy for BS and spares no feelings. She has a knack for wry, tongue-in-cheek observation, and does not shy from singing her inner demons away. With this attitude and an EP under their belt, Diet Cig has created their first LP Swear I’m Good At This.

The album features old habits and new growth: while riotously fun tracks still abound, quieter, more contemplative tracks such as the short number “Apricot” have been introduced, and the production quality has veered slightly from the DIY-feel that accompanied Diet Cig’s EP, Over Easy. Never fear though, Luciano still maintains her blunt, in-your-face attitude, dancing all over your brain with the ferocity and precociousness of an angsty færie. She is all at once dismissive, self-conscious, confident, and confidential, running the full gamut of emotions felt by young women everywhere, at any time.

The opening lyrics of “Sixteen” are enough to convince anyone of that point. Luciano sings plainly of the awkward sex had with a boy who bears the same name; this opening track acts as a shock-and-awe confessional and grips you right from the get-go. “Link in Bio” is an upbeat banger, with Luciano holding up both middle fingers to her demons; “don’t tell me to calm down” is spoken slowly, pointedly, before the track rips open with a melée of drums and electric guitar. “Barf Day” demonstrates Luciano’s innate knack for lyrical honesty, and the bridge of “I know you’re sorry, I just don’t care” basically summarizes Diet Cig’s essence in a succinct, biting sentence. The echoing chorus towards the end of the track adds a nice, unexpected complexity to an otherwise musically-straightforward track.

On “Blob Zombie,” Bowman has his chance to shine, and he runs with it; his percussion sets a galloping, breathless pace, and Luciano matches it with strong lyrics: “I wanna be the best one at this / But I don’t wanna get out of bed” is the very mantra that runs through every girl’s mind. “Tummy Ache” sends a similar message, with Luciano discussing the trials and tribulations of being a girl on the punk scene. Towards the end of the track, the vocals split and dissolve into multiple lines, all echoing and looping over one another, as if mirroring the internal commentary that many women deal with in their daily lives. Luciano acts as a voice-piece for countless young girls, but the defining quality that makes her music so relatable is that she is also standing right beside them, shouting into that selfsame megaphone.

Album released: April 7, 2017

review by Juliana Van Amsterdam 

Album Review: Field of Love – Mozart’s Sister

a4008694957_10Montreal has produced many a talented musician in its time, and an equally talented number have come seeking inspiration within the 514. Mozart’s Sister, the solo project of Caila Thompson-Hannant, is no exception. Thompson-Hannant has been on the Montreal music scene for quite a few years at this point, featuring in notable bands such as Shapes & Sizes, Miracle Fortress, and Think About Life before embarking on Mozart’s Sister with her 2011 Dear Fear release. Originally from British Columbia, Thompson-Hannant attributes the love for her musical style to her uncle, who by all accounts sounds like the coolest guy ever: her tutelage included the likes of Bjork, Air, and rave pop legends Vengaboys.

Field of Love is a vibrant jungle of synth and vocal harmonies with an overarching theme of wide-eyed, pleasurable love; the album comes just in time to usher in Montreal’s great thaw. The production is high quality, but don’t let the “pop” label deter you: Thompson-Hannant’s arrangements are saturated with an exploratory quality that drips with saccharine ingenuity. While the instrumentals pop and sizzle with an energy akin to rebirth, the real treasure lies in Thompson-Hannant’s voice. Whether a track simmers or soars, her voice rises above the melée with clarity and confidence.

Field of Love opens with “Eternally Girl,” which crackles with energy right from the beginning; it’s an easy, bright introduction to the album that delivers bold dance beats and stratospheric falsetto. “Angel” proves to be the most complex track on the album, mostly due to Thompson-Hannant’s chameleonic vocals; her voice is a swirling mix of whine, whisper, croon, and moan. The track begins with an a cappella seraphic chorus  before bare, syncopated synth trickles in, as if Thompson-Hannant is floating down on a giant musical soap bubble. Her use of crescendo and silence is captivating, drawing the listener in to the push-pull rhythm of the synth beats.

“Bump” follows next, a subtle rollercoaster of a track. Dissonant vocals add a lovely, funky fuzz to the dance-club beats, and the whole experience is at the very least guaranteed to get your feet tapping and your head bopping. “My Heart is Wild” is nicely layered, with handclaps interspersed with an almost tropical-house beat and looped vocals; the track literally unfolds around the listener and is certainly a journey worth undertaking.

Album released February 21, 2017

review by Juliana Van Amsterdam 

Feature: Supermoon Lunar Eclipse – The Painters + Carla Sagan

tumblr_inline_omt65xZEH01sd93t5_500

Egg Paper Factory, darlings of Montreal’s independent record label scene, have released a new spring gem this week: a split-tape featuring The Painters and Carla Sagan, both local bands. Supermoon Lunar Eclipse spans just 7 tracks, so each will be detailed below for your listening pleasure. NB: Tracks by The Painters will be labeled (TP), and those by Carla Sagan will be labeled (CS). Bonne écoute!

The Painters embody a gentle folk band infused with a heavy dose of psychedelia; acoustic guitars ground the swirls of synth and lend a nice contrast to lead singer Alex Bourque’s vocals, which scratch along the tracks delivering raw, honest lyrics. Carla Sagan (yes, they seem to embody the female soul of renowned astroscientist Carl Sagan) is the ultimate funky rock-pop group who consistently produce an experimental and authentic sound.

1. Supermoon Lunar Eclipse (TP): jangling chords introduce the instrumental title track, and continue to mingle with the snarling electric guitars that rip along until the track fades out without much fanfare. The track is a good introduction to a unique split-tape that highlights a lot of what local Montreal bands have to offer.

2. Growing Pains (TP): In a personification of the title, this track features a drum line that is hesitant and faltering when keeping time with the acoustic guitars; however, the integration of electric guitar provides a warmer, more rounded coloring by the second stanza. The instrumental imagery evokes the defiant growth of a crocus in early spring.

3. Finish Line (TP): Bourque’s voice calls from a distance here before synth fades in, washing the track in a celestial glow; the effect provides a counterbalance for the low, grounded guitar work. The simple repeating vocal melody tethers the shifting instrumentals, pulling the track together as the different elements create an intricate three-part harmony.

4. When The Fog Lifts (TP): This track is easily The Painters’ tour de force, featuring simple, melodic vocals and beautifully abundant instrumentals. Bourque’s lyrics shine through here, and small, expertly-timed crescendos and decrescendos evoke the rolling ocean. A liquid electric guitar provides an overarching harmony to the vocals, and the two intertwine in an intricate duet over the constant thrumming background of guitars, synth, and drums.

5. Permanent (CS):  A duet of singing and spoken-word provides an air of candidness to this short track, while blunt, staccato drums and what sounds like a harpsichord add a playful aspect. The electric guitar solo in the last minute of the track is not to be underestimated.

6. Make Believer (CS): The track opens with a low, simmering burn accompanied by a recitation from Ellen Belshaw before drums and guitar kick in. “Hello’s” and little keyboard ditties play sporadically in the background before the track rights itself. Concrete melodies from the keyboard, guitar, and vocals begin to form before the track collapses again, with noise experimentation acting as punctuation.

7. White Noise (CS): Supermoon Lunar Eclipse ends with a brilliant track from Carla Sagan that highlights the push-pull relationship between instruments. A sharp beat is provided from a drum kit, acting as a foil for the flowing guitar and and synth. The track is a paradise of sound; soft duets intermingle with different musical effects, creating an air of experimentation and unbounded musical energy. Various phone recordings accompany a wild guitar and synth combination; the vocals slowly become more desperate as the track disintegrates into a wall of noise. The track never quite reaches a conclusion, but the build-up itself is intense and highly affirming.

Album released: March 21, 2017

review by Juliana Van Amsterdam 

 

Album Review: Dragonchaser – Fog Lake

a0105283212_10As the ill-willed spirits of climate change deniers continue to punish us here in Montreal, I can think of nothing better to do than gaze out of a window at the snowy deluge from the comfort of my home, with Fog Lake’s Dragonchaser playing on loop in the background. Aaron Powell, the man behind the music, has been releasing albums of ambient angst for several years now, and has continued to develop his unique sound following a recent move to Montreal from his childhood home in Newfoundland. Dragonchaser is his fourth full-length release, following 2013’s well-received Victoria Park. 

Powell utilizes the DIY, low-fi approach to recording that has risen in popularity amongst “indie” bands, but unlike many other artists, Powell is not using this technique as a simple parlor trick. He began experimenting with ambient sampling as a teenager, and this homemade quality remains in his music today, even as he continues to develop his vocal acuity. Unlike previous albums, Dragonchaser features no completely instrumental tracks, but the atmosphere throughout the album remains laden with introspection and quiet solitude. Powell manages to create a lush, reverberating sound that permeates Dragonchaser; there is an echo effect that carries over from track to track, almost on loop. This style of production paints a vivid picture of being submerged underwater or driving past a familiar wood, with the trees blending into a congruous mass.

In all that he does, Powell delights in the intimacy of subtlety. His voice barely rises above a soft yell, and most lyrics are confessional whispers that are at times swallowed by the swelling instrumentals. His use of vocal and instrumental crescendos are rare enough that when they do occur, you are never quite prepared for the emotional wave that threatens to crash over your head. Powell creates an exquisitely delicate push-pull phenomenon between his vocals and the instrumentals; at one point, they are gently swaying to cradle his lyrics, and at another the faded, washed-out sound has disappeared in favor of blunt melodies.

Dragonchaser opens with the slow-burning “Novocaine,” a lovely, drifting track rife with haunting vocal harmonies and shifting, plodding guitars. “Rattlesnake” begins with a poignant, stripped electric guitar and Powell’s soft voice before drums crash onto the scene, accompanied by a change in his timbre. He now sings outright, unhindered by the steady layers of guitar and snare that swirl beneath him. “Breaking over Branches” enters with a muted, slightly out of tune piano backed by an acoustic guitar: music for a sepia-tinted world. When Powell’s voice cuts in, it is similarly muted, his words being swallowed almost as soon as he gets them out. There is a whimsical, nostalgic atmosphere resonating throughout the track, as if the listener were watching a home movie unfold, having been created solely from Powell’s lyrics.

“Strung Back Around” provides a nice contrast, provided by the bright, open strumming of an acoustic guitar. Powell’s voice is unimpeded and open, and the light echo of a piano melody provides a playful foil to the darker message behind the lyrics. “Roswell” is the most straightforward and tightly-produced track on Dragonchaser, and notes a departure from the loose, experimental style Powell usually embodies in his music. It adds a lighter folk energy to the album, with simple lyrics above a wistful but grounded guitar melody. “Spectrogram” signals the close of Dragonchaser, but Powell has cleverly made it into a kind of musical cliff-hanger. The track swirls with a restless, heady energy that leaves the listener on the edge of their seat, yearning for more. Hopefully, Powell is signaling to his listeners that his story is far from finished.

Album released: February 17, 2017

review by Juliana Van Amsterdam 

 

Artist Profile: Molly Drag

0008703642_100

I ventured up to Le Dépanneur Café in the Mile End a few weeks ago to chat with Molly Drag (née Michael Hansford) about his upcoming album, Whatever Reason. After settling down with our coffees, Hansford confided that he and his roommate, Aaron Powell (Fog Lake), actually live right around the corner from the café; it has been a long-term dream of his to eventually end up in this neighborhood, and he appeared very at home with the plants and locals populating the crowded joint.

Most of Whatever Reason was recorded in a basement studio in London, Ontario. Hansford moved to Montreal this summer with only a few close possessions, and conceded that at first, he felt quite isolated in his new home. The loneliness was compounded by the fact that he knew very few people, and would have to wake up in the early hours of the morning to get to his job at the time as a café cook. This solitude, though now only a memory, ended up inspiring one of the tracks on the new release; he has also begun to sprinkle Québecois into his latest songs to celebrate and acknowledge, in his words, “a culture that has been here for so long, and has fought to keep it.” 

Hansford has an exciting, frenetic energy about him at times, and it shows in his music. When he writes or records, it is done all at once; everything is done “on the record” without much forethought, and he will sit for hours in his apartment focused solely on his craft. On previous albums such as the sprawling Deeply Flawed release, Hansford acknowledges a lack of focus; every song is raw, intimate, and wandering.  Hansford praised the more focused energy of the Whatever Reason, describing the contrast between various tracks: “There’s a bit of anger on this record, but there’s also a lot of self-reflection.”

Whatever Reason is a very conceptual album, signaling “the end to a dark trilogy” of records that Molly Drag has produced so far. The contemplative attitude reflects an “addiction” to nostalgia, and the inevitable sense of separation that accompanies those feelings. He also described his inspiration for the album cover art: a painting he saw of a sick child surrounded by piles of things that they love, but that are just out of reach. Whatever Reason’s album cover depicts a young girl in a dark wood surrounded by rabbits, Hansford’s favorite animal.

For an important project such as this, Hansford said he was happy to have a solid, more permanent live lineup to support his vocals. Powell acts as his secondary guitarist, adding a professional aspect to their good personal relationship; in fact, all but one of the Molly Drag lineup also play in Fog Lake. The constancy and familiarity helps to make the live performances sound more like the recorded ones, a factor that Hansford holds in very high regard: “If people have been listening to your music and they go see you live expecting to hear what they love, and they don’t, you’re not doing your job properly. You’re there to entertain.” For Hansford, the most important issue at hand is the integrity of the project; he needs musicians who want the project to succeed as much as he does, instead of being there simply to play or just to support him.

After the official interview ended we lingered at Dépanneur a bit longer, chatting with ease about mutual friends and personal heroes – he regaled me with a story of his online conversations with local author Heather O’Neill – before Hansford looked sheepishly at his phone and said he had to duck out early; there apparently was no water in his apartment. We ushered ourselves out into the Mile End dusk and parted with handshakes and smiles before he hurried up Avenue du Parc, shoulders hunched against the wind and signature wool cap bobbing up and down: a true Montrealer out and about in his city.

Whatever Reason will be released April 21, 2017 and is available for pre-order now.

interview by Juliana Van Amsterdam 

 

Album Review: Not Even Happiness – Julie Byrne

Image result for not even happinessFun fact: if you travel to Central Park when she’s not on tour, you just might find Julie Byrne working as a park ranger… that is, if she’s still in New York City by that point. The self-described nomad with the voice of liquid silver has been chronicling her travels over the U.S on Not Even Happiness, speaking plainly of love and loss in a reflective confessional rife with bucolic allusions. The album is at once sweeping and intimate, a good listen for those cross-country road trips or in the comfort of your own bed.

Byrne is not discriminatory in her choice of folk muses, channeling Joni Mitchell on “Follow My Voice,” Ben Howard on “Morning Doves,” and even Enya on “I Live Now As A Singer.” She draws inspiration from her peers both past and present, combining their strengths so effortlessly that she creates her own unique sound. Not Even Happiness is plays out in a trance-like state, almost suspending the listener in a dream as Byrne draws them in with quiet, naked introspection.

Byrne is careful not to fall into the folk trap of redundancy; she incorporates confident fingerpicking and classic folk influences with some more avant-garde electric keyboard work, exploring with reverb and echo effects without letting them swallow her narrative. Not Even Happiness follows an interesting narrative, as if Byrne is drifting out to sea, off to her next adventure.

“Follow My Voice” draws you in with strong fingerpicking, accompanied only by a sly keyboard reverb that emphasizes the beginning of quiet reflection. Byrne’s voice is unadorned and at the forefront of the mix, softly whisper-singing confessions into your ear. “Sleepwalker” provides a faster pace, incorporating layered fingerpicking to create a flowing river effect. Again, Byrne’s vocals are the centerpiece; she is not hiding behind her instrumentals, choosing instead to use them as a simple but detailed backdrop for her well-articulated lyrics.

 On “Natural Blue,” a calm, repetitive cadence and melody evoke a lullaby. Faint vocals are faded and distorted by echo, and gentle harmonies add subtle layers to round out the track. Byrne includes wave sounds on “Sea As It Glides,” binding nature with nurture for the entire duration. The track reverberates and sways as it continues, and the accompanying instrumentals are constantly in motion. When Byrne sings “you are the sea/as it glides,” you are very likely to believe her.

Byrne introduces the album in a very grounded way, and by the time the last notes fade from “I Live Now As A Singer,” she has disappeared into the instrumentals, leaving us with only an echo. The production on Not Even Happiness is impeccably done, and the sound fills the space of wherever you are; Byrne’s voice slips through the speakers to make a nest between your ears, curling up for a long winter’s nap. I know one thing for sure: I can now face the harsh Montreal winters armed with Byrne’s gentle warmth.

Album released: January 27, 2017

review by Juliana Van Amsterdam 

Album Review: RTJ3 – Run The Jewels

maxresdefaultOn January 20th, many Americans will be searching for a way to vent their frustration about the current state of the nation; for my fellow ex-pats, look no further: Killer Mike and El-P, the masterminds behind Run the Jewels, have got you covered. As “Volga Don” (nickname courtesy of my clever grandfather) ascends to the highest public office in the United States, you can lift your speakers to the heavens and blast “2100” until you feel stable enough to re-enter into society. RTJ3 aims to be the antidote to our current national and global angst, with the mentality that sometimes, you just need to get mad. Run the Jewels are not known to sugar-coat or present their lyrics on a bed of roses, and on RTJ3 they are as blunt and sharp-tongued as ever. Killer Mike and El-P take turns shooting barbed rhymes at rapid-fire speed, whether crowing over the success of their nearly-four year collaboration or preaching on the injustices of society.

Run the Jewels have never shied away from addressing issues they find abhorrent, and over time they have mastered the craft of yelling through a bullhorn backed by complex production. El-P has outdone himself on this album, creating stable and well-rounded tracks that simmer and swirl underneath his and Killer Mike’s rhymes. The pair has tapped a host of up-and-coming powerhouses in the rap and hip hop fields, including Danny Brown (“Hey Kids (Bumaye)”) and Trina (“Panther Like A Panther”). Kamasi Washington, renowned sax player who appeared on the scene with Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly, features in the closest thing to a Run the Jewels ballad (“Thursday in the Danger Room”). The attitudes on RTJ3 range from a mad rage against class divisions (“A Report to the Shareholders/Kill Your Masters”) to the stereotypical pat-yourself-on-the-shoulder vibe (“Legend Has It”) put out by countless rap artists; though through the clever lyricism of Run the Jewels, this kind of trope doesn’t feel hackneyed. “Thursday in the Danger Room” addresses two very different losses suffered by Killer Mike and El-P: the former’s friend shot in the street for gang-related reasons, the latter’s close buddy dying in a hospital of a fatal illness.

RTJ3 doesn’t necessarily start of with a bang, but rather more of a low simmering energy. “Down” is a tightly-produced track that shakes off any braggadocio carried over from RTJ2; the boys are back and man, are they ready to go. “Thieves! (Screamed the Ghost)” carries the torch with a sinister background melody and sampling The Twilight Zone. Here, Run the Jewels address the rise of riots in response to the blatant police misconduct that has rampaged the U.S. The track is an adrenaline-packed analysis of the reasoning behind the looting and violence that inevitably accompanies what usually start out as peaceful protests. “Thieves!” isn’t the most diverse track on RTJ3, but it doesn’t have to be; the powerful lyrics featured here speak for themselves, and reverberate long after the closing sample of Martin Luther King’s speech on riots.

But Killer Mike and El-P are not done with rending righteousness from their listeners: “2100” begins as soon as “Thieves!” ends, now with a message of hope for those still reeling from the election results (it was released on November 9, the day after Trump’s victory was announced). BOOTS features on the chorus, almost moaning a plea: “Save my swollen heart/Bring me home from the dark/Take me up.” On “Panther Like A Panther” and “Oh Mama,” Run the Jewels return to more typical topics of discussion: crowing about their sexual prowess and general eminence, but assuring listeners they’re still kept in check by their familial ties and dedication to their loved ones.

Letting out this rage and sadness through song and music can be quite cathartic, and Run the Jewels recognize this better than anyone. Over the next four years, I will be returning to this album when I feel that words can no longer express my existential angst concerning the plight of our society. Killer Mike and El-P are certainly better lyricists than the average citizen, and use that advantage to give a voice to those who have none. It will certainly be interesting to see what Run the Jewels tackles next on RTJ4.

Album released: January 13, 2017

review by Juliana Van Amsterdam 

 

Album Review: We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your service – A Tribe Called Quest

Image result for we got it from hereThe album title was Phife Dawg’s idea. He didn’t really have a reason, but rather thought it had a nice ring; I’ll be damned if it doesn’t encapsulate A Tribe Called Quest’s rather epic journey through the years, as well as the recent passing of Phife, 45, in March of this year from diabetes complications. Their first album in 18 years since the 1998 release of The Love Movement was recorded in Q-Tip’s New Jersey studio, ensuring that everyone working on the album showed up in person to record their parts before Ali Shaheed Muhammad, master of mixing, pieced it all together. MC’s Q-Tip and Jarobi were the main players for the album, with participation from big names such as Busta Rhymes, Consequence, Jack White, Kendrick Lamar, Anderson .Paak, and Andre 3000, to name a few.

We got it from Here… provides the nostalgic sound of the OG Tribe with some new perspective. As always, ATCQ cleverly disguises darker themes in effortless beats, clever sampling, and an impeccable knack for call-and-response lyricism. The tracks could provide a wildly successful background to a party or spark an idea for a thinkpiece, depending on how carefully the listener pays attention to the messages woven inside the smooth mixes. Here, ATCQ addresses very relevant cultural and political aspects of 2016: racism, Trump’s stump policies, and POC/minority rights. The more universal themes included in the album are related to kinship, the inevitable passing of time, and self-worth. If you really tried, you could reduce We got it from Here… to a tribute album, and in some ways it is: both Phife Dawg and the core four are lauded in various tracks. However, it would be naive of anyone to assume that ATCQ is anything but two-dimensional; all of the tracks are layered with nuanced references to topics both of the heart and of the head.

We got it from Here… begins with a sample from the 1974 film Willie Dynamite before Q-Tip and Phife Dawg start the call to arms in uniform; the race is off. “The Space Program” provides an excellent opener for the 16-track album, with all players present and accounted for. The track ends with a well-known scene from Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971). “A Solid Wall of Sound” features both the vocals and guitar work of Jack White and the vocals of Elton John. The track is a tribute to ATCQ, with Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, and Busta Rhymes providing a head-spinning deluge of rhymes featuring a good deal of patois slang. “Dis Generation” follows the same lines, with the Tribe discussing and commenting on the events of the passing years.

“Lost Somebody” is a tribute to Phife’s passing, with Katia Cadet providing a bittersweet chorus underneath Q-Tip and Jarobi’s lyrics. The track begins with low bass before moving into a subdued, somber (for ATCQ) ballad-rap. Q-Tip provides Phife’s history; fitting, as the two were close friends growing up. Jarobi pays tribute to the man he knew as his bandmate. The track ends mid-chorus, a clear representation of Phife’s untimely and surprising death. Realistically, Jarobi admitted in interviews that he was simply unable to finish the track. After a short delay a very weird, jagged guitar solo cuts through the silence (thanks, Jack White), but the interlude is unexplained, maybe on purpose. Kendrick Lamar is granted his own verse in “Conrad Tokyo,” and he effortlessly slips into the Tribe call-and-response. The track deals with heavier themes, discussing the current political atmosphere in the USA. The sultry, agitated beat conveys a smooth tension; Jack White’s mysterious guitar makes a reappearance at the end of the track.

We got it from Here… ends with “The Donald,” another tribute to Phife Dawg. His passing is acutely felt in the entire album, between references snuck into a lyric and the dedication of two tracks to his name. It is clear that while the album essentially picks up where the crew left off 18 years prior, this will probably be the last we see of new ATCQ material for a long while. Time is needed to grieve and recalibrate; in addition, much has happened since the last album release. These men are no longer the 19-year-olds that wowed crowds in Paris and across America; they have families and individual careers, and may not be as willing to relive their past lives through constant reunion tours. In essence, A Tribe Called Quest has also been laid to rest with the release of this album. But fans, no need to mourn; the music heard in We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service is universal and timeless, and will surely inspire a new crop of aspiring hip hop artists and good friends to continue the music-making cycle.

Album Released: November 11, 2016

review by Juliana Van Amsterdam 

 

Album Review: Phern – cool coma

a2678303782_10The brand-new release from Phern, a supergroup composed of underground darlings from the Montreal indie scene, proves once again that the city is a both a breeding ground and a blank canvas for creative ventures big and small. Phern, which consists of members from Moss Lime, Soft Cone, and Sheer Agony (to name a few), has quietly written and produced the tiny EP Pause Clope and a tightly spiraling LP cool coma within the 514 city limits. The group could be dismissed as another cute local band if not for the fact that its members have already weathered the city’s saturated music scene, and thus have been able to create an album that adeptly straddles a label of jangle-pop and experimentalism.

The sound is not unlike The Microphones or early Grizzly Bear at times, and influences of Sheer Agony’s Masterpiece are sprinkled here and there. Within cool coma there exist jangle-pop earworms such as “I Sold The House” and “Pebble,” and a couple Phil Evrum-esque tracks appear in “Flipper Twister” and “Hospital Garden.” The album is presented in the order in which the songs were written and recorded; an honest, casual, stripped-down approach to presenting music. No track on cool coma reaches past the three-minute mark, providing short bursts of tart rhythms and staccato, syncopated beats. Hélène Barbier’s soft drone provides an anchor for the loose drums and wandering, chaotic guitar and synth.

“I Sold The House,” the first track on Pause Clope, starts with the sound of jaunty snares and a liquid electric guitar. It’s a catchy number, and Barbiere’s vocals here are less abrasive here than on other tracks, providing a soft, catchy introduction to Phern. “Excavator,” the first track on cool coma, has a psychedelic element. With fuzzy vocals and slow, fluid layering, the entire track appears to be soaked in sepia. “Pebble” provides a nice walking track to the tune of jangly electric guitar and expert syncopation. Barbiere’s vocals provide a physical and lyrical dissonance to the instrumentals, which are quite reminiscent of Sheer Agony.

“Real Nice Chair” features a lovely bass guitar intro before the electric guitar interrupts without warning; Barbiere’s voice then slinks in and proceeds to hover just below the instrumentals for the remainder of the track. “Crosswalk Talk” features more bass guitar solos and a hypnotic chorus, which repeats “I would recommend that you don’t cross here.” It is at once robotic and evocative, with Barbiere’s high monotone serving as a warning sign.

cool coma simultaneously keeps you on your toes and lulls you into a sense of complacency. The instrumentals come in fits and starts, with heavy syncopation and time signature change, but the overarching sound is very similar throughout the album. There is a gentle abrasiveness to cool coma, with many tracks affecting an endearing subtle dissonance; Phern knows what they are doing, and they do it well. 

Album released: November 25, 2016 (Pause Clope was released October 14, 2016)

review by Juliana Van Amsterdam