The Year in Music: 2019
Our annual review of new recordings by local musicians.
We’ve probably all had the discussion about what we would need if we were stranded on a desert island.
What would I require most? Safe drinking water? A multipurpose knife? A solar-powered torch so I could see in the dark?
Of course not. I’d want my favourite music!
Better still, I would drag a quartet of multitalented musicians with me so we could compose music, perform our masterpieces using handcrafted instruments, and relish the juice from random island fruits after our performance. (I’d figure out the less important stuff, such as water, knives and power sources, after I arrived on the island.)
I’m being silly, of course, but I can’t imagine living without the power of music.
I urge you to listen to some of the options presented here. There are plenty of disparate possibilities to choose among, all featuring artists who make their home in Headwaters or have musical ties to these hills.
Many of the albums are available on CD, though more and more artists are opting to release their work, at least initially, on streaming services such as Bandcamp and SoundCloud. Just search an artist’s or band’s name to discover how to hear their music.
I do hope you enjoy them all. They’ll get you through until the rescue ship comes in.
For more than 20 years, Monkey House albums have been the repository for the outlier musical creations of Don Breithaupt.
Monkey House’s music is instinctively developed with a quirky, jazzy, high-level musicianship similar to the DNA of Breithaupt’s lifelong musical influences. The musical alchemy created by band members and guest artists on all 12 tracks is superlative, and I basked for days in the early songs before moving on to enjoy the rest of the album.
Opening track “10,000 Hours” takes a high-level funk jab at Anders Ericsson’s famous theory before morphing into a delicious samba and ending with the solo wizardry of Snarky Puppy guitarist Mark Lettieri. The subsequent tracks are finely cut musical gems that include a cover of Walter Becker’s “Book of Liars” and the trademark sound of the Manhattan Transfer on “The Jazz Life.”
Friday, Monkey House’s fifth full-length release, is clearly the best thing the band has put together since the project was born.
From the appealing cover art by Chris Morro to the final guitar jangle, the first solo project of Andrew McArthur, aka Warez, reflects an uplifting and musically creative vibe. Assisted by the talented Wally Jericho and with the vocal collaboration of Sara May of Falcon Jane, this collection of music is heavenly, relaxed and positive.
But even if you want to cut a rug, there’s “Spooky Kitty” or “Moon” for a slow dance. “Stupid” is anything but, with an opening riff that will grab your ears for days, and you’ll want to catch McArthur’s magical wedding singer-style dance moves in the companion online video. “4 Walls” is an ode to the screens and images on the early Internet and video games that shaped McArthur’s generation.
Except for brass and woodwinds, McArthur adroitly handles all the instrumentation on the album, which gives listeners a taste of his musical filter on life when he isn’t performing live or in studio with Falcon Jane and other groups.
The Gift of Giving
I just received my first holiday gift and it may turn out to be the best of the year. It’s new music from the incomparable Shirley Eikhard.
Eikhard has written and recorded five holiday songs that gave me shivers. The nice kind. The ones you get while sipping a hot chocolate after a winter sleigh ride. Each song sounds like a classic we’ve heard for generations, and that’s no surprise. Eikhard’s songwriting talent is legendary and her list of career accomplishments lengthy.
The Gift of Giving includes “The Holidays Are Here” in 5/4 and the chill-inducing “The Gift of Giving,” along with the bopping rescue story “Santa’s Got a Secret.” There’s even a jazzy ode to the little feline darling on the cover of the EP in “Baby’s First Christmas.”
All the songs are wrapped in Eikhard’s signature vocal stylings and lush background vox. She adroitly performs all instrumentation from guitar, keyboards, bass, chromatic harmonica and percussion (drums, finger snaps and tambourine) to flute.
This EP will be playing in my living room over Christmas. I’d recommend you treat yourself as well.
Made in Canada
David Storey and the Side Road Scholars
Telling great stories is nothing new for David Storey, who’s back with his guitar and the Side Road Scholars to perform nine new songs on Made in Canada. All the tracks were recorded live on the floor of Operation Northwoods studios near Orangeville.
In each tune Storey’s gritty characters take us for a ride, whether they’re showing a special girl around town in “My Girl’s” or just bolting from a crushing 9-to-5 lifestyle in “I’m Gone.” “Bring It” offers a unique glimpse into the life of a goalie for hire as he challenges opposing teams to take their best shots, and “Trout Lake” tells the quintessentially Canadian story of an outdoor hero stickhandling his way to local glory under snowflakes on a moonlit northern night. There’s even a murder ballad – “50 Clicks” tells the tale of a jealous loner leaving the scene of his crime while reflecting on the error of his ways.
It’s good to have David Storey back singing again. Made in Canada scores an overtime winner.
Sumach Roots, Jason Wilson’s latest project, is an inventive, multifaceted musical journey through the evolution of Ontario. Combining Wilson’s extensive musical pedigree with knowledge related to his work as an adjunct professor of history at the University of Guelph, the album treats listeners to an experience that is dense with musical style and historic backstory.
On “Posthuma,” inspired by the late 18th-century diaries of Elizabeth Posthuma Simcoe, impressive singing performances and a superlative squad of musical collaborators, including Orangeville’s Perry Joseph, present an early perspective on Upper Canada. Toronto’s Great Fire of 1904 is dramatically described in “Lads of Lombard Hall,” with the Toronto Fire Services’ Pipes and Drums providing a haunting fade-out at song’s end. And “Eugene (No Fear of Flying)” makes for a moving finale that recounts the thoughts of a Haudenosaunee ironworker.
For me, the 10 tracks on Sumach Roots ended far too quickly, but then most remarkable experiences do. Fortunately, the musical tales on Sumach Roots can be spun over and over again.
Cory McCallum may be the most artistically prolific human I know. When he isn’t doing “other stuff” (see Smaller Rooms Bigger Fences), McCallum writes and makes music that is often expressed via Pant City.
Pant City’s latest shows off a full posse of Orangeville musicians McCallum has consorted with musically in bands such as Faceless Lazers, the Haymakers, Grande Fir, Beef Chiefs and Monoplaza.
The music is similar to his earlier work on Verily I Did Gaze upon the Tiger, with hefty Petty-like back beats, nimble lyrics and enviable guitar work, yet there is a purposeful country-blues resonance to the messages. This is evident in the apologetic waltz “Not Tonight, Dear” and in the reflective relief of “Easy.”
“Heluva Mess” is a notable highlight with a savoury feel and a righteous solo guitar feature. “2CUCRY” is simple and touchingly personal.
Once again, great work from the eye of Orangeville’s musical hurricane.
With Countrywide Soul, Jim Cuddy aimed to capture his touring band’s boundless energy and distinctive treatment of previous solo material, as well as of some earlier Blue Rodeo numbers and covers of well-known classics.
The album is a triumph that was recorded live with no overdubs in the barn located on Cuddy’s family farm in Mulmur. Familiar songs are impeccably reimagined in tunes the band has refined through many live performances.
“Dragging On” from Blue Rodeo’s Tremolo, for example, is treated to a brisker tempo with lush strings removed, and “Clearer View” is repurposed in a cleaner, tighter, more countrified style that perfectly suits the Jim Cuddy Band.
Two new originals, “Back Here Again,” an energetic two-step, and the rockier “Glorious Day” were created specifically for this project and are highlights of the album.
Best of all, out in front of all this musicianship are those iconic Jim Cuddy vocals tying it all together and resonating just as much as they did the first time I heard “Try” on my car radio.
Not from This Town
The Discarded may comprise family members, but they don’t drive a multicoloured school bus on tour and their music exhibits a zero come-on-get-happy vibe. This group is a purebred garage punk trio who play heavy, hard-hitting music.
Dad J.P. Wasson provides vocals and guitar with sons Jared Dean powering the bass work and Caden Jax slamming out a cinder-block solid foundation on drums. Since the first downbeat of their self-titled inaugural release in 2017, The Discarded have hammered themselves into a bona fide rocking missile coming at you with purpose and attitude. Their hard-driving approach shows on this latest five-song EP.
Not from This Town is also the music that accompanies the text of Act 1 of J.P.’s three-act musical Sound Check and Fury, which can be read at thediscarded.ca (click on Script).
The Discarded are prolific to the max. Not from This Town is the band’s third release in three years, and they don’t plan on letting up anytime soon. A fall tour is now in process and the music from Acts 2 and 3 of Sound Check and Fury was to be released this November.
Smaller Rooms Bigger Fences
Some combinations just work. Like pickles and ice cream or Vegemite and avocado. When combos like these are melded, the fit seems natural.
The same is true of Cory McCallum of Pant City and Devin Hentsch of Devin and the Dark Light. The two, who worked together with the Haymakers before veering off in separate directions, teamed up to create Smaller Rooms Bigger Fences, a unique and engaging musical hybrid. It’s nice to have them collaborating again.
Smaller Rooms Bigger Fences is primarily acoustic, as each artist holsters his sharper edges. The result exhibits the fine flavours of each in a distinctive and synchronistic way. “Cages,” with its relaxed backbeat, and “The Knife,” which shuffles in the true country tradition, are keepers. The violin of Rebecca Rose-Peacock and additional guitars by Justin McDonald and Jae Marr are also featured.
This is mournful alt-folk-indie-rock that shines.
Homo Trans Futura
Listening to many of the rock recordings of the 1970s and beyond was a mesmerizing yet delightfully baffling experience. New and unexplained sounds were invading headphones everywhere as listeners sat in awe next to their lava lamps. But what was that one sound that was so fascinating and new?
Stevie Wonder, Kraftwerk, Mike Oldfield, Pete Townshend (The Who) and Joe Zawinul (Weather Report) all spoke to their audiences using a musical device that created uniquely haunting sounds. The device was the ARP 2600 synthesizer. In the hands of a master, intriguing musical atmospheres could be created.
In Arprovisations, Vol. 1, James Paul, aka Homo Trans Futura, has crafted a collection of musical extemporizations using an ARP 2600. You’ll recognize the sounds in each of the six improvised performances. As the liner notes by Friendly Rich suggest, this recording is “James Paul and the Arp, elegantly dancing alone in a dark basement, with you the lucky listener peering in.”
It’s meditative, trancelike music that just might light you up. Have fun!
Hell from the Hills
Torn Down Units
Torn Down Units have been cranking out their own brand of power-packed rock ’n’ roll surf punk for more than 20 years, and on their latest release this experience shows in the best possible way. Like a fully formed and dominant Stanley Cup-winning power play, each song on Hell from the Hills comes at listeners in waves. From “Take Me or Leave Me” to “She Lies” and “Grudge Match,” you know these guys are serious rockers who can score at will.
The current version of the band features Ian Coburn on guitars and bass, Greg Nelson on guitars and Luke Ryan on drums. The project was mixed and mastered by Greg Dawson. The raw and exciting vocals, provided by all members, hearken back to vintage power rockers such as Thin Lizzy, Nazareth, and Beck, Bogert and Appice with a dollop of AC/DC.
TDU are tight, well-oiled and stoked with an energy that rocks to the bone.
We Could Be Beautiful
Last year Sara Rose shared her singing and songwriting prowess on her debut album, Until Now. Her latest album, We Could Be Beautiful, takes things to the next level with an even closer look at key events and situations in her life.
Exposing inner feelings to someone close to you is challenging enough, but sharing deep emotions through a song is often tougher. With the production assistance of Dennis Hahn, Rose handles the task with aplomb.
She sings confidently, from the intimate confession of “Wear Me on Your Heart” and the resolute anthem of “Ain’t for Me” to “Change My Plans,” a sassy dance number in which something so wrong evolves into something just right. And “Fault Line” is a solid tune that will induce head bobbing in short order.
At the heart of Rose’s music is the idea that a single song can serve a purpose for and resonate specifically with each listener. She is honoured to provide the vehicle. We are privileged to be the ones listening.
Orangeville’s own visual artist Ricky Schaede advised me of a recent EP from a talented electronic musical artist known as Romshii.
Recognized mostly for his earlier roles in bands such as the Auras and Our Father Star, Romshii, aka Robb Schaede, has created a hauntingly trippy five-song electronic collection. Meme Life includes the relaxed “How to Tell a Girl You Like Her” and the eminently danceable “TAY DAY” and “Robot Porn.” I was totally smitten by the satirical lyric and dance energy of the final track, though, for delicacy, I’ll abbreviate its title here to “WTF Just Happened?”
Robb Schaede produced all tracks, with sound mastering by José Contreras (By Divine Right) and additional vocals by Andrew McArthur (Falcon Jane, Warez) and Mike Schaede (Romshii’s dad).
Meme Life left me wishing for more. Romshii says he’ll give up anything to keep doing music. I’ll be on the lookout for his next offering.
Foreshadowing Light: Live
Citizen of Zion
Citizen of Zion is a Christian rock group led by husband and wife Chris and Becki Prins. Together with Larry Mazzola, Todd Richards and Kyle Fegan, the couple have created an ambitious musical event titled Foreshadowing Light: Live. The two-disc set includes a companion lyric and art book that guides listeners through a 15-song biblical journey from Eden to the cross.
The band’s style incorporates heavy guitar riffs, synthesized keys and syncopated rhythms, with the bulk of the vocals handled by keyboardist Becki Prins. A choir is also featured to great effect. “Line of Kings” from Disc 2 was a high point for me.
During the six years it took to create Foreshadowing Light, COZ worked tirelessly to bring their idea to fruition. The production reflects the band’s genuine passion for the story and an energy that shines through in all the music.