This album is the opposite of good
by Aidan Morgan
The Kennedy Suite
Cowboy Junkies fans, Kennedy buffs, people who like enjoying the music they’re listening to, beware: your hopes will find no purchase here. Composer Scott Garbe, who should be getting top billing over the Junkies (their contribution is largely limited to the arrangements, with the exception of Margo Timmins’ vocals on one track), has put together “a rock opera, song cycle, post-modern musical that tells the story of the JFK assassination through the fragmented narratives of a series of characters”.
To that end, Garbe has assembled a roster of Canadian alt-pop musicians issuing from a universe where Arcade Fire never made difficult disco our premiere export: Skydiggers, Hawksley Workman, Sarah Harmer, Harlan Pepper, The Good Family Band, Jason Collett and others.
The Kennedy Suite works best when the singer and the material suit each other. Timmins’ low, superbly controlled voice makes the perfect vehicle for Jackie Kennedy’s thoughts in “Disintegrating”. Collett performs as the dead president in the dirge-like and beautiful “Arlington”. On “Slipstream”, it’s frankly a delight to hear Martin Tielli hijack the material and turn it into a lost Rheostatics song.
Other performers don’t fare so well; do not, for example, turn to the Skydiggers for penetrating psychological insight into the mind of Lee Harvey Oswald.
A few highlights aside, the mixture of arch posturing and mawkish overreach on The Kennedy Suite trivializes the history that it’s trying so hard to elevate. In “Parkland”, performed by Lee Harvey Osmond (really, people?), a hospital orderly takes his son to work on the day of the assassination and encounters a blood-stained Jackie Kennedy: “[Jackie] bent down and kissed my John-John’s face/Smoothed her bloody dress into place/And with her son’s love as her staff/ She lifted a nation upon her back”.
Those aren’t the worst lyrics on the album. Maybe not even in that song. It’s like a Waiting for Guffman sequel even Christopher Guest wouldn’t attempt.
P.W. Elverum and Sun
Context is everything. On his latest Mount Eerie album, mastermind Phil Elverum re-imagines some previously released material by way of Auto-Tune. It presents a contradiction: an actually challenging record that could be easily dismissed by a casual listen. Drawing from the 2012 albums Clear Moon and Ocean Roar, these reworked and “remixed” versions are sparser, less brooding and at moments are strangely reminiscent of Bon Iver. While Auto-Tune may be a bit of a dead horse these days, imagining Elverum fixating over these tracks at home with Garage Band and an M-Box (as depicted on the album cover) puts the release into perspective. It’s not the strongest Mount Eerie release, nor was it intended to be. It’s just the latest exercise in a steady stream of creative output. /Michael Dawson
The debut from Vancouver’s Tough Age is a nice surprise coming from seminal Canadian pop label Mint Records. Despite being filled with weirdo guitar hooks and fuzzy melodies –– plenty in line with Mint offerings like the New Pornographers, Novillero and the Evaporators –– the four-piece’s music tends to be more abrasive than what you usually get from this west coast label.
Their self-titled album is still a toe-tapper, with syrupy milkshake surf-pop meeting cartoonish knucklehead punk. Album opener “We’re Both to Blame” is a dose of scrappy psych noise and delay pedal trails, while the plodding “Seahorse” sounds dreamlike. Clocking in 11 songs in well under 30 minutes, Tough Age are riding high on the new wave of bubblegum rock. /Chris Morin
First Rate People
First Rate People are never more intensely, painfully earnest as on “Three Ordinary Words”, where the singer says he’s “the only boy for you” and that he wants “to be yours forever”. That’s Level One love song writing, but the Toronto collective nevertheless brings out resonant emotions in their debut album. The primarily electro-pop group has a rotating cast of singers, owes a bit to Stars, a bit to 90s R&B and not as much to the laptop-based pop folks working today.
Frankly, Everest presents a strange mix, from basic and pure to polished electronic gems, built with off-kilter loops and beats along with strings, guitars, horns and synths. Some of it turns out fantastic. The first two tracks, “Dark Age” and “You Won’t Get This Joke at All”, are a couple of sweet gut punches to the heart. “Loose Cannon”, on the hand, could be a straight-up late period Sting song. But hey, who hasn’t landed on late period Sting while balancing so many elements? /James Brotheridge