Making Max Mad

A dense album full of calculated surprises? Yes please

by Aidan Morgan

cd-thusowlsThus Owls
Turning Rocks
Secret City
4 out of 5

I like details in my music. I like weird riffs and sudden changes in chord progression or time signature, or a cornet solo in the middle of a garage rock jam. Sometimes a few grace notes can make a mediocre album listenable, or turn a good album into a great one.

I bet you’ll be disappointed if I don’t tell you that Turning Rocks, the third album from Thus Owls, is an album full of carefully arranged moments of surprise (otherwise, what did I write that opening paragraph for?). Certainly the twisting Farfisa organ lines on songs like “Ropes” give added depth to an album that already holds plenty of great moments.

Thus Owls is a collaboration between Swedish-Canadian husband and wife duo, Erika and Simon Angell. The lyrics trace the outlines of Erika’s family history on the Swedish island of Orust. Scraps of anecdote, village gossip and overheard conversations weave together into a loose narrative. The arrangements, alternately chilly and lush, are bound together by Angell’s gorgeous alto.

I strongly advise that you take Turning Rocks a few tracks at a time. Like a heavy fog, it’s wonderful until the cold sneaks in under your jacket. There should be a deluxe box set with packets of hot chocolate.

But the most important thing to know about Turning Rocks is that one of the tracks is called “A Windful of Screams”. A windful of screams. The phrase describes exactly what happens in my mind when I read that title. I’m not sure if it’s a great album, but it’s moody and inspired, and it feels like an undiscovered soundtrack to Hour of the Wolf. Thus Owls is music for Max von Sydow to go slowly insane to.

cd-kevindrewKevin Drew
Darlings
Arts and Crafts
3.5 out of 5

On Darlings, Broken Social Scene co-founder Kevin Drew offers up what many BSS songs may have sounded like before they were churned through dense layers of musicianship — more minimal, with more straightforward instrumentation. The LP is a slow burn that blends wiry guitars with K.C. Accidental-esque electronics. Lyrically, Drew is at his best when his hushed and carefully paced vocals take on things that would make most people nervous to say out loud. In the end, the record boils down to one unavoidable question: who was “Bullshit Ballad” written about? /Michael Dawson

cd-holdThe Hold Steady
Teeth Dreams
Razor and Tie
3.5 out of 5

The Hold Steady’s lyrics –– full of shows, drugs, scenes gone wrong and a mostly common set of characters from album to album –– have always seemed to trade on personal experience, while their bar-band style kept the records from being tedious or burdened by the weight of their words. But on Teeth Dreams, it feels like lead singer Craig Finn can’t quite decide where he wants to do his truth-telling from: the back of the bar or somewhere else entirely. He does well at both on some tracks, like “Big Cig”, “Almost Everything” and “Wait a While”, but in others there’s a disconnect between Finn and his subject — and therefore between the band and what’s made them great in the past. There’s enough here to maintain hope for The Hold Steady into the future, but also enough to make fans worry they’re going to become dull. /James Brotheridge

cd-cloudCloud Nothings
Here and Nowhere Else
Carpark
3 out of 5

Cloud Nothings’ 2012 effort Attack on Memory quickly became one of the most revered indie-rock records of the nascent decade — probably because it proudly offered, in the midst of chillwave’s peak, “no nostalgia and no sentiment.” (For my money it seems silly to declare “no nostalgia” as one retreats into ’90s guitar-swaddling, but hey, maybe my money’s dumb.) Here and Nowhere Else is an extension of frontman Dylan Baldi’s ongoing mission, although it’s more upbeat than Memory. A slim majority of the record is dull, if generally pleasant, and the band is now two for two when it comes to lengthy odes to the classic Wipers LP Youth of America. But moments like the unhinged drumming on “Psychic Trauma” and the entirety of the single “I’m Not Part of Me” are enough to require repeated listens, and hint at continued growth. /Mason Pitzel

cd-timbreTimber Timbre
Hot Dreams
Arts and Crafts
4.5 / 5

Taylor Kirk drew inspiration for Timber Timbre’s third album on Arts and Crafts from hanging in Laurel Canyon in L.A.’s Hollywood Hills. There’s definitely a Big Sleep / Chinatown / Mulholland Drive vibe to their follow up to the JUNO- and Polaris-nominated Creep On Creepin’. There are multiple nods to movie soundtracks and languid sax-infused west coast jazz, with the sax coming from woodwind master and fellow Polaris nominee Colin Stetson. Cinematic themes and imagery abound in the lyrics as well, from genres including western, mystery, romance and road trip. Drumheller even gets a shout-out in “Grand Canyon”, and it turns out Kirk and musical partner Simon Trottier arranged the album at the Banff Centre, far from L.A.’s sunny streets. This album is a strong contender for the 2014 Polaris. /Gregory Beatty

cd-grynerEmm Gryner
Torrential
Dead Daisy
2 out of 5

Emm Gryner, a past member of David Bowie’s backing band, has never settled into a single sound — moving from feel-good ballads to twangy folk-rock seemingly on a whim. It’s great that she doesn’t want to be pinned down, but it does for a confusing listen at times. Her 10th album, Torrential, continues the trend: Gryner bounces from folk flourishes to lush electro-pop, never quite nailing it in either genre. Still, on songs like “Purge” and “Pioneer”, Gryner’s vocals are pitch-perfect — even if the lyrics tend to be bogged down by excessive wordiness. The highlight of the album is “So Easy”, a syrupy duet between Gryner and space superstar Chris Hadfield, who previously released a video of himself singing Bowie’s “Space Oddity”. If you can ignore the obvious novelty of listening to an astronaut sing, it’s radio-friendly bliss. /Chris Morin

cd-scareyS. Carey
Range of Light
Jagjaguwar
3 out of 5

When S. Carey isn’t drumming for Bon Iver, he’s on a sideline in music that’s even quieter and less assertive than his main gig. It’s like he’s saying, “Hey, Justin Vernon! You think you can make wimpy dude music? I’ll show you wimpy dude music!” Take out the exclamation points, and you’ve got a pretty fair description of Carey as a solo artist. His instrumental palette is broad in a Sufjan Stevens way, though he uses it for less emphatic purposes. On his second full-length, Carey aims for an even-keeled listening experience deep in subtlety. The best moments are the wimpiest, when he sneaks away from conventional song structure to build the sound and let the moments stretch out. /James Brotheridge

cd-shyShy Hunters
O, That I Had Wings
Self-Released
3 out of 5

Like every other band, Shy Hunters mixes influences and sounds to come up with their own thing. Where they differ from other bands is that the influences are puzzling and hard to pin down at first. The Brooklyn-based trio is fronted by Indigo Street, a name that could be fake, but who knows? Members of the group used to do noise before, but now they’re doing music with marginally more structure. I say “marginally” because they still aren’t rocking verse-chorus-verse. Street’s vocals –– shooting for ethereal and mostly hitting it –– drift over steady riffs. They come off as a dream-pop band, sometimes breaking in with near-prog levels of guitar work and moments of rock catharsis. The blend is sometimes lovely, sometimes a little dreary and usually at least interesting. /James Brotheridge

2014-04-03

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