Category Archives: Reviews of music: live and recorded

Twin sisters’ country album springs from love

Twin Kennedy

It’s a Love Thing

Twin Kennedy Entertainment


Reviewed by Emmett Robinson Smith

Twin Kennedy have a lot to say. The UVic School of Music twin sister graduates have been touring extensively throughout Canada in support of their new country album It’s a Love Thing, an album that tackles universal topics such as persistence, breakups, youthful exuberance, mortality and the power of love.

The title track can be seen as the mantra for Twin Kennedy’s work ethic. The lyrics describe a man and a woman going to work day after day, (simultaneously reinforcing controversial gender stereotypes – the man “firing up his rig” for his job, and the woman working as a nurse) because “it’s a love thing.” One gets the feeling that this refrain mirrors Twin Kennedy’s passion for music: while the song’s characters perform more colloquial jobs, Twin Kennedy’s music is their job. And, from their passionate tone of voice, it’s easy to tell that their work is indeed “a love thing” for them.

Musically, It’s a Love Thing’s arrangements are familiar and conventional. Produced by known Canadian country musician George Canyon and producer Graham Sharkey, the music fits into the conservative musical mold of most of Canyon’s repertory: echoing snare drum rim shots, “ooooh” vocal accompaniment, strummed acoustic guitar, fluttering piano touches, as well as orthodox song structure – verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus.

Graduating from UVic with a performance degree requires a high degree of musical ability, and it’s a shame that the twins don’t use these considerable skills more on the album. The collection’s strongest moments occur when they show off their instrumental abilities. Carli Kennedy’s guitar-driven solo cut, “Interlude,” which lasts a mere 44 seconds, is probably the best track on the album. Julie’s violin chops shine through briefly on the closing track, “I Never Will.” In order to stand out from their country peers, Carli and Julie Kennedy need to bring their instrumental skills to the forefront of their music.

Instead, the focus here is on lyrical content. “Feels Like Freedom” stands out lyrically because it’s vivid: “One hand on the window, one hand on the wheel / Seventeen is feelin’ too good to be real,” one of them sings. Though this concept has been used so much it verges on cliché, these lyrics seem to come from a real place – one that has a foundation in the Kennedys’ experiences.

Twin Kennedy are enthusiastic musicians. The inner sleeve of their album goes to lengths to express gratitude to those who helped create It’s a Love Thing. This warmth and energy provides good context for their music, as it presents them as real people who struggle with the same things that we all do. Twin Kennedy are honest and direct, with the chops to back them up – even if their skill goes underused.

Emmett Robinson Smith is a music journalist and classical pianist at UVic.

Jazz vocalist and pianist explores new pop sound

House of Many Rooms

By Laila Biali and The Radiance Project


By Emmett Robinson Smith

Laila Biali took a risk. The Vancouver-born, Brooklyn-based singer/songwriter has received many accolades and awards for her work as a jazz pianist and singer. Her album Live in Concert was recorded at the renowned Glenn Gould Studio in Toronto in 2012, she has recorded with Sting, and she won SOCAN Composer of the Year and Keyboardist of the Year at Canada’s National Jazz Awards. However, her new album, House of Many Rooms, is not a jazz album at all. Thanks to her teaming up with the band The Radiance Project, it’s indie pop.

Biali’s extensive acclaim, though impressive, must be something of a burden: critics have high expectations of her work. It’s remarkable, then, that on her latest collection, she sounds so carefree. “Look ahead / With your eyes upon the breaking dawn,” she sings on the opening track “Shadowlands,” over a backdrop of triumphant horns, a peppy syncopated piano loop and up-tempo percussion. There’s even a gospel choir featured to drive home the song’s joyous nature, which can be attributed to The Radiance Project.

Biali’s strongest asset is her singing. Her knack for adding warmth and subtle colours to her voice is a skill largely missing from the current pop landscape. Her voice as she sings, “The sparks between us / They glow like fireflies at night,” on the track “Come Anything” is nuanced, welcoming and comforting. You can almost see her smiling as she delivers the lines. Indeed, light and love are prevalent motifs throughout the album.

“Come Anything” is also representative of an unfortunate, and probably inadvertent, quirk that many of the album’s eleven tracks carry: it sounds weirdly Christmasy. On this track, the choice to raise the key by a semitone in the middle of every verse contributes to the Christmas vibe, as well as the ebbing piano arpeggios and grandiose string arrangement.

This baffling holiday ambiance subsides as the album reaches its peak with the back-to-back songs “You” and “Upside Down.” Biali is at her most aggressive on “You,” delivering slights such as, “I bet you feel weak / Like a man who stopped trying,” over a heavy waltz arrangement. This is one of the album’s more abrasive tracks, and by the time the listener reaches it, it’s welcome, considering that the three songs leading up to it utilized more conventional melodies paired with pastoral depictions of birds, life and starlight.

The following “Upside Down,” the unmistakable peak of House of Many Rooms, is an epic work beginning with a complex, rhythmically ambiguous drum pattern. Biali rides this groove with ease as she sings. The song then evolves into an heroic chorus that evokes space exploration and planetary discovery. “You turn me upside down,” she sings, which cleverly mirrors the unexpected transition of grooves between the verse and the chorus. The song ends with a blistering minute-and-a-half saxophone solo.

Ultimately, Biali is a songwriter with a lot to offer as she enters the pop genre. The Radiance Project adds valuable instrumentation to create a full, energetic sound. Though a couple tracks come up short – “Shine” would have been an easy deletion from the album as it prioritizes prettiness over substance – Biali’s potential as a pop songwriter is apparent on more than half the album. Given her success in the jazz world, it would have been a lot easier for her to stay rooted in that genre. Her choice to experiment is commendable. And with the varied sonic palette Biali chose on House of Many Rooms, one gets the feeling that she’s on the path to a refined, distinct pop sound.

Emmett Robinson Smith is a music journalist and classical pianist at UVic.

Pianist’s new album defies the blues

Victoria-based blues pianist David Vest has been touring Canada and parts of the U.S. in support of his acclaimed new album Roadhouse Revelation (Cordova Bay Records). The Alabama-born Vest won Canada’s Maple Blues Award for Piano/Keyboard Player of the Year, and his album reached No.1 in Canada on the Roots Music Chart. Known as a boogie-woogie piano player, Vest has jammed with legends such as Big Joe Turner and Bo Diddley, and opened for Roy Orbison before Vest was old enough to vote. Vest’s shows have been selling out across the country, and he will return to Hermann’s Jazz Club in Victoria on May 1. The Coastal Spectator’s Emmett Robinson Smith chatted with Vest before a recent show.

Your new album Roadhouse Revelation incorporates a lot of styles, from the guitar-driven light-rock of “Stand Your Ground” to the Latin-infused “Santa Fe Steamer” to the piano-based groove of “Ramblin’ Man.” How deliberate was this?

I’m really big into co-mingling the different arts. I don’t think blues musicians should just listen to blues. They should listen to all others. They need to get out and meet the painters and dancers. I’m thinking about doing theatre. So I have a friend in the blues, Raoul Bhaneja, who is the actor that’s on Canadian TV all the time, and he’s put together a play called Life, Death and the Blues. He’s got this soul singer, Divine Brown, co-starring in it with him, and they invited me to be a guest performer in the play in Toronto and Winnipeg and Edmonton. It’s a great show. I’ve seen it five times now. It gets better every time… It’s got a live band playing in it and it just knocks away every cliché of the blues. You know, if you’re in this field, it’s really burdensome. People have stumbling old dorks playing the blues and the boring, plodding bar-band music that young people think of it as, and it’s not that at all. So it’s nice to see the story get told right.

Do you find there’s a different attitude towards the blues in Canada than back where you’re from?  When people think “blues music,” they don’t usually associate it with Canada. It’s more of a Southern thing.

There’s definitely an openness to my style of it. My style is… I don’t sound much like the typical old blues festival blues act. First of all, I’m a piano player, and sometimes I play blues festivals without a guitar or a harmonica or any of those iconic instruments. I bring in some sax players like Fats Domino used to. And I do material all the way back from the nineteenth century. It’s not just BB King. There’s nothing wrong with that, but there’s a lot of unheard stuff out there.

Your new album Roadhouse Revelation is super tight musically, and your piano playing top-notch.  After you released the album last year, you won the Maple Blues Award in Toronto for Piano/Keyboard Player of the Year. It’s our highest blues honour. How do you feel about winning it a second time?

Yeah, the Maple Blues Award again. The first time I won it, two or three years ago, that kind of felt like, “Welcome to Canada. Here’s your award. Glad to have you, now take a seat.” That felt real nice, but I thought it had got something to do with me being the new kid on the block. Not that I’m a kid, but you know, the newness of it all, people haven’t heart me or anything like me, really. Because I play a different style of piano from the other piano players that I know. And there are great ones up here. But this time, it just felt like they’re saying I’m here to stay, and it was a serious thing, and they’re taking me seriously. Sure surprised me.

You have a strong personal connection to Victoria. Your wife, Anne, is from here. That explains the very pretty last song on Roadhouse Revelation, titled “Pretty Things for Anne.”  Strictly solo piano. Can you talk about the origins of this song?

[Anne’s] … dad was in Canadian radio, and she’s a music lover. She likes my field of music, and listens to the local broadcast and the guy in Seattle that does the blues on the weekend. So I met her, came up here and had a cup of tea, and said, “How long has this been going on?”

When I’m on tour, we’ll Skype or FaceTime or something and I say, “What am I forgetting?” and she’ll say, “Don’t forget pretty things for Anne,’ you’re supposed to bring back pretty things for Anne. Jewelry or something. Lingerie, whatever. So one trip I hadn’t had time to pick up anything so I wrote that song.

Blues music is very much based in “realness” lyrically, and your album illustrates this. Do you think this is what makes the blues special?

The one thing that distinguishes this music from others for me is the wealth of stories in it—the characters… the people that sang it and wrote it. Like W.C. Handy grew up in north Alabama, his dad was a minister and he didn’t want him playing this “devil’s music.” You know, “Put the trumpet down, come to church and play the organ.” Handy and three of his friends, teenagers, ran away from home. And they thought, “Well, our parents don’t understand us, we’ll go up to Chicago where people will be into what we’re doing.” They didn’t get anywhere near Chicago. They got up to the Mississippi River to Cairo or someplace, ran out of money, the gigs they thought they were gonna get didn’t materialize, and actually wound up on the street, sleeping on the cobblestones down by the river where the sailors come in. And Handy said that’s where he got the first line of “St. Louis Blues,” when he laid down on the cobblestones trying to sleep in a dangerous neighbourhood. “I hate to see that evening sun go down.” If you’ve been there, you’ll understand where they came from.

Emmett Robinson Smith is a music journalist and classical pianist at UVic.

Roper’s guitar skills soar on new album

Red Bird 

By Jesse Roper 


Reviewed by Emmett Robinson Smith

Jesse Roper can shred. That much was obvious to me while listening to Red Bird, the Metchosin-raised musician’s new album, which encompasses an array of music styles, from blues-rock to reggae to pop-flavoured tracks, all of which showcase Roper’s impressive guitar skills. Red Bird is Roper’s first official solo venture, after releasing two previous albums with The Roper Show, a band he fronted at festivals across the Island since 2012. Roper has been enjoying solo success. A recent show at Sugar Nightclub in Victoria sold out, and he just returned from gigs in the United States. But while his album’s 12 tracks have conviction, in the end, I felt their lack of originality hurt.

The opening track, which shares the album’s title, is a high-energy blues-rock romper that features Roper’s considerable guitar chops. It’s based off a fast chromatic riff that penetrates the majority of the song as Roper delivers rudimentary lines such as, “Yeah, this is Red Bird a-comin’ / I think I’ve been hit / I’m losin’ all control and I think that this is it.” It sets the tone for the next batch of songs, which follows a similar familiar blues-rock sound.

“The Hurricane’s Eye” is both the album’s lead single and its best song. It’s a mid-tempo barn-burner reminiscent of the White Stripes classic “Catch Hell Blues.” “Hurricane” starts off with melodically plucked guitar, and soon builds into a harmonica-tinged, head-banger riff. Roper’s lyrics lend a hand to this badass groove: “I woke this mornin’ in the hurricane’s eye,” he belts.

Reggae-influenced slow-burner “Quality Time” makes for a refreshing change of pace. But it is a prime example of what ultimately fails Red Bird: the song works, but could have been composed and performed by almost any other musician. There’s nothing to separate this song–with its predictable chord progressions and instrumentation–from the myriad others of this style. Roper performs a tasteful, skillful guitar solo between verses, but it’s not enough to save it from tepidness.

The assorted nature of the album is furthered with the peppy, poppy “Hideaway.” Roper’s Eddie Vedder-esque melody line is complemented by an infectious rhythm-guitar-and-drum pattern. It’s one of the more easy-listening songs on the album. Roper delivers pastoral imagery of watching the sun drifting away. Again, however, comes across as conventional.

The pacing of Red Bird is confounding at times. Given that the first four songs have a blues-rock style, one expects the rest of the album to follow the trend. The reggae influence of “Quality Time” seems random in the context of the album, especially given that “The Hurricane’s Eye,” the following track, returns to the soundscape introduced in the album’s opening songs. “Hideaway” marks the beginning of the final portion of the album, which more or less continues its pop-leaning sound rather than the blues style introduced at the start of the album. Red Bird would benefit from a reorganization of tracks.

Ultimately, however, I thought Red Bird lacked originality and a sense of musical exploration. The album is comfortable in its own safeness, and it’s a shame that Roper’s notable guitar skills aren’t put to more exciting use. Familiarity can be an asset, but Roper’s latest effort does not make a case for it.

Emmett Robinson Smith is a music journalist and classical pianist at UVic.

Abraham’s debut EP reveals life after love 

This Old Heart

By Abraham

Produced by Sam Weber

Reviewed by Chris Ho

The soft strum of a ukulele is a fitting introduction to the delicate and powerful sound of Abraham’s debut EP, This Old Heart. Victoria songstress Sydney Batters describes her solo project, Abraham, as “a rebirth,” and this could be part of the reason why the EP identifies with, and yet transcends, the singer-songwriter tradition. Her songs eloquently express the bittersweet nature of heart-on-your-sleeve love. It may be a timeless theme, but the delivery is far from generic on Abraham’s debut.

This is not an EP that tries to get your attention with bubbly melodies and energetic drum beats. It’s up to the listener to share that moment of stillness when the fog beings to clear and you’re overcome with thoughts about past heartbreak. This feeling comes to mind in the opening tracks “Naked Daughter” and “Send My Love.” The emotional weight gradually lifts – not just toward the end of some songs such as “To Be Free,” but also at the end of the album when you hear the powerful line: “Take my body down when I die / Burn it bright baby, baby burn it bright / Throw me in the ocean, let the breeze carry me on.”

Each song feels carefully placed to enhance the album’s emotional journey; yet it’s done in a way that feels natural and free. And therein lies the brilliance of This Old Heart. Abraham is described as a “project [that] is centered around the evolution of life, love and death. It is a journey through human connection and relationships.” And the EP delivers this in a genuine and refreshing way.

What is most striking to me, however, is that Abraham’s voice is not at all fixed in any one kind of singing style. It moves freely, ascending into the sweet and airy and back down again into sultry and soulful song. This is especially apparent in her final track (and my favourite so far), “Burn Bright”, which was featured on CBC Radio 1 last week.

Though the emotional depth of Abraham’s songs often shine through in a raw and stripped-down way (such as in “My Head My Heart”), the production of the EP enhances its overall themes and moods. It sounds as if producer Sam Weber recognized that Abraham’s sweet but powerful voice can stand on its own, and decided to take a “less-is-more” approach. I loved how some of the instruments and sounds felt subtle and, at times, even ambiguous. It was sometimes difficult to discern which particular instrument played a certain part.

Abraham will release This Old Heart tonight (Nov. 28) at the Victoria Event Centre at 7 p.m. Copies of the album will be available at the show, and soon digitally available online.

Chris Ho is a freelance writer and Victoria-based musician.

Rifflandia: Death Cab for Cutie worth the 17-year wait

Day 3 of Rifflandia 2014,

Royal Athletic Park,

Reviewed by Chris Ho

The hot sun beat down as swarms of  people waited in a massive line that  veered down Cook Street. Luckily, I  wasn’t wearing my banana-suit costume  like the brave men in front of me, but part  of me wished I had. I already felt carefree  energy in the air. Royal Athletic Park was  decked out with two stages, one on either end, and a plethora of vendors and activity tents.

As I walked through the entrance, a giant banner popped out from above: Rifflandia. To my left were black wooden Artlandia panels and a big main stage. To the right, aisles of local vendors led the way to the side stage tent, fast-food trucks, and then, of course, to beer and cider taps.

I was impressed by the musical choices: indie rock, dubstep, Celtic dance-pop, 70s influenced pop-punk and hip-hop. I hadn’t encountered anything like the fiddle-infused dance-pop that is Kytami: the high-energy fiddler hardly missed a beat, even as she danced around, stirring up the crowd, her arms and fingers moving furiously to the notes.

While the main stage sound quality and setup was successful, I had a love-hate relationship with the Rifftop Tent side stage. Everyone appreciated the much-needed shade of the big tent, but unfortunately the sound was muddy trapped under the tent roof. In the end, I put it out of my mind while listening to the Dum Dum Girls.

An all female line-up, the Dum Dum Girls had one guy fill in on lead guitar. He too had awesome long hair and matched the well-coordinated black outfits of the trendy rock trio. The initial impression I had from their video Bedroom Eyes was that they overplayed the gorgeous girls with guitars shtick. But their live performance was more about heartfelt lyrics backed up by Blondie-inspired harmonies and dream-pop guitar licks.

Even though it’s predictable to say so, the highlight of day three was the headlining act, Death Cab For Cutie. As I first discovered at the group’s Pacific Coliseum performance in 2009, there is something special about a band that has played the music it loves for almost two decades. Their on-stage chemistry and energy was infectious. The crowd roared with excitement after the opening song as Ben Gibbard (lead vocals) announced this was their first show in Victoria since the band formed in 1997.

“Wow, they’re old,” I heard a young woman say.

She sounded disappointed. But to me, that was incredibly exciting: the last time Death Cab performed in Victoria, they were just starting out. Seventeen years later they’re back, an international success, still flawlessly performing some of the very first songs they wrote.

After the encore, Ben Gibbard gave a heartfelt thanks to the multi-instrumentalist and co-founder of the band, Chris Walla, who had just played his last show with the band. It was a moment to remember. The drums built up and crashed on the closing note of Marching Bands Of Manhattan and the band put aside their instruments for a group hug. A flurry of camera phones reached up to capture the occasion.

We finally made our way to the exit lights with huge smiles, plastic beer cups crunching underfoot.

Chris Ho is a Victoria musician and writer.

Andrew’s CD starts strong

Jeff Andrew, Tunnels, Treehouses & Trainsmoke
Produced by Jeff Andrew, Tyrone Shoe and Corwin Fox ($7 Digital)

Reviewed by Noah Cebuliak 

Jeff Andrew’s sandpaper drawl is the first thing that draws the ear on his newest release, Tunnels, Treehouses & Trainsmoke. He really doesn’t sound like many other singers, but he isn’t really singing as much as spouting stories picked up from his myriad travels across the nation.

Many of his songs, such as “Reasonable Doubt,” are testimonies to Canada’s shadier tales of injustice — this one in particular about the debated conviction of Nicole Kish, a woman who allegedly murdered a panhandler in Toronto in 2007. Although Andrew makes it interesting, his delivery is a bit graceless. Compared to a song about a similar situation, such as Bob Dylan’s “Percy’s Song,” it’s clear there’s probably a more refined way to act as champion for the wrongly convicted.

The next song, “Professional Asshole” takes an even stronger punk-rock-pass at police forces in general, but loses credibility on account of its crudeness. The ethics of authorities has indeed become a more prominent issue in Canadian society recently, but Andrew’s delivery weakens the case he’s trying to promote. It’s nice to hear someone thinking rationally, but there are far more eloquent ways of raising a point.

These quibbles notwithstanding, the first seven songs feature excellent acoustics and atmosphere, given by sessions done in a giant tunnel underneath East Hastings street in Vancouver. The ubiquitous producer-engineer Corwin Fox lends his signature sound as well, resulting in a clean, pleasant listen — good for whether you’re tidying up the house on a Sunday, or a few hours into your spring road trip.

Strange instrumentation lights up the mostly traditional arrangements on TT&T – Andrew, a former University of Victoria student, notably plays both the five-stringed fiddle and the antiquated Stroh violin, which boasts a resonator and a phonograph horn. These fit very well in the reverb-drenched tunnel tracks, especially “The Graveyard Downtown.” Perhaps Andrew was inspired by fellow violinist, the late Oliver Schroer, who famously played in the grand churches of northern Spain on his album Camino. Either way, the choice of recording space is effective.

The back half of the record, which liner notes identify as a set songs previously recorded in 2010 as The Treehouses & Trainsmoke EP, is unfortunately less polished than the first half (named as simply Tunnels, from 2013). I heard some weird vocal fluffs and flats, and basic rhythmic discrepancies between drum and guitar tracks. Having two  different producing engineers involved, over two sessions three years apart,  creates incoherence.  Perhaps Andrew simply should have separately released the best four cuts from each session. Nova Scotia balladeer Joel Plaskett, who himself is not particularly known for being concise (see his triple album, Three), once said “Putting out a 3 or 4 song EP is as good, if not better, than a full length.”

Jeff Andrew presents us with some interesting stories, some rambling arrangements, one or two truly sublime bright spots (mostly punctuated by his violin and fiddle playing) and lots of political, road-weary angst. That’s cool, for a little while. We all need a reality check. But what we really need is a concise, clear statement; for that, Andrew needs to head back to his drawing board.

Noah Cebuliak is a Montreal poet, multi-instrumentalist and songwriter who leads a lyrical jazz-pop conspiracy called Ghost Lights.


Puzzling over Current Swell

Current Swell

Ulysses, 2014 

Review by Emmett Robinson Smith

Current Swell is looking for something. The Victoria band’s fourth album, Ulysses, is jam-packed with ideas of desire, some attainable, some not. On the album-opening title track, Scott Stanton sings, “I want to go / where every man’s gone”. In contrast, on the following track, “Keys to the Kingdom”, we find Stanton longing for just those: the keys to the kingdom. Stanton fantasizes about bringing “the king down to his knees” to “give him a piece of my mind”. The desires described on Ulysses range from humble to fantastical, but are all sung with such conviction that it’s hard to know what Stanton truly wants.

These two tracks, “Ulysses” and “Keys to the Kingdom”, are prime examples of not only the lyrical, but musical contradictions that exist on Current Swell’s latest effort. The song “Ulysses” features a southern-style romp, complete with a stomping bass drum and folk-country vocal melodies. This sound can be seen to occupy the same musical realm as a band such as Blitzen Trapper, known for the warmth and delicacy in their songs. Current Swell has recreated these qualities with authenticity, and the band comes out on top for it. “Keys to the Kingdom” begins with spacey vocal harmonies straight out of the band Fleet Foxes’ book. However, “Kingdom” soon turns into an electric, sauntering groove more reminiscent of the White Stripes. The transition is smooth, but it leaves the listener somewhat confused as to the particular sound that Current Swell is aiming for. This confusion is stepped amplified on the third track, “Rollin’”. It’s a song fit for cruising down the highway, utilizing a swung meter, hand claps, and grimy guitar riffs. Taken individually, each of these tracks is genuine and effective. However, in the larger context of the album, this opening batch of songs renders Current Swell sounding restless and unfocussed.

Fortunately, the album becomes more consistent as it progresses. The standout track “Who’s With Us” hits its stride with rich lyrics and musical intricacy. “She said that dreams are just what you make them / High hanging fruit, the risk that you take them” Stanton profoundly cries. After the second chorus, things reach the most instrumentally intriguing point on the album: A nearly two minute agitated, stuttering guitar solo builds and builds, helped along by a stammering snare drum. The guitar tracks become layered and the soundscape gets more and more tense. The song climaxes as the second verse repeats, but this time with the gush of blazing power chords, unrelenting hi-hat, and an anxious-sounding lead guitar track.

The final consignment of tracks is varied, and, at times, unsatisfying. “Desire” lurches back and forth between normal-tempo and half-tempo. The song’s lyrics sum up Current Swell’s predicament: “Don’t know what to desire”, Stanton admits. (Apparently they don’t know which tempo to desire either, which, for better or worse, plays to that line.) The final track, “Flesh and Bone”, is a vulnerable, honest tune which functions as a satisfying closer. As with most of the songs on Ulysses, its strength lies in its lyrics: “Could a flower wake you up and tell you no one is the same as you?” David Lang asks. “Nothin’ like love, nothin’ like pain” is repeated as the song dies out. It’s a simple thought, but it’s so honestly stated that the words carry significant weight.

It’s evident throughout Ulysses that Current Swell plays with honesty and conviction, especially in their vocals. Their lyrics are ultimately what shine through here, and it’s a shame that their clashing musical choices couldn’t better complement their lyrical gifts. When Current Swell hits, it’s enormously satisfying, but when they miss, it’s puzzling.

Find more from Current Swell at

Emmett Robinson Smith is a music reviewer and student. 

Genuine heart animates Real Ponchos

Real Ponchos, Since I Let You Go (May 6th, 2014)
Produced by Jesse Gander and Real Ponchos
Catch Real Ponchos at Logan’s Pub on June 13th.

Reviewed by Noah Cebuliak

Real Ponchos’ debut full-length, Since I Let You Go, is refreshingly honest, optimistic and devoid of the clichés that often muddle country and roots music. Real Ponchos describe themselves as “psychedelic alt-country soul,” and from the first track, “Aged in Oak,” this Vancouver band demonstrate their capacity to deliver goosebumps up the spine. The opener is a heavy, open highway, big-sky victory of a song, with an earworm electric guitar riff and swelling pedal steel and organ, all under Emile Scott’s unique, honeyed voice.

Real Ponchos boasts two vocalists, and the following track, “Outta This Place,” features the gruff Ben Arsenault, who sounds like he’s come from a sunny southern state. Arsenault and Scott trade songwriting and main vocal duties throughout the record, a successful trick that reminds me of Conor Oberst’s Outer South, on which his Mystic Valley Band members contributed songwriting and lead vocals. Speaking of Oberst, Real Ponchos are alike, but far lighter and clearer – again, it’s refreshing. Some other positive comparisons include early Randy Travis (Storms Of Life, No Holdin’ Back), early Wilco and Victoria’s The Wicks. A thread of real authenticity and genuine heart carries through all of the above, and Real Ponchos follow in that lineage.

The rest of Since I Let You Go is a satisfying listen. Co-produced with Vancouver’s Jesse Gander (Japandroids, Pack AD, Corbin Murdoch), the sonic atmosphere and mix is crisp and welcoming. Juxtaposed with the exceedingly popular electronic music of today, with its quantized rhythms and saccharin synth glitch, Since is packed full of human warmth. Rhythm section Michael Wagler (upright bass) and Emlyn Scherk (drums) are absolutely solid in their tempo and rhythm, never cluttering, always adding nuances that reveal themselves after multiple listens.

Real Ponchos show their Grateful Dead and Allman Brothers’ likenesses on the back half of Since, with extended jams “Along The Way,” and “Take Me Back Home.” They ride the jam-band edge carefully though, keeping the movement and story of each song progressing tastefully, while demonstrating their instrumental skill at creating contemplative atmospheres reminiscent of their country roots.

One of the most interesting aspects of the overall production on Since is the now-rare quality of delivering deep emotion – nostalgia, hurt, longing – in a strong, masculine way. The record’s big heartbreaker is the song, “Just Like A Slow Burn,” which builds to Scott’s beautiful vocal testimony, singing long and with longing over sweet, glimmering guitars and dark-chocolate piano chords.

Emotional and sonic depth animate the success of Since I Let You Go. It’s a strong debut from inspired, talented young men on an honest mission to make their best music. ($7 Digital / $12 Hard)

Noah Cebuliak is a Montreal poet, multi-instrumentalist and songwriter. He leads a lyrical jazz-pop conspiracy called Ghost Lights. 

Brave debut from a promising songstress

Review by Mark Anthony Brennan

Victoria’s Zoey Ockenden (a.k.a. lavallee) recently released her debut EP. ‘above the treeline’ comes with minimal musical accompaniment, placing Ockenden’s singing and lyrics front and centre. This is a brave move, given the wealth of strong female singer-songwriters out there today. But if Ockenden is at all daunted by the task, she does a good job of hiding it. So comfortable is she in her own musical skin that ‘above the treeline’ sounds like the work of a veteran.

The EP is a satisfying listen, with each track stronger than its predecessor. ‘Tides’ introduces the EP in fairly familiar territory with a folk/pop confessional about a woman who regrets that she can no longer maintain a relationship eroded over time. The tempo picks up slightly with ‘Pony Circus’, although the subject matter is just as mournful. Here the singer begs her lover to buy her a pony, take her to Russia, buy her a dress or just about anything to bring some joy into their life. After all, she gripes, “…you owe me…”

The next track ‘Ragdoll Waltz’ technically is a waltz, but you won’t find yourself tempted to hit the dance floor. It’s a break-up song where the narrator admits she saw it coming. Even though he is the one leaving, she was willing to drag him into a doomed relationship, making her equally guilty. In ‘Pack of Wolves’ Ockenden’s dark outlook hits a low point. Our inner demons, she tells us, are like a pack of wolves, and they are always there waiting for us. Her piano pounds out an ominous tune, and the harmonizing voice that hovers over the chorus adds to the despondent air. The song also features a crisp guitar solo by Ockenden’s brother Ryan (the only other performer to appear on the EP).

The closer ‘Sugarcane’ is the standout track. All instrumentation is abandoned, leaving Ockenden to play to her strength. The southern-tinged lyrics set in a country/blues style demonstrate Ockenden’s vocals well. On this track she is in her comfort zone as she sings about a woman on a journey. It is not clear whether the “place” she is leaving behind is literal or figurative, but it doesn’t matter. What we do learn is that she is moving on to a better place and that “…my heart feels more like a heart today/than money spent in a gambler’s rage…” So, after all the doom and gloom, Ockenden leaves us on a positive note.

‘above the treeline’ showcases the talents of a gifted lyricist with a distinctive voice. This is a strong first outing, and it will leave you looking forward to whatever Ockenden does next.

Check out Ockenden’s bandcamp here:

Mark Anthony Brennan is a fiction writer and freelance article writer living in Victoria.