Category Archives: Noah Cebuliak

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.


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. 

Steph MacPherson plays it safe

Steph MacPherson
Bells and Whistles (Cordova Bay Records, 2012)

Reviewed by Noah Cebuliak

Victoria Singer-Songwriter Steph MacPherson is up for three VIMA’s this year: BC-wide artist of the year, Island artist of the year, and Island pop/rock album of the year, for 2012’s Bells and Whistles. MacPherson has been working hard since 2009 to develop her own brand of infectious, radio-friendly folk-pop and is rightly gaining more notoriety for her efforts.

Bells and Whistles is Steph MacPherson’s debut full-length and was released in Canada last April, and in the United States this January. It’s an album that solidifies MacPherson’s direction and musical intent firmly in the mainstream, for better or worse, and demonstrates her ability to consistently write hooky and accessible songs. Bells and Whistles is exquisitely produced–I could not find one technical error throughout the course of the album. Her voice is perfect and mixed well, and her backing band and arrangements are equally tight–a clearly curated vision of a solid pop album made manifest.

I envy and honour MacPherson’s work ethic and her polish. At the same time, this is an album I can’t really dig into. Maybe that’s because it doesn’t offer much beyond the surface. It’s catchy and some of her lines were rotating in my head for days, but during the same period of listening to Bells, I was tethered to a host of other acclaimed albums, including: Lianne La Havas’ Is Your Love Big Enough, Wake Owl’s Wild Country, and Brian Blade Fellowship’s Perceptual. Comparing albums across genres is a dangerous move, but necessary I feel. And Bells and Whistles didn’t stand up. My attention went elsewhere. Maybe it’s because every song on the record sounds mostly the same, or doesn’t satisfactorily address themes of real depth, or because MacPherson’s voice is just a bit too affected (read: Sarah MacLachlan). There’s no room for mistakes, for the human quality, for vulnerable edge, that elusive puzzle piece I found on the other albums mentioned above.

Steph MacPherson could take her obvious well of talent to the feet of Neko Case or Kathleen Edwards and really learn to integrate her hooks and charm into something original and compelling. Bells and Whistles borders on an alternative country sound much of the time; I think she would do well to push it over the line. How would a Randy Travis or George Fox-produced sophomore LP from MacPherson sound, for example? Or a dusty, open and unhindered live-to-tape approach? I wonder if MacPherson has listened to Nebraska. Can someone get this woman a 4-track?

Bells and Whistles is a good album. And that’s just it. I long to see the gritty side of MacPherson—the dangerous, the unreserved—in future releases. If MacPherson can let herself go just a little bit, she’ll be onto something fresh and original. Feist’s Monarch wasn’t exactly a portent of what was to come either, so I remain hopeful, if not slightly impatient.

Noah Cebuliak is a Montréal-based songwriter and multi-instrumentalist who leads the indie-folk-pop trio Ghost Lights. He independently released his debut EP in November 2012. Check out

Tunnels, Treehouses and Trainsmoke!

Coastal Spectator reviewer Noah Cebuliak, himself a musician living in Montreal, recently interviewed travelling-man Jeff Andrew about his new music and his forth-coming CD.  Andrew grew up in Ontario, has a degree from the University of Victoria, and has criss-crossed Canada many times in his near-indestructible 1988 Toyota 4Runner. He calls the vehicle CCRider, and says he has logged 430,000 kilometres in the vehicle.

Jeff, tell me about your inspiration to record in tunnels and other underground spaces. Why are you drawn there and not to other locations, like churches or actual studios? Have you recorded anything in other semi-obscure places, like grain silos or caves or the like?

I’ve always been drawn to the underground. Secret places in general, like tunnels, crawlspaces, secret passages in old houses, sub-basements . . . probably from growing up on mysteries and horror stories. Same reason I love old buildings–they’re full of ghosts. I get a lot of inspiration thinking about the lives that have been lived there, what might have happened in those spaces.

They also tend to have really interesting acoustics. One of my favourite records is by a BC fiddler named Oliver Schroer (who passed away about 5 years ago). He did an album called Camino where he walked the El Camino De Santiago trail in Spain and recorded himself playing in all the old cathedrals. The sound of that album breaks my heart. I listen to it almost every day.

I’ve never done any grain silos or caves but maybe one day! Studios tend to be expensive, and I don’t like the idea of recording in a hermetically sealed chamber, cut off from the outside world. One of the things I love about old folk and blues records that were recorded in people’s houses, hotel rooms, front porches is that you can hear things like old cars in the background, dogs barking, trains rolling by in the distance . . .  they are like a time machine.

What are the songs you’re going to record about? What inspires you to write? Are the songs linked to the subterranean theme at all?

Let’s see, there are a couple of travel songs, a set of fiddle tunes written to sound like a freight train taking off, a murder ballad set in the Carnival era, a lighthearted novelty song about police brutality . . . also an apocalyptic love song and a true story song about a girl named Nyki Kish, who’s serving a life sentence in Ontario for a murder she didn’t commit. I can’t see how she did it, at least, and I’ve read through the judge’s verdict from the trial and dozens of newspaper articles about it. Seems like another case of wrong place, wrong time and the cops desperate to pin it on somebody, so they picked the easiest target. Lots more about her at

There’s also a song called “The Graveyard Downtown,” loosely based on Victoria’s secret history. I learned there used to be a graveyard at Douglas and Johnson, back when that was the edge of the city . . . It’s about what used to be there before the modern city was built. And all the history the city (and Canada as a whole) doesn’t like to talk about. The Chinese head tax, the internment camps, residential schools, the whole reservation system, plus all the Asian people who died building the railroads and the tremendous labour battles that were fought in the 1910s and 20s. Our country was built on a lot of racism, abuse and exploitation. We pay lip service to some of it, but most of the physical legacy is being torn down and replaced with condos. All the old buildings, bridges, alleyways, shipyards, train yards, even the grain elevators–the places where the people who built Canada lived, worked and died–are disappearing. Part of that is an attempt to erase the past, the living history you can see and touch. Reduce it to footnotes in a textbook and it stops being real.

You say in your Indiegogo campaign video that you’ve got a whole collection of obscure string instruments. What draws you toward these fringe instruments?

The new album called “Tunnels,” which you can pre-order and donate to, is going to have to some unusual string instruments on it. I don’t have as big a collection as I’d like, but I do have a baritone violin, a 5-string violin and a Stroh violin. The 5-string has an extra low string on the bottom and the baritone violin has heavy strings on it so I can tune it an octave lower than normal. It’s basically down in cello range. The Stroh violin (which you can see in my profile shot on the Indiegogo page) has a resonator and a big phonograph horn instead of a body. I’ve also got a steel-bodied resonator guitar on a couple of tracks.

I love these early attempts at amplifying strings. They date back to the turn of the 20th century when recordings were done into a giant cone with a needle at the end of it scratching the sound into a wax cylinder. You had to be really loud and forceful to get your playing in through that cone – also to cut through the sound of a horn section on stage. Simple answer: add a horn to the violin!

Are you going to record with a band, live, or will you be multi-tracking and building a bigger sound?

The Stroh violin is somewhere between a fiddle and a trumpet. Plus I can use the baritone violin to build my own string section. So yes, multi-tracking. We actually did most of the recording already in Vancouver–me on guitar, fiddle and vocals, plus Ryan Boeur from Fish & Bird on lead guitar and Kenan Sungur from High Society (who also played drums on my last album), laying down percussion and upright bass. He’s a one-man rhythm section! And Ryan is one of the best accompanists out there right now. And we had Corwin Fox to record it, who’s done two albums for me already and is a brilliant engineer and producer. We’ve all been playing together for a long time, so it went down pretty easy. The tunnel stuff I’m going to do on my own with a handheld recorder later this week.

How is the campaign going? Are you planning a big release and tour for the album after its completed? What are your career expectations for this record?

I told someone recently I want my career to be like that little shack at the edge of town, where the river bends and the tracks have broken down . . . it’s out there waiting for me, in disrepair right now but one day I’ll be able to live in it.

The campaign’s doing well so far, really encouraging. The better it does, the more I’ll be have to pay everyone involved and put into the packaging and promoting of it. So please keep the shares and contributions coming! It means a lot to an independent artist, to get this kind of support.

I’m planning a zine to go with it, a hand-drawn songbook (by Victoria’ s Fraea the Banshee) of all the chords and lyrics. I’m aiming to release it at the end of summer with a couple of big shows in Victoria and Vancouver, followed by a cross-Canada tour (in sections this time, I’m through with doing the whole thing at once. The country’s too damn big!)

After that, we’ll see. I took the last year off from touring and promotion, so I could write and get better at fiddle. I spent this winter in Halifax learning east coast fiddle tunes and playing with an orchestra, trying to get my head around classical music, which I fell totally in love with over  the past couple  of years. I needed a break from the music business, to let the tanks fill up again. Now they’re full, and I’m ready to jump back in the game. I have most of another album written and ready to go; that’ll be a much bigger project with electric guitars and some kind of string section. And plans for a musical after that — or it might turn out to be a novel with an album to go with it.

In other words, yeah. I’m taking this as far as it can go. Stay tuned!


Learn more about Tunnels, Treehouses & Trainsmoke here:


The Tequila Mockingbird Orchestra leading the pack

The Tequila Mockingbird Orchestra
Follow My Lead, Lead Me To Follow (2012)
Produced by David Travers-Smith

Reviewed by Noah Cebuliak

The Tequila Mockingbird Orchestra is a dynamic folk-roots outfit hailing from Victoria, whose latest release, Follow My Lead, Lead Me To Follow, spans multiple genres and moods, delighting those who may have grown weary of the typical Canadian folk album. They’re up for a VIMA this year for “Island Artist of the Year” and they’re my personal pick for the award.

Follow My Lead is TTMO’s third full-length studio release since its inception in 2008, and is the band’s most polished and varied effort to date. The album has a distinct feel of being influenced by the exotic and the foreign, with dashes of celtic, gypsy, tango and flamenco, while at once retaining an accessible and catchy vibe. “Canoe Song,” “Lives Be Brave,” and “What We See” are my favorite tunes, all exhibiting best the crisp production of David Travers-Smith (Snowblink, The Wailin’ Jennys) combined with great songwriting and tasteful instrumentation that exemplifies the record as a whole.

Follow My Lead isn’t just a nice folk album with world flavors though–there’s a real sense of urgency present in the songs, a desire to tell stories that are meaningful, direct and distinct. These are traveler’s anthems, describing the wonder and disbelief of being alive and of being a citizen of this vast country, making it a clear choice as musical accompaniment for your next road-trip through the mountains.

Indeed, what’s so refreshing about Follow My Lead is that it’s not just a barrel of love songs with pretty metaphors and weeping violins (though there are some wild fiddle sections)–here TTMO seem to have matured far beyond the typical subjects into deeper waters: being a student of Life, pondering our ancestors, praising and respecting our mother Earth.

Apart from releasing a solid album in Follow My Lead, Lead Me To Follow, The Tequila Mockingbird Orchestra is also involved in many community initiatives around land use and sustainability, indigenous arts and culture, and youth at risk. Beyond creating inspired and unique original music, as well as having become known for their juicy live shows, TTMO is a band that demonstrates their love for their community of which they have grown. In today’s music scene, it is rare to find bands that are committed to using their positions of visibility for the benefit of the entire society–through their music and values, The Tequila Mockingbird Orchestra leads the field.

Watch for The Tequila Mockingbird Orchestra on tour and at festivals this summer. Follow My Lead, Lead Me To Follow is available now on Bandcamp, along with their entire catalogue at


Noah Cebuliak is a Montréal-based songwriter and multi-instrumentalist who leads the indie-folk-pop trio Ghost Lights. He independently released his debut EP in November 2012. Check out

Man Made Lake a bit murky

Man Made Lake
Murky Waters (2012)
Produced by Eric Hogg at Soma Studios

 Reviewed by Noah Cebuliak

Victoria alternative rock band Man Made Lake is up for a Vancouver Island Music Award this April in the Rock/Pop album of the year category for their debut LP, Murky Waters. The album is a collection of 10 songs loosely based around love lost and gained, battles with vices and living on the edge of society’s comfort zones.

While Murky Waters has bright spots, it’s for the most part an album that requires patience to decipher just exactly what Man Made Lake is aiming for. Lyrically, the songwriting could be tighter, with lines like “I want you/ and you want me/ lets dance, lets move/ my heart is free,” (from “An Unkindness”) along with other assorted clichés on rest of the album that invariably infect songs that could otherwise be quite strong. Looking past the less-than-subtle attempts at poetics though, there’s some catchy riffs and dreamy sections that warrant further listening–cuts like “Of We,” “Bourbon” and “Freeway” are the clearest windows into Man Made Lake’s vision.

The grittiness and honesty of Murky Waters suffers rather unfortunately at the hands of the production quality–it’s just a bit too loose and airy to really translate the capacity of the music. The drum sounds are thin, the guitars mostly tinny. There’s just so much potential with this band–it’s palpable in the vibe of the album, and in the emotion that does seep through–but one is left with the sentiment that Murky Waters almost hit the target, but not quite.

Lead singer and frontman Colin Craveiro manages to single-handedly reclaim Murky Waters from the above detriments though, with his fairly stunning vocal range and timbre that fits perfectly with the alt-rock style of Man Made Lake. Craveiro sounds a bit Bowie in many ways, and his strength as a singer begs to be showcased more clearly on this release. One is left wondering what a properly engineered, organic performance of these songs might yield–or indeed if Craveiro tried his hand at different genres. Nevertheless, Craveiro’s performances on Murky Waters are impressive.

Man Made Lake have made an enjoyable record, admittedly full of quirks, but a decent first outing. On further releases, it seems clear that just a little more attention to detail would yield a more solid and concise sound, but with Murky Waters, Man Made Lake indeed remain one of Vancouver Island’s “bands to watch.”

Noah Cebuliak is a Montréal-based songwriter and multi-instrumentalist who leads the indie-folk-pop trio Ghost Lights. He independently released his debut EP in November 2012. Check out

Vollebekk shows prowess in North Americana

North Americana
Leif Vollebekk
Released by Outside Music
Produced by Howard Bilerman and Tom Gloady

Reviewed by Noah Cebuliak

Montréal poet-crooner Leif Vollebekk’s sophomore offering North Americana is a strong evolution from his 2010 debut Inland. Recorded to tape in a variety of locations and with the ideal of capturing the perfect take, the album showcases Vollebekk as a rambling, half-crazed genius with a gift for turning deft phrases and milking his harmonica dry. It’s simultaneously more focused and relaxed than his first, and if slightly less playful (no songs about the Faroe Islands here), more confident in tone and scope.

It’s not difficult to parse Vollebekk’s influences–Dylan, Waits, Kerouac–but he taps this inspiration more subtly on this album than he did on his debut. Perhaps it’s a result of a maturation in life and music, coming into his own sonic intent, but North Americana manages to sound familiar and fresh at once, a rare feat in any era. The combination of a tight backing band, a clever lyric book and his unique, milky voice keeps the record turning.

That said, most of the songs on NA do sound the same–Vollebekk’s not exactly breaching any new frontiers here. His images and stories are well told, and the production is warm and welcoming, but if the listener is permitted one quibble, it’s lack of strong melody. North Americana falls into the category of an “atmospheric” album–that is, you play the whole thing and are transported into Vollebekk’s southern summer highway dream for a while. That’s a fantastic thing for  music to do.

But this isn’t an offering full of hooks or passages that keep you up in the dead of night. Most of the songs’ twists and turns are relatively predictable, because it seems that Vollebekk’s following a formula, albeit one that works, and has worked for the past 100 years or more–the lineage of folk. While there’s nothing too wild in terms of arrangement and instrumentation, a real sense of space dominates the record. Space is generally an underused element in today’s releases, and Vollebekk demonstrates his mastery of it here

Leif Vollebekk has made a highly listenable album, especially for those packing their bags to hit the road–leaving behind an old lover, or going in search of a new one. It’s sultry, it’s hopeful and sly, and after a few listens, you can feel you really “get” where Vollebekk’s at. On North Americana, Leif Vollebekk has established himself as the next great eastern folk-poet.


North Americana is available on iTunes and through


Noah Cebuliak is a Montréal-based songwriter and multi-instrumentalist who leads the indie-folk-pop trio Ghost Lights. He independently released his debut EP in November 2012. Check out