Tag Archives: music review

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.

http://therealponchos.bandcamp.com/album/since-i-let-you-go ($7 Digital / $12 Hard)

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

Timberlake entices with glamour

 Justin Timberlake
The 20/20 Experience (RCA Records, 2013)
Produced by Timbaland, Justin Timberlake, Jerome “J-Roc” Harmon

Reviewed by Chris Ho

Lights up on stage right. Trails of cigarette smoke. Stage curtains drawn, revealing the dapper string section of the orchestra. May I present to you: The 20/20 Experience.

The first track instantly introduces the glamorous 1950s New York throwback, which is then infused with the familiar R&B pop sound that is unmistakably Justin Timberlake. And with some exceptions, the mixture of these elements essentially encapsulates Timberlake’s latest album, The 20/20 Experience.

Having been on a musical hiatus for six years, his highly anticipated comeback couldn’t have been classier. If painting the town with your friends in a stylish suit and tie getup wasn’t already on your list of priorities, it soon will be. Timberlake brought sexy back with the previous record FutureSex/LoveSounds, and now, he’s bringing classy back with The 20/20 Experience. In particular, “Suit & Tie” grooves in a way that could only be suitable in a select number of clubs. The clean and soulful sounding vocal melodies are paired with relaxed, finger-snapping beats, and topped off with a classic interjecting trumpet line. It seems as though Justin Timberlake disappeared from the music scene, only to reappear with a newfound Sinatra-esque edge, and an old big band to back him up. And yet, somehow, his music seems even more original (and perhaps experimental) than ever.

Timberlake has always tended to instill his work with a generous amount of vocal layering and pleasing harmonies, but never before like this. Between the strategically placed string parts, interesting electronic sounds, and soft backup vocal lines, the production of the album puts the listener in a head-bobbing trance. The brilliance of this comes in the fact that it’s difficult to pick out the specific musical elements that create this effect, because it’s ultimately the overall exceptional production as a whole that does it. Although, at the same time, the interesting electronic sounds found in tracks like “Blue Ocean Floor” and “Dress On,” certainly seem to stand out in a very tangible way.

An album that incorporates very classic musical elements while staying true to the artist’s creative integrity and trademark style generally tends to be audibly enticing. Such is the case for Timberlake’s The 20/20 Experience, which gives us the familiar, the old, the new, and then some. The particularly striking tracks include “Suit & Tie,” “That Girl,” “Pusher Love Girl,” and “Blue Ocean Floor.”

Chris Ho is a UVic graduate and Victoria-based singer-songwriter.

Vagabond’s melodies extraordinary

Jeffrey Michael Straker
Vagabond (2012)
Produced by Danny Michel

Reviewed by Blake Jacob

Vagabond is the precisely arranged fifth album of singer-songwriter-pianist Jeffery Michael Straker. Jeffery “swears he was born under the piano on the family farm” in Saskatchewan, and his experience shows. The album is a flawless work of art, skillfully produced by Canadian multi-instrumentalist singer-songwriter Danny Michel. Straker’s music is sometimes described as “piano-folk-pop-cabaret,” which proves how impossible it is to label him with any particular genre. The variety of moods in his music is refreshing. From the high energy and flamboyance on “Sans Souci,” to the gentle, wistful sound of “Burn The Boats,” this album is consistently delightful to the ear. It begged an immediate second, third, and fourth listen.

Vagabond is noteworthy because of its impeccable presentation of an array of extraordinary piano melodies. A particular jewel on Vagabond is “Myopia.” It is a surprising up-tempo track full of lilting, light piano work contrasted with power vocals. “Raven” has the swelling chorus for the entire audience of a sold-out concert hall to sing along to. So does the “deep down, deep down inside of my soul” of the chorus of “Rosetta Stone.” Straker is skilled at pulling heartstrings. “Birchbark Canoe” heals and breaks the heart at the same time with memorable climax and cadence and a woefully sung, “maybe we’re better off as friends.” Straker is an excellent vocalist, displaying variety in a seemingly effortless way. His skill is especially apparent on “Cathode Rays,” where his voice ranges from gravelly to silvery to wonderfully tremulous.

Interestingly, Straker is a descendant of Beethoven by six degrees of student-teacher lineage. Perhaps the magic of innovation connects them. Vagabond is easy to become obsessed with because it is so expert and unique. After you hear it one time, be prepared to listen to nothing else for several months . . . maybe indefinitely.

Blake Jacob is a Vancouver Island poet whose essential nutrients are optimism, wordsmithery, and captivating melody.

Debut album complex and precocious

Mo Kenney
Mo Kenney (New Scotland Records and Pheromone Recordings, 2012)
Produced by Joel Plaskett

Reviewed by Natalie Zina Walschots

Waverly, Nova Scotia’s Mo Kenney displays precocious emotional awareness and subtlety on her self-titled debut. Released jointly on New Scotland Records and Pheromone Recordings, Mo Kenney alternately soothes and challenges, sweet but never saccharine, smirking but not impertinent. The album was produced by Joel Plaskett at his studio, Scotland Yard,  where Kenney has been collaborating since 2011. It also features Plaskett’s  input on guest vocals and instrumentation. Kenney and Plaskett co-wrote the songs “Scene of the Crime” and “Deja Vu.” While Plaskett’s influence is undoubtedly deeply felt, it is Kenney’s voice and vision that ultimately shapes the album.

And speaking of voice, there is no doubt that Mo Kenney’s vocals form the centrepiece of this album. The most immediate point of comparison is Cat Power, but her tone is at once deeper and more buttery, recalling an early k.d. lang. Emotive, expressive and deeply sensual, her voice leads the listener like a golden thread through the narrative of each track, adding cheeky defiance to “Sucker,” languid poise to “The Great Escape” and a complete re-interpretation of the David Bowie track (and only cover on the album) “Five Years.”

Though only twenty-two now, Kenney has been writing songs since she was much younger; indeed, the album’s plaintive opening track, “Eden,” was originally set down when she was only sixteen. It’s not necessarily her talent that seems remarkable–it’s not unheard of for skill to bless the young (and Kenney has been studying music since she was a very small child)–but her clarity of vision and direction. These songs have a sense of unity, sophistication and drive. While certainly Kenney has had the benefit of powerful guiding forces, such as Plaskett and Ron Sexsmith, her character and her heart define this debut: both as calming and stormy as the sea, complex as the sweet sting of salt water.

Natalie Zina Walschots is a music writer, poet, journalist and editor based in Toronto, Ontario.

Veggie video sure to satisfy

Trent Freeman
Hot Spot for a Hobo

Reviewed by Andrea E.

Sliced and diced vegetables are the stars of fiddle player Trent Freeman’s music video, Hot Spot for a Hobo. One of the six music videos nominated for a Vancouver Island Music Award (VIMA), it has flawless timing—Freeman’s fiddle and the camera move in perfect time with arranged, cut, transformed, and beautifully lit vegetables and fruits. These seeds, roots, tubers, and flowers of vegetables are melodious, and surely organic, for not only do vegetable-fruit puppets play instruments made of themselves, but they also move, respond, and cavort to Hot Spot for a Hobo’s jazzy melody.

Freeman’s album Rock Paper Scissors (2012) is also nominated for VIMA for Instrumental or Experimental Album of the Year (one of three in this category). “Hot Spot for a Hobo” is the second song off this album which twenty-four year old Freeman chose as the signature music video. Freeman explains, “the sound of chopping knives and the aggressive drum beat” were twin sounds he heard in the writing of “Hot Spot for a Hobo. Logically, as Freeman “has played with food all his life,” this led to the concept of a vegetable-puppet video narrative, “a brain-wave that might be fun.” A day was used to create the vegetable-fruit puppets, they “rested overnight in the fridge,” and the following day the improvisation began.

With the assistance of his cousin Adrian Murray, Freeman directs, shoots and edits (with a Canon T3i) the video, demonstrating that to be a joyful artist is to first understand your art. The result: this crystal-clear video, sliced and arranged by Freeman, is the most musically and visually aligned of the six nominees.

Trent Freeman is one of those adventuresome musicians who returned to BC with an added layer of sophistication and finesse. The Hot Spot for a Hobo music video reflects Freeman’s artistic growth, and his quirky-sharp humour.  And there are riddles in this video, too–here is a clue from Freeman: “Are the puppets relaxing or being boiled?”

Trent Freeman will be playing the Vancouver Island Music Festival July 12th -14th

Andrea E., aka Country Heart, is a fourth-year UVic writing student who lives for any sound with a twang or a slide in it. You can hear Country Heart on CFUV later this spring.

Singers elegantly recreate early music

Stile Antico
Passion and Resurrection: Music for Lent and Eastertide
Alix Goolden Hall, Victoria Conservatory of Music

Reviewed by Konstantin R. Bozhinov.

Stile Antico’s recent interpretation of Renaissance vocal masterworks was elegant and polished without sounding too pompous. The singers combined great ensemble work with artistic awareness and deep understanding of the music.

In his introductory remarks, one of the singers called Goolden Hall a “rather intimate space.” Smaller than Wigmore or Carnegie Halls, the space is just fine for twelve a capella singers. The group’s  crystalline sound and vibrato was typical of the English choir tradition,  a sound established by the Tallis Scholars and King’s College choir a few decades earlier. This aesthetic can come across as restrained and conservative, but Stile Antico’s version suggested precision and attention to detail. Clarity of diction reinforced ensemble cohesiveness, although the style of the music dictates independence of each of the parts.

The program consisted mainly of English 16th century composers, interspersed with Spanish and French pieces. The concert was themed around Lent and Easter and most of the text was in Latin. Pieces by John Taverner, Thomas Tallis and William Byrd showcased the best musical achievements of the English Renaissance, while Spain was represented by Cristobal de Morales and Tomas Luis de Victoria. The only French pieces were by Crequillon and Lheritier. Since the overall style of the music was the same, Stile Antico provided diversity through insightful interpretation.

John McCabe’s Woefully arrayed, written for Stile Antico, was a surprising modern end to the first half of the concert. The performance was top notch, but the composition itself did not fit the overall program. The second half balanced this deficiency through more elaborate dynamics and musical detail. The last piece was the brief but virtuosic In resurrectione tua by William Byrd, a fine way to end. The encore offered Thomas Campion, a slightly later composer with a distinctly different style.  Its brief phrases and lack of voice independence almost mocked the complicated polyphony of the entire program, showing that there is beauty in simplicity.

To my ear, the group creates a brilliant Renaissance sound I’d call elegant and refined. Stile Anticoi is well on its way to becoming a leading early-music a capella group.

Konstantin R. Bozhinov is a Ph.D. student in historical musicology at UVic, as well as a professional performer on the lute and baroque guitar.

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 www.ghostlights.ca.

Wild Belle brings reggae into the city

Wild Belle
Isles (Columbia Records, 2013)
Produced by Elliot Bergman and Bill Skibbe

Reviewed by Blake Morneau

Isles, the debut album from New York’s Wild Belle, accomplishes an incredible task: It bridges the gap between the seemingly disparate genres of indie-pop and roots reggae. More impressive is how the familial duo transfuses the two genres without allowing any of the winking irony often associated with the lo-fi indie movement to invade their brand of sunny, love-torn reggae music.

The first moments of the heavy dub of the opening “Keep You,” complete with wailing saxophone solo, make it clear that Wild Belle knows their reggae. It’s not until the saccharine voice of singer Natalie Bergman enters the fray that we know this is anything different from any other reggae release. Though Bergman’s voice sounds overwhelmed by the powerful dub of the opening, by the second track, “It’s Too Late,” her voice is oozing with confident glam-swagger as she bids adieu to the lover who tossed her aside.

Bergman, with her sweetly disconnected voice, is the star of this album. Whether she’s urging a prospective suitor to let down his veneer of cool in “Take Me Away,” or singing from the view of a staunch materialist in “Twisted,” (“What’s the definition of love if it isn’t material things”) Bergman’s smoky sunniness is perfectly suited to the bouncy electro-reggae that permeates the album.

It’s a blessing and a curse that Bergman’s star shines so brightly because it means that her brother, multi-instrumentalist Elliot Bergman (co-founder of Afrobeat outfit Nomo), doesn’t get as much time in front of the mic as he deserves. When he does take lead vocal duties on “When It’s Over,” he brings an earthy, rock-tone to the music reminiscent of Canadian rock hero Sam Roberts. Sitting in the last third of the album, the song offers a welcome curveball from the New York-indie vocals his sister brings.

For all the vocal talent on display, the music the Bergman siblings have crafted to complement their impressive vocals is genuinely awesome. Isles takes its name from the genre-hopping spirit of the album, with each song representing its own little sonic island. This is an album where soul, funk and acid-jazz all fit neatly into the reggae mix, creating a sonic stew equally at home in the pitch black midnight of a Friday night or on a sunny weekend morning. It’s music for the party and the hangover.

Blake Morneau is a lover of aural pleasure who has been writing about his passion for nearly two years. Follow him on Twitter @MusicRags


Old time music gets intimate kitchen treatment

Slim Sandy and the Hillbilly Bebop
Yes, Baby, Yes! (2013)
Produced by Jonathan Stuart

Reviewed by Yasuko Thanh

My favourite definition of the blues goes like this: blues are nothing but bad times that have a good man down. But he can still sing about them, even laugh, down at the bottom of the well.  My second favourite definition compares the blues with gospel: the blues is what you sing on Saturday night, gospel’s what you sing on Sunday morning.

Slim Sandy, a long time practioner of both, launched his latest album Yes, Baby, Yes! at the Martin Batchelor Gallery in Victoria on April 6. Like many Victoria musicians, Sandy has another life. His is as a cultural worker, artist and teacher. Another name, too. But that’s another story.

The intimate setting of the gallery, nestled between a tenement house and a hair salon on Cormorant Street, gave the event a down-to-earth aesthetic. There was space to dance in the centre of the gallery, and every seat was taken.

Slim Sandy plays as a solo artist or with a rotating cast of musicians. Local drummer Rad Juli, keeping rhythm on an old suitcase, accompanied him at the launch. So did his wife Willa Mae on washtub bass, wearing a Western shirt, hair dyed red to match. “There’s a global phenomenon of people interested in the old-time music and recreating the fashions and style,” Willa Mae says. “For me the music is the center of that and what drives the whole thing, and if a song has a good dance beat then I’m attracted to it.”

Five of the six songs on this album are public domain, which means, like sunshine or clouds, they belong to everyone. Slim Sandy’s philosophy of ever-changing band members also speaks to the inclusiveness of the music.  Sandy decided to record live in the studio. “The musicians from Marshal Scott Warner’s band are real pro and could just jump right in there. Recording live with no overdubs keeps the feel of a live show.”

What emerges is a sound that could be recreated in someone’s kitchen. It showcases the creative collaboration and connection between people.  Willa Mae’s sultry harmonies in “Up Above My Head,” a gospel song originally recorded in the 1940s by Sister Rosetta Sharpe, made me want to sing along.

“I think harmony singing is magical, a kind of sharing,” Willa Mae says.

Another of the album’s highlights is “Meet Me By The Moonlight,” otherwise known as “The Prisoner’s Song,” because it tells the sad story of a man going to prison, and pining for his lost love. This Carter Family signature was first recorded in 1928, and various incarnations of it go back as far as 1826.

“When I was young, I listened to my father’s 78 records,” Sandy says. “Artists like Louis Jordan, Fats Waller, and Slim & Slam left a deep impression on me. But I also love a lot of 50’s rock and roll, and started going back in time to listen to 30’s 40’s music, like Billie Holiday, and hillbilly singers like Gene O’Quinn and the Delmore Brothers.”

The album features great thwacky doghouse bass by Tony Laborie, of Seattle’s Western Bluebirds, and Nick Streeter on guitar, whose sound is reminiscent of Scotty Moore.  From the album’s fun, tongue-in-cheek title to the last song, prepare to hit the floor with your dancing shoes–preferably hardwood that bows when you two-step.

Yasuko Thanh has been short-listed for this year’s BC Book Prize in fiction.

Marina MArina captivates audience

Marina MArina
Victoria House Concert B
April 4, 2013

Reviewed by Blake Jacob

An enthusiastic group welcomed West Coast folk artist Marina MArina to Victoria House Concert b on April 4, 2013. Marina’s unique warmth and striking music made this evening unforgettable. Her captivating opening act, folk duo The Ghostbirds, was a perfect match for her with their ethereal vocal arrangements and powerful lyrics.

Marina is a true storyteller, drawing in her listener with an easy smile and natural, comedic charm. Her melodies are comforting and unique. She introduces one song with, “This is my invitation song to all,” connecting the audience to her and to one another. A few people in the crowd reminisce between songs about attending one of Marina’s shows and spending a magical night afterwards singing along to her album in a pedi-cab under the stars.

One can’t resist singing along with Marina. Her voice is gorgeously smoky and full of feeling. As she sings, “I’ll be waiting when the truth gets in,” one envisions that she always finds the sweet in the bittersweet.  Even her heartbreak songs seem lighthearted and hopeful. She remembers, “I reminisced because I miss the one hot moment when we kissed,” and then sharply, cynically, “but love is a con,” winking at the laughing and nodding audience members.

Marina’s music is reminiscent of, but not derivative of, Ani DiFranco. Her cover of DiFranco’s “You Had Time” was such a beautiful reinvention that hearing this song may forever evoke a memory of this night. A listener feels uplifted, centered, as if experiencing “a few green trees to clear your mind,” as one of her songs offers.  When maracas and tambourines were passed through the audience, it felt as if these listeners had become a family supplementing her rhythm. This group of approximately thirty strangers-turned-friends begged her back for two encores. Marina sings, “in this place, we’re all the same,” and that feeling is undeniable.


Blake Jacob is a Vancouver Island poet whose essential nutrients are optimism, wordsmithery, and captivating melody.