Take a Look: Shawn Clarke

Photo by Cody Walker

I featured Shawn Clarke‘s song “To Think I Once Was Lost” just earlier this week to make Torontonians love the city again after the G20, but now’s the time to make you love the rest of his music.

Clarke, a country-folk singer/songwriter who is now based in Toronto, has recently released an album titled Like Birds, too Tired to Fly. It’s beautiful.

When I visited my Canadian grandpa’s home as a kid, he’d often have the radio turned on to some country radio station. I’ll always remember hearing these twangs and songs about women, trucks and baseball. It didn’t make me love country music for the rest of my life whatsoever, but it didn’t make me hate it either. It was something in the background, a detail of the scene that seemed to describe it wonderfully. The first guitar notes of this album take me back to that place, but it’s one now that I can learn and love.

Now I don’t really listen to country music, but I do appreciate some bands that have parts of country stylings in them, like Elliott Brood or Fish and Bird. I guess I just don’t like that commercial kind of country that just keeps getting as shiny as Taylor Swift’s next dress. But Clarke has created a perfect balance of country and folk and it just feels so personal, which is why I like it so much. It’s simple: the friendly back-and-forth bass notes and soft drumming will first find you, and then comes the banjo and most of all the clear voice.

Clarke doesn’t sing about trucks and baseball, but he does sing about women, working and as I’ve mentioned before, loving Toronto. It’s easy to relate to for almost anyone, and it makes the album that much more charming. Songs like “Empty House” and “Hurt Before” are sadder songs, but they still feel pretty optimistic. “Secret Bear” is practically an indie flick on love waiting to happen. “I’ll Miss you When You’re Gone” is smack in the middle of the album, a peaceful acoustic piece that will give you pause rather than make you hit ‘next.’ There is not a song on this album that I don’t like.

Clarke enlisted a lot of other Toronto musicians to be on this album such as Olenka of Olenka and the Autumn Lovers (Clarke plays saxophone in her band occasionally) on “Empty House,” The Wilderness of Manitoba on “Sick Song” and “Untitled, ” Rebecca Willoughby-Rowan who lends her vocals to “Sick Song,” “Song for Kathleen,” “I’ll Miss You When You’re Gone,” “To Think I Once Was Lost” and “Untitled” and other musicians (Mark Hart, Marty Smyth, Marshal Bureau, Amanda Penner, Darren Wall, Nick Zubeck) as well.

Definitely check out this album, you won’t be disappointed. Clarke has made an organic album about sincere love and loss with lovely musicianship from him and all of his contributors. It’s impressive, heart-warming and adaptable.

Like Birds, Too Tired to Fly is available on iTunes or if you’re in Toronto, at Soundscapes.

***Clarke plays tonight at the Holy Oak Cafe with Priya Thomas.***

Album Review: Courier News – Fixtures EP

The following was originally published on Exclaim.ca.

Courier News
Fixtures
By Jessica Lewis

Alexa Dirks and Matt Schellenberg make a great team. Dirks (of Juno-awarded group Chic Gamine) and Schellenberg (a Western Canadian Music Award winner for his work with the Liptonians and Royal Canoe) complement each other very well in a few aspects. Dirks’ soulful, streaming vocals flow over Schellenberg’s cautiously modest, straight pipes while electronic loops twirl and vibrate beneath. This five-song EP is a wonderful introduction to the new Winnipeg, MB-based duo, though you can hear titbits of influence or similar characteristics from known groups such as Spoon and the XX. The mixture of computerized sounds from the vocoder, Autoharp and midi instruments, as well as pots, pans and Coke bottles, keep them futuristic but organic. Dirks and Schellenberg have created a casual, up-and-down atmosphere with their mellow lyrics. They say newspapers don’t have a future, but this band will get to something more optimistic. (Head in the Sand)

Take a Look: Seabear

It’s been a long time since I’ve done an exclusive RoundLetters profile on a band/artist. Thus, when one comes along that means it really counts.

Seabear, an band from Reykjavik, Iceland, caught my attention a month or so ago and I still cannot stop thinking about them. Their soft yet uplifting pop melodies are precious and catchy. The songs on their new album, We Built a Fire, are perfect for any mood or setting. (Recently the mood they’ve been attached to is turmoil in a Grey’s Anatomy scene.)

It is bands like this that make me smile in the morning on my crisp and brisk walk to school. They keep me calm, but they also inspire me.

They sing in English, so knock that worry out of your head. Seabear started out as a lo-fi solo project for Sindri Már Sigfússon, but it has grown to be a full band. He is now joined by Gudbjörg Hlin Gudmundsdottir, Ingibjörg Birgisdóttir, Halldór Ragnarsson, Örn Ingi Ágústsson, Kjartan Bragi Bjarnason and Sóley Stefánsdóttir. All names that I won’t even TRY saying. Sigh, I shake my head in shame!

Together, their sound is big and small at the same time. They conquer the corners first and then move their way in. They come closer and closer, first touching your skin for just a second, then for two.. gradually they find a place where you can hold them. The album has classic title — this band will build up a slow warmth, and they are proud. They want to share this feeling with you because it’s just so good.

They have an impressive track record — the song “I Sing, I Swim” has a ton of covers on YouTube by adoring fans. The aforementioned Grey’s Anatomy scene. They had a song called “Cat Piano” (there’s an amazing GIF of it on their MySpace page) on Finding Neverland and Gossip Girl. Et cetera.

But now it’s time for We Built a Fire to shine. Yes, it may sound more produced than the last album, but it’s for a good price (I’m sure). There’s a lot going on — tiny details that should be paid attention to, and without the production quality, that wouldn’t be able to happen.

Sometimes they remind me of the Toronto pop-punk band Still Life Still — just without the brash lyrics and harder sound. It’s the soft, communal vocals that do you in.

Anyways, I think it’s time for you to decide for yourself.

Here, you will find a download for the first song on the album, “Lion Face Boy.”

And below, watch the video for the first single, “I’ll Build You a Fire”:

Seabear will be playing at Toronto’s the Horseshoe Tavern on March 31. I hope to see you there!

Take a Look: The First Joke & Other Matters

There comes a time in any rock critic’s life when a band that they used to look upon fondly, who had since broken up, moved around but brought two of the members back in a new light. In my case, this comes to The First Joke. (Ironic, no?)

I grew up in Buffalo, New York. Halfway through my high school years I found my place in the local music scene as a reporter for NeXt in the Buffalo News. I interviewed a ton of bands (and pretty much all of them have since broken up as well, but I’ll occasionally see people when I go back home, everyone’s doing well) but every single band looked up to the slightly older band, This Day & Age. Everyone was so charmed in their presence. I knew a girl that listened to their album every night before falling asleep. I found myself at many of their shows singing along with more oomph than I usually do at live shows. (Once, they played at Media Play-ha!- and they stopped short. I was still singing. Embarrassing.)

This Day & Age broke up a year into my university life, at the cusp of becoming something really big right after the release of their second album, The Bell and the Hammer. I don’t think I saw their last show (although memory is failing me right now, anyone care to fix this?) but I did make it to a show of theirs at Club Infinity in October 2006. It was bittersweet.

In the past few years, three of the members ended up in a band called the Reign of Kindo. I never really followed them. I was so busy learning new Canadian music. I regret such, but I am redeemed in the formation of The First Joke & Other Matters. Made up of the singer and drummer of TDAA, Jeff Martin and Steven Padin, they bring back what we all loved: the low-key late-night coos. What they didn’t bring from TDAA was the gut-wrenching yet still subtle wails, but you know what? That’s perfect. The First Joke shows how they’ve grown in music and their life paths, and those of us who knew TDAA still have those great memories.

The First Joke will be releasing their first album independently on January 19th. All of me wishes that it was just a few weeks earlier, when I’ll be home for the holidays. To have that kind of reunion would be great, and I’m sad I’ll miss out when it finally does happen in Buffalo. Hopefully Jeff and Steve will take this far or at least really put their love into it. These new songs show a lot of promise, like “Runway,” which will encourage your humming reflex to pick it up immediately and “Page in Book” is an example of the sweet harmonies Jeff & Steven have created for years now. It’s good to hear Steven taking more singing leads, such as in “Winston Was Here.”And in “Perelanra,” they’ve got a lil Latin flair.

Jeff revealed this information about the few of the songs on their blog: “a fun little fact about a couple of the songs.. i wrote the song “page in book” about this guy who realizes a bit too late of the damage he has done to his relationship. steve then showed me the music to what is now called “winston was here” and asked me to write lyrics for it.. (i did).. it then became the hopeful outlook of winston (the character from “page in book”) on the day after his wife leaves him, as he begins his new life.”

But hey, I’ll like just about anything these guys do if you couldn’t tell already. Definitely check The First Joke out, and pray they’ll get bigger and come to Canada one day. ;-)

The Reign of Kindo are still in formation, even making a new album, and you and I will do well to check them out too.

(P.S. Is that the Buffalo News in the picture?!)

Take a Look: The Runaway Catholics

Photo by Katelyn Di Giulio

Photo by Katelyn Di Giulio

This review was originally written for Exclaim.ca, but unfortunately was not able to be published. But please do check this Toronto band out! They’ve recently went on a very short hiatus, but hopefully they’ll have new shows lined up soon around the area and an actual EP eventually released.

The Runaway Catholics introduce themselves with sunny soft folk-rock. As they delightfully combine slower and faster tracks between five songs, it’s easy to see that each stands out for their own merits. “Ghosts in Memories” illuminates the sweet melodic vocal partnership of Shawna Sormin and Brodie Dakin to a pop-based tune that would definitely wake you up in the morning. “Melody of June” and “France” flow beautifully into one another with simple, nostalgic beats and chord progressions, quietly highlighted by the piano or xylophone, respectively. “Crazy Sorrows” has the collective at its strongest, while both impressive electric and acoustic guitars work together in a way that should take them back to Woodstock or at least blasting the speakers out at a backyard party. The live recording of “Charmed Life” has them in a dream-like jam session state, with just enough to leave the listener hanging, wishing there was more, or at least that they were at the show clapping along.

Take a Look: Ghost Trees

This is a special edition of Take a Look, and I’m very excited about it!

Recently I found out a new friend of mine has hidden talents as a musician; Jamie Steep goes by the name of Ghost Trees.

jamie

Jamie went on the same Sweden exchange program as my roommate Vanessa – thus they are both pals with musician Lars Ludvig Lofgren, like I’ve mentioned before.

Interestingly enough, Lars is in town and will be playing a show with Ghost Trees in my backyard this Saturday!! Our backyard is tiny and intimate and the combination of these two talents will make this amazing. I’ll be bringing you exclusive content after, but why not come? Let me know if you would like to see the show – email me!

jamieandlars

Anywas, back to Ghost Trees. She makes incredibly psychedelic yet soothing tunes and tones to fill up jars upon jars of colourful spirits. Her voice is calm and beautiful in a way of a female voice you don’t often hear in 10 other singers. Her songs are slow but upbeat; they are like light clouds rolling in, just when the sun is setting and you see all of the rays from the sun peaking through in every direction. “Books in Your Hands” is a perfect example of this.

The electric guitar sounds like she’s just playing around sitting on her bed, tapping her feet and shaking her hair. No hairbrushes or any type of fake microphones in sight, because this girl is serious business. Her music isn’t just the regular bedroom work some might stumble upon.

“Sound of the Old City” is a tale of the uniqueness of Karlstad, Sweden, and I think she captured the town quite nicely. The people always seem to be reflecting or just moving, moving, moving.

The two previous songs mentioned are on her MySpace for listen as well as two more – please check it out! Jamie’s got an EP called Feathers coming out soon – I don’t know the details yet but if you’d like a copy, leave a comment!

And again, let me know if you want to come to the show! But if you miss it, you will have another chance to catch them at The Only Cafe sometime next weekend, details to come.

Take a Look: Silver Starling

silverstarling

There is a new side project super group in the midst, coming from the ever-evolving Montreal music scene.

Out of Arcade Fire, Young Galaxy, Stars, Zeroes, Parkside Jones, Marathon and more comes this pop rock band called Silver Starling.

Their self-titled debut, which was mixed by Peter Katis (who has worked with The National and Interpol) and Marcus Paquin will be released in the fall by Last Gang Records.

Four tracks are available on their MySpace. “Something Over Nothing” is a slow, dreamy sad ballad. “Caught in Your Glow” is another ballad, but much more upbeat, with a great string arrangement, building the song up in tempo. “Ghosts” is clearly the stand out track in terms of catchy, with cute banjo plucking and xylophones with frontman Pacquin’s whisper. “Closer” is also quite catchy and has a great bass line.

I don’t want to spend much time comparing them to Arcade Fire, but it’s undeniable Pacquin has a tiny bit of Butler’s vocals in him. However, he takes it in a more casual and fun direction. Other than that, Silver Starling are progressive and charming, and I’m excited to hear more from them in the future.

If you go to their MySpace, you can catch an acoustic video performance of “Ghosts” which really showcases their harmonies, coordination and ability to sing in the wind.

The band has tour dates lined up in Oro-Medonte, Montreal and Ottawa at the moment for Aug 30 – Sept 24.