2021 Half Year-End Album Round Up

Mid-Year Album Roundup

It is already the end of June! Summer is officially here!  Can you believe that we are at the midway point of 2021 already?  Here at Team GDW, we just can’t seem to keep up with all of these new music releases, and looking at the albums found on my trusty blotter that were considered for review, I’m once again stunned how we’ve not yet found time or space for them.  So, what better time than the present, the midway point of the year, to pull a few of those names from the list and share a few words about them right here, right now?  We can’t cover every great album that comes our way, but after being teased with new tunes prior to the release of these albums, we can at least encourage you to check out four stunners from the first half of 2021.

VISSIA, “With Pleasure”

Edmonton, AB singer-songwriter VISSIA (Alex Vissia) dropped her latest album back on April 30th, through Hurry Hard Records, after teasing us with some stunning singles prior to the launch.  Singles such as “Walk Me Home,” a phenomenal and soulful piano ballad which we featured back in November as part of our monthly Snappy Singles series, “On My Mind,” and “The Cliffs” left us incredibly hungry for much more.  Cue the arrival of “With Pleasure,” and with it, the sound of an artist who is discovering her true voice through fearless exploration.

Produced and mixed by Nich Davies, and mastered by Phillip Shaw Bova, “With Pleasure” finds VISSIA drawing on dance, R&B, rock and soul influences to create her beautiful, polished, genre-defying album. “Don’t be mistaken, With Pleasure is certainly not all about what one might at first consider to be pleasurable,” she shares. “With Pleasure means that there is joy in experiencing all of our dimensions: the light and the dark, the helpless and the triumphant, the ashes and rebirth. That’s what authenticity is. That’s how it feels to be alive.”

When you wake up do you ever think of / All the mornings we used to sing / You’d make the coffee and hum along softly / Well these days I keep remembering everything,” VISSIA recites on “Doorway,” the album’s opening track that quickly grabs your attention, whether from her own powerful vocals, or the stunning accompaniment of synth and choral backing harmonies.  Progress through the album, and you’ll quickly learn how VISSIA demonstrates her apparent ease in transitioning between multiple genres, incorporating her own external influences to guide and create her own unique sound.  And while there is plenty of soul and R&B at the core, don’t be surprised to discover hints of jazz, balladry, 80s pop, and a little alt-country too.

If you are looking for something totally retro, “Take It Apart” offers a great power-pop dance number complete with a distinct 80s vibe.  Travel back to the decade of synth-rock and disco effects here, along with Fleetwood Mac inspired guitar riffs and vocals reminiscent of Pat Benatar: “Things are not as they first seem / I heard that from someone who heard it from me / An overplayed melody / I don’t wanna sing that song / Going through the motions isn’t singing along / Or someone I wanna be.”  As for that alt-country tag I alluded to, pay attention to “I Just Wanna Hold You,” and see if you too detect the slight Kacey Musgraves influence.  As VISSIA delivers the opening lines, “We were young, we jumped in / We found out we could swim / Sunburned in the valley, just a couple of kids / We don’t live there anymore / No more crying on the kitchen floor / Every time I see you, I break all over again,” I can’t help but hear Kacey’s “Slow Burn” resonating in my head.  Yet throughout this impressive album, the power of VISSIA is unmistakably feminine, coming from a place of empathy that shines through on every track.

Jonathan Roy, “My Lullaby”

You take me for a fool, that doesn’t make me foolish / Told me I was wrong, passion made you ruthless / Manipulate, it’s just too late / Oh lord, cause I ain’t going back no more / Your fueling of the flames gonna show you what I’m made of.”  I recall the first time I happened to hear the single “Keeping Me Alive” by Montreal, QC singer-songwriter Jonathan Roy a couple of years back, and how I fell instantly for the intense, pulsating sonic nature that made it a natural anthem.  A tune that saw frequent airplay on SXM, keeping our cravings for more new music from Jonathan; our demands were finally met on May 28th with the release of his latest album, “My Lullaby.”

Keeping Me Alive can be about anything you want – you battle with drug addiction, depression, love, cancer, and even people bringing you down,” Jonathan offers when asked about the origins of the album opener. “It can also be about finding that fire to compete against all of those demons we fight every day and have the strength to come out of it alive.”  Prior to the release of this 2019 single, Jonathan rolled the dice and left Montreal for the sunny shores of Malibu, CA.  The beach provided solace, a new outlet, and some new innovative partners with whom he began writing songs. “It took me leaving my comfort zone, buying (and living) in a van to find myself again,” he recalls. “My songs reflect that, and reflect that recharge that I needed. Not only in my artist life, but in my personal life as well.”  

Now back home on a farm outside of Montreal, Roy is ready for everything coming his way.  “I would say that this entire experience has cemented my faith in music,” he shares. “The healing power of it, and the need for me to do this my entire life. There is nothing I want more.”  And with an outstanding mix of tunes awaiting your discovery across “My Lullaby,” such as the radio friendly “Leaving With Your Heart,” and the hidden gem of a piano ballad that is “Walk Out With Me,” his temporary west-coast life and collaborative writing results in this excellent collection of new material.  With his unquestionable talent and incredible showmanship – no doubt from the genes inherited from his famous father, NHL Hockey Hall of Fame goaltender Patrick Roy – he has finally earned the attention of music lovers and the music industry alike.

The cold wind has frozen your heart / Let’s re-write this story and make it a long one / It’s broken and falling apart / I won’t let you lose who you are.”  Another earlier single release, “Lost,” still renders an all-out assault of goosebumps upon each and every spin.  “The feeling of emptiness, confusion and not knowing what road to take really takes a toll on you. Everything seems to be falling apart around you and the walls that kept you safe are coming down,” Jonathan offers.  “I wrote this song about a friend of mine who I helped get into rehab. That night turned out to be one of the most important and life-changing moment of both our lives.”

The Strange Valentines, “Does Anyone Know How To Fix Old Radios?”

For those of you partial to traditional folk music, Canada offers up plenty of artists who perform this popular brand of Americana music.  With such broad interpretations of the genre, there are no shortage of musicians who hold traditional roots at their core, but widen their influence with modern cues (The Small Glories/The East Pointers), while others choose to keep alive the sounds that harken back to days past (Kacy & Clayton/The Heartaches Stringband).  Not only do contemporary folk-roots duo, The Strange Valentines, fall into the latter, they also teased us with new music to kick off the year, releasing their single “Burning House Waltz” back on New Years’ Eve, and announced their upcoming full length album release for early 2021.

Comprised of Australian David Farrell and Nova Scotian Janet Mills, The Strange Valentines shared their latest album, “Does Anyone Know How To Fix Old Radios” earlier this month.  Released to coincide with Janet’s birthday, what better than sharing some good old-fashioned traditional folk music to celebrate taking another journey around the sun?  Opting to record the album live-on-the-floor acoustically, the result is a refreshingly simple offering of two voices, two instruments, and an occasional kick drum on a couple of tracks to keep you guessing.  The stunning two-part harmonies and the expressive use of mandolin score extra points with me, making it hard to take this album off of the repeat play cycle.  Trust me, if you were at a folk festival and heard this music as you passed a workshop stage, you would be drawn in, curious to learn more, to hear more, and find yourself rooted in that same spot for the remainder of the set.

Opening with “So Long,” the tone is set immediately, even with the added flamenco flavor in the instrumentation: “We’ve got the land / Work it hard all day / Chemical spray / Took the land away / Now the land is gone, the land is gone / So long, so long.”  Collectively, Janet and David easily whisk the listener away back to the heyday of folk music, where serious subject matter could be turned into short, poetic songs with an apparent ease.  Both old and new combine in the following track, “Cowboy Man,” basing this tale on the premise of a present-day cowboy who can’t seem to find the right town: “But when the ride speeds up, he’s past his prime / His reflexes aren’t what they used to be / And maybe some part of him wants to be done because / When the sun goes down, there’s no one left to promise to.

Returning to those dual harmonies and expressive mandolin, be sure to spend some time with “Love Shines Through,” where perfectly paired two-part vocals carry throughout the song: “He dared to imagine the world John Lennon wrote / He dared to believe love conquers all / He dared to believe in peace on earth / But they carried him off anyway.”  I particularly enjoyed both “Little Things” and “Not A Thing,” mostly due to hearing some hints of Neil Young in their instrumentation and timing, along with the addition of a few live tracks (including “Burning House Waltz”) that should also not be missed.  This is a beautiful collection of olde-worlde tunes from The Strange Valentines, where common themes of simplicity and nostalgia yearn for answers in simple radio repair.  Old radios that captivated us, celebrated with us, and were the soundtrack to a different, musically connected culture and time.

The Hello Darlins, “Go By Feel”

While each album featured here today represents a fantastic piece of work from the respective artist, I must confess to a little favoritism on my part with this final offering.  I have purposely saved this particular album until last, because of all the new albums set for release in the first half of the year, for me, this stunning debut from Calgary, AB emerging band, The Hello Darlins, was the most highly anticipated of them all.  Formed around the duo of Mike Little and Candace Lacina, The Hello Darlins are usually a five or six-piece band, but have been known to perform sometimes just as a duo, and other times as a nine-piece collective.  The musicians that rotate in and out accordingly are all highly sought studio sessions players, who can perform a variety of instruments as well as sing both harmonies and lead vocals, and whose expertise and contributions truly helps separate this album from the pack.

“In the spring of 2019, we got together with some fellow writers including Clayton Bellamy and Murray Pulver and started making demos,” the band share.  “Right away, the combination of the songs and harmonies, and the authenticity of playing with real instruments really resonated. We all felt that this was something special.”  A little over twelve months later, in May 2020, The Hello Darlins unleashed their first studio single, “Still Waters,” which featured guest vocalist, Matt Andersen (another GDW fave).  And while this would be the first of several singles that would be featured on our pages, it was the strength of this track alone that solidified the band as my personal choice for Best Emerging Canadian Band for 2020 – unprecedented when considering this honor was bestowed upon them six months BEFORE their first album came to fruition.

Whether intentional, or merely a victim of circumstance given the global pandemic, The Hello Darlins saw yet another calendar year pass between that first single and their formal album release back on June 11th.  But if anything in life were ever justifiably worth the wait, “Go By Feel” wins hands down.  Offering ten vocal tracks, including popular cuts we also covered – “Prayer For a Sparrow” and “Aberdeen” (featuring Joey Landreth) – the band also add a delightful short instrumental piece titled “Farewell River Rouge” to close out the album.  Opening with “Catch That Train,” another earlier single, I am reminded once again of the fine attention to detail, such as the taps of the snare that perfectly replicate the sound of big iron rolling by on those steel rails.  And with “Mountain Time,” the most recent single that dropped to coincide with the album release, the band offer up plenty of rhythm, making this a perfect summer’s day driving tune.

Of all the previously unheard tracks, I took an instant shine to the galloping nature of “Smokin Gun,” which not only features some stunning harmonies, it also embraces the roots-Americana core of the band’s music.  With a guitar intro that paints vivid pictures of the badlands, Candace’s vocals appear omnipotent as she belts out the final chorus: “If you knew where to look for good luck / If you found a four-leaf clover, it wouldn’t be enough / Cause the dust will never settle on the damage that you’ve done / If you’re gonna run your snake oil, I’ll hold the smokin gun.”  Their approach to production focuses on real instrumentation that supports the lyrics, soulful melodies, and no auto-tuning.  There is a natural cohesiveness between tracks as the album play out, the quality of writing, recording, and musicianship never faltering.  This truly is as close to perfection that a debut album can aspire to be.  Mere words alone cannot do this album justice, in my opinion.  Was it worth the twelve-month wait?  Yes!  Does it live up to the hype?  Yes!  Is it a lock for my year-end album list?  Of course!  Should you go out and pick up a copy right now?  Absolutely.  Miss this one at your peril, because I for one cannot wait for my vinyl pre-order to ship, and spin it many times on the turntable here at home.

The British guy that crossed the ocean and crash landed in central Pennsylvania (to quote Greg Keelor, “And I wonder what am I doing here?”). As the youngest of four siblings, exposure to music from a very early age nurtured my passion and appreciation for many musical genres. Continuing to discover some amazingly diverse and talented musicians based in Canada, I gravitate to live music experiences and remain devoted to spreading the word about such a vibrant music scene.

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