Team GDW spent a recent evening in Toronto to check out a live show by The Mercenaries, an ensemble of local musicians who truly get together to jam with some amazing cover versions. And what a collection of Ontario musical talent, with the likes of Nichol Robertson (guitar), Jeff Heisholt (keyboards), and even Blue Rodeo’s Glenn Milchem (drums) joining forces on this particular night. However, it would be during the second set by The Mercenaries that I would experience my first taste of music from Joan Smith. Invited on stage by Ian Goodtimes (bass/vocals) as a guest vocalist, Joan would not only sing her heart out during a cover of the Gnarls Barkley number “Crazy,” but would showcase her skills with an absolutely amazing job of covering Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” (not the easiest Robert Plant tune to tackle by any means). Hearing Ian ask the audience to give it up for Joan Smith as she exited the stage, her name was quickly added to my notepad as an artist whom I hoped to encounter again soon.
Here we are, a few weeks later, and it looks like fate has intervened once more. L recently saw new music from Joan Smith in her email inbox, and promptly forwarded to me knowing too well that rock music is always to my liking. I must admit to not making the immediate connection between the sender of the email and that particular Mercenaries concert; but once I heard those distinct vocals during “Normalize,” my interest level soared. I have waxed poetic many times about looking for artists that embrace a true hard rock sound, without jumping on trendy bandwagons or adding the ‘alt’ tag to their brand of rock. And having discovered The Glorious Ones, Monster Truck, and very recently, The Stanfields, as true modern day pioneers of the hard rock genre, I am delighted to acknowledge Toronto singer/songwriter Joan Smith as a very worthy addition to this list.
So what is it about this seven track “Normalize” EP that separates Joan Smith from her peers? For me, having witnessed both her extensive vocal range, and her natural confidence and on-stage swagger, Joan is a bona-fide rock star first and foremost. Without seeking to alienate many of the female artists that we actively follow, for most, any forays this far into the rock music spectrum are very limited. Sure, some of her peers have successfully crossed into the rock genre in their own right, such as Lisa Leblanc, Serena Ryder and Metric vocalist Emily Haines. Yet it is Joan Smith who appears to be the most comfortable bellowing out her vocals to rise above those dirty guitar sounds that surround her. This is no folk-rock singer branching out. No, Joan is up there with other contemporary vocal powerhouses here, such as Amy Lee (Evanescence), Grace Potter, and the short-lived rock persona of Quebec’s Marie-Mai when it comes to exercising her vocal cords.
Upon hearing those opening guitar licks on the track “Normalize,” I detected hints of “Lie, Lie, Lie” from Metric – for maybe a few seconds, before the intensity of the licks increased, and Smith took charge. Rising above the true hard rock sound, Joan demonstrates having both the voice and presence to stand out from her musical companions; essential attributes for any successful vocalist within this genre. This title track is akin to a gas pedal that is floored and held firmly in place, and only once Joan recites those final lines of the chorus (“Just slow down / just be nice / please don’t make a fuss”) do we see the throttle released and a slower climax that is sheer brilliance and perfectly fits the context of this song.
Some of the comparisons made earlier to other rock vocalists are apparent on two songs in particular. “Afterneath” has a slightly less intimidating blues-themed pace that sees Joan slowing her pace, yet retains an intensity in similar fashion to Amy Lee’s “Bring Me To Life.” This blues-rock beat appears on “What Prison?” too, which for me draws similarities to Grace Potter’s “Paris” due in part to the dominance of the vocals. Yet whilst in great company here, Joan is the only one who refuses to slow it down any time soon (Amy Lee and Grace Potter succumbed to “Immortal” and “Stars” respectively – both mainstream radio hits). With “Choose Her Death” and “You’re So Mine,” commercial radio are not likely to come calling on Joan Smith any time soon; a statement made with my sincerest respect for her personal dedication to both her musical endeavors and signature brand of rock and roll.
With this EP, Smith has carefully crafted songs that focus on having to face realities, “swooping through #MeToo, political populism, privilege, sexual ownership, and the mental struggle that occurs after internalizing all of it.” Accompanying Smith is producer/guitarist Tom Juhas, whose edgy and aggressive guitar riffs provide the perfect soundtrack to Joan’s messages. “Tom carries the same torch for rock music that I do, but brings a massive broad musical knowledge that has pushed me and these songs into a gloriously twisted dirty hole,” states Smith. Closing the EP with “Violent Times,” Smith once again takes charge with her genuinely gritty and incredibly refreshing rock and roll, leaving you hungry for much more beyond these handful of tracks. So just how good is “Normalize,” I hear you ask? “If there is a better new rock band in the city [Toronto] right now, I’ll eat my toque,” offers Glenn Milchem; and after witnessing those vocals and her ease of handling a room during that evening with The Mercenaries, I don’t think Glenn needs to reach for the salt anytime soon.