It’s hard to believe that we are already well into the third season of the year, but there is no doubting that the onslaught of new albums continues to keep us chained to our listening devices here at Great Dark Wonder. With hardly enough time to delve deep into some of the great new material that I’ve had the pleasure to hear recently, here are a selection of albums that I’ve found very enjoyable over these last few weeks that absolutely have to be heard and shared.
The Heartaches Stringband, “Mr. Johnson & Mrs. Brown”
Whenever you encounter people that negatively state that “they don’t make music like they used to,” go ahead and thrust a copy of this great debut from The Heartaches Stringband into their hands, and prove to them that they most certainly do. Firmly rooted in the traditional country-bluegrass genre, this London, ON quartet of Martin Horak (fiddle/vocals), Amanda Lynn Stubley (guitars/vocals), James Cummins (guitar/mandolin) and Uncle Dan Henshall (bass) have not only genuinely embraced the sounds of yesteryear, but easily convince the listener that they are tuned in to those vintage Grand Ole Opry shows from several decades past.
Made up primarily of traditional cover tunes, while the husband and wife duo of Martin and Amanda duet together across the album, each offers a distinct difference when given the lead. With both “Niagara Moon” and “I Overlooked An Orchid,” Martin draws comparisons to the vocal style of Bob Wills, with the band replicating that Texas swing beat to perfection. As for Amanda, with “Goodbye Mr. Brown” and her self-penned “Trouble Light,” there is a noticeable transition from swing to the slower, crooning sounds of the legendary Hank Williams. For me, it was impossible to not hang on every word delivered by Amanda on tracks such as these.
The instrumentation is tight and honors the old-time bluegrass tradition eerily well. All four musicians shine during the instrumental “Lonesome Moonlight Waltz,” and while the mandolin and fiddle duel for the spotlight, don’t dismiss those smooth bass tones courtesy of Henshall. As for diversity, there is plenty on offer, from the bluegrass-gospel laced “The Angels Rejoiced Last Night,” to a French language cover of “Tu Es Ma Petite Femme.” And how about the yodeling on “Honky Tonk Sweetheart?” First Colter Wall, and now The Heartaches Stringband; yodeling is back and suddenly cool again. Rounding out this impressive debut is the flawless mastering and final production. The only extra needed for added authenticity here is maybe a vinyl version, complete with a sufficient number of ‘scratches and crackles.’ The band may have arrived at the same conclusion, adding a bonus version of “Goodbye Mr. Brown” delivered in a mono, gramophone sounding package that has to be heard to be fully appreciated. This album is an absolute gem, and strongly recommended to those who love music from the likes of Asleep At The Wheel.
Chris Velan, “Amateur Hour”
It was only a few months ago when I revisited the enjoyable “Fables For Fighters” album from Chris Velan, and here he is once more, earning my attention with his brand new “Amateur Hour” release. Recorded in just the space of one week in his Montreal studio, Velan enlisted Rod Shearer to help create his seventh and most personal album to date. With material focused around a relationship and the emotional baggage that comes with it, “Amateur Hour” serves up the realization that the relationship being explored here happens to be the one with himself.
Boasting a dozen new tracks that revolve around love, desire, resentment and pain, Velan takes the listener on an abbreviated emotional tour that ‘unfolds like a series of monologues in a one-act play.’ The opening track “All Time Record” sees Chris come out swinging and not holding anything back. I don’t envy the intended recipient of the tongue (in-cheek) lashing here, accentuated at appropriate moments with some well-timed piano key crashes. Not only is Velan known for his often quirky lyrical creativity, with tracks such as “Everything I Have Is Stolen” and “Cola Wars” in particular, he once again ensures that the final mix allows his vocals to be at the forefront, rather than lost within the instrumentation.
Several tracks here provoked comparisons to eighties pop music for this particular listener. Go ahead and see if you too detect hints of Rick Ocasek during “You Can Talk,” or some Phil Collins influences about halfway through “Only One.” Velan’s signature sound is the most apparent on “The Holdout,” which conjured memories of “Did We Ever Have A Chance” upon the first listen. If there is one track that perfectly encapsulates that “one-act play” moment, it has to be “Amateur Hour.” With the lively beat, Velan’s manipulative lyrical skills paint the perfect picture of the scene, and like his previous works, warrants several spins to really delve into his psyche. By the third or fourth spin of this album, you too may be questioning your own personal relationships.
Marlon Chaplin, “The Circle”
With the influx of new music arriving daily in our inbox, sometimes it takes a while for us to pull one out at random and sample. Released back in August on the independent Mobius Recordings label, this debut full length album from Toronto-based singer-songwriter Marlon Chaplin quickly grabbed my attention. Sampling “The Circle,” the opening number on this ten-track album, the great guitar-centric chord progressions and energetic indie-rock sounds proved more than enough to short-list this one for future consideration. Returning to the album now in all its glory, this is indeed a very impressive debut, and will no doubt appeal to both fans of the indie-rock and stadium-rock genres.
Recorded in Toronto, and mastered by Joao Carvalho (recent works include the new Kyp Harness album), “The Circle” blends both rock ‘n’ roll beats with some lyrically-rich ballads to engage the listener. Looking for those livelier numbers; start out with both “Drain Me” and “Elevation,” two tracks that allow guitars to dominate and dictate the pace. “Elevation” even has a slight retro vibe that combines indie rock with a little late new romanticism. If the slower numbers are your preference, you cannot go wrong with “Back To The Start,” where the melodic rhythm and ringing guitar lean more towards alt-folk than indie-rock. Both influences are meshed together and balanced well, with some dreamy vocals and some interesting tempo changes. “Where Did We Go?” provides some wonderful acoustic guitar and piano to accentuate the light coffee-shop sound, at least before the crashing drums and backing vocalists join the party and up the tempo from coffee shop to lively bar.
Marlon Chaplin is no folk musician, but comfortably flirts with the genre on “Take Me There.” This beautifully paced number places an emphasis upon the lyrics and vocals, keeping the instrumentation soft and in the background. The lyrical content of several tracks focus upon ideas of a cyclical nature. “Be it social, economic, spiritual or technological, it’s about growth, birth, death and everything in between,” offers Chaplin. If there is one track amongst the ten offered on this album that stands out, “A Single Drop,” is certainly my choice. With its thumping guitar riffs playing off against the jangly keyboards, this one certainly grabbed my attention. Building into that great stadium-rock number, this one sees Chaplin not only shine, but at his musical best. Tunes of this caliber shall no doubt appeal to fans of The Arkells or Matt Mays. As for those slower pieces, look for fans of The Fast Romantics or The Wilderness Of Manitoba to connect with these. This impressive album is a recommended addition to your music collection, no matter which of these contemporaries you prefer.
Doris Folkens, “Doris Folkens”
Several of our Snappy Snippets candidates are often unknown to us, received through recommendations from friends, or by some very convincing publicists. Occasionally, independent singer-songwriters will stumble across our blog and reach out to us directly. This was certainly the case with Guelph, ON artist Doris Folkens, who composed a beautiful email that we discovered sitting in our inbox one day. With an interesting bio and link to her debut self-titled album, our curiosity was piqued, and once we listened to the first of her original new tunes, we agreed that her music and voice are stunning, and just has to be shared with our readers.
Firmly rooted in the bluegrass-folk genre, Doris Folkens attributes artists such as Gillian Welch and The Wailin’ Jennys as her musical influences, and the seven tracks offer on this debut are certainly reminiscent of an era when story telling was a community pastime. Upon listening to the opening track, “Uncle Jimmy,” I would add that there is a strong similarity to the sound and style of Nanci Griffith too, with some hints of Joni Mitchell added for good measure. “Uncle Jimmy is inspired by traditional bluegrass melodies, and a great-uncle who had an eccentric way of coping with wartime hardship,” offers Doris. Upon the first listen, you are quickly introduced to her pitch-perfect and powerful vocals, along with a great tempo and some solid musicianship courtesy of her supporting cast; Andrew Collins (mandolin), Shane Cook (fiddle) and Frank Evans (banjo).
The instrumentation on this debut album is on par with the finest Bluegrass artists out there, and really shines on “Cursed Town,” especially the combination of guitar and mandolin. Narrating this track from the perspective of ‘the farmer’s daughter,’ Doris demonstrates some great creativity with her lyrics too. “I’ve ploughed my share of sorrows / I’ve sewn a crop of tears / The worst is when the heavens rained down flames,” makes for a particularly enjoyable and visual bridge. Instrumentation and vocals are probably at their best during “Dig A Hole,” with Doris’s strong voice ratcheting the emotions, before being blanketed by Andrew’s spectacular mandolin, and comforted further with some well placed banjo. The bluegrass sound is a little muted during “Across The Sea,” and errs more towards the traditional sounds of music from the Maritimes, at least for this listener. With some beautifully crafted lyrics, Doris ties all seven tracks together through the consistent and recurring theme of stories being of a personal nature. “These tales of past generations are revived with instrument solos and a good dose of nostalgia,” she explains. With her easy going demeanor and natural ability for articulating these tales, a few spins of this one and you too will feel like you are in the company of an old friend. An impressive first album, and Team GDW recommended.