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Megan Bonnell: An Album Review and an Interview

Megan Bonnell

Toronto songstress Megan Bonnell makes a convincing statement from the outset of her debut album, Hunt +Chase, that she aims to distance herself from the many female solo artists performing today: on ‘Coming Home’, she immediately calls attention to her own distinctive style with a low, raspy voice, replete with unique inflections. This voice helps carry forward the song’s slow, intense pace, with both feeling as if they are wanting to ‘burst’ forth, and the lyrics juxtaposing life and death, bloom and decay—“Six feet underground and down below/I am all you know”… “My heart is tangled up in vines/And I’m going down”—combine to give the listener an inclination that Bonnell may be taking us to the dark recesses of our heart which we may otherwise want to avoid.

This tendency for slow-burn crescendos, melancholy, and open-hearted honesty travels through the veins of nearly every track on the album, making for a potentially emotionally-exhausting listen, yet one which is truly beautiful and original all the same. Folk-oriented ‘Stars’ follows this buildup-and-release method with vivid, imaginative lyrics which extend deep-seated emotions into the realm of the fantastical, contrasting the natural and the supernatural: “Explosions in the sky, they/Fell on my head/And I bled and I bled/‘Til I was just a ghost”.

Her ability to strike the heartstrings of the listener not only comes through by way of her touching words, but through very atmospheric sonic aesthetics. ‘We Are Strangers Now’ features successive layers of sound overlaid on top of acoustic guitar chord strumming, and great depth to the drums, the bass sounding like a cannon going off, while the snare whips in and out, akin to a pistol being fired.

The only instance in which this aesthetic is broken is on the album’s title track, which marks a large digression in tone from the rest of the album: a blaring, rapid drum loop introduces the song, which is quickly followed by a piano loop, multiple layers of instrumentation and vocals overlaid atop one another, all propelled by the album’s fastest tempo. Arguably the most ‘upbeat’ track, its frenzied pace and multifaceted instrumentation strays markedly from Bonnell’s otherwise sullen, emotionally-charged album.

Megan Bonnell appears to be trying to break some new ground. Rather than succumb to the charms of electronic pop or folky saccharine sweetness found in much of today’s female-driven music, Bonnell instead takes the route most of us would try to avoid: going down the dark, desolate pathways to one’s most inner and fragile emotions, erring on the side of gloom and melancholy over joy and optimism. What results is an outstanding debut album that becomes cathartic as Bonnell’s vibrant, candid lyricism is matched by its potent, moody sound.

FINAL GRADE: A-
SIMILAR SOUNDS:
Sybille Baier – Colour Green (2006)
Vashti Bunyan – Lookaftering (2005)
Joanna Newsom – Have One On Me (2010)

We also had the pleasure of speaking to her about her album and her current tour:

Could you try to describe the tour with Emilie Mover so far?
It’s been very special!  I feel like the past year I did a lot of touring, but some of it was in Europe, and some in the States, and then a lot of it was flying to, say, Halifax, or Québec. It was nice this time to just kind of be playing a little bit closer to home at some of the smaller cities. And they have a real kind of a…heart to them. And then one of the most special parts was just getting to do it with somebody. You know, I’ve been playing solo, and lots of the time the band can’t come with me, and to sort of have a partner-in-crime in Emilie, it’s been really fun, and especially, just another girl in a similar situation, it’s been great to sort of share that together.

Following from that, you have played in “larger” cities, such as New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. Do you feel any sort of difference when you’re playing in a big city as opposed to, say, Waterloo, or Guelph, or London?
Yeah, I think it’s a little bit more intimate, and there’s also kind of a built-in appreciation. I do think that people that live in smaller towns and cities actually are really excited. They kind of plan nights around music that they like that come into town because it doesn’t always. Sometimes they have to go to bigger cities to hear the music, so, I think that I felt that for sure, just a real appreciation and excitement.

You grew up in a rural area in Caledon, surrounded by wilderness, and the themes and emotions in your songs are largely influenced by nature. How have you handled this fairly rapid transition to touring and playing in such large locations, and living in Toronto?
I think I was really keen not only to play shows abroad, but also just to travel, and so it felt like the perfect way to kind of take me there. It was extra satisfying seeing these beautiful, beautiful countries and cities, and knowing that it was what I’ve been working on my whole life. Being given that opportunity, it felt extra special. So I think there was just a deep appreciation and excitement that there wasn’t room for many other thoughts other than just being really, really happy.

In the past, you’ve commented that you feel many female musicians are disinclined to show too much emotion or intensity, especially toward men, and that you believe it’s perhaps out of a fear of seeming “crazy” or “needy”…
Well, I’ve found it’s a term that gets thrown around, like…it’s so dismissive to say, “Oh, she was crazy.”  I have totally been called “crazy”, and, personally, I think ‘crazy’ is good, better than ‘boring’, but I also think it’s kind of unfair. With Hunt & Chase, I think I kind of let it all hang out, and I’m glad that I did. I guess I feel like I kind of honed all the emotions that might be seen as a little bit much.

Do you feel that female artists, today, continue to struggle with feeling pressured to conform to certain values or images?
Yeah, I think so. Like in anything [when] you’re putting yourself out there, you leave yourself vulnerable. You’re kind of at the risk of being judged. But I also think that, in Toronto, there’s such a community of musicians, and you feel supported. There’s a real connectedness. You know, for a bigger city, it feels very small—in the music industry, at least—so I appreciate that. I couldn’t have done the last album without the support of my co-producers, Josh Van Tassel and Chris Stringer.

Is creating music, and the process of writing and putting together Hunt & Chase, a way for you to hold onto nostalgic memories and feelings?
I think so. Unintentionally, but…I just want to forever remember it. Most of my songs are kind of a remembrance of something I’ve encountered, and so it does kind of slip into my music since it’s a huge part of me. And I also just kind of love, like, if nostalgia had a sound, I love that sound, or what I imagine that sound should be. There’s a peacefulness, but also this hazy, haunting darkness in it, too. And I also think, when you remember things, you don’t remember them exactly the way they were, they’re kind of glorified without you even being aware of that, they’re sort of romanticized.

Does that also hold true for the painful memories? When writing Hunt & Chase, you had went through a break-up that set a lot of these feelings in motion, so was that album a way to be accepting of letting go?
For sure. It’s the cheapest form of therapy.  Making a song about something like that…it’s a way of processing and putting pieces together.

You have also referred to Hunt & Chase as being like a “dream sequence”, saying that it kind of “weaves in and out of the place you are, and the place you imagine to be”. So, where were you when writing the album, and where did you imagine to be?
I think a million different places as far as imagining to be. Some would involve time travel.  But where I was, physically, was usually either in Caledon, at my parents’ house, where I grew up. And then the other place would have been in my loft in Toronto where I was living at the time. A cavernous loft where my ex-boyfriend no longer lived—it was just me and my sad songs.  But it was for the best, because I got songs out of it. I won.

Final question, and it’s a timely one: If you could become a gold medalist in one Winter Olympics event, which one would it be?
I think hockey would be cool. I was watching [HBO’S] 24/7, and that kind of got me better-acquainted with the players, and now I’m really into it.

Were you into hockey much beforehand?
I like it. Again, I think that sound of the game reminds me of my dad and my grandpa, so, I like it for that.

Megan Bonnell’s debut LP, Hunt & Chase, is available now on Nevado Records. Megan will be performing in Toronto at The Drake Hotel on Saturday, February 15, with labelmate Emilie Mover. Doors @ 7PM, $10. 19+.

-Timothy Nicodemo
Katuwapitiya.com Contributor

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FEVERS – No Room for Light (Album Review)

Ottawa's FEVERS

Ottawa-based FEVERS have released their debut album, No Room for Light, under the label of being ‘Electro-Indie-Rock’ which might call to mind other popular artists like Franz Ferdinand, The Killers, Metric, and countless others. The key to each of these artists’ success has been an ability to properly combine the two in a way that allows each genre’s separate dynamics to shine in a manner that feels natural.

Unfortunately, No Room for Light struggles when analyzed as a cohesive unit, despite a number of individual components being quite solid. The first half of the album is arguably much more interesting, inspired, and, most significantly, fun to listen to than the latter. Opener “Autumn’s Dead” attempts to introduce the listener to an ‘image’ of what their overall sound may be: ballad-y piano and vocals lead into a backdrop of soft synths, before rapidly shifting to a ‘clash’ of elements, which noticeably consist of layered vocals, drums with an emphasis on the cymbals, and even more synths. The gentleness with which the album begins, followed quickly by a more uptempo and energetic rhythm, reflects a new band’s desire to announce their capacity to be both an indie rock and an electro group, to show us that, indeed, they are versatile, creative, and indebted to a variety of musical influences.

Those influences can best be found on album stand-out “Pray for Sound”, which immediately calls to mind Eighties New Wave acts such as Depeche Mode, Human League, and New Order. ‘Look Alive’ and ‘ENFP’ continue the upbeat mentality with tons of snare and hi-hat rolls, although the synths begin to take a backseat to more traditional rock instrumentation. ‘ENFP’, in particular, heavily evokes the uptempo rock/pop music of Metric, albeit with a much more dynamic voice from singer/songwriter Sarah Bradley (Yes, I said it. Deal with it.).

Despite moments of brilliance, much of the album comes across as traditional/bland guitar-driven pop/rock. “Goodnight” recalls the saccharine indie pop elements of Stars, placing an acoustic guitar at its center; while “They Want Blood” essentially erases almost all the synths in favour of delivering an uptempo pop-rock song in the vein of Paramore.

The album’s biggest crime, however, finds itself in the ballad of “They Don’t Lie”, a showcase for Bradley’s impressive vocal range that fails in its ability to do much else. Despite solid production, its ballad-status doesn’t fit with the style or sound of the rest of the album.  This can often be the case with pop artists in the vein of FEVERS, memorably utilized by ones such as Lady Gaga and Little Boots, who find themselves forcing in a piano-driven ballad in the midst of electro-heavy sounds. What results is a product coming across as being contrived, forced, and nothing more than a showcase for a band’s ‘musical range’ in order to be taken more seriously.

Thus, the track acts as a microcosm for the album’s troubled nature as a whole: moments of great synthpop are brought down by an inability to focus on what sort of direction it’s taking. While the first half shows the group embracing the great electro energy they’re capable of producing, it comes to a halt by delivering unoriginal guitar-driven pop tracks in the second half. Should FEVERS emphasize the electro/New Wave style in the future, their potential will find great heights, as they their capabilities for producing solid dance tracks evident. Should they follow the path of instrument-oriented pop-rock, they will likely be unable to stand out from the rest of the uplifting-indie-rock-that-also-uses-synths-rather-inconsistently pool; or, as they like to call it, Electro-Indie-Rock.

FINAL GRADE: B-

SIMILAR SOUNDS
Depeche Mode – Violator (1990)
Metric – Fantasies (2009)
Shiny Toy Guns – We Are Pilots (2006)
Stars – Set Yourself on Fire (2004)

-Tim Nicodemo
Katuwapitiya.com Contributor

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MGMT – MGMT (Album Review)

MGMT - MGMT

Perhaps the biggest issue MGMT—specifically, founding members Benjamin Goldwasser and Andrew VanWyngarden—have faced since the release of 2007’s Oracular Spectacular is that of audience expectation. Their debut album introduced listeners to a handful of some of the year’s catchiest pop tracks which, on paper, should not have been so popular in the first place: a hybrid of psychedelic rock and synthpop, sung with nasally intonations by VanWyngarden. But what emerged was a splash of creativity and freedom granted by their own indie sensibilities, combined with the hooks of popular music (although VanWyngarden begs to differ in a recent interview, stating that “[they] can’t write a pop song“) that amounted to the album’s shared appreciation among a wide array of fans of varying genres. While this largely describes the album’s first five tracks, the proceeding half veered away from the catchy psych-pop which popularized them, and into the more purely abstract psychedelic rock aesthetics which granted zero singles.

It was the album’s second half which would, in hindsight, become representative of the group’s biggest dilemma: to either continue writing easily accessible songs in the vein of “Kids” (which was both nominated for Best Pop Performance at the Grammys and has sold over 1 million copies in the US alone) or stray from what made them popular by writing an album full of “4th Dimensional Transition”. They opted for the latter, suffusing their trademark psychedelic tendencies with a much more surf rock-oriented approach on 2010’s Congratulations. The album still remains as divisive as it was upon release, causing frustration for those who lamented the lack of any form of a friendly pop track (as heralded by Goldwasser’s comments in 2010, though four singles were still squeezed out of the album), and jubilation for listeners who respected the album’s non-mainstream approach. Regardless, the group’s emphasis on guitar-driven rock signaled a decided shift in their musical tendencies, and would set up the ultimate question in anticipation of their latest self-titled release: Will they return to what made them famous in the first place or carry on with a polarizing sound?

The answer, unequivocally, is the latter. MGMT’s third album is uncompromising in its approach to isolating their fans, pulling the psychedelia of Congratulations to an extreme while stripping away its surf rock fundamentals, obliterating any form of chorus/verse structure, and transforming Oracular’s poppy synths into layers upon layers of noise. Describing the album is an extraordinarily difficult task unto itself, as there is hardly any form of a truly identifiable “sound”; rather, it dips, dives, and weaves through a variety of interrelated genres and acts affiliated with, and extensions of, psychedelic music, most notably shoegaze, drone, and ambient.

MGMT‘s opening track, “Alien Days”, is also the album’s first single, and is such for a good reason: among the album’s ten tracks, it is perhaps the most clear-cut amalgamation of MGMT’s first two efforts, combining the glitzy synths of Oracular and the guitar riffs of Congratulations, backed up by some heavy drumming which feels evocative of John Bonham’s in a song like “Kashmir”. Perhaps above all else, however, the track recalls the psychedelic/space rock of The Flaming Lips (the album’s co-producer, Dave Fridmann, is perhaps best known for co-producing nearly all of the Lips’ records) through its dreamlike and fuzzed-out vocals, layered composition of synths and rock instrumentation, and sound effects which seem to emulate those of a 1960s science fiction film. This comparison could very well be applied to a majority of the album, though it does not begin to scratch the surface of its schizophrenic nature.

“Cool Song No. 2” is imbued with the aesthetics of world music, while simultaneously being driven by the pounding of a piano’s low keys and the gothic sounds of a keyboard that arouse the haunting organ of The Phantom of the Opera. Given that the track will be released as the album’s third single, it is interesting to locate its status as representing the album to the general public in comparison to those of the previous two albums: inaccessible to most casual listeners, and hardly a “typical” selection for an artist’s single.

But, of course, typicality is at the end of MGMT’s to-do list on this album. “Your Life is a Lie”, the album’s second single, is marked by a staccato-like delivery in vocals and sound, abrupt as it is harsh, while also containing some of the group’s most ominous lyrics. In comparison, “I Love You Too, Death” combines the ambient synths of M83 with the heavy, repetitive drums of The Knife, and the female vocals running throughout recall My Bloody Valentine, all of which form a track which can be thought of as a combination of shoegaze, drone, and ambient.

What results, then, is an album which errs on the side of intangibility: largely indescribable, MGMT have concocted a set of songs which should be thought of as their most obtuse yet, both lyrically and sonically. While MGMT may be too musically incoherent for many, others will find pleasure in the group’s efforts to further distance themselves from the pop hooks that made them so popular six years ago. As a standalone album, MGMT is an inventive juxtaposition of psychedelic rock, pop, and electronic styles, one that reflects the group’s own diverse tastes and disinclination to conform to a single, digestible category. As an album in the group’s oeuvre, it very well may be the pinnacle of their own distorted brand of psychedelia, as experimental as it is fragmented, dreamlike as it is threatening.

The evolution of MGMT’s sound and their dedication to committing themselves to music based solely on their own desires- ones that are probably inconsistent with those of their initial fanbase— reflects the ethos of a band refusing to conform to audience expectations. As superficial fans will make one last push to demand another “Electric Feel”, MGMT will simply pull away just as hard, emphasized by their unwillingness to play some of their biggest hits at shows over the past few years. The difficulty in listening to their latest album will likely either be seen as a welcome treat or a damning move, depending largely upon where your expectations of MGMT lie. Perhaps the best lesson of all, here, is to simply no longer possess any expectations when it comes to MGMT.

Final Grade: A-

RELATED SOUNDS:

Aphex Twin – …I Care Because You Do (1995)
The Beatles – Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)
The Flaming Lips – Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (2002)
The Knife – Shaking the Habitual (2013)
M83 – Before the Dawn Heals Us (2005)
My Bloody Valentine – Loveless (1991)

-Tim Nicodemo
Katuwapitiya.com Contributor

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Propagandhi – Failed States (Album Review)

Propagandhi's Failed States

Three years removed from their last release, Canada’s finest punks Propagandhi have returned with a record that picks up where 2009’s Supporting Caste left off. Riding a wave of renewed energy, their sixth full length release and Epitaph debut, Failed States is sure to please any thrash punk/ metal listeners.

Light years from their early Fat Wreck releases, Failed States is the band’s latest effort which balances the elements between their early melodic punk rock roots and a darker, much heavier sound influenced by Canadian thrash bands like Sacrifice and Razor. It’s a mixture of the heavy metal/ thrash punk found on Supporting Caste and classic mind bending guitar riffs, like from previous releases Today’s Empires, Tomorrow’s Ashes and Potemkin City Limits. A notable example of this fusion is “Rattan Cane” which sees the band going from a slow down-tuned breakdown riff into a quick tempo and chaotic thrash punk tune.

The topics discussed on Failed States fall in line with Propagandhi’s history of discussing political issues. Still focused on topics like the environment, capitalism, human rights violations, sexism, and racism; Failed States finds itself tackling new darker themes as well, like drug addiction and sex workers in the band’s home city of Winnipeg.

The album is more distinguished from its counterparts because it’s much more than a straight up thrash/ metal/ punk record. This is the sound of a band coming into their own and progressing as a relatively new line-up (given the bands 20 plus year history). Failed States is the sound of Propagandhi arranging the elements that we have come to know them by in a new and distinct way; which is why it is already an instant Propagandhi classic.

Must Hear: Rattan Cane, Failed States, The Days You Hate Yourself (Bonus Track, listen below!)

-Jeffrey Mota
Katuwapitiya.com Contributor

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An interview with We Are Scientists

This was back before I took cameras to shows. I thought that this concert was definitely one worth capturing though so I bought a shitty disposable camera and this was the result.

We Are Scientists joined on stage by Arctic Monkeys, circa 2006 at The Kool Haus

Note to start with: To me and most I know, the first album released by We Are Scientists was With Love and Squalor. When researching for the interview/review, it came to my knowledge that there was an album before that one. For simplicity’s sake, I’ll stick to what I thought was right for the article.

I’ve had a love-hate relationship with We Are Scientists over the years. When they first blew up on the scene (after the release of With Love and Squalor), I loved their kick-ass immediately-accessible indie rock, hilarious personalities and innovative videos. When they released their next album… well, I hated stuff like this. I wasn’t sure what to expect from their third album but I was optimistic. The addition of former Razorlight drummer Andy Burrows was an intriguing one. That and a few shining moments on an album that I was honestly not-too-keen on had me interested to hear what was next.

Overall, Barbara did not disappoint. Save for a few low spots in the middle, the album is much more consistent than their previous effort Brain Thrust Mastery and is really a return to form. Highlights include Foreign Kicks (which showcases an entirely different sound), Rules Don’t Stop, Central AC and You Should Learn, and some tracks definitely rise to the mark set by their incredible first album.

Bands are always chastised for staying in their comfort zone and making songs that all sound the same (anywhere from The Strokes to Nickelback), but I’m someone who likes what he likes. Maybe that’s why I didn’t like their second album as much. The new album, however, has much more of a balance that appeals to me and is definitely worth a listen. (An added note: the liner notes will actually make you laugh out loud).

We Are Scientists are set to return to Toronto with an upcoming show at The Legendary Horseshoe Tavern on July 19th. I was able to interview Keith Murray from We Are Scientists a few days ago and below is our conversation:

Your first album and second album seemed to showcase completely different styles of music. For those who have yet to hear a song from Barbara, what would you describe this album as/what were your main influences?

I think maybe our impression of the disparity between our first two records is less extreme than yours – for us, the second record was simply a little less single-minded than the first. We certainly did try to stretch our legs a little, stylistically, but, overall, we feel like most of the songs sit very comfortably against one another in our live set. That said, Barbara is a little more similar to the first record in terms of arrangement (i.e., with fairly stripped-down, three-piece instrumentation), but we feel like the songs are stronger, following the general progression of maturation that’s been happening since the first record.

From the start, your band has seemed focused on making great music videos. What do you feel like the role should be for music videos, especially in this new youtube age where bands seem to be going more and more obsessed with going viral?

We have a hard time thinking of our videos as advertisements for our songs, and, as such, I think they tend to be pretty bad at focusing the viewer’s attention on the music. As pieces of entertainment, though, I think our videos are second-to-none, which is really all we attempt to do in any facet of our career, so, in that sense, they are of a piece with the rest of our creative output. If people like them, then that’s great – that is, in fact, the point – but to make a video with the intent of making go viral seems slightly beside the point. OkGo are obviously masters at doing that sort of thing, but thinking about all of the creative energy that goes into crafting a virally-pointed video such as theirs is exhausting to me. We tend to just go with our guts and try to make something that will entertain us.

As scientists, what do you feel the connection is between science and music?

No connection.

Do you have any suggestions for how a band should best deal with a change in membership?

Just get on with it, I say. If an audience wants to get bent out of shape about the absence or presence of one particular person, then, I guess ultimately, that’s their problem, and they need to figure out how they’re going to cope with it. When we split with our former drummer, it was for the immediate best for all parties concerned, and I’m fairly certain that nobody involved has ever regretted the decision at all. Chris and I prefer to spend our time thinking about how to make awesome stuff for people to enjoy, not worrying about how to spin our PR.

Who’s your favourite ‘Barbara’? (for the record, mine is Walters)

My favorite Barbara is Barbara Zeltman (you don’t know her).

We Are Scientists are well known for being funny. If you’re needing to break the ice at an awkward party, what joke do you start with?

Q; Where did the General keep his armies?
A: In his sleevies.
I can’t tell you how many women I’ve bedded using that little bon mot as an opening line.

The last time I saw you perform in Toronto, it was opening for Kings of Leon. How do you feel about their recent worldwide success after struggling to gain traction in North America for so long? Has it taught you anything?

The fact that Kings of Leon would ever have been thought of as a “struggling” band is a little baffling to me. I’ve always considered them to be pretty high-profile, and it seems like it was only a matter of time before their gargantuan success in Europe caught on over here, and they went from being simply a huge band to being the hugest. I guess the infrastructure of the music industry, especially the PR and marketing facet, finally just clicked for them. It’s nice when a label actually pumps huge sums of money into a band that actually writes good songs.

What’s your favourite part about performing in Canada, or more specifically, Toronto?

Going to Tim Horton’s. We just can’t get enough. There’s one in downtown Brooklyn, now, near the DMV, but I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t be the same in our country.

Freestyling is an important form of expression in hip hop. If you had to freestyle four lines about your new album, what would you say?

Barbara is a new album / It’s better then pabulum / It’s very palatable / So, buyers, be charitable.

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