High Noon will conquer your brain’s puny pleasure centre
by James Brotheridge
Need a quick summary of High Noon, the third album from Arkells? Take a listen to “Cynical Bastards”. Listen to singer/guitarist Max Kerman put on his best Bruce Springsteen, circa “Blinded By The Light” while singing lines like “If the ’80s were tough, the ’90s were mean”. Hear keyboard player Anthony Carone shoot for the nickname “Little Franz Nicolay” as he lays down the most sparkling ivory lines this side of middle period Hold Steady.
Are Arkells an E-Street Band tribute or a stab at true Canadian heartland rock? They’re still aiming for the latter, but they’ve got sterling pop sensibilities.
From the very first song on their first full-length, 2008’s Jackson Park, the Hamilton group reveals a working person’s face and socially conscious ear. Any political truths they’re speaking on High Noon aren’t revolutionary. Lead track “Fake Money” mentions boardrooms but isn’t any clearer a critique than a general antipathy towards whatever’s going on up there. Mostly, Kerman’s singing is about prosaic life stuff: love and nights out and the like. He falls into common territory, though he at least recognizes it on occasion. (“Who the fuck still uses a pay phone?” Kerman sings after a whole song that turns on a call from a pay phone.)
But even the clichéd material can connect, like “11:11”, whose chorus turns on that old practice of making a wish when you see a clock turn over to that time. My partner and I did that a lot at the start of our relationship, my only explanation for which now is that we must’ve just been in cars all the time.
That’s probably why’d you play this kind of music. The twinkling keyboard intros, the harmonized guitar parts –– they’re all designed to just nail the pleasure centres in the heads of anyone who’s ever been sweaty at a show. High Noon’s a call to raise an imaginary guitar impractically high over your head –– impractically high even for an imaginary guitar –– and play the fuck out of a riff and get sweaty again.
When the Cellar Children See the Light of Day
Mirel Wagner may have been raised in the suburbs of Helsinki, Finland, but it’s the music of the American South that speaks to her. The Delta blues heavily influences the stark vocals, world-weary lyrics and plaintive acoustic guitar on When the Cellar Children, but it rises above mere mimicry. There’s real emotion and personality coming through these classic tropes.
On her second album, Wagner spins more spooky tales of murder, loneliness and longing, but with better production values. On “Oak Tree”, she sings about being laid out on a bed of roots and leaves, the creepiness factor upped by the ghostly background vocals that enter when she intones, “Dark was the night/cold was the ground/I heard voices all around.”
Too bad True Detective didn’t feature Wagner’s music in season one: you can totally picture Rust Cohle burning the midnight oil to this Southern Gothic soundtrack. /Gillian Mahoney
Who Knows Where To Begin?
Prairie Cat is the spoonerized singer-songwriter alter-ego of Vancouver drummer-about-town Cary Pratt. “Let’s just start at the end,” he sings in answer to his second solo album’s titular question, Who Knows Where to Begin? The album is very good. Super-smart piano pop in a kind of Neutral-Milk-Hotel-meets-Randy-Newman style, with a bit of Sufjan Stevens here and some Destroyer there.
Pratt builds these wonderful rolling arrangements, where there’s so much going on in every song ―spoken interludes, music box intro, bridges from outer space. That would all just be pretty curtains on ugly windows if the songs weren’t great in and of themselves, which they are. Lyrically, Pratt constantly puts new angles on pop love song traditions, usually weird, cynical and hilarious. /Emmet Matheson
Montreal’s Caila Thompson-Hannant A.K.A. Mozart’s Sister’s electro-dance debut has shimmering and, at times, uncanny elements of pop. Even so, Thompson-Hannant’s songwriting wavers between off-kilter and unfocused. For example, on “Don’t Leave It To Me” there are moments when the bass line jarringly drops out, as if the production was entirely left to a copy-and-paste editing program. Despite the album’s limits, there is no shortage of dance hooks and hip shaking. Thompson-Hannant’s vocals, the strongest element here, are front and centre, like on “Bow a Kiss” where her voice absolutely soars amidst layered tracks, watery samples and endless delay pedal tomfoolery.
In its best moments, Being and its glitchy beats are smooth and evocative. Beware of involuntary rump movements if you’re prone to that sort of thing. /Chris Morin