Three Music Reviews: Carmen Townsend, Common Grackle, Theset

I've been feeling guilty lately about not having time to write reviews of the new music I've received.

By Ryan McGreal
Published February 08, 2011

Waitin' and Seein', by Carmen Townsend

Carmen Townsend, Waitin' and Seein'

Waitin' and Seein', the debut album by Cape Breton's Carmen Townsend, fairly explodes into your attention. The album swings back and forth between throaty rockers and bluesy acoustic tracks - there's no Celtic folk here.

Big, crunchy rock songs don't get much better than opening track "River Rat", with its driving swingtime beat, fat guitar riffs and big sweeping chorus.

The more upbeat songs have a seventies arena-rock feel to them. At its most guitar-crunchingly bombastic, the music even recalls Siamese Dream-era Smashing Pumpkins, especially on the low-frequency, alt-rock "Open Sea".

Like "River Rat", "Hands and Mouths" piles on the throbbing swing triplets. Townsend is definitely at her most compelling when she cranks up the intensity.

But there are some gems in the slower tracks. The sweet, soulful "Start All Over" drifts within shouting distance of country music before ramping up to an intense apex.

Right on its heel, title track "Waitin' and Seein'" veers right into sparkly indie rock.

The great thing about Townsend's voice is that everyone will hear something different in it. I was reminded immediately of a drawlier Dalbello, or Pink at her bluesiest - particularly on the heavier songs when she's belting out the lyrics.

The quieter acoustic songs, on the other hand, seem to bring out more elaborate vocal stylings. At times the singing can be a little overwrought, but this seems to indicate inexperience more than anything else. This is a first album, after all, and it tries just a little too hard in places.

As Townsend gains confidence, she'll be able to rein in some of the stylistic excesses and find the right balance between eclecticism and thematic continuity. In the meantime, Waitin' and Seein' captures a talented musician on her ascendancy.

Townsend plays live February 9, 2011 at­ Hamilton Place.

The Great Depression, by Common Grackle

Common Grackle, The Great Depression

Last year, Common Grackle released a new album called The Great Depression that blends a quirky pop sensibility with a rich funky groove to create an intensely listenable product.

Guelph native Gregory Pepper's previous album, "With Trumpets Flaring" by Gregory Pepper And His Problems, had moments of brilliance but veered at times into unbearable self-indulgence.

This time around, his collaboration with Saskatoon's Factor balances the quirks with a solid rhythmic and melodic foundation that keeps the songs from spinning too far out of control.

"Thank God It's Monday", featuring a guest appearance by Kool Kieth, sets the tone for the album to follow: a dense, generous blend that does for hip-hop and indie rock what Public Enemy and Anthrax did for hip-hop and metal.

Title track "The Great Depression" may be the most magnificent song on the album, balanced tightly between a slow dancefloor groove and a dirge-like cry of despair.

It's hard not to notice similarities between Gregory Pepper and They Might Be Giants: the music is deeply melodic but plays freely with a variety of styles; while the lyrics are superficially farcical but carry a grim undercurrent.

"Down With the Ship" showcases Pepper's virtuosic command of his musical palate in a slow, melodic groove that hovers suspended between pop and gospel.

I could go on, but notwithstanding a few short transition tracks, there really aren't any weak songs to speak of. "Big Marquee" rolls along with a compelling rhythm; "Please Stop" is a diaphanous ballad; "Magic Beans" busts out rapid-fire rapping by guest vocalist Ceschi.

All in all, The Great Depression may be the most exciting new album to come out of Canadian indie rock in a long time.

Monsters, by Theset

'Monsters' by Theset

Theset (pronounced "The Set") is back with a new album after 2008's Neveroddoreven. After signing with Wax Records, the Victoria BC five-piece recorded Monsters, a mixed bag of earnest alt-metal that makes up in intensity what it lacks in real innovation.

First, the good news: singer Martin MacPhail has reined in the screeching. Right off the bat, this makes for a much more listenable, less grating sound than their previous efforts. (The worst offenders, unsurprisingly, are the previous songs the band re-recorded for this album.)

Overall, the playing is tight, fast, and dense, with thick guitar licks, crisp solos and a throbbing rhythm section. The band never really strays outside the musical domain already sketched out by such Canadian alt-rock contemporaries as Three Days Grace, Finger Eleven, Alexisonfire and the like, but they work the space well and deliver a ballsy sound that faintly echoes the British new wave metal of the 1970s and early '80s.

The background vocals on beefy lead track "Already Know" channel High and Dry-era Def Leppard, though the chorus defaults back to the kind of throaty alt-rock we've come to expect from this genre.

"Save Us All", nestled in the middle of an awkward trio of songs whose titles all start with "Save...", serves up an anxious minor-key rocker that recalls Matthew Good Band at its rockingest.

"Save Yourself" and "Ghost" sustain the same tempo and nervous energy, and then the melancholy "Feel Better" starts to wind the CD down toward its conclusion. Unlike Neveroddoreven, which closed with the frenetic "White Spider Red Spider", Monsters goes out with a whimper, not a bang.

This album includes re-recorded versions of songs from previous albums, including "12:34" from 2005's The Philosophy of Time Travel and the tracks "Dance Floor" and "Little One" from Neveroddoreven. This seems to suggest the band and/or label regards Monsters as a "real" album after a couple of indie efforts.

In any case, "12:34" is a stand-out track made better by superior production values and tighter, more virtuosic musical performances.

Their decision to reprise "Dance Floor" and "Little One" is a bit more confusing. The New New Wave stylings of the former seem out of pace nestled between "12:34" and the gloomy "Save Your Breath". The latter already felt perfunctory the first time around and its inclusion here seems arbitrary, especially as it closes the album following the acoustic "Across the World".

All in all, Monsters is a solid outing that neither over-promises nor under-delivers. They've reined in their stylistic excesses, tightened their sound and produced a basket of energetic songs that will satisfy most alt-rock appetites.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan wrote a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. His articles have also been published in The Walrus, HuffPost and Behind the Numbers. He maintains a personal website, has been known to share passing thoughts on Twitter and Facebook, and posts the occasional cat photo on Instagram.


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By hammy (anonymous) | Posted February 08, 2011 at 12:34:06

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By just me (anonymous) | Posted February 08, 2011 at 15:09:04

re so-called hammy, above: if Ryan hadn't constructed this site, where'd you (and other @#$xx*!) blow your, ah, steam?

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By hammy (anonymous) | Posted February 08, 2011 at 17:08:12

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By Crackle (anonymous) | Posted February 10, 2011 at 09:25:02

Common Grackle reminds me a bit of The Postal Service -- pop singer and techno musician team up though in different places and pass the music back and forth to produce it. They've both got that interesting tension that makes them more than the sum of there parts. Nice to hear Canadian music at it's most creative.

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