Albums

Album Review: Jason Molina – Eight Gates (2020, Secretly Canadian)

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“The perfect take is just as long as the person singing is still alive. That’s really it.”

Those words, spoken by Jason Molina at the beginning of “She Says” were certainly meant to be a joke aimed at those with perfectionist tendencies, but they take on another, darker meaning when you remember that the person speaking them (and singing these songs) has not been alive for several years now.

Eight Gates is the last collection of solo studio recordings Jason Molina made before his tragic death in 2013 and while the above quote might suggest that this album is simply a collection of unfinished sketches, the reality is that they’re much more than just that. While the arrangements on many of the tracks are relatively sparse and straightforward, with most of them coming in under the three minute mark, there’s still a fair bit to unpack behind the seeming simplicity.

Though brief, the songs unfold at a languid pace and draw the listener in with evocative lyrics such as “I feel the dread as you re-read my palms” and “Whose wilderness has my heartbreak wandered through?” And at the centre of it all is Molina’s beautiful, haunting voice.

Jason Molina may have left us too soon, but his music lives on, and with Eight Gates, we thankfully have nine more of his songs to appreciate.

Eight Gates is out on August 7 via Secretly Canadian.

Album review: Japandroids – Massey Fucking Hall (2020, Arts & Crafts)

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Back in the day when music fans could still attend live concerts beyond the ones put on by country singers you’ve never heard of with made up sounding names, Vancouver duo Japandroids became famous for their particular brand of loud, sweaty rock shows – shows which are now quite unimaginable in our current situation. So it comes as a welcome reminder of the power of their live shows that the band have recently released a live album documenting their appearance at Toronto’s legendary Massey Hall … or rather, it would have if the album were truly able to replicate the feel of a Japandroids show on record.

Massey Fucking Hall documents Japandroids’ appearance on the Massey Hall stage back in October of 2017 (the bulk of which is also featured in a Live at Massey Hall video that’s up on YouTube if you’d rather watch it than just listen to it). To their credit, it sounds good and the band is in fine form, but for a band whose live shows have the feel of a massive communal celebration for the fans, it’s impossible for a recording to even come close to that. On the plus side, this also means that there’s zero chance of being jostled about by the more bro-ish contingent of their fanbase, although the chances of that happening in a seated venue like Massey were already pretty slim.

While songs like “No Known Drink or Drug” and “Young Hearts Spark Fire” stand out as energetic highlights, the whole thing ultimately feels a bit sterile, though maybe it’s the venue itself that diminishes the vibe somewhat. After all, it would be difficult to come close to that feeling in a seated venue like Massey Hall. The band even acknowledges this on the album when Brian King makes a comment near the end about the people standing up front making it seem more like “a normal Japandroids show.”

Maybe I’m being too hard on the band because I’m missing live music and this is really only kind of like that. Or maybe I just don’t like live albums. No that can’t be true – after all, without live albums, we’d never have the magic of Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison, Rust Never Sleeps, Cheap Trick at Budokan and of course, that compilation of Paul Stanley’s stage banter (it counts as a live album in my books). Maybe if Japandroids followed Stanley’s lead and let out a few extremely high pitched exclamations of “How you doin’ Toronto!!?” or made punny references to their song titles before playing each song, I’d cut them a bit more slack, but alas, they have not done any of that.

Frankly, there isn’t a live album that can truly capture the feeling of being there, but I suppose the ones that do it right can remind us of the power of seeing a band in person. While Massey Fucking Hall may fall a bit short in that regard, it’s still a solid document of the band that will likely appeal to the die-hard fans. For the rest of us? Well, there’s always the hope that live shows might be a thing again by next year …

Song Of The Day: Esther Rose – Only Loving You

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Photo by Rush Jagoe

New Orleans-by-way-of-Detroit singer-songwriter Esther Rose’s sophomore album You Made It This Far, released late last month on Father/Daughter Records, is an impressive collection of classic sounding folk/country tunes.

From the plaintive tone of opening track “Always Changing” to the bouncy “Handyman” to wistful closer “Don’t Blame It On The Moon“, it’s a solid album throughout, with “Only Loving You” standing out as one of the highlights. The video for “Only Loving You” was filmed at New Orleans’ St. Roch Tavern, which offers up pinball, karaoke, and a $15 dollar haircut + beer combo. Seems like a pretty happening spot.

Esther Rose plays The Horseshoe Tavern on September 17 and 18 opening for Nick Lowe and Los Straitjackets. Haircut not included.

Classic Album Review: Skalmold – Baldur (2010, Tutl Records)

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I’ve been on a bit of a nostalgia kick as of late, for several reasons. One of the reasons is the fact that we’ve just wrapped up our coverage of this year’s SXSW, which commonly involves a bit of looking back and reflecting on what went down over the week, and which also often leads me to reminisce in general about past editions of SouthBy. And the realization that I’ve been going to Austin every March since 2011 and that the Panic Manual has had a presence there since 2009 gets me thinking about the past, and also that I’m getting old. The main instigator of all this nostalgia however, was a bit of a Spring cleaning jag I went on earlier this week wherein I uncovered a few artifacts from my time here at Panic Manual, including a bunch of old handwritten notes for potential posts. Yes, back in the day I wrote out many of my original rough drafts by hand – very old school of me.

Among these scraps of paper, I found the beginnings of a planned review of Baldur, the debut album by Icelandic Viking/folk metallers Skálmöld. I do not really remember ever listening to this album, though I do vaguely remember that when I started out writing for Panic Manual, I had big plans to broaden our scope by writing about more metal. And I guess something about this album caught my attention at the time, probably the Berserker Viking dude on the album cover charging forward while holding an axe. It is a somewhat striking image, and one that predates the premiere episodes of Game Of Thrones or Vikings by a bit, so they were a little ahead of the curve I guess.

Anyways, in the interest of not being wasteful, I decided to finish that review up and also delve even further into nostalgia by resurrecting our old Classic Album Reviews series, even though at the time the first draft of this review was started it was a relatively new release. Is Baldur actually worthy of being designated a classic? Not likely, but odds are it might be somebody’s favourite album somewhere in the world, so let’s just go with it.

And now, without any further ado, here’s the first paragraph of a review I started nearly a decade ago:

They say you can’t judge a book (or an album) by its cover. But just look at that cover! It’s practically screaming to be judged. And what it’s saying (in a Viking warrior cry) is “I am awesome.” It’s the kind of cover that kind of tells you exactly what kind of music you will be hearing.

And that’s it. That’s as far as I got with this review, which indicates that I may have never actually sat down and listened to the album, but that I at least had something to say about the cover image that I considered kind of funny at the time. And so after taking a very long break, I’m finally putting pen to paper (virtually speaking) and wrapping this one up. So what does the album actually sound like? And does it hold up?

Initially released on Faroe Islands record label Tutl in 2010, but later rereleased in 2011 on Napalm Records, Baldur was Skálmöld’s introduction to the world. The band has gone on to put out four full length albums in the years since the release of this one. I have listened to none of them. But I have now listened to this one at least, and it’s a pretty solid album as these things go.

For those unfamiliar with Viking metal, it’s pretty much what you might expect from the name – fairly epic sounding stuff full of Nordic chanting and more aggressive vocals as well as plenty of melodic guitar lines along the way. The Viking aspect is not just a refelection of the band’s Icelandic roots, but also represented in the story behind Baldur, a concept album with supernatural elements telling the tale of the titular Viking and his epic quest for revenge after the death of his family. I gathered as much only after reading about the album online – the lyrics are all in Icelandic, so I’m fairly unclear on all the details. Sounds like a cool story though.

And finally, I’ll wrap things up with another note that I found in amongst those papers, this one from a 2011 Summerworks review of a show by Toronto indie folk band Great Bloomers. It didn’t make the cut at the time, not really fitting in anywhere in the review, but now it can finally be revealed (even though it doesn’t really fit at all in this review either). So I leave you with these thoughts, written down on a yellow sticky note on that August evening long ago:

After the show, some dude asked me for change, told me he was 79 years old, then asked me if I was some guy named Herman and/or a cop. I told him I wasn’t but he seemed pretty insistent that I was.

True story. I wonder whatever happened to that guy. And I wonder if he likes Viking metal.