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Best tunes of 2020: #26 Andy Shauf “Try again”

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Andy Shauf is a Canadian indie singer/songwriter that was born and raised in the prairie province of Saskatchewan but later relocated to Toronto, Canada’s largest city. Depending on how you count them, he’s released between four and seven full-length albums and a handful of EPs between 2006 and 2021. I personally only really became aware of him after the release of his breakthrough album, 2016’s “The party”, when I saw him perform on the side stage at Ottawa’s City Folk festival in 2017 and was really impressed by the low key but sweet vibe of his set.

Much has been made of “The party” and the fact that it was a concept album, telling multiple stories surrounding the attendees of a house party. By Shauf’s own admission, the end result was a happy accident but for its follow up, he purposefully set out to create a fully realized narrative when he began work on it. “The neon skyline” is like a thematic sequel, its characters a little older (but perhaps not wiser), graduating from house party to dive bar, and the tone is purposefully lighter, with Shauf realizing that months of touring somber material can actually get you down.

The events of the album take place over the course of an evening at one of Shauf’s favourite local haunts in the Parkdale neighborhood of the ‘Big Smoke’* and the eleven tracks are culled from a purported fifty or so that he wrote during the sessions. Over the course of the album’s thirty-five minute duration, we meet the narrator and his friends and some bar regular passing acquaintances. Through conversational lyrics, we learn about a recent ex named Judy, our narrator’s thoughts on the relationship, and eventually, said ex turns up at “The neon skyline”.

“Try again” is track nine of eleven on the album and describes the awkwardness of meeting and conversing with this recent ex, the Judy that we hear tell of a few times during “The neon skyline”. Interestingly, this is the most upbeat track on the album, yet still lilting and light, a boppy and whimsical thing. Woodwinds and handclaps and plenty of fun, keeping at bay, for as long as possible, the unfortunate ending that we are certain has to come to pass.

“Somewhere between drunkenness and jealousy
I watch her talking to some old friend
What a reunion, he recognized her across the room
How many years could there be to catch up on?
And somewhere between drunkenness and honesty
I make a silent toast to the things that I do and don’t miss”

*Toronto really isn’t smoky. This is really just my tongue-in-cheek nickname for the city, playing upon many people’s vision of it.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 2020 list, click here.

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Best tunes of 2012: #3 First Aid Kit “Emmylou”

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If you had asked me in my youth if there was a type of music that I disliked, I would have answered without hesitation: Country.

To be fair, it was the music of my parents* and teenagers rarely pick up on the music of the previous generation, at least not right away. Then, the “new” country hit the fan in the 80s and 90s, spraying the music of Shania Twain and Garth Brooks – really more pop than country – all over the radio. Is it any wonder, then, that I wasn’t a fan of the genre? Still, as more time has gone on, I have found myself being drawn in by more bands flying the alt-country banner, music influenced by the country music of old.

Back in 2012, some of the bands that were putting out my favourite music were all rocking this sound, bands like Cuff the Duke, The Wooden Sky and yes, First Aid Kit. This latter act may have considered themselves more of a folk band but if you listen to the twang and slide guitar of today’s song, “Emmylou”, you certainly couldn’t discount their country influences. Then, of course, there’s the lyric content. The song metaphorically references legendary country duos Johnny Cash and June Carter-Cash and Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris** to bolster the comparison of singing partnerships with entangled lovers.

“Oh the bitter winds are coming in
And I’m already missing the summer
Stockholm’s cold but I’ve been told
I was born to endure this kind of weather”

And, yes, you read and heard that right.

First Aid Kit’s twin driving forces, sisters Johanna and Klara Söderberg, are both from the northern climes of Sweden. It shouldn’t be that surprising that a band of such quality comes from the Scandinavian country**, but that they sound like this is somewhat unexpected. And it’s their sound that gained them such popularity. They first cracked popular attention with a YouTube video of them performing a cover of Fleet Foxes’ “Tiger mountain peasant song” and perhaps because of this, many writers had First Aid Kit stealing the helm of brilliance from that same band. All you have to do is listen to the angelic vocal harmonies sung by the sisters to understand why the critics raved.

“Emmylou” was the second single off of First Aid Kit’s second album “The lion’s roar”. I remember liking the album enough when I first heard it but was far too preoccupied with so much new music being released to spend enough time with it. Then, later in the year, the album happened to come up randomly on my iPod while doing some spring cleaning and it suddenly clicked with me. I must have listened to “Emmylou” a half-dozen times on repeat. I was so hooked that I had to share it with my wife, Victoria. Once she got over the initial shock at the country sound, she really enjoyed the song as well. It really is a beautiful tune and captures the yearning and pure pleasure of love.

“No, I’m not asking much of you
Just sing, little darling, sing with me”

*The music of long road trips and hence, forced agony.

**Back in 2015, First Aid Kit performed this song with Emmylou Harris in attendance and the legendary songstress was moved to tears.

***There have been plenty of excellent Swedish bands over last couple of decades.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 2012 list, click here.

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Best tunes of 2003: #25 The Stills “Still in love song”

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“We were lovers
We were kissers
We were holders of hands
We were make believers
Just losing time”

The four original members of Montreal’s The Stills – vocalist and guitarist Tim Fletcher, guitarist Gregory Paquet, bassist Olivier Corbeil, and drummer Dave Hamelin – met when they were all still teenagers. Each performed in various bands prior to forming The Stills in 2000 and perhaps because of these previous experiences, they quickly gained a following based on their heavy duty live show. They finally released their debut album, “Logic will break your heart”, late in 2003 to critical acclaim*, earning favourable comparisons to Echo & the Bunnymen and fellow post-punk revivalists Interpol. They would go on to release two further albums before amicably splitting up in 2011. The band’s members continue to work in the industry, in other bands, and doing session or production work for other great Canadian acts.

It’s unfortunate to me that the quartet didn’t have more success and longevity, given the promise of their outstanding debut. I remember being super excited when I first heard “Logic will break your heart”, right around the time that I heard “Turn on the bright lights”. I admit that I didn’t feel the same way about those latter albums but that original excitement never waned and I often found myself putting on the debut when I felt the urge to be dark and sombre and angsty.

The third single off that debut would forever remain my favourite by the quartet. “Still in love song” can be universally understood by all but those who have never had a love crushed by someone over whom that person chose someone else, a career, or whatever other passion.

“And you said you’d rather live in TV land
Than say that you care
But you don’t
That’s heartless and I will not cry”

Musically, the tune is – purely and simply – post punk revival at its best. Sinister, arpeggiating guitars, menacing bassline that won’t quit, punishing and bass heavy drum rhythms, snarling vocals, and all this captured in stasis in a vacuous and hermetically sealed wind tunnel. It’s a song that begs repeat plays, tailor made for ear phones and closed eyes and all sorts of other mopery.

*Discounting, of course, the lambasting they received from Pitchfork.. and I always will.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 2003 list, click here.