Best tunes of 2012: #25 Sea Wolf “Priscilla”

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Sea Wolf is an Los Angeles-based indie rock act that is mainly the vehicle for the songwriting of Alex Brown Church. He started the project in 2003 when the songs he was working on while part of the band Irving didn’t fit their sound. In 2012, he released “Old world romance”, the third full-length album to be produced using the Sea Wolf name, and this following on the heels of two previous, relatively successful albums: 2007’s “Leaves on the river” and 2009’s “White water, white bloom”.

As I mentioned above, Sea Wolf is mainly Church’s project and yet “Old world romance” is the first of his albums that was completed without the help of enlisted musicians, recorded all by himself. But instead of feeling like a basement (or living room) DIY project, the album has a crisper and cleaner sounding production than its predecessors and because he used a drum machine rather than a live timekeeper, some of the organic sound has been dispensed with, in favour of a more mechanical effect. I’m not saying this is a bad thing at all. In fact, I think it was this inner struggle that reverberates throughout the album between the traditional, folk stylings and the modern and electronic sounds that caught my attention in the first place. It’s almost a reflection of the man versus nature themes that are hinted at on the album’s cover and are prevalent in the naturalistic novels of Jack London . Yes, in case you Jack London fans were wondering, the band’s name, Sea Wolf, was taken from the novel of the same name.

“Priscilla” is my favourite track on the album. When I first listened to it, it drummed up memories of listening to songs like “Sonnet” and “This time” of The Verve’s “Urban hymns” for the first time. Not necessarily the vocal work, though Church does sound a bit a cross between Richard Ashcroft and Echo & The Bunnymen’s Ian McCulloch, but there is an atmospheric feel to it, naturalistic, much like The Verve’s dense ballads, it makes for heady chill out music. Starting off with reverb guitars that sound like a distress call or echoing birds calling over the bay, then, the drum machine beats crash in like waves and acoustic guitar strumming layers in with synth string washes, all haunting and chilling cold ocean breeze. Watch out. There’s a storm brewing here. The waves are picking up and smashing and pounding the stony shore. Interesting, then, that it’s a song about a relationship on the rocks.

“So Priscilla, this is important
Time to tell us this is
No goodbyes and no time for mourning
Now we’ll see what this love is for.”

Sigh.

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

Best tunes of 2002: #13 Badly Drawn Boy “Something to talk about”

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In the early spring of 2000, I met up with my old roommate and university friend, Ryan, and we went to see a new John Cusack flick at the Bloor and Yonge cinemas in Toronto. We both came out of the theatre talking excitedly, both us having immensely enjoyed “High fidelity”. Over beers afterwards on some patio or other along Bloor street near the Annex, Ryan told me that he liked it just as much as the book by Nick Hornby, upon which it was based. I hadn’t known about the book and so shortly after that evening, I went out and bought it in trade paperback, promptly devoured it, and put it away on my shelf.

Fast forward about two and a half years, I was then living with my future wife Victoria in a basement apartment in the Vanier neighbourhood of Ottawa, something I never would have fathomed that evening over beers with Ryan. But there I was and given my meagre call centre salary and Victoria’s part-time hours while finishing up her Master’s degree, we were living a frugal existence to say the least. They say that necessity breeds ingenuity. I guess this is how I discovered that the Ottawa public library loaned out DVDs for free and how I managed to watch a lot of films I might not have otherwise seen (like “Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind”, for example).

On one of my many trips to the main branch downtown (where they had the best selection), I picked up a Hugh Grant rom-com called “About a boy”. I’ve always loved Hugh Grant in pretty much everything he’s done, despite the fact that there’s some truth to the critique that he’s always playing the same character with only slight variations. However, his role of Will in “About a boy” seemed to me then (and still does) the role Hugh Grant was born to play and the film was so much more than your normal rom-com fare. I remember sitting afterwards while the credits rolled and absently humming along with the music, not really knowing what hit me, and I noticed that it was based on a book by Nick Hornby. The name seemed vaguely familiar so I crossed the living room to my desktop computer, booted it up, and did a Google search. The connection was made, I ordered the Nick Hornby book from the library, finished it, and ordered another and another, until I had gotten through everything he had thus far written. Hornby has since become one of my favourite authors to read (though for some reason, I still can never remember his name).

The film “About a boy” (properly) introduced me to Nick Hornby but it also introduced me to English singer/songwriter, Damon Gough (aka Badly Drawn Boy). On the back of his wildly successful debut released two years beforehand*, the filmmakers asked Gough to score the film and his soundtrack is a mix soundbite-like jingles and fully-formed songs, all with the same laidback groove and hipster cool feel. “Something to talk about” is one of these latter and the second proper single released from the album. It’s got the strut and flow and attitude of the film’s main character. Indeed, you could easily imagine Gough walking down the street behind Will, performing this as his personal theme music, all decked out in knitted hat, shaggy hair, beard, and sunglasses. Subtle and hip and effortless. That is all.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 2002 list, click here.

*I spoke a bit about that debut when “Once around the block”, one of its singles, appeared on my Best tunes of 2000 list.

Best tunes of 2012: #26 Passenger “Let her go”

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Mike Rosenberg, aka Passenger, took an interesting and somewhat circuitous route to stardom. He formed a band with friend Andrew Philips in 2003 and called it, you guessed it, Passenger. Rosenberg and Philips were the only static members of the rotating group of musicians and the group only released one album in 2007 before disbanding in 2009. Rosenberg then embarked on a solo career, still using the Passenger name, that took him to Australia, away from his native homeland of England, and where, after plenty of touring and performing, he gained his first spate of popularity.

Still, things didn’t really get going for him until his fourth solo record, “All the little lights”, which was released in 2012 and on which he was backed by a band made up almost entirely of Australian musicians. It was this album’s second single, “Let her go”, that broke him in a country outside of Australia, charting first in Netherlands, then, slowly but surely spreading throughout Europe, and finally, hitting North America’s shores the following year. The song’s music video became a smash on YouTube, gathering more than 2 billion views, one of the most viewed clips on the platform. And this popularity translated to big time sales for the album, getting on year end charts for both 2013 and 2014, and achieving gold and platinum status in many countries.

I remember falling for it despite my best efforts to avoid doing so back in 2012. Indeed, it managed to place just outside my top ten favourite albums when I sat down to put together my year end list. I thought that it struck just the right balance of folk aesthetic and pop sensibility and Rosenberg’s backing band added some lush instrumentation to his busker friendly tunes. And though he’s quite the prolific guy, releasing a new album pretty much every year, I haven’t really paid much attention to him after this one album. I was actually quite surprised at how many videos he has on YouTube when I went looking for the one for this particular song.

I’m pretty certain you all know “Let her go”, even if not by name. It’s instantly recognizable from the get-go so just the first few seconds of the acoustic guitar plucking and matching keys will do the trick if it’s not one of your favourites. Rosenberg’s earnest vocals are front and centre throughout, all lonely and forlorn, easily heard even when he let’s her go and the drums kick in. His voice is all impassioned and fragile, singing about not knowing what you have, the love of life, whatever, until it is gone, long gone out the door. And it’s him, alone in a crowd, a big backing band, bass feels, backup singer, and a string quartet… because of course there is. And it’s him alone in front of a crowd, an adoring audience cheering him on, just him, sounding ready the break down into a massive puddle of tears. It grabs me by the proverbial feels every time.

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