Podcasts | Scenecasts

I: Ottawa, ON

By Conrad Amenta | 10 April 2006

Less a hometown shout-out than a coming to terms, I’ve wanted to do an all-Ottawa mix for some time. Playing music in any city is a bittersweet mix of jealousy and admiration, boredom and anticipation, and at the very least a peek at what goes on behind the velvet (or burlap) rope – you’ll catch yourself wishing you were in one band while wishing another would just go away. It’s the high school cafeteria dynamic gone voluntary. What I think most important, though, is how humanizing it is to sit down and sift through all this music about significant others, politics, inside jokes, coups and downfalls, all this personal information from some person you might run into at the grocery store. Lacking the tools to do it myself, this mix is a love song to my hometown.

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1. J’Envoie: “Emanuelle”

J’Envoie have been making Ottawa musicians feel insecure about their musical abilities for a couple of years now. Instrumental jazz and post-rock don’t do nearly enough as monikers to describe the intense but spare beauty of this music, complex and multifaceted as it is soothing and scarily tight. It could be that Ottawa has its answer to Tortoise.

2. Crush Buildings: “Ghoul Pounds”

Crush Buildings have been working on the follow up to their promising _Small Room Sessions EP for about a hundred years, and every time a new track leaks it completely justifies the wait. Dense and detailed, surrealist imagery is only the beginning of why this duo is so hard to categorize. What can be said with some certainty is that this is a group that has just recently crossed the line between friends making music and having what it takes, and I’ll admit it: I want in on the ground floor.

3. HILOTRONS: “Bella Simone”

These Ottawa-scene veterans populate their fictional cities of New Wave faithful with monkeys in space, samurai robots, secret cameras and the universality of the break-up. If you don’t have the patience for “wacky,” then it’ll be the band’s supreme hooks and spot-on production that will make you catch yourself singing on the bus, embarrassed, commuters all around you ringing for the next stop. Ottawa is notorious for its non-dancers, and I’ve seen the Hi Lo Trons get audiences at street fairs, the squarest of the square venues, making fools of themselves in the street.

4. The Acorn: “Blankets”

  • (12:58 – 17:59)
  • from Blankets!, on Kelp

I reviewed _Blankets! for CMG’s No Big Hair section a while back, in which I said that this track has made it onto mix tapes all over the city with little heart quotation marks around its title. The love in has yet to cave in, it seems, as the band continues to play to packed clubs and find themselves with the lead-off track on mixes showcasing local indie talent. Heartfelt, gushing, acoustic strings strung across their Olympic hearts, The Acorn make the kind of music by guys you can trust to drive your drunken sister home without making a move.

5. The Soft Disaster: “Caught in Midday Rainstorm (Your Breathing)” *

The Soft Disaster have experienced numerous manifestations, from drum-heavy indie rock archetypes to pseudo-alt-country, from Ottawa away and then back. If there’s one constant, however, it’s that each manifestation seems that one step closer to distinction. They’ve always had the chops, and if the patience and resolve of their latest release testifies to anything, it’s that they’re now at the top of their songwriting game.

6. Sarah Hallman: “Shovel”

My girlfriend pointed out (quite rightly) that my all-Ottawa collection did not contain music by any women, and so couldn’t claim to be all-anything. In the ensuing search I fell upon Sarah Hallman, whose forthcoming album features contributions from Arcade Fire drummer Jeremy Gara and a bevy of Ottawa veterans (including some whose songs appear elsewhere in this list). Hallman writes music that may as well have been discovered written out on yellowed paper, music with nooks and cracks – a veritable attic of old sounds. Gorgeous and natural, “Shovel” walks with the swagger of experience.

7. Snailhouse: “Twenty One Years”

Snailhouse’s _The Opposite is Also True is a two-disc set, the second disc replete with completely re-imagined versions of each album track. Such is the seemingly effortless dexterity of ex-and-once-again Wooden Stars singer-songwriter Michael Feuerstack, whose former band won a Juno (Canadian Grammy, for those who aren’t familiar) for their collaborative album with Julie Doiron. Feuerstack’s newer vehicle, Snailhouse, continued with more indie-traditional versions of what the Wooden Stars started.

8. Empiricals: “Golden Beat”

There are a few bands that stake their territory so far out in left field that they conveniently bypass the entire authenticity debate. The Empiricals play Chinese surf-rock, so they can certainly be counted among such acts. What’s more surprising than the odd choice of genre is how melodic and instantly accessible their music is. Part po-mo playfulness, part stunning technicality, The Empiricals aren’t quite like anything you’ve heard before but what your next band will try to sound like.

9. Detective Kalita: “Altona, MB”

  • (31:39 – 36:01)
  • from The Michael Parks, on Kelp

Kelp Record mainstays and Ottawa favorites, Detective Kalita recently returned to the Ottawa scene with their The Michael Parks, a confident, atmospheric assortment of texture-laden acoustic folk-rock. This track, from said album, typifies the self-assured blends to be heard therein. These elder statesmen, ambassadors and gentlemen of Ottawa rock that they are, are ready to introduce you to their city.

10. Red Hemsley: “Routine of the Day”

  • (36:02 – 40:43)
  • from In the Land of Ignorance, self-released

Though now defunct, Red Hemsley are here because I’m abusing my unconvincing, murky authority. Hey, you’re telling me that if you were to make a list of bands from your local scene you wouldn’t include one of your all-time favorite local acts, broken up or otherwise? There was nothing special about the particular brand of Weezer-influenced indie rock that Red Hemsley played – they just made it more fun and did it better than anyone else in Ottawa.

11. Recoilers: “Beach Front Resort Vacation”

  • (40:44 – 44:16)
  • from 2 Years End, on Kelp

If Ottawa’s indie fans voted to pick a city anthem, “Beach Front Resort Vacation” would be on the shortlist. Featuring the kind of riff so infectious that the band can get away with using it two thousand times throughout the song, the Recoilers are the Teenage Fanclub of waiting on Ottawa sidewalks for the club doors to open in – 41 Celsius weather.

12. Kepler: “The Bedside Manner”

  • (44:17 – 47:08)
  • from Attic Salt, on Resonant

Recently broken up and former tour-mates to Godspeed You Black Emperor!, Kepler released four albums of music that moved gradually from gentle, delicate slow-core to the lush arrangements that can be heard here. Attic Salt, their last, was the band’s most fully-formed statement, and it redefined that which the band was capable. There are few on the indie scene in Ottawa not aware of Kepler’s impact and influence.

13. As the Poets Affirm: “Awake Chaos”

It’s exciting to hear a band get better and better. As the Poets Affirm have played the same kind of Constellation Records music for a while now, but as their lineup has grown to include horns and other multi-instrumentalists, so did the band’s scope. As the Poets Affirm play the kind of towering music that always sounds bigger than just a collection of people on stage.

14. My Dad Vs. Yours: “No Farms No Foods No Future”

  • (50:35 – 56:35)
  • from After Winter Must Come Spring, self-released

Since reviewing their beautiful instrumental post-rock debut for CMG’s No Big Hair section, my inbox has been graced with the e-mails of readers echoing my admiration. The band’s subtle elegance and polish are not the kind of thing that can be communicated easily. It supplants itself somewhere between listening and thought. It’s not a gradual thing: one day you just find yourself handing a copy of their record to someone and saying “trust me.”