Shotgun Jimmie / Jon McKiel
Transistor Sister / Confidence Lodge
(You've Changed / Youth Club; 2011)
By Scott Reid | 16 March 2011
The Old Confidence Lodge is a recording studio and performance venue in Riverport, Nova Scotia, anonymously nestled on the southern shore of Lunenburg County, not even a few hours’ drive west of Halifax. That’s what it is now, anyway. The Lodge itself is certainly not a new addition to the community—the building being 82 years old, for most of that time Oddfellows Hall #106—but it was only recently reappropriated by multi-instrumentalist and producer Diego Medina, who uprooted from his native Calgary to do so. I can only assume his first month included extensive fancy neck collar removal.
Medina’s clientele—when not working alongside curiously lovable curmudgeon Steve Albini or, to balance that out, Weird Al Yankovic—has included Chad VanGaalen, Women, Hot Panda, Pale Air Singers, Jesse Zubot, the Luyas, Rebekah Higgs, Joel Plaskett, Cape May…the list goes on. (And includes these guys. Yeah.) Which is to say that he’s hardly an amateur at this; Medina was a seasoned producer-slash-engineer well before he settled in rural Nova Scotia, took over the Old Confidence Lodge, cornered our “nice wires” market, and eventually helped to make two of the east coast’s best releases of 2011 so far: the new EP from Halifax’s Jon McKiel, Confidence Lodge, and Shotgun Jimmie’s third solo record, Transistor Sister.
Before a single word is sung on Confidence Lodge, Medina’s Calgarian roots seem unmistakable. The thick, slightly dirtied-up guitar tone of “Monster of the Miramichi” is straight off of a Chad VanGaalen record—somewhat unexpectedly, since Medina has only recorded, or at least is only credited for recording, drums on VanGaalen’s “Flower Gardens,” the pounding opener from Skelliconnection (2006). Yet the “Miramichi”‘s main riff is uncanny, its chugging mid-tempo drawl laying the foundation for a vocal melody and grim lyrical theme that are equally familiar. It’s a pervasively dark study of its titular character, the real-life horrorshow that is Allan Legere, infamous arsonist and murderer and overall tremendous piece of shit: “His curfew was after dark / This man had set off some sparks / And watched you while you sleep … / He’s sick and tired and lonely now / While the blood is spilling down.”
Anyway, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing; despite the Infiniheart (2004)-ness of nearly every aspect, it still makes for a strong opener, and besides, none of the other songs here really follow suit. There’s levity in the jittery indie-rock of “Motion Pictures,” by far Confidence Lodge’s most immediate three minutes, and a bit of an oddity on this EP. “Rupert,” practically an instrumental save for a short, Phil Elvrum-inspired verse and beautiful washes of “ooh“s, instantly flips the immediacy of “Motion Pictures,” setting the tone for what follows. “Songs at Night” is cleverly arranged to milk its stark campfire thump and rattle, but it’s really the chilling swells of cello and delicate harmonies of closer “Snow Owls” that push this EP over the top. The somber lyrics (“A sinister life is calling on you / It starts in your blood and ends in your footsteps / If they kill you I’ll haunt them like a house in the woods / ‘til they’re strangled by fear”) and vocal delivery remain, but this time sound more—excuse the pun—confidently McKiel’s own, even if it just shifts the earlier VanGaalen aesthetic toward traditional folk.
Also lingering throughout these songs is the influence of Sackville, New Brunswick’s greatest indie-rockers of the ’00s, Shotgun & Jaybird. Not that McKiel often borrows from the still-thrilling heights of 2004’s Sackville Classics for Simple Ukulele or 2006’s There Are Days and Then There Are Days (if you haven’t listened to “Marquee Glass” lately, or ever, do yourself the favor), but he does pull off the similarly rare feat of conjuring brash, inspired, and occasionally haunting music out of tired genres, using only the barest of tools.
Well, in Shotgun & Jaybird’s case, at least they used to. The band split not long after Julie Doiron joined as an official member for 2006’s Trying to Get Somewhere, and since then Jimmie has churned out good if inconsistent solo albums at a pretty much yearly pace, each continuing in much the same vein. Transistor Sister, then, isn’t a marked throwback to Jimmie’s old band so much as another record that sounds eerily, if by this point expectedly, similar to everything he releases. But it is worth noting that founding S&J member Fred “Dick Morello” Squire contributes to the album, playing lap steel guitar on late-album highlight “The Haze.” Bassist Jay Baird—brother of ex-S&J member Jesse Baird—and Ladyhawk drummer Ryan Peters round out the core three-piece behind Transistor Sister, Jimmie’s strongest solo effort to date.
Diego, again, is a significant part of this. Beyond just the fuller production, a welcome step up from the muddied bedroom feel of The Onlys (2008) and Still Jimmie (2009), Medina offers some instrumental variety (read: synths) on several of these songs. This isn’t always a blessing—the ’80s pop vibe of “Suzy” sounds vaguely like a slapdash cover of something from that new Strokes record, lacking the Malkmus-sized hooks of “King of Kreuzberg” or the title track—but, especially with the terrific “Stereo and the Stove”/“Swamp Magic” one-two, it helps to further flesh out songwriting that, no matter the clarity of its production, sounds no less like it’s on the verge of completely derailing.
Transistor Sister’s sixteen tracks effortlessly spill forth as if we’re hearing them conceived and recorded in a single take, in the best possible way; to apply something CMG writer Dave Goldstein said about an entirely different record, Kurt Vile’s Smoke Ring for My Halo (2011), these songs have a “weightless comfort to them, like warm milk.” Only two songs break three minutes, and some, like segues “Confidence Lodge Stairwell Recording #1” (wondering what it sounds like to walk up the 80-year-old stairs of the Lodge? You’re in luck!) and “Bar’s Open,” bow out after mere seconds. Instead of working with his band and Medina to develop each idea to any sort of logical end, Jimmie opts to quickly and charmingly stumble his way through each, making the most of their however-many seconds before leaping charismatically into the next.
Diego Medina’s role in both records is, primarily, to capture each artist’s growth in the last few years without overtaking what had been so appealing about each to begin with. For McKiel, it’s highlighting how his songwriting has broadened since his debut LP, 2008’s The Nature of Things, finding a balance between his ability to pull off mid-tempo atmospherics and an effective sing-along chorus. For Jimmie, it’s introducing a production that lets each of his playful rock whims breathe by not directly playing into the samey four-track-ness of it all. Both are successes—McKiel to more moody and often beautiful ends, while Shotgun Jimmie keeps on sounding like Shotgun Jimmie, just sharper, hitting far more often than he misses. Medina’s contributions notwithstanding, these are their triumphs—brought to life at Riverport, Nova Scotia’s premier Oddfellows Lodge-cum-studio, sure, but ultimately the result of two of Atlantic Canada’s finest singer-songwriters beginning to truly hit their strides.