Music from the First Half of 2022 p.2: Folk, Pop & Pop-Adjacent

Favourites from the first half of 2022

Part One: Electronic

Part Two: Folk, Pop, & Pop Adjacent

Part Three: Rock & Psych

Part Four: Jazz & Experimental

If calling the last batch of albums “electronic” felt a bit arbitrary, tagging these as “pop” is even more reductive. The artists below are pulling from a wide range of influences, some accessible, others obscure, and the collection of futuristic soul, nostalgia-minded exotica, orchestral folk and other indescribable sounds don’t comfortably fit under a single banner. The label is just there for convenience sake, so take it with a grain of salt, and enjoy these albums on their own plentiful merits.

Cate le Bon – Pompeii

A half-dozen albums into her 13 year career, Cate Le Bon still sounds as distinctive as ever. There’s a clear throughline from her 2009 debut to Pompeii’s otherworldly pop, but her sound has gotten more oblique even as it’s become more familiar. Pompeii’s songs are crystaline: polished and multifaceted, composed of hard angles and reflective surfaces, and the inescapable feeling that if you look deeply enough, you just might discover a truth about the universe.

Dana Gavanski – When It Comes

The upbeat “Indigo Highway” is the most immediately appealing track on Gavanski’s sophomore album, but if the remainder of the album takes a little more effort, it’s all the richer for its subtlety. Sharply written and impeccably produced, it’s an album of intricate details, soft flourishes, and warm countermelodies, ornate but never overblown. Add Gavanski’s detatched but affecting vocals, and you have an album perfectly crafted for inward-focused escapism.

Daniel Ögren – Laponia III

Pop probably isn’t the right classifier for this one, but then, it’s hard to say what is. Ögren has explored jazz, funk, library music, and easy listening in projects like Sven Wunder and Dina Ögon, and while Laponia III has elements of all those genres, it’s both more hushed and more expansive (with a few exceptions, like the bouncy “Midnattsol”). This seems like music inspired by mountaintop views and sun-dappled vistas, where the air is thin and magic lurks under each stone.

Fresh Pepper – Fresh Pepper

Building on the gentle brilliance of last year’s Further Up Island, songwriter Andre Ethier has recruited a veritable supergroup of Toronto avant-pop artists for his latest project, with members of Bernice, Beverly Glenn Copeland, and more contributing to an album that’s equal parts smooth jazz, indie rock and the Food Network. The arrangements are uniformly sophisticated, threading a needle between avant-garde and easy listening, but Ethier’s plainspoken confidence is the real standout here. World-weary, wistful, and brimming with humour, it’s a fantastic next step for a songwriter who never ceases to surprise.

Jenny Hval – Classic Objects

Is there a better lyricist out there right now than Jenny Hval? Setting aside the music itself, rich and multidimensional as it is, I don’t think there’s anyone else who channels the full spectrum of modern anxiety quite like Hval does. Classic Objects opens with the Norwegian singer trying to make sense of her new marriage in light of her anti-institutional feelings, and it closes with her questioning the relationship between art and copyright. In between she wonders about identity and control, quotes Gilles Deleuze while making fun of “irrelevant quotes from French philosophers,” and blurs the line between diary, confessional, and pop song.

Maylee Todd – Maloo

Maylee Todd’s hushed future r&b is a long ways removed from the indie pop she first cut her teeth on in groups like Henri Faberge and the Adorables, or the hearty disco-funk of her last solo album nearly a decade ago. That album proved that Todd can belt ’em out with the best of them, but on Maloo she keeps her performance to a breathy croon, letting the drama come from the jazzy chords and unpredictable melodies. The album is named for her digital avatar, an oddly proportioned, slightly unsettling CG creation that appears in videos for Maloo. That persona keeps the album at a conceptual remove, but restraint suits Todd well, lending a mysterious edge to her already polished songwriting.

Medusa Phase – Negative Space

Synth-led Tallahassee trio Medusa Phase provide a mostly summery complement to the vintage dream pop sounds of Young Marble Giants and the Cocteau Twins. Not the smoke-choked heatwave of the last few summers, mind you—Negative Space channels dew-dampened fields and early morning mist, refreshing and full of promise. The album’s wonky keyboards and chintzy drums give the whole affair a surreal quality, like you’re hearing the jukebox at a half-remembered, half-daydreamed lounge on a forgotten Florida highway.

L.T. Leif and APB – Newfangled Objects of Our Desires

I should declare my bias here—I worked for several years with L.T. Leif and have a hard time staying objective about their work. But even with that qualifier, I’m sure I would have fallen for the charming concept and offbeat folk-pop of Newfangled Objects of Our Desires (NOOODS) no matter who made it. A follow-up to a 2010 cassette collaboration, NOOODS once again finds the duo of Laura Leif and Amber Phelps Bondaroff paying tribute to inanimate objects and the people who own them in a collection of lo-fi pop tunes. The doo-wop refrain of “Hewmidoo” is the EP at its most charming, but every song is brimming with the tender joy of creativity and collaboration.

Sessa – Estrela Acesa

Lovely, mellow Brazillian pop, recalling the glory days of tropicalia in its subtly psychedelic production and orchestral flourishes. Nylon-stringed and gently swaying rhythms evoke beachside hammocks and languid days, and while the lyrics delve into angstier territory, you wouldn’t know it from Sessa’s laid-back delivery—at least, not without a solid working knowledge of Portuguese. For the rest of us, those darker themes are a subtle undercurrent, adding shade to an otherwise breezy and balmy day.

Shintaro Sakamoto – Like a Fable

Shintaro Sakamoto’s lounge and surf-influenced sound doesn’t shy away from kitsch, but that doesn’t mean it’s a joke. The grimly funny cover of 2014’s Let’s Dance Raw is still maybe the best distillation of his approach — self-described “post-apocalyptic exotica” that’s at once nostalgic and entirely unexpected. Like a Fable expands the sonic palette of Sakamoto’s first few solo releases, and wisely downplays the vocal effects that made 2017’s Love If Possible a little harder to fall for. Trombone solos, surf guitar, disco beats and tropical grooves all find a natural home on the album, but behind it all there’s still an underlying dissonance, a subtle feeling that as bright as things may be, we might just be dancing to the end of the world.

Steven Lambke – Volcano, Volcano

Lambke doesn’t have what you’d call a conventionally polished voice, but the former member of the Constantines and Baby Eagle has always found a way to make it work. OnVolcano, Volcano, he uses confident arrangements to give a solid foundation, then lets his vocals sketch in the rest, more implying the melodies than fully singing them. Lead single “Every Lover Knows” epitomizes this approach, setting up a Neil Young-ish folk stomper with choral backing, then letting Lambke run ripshod through the arrangement, off-key and ebullient. It’s an approach rooted in well-deserved confidence, and one that lends unpredictabilty to an album anchored in rock-solid roots songwriting.

Yves Jarvis – The Zug

In his albums as Un Blonde and his first release as Yves Jarvis, Jean-Sebastien Audet seemed almost allergic to fleshing out ideas, preferring fragmentary melodies and momentary moods to conventional songs. The approach worked because of his seemingly endless stream of creative impulses and his obvious virtuosity, but it’s still been a pleasant surprise to see him shake a bit of that restlessness, first with 2020’s Sundry Rock Song Stock and now again with The Zug. His lyrics are still as inquisitive as ever, punctuated with Zen-like musings and personal/politicla reflection, and the extra space in his songwriting has only made room for more influences, adding Krautrock explorations and ’60s psych-folk hooks to the micro-gospel and acoustic soul of his early solo releases. If those earlier albums flowed on a river of creativity, the newer ones are drawing from a deep well of it—both are refreshing, but the sensation is different.

Podcast: The AM, Mar. 7, 2022

This week’s episode of The AM (also streaming at CJSW.com):

Atmospheric sounds from Loscil and Earthen Sea, psych-tinged folk from Spencer Cullum and Alabaster DePlume, fuzzed-out guitars from Lorelle Meets the Obscure and Did You Die, and other soul-sating sounds for a Monday morning in March. Plus, Wordfest’s Shelley Youngblut joins in the third hour to talk about ImagineOnAir’s upcoming programming. Enjoy.

(Image by Chel Faust)

Podcast: The AM, Feb. 21, 2022

This week’s episode of The AM (also streaming at CJSW.com): The holiday Monday made for a groggier-than-usual episode, but fortunately the music holds up even if the hosting is slightly off. After all, it’s hard to go wrong with new tunes from Cate Le Bon, Animal Collective, Exek, Ombiigizi, Congotronics International, Reptalians, and the list goes on…

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Steve Gunn – Protection (ft. Mdou Moctar) (Matador)

The opener to Nakama, a collection of collaborative reworkings of songs from Gunn’s 2021 release, Other You, “Protection” swaps out the laid-back motorik of the original for an even more stripped back arrangement. Percussive guitar and hand-claps give the song a quiet momentum, a gentle current for Gunn’s melody to drift on. Tuareg guitar hero Mdou Moctar is known for his scorching solos, but his contributions are more restrained here, approaching the tune like a sister-song to his recent album closer “Bismilahi Atagah.” It’s all sunshine and warmth, four and a half minutes of shelter from the world outside.

You can preview “Protection” on Gunn’s Bandcamp, or stream the full Nakama EP, with contributions from Circuit des Yeux, Bing & Ruth, and Natural Information Society over on Spotify.

Spencer Cullum’s Coin Collection – In a Mist (Full Time Hobby)

Cullum’s 2020 debut slipped under my radar on its initial release, but made it onto my 2021 year-end list thanks to a conveniently timed reissue. Its mastery of pastoral British folk and psychedelia made it an easy album to get lost in, and this tune from Aquarium Drunkard’s Lagniappe Sessions covers series is a welcome addition to his catalogue. Borrowed from British folk singer Duncan Browne, it’s a prettily finger-picked tune that hides devastating lines like “we are born alone, and we die alone, and we cannot possess anyone in between.” It’ll break your heart, in other words, in more ways than one.

Podcast: The AM, Jan. 24, 2022

This week’s episode of The AM (also streaming at CJSW.com): I didn’t notice that the 400th episode of the AM had come and gone, but celebrating number 402 works just as well. I shared the first song ever played on The AM, and there’ll be a Spotify playlist of the first episode’s tracklist available sometime shortly—visit theam.ca for that one. But, we’re always looking forward, and this week’s mix of cosmic synthesizers, melodic art-rock, and psychedelic surf is your recommended way to ease into the last week of January.

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January 22 New Music Roundup

Ben Lukas Boysen – Clarion (Kiasmos Remix) (Erased Tapes)

The first single from Boysen’s upcoming Clarion EP, this reworking of a track from 2020’s Mirage condenses the sprawling original, adding a propulsive kick while preserving the elliptical melody. That pulse becomes the gravity holding the intellectual and emotional halves of Boysen’s composition together, keeping the body rooted to the dancefloor while the spirit soars into the cosmos.

Ben McElroy – How I Learnt to Disengage from the Pack (Slow Music Movement)

The Slow Music Movement’s first release of 2022 is a collection of spacious folk music from Nottingham’s Ben McElroy. Droning bass provides the soil from which McElroy’s songs grow and flower, fragments of melodies from flute, strings, and voice coalescing like breath in winter air. It’s ideal January music, sounds that would evaporate in the summer sun, but that linger and shimmer in the cold.

Jenny Hval – Year of Love (4AD)

The second single from Hval’s upcoming Classic Objects, and her first for 4AD, is a much more straightforward tune than her last few offerings. But even Hval’s most straightforward songs tend to feel more like questions than statements, and “Year of Love” is no exception. Her vocals here are as inquisitive as ever, tracing outlines of ambiguity even in a conventional structure.

Ray Barbee – Always Dreamin’ (Plant Bass Records)

ELECTRONIC KUMOKO cloudchild is an eclectic compilation that’ll take a few more listens to digest in full, but the chance to hear new music from Barbee is already enough to justify a spin. The skateboarder and musician is in full-on kosmiche mode here, gently drifting along with twinkling electronics and melodic bass. My only complaint is that three minutes isn’t nearly enough; Barbee wakes us up before the dream’s even really begun.