Showcase Page


For three years (2000–2002) I wrote the “Showcase” page in Canadian Musician magazine. This was a place to shine a light on unsigned/independent Canadian bands and musicians. Every couple of months I’d go through a big box of submitted CDs and press kits, from which I’d choose three artists I thought were deserving of extra attention. Here are some samples.

Jason Collett – September/October 2001
by Jim Kelly

Who: Jason Collett
What: Smart, acoustic pop-rock
Where: Toronto, ON

If my job is to shine a light on diamonds in the rough, then you’d better put on your shades because Jason Collett is set to sparkle. After a stint in the mid-’90s in the short-lived indie band Ursula (also featuring Andrew Cash), Collett recorded his debut solo CD, Chrome Reflection, a set of smart, oblique pop-rock wonders released under the band name Bird. Now he’s recorded a follow-up called Bitter Beauty, to be released this fall under his own name—and it’s a fine, fine record. The songs are lean and focused without being sonically austere. The title track is a three-and-a-half-minute country-rock-ish epiphany centred on an irresistible chorus (”You’re dreamin’ with eyes wide open/Your heart has spoken/For the first time”). Blast this from your car on a sunny afternoon, and you will believe. “Runaway” chronicles the teenage quest for signs of life in 1980s suburbia, and “Revolution Style” is a churning, acoustic rocker, driven by Collett’s percussive guitar thrashing and a vocal that’s Donovan-cool, Westerberg-urgent and Blonde-On-Blonde-Dylan-sharp. His affinity to songwriting is such that even when he tried to stop doing it and “settle down and do some other things,” he simply couldn’t turn off the taps. “It drove me crazy. It’s something I just have to do,” Collett says. “There’s no better high in the world for me than finishing a song.” For our sake, I sincerely hope he never finds help for his addiction. Try some Bitter Beauty, and you’ll be a Jason-junkie too.

Danny Michel – September/October 2000
by Jim Kelly

Who: Danny Michel
What: Superb singer/songwriter/musician
Where: Ottawa, ON

Whether you’re pro- or anti-Napster, there’s no denying the promotional potential of providing free MP3s. After downloading a couple from Danny Michel’s Web site, I was so impressed, I bought his latest CD Fibsville! A gifted singer/songwriter, an eminently engaging performer and a versatile guitarist, in addition to his own solo career, Michel is also a full-time member of Ottawa power-pop outfit Starling. With Starling pals Ian LeFeuvre and Peter Von Althen lending a hand, Michel recorded his third solo CD Fibsville, playing the bulk of the instruments himself, as well as recording, producing, engineering and mastering the disc. Michel is able to cut to the quick of an emotion, to express a universal feeling in a fresh way, with lyrics that are endearing and literate, with the odd wry twist thrown in to keep you on your toes. The lead-off track, “Coalmine”, evokes the wood-smoke memory ambience of a fall day from childhood, and the hard-luck “Hartley” explores that sinking feeling using the Titanic’s bandleader as simile, while the xylophone-dappled “Elgin Avenue” welcomes a little rain to complement the water-colour tableau of day-in-the-life mini-miseries Michel paints. “I just try to make it real,” says Michel. “I try to write stuff for me, that makes me happy, and for no other reason. As for recording, I try to make it sound unique.” With the inclusion of two intimate live tracks at the end of the record, Fibsville is one of the best listening experiences I’ve had in a while—and that’s no lie.

Mia Sheard – May/June 2001
by Jim Kelly

Who: Mia Sheard
What: Intelligent progressive folk-rock
Where: Toronto, ON

What’s striking about Mia Sheard’s second CD, Reptilian, is the way the Toronto singer/songwriter manages to occupy both the high plateau and the dark swamp—the former sonically, the latter lyrically—while keeping the listener enthralled. Case in point is the graceful lead-off track “The Tortoise and the Heiress”, which moves with an almost classical sweep; musically grand in its reach, yet craftily disturbing in the portrayal of its co-narrators’ parallel worlds. A former choir girl, Sheard uses her lovely and dextrous soprano to great effect, but knows when to rein it in when she needs to get down to ground level. That balance is complemented by the spacious, sometimes haunting production where her voice and acoustic guitar are sometimes wreathed in sonic ephemera, or, as in “Stubborn Bastard”, nailed to the nitty gritty with crusty electric guitars. Her approach to songwriting leads to some fascinating subject matter. “Often I’ll have empathy with someone; it could be someone I don’t even know,” she explains, “but I’ll observe a situation and write about it as a third person. And sometimes I like just making it up.” In “Comic” she probes for perspective in a cruel cubist’s cartoon (”What a state you’ve got yourself into/What Picasso made this mess of you?”), while “Cover Girl” paints a nasty picture of men’s desires—veiled and otherwise. A well-chosen cover of Veal’s “Mexico Texaco” seals the deal. Mia Sheard possesses a captivating voice, a riveting intelligence and a gift for truly artful songwriting. Hers is an evolution worth watching.

Jim Bryson – July/August 2001
by Jim Kelly

Who: Jim Bryson
What: Superb, rootsy, alt-country-folk-rock
Where: Ottawa, ON

If we were back in the days when promising artists were courted by major labels with honourable, long-term intentions, Jim Bryson’s dance card would be full. But, as Bob Dylan says, things have changed. Formerly with Ottawa pop-punksters Punchbuggy, Bryson released his excellent debut solo CD The Occasionals last year. The title refers to his purposefully impermanent band, whose roster on this record reads like an Ottawa indie all-star line-up: Ian LeFeuvre (Starling) on guitar and backup vocals, Peter Von Althen (Starling, Cash Brothers) on drums, Punchbuggy pal Darren Hore on bass and Tom Thompson on pedal steel. Produced by Bill Stunt of CBC Radio’s “Bandwidth”, the album trucks off on a rootsier path. Bryson’s husky vocals bring a smoke-dried wistfulness (think Whiskeytown) to songs like “Without Piano” and “Travelled By Land”; “Soupy Sales” and “February” are scrappy alt-country rockers (think Zuma-era Neil Young & Crazy Horse) driven to the edge of the town by LeFeuvre’s crunching lead guitar work; and “26 Miles By Car” lingers in an eerie starkness, a passing glimpse of lives caught in the high beams. “I’m not much of a storyteller,” Bryson says of his tendency to avoid traditional narrative in his songs. “They’re little snapshots of feelings and whatever’s going on.” With songwriting of this calibre and a band this hot, you’ll find yourself spinning this disc more than occasionally. As long as indie artists like Jim Bryson keep putting out quality music like this, there’s still hope. Highly recommended.

Christine Fellows – July/August 2002
by Jim Kelly

Who: Christine Fellows
What: Tantalizingly original avant-folk-pop
Where: Winnipeg, MB

Since the release of her 2000 debut, 2 Little Birds, Christine Fellows has become a vibrant fixture on the Winnipeg music scene, and has begun to spread her wings across the country. The Last One Standing is her deliriously distinctive follow-up. Some call it avant-folk; others label it chamber-pop. I just call it wonderful. Fellows’ remarkably oblique approach to song construction and lyric writing creates music that is at once calming and oddly disturbing, but never less than completely captivating. Cello and viola wrap loving arms around Fellows’ refreshingly atypical piano style and charming vocals, with warm support from accordion, thumb piano, bowed glockenspiel and tastefully applied percussion. She says she’s not an avid music listener, but rather finds her inspiration in other art forms such as dance, and in the people immediately around her. “On this record, I did a lot of dedications for people,” says Fellows, “which is very unlike me, but it just seemed appropriate, and it was an interesting way to work.” With songs as alluring as these, maybe she should stick with that approach. “Regrets” is a courtly backward glance at paths taken and declined. “Roadkill” is a more sobering exercise in hindsight, surveying a flattened relationship in the rear view. And “Veda’s Waltz” is a gentle gift of hope with its delicious refrain, “It’s not too late for the battle-scarred/Here’s your parade and your tinfoil stars.” Decidedly distinctive and uniquely talented, Christine Fellows’ star is definitely on the rise.

Greg MacPherson Band – July/August 2002
by Jim Kelly

Who: Greg MacPherson Band
What: Raw, lean rock with intelligence, conscience and soul
Where: Winnipeg, MB

When your stock-in-trade is gritty, unblinking observations from life’s dustier corners and rougher edges, and your songs are populated by everyday folks desperately riding stillborn dreams, and when you serve up gutsy guitar rock with a bit of muscle, perhaps the Bruce Springsteen comparisons are inevitable. But that’s okay, because Greg MacPherson wears it well, which is to say that he has the writing chops and the talent to stand on his own. Released this past March, the Winnipegger’s second album, Good Times Coming Back Again, has reviewers raving. With Steve Bates (Bulletproof Nothing, XOXO) on guitar and Jason Tait (The Weakerthans) on drums, MacPherson creates a lean and sparse sound that’s a perfect vehicle for his incisive and intelligent lyrics. Being tagged ‘socially conscious guy in Winnipeg’ doesn’t necessarily bother MacPherson. “But I’m kind of all over the place too,” he says. “There are tunes that are stories and tunes that are more snapshots. It can go in lots of different directions.” So you get the hard driving rock of “The Day The Water Dried Up From The Tap”, the gloomy, haunted soundscape of “Remote Control”, the jaunty apathy anthem “Numbers”, a faded diorama of lives lived in numb stasis, and the lead-off track, “Good Times”, which MacPherson infuses with such a sense of menace that it begs the question: good times for whom? The band hopes to be touring Eastern Canada by late summer. If you’re looking for the future of Canadian rock ’n’ roll, take a gander at the Greg MacPherson Band.

Local Rabbits – November/December 2002
by Jim Kelly

Who: Local Rabbits
What: Sophisticated, melodic indie rock
Where: Montreal/Toronto

Montreal’s Local Rabbits aren’t so local anymore. The band’s two guitarists/songwriters Peter Elkas and Ben Gunning have moved to Toronto, while the rhythm section—bassist Ryan Myshrall and drummer Jason Tustin (who also double-shift in the band Soft Canyon)—resides in Montreal. But if their third release This Is It Here We Go is any indication, they’re not letting the Two Solitudes situation put a damper on their creativity. Recorded at the Gas Station in Toronto with co-owner Don Kerr (Rheostatics, Ron Sexsmith) behind the board, the record is a smart and savvy salvo of indie rock adventurism. With Gunning’s keen melodic sense and Elkas’s instrumental versatility, they forge a straight-up guitar rock sound, a la Joel Plaskett/Thrush Hermit or Sloan, but with elements of prog rock adding some sophistication. Perhaps Elkas’s no-frills description of their genre-dodging sound works best: “It’s rock with two guitars, bass and drums and keyboards and two songwriters. There’s a focus on lyrics and instrumentation. And all our gear is ’70s gear.” And while he acknowledges the ’70s influence, Elkas adds that they’re “always trying to be progressive at the same time and push some sort of boundary.” Highlights include Gunning’s elastic vocals on “At Least You Got The Cake” and “The Lights Turn On”, Elkas’s soulful “Poured All That I Got” and their nod to Steely Dan on “Pass It To You”. Though their bi-local existence makes the Rabbits a cottontail of two cities, like their furry namesakes, when it comes to creativity, they’ve got a jump on all the rest.

Kinnie Starr – March/April 2001
by Jim Kelly

Who: Kinnie Starr
What: Organic, dub-inflected, alterna-hip-hop
Where: Vancouver, BC

Whether she’s on a “Scrappy Bitches” tour with pals Veda Hille and Oh Susanna, playing with her band handsome boyz 3, or going solo, Kinnie Starr delights in engaging her audience. Previously signed to Mercury Records in the US, Starr released one very well-received album, Tidy, but had her follow-up put on hold while the Universal-Polygram merger was going down. Now, back in indie-land, she’s put together her most recent CD, Tune-Up. Its heavily dub-inflected hip-hop grooves have made the album a favourite on college radio, and its organic qualities make it a compelling listening experience. Starr calls it “chunkhop.” “I don’t have the knowledge base yet to make my beats really super-tight and clean,” she says. “But I like that sonically. I’m happy with the way that came out.” Heavy dollops of bass hit you in the loins while ambient sonic elements dance around warm Wurlitzer and guitar samples. Starr’s entrancing lyrics are alternately sung, rapped, whispered and chanted, mixing the personal and the political while her timing and phrasing keep you pinned. On “Miles”, her hypnotic rhyme-flow rides a rootsy guitar figure over a head-bobbing rhythm track, while “Red%x” uses samples of aboriginal chanting with modern beats and Starr rhyming in English, French and Spanish to create a sense of community-in-song. And the aptly titled “Warm” is sweetly sung and as soothing as a cup of hot chocolate on a stormy day. Kinnie Starr is a fiercely original artist, and with Tune-Up, she’s definitely firing on all cylinders.