December means Christmas, June means summer, and in St. John’s, February means a bounty of new local music, courtesy of the annual RPM Challenge (wherein people record an album of original music in February, just for kicks).
The RPM Challenge has produced well over 1,000 local albums. This year alone there was about 130 local albums written, recorded, and shared. Below is a handful of spontaneous lines written upon first listen all 130 of them, hours before this issue of The Overcast went to print.
Amanda Hold – (All I Ever Wanted Was)
A classic RPM tale: A person with a clear penchant for songwriting (and in this case, singing too), reluctantly releases an RPM album, with liner notes full of self-deprecating disclaimers of supposedly not knowing what they’re doing. Amanda knows what she’s doing. It’s a perfectly good straight-up singer-songwriter album, elevated by her beautiful voice and a live off the floor sound that makes the spare guitar-and-mic songs feel live and urgent.
You can hear it here.
The Belle Trackies – The Belle Trackies
A collaboration of Joanna Barker and Benjamin Thwaites that perfectly demonstrates why artists collaborate: to break new ground, and produce something neither artist would have done alone. What they created stands out by sounding unfamiliar, and well, really good. There is a perfect interplay between Ben’s evocative electronic soundscapes and Barker’s dreamy, playful lyrics and vocal stylings. There’s risks taken (as if to embrace the liberty and spirit of making an RPM) and they all land like an Olympian that surprised itself. There should be more collaboration among these two, and the songs show off Barker’s stylistic versatility. She’s not just singing here; she elevates the captivating music by knowing exactly how to augment it with her approach to adding vocals.
Borscht – Cold Soup
This is an album by the son of famed local musicians Erin Power & Duane Andrews, and it shows signs of a budding genius in that an elementary aged kid is mixing tracks, textures, and tempos in an equally unobvious and cohesive manner, and in a way that’d have a bar hopping just fine with the volume on 10 and the lightshow going. Here’s this year’s kid genius album. The songs even build and breathe and end when and as they should. This is not just, “cute, look, a kid made this!” It’s more like, whoa, someone made an experimental instrumental album and it shows groove and promise. A Rarity.
The Chim Lees – Hon Lee
A catchy, immediately likeable 90’s sound that borrows the best and most charming elements of pop, and, artists like Mike O’Neill or Lou Barlow. No need saying much more beyond this is one of the best RPMs of 2018.
Civil Shepherd – Civil Shepherd
The acoustic singer-songwriter standout of the year comes from a familiar voice under a new moniker. Bryan Power launched his career as Pilot to Bombardier during 2009’s RPM. He’s back here under a new name, sounding quiet but compelling, with a striped down sound that showcases the barebones talent and strength of the songs he writes. He doesn’t need a band to build them up and win you over: the kernels of these songs pop perfectly enough as they are to make this your late winter album for lazy snowdays.
Evelyn Jess – Homemade
Long time RPM-er Evelyn Jess served up a stand-out for her genre this year. Fetching guitar and stacked vocals, all delivered with a lot of self-assurance and the sense this songwriter’s found their stride.
Jam Jam Jam Band – Itty Bitty Kitty Ditties
A great ukulele-driven album of ballads from the “World’s Greatest Cat Dad” to his kitten, Jam Jam. Lyrically, it covers all the trials and triumphs only a human-cat connection endures, as expressed in self-evidently themed songs like “I’ll only love (When I Want To).”
Jeff Foran – It’s For You
Foran combines the catchy grooves of hip hop vocals and proper badass basslines with relatable, unexpected lyrics, and classic, nostalgia-inducing genres. It’s a blend of sounds that offers something for everyone, and a lot to like. Innovative stuff.
Greta Warner – 02-18
Peppy pop bent in a few interesting directions, with witty lyrics and innovative instrumentation. Catchy stuff.
Leon White – Soft Mod
This batch of moody instrumentals is the basis for something more, something epic really, yet it’s perfectly fine on its own as background music for studying, working, chilling out. The wicked licks in the opening track show Leon off as one of the city’s finest guitarists, tracks like “F O U R” and “E I G H T” and “N I N E” show off some diversity in his musical chops, and every track is a testament to his ease with songwriting and playing a variety of instruments.
Medians – Breathing Room
Instrumental ambient music isn’t easy to pull off. You have to lull a listener with atmosphere and music only, no catchy singalongs, no relatable lines of shared woes, just carefully composed sound that connects with us on some primitive auditory spectrum. Breathing Room lays that magic formula down on tape, and impressively, it does so in a minimalistic fashion. Less is more, when less is done right. This is moody, engrossing, trance-inducing fuel for any task at hand.
Old Worm – Old Worm
Plenty of couples have made RPMs together, but none of them created anything like this. Old Worm is a collaboration of the psychotic guitarist from Monsterbator, and Derm Kean & an InCredible Woman (Christian Gagnon) and one of the most innovative songwriters in St. John’s, with a remarkable knack for knowing what to do with the voice as an instrument, Megan Harnum (Scrambled Meggz, Hard Ticket, Thelma & Louise). That knack comes to the fore and makes songs like “Our New home” and “Control Freak” soar. The album sounds as unpredictable, gritty, good, and new-ground-breaking as you’d imagine. It’s bleeds authenticity, potential, and the tapping into of some new sound. They need to keep going with this.
Pet Legs – Cassiopeia
RPM All Stars Pet Legs return in ever finer form with an assured sound in line with Alvvays’ winning forumla for indie pop-rock. The album manages pep even when it’s being quiet. This is evocative, moody music from a duo that’s been making music together long enough that they’re in a groove so great they can bang out an RPM that sounds a year in the making, not a month.
Sad Tax – Ritual Potluck Murder
Sounds like mad genius coming into clear focus. Canning has been RPM-ing for a decade, leaving a trail of innovative albums behind him as he trudges on, but on Ritual Potluck Murder he takes a lot of departures in sound, and they all land well. Even the largest departures in sound, like the crazy catchy, instantly playlistable “I Can’t Stop Thinking of All the Wonderful Possibilities.” A lot of avenues are being explored here, and infusing his tried and true sound with this new creative blood has served up a clear standout RPM of the year. Every song is simply interesting, good, and doing something different than the last. It’s a blast of a listen and quite a goddamn feat of songwriting.