Blue Hawaii:There’s a difference between when something enters your periphery and when you can truly see it. Sight, the enveloping new album from Toronto electronic explorer Brad Weber, aka Pick A Piper, focuses on authentic con- nection. An immersive dream of delirious synth shudders, pulsing beats, eclectic instrumentation and diverse digital dimensions of sound that facilitate presence in listening: turning attention to the real life people and places we care for amidst often the isolating aspects of our daily lives. Sight takes us on a journey of making real con- nections with the people and places. According to Brad, Sight is “a hopeful statement that encourages others to be as selfless as possible... an album about putting yourself second to others and finding solace and optimism in an increasingly fragmented world.”
In a way, Sight is the inverse to Weber’s last release, 2017’s travelogue dancetopia, Distance. Sure, technically that album came together in the producer’s Ontario studio, but spiritually it was forged across years of country-hopping, both as a touring member of Caribou and in his personal time. This time, Weber stayed at home, creating an album that gazes inward rather than outward. Between reading sci-fi novels and watching David At- tenborough documentaries Brad says “I've been connecting more locally, exploring the inner workings of Toron- to, collaborating with new people and finding inspiration in everyday things, all of which has helped me slow things down and look to create vast, sometimes otherworldly soundscapes.”
Adding incentive to stay at home was a new addition to Brad’s home studio that became central to the creation of Sight: his family’s piano, passed down through generations. “There are even chips out of the keys that I made when I was a little kid and ran toy cars over the keys before my mom caught me too late,” he laughs. In contrast to his beat-driven earlier records, Sight saw Weber begin tracks on an acoustic instrument for a change, finding alluring chord progressions he’d later transpose to or surround with analogue keyboard melodies. “I’ve been lis- tening to a lot of older ambient music, like Laraaji, Laurie Spiegel and Suzanne Ciani. Jordan de la Sierra's haunting 1978 solo piano lament ‘Gymnosphere: Song Of The Rose’ was a big inspiration, too.” Those influences combine on what he calls “my album with probably the most acoustic content of anything I've released, but somehow also the most electronic feeling at the same time.”
Brad’s musical tapestries are complimented by cello, violin, harp, sax and alto flute lines from friends, influenced by everything from ‘70s Brazilian folk to ‘80s Bollywood disco to modern cumbia. Stylistically, this album is even more adventurous and unpredictable than fans have come to expect from Weber. While Sight is still filled with collaborations, it is also Pick a Piper’s most solitary album to date. On previous records the band has written their music as a trio led by Brad, alongside his longtime friends Angus Fraser and Daniel Roberts from his home town in Kitchener-Waterloo, this album was written alone at home in Toronto. That being said, the record is cer- tainly not a solo affair. Appearing on two tracks is Mexico City-based musician Mabe Fratti, who Weber “random- ly met on my first trip to Guatemala in 2011. I ended up playing an impromptu gig with her at a bar one night with some jazz guys.” Here, the pair combine in immaculate moments of drifty, pulsing bass beauty, Fratti’s delicate Spanish-language lyrics and vocal lines “completely changing the vibe and making it so much better than it would have been,” chuckles Weber.
Elsewhere on Sight, there are contributions from Kiwi producer Bevan Smith and Toronto vocalist Sophia Alexandra. “Music used to be such a communal effort and now that it's become such a solitary practice,” contin- ues Weber. “I think reaching out to others for perspective is so important. It's easy to completely lose touch with my own art when I've heard it so many times in solitude.” Pick A Piper’s latest creation represents “a hopeful statement that encourages others to be as selfless as possible” to fans. Its sounds range from the contemplative to the celebratory and ceremonious: mystical strings, angelic voices and bubbling melodies unite in an uplifting audio experience meant to evoke movement not just in the bodies but in the minds of those who listen. The al- bum is a dynamic arc of energy – starting and ending gently with a heart-racing, adrenaline-surging middle – lis- tening is meant to be a journey. Sight takes us beyond the trappings of technology, emphasizing earnest, analog essences amidst our hyper-curated modern media-feeds.
Part of Montreal's fertile electronic pop scene in the 2010s, Blue Hawaii is the work of Raphaelle Standell-Preston (also of the dream pop band Braids) and Alex "Agor" Cowan, aka Agor. The pair began working together in early 2010 and, inspired by their travels in Central America, released the Blooming Summer EP on Arbutus Records later that year. Though issues like the success of Braids' Native Speaker and Cowan's stint in Europe meant that the duo couldn't work on their music together in person as much as before, they continued writing songs individually and recorded them in studios across Canada. The result was the sleek, chilly pop of Untogether, which Arbutus issued in February of 2013. For the next few years, Standell-Preston concentrated on Braids and Cowan spent his time DJ'ing in Berlin and Los Angeles. The duo reunited in 2016 and began working on songs that sprang from an online relationship of Standell-Preston's. The results were 2017's Tenderness, which incorporated disco and '90s dance music into the group's impressionistic style. ~ Heather Phares
“I’d like to be as un-mysterious as I possibly can,” Graham Van Pelt says. He’s about to release Time Travel, his first record in the four years since he moved from Montreal to Toronto, and he’s no longer Miracle Fortress, or Inside Touch, or any of the aliases he’s used to record over the years. He’s just Graham Van Pelt.
With the perspective of leaving a longtime home, of watching old friends change and familiar places become unrecognizable, came a recommitment to an emotional honesty in Van Pelt’s songwriting. Time Travel’s eight songs are a tangle of friendships and feelings. Moving backwards and forwards in time, they occupy a space of elegant melancholy.
Immersing himself in the work of house music legends like Larry Heard, Vincent Floyd and Maurizio and the fragile disco of Arthur Russell, along with contemporaries like Jessy Lanza and Kelly Lee Owens, Van Pelt built the album from the bottom up, rooting every track in the crude sequencer of the Roland SH-101 synth, a decades-old dance music totem. The result are melodies that are simple but affecting, anchored to deep, wandering basslines. Time Travels was engineered by twin brothers Mark and Matt Thibideau, whose techno roots deepened the grooves throughout the record.
There’s a comfort to operating in the world of dance music, which is, in Van Pelt’s words, more of a “team sport” than the competitive atmosphere of indie rock. “I feel like one person participating in a community,” he says, “and less of a person trying to rise above.” The album is also Van Pelt’s first release on Arbutus, which he describes as his “dream outcome” for the record. “Their catalog intersects at a place that feels like home to me,” he says. “Music for late night, atmospheric music, really honest and unvarnished truthful stuff that never compromises.”
Time Travel is a renewal of Van Pelt’s vows with dance music, and with the genre’s pulse of synthesized melancholy. It’s a heartrending rush, as emotionally direct as a sweaty, jaw-clenching 3am hug.