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Review: Language Arts - Wonderkind

Language-Arts - 5

Language Arts @ Tranzac - May 25, 2012

A lot has happened since my last write-up of Language Arts in March of 2010.  At the time, Kristen Cudmore still lived in Vancouver and had only played in Toronto a handful of times.  Since then, Cudmore has moved to Toronto and has gone through some challenging experiences in those years of transition.  Musically, this is reflected in parts of her new album, Wonderkind, which I was lucky to preview during a set at the Silver Dollar this past September.  There was initially some talk of the album being officially released the following November, but the release show has since been pushed to April 10 at the Horseshoe Tavern.

The basic sound of Language Arts has undergone a radical transformation since their last full-length album, Where Were You in the Wild (2009).  This is something I expected as I have seen Cudmore perform live a half-dozen times during the intervening years, but fans of Language Arts who are only familiar with the band through their albums will find the shift momentous.  Some of this transformation—in particular, the complex background layering—may be due to her recent signing with MapleMusic (whose other notable artists include Lisa Hannigan, Okkervil River, Radiohead and Sea Wolf).  However, the more substantive changes were certainly Cudmore’s in origin as her shift became evident soon-after she relocated to Toronto.

In Wonderkind, Cudmore has moved away from her signature single note complex acoustic guitar work (she’s a trained classical guitarist), to a heavier reliance on electric guitars.  That being said, Cudmore doesn’t gorge on chords as a majority of electric guitarists do.  The guitar work remains intricate and subtle—overall Language Arts hasn’t lost anything in the shift to electric.  If anything, the metallic element in the electric guitar work has been a crucial compliment to the increasingly synthetic elements of the compositions.

I realise that I’ve been referring to Language Arts as being synonymous with Kristen Cudmore alone, and that is mainly due to the fact that in the last three years I’ve seen her playing solo more often than not, experimenting with the new sound that has ultimately come to fruition in her latest album.  In those solo performances, I witnessed some astoundingly good loop pedal work, which is saying something as I follow the great looping bands such as Le Loup and Bazarian.  And luckily, Wonderkind has incorporated some limited looping in the later tracks of the album—most notably in Illusion, Old Familiar, and in When I Leave this Town.

I will confess that, with the exception of the track bearing the name of the album, I thought that the album only hits its brilliant stride mid-way through.  There is nothing wrong per se with the initial tracks, but I found them harder to penetrate.  For example, the melody in More Than Amazing kept shifting, making it difficult to get a sense of melodic continuity.  I also found that the crescendo at the end of the track was somewhat excessive; the sort of volume + lots of instruments + controlled chaos = passion, sort of equation that Arcade Fire and many indie rockers have been criticised for adopting.

Language Arts - 9

Language Arts @ NXNE - June 17, 2011

In the opposite vein, 5 W’s seemed to suffer from another affliction; the song hits hard from the start but then shifts into excessively ethereal territory which makes it difficult to grasp a tangible presence.  As a result, the song ends up sounding like a tribute to Stereolab more than coming through as an original piece.  What if it Were to Be Reworked is definitely more interesting and squarely original, but I also found that the song didn’t resonate as much as the later tracks.

That being said, these are truly relative criticisms contrasting the weaker tracks at the start of the album to superb tracks in the second half.  Overall, this is an album you can play from start to finish without ceasing to be stimulated.

My favourite track is Building a Mountain with Our Bare Hands which is a bit of a surprise as it is highly reminiscent of the signature track of Where Were You in the Wild? which was not my favourite song in that particular album.  This is definitely the most melodic track and Cudmore almost-exclusively sings instead of spitting out her signature pixie rap.  The song also builds some interesting peaks and valleys which are strongly contrasted but nevertheless maintain a powerful musical structure.

Wonderkind, the exceptional third track of the album, comes in at a close second.  It’s worth sporting a decent pair of headphones for this track, otherwise you’ll miss the wonderful metallic feel in the initial vocals and the utterly inspired compositional complexity between the guitar work, strings and vox—not a single element of the instrumentation feels superfluous.  It’s ultimately very difficult to put your finger on a linear melody but the song stills feels incredibly unified and complete. I also love the way the song constantly pushes you to the brink, and then slowly pulls you back. Most notably, unlike my earlier criticism of More Than Anything, the finishing crescendo, howling and all, really works precisely because every single instrument feels integral throughout the entire piece.

The next song that really stands out is When I Leave This Town—the concluding track for the album.  This song feels like two separate tracks, notably when the electric elements are sporatically dropped and Cudmore shifts back to her signature acoustic guitar work only to once again click back with a solid electric spark.  Most importantly, those transitions are masterfully bridged such that the piece always remains melodically cohesive.  And, notwithstanding the complex layering in the guitar work, this is one of the songs which Cudmore most effectively delivered in her solo ventures due to her mastery of the loop pedal.  The looping on this song and in Illusion is truly inspired—I would highly recommend that you see her perform the extended versions of her looping during a live performance.

Overall, this is a solid album from start to finish.  I had the privilege of being slowly introduced to these tracks during the extended hiatus between this and the last album and I’ve come to enjoy every single one in live performances and beyond.  Cudmore is yet another awesome imported treasure who adds to the unique musical flavour of the city.  Welcome home.

The Wonderkind Album Release is on April 10, 2014 @ The Horseshoe Tavern

Language Arts - 2

Language Arts @ The Silver Dollar on January 25, 2014