December 1, 2020

Dope Albums

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Badge Époque Ensemble: Self Help

On their 2019 debut album, Toronto’s Badge Époque Ensemble named one of their instrumentals “You Can Build a Palace, or You Can Please People”—a title that speaks to the ever-fraught tension between capitalism and socialism in the current geopolitical landscape, but also to the aesthetic tug-of-war playing out within the band itself. Founded by Max Turnbull —the avant-rock chameleon formerly known as Slim Twig, and the creative and matrimonial partner of U.S. Girls’ Meg Remy—Badge Époque Ensemble was originally an outlet for him and his fellow Toronto DIY veterans to indulge their love of acid rock, funk, jazz, prog, and other early-’70s record-collector subgenres. At the same time, they’ve shown themselves to be, if not pop-friendly, then at least pop-conscious, whether packing complex compositions into tidy four-minute packages or using classic-rock touchstones as a jumping-off point into the great beyond.

But on their third release in just over a year, Badge Époque Ensemble refuse to choose between free-form psychedelic explorations and pop pleasures. With Self Help, they prove they can have it both ways, by allowing their experimental and melodic tendencies to work more in tandem rather than in opposition. Each of the group’s previous records has featured a vocal cameo, but here they’ve assembled a veritable Toronto dream team of lead singers that includes Remy and indie-folk enigma Jennifer Castle alongside returning collaborators Dorothea Paas and James Baley (who also delivered the disco-tinged hook on U.S. Girls’ 2018 single “Pearly Gates”).

Collectively, their presence transforms Badge Époque Ensemble from the sort of group that would’ve gotten played on an overnight pirate-radio broadcast in 1971 to one that could’ve conceivably snuck onto an AM station’s Top 40 countdown. And with the singers in tow, Badge Époque tap into the spiritual uplift and righteous activism coursing through popular music at the time. “Sing a Silent Gospel” is a gorgeous swirl of Fender Rhodes chords, Ethio-jazz sax melodies, and conga fury that’s anchored by Remy and Paas’ alternating vocals. And when the song transitions into an elaborate instrumental passage halfway through, it doesn’t so much drift away from its sturdy melodic foundation as fortify it, with the band eventually locking into a climactic circular progression that acquires cyclonic force. Baley’s street-soul empowerment anthem “Unity (It’s Up to You)” slides even more fluidly between formalism and freedom, with guitarist Chris Bezant intuitively using the singer’s extended high note as a launchpad into a wah-wahed solo as if he were finishing his sentence.

But where these songs feel like extensions of Badge Époque Ensemble’s sound, centerpiece track “Just Space for Light” is the kind of move that would’ve been hard to imagine this band attempting a year ago. Guided by Alia O’Brien’s elegant flute lines, the song begins as a windchimed, candlelit quiet-storm stunner, with Castle seizing the spotlight as if she were performing on a primetime awards-show telecast. And while the song’s sudden shift into an acid-funk groove feels jarring at first, Castle retains her calming presence throughout, guiding you safely through its twists and turns.

Despite the focus on melody, Self Help still affords Badge Époque Ensemble plenty of space to stretch out and freak out. The 10-minute “Birds Fly Through Ancient Ruins” is a creeping exercise in desert-scorched dub that turns downright apocalyptic near its climax, as if the landscape were being covered in ice. In response, the closing instrumental “Extinct Commune” triggers the slow thaw. As a solo-piano showcase for Turnbull, the track is Self Help’s extreme outlier, landing somewhere between an early-‘70s Elton John demo and after-hours jazz-bar improvisation. Yet in its own subtle way, it soundly reaffirms the album’s mission, blurring the line between pop classicism and free exploration until they’re one and the same.


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