The RPM Challenge is an annual, international challenge to record an album of original music in the month of February. It all started in a town called Portsmouth in New Hampshire, where a small newspaper put the challenge to its readers: Record 10 tracks or 35 minutes of original music in February, just because you can. Eventually they opened the challenge to the rest of the world.
Here at The Scope, we knew Newfoundland would be a great place for it. Music is a huge part of who we are, and half the time we’re snowed in our houses in February anyway, so why not? What better way to deal with cabin fever than to have a project to focus on? Why not get a few friends together to jam? Why not record those songs you’ve been writing since you were 12? Why not take that tuba out of the closet?
So we put the RPM Challenge to our readers.
The first year we received 22 albums, which is a lot of albums.
This year, 139 albums from Newfoundland were submitted. ONE HUNDRED AND THIRTY-NINE. Made by more than 230 artists.
Aside from the Portsmouth area, we are the one other place on the planet that produces more RPM Challenge albums than anywhere else. Us. St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador.
So what the heck is happening? We don’t know. But keep it up, please. We love this time of year now.
Because there’s no way we can tell you about all of the albums, or even all of our favourites, we asked RPMers Ariel Sharratt (T-42), Damian Lethbridge (AM/FM Dreams), Mathias Kom, and Patrick Canning (Sad Tax) to review five albums each that stood out for them.
To hear more of the music, come to our listening parties at The Ship and Post Espresso on April 12.
Cara Lee Coleman
Local singer/songwriter Cara Coleman had no intention of recording an RPM album this year. Then the unexpected happened. “I broke up my knee while skiing and I couldn’t do much else but sit around at the computer,” she says. “So I decided six days before the deadline to give it a go.” Cara’s 2012 RPM The Warp finds her exploring musical territory outside of her regular indie rock niche. Songs like “Elastic Oranges” and “Mutiny” are synth-driven dance jams that sound like Madonna meets Luscious Jackson. Elsewhere on the album Cara’s indie rock roots peek through on “Try, Try,” “Merida” and the Tracy Bonham-esque “White Dog.” There are also some surprises on the album, such as the Latin-flavored salsa of “Fighter In The Sky” and the faux-hillbilly banjo stomp of “Hoe Down”. The Warp is a beautiful example of how the creative process itself can be enough inspiration to create some amazing music. DL
Titties, Ditties & Tea
Many songwriters would shy away from opening a song with a line like “I’ve got ovulation running down my leg / come on old man, it’s time for a peg.” But Cara WH has no fear. Cara WH knows that sometimes you have to tell it like it is. Recorded
partly entirely at The Scope’s recording space, Titties, Ditties & Tea is an album of gently strummed acoustic guitar and whispery vocals singing lyrics that are equal parts clever and filthy, and frequently hilarious. Tracks like “Dirty Uncle Pictor,” “Deaner DUI” and “Joe Batt’s Arm Tarts” tell stories about the kind of characters we’ve all probably run into, while others, like the strange and stellar “Fitting Out,” paint vivid and somehow disturbing portraits of life a little rough around the edges. And then, of course, there is “Boobs A Lotment,” a breast-positive anthem in which Cara reminds us that “Oh my sisters, oh my brothers, we all love a set of udders / and we can all thank our mothers, and the mothers of one another.” Not for the faint of heart, this is a record that never apologizes for telling the truth. MK
The Confidence Club
Two RPM brand-newcomers, Aine MacLellan and Annie McEwen, have delivered a knockout debut album in What Listhp? Super-charming songs like “Barnacle Blues” and “I’m In Love” are sweet in the very best way, and rub shoulders with beautiful, lushly-harmonized folk ballads like “Apple Core” and “There Are Men Out There.” The whole album showcases strong songwriting and the considerable skills of producer/backup vocalist Rebecca South of The Drows (who also put out another stellar RPM album this year). McEwen and MacLellan clearly have a natural musical rapport, but each shines as a songwriter in her own way; McEwen’s contributions are often melancholy and gorgeously atmospheric, while MacLellan’s concise pop songs have a deceptive simplicity that draw you in immediately, and are only made even sweeter by her trademark lisp (for which the album is named). This is a great record, and the women behind The Confidence Club should feel supremely confident about making more—hopefully soon. MK
For Danger Booger, RPM 2012 was a great excuse for some fun family bonding. The group consists of a father, Danger D, and his seven-year-old son, Danger P. “Shortly before February, my son started coming up with ideas for songs which I would jot down, and then come up with music to go along with his lyrics,” says Danger D. Danger P’s comically creative imaginings and observations make for some great song material. On “Peanuts, Who Wants Them?” Danger D bashes out a hyperactive White Stripes groove while Danger P laments the undesirable nature of this complicated snack with all the angst a seven-year-old rocker can muster. “Pigs in Blankets” features Danger P repeatedly shouting “Pigs in Blankets! Monkeys eat their poop!” while “Dump Gulls” deals with his mom’s irrational fear of seagulls flying through the window and biting her face. “It was a lot of fun and we’ll definitely be doing it again next year,” says Danger D. DL
Electric & The Purple Bunnies
Electric & The Purple Bunnies
When kids make music, people have a tendency to talk about how ‘cute’ it is. Kids are frequently capable of doing and saying cute things, so this is understandable to an extent. But what really makes music made by kids great is not its cuteness—rather it’s the sense of freedom and unfettered creativity that usually comes with it. That kind of freedom abounds on Electric & the Purple Bunnies, an RPM album by Simon Greeley-Noble (age 12) and Mya Greeley-Driedzic (age 6), with a bit of help from adults Elayne Greeley and Chris Driedzic. There is cuteness here, of course: it’s hard not to smile at “Broccoli, Noodles and Cheese.” But there is also surrealism and atmosphere (“Beautiful Angels” and “The Rain and the Wind”), anger (“Why?”), and even total fearlessness, like on the drums & vocals punk jam “The Rock & Roll Scene.” This record also proves the important point that when music is fun to make, it’s usually also fun to listen to, and it sounds like a heck of a lot of fun was had here. Adults can learn a thing or two from Electric & the Purple Bunnies: let down your guard! Destroy your self-editing filter! Make music! Broccoli is awesome! MK
Although Marie-Claire Finlay-Brook and Chloe Edbrooke are still many decades away from granny status, they can relate to certain aspects of Nan sub-culture. “We can be spotted walking together through the grocery store, travelling at 0.0001 km/hour, wearing orthopedic shoes” says Chloe. “We rap about what we know best: tea, grocery shopping, Princess Diana, mittens and being totally badass.” Desperate Rhymes features ten hilarious raps backed by some old school keyboard beat tracks and some classic nan-isms. As one would expect, there are references to Coronation Street, water dance aerobics, crumpets and tea, along with side-splitting rhymes like, “Knit some speedos for the team on their first swim meet. Knit some bloomers for the frozen tushies on George Street.” The Electric Nanz are making it safe for closet knitters to walk the streets again while simultaneously bringin’ Tetley back. DL
Jack E Tar
More Over Modular
A three-year RPM veteran, Jack E Tar continues to refine his prickly craft to an almost divine degree. As you could probably judge by the name, Jack E Tar is not one to shy away from making something confrontational or abrasive, and his album is a study in finely-tweaked gritty textures and greasy, greasy, grimy licks. There is a residue on these tracks that clings to you like a wife-beater undershirt. Every claustrophobic clusterf*#k minute of this expertly sequenced album engages as much as it disquiets the listener, and JETs languorous vocal harmonies emerging out of the mushy industrial haze feel like a siren’s call before the ship you’re on crashes head first into the eight-minute tidal wave of pure glitched-out cacophony that ends the album. Another triumph. PC
Jake Nicoll’s last RPM, Wild Machines, was a Chad Van Gaalen-esque pop gem that got a lot of well-deserved recognition. Heat Lamp, one of two new albums Jake recorded for this year’s challenge, is less synthy, less poppy and a whole lot less wordy, but still well-deserving of recognition. Mostly piano, percussion and ambient vocals, this album is, quite simply, beautiful. Nicoll has created a soundtrack to your dream where you’re sailing on an airship with friendly ghosts, at least until “Dark Bills” where the airship seems to be moored over some kind of desolate, volcanic Island. RPM should be an annually anticipated event if only for Jake’s immensely creative and skilled contributions to the local recording canon that keep getting churned out of his bedroom recording studio. AS
Strange Familiar Home
A rich collection of energetic and ingenious pop confections with intricate melodies and thoughtful arrangements, Knoah Bender demonstrates a songwriting maturity well beyond his years. The songs have a wry humor and just bristle with ideas and wonderful little melodic tangents and break downs. Strange Familiar Home finds the right level of lo-fi crust and clarity, with a pleasant warm fuzz and rich reverb layered on throughout. The album reaches its peak with the song “Nearing Ends” with its rich harmonies floating over a bed of cascading string workouts and steady muffled kick drum metronome. Overall, there isn’t a weak track on the disc. Knoah’s entirely convivial personality and warm voice is inviting and engaging in same measure while the songs find a rich vein between a fairly traditional melodic folk sensibility and a totally contemporary one. This is an exciting new artist. PC
F*** the Government
10 songs. Average of 30 seconds each. Snotty. Aggressive. Exactly what you want punk music to be. AS
Leslie Amminson & Esmee Gilbert
Late Night Hibernations
Being a teenage girl is hard business, and it doesn’t really end at adulthood. We’re all still holed up late at night thinking about what the hell we’re doing and where we’re going and change and stagnancy and the futility of it all. Lots of albums have been written out of those moments but very, very few have the honesty or intimacy that Leslie and Esmee are able to muster on Late Night Hibernations. Recording choices like audible turning pages and coughs lend the album a powerful, and disarmingly honest, intimacy. Listening to this album is like hanging out with two young, but wise, friends as you talk about the meaning of life and the prison-industrial complex. Two friends with very lovely voices. AS
Nik & Warren
Nik Hayward and Warren Pollard are two young lads from CBS who have recorded a brilliant RPM 2012 debut. Their music is self-described as “upbeat indie-ish rock” reminiscent of late 80’s/early 90’s fringe rockers Sonic Youth, Pavement and Yo La Tengo. Their songs feature exuberant drum bashing, bright guitars, melodic leads, chugging bass and vocals that fall somewhere between Stephen Malkmus and Shotgun Jimmie. The duo deliver track after track of indie rock bliss that will disarm and charm even the most jaded of listeners. Their high energy fuzz-pop is guaranteed to get your toes tapping, your head bopping, and leave you with a smile on your face. Nik & Warren have a knack for writing catchy, inventive indie rock and, with a good band name and maybe a bassist for live shows they have the potential to make some serious waves on the local scene. DL
Peter Rompkey RPM 2012
In the classic 1988 film They Live, wrestler/actor “Rowdy” Roddy Piper must expose a secret world-domination plot hatched by aliens that—to most people—look just like you and me. I was reminded of this while listening to Peter Rompkey’s excellent RPM album, since discovering just how many talented songwriters and musicians are hiding out there behind their everyday-people masks is one of the thrills of the RPM Challenge. Peter’s record is packed with lo-fi guitar-driven songs with tasteful guest appearances by Ian Cornelissen, David Jackson, Dennis Keough and Ottawa’s Jim Bryson, and it all recalls the best parts of Pavement and everything that was good about good music in the 90s. But this is way more than a nostalgia trip—these are songs we need to be listening to right now. Check out fuzzy pop gems like “Taleride” and “Heart Attack Kid” or moody instrumentals “Modern Spirits” and “Air & Organ,” and then join me in trying to convince Peter Rompkey to start playing shows, already. MK
Pilot to Bombardier
Seasides and Rarities
This is the third year Pilot to Bombardier has participated in the RPM challenge and while his albums are always strong, this year’s is his strongest and most emotive, by far. Bryan Power has a rare gift: the ability to write for your own voice. Most singer/songwriters spend years writing songs for the voice they either wish they had or the voice they think they have but don’t, but Power seemed to emerge on the scene with a voice and sound fully established as his and his alone. The album is a slow-burning late night snuggle soundtrack with a masterfully recorded, rich, resonant sound. An arresting and beautiful study in simplicity and understated romance. PC
A lot of hip hop albums were cast into the vast sea of RPM albums this year, and a lot of them were very good. It’s fun to rap. It’s fun to hear people rap. But it’s especially fun to hear Pinwermz rap because they’re really, really good at it. This album is crazy hooky, with awesome horn samples, beats that I can only describe as “phat,” and tons of references to Beverly Hills 90210, NTV, Star Wars and seal clubbing. Pinwermz is a killer pastiche of pop culture (both local and more broadly), and sounds wickedly produced—like if Girl Talk and Salt n’ Pepa got together for some sassy po-mo jam time. Don’t miss potty-mouthed, soul-tinged “Straightman” or the killer horn sample on “The Anthem”, which everyone should go to the Listening Party to dance to. AS
Let’s Go Get Lost
A quick lo-fi delight. Scrambled Meggz (aka Meghan Harnum) has put together a small horde of sharply written ditties about drinking and lost love that come alive with her delightfully appealing vocals and simple harmonies. Lyric-wise, she has a great handle on both the evocative, and the poetic, as heard on songs like “Alone with the Alone,” and the straight forward side, with songs like “Drinking the Demons Away.” The album is a simple lo-fi guitar and vocal affair with well placed surprise moments where things like musical saws and accordions slip into the mix. Megan really excels at the type of vocal performance that is at once restrained and highly emotional. The way she cooly delivers a line like, “You should learn a bartender is not a friend” is dry and detached, but drips with the weariness and remorse that only comes with certain experiences. PC
Stanley and the Befrienders
In Breakfast at Tiffany’s, the original manic pixie dream girl, Audrey Hepburn, plays “Moon River” while sitting on her fire escape. If she was sitting on her fire escape today maybe she’d play “In the Night”, the first track off of the Stanley and the Befrienders record. Like Beirut, if you could make out the words, and sometimes even bordering on shades of Jonathan Richman, this is a lovely record that deserves your attention. These ukulele-jams have a mid-century appeal to them; many sound like classics on first listen. AS
Passing is a marvelously well-realized album with a rich and diverse auditory palette of sounds. The songs progress in a deliberate and steady manner with a thick hypnotic and hallucinatory atmosphere. The album has a pronounced cinematic feel and scale to it: layers upon layers of guitars glisten and stutter against each other while the sequenced drums skitter and pan across your cranium. It’s a contemplative album but definitely not too ponderous or mired in ambient zone-outs as to make it tiring. The album is about 70% instrumental but when you get to the last song and the singer breaks out into a full-throated bellow, the force and strength of his voice hit you like a carjacker, and it makes you wonder why they spent so much time avoiding it (or burying it) throughout the disc. The album establishes a mood early on and does a great job holding on to and elaborating on it, it’s an engrossing and rewarding experience front to back. PC
Little Jokes and False Alarms
Considering he’s participated every year since 2008, Thom Coombes knows a thing or two about the RPM Challenge. And on Little Jokes and False Alarms, one thing he seems to know very well is that in RPM, there are no rules. In this case, for example, it’s totally OK to have an album that starts with lo-fi, lyrical folk-rock songs, then delves straight into seven instrumental guitar tracks in a row before going back to the wordy stuff. In some ways there really are two albums here. On the instrumentals, Coombes is a skillful picker with a casual style, an ear for a tune and a penchant for winding up to double-time before closing slowly again (the moody “A Trip To The Tablelands” is a great example). But no matter how fast those fingers go, it’s Thom’s lyrics and crackly, comfortable voice that are the standout features here. Take a listen to the killer tune “Having Nowhere Else To Go Is Not A Reason To Stay” or the gentle, beautiful title track to see what I mean. Coombes does it again! MK
It Still Wonders Me
Victor Lewis is one of the most prolific and consistently amazing music makers in Newfoundland. His albums never fail to impress and It Still Wonders Me is no exception. The album features spirited indie rock, in the vein of Vic’s bands Casual Male and Kujo, fused with hints of 70’s glam, blues and even a little disco. Vic pays tribute to some of his favorite people on the album. “Doctor Chin” is a hilarious ode to the family doctor who’s always there to get you out of a jam but not without a little grief, “Bobby’s Kids” is a nod to indie rock god-father Robert Pollard of Guided by Voices, and “Bay Girl Deluxe” pays homage to girls who know their way around a boat and a jiggin’ line. It Still Wonders Me is another giant of an album amongst the tall trees that make up the Victor Lewis discography. DL