Rock & Roll Report Card

A 84% Laura Barrett Earth Sciences Paperbag Records
A 84% Laura Barrett Earth Sciences Paperbag Records
A 87% Matthew Barber Ghost Notes Outside Music
A 87% Matthew Barber Ghost Notes Outside Music

Science fiction has never been so raw and down to earth. When not playing for The Hidden Cameras or working on Maggie McDonald’s musical The Rat King at the NYC Fringe Festival, Laura Barrett is busy exploring new frontiers, arming herself with the kalimba, an African thumb piano.

The result has been the endearing musical experiment Earth Sciences, which could belong at a science fair with its apocalyptic music-box sound. Originally self-produced and packaged in a handmade, hand-sewn case, the EP was picked up by Toronto’s Paper Bag Records this year. Though the physical feel is no longer as personal, the songs remain as flabbergastingly sweet as ever.

Barrett weaves simple yet dissonant melodies with messages about tradition and technology into a sort of dreamy though slightly monotonous soundscape. The first track, Robot Ponies, is a futurist tale set on Christmas Eve 2053 that sees the humour and danger in artificial intelligence (“these robot ponies do it all they fucking love it all / they’ll tuck you in at night / and sing to you ‘you know best’”).

Sci-fi-inspired rock too often comes across as gimmicky and while Barrett never shies away from irony and ridiculousness in her work—exhibit A: a song entitled “Stop Giving Your Children Standardized Tests Part One”—she still comes across as sincere by way of her swooping voice and surreal lyrics that eerily touch upon a not-so-distant future reality.

Barrett’s vocals bounce gracefully and nonchalantly over the plink-plunk chime of her kalimba. Oddly enough, Barrett is most heartfelt and vulnerable in her truly postmodern cover of Weird Al’s “Smells Like Nirvana” as her kalimba and voice ring out in a sort of desperate melancholy that recalls Cobain’s original version instead of the satire.

This eccentric disc, though beautiful in its intimate and intelligent sparseness, does leave the listener with an ache of wonder as to how Barrett could perhaps expand her instrumental and lyrical experimentation—just because she’s already demonstrated that she’s got the brains and guts to take her work to new, unexplored places.

—Adèle Barclay

Matthew Barber has a voice like a lap you’d like to climb into. Managing to balance calm and loving with upbeat and catchy, his disc Ghost Notes is music to guide you through a rainy afternoon or keep you boppin’ down the sidewalk.

Barber’s album is as much about the ghosts of old relationships as it is about the one in front of you, whether with yourself—as in “I’m Gonna Settle My Accounts With You”—or with the person you find yourself desperately in love with.

In the second verse of “And You Give” Barber sings “Then came fall and baby we fell hard / Bruised our bodies, skinned our knees and our hearts” without a shred of irony. That kind of honesty and self-exposure is what makes Barber’s lyrics feel like a poetic shelter. You can feel at home with him because his sentiments are layered and still simple: you’ve been where he has been.

Barber puts himself, and the self he is singing to, into every song, whether it be about having a conversation with yourself in the mirror or about not being able to sleep, as in the light-hearted anti-lullaby “Sleep Please Come to Me.”

Singing along with Barber as he rhymes “Oh sleep don’t close the door / It’s twenty after four / It’s time these sheep were shorn / Their wool is getting worn / I can’t count them anymore,” you can feel the
impatience but also the amusement that lurks behind an unplanned all-nighter.

At just under the 40-minute mark, Barber’s disc is short and sweet, filled with emotions you can revisit in the safety and comfort of his voice, and then put away for later—for the next time you need to spend some time with someone who knows you.

—Angela Hickman

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