Published Jul 03, 2020In a review of the 2015 album Some Kind of Family, Exclaim! called Winnipeg group Les Jupes "Canada's next great band." A week later, they broke up. (Probably not our fault.) In the five years since then, lead singer Michael Falk has kept occupied with other musical projects, among them producing the TD Winnipeg International Jazz Festival. Meanwhile, he was slowly and privately working on new material that has finally materialized under dire circumstances.
The debut album by Falk's new project Touching comes intentionally during the time of the coronavirus. Recognizing the suddenly hyper-relevant themes of these songs, Falk fast-tracked their completion and released them in weekly video instalments — in collaboration with cinematographer Tyler Funk and actor Ali Tataryn — beginning just after the COVID-19 pandemic first took hold in Canada. (Falk has also donated half of the proceeds to the Unison Benevolent Fund to help other musicians. "It would feel weird to show up in the world again without also trying to help out peers who have lost so much," he said.)
As you'd expect, Isolation Blues revolves around feelings of anxiety, loneliness and darkness. "My world is on its knees," Falk sings in "Hold On," an apocalyptic-sounding song released as the world reels from catastrophe. There's also "The Darkness," which contains verses that remark upon the difficulties of identifying and treating the causes of illness. The tracklist itself reads as a greatest hits of pandemic moods. No wonder Falk felt that a global lockdown was as good of a time as any to put this album out into the world.
Back in the day, Les Jupes drew comparisons to the National, thanks to Falk's resonant baritone sounding a lot like Matt Berninger and the band's expressive indie-rock being shaped by Trouble Will Find Me producer Marcus Paquin. The similarities remain with some of these Touching songs, namely "Oh General," but there's more to it than that. Isolation Blues dials down the rock and injects synth-heavy elements that are reminiscent of the new wave electronics of Depeche Mode, the moody slowcore of Red House Painters, the heartland shoegaze of Wild Pink and the hushed pulse of Dan Mangan's More or Less. Falk's deep voice is inherently sombre, but there's also something comforting about its clarity. Surrounded by a saturated backdrop of synths and analog sounds, his voice is crystal clear and his enunciation deliberately precise, every word in total focus.
"Let Me Be Lonely With You" immediately channels Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds in its cadence and delivery, but soon settles into an '80s ballad more akin to Tears for Fears or Spandau Ballet. There's also the emotive indie rock of "Better Off Alone," the bouncy electro-bop of "Born Lucky," the swirling synth-rock of "No Easy Way Out," and the lilting summer sounds of "All My Worries." "Listen" is a sparse but warm soliloquy about letting go of anxieties and finding inner peace, followed immediately by "My Generation Knows," an unusually rambunctious rocker with squelching electric guitars and fast, breathless delivery. It doesn't always make perfect sense on paper, but Falk has a firm enough grasp on his intended mood and theme that he can make these ideas work together most of the time.
Isolation Blues is a sometimes gloomy but often uplifting listen; it feels a lot like going through a hard time while knowing that there are others out there who are feeling the same way. (Head in the Sand)