Label Me: (weewerk)

(Written for ffwdweekly.com)

Though the potential sources of new music are multiplying every day, few have managed to top the old-fashioned record label for pure reliability. These independent labels put their time, energy and creative financing into artists that the world should hear, and if you find yourself agreeing with them, there’s no better pipeline for exposure to unknown artists. Still, discovering a new favourite label among the hundreds competing for your attention is no small task, which is where Label Me aims to help.

(weewerk)

Now approaching its eighth anniversary, Toronto’s (weewerk) wasted little time establishing itself as an admirable purveyor of progressively minded folk, roots and indie pop. Its first release was the self-titled debut from the now much-beloved Great Lake Swimmers; its third was from future Polaris shortlisters Elliot Brood. The 30-plus releases that have followed maintain the consistently high standards of label founders Phil Klygo and Germaine Koh. And while it’d be unfair to claim that the (weewerk) roster shares a specific sound, certain threads run through all of them — specifically, you’re bound to find offbeat lyrics, well-developed melodies and a fondness for the traditional side of the North American songbook, even if the results range from moody melancholy to irresistible quirk.

Where to start: It feels a bit like cheating to recommend it, but the 2008 compilation CD (weewerk) is 6! makes for an ideal introduction, spotlighting label regulars along with a few artists who’ve only popped up on EPs over the years. The tracks aren’t always entirely representative of the artists’ general output — the squalls of feedback that open the Great Lake Swimmers’ contribution are a departure for the mournful folkies — but there’s no faster way to familiarize yourself with the stomp of The United Steelworkers of Montreal, the juke-joint twang of Canteen Knockout and the junk-based indie rock of Fembots.

From there, it’s easy to cut a swath through (weewerk)’s alt.country stable. Vancouver quartet Ox has released a pair of albums on the label, American Lo Fi and Burnout, both of which reached the Top 10 on Canada’s college radio charts. Jon-Rae Fletcher of Toronto rock ’n’ soul revue Jon-Rae & The River abandoned some of that band’s fury for his more introspective debut, Oh, Maria, but it’s as emotionally honest and downright powerful an album as any of his more rollicking output. The United Steelworkers of Montreal, meanwhile, add some much-needed energy to a label that often leans towards the sombre.

Digging deeper: (weewerk) built its name on solidly crafted folk and roots, but its oddball output is what entrenched it in the top tier of Canadian labels — and it doesn’t get much quirkier than Guelph, Ontario’s Barmitzvah Brothers. The band’s most recent disc, 2007’s Let’s Express Our Motives, was a lighthearted examination of underappreciated careers, from “Library Page” through “Technical Coordinator,” with stops at “Bookbinder,” “Rodeo Clown” and, yes, even “Barmitzvah Brother” along the way. Though the band’s penchant for punchlines and thrift-store instrumentation skirts the edges of novelty, none of the songs are simple jokes — songwriters Jenny Mitchell and Geordie Gordon have actually created a collection of touching, insightful postcard stories and fully realized character sketches.

Mathias Korn, who performs as The Burning Hell, is another of (weewerk)’s finest. Armed with a ukulele, a wry baritone and a rotating army of background musicians, Korn puts an absurdist spin on singer-songwriter fare, crafting upbeat ditties about everything from historical conferences to prenatal life. Again, the lyrics and arrangements can flirt with preciousness, but they’re laced with enough morbid humour and genuine insight that they fall closer to The Magnetic Fields than your average too-clever-by-half tunesmith.

Further listening: Suitably enough, (weewerk) is still a relatively small label, with just 16 artists on its roster, which makes it simple enough to work your way through the lineup at weewerk.com. If you’re looking to get up close and personal with the label’s line-up, though, you’ll have a chance at this year’s Calgary Folk Music Festival, which features the triple-bill of Ox, The United Steelworkers of Montreal and The Burning Hell. Oh, and be sure to check out a free (weewerk) sampler right here.

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