Several years ago, Daniel Caesar vagabonded from Oshawa, Ontario, to Toronto, washing dishes and living on friends’ couches while he wrote soulful slow jams. His gospel-steeped debut album, Freudian (independent), changed everything. It won him a Grammy, a spot on Barack Obama’s best-of-the-year playlist, and instant admission into the ranks of R&B royalty. Instead of apartment-hopping, he was suddenly flying from city to city, onto the next tour date or session with Kendrick Lamar.
Labels and producers came calling, eager to make Caesar the next Weeknd with a sleek sophomore album, but he turned them down, opting instead to toil quietly for a couple years and then, unannounced, drop Case Study 01 (independent) this July. It oozes with rebellious verve, stuffed with stubbornly adventurous songwriting instead of shoe-in radio singles. Opener “Entropy” pairs slinky hooks with bristly beats before a ghostly choir melts into a deflated denouement, like a robot losing power. From his first line, Caesar is astonished—“Oh, how can this be? I finally found peace”—but also paranoid that his newfound happiness, both in music and love, won’t last.
If showbiz is about who you know, Caesar’s career should be fine: he trades seductive verses with Brandy on the throwback gem “Love Again,” Pharrell Williams assists on the trappy “Frontal Lobe Muzik,” and John Mayer lends tasteful guitar licks to “Superstition.” The features work, but if the record needs anything, it’s more Caesar. He shrouds his melodies in roomy harmonies and disorienting effects, a decision that leaves you craving a purer dose of the sultry voice that first wooed the world. Still, Case Study 01 is a good omen: Caesar is on the path to becoming a Frank Ocean–calibre iconoclast, not just another pop star climbing the Top 40 charts.
Really Well (Tin Angel), the third album from Halifax-bred indie outfit Mauno, is a two-for-one deal: guitarist Nick Everett and bassist Eliza Niemi trade vocal duties, infusing the eccentric effort with split-personality spunk. Niemi lends her airy staccato to quirkier tracks like “Take Care,” while Everett helms irrepressible rockers like “Notice,” a fed-up lover’s final stand that ends in a jubilant chant of “No, fuck you.” No matter who’s singing, the songs are unpredictable—they speed up, slow down and explode into distortion without warning—and the default tone is self-deprecating: Niemi seems eternally certain her life is about to fall apart, while Everett devotes a line of standout track “Half It” to criticizing his own guitar solo. In reality, his inventive guitar work is one of Really Well ’s selling points. On the back-half stunner “20 Times,” he layers shimmering arpeggios over discordant plucking to create a glorious single-instrument orchestra.
Ben Cook is a musical chameleon. A staple of the Canadian hardcore scene, he could be screaming war cries in the Polaris Prize-winning punk band Fucked Up one day, then ghostwriting pop songs for Taylor Swift the next. On GUV I (Run For Cover), his third record under the name Young Guv, he tries something else entirely: jangling, joyful power pop that would have hijacked 1990s college-radio airwaves. The off-the-walls opener “Patterns Prevail” could be a lost Sloan single, while “Roll With Me” sounds like an Elliott Smith song played at double speed. Cook sounds forlorn (“You’re out of work and broke / Life’s the biggest joke”), but ethereal backups and lo-fi guitars keep the eight songs bright and tight—the whole thing clocks in at twenty-two minutes. You can take Cook out of a punk band, you can’t take the punk out of Cook.
In Case You Missed It: Geneva Freeport (Idée Fixe), the new EP from psychedelic Toronto trio Absolutely Free, takes its name from a Swiss storehouse where the ultra-rich stash priceless art tax-free. It’s an appropriately esoteric title for the high-minded three-song trip, which sounds like it was beamed to earth from a far-off planet. The philosophical title track opens with whooshing synths and pulsing percussion, a cosmic soundscape worthy of a sci-fi flick. The disco-indebted “Currency” crackles with shuffling snares, a metronomic bass groove and Robyn-esque vocals from the band’s indie contemporary, U.S. Girls’ Meg Remy. But Absolutely Free saves the most otherworldly track for last: “The Endless Scroll,” a ten-minute jam that combines cascading keyboard solos and tweaked-out organs into a jazzy prog-pop epic.