Canadian singer-songwriter Alex Southey is a thoughtful and talented artist who makes some really outstanding music. Originally from Vancouver and currently based in Toronto, the busy artist has released a lot of music over the past four years, including three albums, three EPs and numerous singles. His style can generally be described as alternative indie folk, but it’s much more than that, as his sound is varied and eclectic, drawing from rock, folk, singer-songwriter and shoegaze elements. Like all creative artists, he’s not afraid to explore and experiment with his music, and as a result, each of his albums and EPs sound quite different from one another. I’ve featured him twice on this blog, most recently in September 2021, when I reviewed his exquisite EP My Nights On the Island. Last month (December 2022), Alex returned with a new EP Common Fantasies, containing six wonderful tracks.
Alex recorded the EP with the help of fellow musicians Christina Dare on bass & backing vocals, Gab Lavoie on Korg synth & piano, and Craig McCann on drums & percussion, all of whom played on four of the tracks (they also support him for live shows). Production, mixing and mastering were handled by Alex Gamble.
Before I discuss the songs, I’ll share what Alex wrote about his evolving creative process for the EP: “There were a lot of iterations of this EP in my mind at different times. There’s a version where it’s a full album; another where it’s a double album! There’s a version where it’s just three songs. There’s also an option where – why put it out at all? (A classic part of the process, I realise over and over and over). This is the version I went with. I felt like by placing together two delicate acoustic songs along with four bigger, grander songs there’d be this push and pull of inertia. All my big ideas would have remained totally abstract if it wasn’t for Alex Gamble, Christina Dare, Gab Lavoie, and Craig McCann, who were able to come in and help shape these blue prints into songs with real personality. This happened all the way from practices to live shows to rehearsals for the studio, to the studio, to the mix after the studio.“
Common Fantasies opens with “Come and See“, a mostly instrumental track that starts off with a pleasant little acoustic guitar riff accompanied by soothing synths, before bursting into a riotous cinematic soundscape of explosive percussion and dramatic synths. Alex croons “Come and see“, then his vocals soar to an impassioned falsetto with the music, leaving us breathlessly anticipating what comes next! He answers with the electrifying title track “Common Fantasies“, a glorious mélange of blazing gnarly guitars, driving rhythms and smashing drums. Alex and company really let loose here, making this one of the hardest rocking songs I’ve heard by him. I’m not quite sure about the song’s meaning, but the lyrics seem to address the conflict between self-preservation and giving oneself over completely to another in a romantic situation: “I’m caught in the in-between. Loving you and loving me. I’m right where the lightning strikes, like my anger might. And these are high highs. Sucker. And common fantasies.”
“Soften” is simply stunning, with a lush synth-driven melody overlain with marvelous jangly and chiming guitars, dreamy piano keys and snappy drums. But as beautiful as the music is, it’s Alex’s plaintive vocals that really resonate with me. I love his singing voice, which goes from an emotive croon to airy falsetto, all the while raising the hairs on the back of my neck. Christina’s backing vocals are wonderful too, adding tremendous emotional heft to the song. The lyrics seem to urge us to be kinder to the earth and, by extension, ourselves: “Soften the earth so we can grow up here. Caught in the surf. Caught it in just the right way. And if you believe, they’ll teach you to serve. Teach you the right way to pray.“
The languid and gentle “Twist It” is the first of two mostly acoustic tracks on which Alex played all the instruments – guitar, Roland Juno-60 analog synthesizer and piano. He describes it as “kind of a mini cliff hanger song in a way. At the end you feel an instinct to lean forward and there is nothing to catch you.” The lyrics start off with Alex taking a rather defiant stance “I don’t like to wait. Won’t learn your name. But I can always listen“, but by the end of the song, he’s come around to a more amenable approach: “We’re cool. It won’t hurt to wait. And it won’t hurt to listen. So seal your fate and come on and twist it.”
“Open Season” is another terrific hard-driving rocker that starts off with a bit of a Foo Fighters vibe (at least to my ears), but once those sweeping synths kick in, the song transitions to more of a new wave feel, only to be shattered by a blistering guitar solo at the end. And yet again, the lyrics are somewhat ambiguous to me, but my take is that they speak to issues of honesty and trust in a romantic relationship: “You don’t lie the way I do. In the blink of an eye. Let’s share clothes and attitudes, and swap our half lines.”
The EP closes with “You Want It Brighter“, a poignant track consisting of just Alex’s pleasing acoustic guitar work and melancholy vocals. He states that he “wrote the majority of ‘You Want It Brighter’ (which is a for-no-good-reason play on ‘You Want It Darker’, a late Leonard Cohen thing) maybe two or three years ago at an ex-partner’s place.” The bittersweet lyrics speak of a relationship that’s over, with the protagonist coming to terms with having to be the one who leaves his home and son behind: “I will wait. I will sit awhile and watch as the sun sets on my son. And I admit it’ll take a while to live in – and out – of this place./ And you’ll stay. And I’ll go ‘Cause you asked for this.”
To sum up, Common Fantasies is another superb effort by Alex, and I think it’s one of my personal favorites of all his releases. He’s an outstanding songwriter and musician, with a distinctive vocal style that effortlessly flows from comforting croon to emotion-packed rawness to soaring falsetto, all of which are on fine display. He and his fellow musician collaborators have much to be proud of here.
Those of you living in, or planning to visit, Ontario in February can catch Alex at one of these upcoming shows:
Purchase on Bandcamp