Tuesday, August 30, 2016

August 2016 reviews

Highly recommended: Anchorsong, Deerhoof, Anderson.Paak, Glauco Venier

Highly recommended, reviewed earlier: TUNS

Well worth your while: Sharon Jones, The Julie Ruin, The Magic, Nao

As always, these reviews ran in the Waterloo Record.

Streaming is great for sample purposes, but please find a way to support your favourite artists financially.

Anchorsong – Ceremonial (Caroline)

Anchorsong is the name of the last track on Bjork’s Debut album. Now it’s also the name of a Japanese artist, Masaaki Yoshida, whose eclectic palette would have been right at home on that 1993 record. Call-and-response melodic percussion lines, Spaghetti Western guitar, bells and gamelans that could have been lifted from Pantha du Prince, plaintive strings, kalimbas—at times it sounds like a Moby remix of early Bjork, at others a more worldly Tycho. But mostly it sounds like a curious traveller in search of beauty, propelled forth by insistent rhythms that never let the listener drift off, asleep at the wheel. (Aug. 4)

Stream: "Eve," "Mother," “Butterflies”

Bat for Lashes – The Bride (Warner)

Ah! The Bride. It’s a concept album, no? A peek inside the narrative of a marriage, either an epic love story of perseverance or a psychological torture story, right? The first song is a lovely lullaby about, presumably, engagement, called “I Do.” But from there we go right into “Joe’s Dream,” with the opening line: “There's a tear in my lover's eyes / He's at my window, it's a gloomy night.” Uh-oh! What are we in for? The next track, “In God’s House,” makes it clear: she’s been stranded at the altar, her fiancée dead, the bride-to-be denied even the status of widowhood. For the rest of the album, she goes “Honeymooning Alone,” driving along the seaside, mourning the life that could have been.

Natasha Khan spent two years working on The Bride, both the album and what will be an accompanying film. The British songwriter recorded in rural New York state, and the resulting sound is a combination of the sea-swept gothica of PJ Harvey and David Lynchian smalltown-U.S.A. weirdness. Yet Khan is more conventional than many of her outré influences; there’s also a lot of Sarah McLachlan in here—though the side of that songwriter that we haven’t seen in a very, very long time.

Part of Khan’s charm is her ability to sound so haunting and creepy and yet simultaneously alluring; it’s a lot sexier than a record about a dead lover should probably be. (Aug. 4)

Stream: “Joe’s Dream,” “In God’s House,” “Sunday Love”

Deerhoof – The Magic (Polyvinyl)

It’s been a weird summer. And when the going gets really weird, no other rock band makes more sense than Deerhoof. The California quartet’s delightfully playful absurdism—executed with technical precision, lyrical naivete, and a sonic mashup of Zappa, punk rock and the weirdest parts of the Beatles—were a welcome tonic to soundtrack the Bush years. Deerhoof is always at the very least interesting, but every so often their oddball inventiveness coalesces into a top-to-bottom fantastic album. This is one of those albums. Considering their discography now stretches back almost 20 years, entry points can be hard to find for the uninitiated. So start here. And don’t miss them when they swing back this way again. (Aug. 11)

Stream: “Kate Mania!” “Life is Suffering,” “Plastic Thrills”

Hannah Georgas – For Evelyn (Dine Alone)

Mining the same vibe as Bat for Lashes is Vancouver/Toronto singer Hannah Georgas, whose third album is dedicated to her 98-year-old grandmother—for once, it seems, an artist celebrating someone still alive rather than writing an album-long obituary (see also: The Acorn’s Glory Hope Mountain or the Fiery Furnaces’ Rehearsing My Choir—which they recorded with their grandmother). Georgas doesn’t do so with a plunky ukulele or sad piano ballads (though there is one or two of those): she dives right into the synths found in the studio of producer Graham Walsh (Holy F--k, Operators) and comes out with a hot-blooded new wave record that trumps anything in her promising discography so far. (Aug. 4)

Stream: “Don’t Go,” “Evelyn,” “Naked Beaches”

Sharon Jones – Miss Sharon Jones OST (Daptone)

Sharon Jones was 40 years old when she first had her name listed as lead vocalist on a recording. That was in 1996. She’d sung live with plenty of bands and recorded backup vocals, but paid her bills as a corrections officer and lived with her mother. In the recent documentary Miss Sharon Jones, and in the one new track on its soundtrack (“I’m Still Here”), she says she was always told she was “too fat, too short, too black, too old,” to front her own band—an assertion that is patently ridiculous on every imaginable level. This woman is Otis Redding and Tina Turner reincarnate. If this woman is not a rock star, then that term might as well not exist.

Jones got her break by falling in with a group of sympathetic musicians in New York who would come to be the core of Daptone records—members of Afrobeat revivalists Antibalas and ’70s jazz-funk enthusiasts the Sugarman 3, among others. There were many excellent acts on Daptone, but all of them were instrumental. Sharon Jones quickly became the star of the show. As her profile rose, so did that of her band, the Dap-Kings, who were hired to record with everyone from Amy Winehouse (that’s them on “Rehab”) to David Byrne to Michael Bublé to Bruno Mars (that’s them on “Uptown Funk”).

Just as Jones was about to release her fifth and easily her best album, 2014’s Give the People What They Want, Jones was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. She postponed the album while she underwent treatment, but came back to triumph and tour—only to have the cancer reappear just as this documentary, directed by Oscar winner Barbara Kopple (Harlan County USA, Shut Up and Sing) debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival last fall. Instead of retreating during this round of treatment, she’s been on the road ever since, fighting as strong as she can. If you thought Gord Downie was brave (which he is), you should witness Sharon Jones in action (check out this April 2016 performance for KEXP in Seattle).

All of which is even more of a reason to celebrate the soundtrack to that documentary, which compiles some of the best tracks of Jones’s 14-year discography. The power of her voice and her band often overshadowed the songs, but that’s not the case here: this is all top-shelf material. The uber fan could quibble about omitting her covers of Janet Jackson or Woody Guthrie or Shuggie Otis, but as a sampling of her five albums and more, this is hard to top—especially with the addition of hard-hitting early singles like “Genuine.” (Aug. 18)

The Julie Ruin – Hit Reset (Hardly Art)

Kathleen Hanna has a lot of baggage. A principal architect of the riot grrrl movement of the ’90s with her band Bikini Girl, a key member of political electropop band Le Tigre in the 2000s, Lyme disease victim, subject of the acclaimed 2013 documentary The Punk Singer: anytime she steps back into the public eye with new music, it’s a major countercultural event. 

Not that she lets that get to her. After her reinvention with the new band The Julie Ruin, whose 2013 album Run Fast was full of themes of perseverance, age and triumphing over adversity, here she sounds more than happy to just make a fun rock’n’roll record with her new pals—one steeped in the bubblegum melodies and enthusiastic punk party music she loves (lots! of! handclaps!), with politics taking a backseat or expressed in considerably more subtle fashion than she’s known for. That said, she can still skewer like few others, like when she lambastes a gushing yet shallow male fan in “Mr. So and So,” who boasts, “I’ll show your autograph to my women’s studies class!”

Is this one of Hanna’s better records? Not really. But baggage be damned. The 47-year-old singer has nothing to prove to anyone, and sounds like she’s having the time of her life. (Aug. 11)

Stream: "Hit Reset," "I Decide," “Rather Not”

The Magic – Night Falling (Hailstone Entertainment)

What a Magical summer it is. There’s the aforementioned Deerhoof album, a new album by the international Toronto pop-reggae sensation Magic!, and now a new album from the Guelph band from whom the “Rude” band stole a name: Evan and Geordie Gordon, who perform and record as The Magic. This Magic makes blue-eyed synth soul with an ’80s bent, with Evan serving as the studio wizard and Geordie the cool-cucumber crooner who slips between his seductive lower range and a falsetto that keeps getting better with age. (He’s now 30, but keen audiences will remember him as a teenager in the Barmitzvah Brothers 15 years ago.) Night Falling was four years in the making, scheduled during time off from the brother’s duties as touring members of Islands. Once a full band, it’s now a duo, but they don’t sacrifice any side of their lush sound, which has nods to Sade, Hall & Oates, Haim and Blood Orange—and you’d never guess it’s a bedroom recording. (Aug. 11)

Stream: “If I Were You,” “Over and Over,” “Season’s Crown”
Whole album here.

Nao – For All We Know (Sony)

Last year, this British R&B singer dropped an EP with the slinky summer bass line on “Inhale Exhale,” announcing yet another bright new light in what is turning out to be a golden era in R&B. That track reappears on her major label debut, as it should, but Nao proves she’s certainly no one-trick pony. Her voice might be girlish in pitch, but there is a command and confidence here that sounds anything but naïve. There are many times here, notably “Bad Blood” (no, not a Taylor Swift cover) she feels like the missing link between Prince and Kate Bush (who, of course, were mutual fans and collaborators). Or, in modern terms, she sits somewhere between FKA Twigs and Miguel. Nao herself calls her music “wonky funk.” Either way, she’s staked out a claim in a competitive field this year. (Aug. 25)

Stream: “Inhale Exhale,” “Adore You,” “Fool to Love”

Anderson.Paak – Malibu (O.B.E.)

While R&B fans spent the first half of 2016 fretting about the arrival of a new Frank Ocean album, this California artist quietly dropped this minor masterpiece in the dead of January. He was the talk of the SXSW festival in March, appeared on one of the best tracks on Kaytranada’s Polaris Music Prize-shortlisted 99.9% in May, and sold out the Phoenix in Toronto in June. Why? Because Malibu is second only to Beyoncé’s Lemonade as a high-water mark for R&B in the last year. 

Paak is no spring chicken. He’s 30 years old, with experience as a professional drummer (for an American Idol contestant) and a Dr. Dre protégé (with several guest appearances on Dre’s comeback, Compton). He was raised on old soul music and California G-funk and his world was turned upside down by Outkast. His first gigs were in a Baptist congregation. He sings with a delicious rasp not dissimilar to Kendrick Lamar’s timbre as a rapper, with layered harmonies akin to D’Angelo and a psychedelic palette worthy of Miguel; on the straight-up funk of “Come Down,” he channels “Payback”-era James Brown. He’s a father and husband who was raised in a violent household and is determined to find the positivity in life. You can hear all of that life experience in Malibu, which announces the arrival of a fully formed artist ready to seize the crown. As an independent artist, he doesn’t have marketing hype behind him, but an album this good doesn’t need it. The music does all the talking. (Aug. 11)

Anderson.Paak is playing the Manifesto festival in Toronto on Sept. 17, on a dream bill with Kaytranada and Daniel Caesar, at Echo Beach. 

Stream: “Come Down,” “Heart Don’t Stand a Chance,” “Am I Wrong” feat. Schoolboy Q

Fatima al Qadiri – Brute (Hyperdub)

"You are no longer peacefully assembled," are the first words you hear on Qadiri’s second album. They’re sampled from a police officer at the 2015 protests in Ferguson, Missouri, which helped kick off the Black Lives Matter movement in the States. Qadiri’s electronic soundscapes are meant to evoke a dystopia—not a fantastical one, but one very much rooted in current realities. As an instrumental artist, she works to evoke these themes with groaning synths that sound like sorrowful choirs, with beats that sound disorienting and dazzling, with eerie melodies that are just waiting for the right sci-fi director to use them in film—though it would be Qadiri doing that director a favour, not the other way around.  The cover art, by Josh Kline, depicts a Teletubby-like humanoid in riot gear, looking like it just woke up to this strange new world with no idea what role it might play. Qadiri doesn’t have answers, just questions, colours, hues. That’s all she needs. (Aug. 4)

Stream: “Blood Moon,” “Oubliette,” “Power” 

Glauco Venier – Miniatures: Music for Piano and Percussion (ECM)

Pianists like Nils Frahm, 33, and Chilly Gonzales, 44, get a lot of attention for reinvigorating the art of neo-classical solo piano, in part because of their age and associated record labels and artists. More power to them, especially if they help open ears to this solo recording by 53-year-old Italian pianist Glauco Venier. Venier is a Berklee-trained jazz player who has primarily performed in a trio format. Here, he was hired to score a documentary about an Italian sculptor, with the intention of grafting on the sounds of “sonorous sculptures” to his minimalist piano compositions. That he’s doing so on the ECM label, home to Keith Jarrett’s legendary ’70s recordings, carries a certain weight among jazz fans. Venier is more than up to the task. Miniatures is meditative and lovely, melodic and gentle, the resonant gongs and bells and other metallic sounds employed tastefully and effectively. If, like me, you’ve had a hectic summer of visits and excess and joy and mourning and too much rock’n’roll and sweaty R&B, here’s your antidote and a perfect comedown. (Aug. 25)

Stream: “Byzantine Icon,” “Prayer,” “Asian Songs and Rhythms No. 40)

Friday, August 26, 2016


TUNS – s/t (Royal Mountain)

(full disclosure: I was hired to write TUNS’ official bio. This is not that bio. This is my genuine fandom.)

If the term Halifax Pop Explosion means anything to you, then this is the album you’ve been waiting for. Chris Murphy of Sloan, Matt Murphy (no relation) of Super Friendz and Flashing Lights, and Mike O’Neill of the Inbreds have teamed up to make a power trio that is even more than the sum of its parts. You know how when your favourites get together and make a so-called supergroup and 99 times out of 100 the end result is an inevitable disappointment and compromise? (See: Case/lang/veirs.) This is the one per cent you can get behind.

Attention magnet Chris Murphy is more than content to leave his bass behind and stay behind the drum kit here, letting equally natural rock star Matt Murphy handle all guitar parts (and rock kicks on stage). Of the three, Murphy has been the most musically dormant in recent years: here, he sounds pent up and unleashed, playing with the same vigour and excitement he did on his earliest records. O’Neill, whose bass playing in the duo that was the Inbreds was innovative and inspiring, has since, on his solo records, switched to guitar and played it relatively straight. Here, he’s back on bass, playing intricate and melodic lines that suit the power trio format perfectly: Paul McCartney meets John Entwistle. All three share lead vocals, although you wouldn’t necessarily know that: these musical brothers share a similar vocal timbre, which makes the three-part harmonies even more richer.

All these men can write a great pop song on their own; together, they weave together interlocking hooks and let the lead melodies go to sometimes unexpected places. Practitioners of a concise craft, they also keep it clean and quick: nine songs in less than half an hour, with nary a wasted note. As the old adage goes: all killer, no filler. The production is rooted in late ’60s Beatles and early glam stomp, with the directness and energy of early Jam records; it sounds timeless and raw, much like the performances themselves.

It’s hard to imagine a better straight-up rock record being released this year. Tuns o’ fun. No surprises, though: total pros, that’s what they’re here for. (Aug. 25)

Stream: “Back Among Friends,” “Lonely Life,” “Mind Your Manners”

Friday, July 29, 2016

July 2016 reviews

Highly recommended this month: Badbadnotgood, Michael Kiwanuka

Well worth your while: Aaron Neville, Billy Talent

As always, these reviews ran in the Waterloo Record.

Streaming is great for sample purposes, but please find a way to support your favourite artists financially.

Thanks to everyone I ran into at last weekend's Hillside Festival who told me they read this blog faithfully. It's always nice to know I'm not writing into a total void.

Badbadnotgood – IV (Arts and Crafts)

From Led Zeppelin IV to Black Mountain IV—hell, even Foreigner 4—and now the fourth album from Toronto hip-hop/jazz band Badbadnotgood, putting the number four in a title suggests you’re saving your best ideas for the music, not the marketing, and the fourth album is the ideal time to crystallize the myriad directions the band had taken up until now.

For Badbadnotgood—who, after starting out with jazz covers of hip-hop tracks, came into their own on a full-length collaboration with Ghostface Killah (Sour Soul) and their 2014 album III—this finds them stepping up their game once again, moving away from hip-hop slightly (collaborations with Kaytranada and Mick Jenkins notwithstanding) and toward the funk of Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters and the cinematic esoterica of space-age bachelor pad music a la Esquivel or Broadcast. They also dip into sultry soul music, with pop songs sung by Charlotte Day Wilson and a particularly surprising turn by Future Islands’ Sam Herring, on which he channels the late Bobby Womack.

Part of IV’s success is the natural evolution of these young players, but also the permanent addition of saxophonist Leland Whitty, whose guest spots on III were a highlight. Nonetheless, they enlist avant jazz star Colin Stetson to lend a beefy, baritone bottom end to “Confessions Pt. II,” where he trades leads with Whitty while the band vamps on what could be a ’70s action film soundtrack underneath.

Exciting as it is, even better is anticipating where this band will venture next. Just please, whatever you do, don't judge this album by the album cover. (July 7)

Stream: “Time Moves Slow” (feat. Sam Herring), “Lavender” (feat. Kaytranada), “And That, Too”

Billy Talent – Afraid of Heights (Warner)

Against most odds, Billy Talent is still standing. The Mississauga band who first broke through in 2003 are now on the other side of 40; you’d think it’d be getting hard to tap into the energy of their bestselling debut—surely it’s time for the synth experiments or the pseudo-country ballads, no? Well, there are apparently some synths hiding here somewhere (underneath the wall of guitars on “Horses and Chariots”), but after the more “mature” Dead Silence in 2012, the band revisited their debut album for live dates celebrating its 10th anniversary, and releasing a hits compilation that served as a reminder of just how hook-filled and durable all those shout-y singles have proven to be. A comeback record could well be a bunch of old men trying to recapture old glories; the lyrics of “Louder Than the DJ” (“Those glory days aren’t over yet”) suggest a bunch of leather-clad grandpas squeezing into skinny jeans and yelling at rave kids; thankfully the song is much better than that.

Afraid of Heights is very much a sonic throwback of sorts, with only a few clunky spots (“The Clutch”) and one poor attempt at power ballad (“Rabbit Down the Hole”), which is helped only slightly by Ian D’Sa’s lyrical lead guitar. Otherwise, the fact that D’Sa has always had more complex pop songwriting skills than most of his peers continues to set the band apart; once the title track runs its course at rock radio, look for the anthemic “Leave Them All Behind” to dominate the rest of the year.

The sad news for fans is that drummer Aaron Solowoniuk’s MS has finally forced him to resign; he’s been replaced by Jordan Hastings of Alexisonfire, though Solowoniuk helped the band arrange in the studio and appears beside Hastings in the press photos. It’s not age that’s taken a toll on this band, it’s the disease they’ve been fighting since the beginning. (July 28)

Stream: "Afraid of Heights," "Louder Than the DJ," "Leave Them All Behind"

Blood Orange – Freetown Sound (Domino)

Blood Orange’s Dev Hynes plays well with others: in addition to his prolific and eclectic career as an artist (recording under several different monikers), he’s written and produced records by Carly Rae Jepsen, Solange Knowles, and Florence and the Machine. Here, on his highly anticipated third album, he enlists the likes of Jepsen, Blondie’s Debbie Harry, Nelly Furtado—even bestselling social critic Ta-Nehisi Coates and Bob Marley’s granddaughter, because, why not?

Blood Orange’s sound leans heavily on ’80s iconoclasts like Michael Jackson, Prince and Terence Trent D’Arby—though only the more outré moments from any of those artists, filtered through shades of ’90s trip-hop like Tricky. Though Hynes obviously loves pop music, he doesn’t write particularly catchy melodies himself. Instead, he offers languid, lush, sometimes experimental R&B, where the tiny details—a bass squibble here, a subtle jazz piano turn there—usually trump anything in the foreground. The parade of guest vocalists lend a diversity to a record that could easily fade into the background, but they’re not necessarily enough to stave off overall ennui. (July 7)

Stream: “E.V.P.” (feat. Debbie Harry), “Desirée,” “Better Than Me”

Michael Kiwanuka – Love and Hate (Universal)

The U.S. hasn’t felt this politically divided and tumultuous since the late ’60s and early ’70s. And while Kendrick Lamar and Beyoncé provide fiery anthems and reflection as a soundtrack of the times, British folk-soul singer Michael Kiwanuka has delivered a comedown tonic for the end of each anguished day. His second album—four long years after his acclaimed 2012 debut, Home Again— is a rich and languid masterpiece, steeped in psychedelic blues, string-drenched soul, gospel vocals and more than a few nods to Marvin Gaye’s 1971 classic What’s Going On, as if it were reimagined by Portishead.

Co-produced by Danger Mouse (Gnarls Barkley, Black Keys, Broken Bells), Love and Hate strikes a perfectly consistent mood and tone: unhurried, gentle, yet feeling the weight of the world in every note. Kiwanuka himself is neither a showy singer nor one who retreats into whispers: his calm confidence is what glues this record together. So much of Love and Hate sounds like the flip side of Alabama Shakes’ 2015 summer soundtrack, Sound and Color: can someone put Kiwanuka and Brittany Howard in a room together, please? (July 21)

Stream: “Cold Little Heart,” “Rule the World,” “I’ll Never Love”

Aaron Neville – Apache (Sony)

Aaron Neville is best known as the singer who NPR describes as “an angel who swallowed a wah-wah pedal,” a man best known for a series of hit duets with Linda Ronstadt in 1989-90. Despite his vocal gifts, his solo work is almost uniformly cheesy and lightweight—unlike, by comparison, his incredible work with his siblings in the Neville Brother in the ’80s (start with the Daniel Lanois-produced Yellow Moon).

Apache, on the other hand, might well be the funkiest record of Neville’s solo career. Recorded in New York City, his adopted home, with local musicians—including the Daptone horns—you’d never know he wasn’t still in New Orleans. But maybe absence makes the 75-year-old’s heart grow fonder: he’s clearly in a nostalgic mood, as “Stompin’ Ground” and other tracks illustrate.

No surprise here, but he’s also in a romantic mood. He remarried in 2010 after losing his wife of 47 years to cancer in 2008, and several tracks here—his first album to feature original material in 13 years—mine his mushy side, while avoiding the adult-contemporary trap of his ’90s hits.

Of course, there’s that voice, which hasn’t changed a bit since his first hit single 50 years ago. Rather than showing a scrap of age, it sounds better than it ever did—hard as that may be to believe. (July 21)

Stream: "Be Your Man," "Orchid in the Storm," “Stompin’ Ground”

Pup – The Dream is Over (Royal Mountain)

This Toronto punk band themselves describe their second album as a “rowdy, noisy clusterf--k.” Yes, it’s rowdy and noisy, but it’s a lot more coherent (monotonous?) than that comment would imply. It’s an all-guns-blazing response to the end of one’s twenties, wondering if playing 200 shows a year is taking a toll on your domestic life, having to hear your doctor look at your vocal cords and tell you, “The dream is over.” A song called “Doubts” features the chorus, “What am I supposed to do now?” On “DVP,” friends chime in: “She says I drink too much / she says I need to grow up.” These are common rock’n’roll themes, and there’s no doubt that time logged on the road has made Pup a lean, mean rock’n’roll machine. But the best thing I can say about this record is that it makes me want to listen to Japandroids’ 2013 classic Celebration Rock: same theme, same punch, same raw power, much better songs. (July 21)

Stream: “DVP,” “My Life is Over and I Couldn’t Be Happier,” “Familiar Patterns”

Wake Up You! The Rise and Fall of Nigerian Rock, Vols. 1 & 2: 1972-1977 – Various Artists (Now Again)

Every retro reissue trend dries up eventually, right? Surely there are no more hidden gems from the golden age of American soul music in the ’60s and ’70s left to uncover? Hasn’t every punk band who had five minutes of fame in the ’80s been unearthed? Even the 30-volume Ethiopiques collections of East African jazz and soul have finally trickled to a crawl. And so while the Fela Kuti revival in the early 2000s sparked an interest in Nigerian and West African music, which opened the floodgates to seemingly hundreds of quality reissues—of which at least a dozen could be considered essential to anyone remotely interested in the scene—even that treasure trove appears to be running dry. I mean, after the elusive William Onyeabor was discovered, what great mysteries were left?

So here comes a two-volume set, 10 years in the making, accompanying two 100+ page books written by Onyeabor biographer Uchenna Ikonne, chronicling the Nigerian psychedelic rock scene in the wake of the country’s civil war and the rise of Fela Kuti. Some of these names will be familiar to followers—namely the Funkees, who had their own anthology on Soundway Records in 2012—but the pleasure here is finding even more new names that haven’t been featured on comps like Nigeria 70 (Strut, 2001) or The World Ends (Soundway, 2010). Like that latter comp, the guitars here are raunchy and louder and more psychedelic than heard on the straight-up funk comps.

It’s a lot to wade through, but it’s a testament to just how musically fertile Funky Lagos was during this pivotal time. Rest assured it won’t be the final word on the subject, either. (July 7)

Stream: “Everybody Likes Something Good” by Ify Jerry Krusade, “Graceful Bird” by War-Head Constriction, “Never Too Late” by the Apostles