Monday, May 16, 2016

Anohni – Hopelessness

Anohni – Hopelessness (Secretly Canadian)

If the title didn’t tip you off, this is not the feel-good record of the year. Quite the opposite. Anohni—formerly known as Antony Hegarty of Antony and the Johnsons—has a few things to get off her chest, starting with the fact that we’re all going to hell in a handbasket, and it’s our own damn fault.

For an album seeped in anger and loathing, a lot of it is directed not directly at the forces of darkness, but at our own collective apathy. “4 Degrees”—about a recent report that warned that, with current carbon emission rates, global temperatures would rise by four degrees by century’s end—finds Anohni snarling that, with current carbon emission rates, “It’s only four degrees … I wanna burn the sky, I wanna burn the breeze / I wanna see animals die in the trees.”

She’s not one to mince words. Elsewhere on the album, she adopts the voice of a young girl whose family dies from American drone bombs, or mock celebrates capital punishment by exclaiming, over a beautiful melody, “Execution / it’s an American dream!” She then rattles off the not-so-esteemed company who, like the U.S., execute an unusually large number of their citizens: North Korea, China, Saudi Arabia. And in perhaps the best post-Snowden protest song, “Watch Me,” she takes a Big Brother metaphor as far as she can: “Daddy I know you love me because you’re always watching me.”

Ah, but surely the lovely, if avant-garde, torch song balladry we knew from Antony and the Johnsons lends some beauty to this madness, no? Or perhaps the disco liberation she achieved on guest spots with Hercules and Love Affair? Sorry. With her new name, Anohni also has new collaborators: abrasive electronic producers Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never, who prefer white noise and distortion to a 4/4 beat. The music here is as discomforting as the lyrics; the only pretty moments come during contrition on the last third of the album: “Why Did You Separate Me From the Earth?”, “Crisis” (about a litany of American foreign policy atrocities, with the chorus, “I’m sorry”), and the title track, which borrows from Agent Smith in The Matrix when Anohni asks, “How did I become a virus?”

Most scathing, however, is “Obama.” The current U.S. president has had an easy ride from musicians and artists during his years in power, but Anohni isn’t having it. She remembers how the world wept tears of joy when the charming man was elected, but that same man is now responsible for surveillance, executive-ordered death by drones, and punishing whistleblowers. Much of the song is Anohni incanting Obama’s name over a distorted dirge, a lament for lost hope, an indictment of betrayed promises. 

Anohni has spent her career having people fawn over her voice; mentor Lou Reed, not known to be a sappy man, called it that of “an angel.” That it is. But there were many moments on previous records when she affected gospel-tinged melisma, sometimes to distracting ends. (And then there were her duets with Bjork, which counterintuitively seemed to bring out the worst in both incredibly talented vocalists.) Here, however, Anohni is powerful and on point and has never sounded better. Small wonder: this music, these lyrics, require a certainty and conviction that leaves no room for any ornamental excess. She sets her targets; she scores direct hits. (May 12)

Stream: “4 Degrees,” “Execution,” “Obama”

Operators – Blue Wave

Operators – Blue Wave (Last Gang)

“I keep nobody close to me,” sings Operators’ Dan Boeckner. On the surface, that might appear to be true: this is his fourth new band, following the beloved (and recently reunited) Wolf Parade, Handsome Furs, and the (one-off?) collaboration with Spoon’s Britt Daniel, Divine Fits.

“I have faith in the world of destruction,” he offers. Come on, can’t this guy hold a gig? (Kidding.)

Boeckner is nothing if not restless. After the visceral rock of Wolf Parade, he dove headfirst into synths and drum machines in Handsome Furs. His bands always treated touring as an adventure (Burma! Bosnia!) rather than a payday on a well-travelled path. Operators toured for two full years and scrapped an entire album before this debut arrived. Boeckner is always reaching for something better.

In Operators, he’s found it. Here there’s a balance between the claustrophobia and rigid digital synths of Handsome Furs and the organized chaos of Wolf Parade. Operators has a live drummer (Sam Brown) to bring rock’n’roll energy, and an analog synth wiz (Devojka) who ensures that nothing sounds too clean or calculated. Then of course there’s Boeckner, still drenching his voice in rockabilly reverb, still playing jagged post-punk guitar when he can pull himself away from his new keyboards, still an electrifying vocal (and stage) presence.

But here’s the shocker: for the first time in likely more than a decade, Boeckner, dystopian goth that he is, can be heard writing choruses with major chords. A song called “Evil” is, oddly, one of the cheeriest things Boeckner has ever done, with a chorus worthy of the Cars’ first album (or Arcade Fire’s first album, on which Boeckner played some bass). And despite his immersion in drum machines and synths, until now he hasn’t written such a guaranteed dance-floor smash as he has here with “Control.”

Recently relocated back to Montreal from San José, Boeckner sings—in the great tradition of Joni Mitchell and other Canadians—“I love you, California, but you only make me blue.” This comes months after fellow former British Columbian-turned-Montrealer Grimes sang, “California, you only like me when you think I’m looking sad / I didn’t think you’d end up treating me so bad.” Hey Montrealers, what the hell are you doing drinking in L.A.? The lesson here is clear: don’t move to California—unless you at least get a great song out of it by the time you come home. Let’s see what happens to Tim Hecker on his next album.  (April 14)

Stream: “Rome,” “Control,” “Evil”

Prince – HitNRun Phase Two

Prince – HitNRun Phase Two (Universal)

Prince is dead. Long live Prince.

The final album from His Purpleness debuted on the streaming service Tidal in January, and got an official release a week after his death. This is no Blackstar, which was David Bowie’s final masterpiece, recorded while he knew he had a terminal cancer diagnosis and intended to be a final artistic statement; indeed, Bowie died three days after its release in January. HitNRun Phase Two, on the other hand, is just another day at the office for Prince. This is who Prince was at the end of his life: his innovative and weirder days long behind him, a man comfortable in his own skin who just wants to write some new jams that pay ode to the jazz, rock and soul he grew up on. It’s Prince on autopilot—which for the most part is still good enough to take most modern icons to school. His guitar skills, his acrobatic vocals, his distinctive harmony arrangements, inviting his potential lovers to take a bath with him—here are all the trademarks that remained constant no matter what sonic skin he inhabited.

But because this is Prince, our standards are understandably high. So when he tosses off a rote rocker called “Screwdriver” (chorus lyric: “I’m your driver, you’re my screw”)—that song has been floating around for three years now, and should have been left alone—or attempts a lame come-on like “We’ve got groovy potential,” it’s more than obvious the legend is phoning it in. One of the better tracks, “Xtraloveable,” dates back to a demo from the early 1980s.

The album opens with “Baltimore,” a song written, recorded and released in May 2015 after the death of that city’s Freddie Gray in police custody, eight months after the shooting of Michael Brown in St. Louis sparked the Black Lives Matter movement. Prince was never much for politics (“You say you want a leader / but you can’t seem to make up your mind,” he sang in “Purple Rain”), outside the apocalyptic nuclear paranoia that underscored his earliest work (“1999,” “Ronnie Talk to Russia”). At the beginning of his career, he deliberately instructed his record company to portray him as mixed race and not to market him as “black,” which was encoded in Purple Rain, where his fictional mother was Italian. But in the last year of his life, Prince was a vocal supporter of Black Lives Matter, playing a free concert in Baltimore after the riots, and then this song appeared: explicitly name-checking Gray and Brown, the video featuring footage of protests.

What’s odd is that the song itself is anything but a fiery protest song, or even a lament like Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On”—or indeed, Prince’s own “Sign O the Times.” Instead, it’s an upbeat, gospel-tinged pop song with a string section and lyrics like, “We’re tired of the cryin’ and people dyin’ let’s take all the guns away.” If you weren’t paying attention, you might mistake it for an unusually good civic tourism jingle.

Prince confounded all of us—even his hardcore fans—throughout his career, so it’s not the least bit surprising that he did so right up to the end. More telling than his final album will be what makes its way out of his vault in the years to come. (April 28)

Stream: “Baltimore,” “Stare,” “Xtraloveable”

April 2016 reviews

The following reviews ran in the Waterloo Record in April. Posting these a bit late.

Highly recommended (both are several months old, just hearing them now): Khruangbin; Shye Ben Tzur, Jonny Greenwood and the Rajasthan Express

Well worth your while: Colin Stetson, Venetian Snares, Tim Hecker, Danny Michel (one of those is not at all like the others)

Streaming is great for sample purposes, but please support your favourite artists financially.

Jean-Michel Blais – Il (Arts & Crafts)

Montreal guy plays piano in his apartment. That’s pretty much it. (April 7)

Stream: "Dada," “Nostos,” “Budapest”

PJ Harvey – The Hope Six Demolition Project (Island/Universal)

New records by the beloved PJ Harvey are a rarity. So when lead single “The Community of Hope” first appeared online, its approachable guitar pop reminiscent of Harvey’s 2000 commercial breakthrough Stories From the City Stories From the Sea, expectations were high, especially after the difficult listening (though award-winning) Let England Shake in 2011, an album largely about the First World War. Yet all that quickly dissipated after the story behind the single unravelled: the lyrics are taken almost verbatim from a Washington Post reporter who took Harvey on a cab ride around a derelict neighbourhood in his city, and residents were none too happy about the bleak portrait painted by Harvey, who didn’t bother talking to any of them. One early review said, correctly, that the song is “literally poverty tourism.” Closing track “Dollar Dollar” only reinforces that concept, with sounds from a Third World street scene underpinning Harvey’s lyrics about ignoring a street beggar.

The rest of The Hope Six Demolition Project doesn’t fare much better, lyrically. For an artist who once excelled at imagistic poetry, there’s a lot of mundane reportage: “I saw some Arabic graffiti”; “I saw a woman eat something unhealthy” (not actual quotes, but close). One song attempts to spin a chorus out of the endlessly repeated phrase, “Near the Memorials to Vietnam and Lincoln.”

It’s distracting. Thankfully, the music fares much better. Harvey is in a buoyant mood, her guitars are front and centre, and she whips out her saxophone whenever she sees fit. The louder the track, the more likely she is to explore her somewhat creepy upper register. Her all-man band provides a backing choir when necessary. Long-time collaborator John Parish is, as always, a key component of the sound.

Were it not for the lyrics, this would easily be the best PJ Harvey record in at least 12 years. (April 21)

Stream: “The Ministry of Defence,” “The Orange Monkey,” “The Ministry of Social Affairs”

Tim Hecker – Love Streams (Paper Bag)

The clouds have parted in Tim Hecker’s sonic world. The Montreal ambient musician has built a career on strangely captivating sound of largely indeterminate origin. Since Ravedeath 1972, five years ago, he’s been playing a pipe organ found in an Icelandic church, and then digitally deconstructing his performance. On Love Streams, he’s back at the church and employing woodwinds and a local choir, with results that sound typically—well, glacial, to use a geographically obvious descriptor for such mysterious, slow-moving music.

Provocatively, Hecker bills this new music as “liturgical aesthetics after Yeezus.” Weird thing is, he’s not entirely off the mark. Tracks like “Voice Crack” and “Black Phase” feature a choir singing what seem like medieval dirges while crackling, distorted sounds seize control of the melody.

Love Streams also finds Hecker making clearer distinctions in his sonic choices, with sounds that obviously stem from somewhat recognizable synth sounds, as opposed to shifting washes of sound. The result is downright lively compared to the bulk of Hecker’s output; it’s certainly the most human. (April 7)

Stream: “Obisidian Counterpoint,” “Music of the Air,” “Voice Crack”

Khruangbin – The Universe Smiles Upon You (Night Time Stories)

This instrumental trio came out of nowhere—specifically Burton, Texas, a one-stoplight town between Austin and Houston—with an intoxicating mix of Motown grooves, jazzy guitar leads and psychedelic textures, with an ear open to Thai, Ethiopian, French and gospel music. Everyone’s playing here is masterful and gorgeous; it might make you feel hazy and lazy, but there’s nothing lazy about the musicianship at work here. The album was recorded in a barn, and you can easily visualize the big Texas skies influencing the vibe—this is music for cloud-gazing and starwatching, or, you know, any other time The Universe Smiles Upon You. (April 7)

Stream: “Mr. White,” “Little Joe & Mary,” “People Everywhere (Still Alive)”

Roxanne Potvin – For Dreaming (independent)

Potvin started her career as a Colin Linden-endorsed guitar slinger with a seriously soulful side. She’s still all those things, of course, but she’s taken a serious left turn on For Dreaming after becoming enchanted with the intimacy and songcraft of Afie Jurvanen’s recordings as Bahamas. That band’s Christine Bougie joins Potvin here, but despite having two guitar wizards in the same room, For Dreaming is very much a subdued folk-pop record, recorded largely in Potvin’s living room, with lovely little moments and subtle touches. Lyrically, Potvin oscillates between outright cheese (“Love makes us want to help each other out!”) and kind of sweet (“You still smile when I kiss you in your sleep”). It’d be nice to hear some of her former fireworks, which are hinted at on “Figuring It Out,” but she sounds more than comfortable in this new skin. (April 21)

Stream: “Figuring It Out,” “Prairie Sunrise,” “I Wouldn’t Tell You That”

Danny Michel – Matadora (Six Shooter)

The last time we heard from Waterloo favourite Danny Michel, on perhaps the most acclaimed album of his career, Black Birds Are Dancing Over Me, he was performing with the percussion-heavy Central American band Garifuna Collective, from Belize. It was his Paul Simon moment, and it worked. Now he’s back recording in Canada on his own, but the sunny ways are still evident in every groove here, on his 10th album. “I had a dream that I stole the maps / erased the borders and that was that,” he sings on the sure-to-be hippie anthem “Click Click,” which also asks, “Are you too cool for love?” Michel is too old now to care about being cool, and more power to him. Not an ounce of his talent or curiosity or songwriting has faded in the least. “These are the good old days,” he sings. Doesn’t sound like they’re coming to an end any time soon. (April 21)

Stream: “Paris Las Vegas,” “Get Lost,” “Click Click”

Shye Ben Tzur, Jonny Greenwood and the Rajasthan Express – Junjun (Nonesuch)

Going to take a wild guess here that of the three names to whom this album is credited, Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood is the only one that stands out to you. His contribution to this collaboration is the least audible, but, from a marketing standpoint, it’s certainly obvious why he would get equal billing with the Israeli composer and the Indian ensemble who play Sufi devotional music. Tzur has lived in India for years, and writes in Hindi, Urdu and his native Hebrew. The Rajasthan Express is a large band with full brass and percussion. The music on Junjun blurs lines between Indian and Arabic music, between modern and traditional (there’s a heavy Brian Eno influence on many pieces, presumably Greenwood’s doing), between the meditational and the ecstatic (some of the brass and percussion arrangements here wouldn’t sound out of place in New Orleans). There’s an acclaimed, accompanying documentary by P.T. Anderson, for whom Greenwood is the soundtrack composer of choice (The Master, There Will Be Blood), but you don’t need to know the story to be moved by this powerful music. (April 21)

Stream: “Junjun,” “Roked,” “Allah Elohim”

Colin Stetson – Sorrow: A Reimagining of Gorecki’s 3rd Symphony (52Hz)

How many rock bands set out to cover Dark Side of the Moon? How many jazz artists cover Kind of Blue? That takes a certain amount of chutzpah.

As does this move by Colin Stetson, the superhuman saxophonist of the avant-garde, in which he tackles the only modern classical composition to sell a million copies while its composer was still alive (he died in 2010). Symphony No. 3 was written in 1977 and made famous by a 1992 Nonesuch recording by the London Sinfonietta, ruling the classical charts for years. Hearing it was a revelatory experience for the young Stetson, and after his New History of Warfare trilogy snapped up spots on Polaris Prize shortlists and introduced large audiences to the concept of circular breathing and Philip Glass minimalism applied to solo saxophone performance, he felt he was up for this challenge.

Adapting it to a small ensemble—three winds, three strings (including his partner, Sarah Neufeld), two guitarists, two keyboards, drums and mezzo-soprano (his sister, Megan)—Stetson is faithful to the emotional tenor and tempo of the original, if not the instrumentation. Surely Gorecki never imagined the end of the first movement collapsing into maelstrom of white noise, or crescendo-ing guitars ala Godspeed You Black Emperor accelerating the emotional intensity, or a drummer from a death metal band called Liturgy providing some extra punch. None of this is gimmicky or irreverent; it enhances the original work, just as anything billing itself as a “reimagining” ideally should.

Stetson’s own role appears to be that of arranger; anyone expecting to hear the arpeggios or howling vocalizations that defined the New History trilogy will not find them here. For such a distinctive performer, Stetson is more than happy to surrender to his solo persona to the greater ensemble here.

Colin Stetson has never been an artist to back away from ambition—and to fulfill it. Which is exactly what he’s done here. (April 14)

Venetian Snares – Traditional Synthesizer Music (Planet Mu)

No, the album title is not a new category at the Grammys or the Junos. That’s not to say it couldn’t be some day. Winnipeg’s Aaron Funk, a.k.a. Venetian Snares, has made frenetic electronic music for almost two decades now, but this is the first time he’s made an album entirely with old analog modular synths: instruments that don’t come with preset sounds, instruments that don’t always behave in predictable manners—much like Funk himself. If we believe the man (which we shouldn’t necessarily do; he has a reputation as a prankster), it was all recorded live, complete with shifting tempos that defy the crutch of “quantizing,” the technical trick that imposed rhythmic uniformity on the world in the 1980s. As always with Venetian Snares, the avalanche of ideas can be exhausting, but there’s no denying the man’s genius, and this foray into “traditional” music could serve as a welcome entry point for the uninitiated. I’d also love to hear someone score this for a live band, perhaps the first time I’ve felt that way about a Venetian Snares record. (April 7)

Stream: “Everything About You is Special,” “Magnificent Stumble v2,” “Health Card10”