Friday, December 31, 2010

2010, How I Felt Then

If there's a theme this year, it's exceeded expectations. Records I thought would be good are turned out to be great (like the top three below), while artists I'd never cared for (Tracy Thorn, Beach House, The Thermals) or underestimated (Selina Martin) or almost given up on out of frustration (Broken Social Scene, Joanna Newsom, The Roots, Massive Attack) all came back swinging. Hit those boxing-day sales while you can, folks.

1. Arcade Fire – The Suburbs (Sonovox/Merge). There was once a part of me that felt self-conscious about writing gushing praise for Arcade Fire. I know them all personally; I witnessed many early triumphs; I felt like one of their only champions when they were still third down the bill on shows in their hometown of Montreal. As recently as this article, I felt I had to include some qualifying statements, to play the role of objective critic, to somehow pretend that I don't in fact love almost everything this band does (and how they do it, and with whom they do it). But I do. And The Suburbs is not just my favourite album of the year, but one of my favourite albums ever, by anyone. Maybe it's the white suburban kid in me who grew up with many of the same influences and contradictions. Maybe it's my personal history with this band's trajectory. But to soothe my own vain battles with subjectivity, I'm clearly not the only person in the world who thought The Suburbs is a sprawling, majestic and defining achievement. And to top off an astounding year, the live show finally saw them live up to their full potential—and proved that stadium rock does not have to suck.

2. Caribou – Swim (Merge). This is not just one of the best electronic albums of the year featuring one of the year’s best dance singles ("Odessa"); Swim is a landmark album in Canadian music, with its manipulation of organic sound sources woven into warm, inviting grooves. Pop hooks, electronic experimentation and the dance floor rarely work as well together as they do here.

3. Owen Pallett – Heartland (Domino). After listening to an Owen Pallett album, every schlep who throws syrupy strings on top of their lame pop songs is exposed for the slackers they are. Pallett excels at drawing from classical composition—both modern and, um, classic—embellishing it with electronics and singing soaring pop melodies on top. His ambitions are grand, but he has no trouble reaching them at all. My interview is here, here and here.

4. Joanna Newsom – Have One On Me (Drag City). Following up a bloated, meandering double album (2006’s Ys) with, of course, a triple album, Newsom proves that more is in fact more. The songs are still ridiculously long, and her girlish voice—though tempered here—is still an acquired taste. But the ornamental orchestration is perfectly complementary (certainly much better than Van Dyke Parks’s intrusions on Ys), and her writing here is as strong as Joni Mitchell was in her prime. Her harmonies sound more and more like the McGarrigle sisters, which was lovely to hear in the year we lost Anna. This came out in February and took most of the year to digest properly, but it’s more than worth the investment for performer and listener alike.

5. Pantha du Prince – Black Noise (Rough Trade). This German electronic producer sounds like he’s summoning the elements of the natural world to make his brand of surprisingly funky dance music: glacial ice, rushing water, crackling fires, pebble beaches, rustling branches. It’s a matter of time before Bjork comes calling.

6. Tracey Thorn – Love and its Opposites (Merge). This devastating solo record by Everything But the Girl’s front woman is the most heartbreakingly honest album of the year; she wields her wickedly insightful and penetrating pen to document divorce, aging, motherhood and singledom. So good it hurts. Only recommended for those in a somewhat stable emotional state; others beware.

7. Broken Social Scene – Forgiveness Rock Record (Arts and Crafts). Sure, you're the kings and queens of Toronto — all the more reason to decamp to Chicago and be forced to focus. After endless solo projects, an oral history book, a concert movie, and the threat of saturation, Broken Social Scene rallied the troops, put pop hooks front and centre, and let producer John McEntire craft the background chaos into tasty textural bits, while drummer Justin Peroff evolved into the band's secret star. BSS's blend of boisterous guitar rock, glimmering electronics and bold brass sections has never sounded so powerful and convincing — it's the sound of a band that never wants to be taken for granted again..

8. Beach House – Teen Dream (Sub Pop). Every year needs at least one album that makes you want to fall asleep by the ocean, underneath the stars. This is that album.

9. Selina Martin – Disaster Fantasies (independent). Selina Martin has always oozed charisma, but here the Toronto performer has a set of songs that matches her grand ambitions and her love of glam, prog, punk, folk, balladry—and Rush. Every song sounds like a smash hit, making this without question the most underrated Canadian album of the year (surely not a prize she was shooting for).

10. Doug Paisley – Constant Companion (No Quarter). Paisley sounds like the kind of constant companion that’s been with you your entire life as a music fan: the Sunday morning acoustic singer/songwriter who is neither maudlin nor morose, who is slightly melancholy but not a sad sack, whose every guitar or vocal phrase is instantly warm and welcoming. Word of mouth is spreading fast: expect to hear a lot more about Doug Paisley in 2011 and beyond.

11. The Sadies – Darker Circles (Outside). One of the best live acts in the world deliver their darkest, spookiest and most powerful album to date, one that stands beside the best work of any of their high-profile friends, none of whom need to show up here. This is the first truly great album in the Sadies’ discography, but it surely will not be their last.

12. Mike Patton – Mondo Cane (Ipecac). Italians are known for opera, not pop music. So of course vintage Italian pop music from the ’60s is full of operatic bravado, which makes it perfect for Mike Patton to interpret, whether it’s delicate cinematic balladry or metallic garage rock that segues into a go-go chorus. That he pulls it all off is to be expected; that it is so wonderfully orchestrated and sounds so fresh is just a bonus.

13. Brian Eno – Small Craft on a Milk Sea (Warp). One of the most renowned producers in experimental pop history—who also has an influential but spotty solo career—delivers one of his most fascinating and definitive collections, drawing from his ambient explorations, his instrumental songcraft and hypnotizing rhythms.

14. Gord Downie and the Country of Miracles – The Grand Bounce (Universal). With The Tragically Hip officially on hiatus, Downie delivers a knockout album that’s the most consistent and concise of his solo career. The Country of Miracles has finally solidified into a confident, cohesive band, and producer Chris Walla brings everything into clear focus.

15. The Dead Weather – Sea of Cowards (Warner). The tension between snarling singer Alison Mosshart and drummer/producer Jack White creates spacious, sexy, sweaty psychedelic blues rock that blows away every other so-called rock’n’roll act of 2010.

16. New Pornographers – Together (Last Gang). Few bands can boast full-on six-part harmonies, and the New Pornographers know enough to play to their strengths. This year Kathryn Calder became the latest band member to put out a fine solo album, but there’s no disunity to be heard on this aptly titled fifth album.

17. Massive Attack – Heligoland (EMI). The trip-hop pioneers who helped define the ’90s managed to waste most of the last decade, but here they bounce back with dark dance grooves, squiggly bass and the usual parade of guest singers. It may not be new, but it’s certainly improved; this may well be the finest work this band has ever done.

18. The Thermals – Personal Life (Kill Rock Stars). Too often, power pop wastes its energy on superficial or sugary sweet lyrics. The Thermals, however, sing songs of inspiration and betrayal and perform them like it’s a matter of life or death. An album for those who think punk rock sold its soul long ago—and anyone who misses the Pixies dearly.

19. Schomberg Fair – Gospel (Hi-Hat). Whiskey-soaked, shitkicking bluegrass songs on punk rock guitars delivered with considerable fire and brimstone, this Toronto band gives Canadiana roots rock a kick in the ass.

20. The Roots – How I Got Over (Universal). Becoming a talk show house band turned out to be the best thing for this venerable hip-hop band at this stage in their career. They haven’t been this focused or fun in ages, and the list of collaborators is truly inspired.

The rest, in alphabetical order:

Laurie Anderson – Homeland (Nonesuch). "Was the constitution written in invisible ink? Has everyone here forgotten how to think? Is this great big boat starting to sink?" Fair questions. And few are better positioned to play the role of inquisitor than Laurie Anderson, whose wit, perception and poetry have never sounded so engaged with her selected topic — in this case, the end of an empire — than they do here. Musically, she combines the best of her sci-fi sounds of the '80s with earthier and exotic instrumentation and manages to make it all breathe beautifully.

Bei Bei and Shawn Lee – Into the Wind (Ubiquity). It’s safe to say that the Chinese zither has never sounded funkier than it does on this collaboration, which works far better than most cross-cultural clashes do. Soundtrack supervisors for martial arts films should be paying close attention.

Big Boi – Sir Luscious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty (Def Jam). A hip-hop icon came back from the wilderness and made a dense, delicious, diverse and occasionally dangerous album that pushed the limits of the genre and deserved a place on every year-end list. That artist is Outkast’s Big Boi—nattering narcissists from Chicago need not apply.

Jim Bryson and the Weakerthans – The Falcon Lake Incident (Maple). The Weakerthans rarely release new music, but considering how well they fare here backing up Ottawa songwriter Jim Bryson, they might not have to wait for their notoriously meticulous bandleader, John K. Samson, to amass a new set of material. Plus, Bryson writes songs with similar wit, economy and melodic heft, and this is easily his finest work to date.

Budos Band – III (Daptone). Funk does not get any heavier than Budos Band, who filter all sorts of African influences and ’70s American funk into a percussive stew driven by baritone saxophone. Guaranteed to put swagger in your step.

David Byrne and Fatboy Slim – Here Lies Love (Nonesuch/Warner). A musical about the life of Imelda Marcos? Byrne pulls it off with an all-star cast of female singers, strong melodies and some disco demolition from Fatboy Slim. It’s worth shelling out for the deluxe edition with extensive liner notes by Byrne.

Kathryn Calder – Are You My Mother? (File Under: Music). Calder is one of four lead singers in the New Pornographers, but her deeply personal debut solo album—performed with some of the top talent on the West Coast—shows that she’s also one of the most promising songwriters in the country.

Cowboy Junkies – Renmin Park (Latent). Michael Timmins’ sojourn in China gave his songwriting the shot in the arm it needed badly, and sonically the band incorporates traditional and modern Chinese music while never straying far from their original template. This is a welcome left turn and surprisingly rewarding.

Diamond Rings – Special Affections (Secret City). This former Guelph art student took the world by storm—along with fans like Robyn, Peaches and Kathleen Hanna—with his bedroom take on electro glam pop. The makeup and videos may have turned heads, but John O’Regan has the songs to back up all the hype.

Flying Lotus – Cosmogramma (Warp). Alice Coltrane’s nephew brings his own unique sense of jazz-inspired adventurism to dense compositions that mash up every avant-garde development in electronic dance music of the last 20 years, with the lush orchestration his aunt was known for. Confounding, colourful and compelling.

Frog Eyes – Paul’s Tomb: A Triumph (Dead Oceans). In a year that ended with the death of Captain Beefheart, Victoria, B.C.’s Frog Eyes paid their own personal homage by channelling singer Carey Mercer’s visceral howl into anthemic avant-garde guitar rock that crackled with a nervous, dangerous energy that has never sounded as heavy—nor as successfully focused—as it does here.

Cee-Lo Green – The Lady Killer (Warner). Sure, “Fuck You” was a visceral viral video hit in the summer, but the rest of the album is just as sassy and soulful, even without the profanity. Green clearly doesn’t need Danger Mouse or the Gnarls Barkley pseudonym to make powerful pop music.

It Kills – s/t (independent). This haunting Halifax trio set themselves apart from other mostly instrumental, morose chamber-rock bands by letting the sunlight in occasionally, and using vocals for atmospheric effect, not a capitulation to traditional songwriting.

Seu Jorge and Almaz – s/t (Now Again). The Brazilian baritone crooner corrals a new band well versed in bossa nova, dub reggae and psychedelic rock, and leads them in a collection of covers by Kraftwerk, Jorge Ben, Roy Ayers, and Michael Jackson. What could go wrong? Nothing at all, it turns out.

Janelle Monae – The Archandroid (Bad Boy/Warner). She dances like Wilson Pickett, she sings like Lyn Collins, she hangs out with Outkast and Of Montreal, she loves psychedelic pop and classical music, and she imagines herself as a science-fiction superhero. Even better, the music is as awesome as she is.

Robert Plant – Band of Joy (Rounder). Plant may have been playing nice on his album with Alison Krauss, but here he throws himself into songs by Los Lobos, Low, Townes Van Zandt and other dark corners of Americana.

Justin Rutledge – The Early Widows (Six Shooter). This sensitive singer/songwriter opens the album with the song “Be A Man”; producer Hawksley Workman helps him do just that over the course of 10 tracks, with a dual-drummer rhythm section, gospel choirs, and rousing electric guitars giving Rutledge’s songs some welcome heft.

South Rakkas Crew – The Stimulus Package (Mad Decent). This Brampton-born group plays polyglot pop and deconstructionist dancehall that is wicked, wacky and wild party from beginning to end, full of booty bass that’s both abrasive and persuasive, and even the occasional auto-tuned vocal merely adds to the overall madness rather than a nauseating distraction.

Wovenhand – The Threshingfloor (Sounds Familyre). With an ominous baritone that promises a healthy dose of hellfire, David Eugene Edwards expands his deeply spiritual Americana songcraft to include Irish, Turkish and Native American influences, creating a class all his own. If this doesn't put the fear of God into you, nothing will.

Zeus – Say Us (Arts and Crafts). Not only does this album sound like 1975, it sounds like this group has been around since 1975—with decades of experience of songwriting, arranging and performing behind them. Instead, this is a debut album by a Toronto band with a long, bright future ahead of them.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

November '10 reviews

The following reviews ran in the Kitchener-Waterloo Record and Guelph Mercury in November.

Black Dub – s/t (Sony)

It’s easier to say what Black Dub is not rather than what it is: it is not a vehicle for the songs of Daniel Lanois, nor his voice; though it is texturally rich, it is not atmospheric pop; and—with the exception of single I Believe In You—it bears little relationship to Jamaican dub reggae music, as the band name might suggest.

If anything, this band—featuring master jazz drummer Brian Blade, longtime Lanois collaborator Darryl Johnson and young singer Trixie Whitley (daughter of the departed Chris Whitley, a client and friend of Lanois—is a showcase for the bluesy vocals of Whitley, a neophyte who certainly holds her own in the company of considerably more seasoned musicians. Yet that’s all it appears to be: a bunch of veterans hanging loose and letting the compelling young woman do her thing. Despite their long history of collaboration together, on Lanois’s records or with Emmylou Harris, they sound more like sidemen here than a band in their own right, and Whitley’s gospel-intensity vocals feel like they’d be better suited to music with a tougher edge.

Black Dub is the most accessible, pop-oriented album of Lanois’s solo career in years, which is no doubt in part why it rocketed to the top of the iTunes chart, and many fans will not be disappointed. And needless to say, it sounds amazing. But there’s a lot more potential in this project that has yet to be tapped. (Nov. 11)

Download: “I Believe In You,” “Ring the Alarm,” “Nomad”

Jason Collett – Pony Tricks (Arts and Crafts)

Jason Collett is currently on a solo tour; not coincidentally, he’s just released this album of stripped-down re-recordings of previously released songs. And not that his recent albums haven’t featured fine production and performances, but Collett’s songs sound much better here, in their bare essence, with little more than harmony vocals, occasional drums and maybe an accordion floating in the background. Collett’s skill as a rhythm guitarist can be drowned out on his other albums; here, his self-accompaniment shines. Likewise, when he’s not fronting a rock’n’roll band, his voice sounds much more at ease and less affected, at times downright intoxicating. Pure pop songs like "Bitter Beauty" get slowed down to a dead-stop tempo, and prove to be just as engaging. For much of his solo career, Collett has tried to resist being tagged as a folkie singer/songwriter as opposed to a pop artist—but this, his folkiest album to date, is easily one of the best things he’s ever done. (Nov. 4)

Download: “Bitch City,” “Bitter Beauty,” “Feral Republic”

Elvis Costello – National Ransom (Lost Highway)

Oh, enough already. Another year, another new album in Elvis Costello’s discography to mark a serious dent in his reputation. Just because his prolific output in his youth happened to result in albums that people still cherish 30 years later doesn’t mean he’s still capable of pulling off the album-a-year pace. What’s worse is that his Americana kick is still in full force, and no matter how much he hangs around T-Bone Burnett or Allen Toussaint, he still hasn’t learned the simplicity at the core of American folk songs; far too often he’s trying to shoehorn his dense narratives into an old-timey-sounding country shuffle, with forgettable melodies and off-the-cuff arrangements that don’t do the already weak songs any favours. An impassioned vocal delivery throughout only makes it all more mystifying, but at least he’s not phoning in that part, even if everything else sounds like he’s wearing someone else’s clothes. Tellingly, the best song here is called “I Lost You.”

Costello remains a powerful performer and a knowledgeable TV host; can we please declare a moratorium on new material, however? (Nov. 11)

Download: “I Lost You,” “You Hung the Moon,” “Stations of the Cross”

Tanya Davis – Clocks and Hearts Keep Going (independent)

Halifax’s Tanya Davis is an award-winning poet—but unlike most award-winning poets, you’ve probably heard her work. Over 1.8 million people have viewed a short film she narrated for director Andrea Dorfman, called How To Be Alone. Few of those people, however, are aware that Davis is also a singer/songwriter, but this album—her third, and produced by Jim Bryson—is likely to change that. Despite her literary background, Davis isn’t a poet adapting herself to a song format; she knows how to write an earnest and simple melody and let the music do most of the talking. Simplicity is her strength, and never more so than on “Sweep the Dust,” a gorgeous and lilting adult lullaby. (Nov. 25)

Download: “Mourn Your Losses,” “Eulogy for You and Me,” “Sweep the Dust”

Brian Eno – Small Craft on a Milk Sea (Warp)

Though Eno’s recent solo albums, including a collaboration with David Byrne, were more song-oriented, Small Craft on a Milk Sea is an instrumental affair that balances the atmospherics of his ambient work with more percussive electronic pieces that, on songs like “2 Forces of Anger,” can occasionally veer into rock territory. All of which, for such a well-known and little understood cult figure, makes this the ultimate introduction into everything Brian Eno is about as an artist and sound sculptor, one whose work and wide influence has spanned 40 years. If you’ve ever had difficulty navigating his uneven discography, which even diehard fans do, this is a welcome summation—and not one that’s about retreading past glories, but one firmly rooted in the present and just as contemporary as anything heard from the current generation of artists, a generation born around the same time Eno was composing his Music For Airports.

Download: “Dust Shuffle,” “Small Craft on a Milk Sea,” “Paleosonic”

Bryan Ferry – Olympia (EMI)

Bryan Ferry made Roxy Music’s Avalon album in 1980. Bryan Ferry has made many records since; all of them sound like Avalon. Some are almost as good—1985’s Boys and Girls, 1994’s Mamouna—but really, let’s be honest, they were no Avalon. So on that spectrum, Olympia is one of Ferry’s better solo records, populated more with his own songs (co-written with the Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart) than covers that he usually has a tendency to butcher—not that that hasn’t stopped him over the course of his 13 solo albums, especially 2007’s Dylanesque; thankfully, his take on Tim Buckley’s "Song to the Siren" here is one of his better interpretations.

As expected, Ferry is a suave, sultry leading man; the music is seductive, even if, as always with Ferry, you always feel somewhat underdressed for his cocktail party—the glamour shot of Kate Moss on the cover doesn’t help. Bryan Ferry will always be classier than you and me.

The list of his classy collaborators is outstanding: Pink Floyd’s David Gilmore, Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea, Chic’s Nile Rodgers, Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, Groove Armada and the Scissor Sisters. Roxy Music fans will note the presence of that band’s Phil Manzanera, Andy Mackay and Brian Eno; though they were also present on Mamouna, some of these tracks were meant for a new Roxy Music album dating back to 2005.

As lovely as it all is, Ferry’s music still sounds more like a lifestyle accessory than anything else; maybe that’s all it has to be. Too bad it’s coming out before Destroyer’s early 2011 release Kaputt, which takes more than a few pages from Ferry’s solo career. (Nov. 4)

Download: “Heartache By Numbers,” “Shameless,” “Alphaville”

The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger – Acoustic Sessions (Chimera)

Sean Lennon’s solo records—while pleasant enough—were never more than a curiosity for the freakiest of Beatle freaks, so it’s no surprise his new project, with girlfriend and model Charlotte Kemp Muhl, doesn’t grant him marquee status. Yet it’s very much Lennon’s show; Muhl’s cooing voice might be higher in the mix, but these are Lennon’s songs and his years of musical experience (musical director for his mother, Yoko Ono, as well as collaborating with his previous girlfriend, Cibo Matto’s Yuka Honda) overshadow Muhl’s presence. The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger is a breezy affair—mostly acoustic, as the title indicates—with nods to Brazilian bossa nova and lightweight French pop music of the ’60s. As always with Lennon, there’s little here that says much about him as an artist as opposed to a craftsman; but without his name front and centre, perhaps that’s all he aims to be. (Nov. 4)

Download: “Lavender Road,” “Jardin du Luxembourg,” “Rainbows in Gasoline”

Cee-Lo Green – The Lady Killer (Warner)

Cee-Lo Green claims he wasn’t out to turn heads with his single “Fuck You,” which became a viral video hit this past summer. But if combining a bitter kiss-off with a classic-sounding soul song seems gimmicky—which it might be, but the strength of the song more than justifies it—the rest of The Lady Killer easily matches the momentum of what could have been a fluke hit.

The template of “Fuck You” is consistent with most of the rest of the album, with Green setting heartbroken, sometimes bitter, sometimes manipulative, sometimes just plain sad lyrics to upbeat, major-key melodies—which could also sum up 90 per cent of the Motown catalogue, really. And, as he did with Gnarls Barkley, there are times when he takes darker turns (“Bodies,” “Love Gun”), part of the mentally tormented persona that is part of all his songs.

That Green is an astounding soul singer is no secret; it was his voice, after all, that was central to the Gnarls Barkley smash hit single “Crazy.” But the material here finds him at full throttle, illustrating at times an almost operatic range. The music is firmly rooted in soul music from the ’60s to the ’90s, from Motown through Philly through Michael Jackson (the bass line in “Bright Lights Bigger City” is suspiciously similar to “Billie Jean”) to more modern technology—a trajectory that stops short before the likes of R. Kelly and Usher took R&B somewhere else entirely. But Green never sounds old-fashioned; he’s more of a renaissance man with a wide template to do whatever the f--- he wants. (Nov. 18)

Download: “Fuck You,” “It’s OK,” “Bright Lights Bigger City”

Kid Cudi – Man on the Moon II: The Legend of Mr. Rager (Universal)

Kid Cudi is a Kanye West protégé—but one that has certainly surpassed his mentor with this album. He is every bit as self-indulgent, and Man on the Moon II is just as much of a downer, mood-wise, as West’s latest. But musically, it’s a diverse and fascinating journey that sets Cudi apart from anyone else in proximity of mainstream hip-hop, including West; that Cudi is as big as he is seems almost miraculous, considering how outré his beats are.

Part of the reason for that is that Cudi is an admitted stoner; marijuana is his drug of choice, although there are others mentioned here, too. And just like drugs themselves, Kid Cudi is best in small doses; Man on the Moon II is far too long and Cudi eventually wears out his welcome, as stoners are wont to do. But being the introspective navel-gazer that he is, Cudi is well aware of the pitfalls of his chosen lifestyle, and this album sounds like a reckoning, a snapshot of an artist in transition. If he can begin to emerge from his own fog, Cudi could be one of the major hip-hop artists of the new decade—if he isn’t already. (Nov. 25)

Download: “The Mood,” “Wild’n Cuz I’m Young,” “Mr. Rager”

Doug Paisley – Constant Companion (No Quarter)

Soft-spoken male singer/songwriters are a dime a dozen; precious few have the magic that elevate them above that wispy din you hear in the corner of your local coffeehouse. And then there is Doug Paisley.

Presumably no relation to Brad, it’s hard to imagine this Toronto performer ever raising his voice above a soft croon. His own guitar work is compelling enough alone as accompaniment, but he manages to rope in members of The Band (Garth Hudson), Blue Rodeo (Bazil Donovan), and Feist, who duets on “Don’t Make Me Wait.” There are more than a few stylistic similarities to Toronto’s suddenly quite popular Bahamas—with whom Paisley is currently touring—but while that band’s Afie Jurvanen is known just as much for his guitar playing as his songwriting, with Paisley it is all about the song.

Any one of the nine tracks heard here sound like a long-lost, dusty ’70s classic best suited for a Sunday morning hangover. Doug Paisley will not be a secret for much longer; this is easily one of the best singer/songwriter albums of the last year. (Nov. 25)

Download: "Always Say Goodbye," "No One But You," "Come Here My Love"

Steven Page – Page One (Warner)

If you wanted to, you could try and analyze Steven Page’s first proper solo album for insight into the tumultuous past few years of his life, which include a divorce, a drug bust, and leaving one of the most successful Canadian bands of the last 20 years (who released an album without him earlier this year).

But why would you? Page has always specialized in writing in a specific voice; many of his best songs have always been self-contained narratives and neurotic character portraits, and this album is no different. Playing guessing games with the lyrics is far less enjoyable than sitting back and appreciating a well-crafted pop album, which has only ever been Page’s aim since the early days of the Barenaked Ladies.

Now that he’s not performing under a name that most adults were embarrassed to pronounce out loud, Page hasn’t suddenly gone serious: instead, he seems ready to try anything, from big band (“Leave Hear Alone”) to Eurodisco (“Queen of America”) to string quartets (“All the Young Monogamists”) to Burt Bacharach-style sweet pop (“Clifton Springs”) to ambitiously big ballads (“The Chorus Girl”) to songs that could easily have been Barenaked Ladies songs (“Indecision,” “She’s Trying to Save Me”). Oddly enough, the only time he ever sounds derivative is on “Over Joy,” a song that sounds specifically like an outtake from Blue Rodeo’s Casino album—albeit a good one.

Throughout, Page sounds reinvigorated and ready for the next phase of his career—which, based on Page One, is unlikely to be overshadowed by earlier successes. (Nov. 4)

Download: “Over Joy,” “The Chorus Girl,” “All the Young Monogamists”

Rihanna – Loud (Universal)

On one of the vocal powerhouse showcases here, Rihanna tells her lover: “Everything with you is complicated / you’re not easy to love.”

You don’t say. The tough young Barbadian with big pop hooks who blew up large on 2007’s Good Girl Gone Bad returned with a limp pop album, 2009’s Rated R, that diluted her strengths and failed to produce even a couple of memorable songs. Loud is not only a return to form—full of catchy pop melodies that should keep its singles on the charts for another year—but it’s a more musically mature record that finds the often robotic singer letting loose a bit; on tracks like “Complicated” and lead single “Only Girl in the World,” she goes for the gusto and pulls it off.

Lyrically, however, this good girl is still trying to prove how bad she is, and that’s where Loud runs into trouble. Lead-off track “SAndM” is about exactly what you think it is, its chorus using a joke that only schoolchildren find racy: “Sticks and stones may break my bones but chains and whips excite me.” It’s set to one of the one of the more gripping club beats here, and wouldn’t be out of place on a Peaches album. But after the 2009 tabloid frenzy that made Rihanna one of the most visible victims of domestic abuse—at the hand of her then-boyfriend Chris Brown—it’s more than a bit disconcerting to hear her singing about masochism.

Mind you, that’s child’s play compared to her straight-up domestic-abuse duet with Eminim, “I Love the Way You Lie”; his version was already a hit this summer; here, she presents it more as a straight-up song without any annoying intrusion from—oh wait, there he is at the end. If the S&M of the opening track is playful, “I Love the Way You Lie” is downright disturbing, and not just because of Eminem’s detailed description of a mutually abusive relationship, but—again—hearing current pop music’s most high-profile battery victim sing: “Just going to stand there and watch me burn? / That’s all right because I like the way it hurts.” Granted, she also sings about her own murderous revenge on the dancehall-tinged “Man Down,” so maybe all is fair in love and war and pop art. But it’s sure going to be hard to explain all these complicated gender politics to all the pre-teens who love Rihanna. (Nov. 18)

Download: "SAndM," "Complicated," "Only Girl in the World"

John K. Samson – Provincial Road 222 / City Route 85 (Anti)

The first time I heard “Stop Error,” a song from John K. Samson’s Provincial Road 222 EP, I though the Weakerthans’ singer/songwriter had gone batshit crazy. The pop punk songwriter, whose voice can best be described as nasal, leads an all-choral arrangements of a madrigal that begins with the lyrics: “My monitor is broken” and goes on to speak of HTML tags, the theme music of Call of Duty 4 and assorted technological breakdowns. But once expectations had been shattered, “Stop Error” actually turns out to be brilliant—not because of the lovely choral arrangements, but in the way Samson’s befuddled narrator starts to see the patterns of flawed logic of his broken computer in the workings of the world around him.

Samson’s songwriting has always sounded worlds away from other bands who happen to sound like the Weakerthans; therefore, it’s not surprising that freed from any musical constraints, his songwriting is just as effective, affecting and poignant. Anything goes on Provincial Road 222; on the earlier EP City Route 85 (released last fall) Samson travels the more conventional solo singer/songwriter route. Both are part of a series he says will explore “the atmospheric streets and highways surrounding Winnipeg.” And if you missed Samson touring as part of the Correction Line Ensemble, with his wife Christine Fellows and four classical musicians, reliable rumour has it that it was quite a treat and a whole other beast altogether. (Nov. 11)

Download: “Stop Error,” “The Last And,” “Heart of the Continent”

Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (Universal)

Kanye West could be heard apologizing for past behaviour recently, making amends with Taylor Swift and admitting that he’s been a bit of a jerk. So now we should see a kinder, gentler Kanye West, yes? Not really. In one of the more (unintentionally?) hilarious boasts heard here, West retorts: “I don’t need your pussy, bitch, I’m on my own dick.” Whatever—he’s certainly crawled up his own ass.

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, is, as expected, remarkably indulgent, juvenile, and, well, boring. There are certainly no pop songs on the level of “Gold Digger” or “Stronger”; the most arresting tracks—“Power” and “Monster”—here are too profane for pop radio and have too many cameos to make them great Kanye West singles. And for every moment of musical brilliance, there’s a song like “Runaway,” a nine-minute epic that ends with an interminable guitar solo—which is actually West’s (or someone’s) voice run through a distortion pedal (and likely AutoTune as well).

Lyrically, West spends his sex-obsessed time drunk driving, getting slapped with restraining orders, and fantasizing about porn stars, eventually suggesting: “Let’s have a toast for the douchebags, let’s have a toast for the assholes.”

Maybe it’s too easy to take literally; maybe it’s all a massive orgy of self-parody. But who cares? The only lasting impression comes from the chorus of “So Appalled,” where West and Jay-Z point out: “You know this shit is fucking ridiculous.” But if it is, then what’s up with the gratuitous gravitas of the Gil Scott-Heron sample that closes the album, on a 90-second snippet called “Who Will Survive in America?” (Answer: the narcissists, apparently.)

Why anyone—least of all Taylor Swift or a former president of the United States—cares about Kanye West’s opinion on anything is mystifying. The man used to be a fantastic producer; now he is only so merely occasionally. He also used to be funny; now he sounds consistently mean and bitter. Every time he steps to a microphone, on stage or off stage, the man is increasingly embarrassing, a victim of his own hubris. And yet, we only seem to be rewarding him even more—look, I just wasted 400 words on the asshole. (Nov. 25)

Download: “Power,” “All of the Lights,” “Monster”

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Oct '10 reviews

The following reviews ran in the Kitchener-Waterloo Record and the Guelph Mercury last month.

Antony and the Johnsons – Swanlights (Secretly Canadian)

“Everything is new,” sings Antony in the opening moments of his new album. But is it? For all the heavenly powers of his voice, and a handful of heartbreaking songs to his credit, Antony Hegarty has been in the “most promising” category for far too long. With the innate talent he has, not to mention the number of legends and peers who line up to work with him, it’s shocking that none of his albums are as good as they can be.

Swanlights is no different; in fact, it shares a lot of melodic and stylistic similarities to songs on his breakthrough, 2005’s I Am A Bird Now, right down to the token Stax-style soul song (“Thank You For Your Love”) and a meditation on death (“The Spirit Was Gone”). Yet there are no knockouts here; much of Swanlights is content to let Antony’s voice do all the heavy lifting. And when Bjork shows up for a duet, it’s a really bad idea, two eccentric voices indulging in their eccentricities and never meeting in the middle; they should know this by now, from earlier misfires featured on her Volta album.

With a unique artist like Antony, the effect of a co-writer or a producer could dilute everything that makes him special—or it could be the best thing to ever happen to him. It’s worth the risk to find out. (Oct. 7)

Download: “Christina’s Farm,” “Swanlights,” “Thank You For Your Love”

Belle and Sebastian – Write About Love (Matador)

Belle and Sebastian’s most recent album—2005’s The Life Pursuit—was a coming-out party of sorts for the previously bashful and bookish band, who suddenly discovered muscles they didn’t even know they had, and made a bright, big pop album that was more than enough to satiate fans in the five years since.

Write About Love is equally confident and accomplished, but doesn’t feel like it has as much to prove. So even if the peppiest numbers here are unlikely to get all your local librarians to start shimmying—which was the case with almost every track on The Life Pursuit—there is still a boldness to even the ballads here (“Calculating Bimbo,” “Read the Blessed Pages”). Violinist Sarah Martin spends more time in the spotlight, either taking lead vocals or trading off with bandleader Stuart Murdoch; Norah Jones shows up for a sultry duet on “Little Lou, Ugly Jack, Prophet John.” The only weak link is guitarist Stevie Jackson; surely his sole song here—the drippy and peppy song “I’m Not Living in the Real World”—can’t be the best he’s penned in five years.

The only significant difference heard here in Belle and Sebastian’s formula is Murdoch writing more explicitly about his spirituality, specifically on “The Ghost of Rockschool.” But, as with everything in this band, he is as successful at being earnest as he is when he’s considerably more coy. (Oct. 21)

Download: “I Want the World to Stop,” “Little Lou, Ugly Jack, Prophet John,” “I Didn’t See It Coming”

Jim Bryson and the Weakerthans – The Falcon Lake Incident (MapleMusic)

Jim Bryson spent the last three years touring as a member of The Tragically Hip, Kathleen Edwards and the Weakerthans, and released a live album that was superior to any of his three studio efforts. Now, employing the Weakerthans as his backing band, the always reliable Ottawa songwriter continues his winning streak with his finest collection of songs to date, songs that share a sense of nuance and storytelling with the Weakerthans' poet-in-residence John K. Samson—albeit Bryson is no match for Samson’s peerless eye for poetic detail. Indeed, working alongside Samson—as a musician in his band, not as a co-writer—should be intimidating for any songwriter, but these two men have much in common, starting with their subtlety; the difference is that while neither are prone to grand statements or bland sentiment, Samson can casually drop a lyric that stops you in your tracks, and Bryson's songs sneak up on you slowly.

As a backing band, the Weakerthans don't try to adopt a hard-sell attitude to this set of songs; for all their strengths as players, what they do so effectively on their own albums is allow Samson the space to spin his narratives inside entirely conventional rock songs. So while their marquee status on Bryson's project will no doubt boost its profile, there's little about The Falcon Lake Incident that sounds much different than any other Jim Bryson album; being the all-around good guy of Canadian rock that he is, he's never had trouble attracting top talent to his studio records.

Come for the Weakerthans; stay for Jim Bryson. (Oct. 28)

Download: “Metal Girls,” “Up All Night,” “Raised All Wrong”

Coco et Co. – St. Denis (independent)

Two roommates in the long Montreal winter, writing sad love songs, but not to each other. Come springtime, they scour yard sales for cheap keyboards and start recording. Andrew J.P. Sisk sounds defeated but not down and out; Miranda Durka lurks in the background, largely resisting the urge to add female vocals and invite obvious comparisons to influences like The XX or Low (or, they claim, Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin); when she does, it’s that much more effective, and not at all imitative.

“You could be super if you wanted to,” Sisk sings over a disco beat on the cheapest drum machine imaginable, and there’s no doubt that these songs could truly shine with a bigger template. But they don’t want to, and nor should they. The intimacy heard here is what makes St. Denis so special, recalling the bedroom recordings of powerful sad-sack ’90s songwriter East River Pipe.

They’re not “fixed on the precious,” as they sing; these songs speak loud and clear on their own, especially “Radio”—which easily deserves a place on a list of the all-time great songs on that well-worn song topic: “You’ve been broadcasting/ and you’re wondering/ how it could be/ no one’s listening.” As the medium of radio disappears, and even the plethora of podcasts amounts to little more than white noise, the song is a lament for a lost form of communication. Hopefully someone’s listening—and why wouldn’t they be? Coco et Co. are giving away this entire album for free here. (Oct. 7 )

Diamond Rings – Special Affections (Secret City)

Over the course of the last year, there have been no less than four colourful and inventive videos that introduced Diamond Rings to an international audience much bigger than the project’s lo-fi bedroom beginnings would have indicated. Behind the ’80s fashion and synthesizers are John O’Regan’s songs, which boast the same melodic mastery and economy that he shows in his other band, the D’Urbervilles, whose 2008 debut, We Are the Hunters, is one of the most underrated Canadian rock records of the last decade.

And so now that the album is finally here, fans of O’Regan might be forgiven for having expected a bit more from Special Affections. Whereas the D’Urbervilles debuted with a mature, spacious and raw album that sounded like a band with much more experience, Diamond Rings still sounds like a work in progress. O’Regan is still figuring out how to make his limited tools—mostly cheap-sounding synths and drum machines—work to his advantage. On the other hand, it’s no worse than some of the early ’80s synth pop albums that obviously inspired him; but seeing how Janet Jackson and Kylie Minogue are also key influences, O’Regan’s not quite ready to make a big pop record.

None of this is a slight on the songs; Special Affections has 10 songs that are incredibly catchy, even at their moodiest (“Give It Up,” “Play By Heart”). O’Regan’s baritone lends a goth overtone to even the peppiest pop song, and it’s safe to say that no one else today is combining R&B, ’90s indie rock and ’80s synth pop as successfully as he is here. As good as Special Affections may be, it’s exciting to imagine where else O’Regan can go. (Oct. 28)

Download: “All Your Songs,” “On Our Own,” “Something Else”

The Drums –s/t (Universal)

Two song titles here pretty much sum everything up: “I Need Fun in My Life” and “It Will All End in Tears.” The Drums sound like they’re trying too hard to have fun—and failing. A friend and fan described them to me as a “happy Joy Division”—a contradiction in terms, but one that accurately describes the aesthetic and intent the Drums are working with. Yet there’s nothing joyous about this, despite their best efforts; the vocals are whiny, the lo-fi bedroom-band aesthetic gets weary fast, and the lyrics aim for Morrissey-style wit and come up flat. And when they actually do try and get serious on a ballad like “Down by the Water,” it’s barely listenable. Drop the Drums; go for Diamond Rings instead. (Oct. 28)

Download: “Best Friend,” “Let’s Go Surfing,” “I Need Fun in My Life”

Ben Folds & Nick Hornby – Lonely Avenue (Nonesuch)

That massive music geek and novelist Nick Hornby might eventually try his pen at writing lyrics seemed inevitable. That he would turn to Ben Folds also makes sense; the piano popsmith has a knack for turning uncomfortable subject matter into melodic rock songs and reflective ballads.

Unfortunately, Folds has been past his prime lately, and this album is no exception. Musically, the best thing about this album is the string arrangements by Paul Buckmaster, known for his work with David Bowie, Elton John and Leonard Cohen.

Lyrically, Hornby’s presence is barely felt, mostly because he either writes awkward prose that has no place in melodic pop or he sinks to a juvenile level that Folds seems all too happy to indulge (“Levi Johnston’s Blues”). Hornby sounds overly self-conscious, writing songs about songwriters both fictional and real (“Belinda,” “Doc Pomus”), poets (“Saskia Hamilton”) and Internet critics (“A Working Day”).

I don’t want to read a novel by Ben Folds; now I know I don’t want to hear Nick Hornby make an album. (Oct. 7 )

Download: “Your Dogs,” “Picture Window,” “Belinda”

Michael Franti & Spearhead – The Sound of Sunshine (EMI)

It’s hard to imagine a more apt title for an album that sounds out of place anywhere but on a beach “with the waves in motion and everything smelling like suntan lotion.”

Michael Franti may have built his reputation as a politically active songwriter, but—after bouncing back from a health scare—here’s he’s never anything less than a purveyor of positivity, whistling while he walks, and bathing in the beauty of the world. Franti has always been an inspiring figure, on stage and lyrically, but rarely has he ever sounded so completely blissed out as he does here, even while he recognizes that all is not well. “Today I’m just glad to be alive,” he sings on “Gloria,” an arm-waving anthem where he counts his blessings and his loved ones rather than surrender the tribulations of the troubled world outside.

Spearhead’s musical mandate continues to mine reggae, soul, and pop, but they’re slightly less successful as a rock band; “The Thing That Helps Me Get Through” sounds more than a bit like Lenny Kravitz, albeit on a good day. With recording done in Bali, Jamaica, San Francisco and in various hotel rooms, it’s no wonder the album sounds like it was made beside a beach—it probably was. (Oct. 14)

Download: “The Sound of the Sunshine,” “Hey Hey Hey,” “The Only Thing Missing Was You”

Olenka and the Autumn Lovers – And Now We Sing (independent)

If you’re born with a low, husky voice like that of Olenka Krakus, are you genetically predisposed to sing songs of the down and out, of motel dwellers and society’s forgotten? No matter, as Krakus would be a compelling figure no matter her subject matter, and there are few other female vocalists who sound anything like her, either in performance or her songwriting.

On her stunning 2008 debut album, Krakus drew from her Polish heritage to write gutsy eastern European melodies, and assembled a sympathetic band that brought their own influences to the table. Here, she abandons traditional approaches—though not the instrumentation—and takes some sidesteps into country music, but for the most part maintains her own idiosyncracies. For that reason, And Now We Sing sounds more like a transition album, whereas its predecessor was more cohesive and satisfying. Nonetheless, Olenka and the Autumn Lovers are still a unique presence, and not a band you should miss live. (Oct. 14)

Download: “East End,” “Motel Blues,” “Go”

Owen Pallett – A Swedish Love Story (For Great Justice)

Owen Pallett had literary ambitions on his triumphant 2010 album Heartland, the lyrics of which involved a meta-fictional construct. Whether Pallett succeeded or not is subject to much debate; some found the lyrics too distracting from the splendour of the music.

Perhaps as a reaction to Heartland’s glorious excess, A Swedish Love Story is a much simpler affair: four relatively straightforward pop songs. Or are they? “Scandal at the Parkade” references homophobic politicians in Jamaica and Uganda, and yet the chorus appears to be about cottages and repeats the phrase imploring someone to “button them down.” Musically, however this is the most consistently pop Pallett has ever been, still focused primarily around layers of his violin, but the bookending tracks on this four-song EP use a jaunty drum machine, while the songs in the middle balance strings and synths, delicacy and drama, pomp and pop. (Oct. 7)

Download: “Scandal At the Parkade,” “A Man With No Ankles,” “Don’t Stop”

PS I Love You – Meet Me at the Muster Station (Paper Bag)

Paul Saulnier is a man in love with sound—mostly the sound of his guitar, the sound of his guitar amp, and the sound of his guitar’s feedback. For all we know, he is also intricately obsessed with the sounds emanating from his guitar case and his guitar strap, perhaps even his guitar pick. He is a man in love with guitarists of all stripes: Jimi Hendrix, The Edge, the Jesus and Mary Chain, My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields.

It’s obvious he’d rather let his guitar do most of the talking; his double-tracked vocals are often buried in the mix, though it’s not hard to notice that he’s a howler and a scowler in the tradition of Frank Black, Lou Reed, and Spencer Krug (Wolf Parade, Sunset Rubdown). While the heavily layered Meet Me at the Muster Station certainly sounds excessive—the band is a duo, though you’d never guess that from this dense recording—Saulnier makes sure to dole it out in small doses; rare is the song here that breaks the three-minute mark. (Oct. 14)

Download: “Meet Me At the Muster Station,” “2012,” “Butterflies and Boners”

Sufjan Stevens – The Age of Adz (Asthmatic Kitty)

Sufjan Stevens has never suffered from lack of ambition. He became one of the biggest indie sensations of the last decade with accomplishments that include two albums about the state of Illinois and one about Michigan, electronic music—later adapted for string quartet—based on the Chinese zodiac, and a conceptual art project about the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.

There is no overarching narrative to The Age of Adz—his first album of new vocal material since his 2005 breakthrough Illinois—other than that he has fallen in love. And a messy love at that: one full of heightened emotional drama, optimism, doubt, and the unpredictable fluttering of the heart. Stevens sets out to chart all of this with erratic electronics, flowery flourishes of woodwinds and brass, choral vocals, and lyrics that he admits are “futile devices.” Indeed they are: on the opening track, the love of his life appears to be someone on whose couch he sleeps after they’ve tucked him in, someone whose abilities to crochet he finds “mesmerizing.”

Perhaps not surprisingly then, Stevens’s extended love letter is remarkably devoid of passion. As the cascading flutes dance around big string sections and intrusive electronic percussion—while a choir sings “there’s too much riding on that”—this material sounds simultaneously like an intellectual exercise rather than an emotional statement, and a chaotic mess of various paint cans spilled randomly over a canvas. There is a tension on almost every track here; Stevens sounds conflicted about surrendering to the volatility of love, like he’s been repressing himself for decades, throwing himself into various arcane pursuits and avoiding the sloppy world of real emotional engagement until now. And now that the floodgates have opened, he finds it hard to focus.

On the penultimate track, “I Want to Be Well,” the normally nauseatingly polite Stevens claims, “I’m not fucking around.” On the 25-minute closing track “Impossible Soul,” however, he then spends almost half an hour fucking around, shifting genres, moods and instrumentation in a manner more scattershot than in any way intriguing. He goes right off the rails at the 10-minute mark, when the normally pitch-perfect Stevens uses AutoTune on his voice, while the choir chants in the background and the electronics start sounding like angry insects. That the last 10 minutes of the song is an attempt at inspirational disco doesn’t redeem a thing, although the listener has to concur when the choir repeats ad nauseum: “Boy we can do much more together … Girl, I want nothing less than pleasure.” Agreed. Too bad we don’t hear it here.

The rest of the album is just as confounding and joyless. On “Now That I’m Older,” it sounds like Stevens is beyond old: he’s actually dead and gone, surrounded by the choral moaning of the ghosts of the past. Maybe that moaning is the sound of his fans, wondering what the hell happened, wondering if falling in love is indeed a form of madness. It sure sounds like it. (Oct. 21)

Download: “Futile Devices,” “Too Much,” “I Walked”

The Thermals – Personal Life (Kill Rock Stars)

This album begins with singer Hutch Harris promising “I’m Going to Change Your Life”; it ends with him singing “You Changed My Life.” In between there are a lot of promises made, promises kept and promise betrayed—often in the same song. Such is life, no?

Harris has a somewhat histrionic way of singing that suggests that something life-shattering is always at stake, but he’s never hectoring or whiny or a variation on an emotionally stunted emo boy. The Thermals have all the excitement and innocence of a teenage punk band, but with a decidedly adult take on emotional complexity. Musically, Harris is relying less on rhythm guitar and lets the rhythm section and his own melodic leads do the heavy instrumental lifting; whereas this band was once a Ramones-like reductionist take on punk pop, Personal Life has more in common with the Pixies—except that Harris is rooted in real life rather than surrealism.

Most importantly, however, every one of these 10 songs sounds like a readymade classic: the songwriting, the performances, and the production (by Death Cab For Cutie’s Chris Walla, who’s also made great albums by Gord Downie and Tegan and Sara in the past year) all combine to make perhaps the finest raw rock’n’roll you’ll hear this year. (Oct. 28)

Download: “I Don’t Believe You,” “Never Listen to Me,” “Not Like Any Other Feeling”

Yann Tiersen – Dust Lane (Anti)

French composer Yann Tiersen’s North American career hinges around one fluke album: the soundtrack to the film Amelie, which was largely comprised of songs from his earlier solo albums. Since then, he also composed to the score to the Academy Award-winning German film Good Bye Lenin!, collaborated with American songwriter Nina Nastasia, and put out a solo album in 2005. The man is much more than whimsical and melancholy accordion songs, and there’s very little on Dust Lane that sounds like Amelie.

Even if accordions and violins are still present, the tone is much more mournful—inspired by death in Tiersen’s family—and, at times, apocalyptic. It has much in common with Montreal’s Godspeed You Black Emperor, full of sawing strings, minor keys and ominous climaxes, especially on the haunting “Palestine.” Spoken passages, ghostly vocals, analog synths, scorching guitar textures and calm acoustic passages all culminate in the carnal closing number, “Fuck Me,” a duet that serves a final moment of uplift and optimism. (Oct. 14)

Download: “Dust Lane,” “Dark Stuff,” “Fuck Me”

Corin Tucker Band – 1,000 Years (Kill Rock Stars)

As one of the two frontwomen for Sleater-Kinney, Corin Tucker was one of the most powerful post-riot-grrrl voices in punk rock for much of the past 15 years. That band is now on indefinite hiatus, and Tucker has released her debut solo album of what she calls “middle-aged mom” music. That’s not entirely true, of course—this doesn’t sound anything like Sarah McLachlan, even if some Sleater-Kinney fans might think it does.

Tucker is exploring a different side of her voice and her writing, toning down the intensity, employing pianos, acoustic guitars and strings and occasionally clashing with her explosive past: “Thrift Store Coats” starts as a piano ballad before turning into a somewhat tentative rocker. If this was a debut album, it would be promising but not fully realized; coming from Tucker, we can’t help but wonder what her former bandmates would have brought to this material, even with the shift in mood; though Tucker herself sounds great, she doesn’t quite gel with her collaborators here.

But we do know that this is definitely not the last we’ll hear from her. As she sings on “Doubt”: “Break up with the boogie? / break up with the beat? / But I just can’t forget what it means to me/ I tried, but I couldn’t leave.” (Oct. 21)

Download: “Half a World Away,” “Doubt,” “Miles Away”

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Sept '10 reviews

September reviews that appeared in the Kitchener-Waterloo Record and Guelph Mercury.

The Black Angels – Phosphene Dream (Blue Horizon)

The Black Angels are in love with sound. It’s a very specific sound: psychedelic guitar rock circa 1968. And you know that the dudes in this band (not so much drummer Jennifer Bailey) are the kind of guys who probably work at vintage guitar stores in their hometown of Austin when they’re not on the road, ready to peddle you old tube amps and Echoplex tape delays and tell you stories about working with Roky Erikson of the 13th Floor Elevators (which they’ve done, of course).

As much as they made indulge in fetishistic retro fantasies, none of this is a mere fashion statement: you can hear in every note of this, their third and best album, that the Black Angels are deadly serious. These are not posers relying on their equipment—or, for that matter, their stunning album artwork—to provide them with credibility. This is about the music, and they’re quick to get to the point; unlike most psychedelic wankers, the Black Angels get down to business in three-minute bursts—Phosphene Dream packs 10 tracks into just over 30 minutes. That’s still plenty of time to take a nice trip, without any squares even suspecting what you’ve been up to. (Sept. 16)

Download: “Yellow Elevator #2,” “Telephone,” “Haunting at 1300 McKinley”

Black Mountain – Wilderness Heart (Outside)

Vancouver’s ’70s-style retro rockers Black Mountain didn’t need any help crafting a massive, vintage classic rock sound on their first two albums, which they made in their hometown with engineer Colin Stewart, an old and trusted friend. But there’s something to be said for leaving your comfort zone, and so here they trek to London and Seattle to work with modern psychedelic producer Randall Dunn, and to Sunset Sound in Hollywood, the studio responsible for dozens of classic records by everyone from the Beach Boys to Led Zeppelin.

The result is that the marvelous mud of their early records has been washed away—thankfully, the resulting clarity only enhances their heaviness, while also allowing more windows for Jeremy Schmidt’s ancient keyboards to paint with vivid colours in the background; on lead single “Old Fangs,” his mix of analog synths and Deep Purple-style Hammond organ washes works wonders. Acoustic textures also shine through on tracks like “Radiant Hearts” and “Buried by the Blues,” bringing more diversity here than the band has ever displayed before.

The most significant shift, however, is the increased prominence of vocalist Amber Webber. Though one of the band’s defining factors from the beginning, she’s always been relegated to a supporting female role in a band full of bearded dudes who seemed happy to rock on without her, granting her only the occasional moody solo piece. Here, however, she’s integrated into every track; the best ones are when she and songwriter and bandleader Stephen McBean trade lines or verses. She more than rises to the challenge; while she used to rely too heavily on her signature vibrato, she’s developed into a rich and dynamic vocalist, and it’s gloriously visceral to hear her let loose on raging rockers like “Let Spirits Ride.”

The performances and production are top notch; the songs themselves somewhat less so. The lyrics are still stoner-quality ridiculousness (“Electric tides cast upon your shores/ the rudimentary force of life is shining at the gates of heaven’s door”), but when your head is banging this hard, it’s unlikely you’ll notice. (Sept. 9)

Download: “Old Fangs,” “Let Spirits Ride,” “Buried by the Blues”

Flying Lotus – Cosmogramma (Warp)

The intersections between hip-hop, jazz and the Aphex Twin school of electronic music very rarely pay dividends: often the beats are weak, the nods to jazz are token, and the electronics are mere window dressing. Flying Lotus, on the other hand, is a musical sponge and an electrifying eclectician who defies any attempt to pigeonhole the hybrid he’s working on. Many of his tracks seem like mere sketches, clocking in at under three minutes, but they’re each equally dense and effortless-sounding mini-movies that are deliciously satisfying.

Radiohead’s Thom Yorke stops by on a few tracks—but whatever, he’s barely noticeable, hardly a highlight, and if his star power draws unsuspecting listeners into this record, more power to him. More interesting is harpist Rebekah Raff and saxophonist Ravi Coltrane; the latter is Flying Lotus’s cousin, as he is the nephew of Alice Coltrane, an obvious influence here.

There are times, however, when it sounds like he’s just playing with you—literally, in the case of a track called “Table Tennis,” in which the sound of a bouncing ping-pong ball dribbles intermittently and arrhythmically throughout the track, practically mocking the poor listener. But that’s a rare move on what is otherwise an entrancing and engaging sonic journey. (Sept. 23)

Download: “Do the Astral Plane,” “Nose Art,” “Arkestry”

Mary Gauthier – The Foundling (Latent)

Mary Gauthier has had the kind of life that most songwriters write about; she’s lived it and survived to tell the tales herself. Past songs dealt with her alcohol and substance abuse, her troubled youth in Baton Rouge, turning her life around by studying philosophy and opening her own restaurant in Boston, and launching her music career late in life.

But on The Foundling, an album it took her two years to write and record—with the help of Michael Timmins of Cowboy Junkies—she tackles her most personal material yet: the story of how she was born to an unwed mother and left on the steps of a “women and infants asylum” in New Orleans, and how she spent the rest of her life asking herself questions about her past; when she finally got an answer and located her birth mother, at age 45, her request for reconnection was denied.

Such material can be morose—and some of it here certainly is, especially the straight-up autobiography of the song “March 11, 1962”—but Gauthier also finds time for some swinging country and rollicking New Orleans rhythms. And while the lyrics are intense, they tap into universal themes of abandonment, searching and self-identity, and the fact that “blood is blood/ blood don’t wash away.” Timmins knows how to cast each song perfectly, always leaving plenty of space in order to enhance the narrative, as he does in his own band’s best work. (Sept. 16)

Download: “Goodbye,” “Sideshow,” “Walk in the Water”

Chilly Gonzales – Ivory Tower (Arts and Crafts)

Chilly Gonzales claims he needs an arch-nemesis in order to thrive. Maybe he should look at the man in the mirror—he is often his own worst enemy.

That the man born Jason Beck is brilliant is beyond question: his skills as a composer and pianist are crystal clear on his unlikely 2004 breakthrough Solo Piano album, and as a performer his egocentrism is oddly engaging. But really, it’s his baiting public persona and media manipulation that are the main reason he gets any press at all; Gonzales loves to be hated, even more than he hates his need to be loved. And so his career is a cacophony of confounding moves, from self-consciously terrible electro-rap to the easy listening disco of 2008’s Soft Power to his mainstream success with Feist and Jane Birkin to his own TV show on French television.

Which brings us to Ivory Tower, which is shocking only in the fact that it’s so boring. It’s the soundtrack to a film about two brothers who are chess rivals, starring Gonzales, Peaches and Tiga. Hopefully the movie is far more entertaining than the music, which is but a trifle, missing most of the melodic gifts Gonzales showed on even the weakest moments of Soft Power. Instead, the self-proclaimed musical genius surrenders to producers Boyz Noize, who surgically remove the personality in his music, and don’t even give him enough beats to cut it on the dance floor. It’s not disco, it’s not piano pop, it’s certainly not hip-hop, and it’s cinematic only in that it sounds like a perfume commercial.

The expat Canadian, who both rails against and relishes in his obscurity at home, has been living in Europe for 10 years now—long enough to serve up a hilarious skewering of continental stereotypes on “I Am Europe”: “I’m socialist lingerie/ I’m diplomatic techno/ I’m gay pastry and racist cappuccino.” That song is worth a few chuckles more than “The Grudge,” in which Gonzales manages to sound like a parody of his satirical self—which is probably the point, but who cares? (Sept. 16)

Download: “I Am Europe,” “Smothered Mate,” “Rococo Chanel”

Grinderman – Grinderman 2 (Anti)

As the unoriginal title of this album suggests, the sequel never lives up to the original. Grinderman is the side project for Nick Cave and some of his Bad Seeds, where he gets down and dirtier than he does by day—although he’s just as libidinous as he is literary both inside and outside Grinderman, so the difference seems somewhat arbitrary.

While the first Grinderman album did sound liberating for Cave—largely because he kicked out his piano stool and strapped on a guitar—there’s not much here that lives up to the promise of that debut. Most tracks merely lurch when they should be letting loose, and—shockingly, for such a dramatic band—tension is, for the most part, kept to a minimum. Cave exploits his sexually frustrated old-man persona on tracks like “Worm Tamer” and “Kitchenette,” though it’s a joke that’s not really funny more than once. (Sept. 16)

Download: “Mickey Mouse and the Goodbye Man,” “Kitchenette,” “Worm Tamer”

It Kills – s/t (independent)

Halifax band It Kills may only be a tiny trio, but they sound positively symphonic on their remarkable debut album. A track might begin with a string quartet, then transform into a choral piece before guitars and drums come crashing through and tie it all together into triumphant territory. Many others who mine similar territory are often morose—Mogwai, Godspeed You Black Emperor, Explosions in the Sky, to name the three most obvious cinematic “post-rock” instrumental bands—and yet, ironically enough, the band called It Kills makes the most joyous music of them all, while maintaining the mystery and the majesty that make those other bands so intriguing.

Opening track “Dragons” offers some red herrings: with only two guitars and drums, it doesn’t hint at the diversity of the rest of the record, and it’s also one of the only songs to feature lyrics—which are a distraction for a band that communicates so much more without them.

It Kills are a brand new band with no pedigree that anyone outside of Halifax would know of; there are no immediate plans for them to head westward anytime soon, either. No matter: this music speaks volumes on its own, and is easily the most pleasant surprise in Canadian music this year. (Sept. 9)

Download: “Dragons,” “Le Coup,” “Sailors”

Selina Martin – Disaster Fantasies (

A cover version can either be a cheap attempt to get attention or reveal plenty about an artist’s intent. In the case of Toronto’s Selina Martin, her acoustic interpretation of “The Spirit of Radio” by Rush manages to be both. One the one hand, it’s an easy gimmick to get CBC Radio play, by tackling a hard-rock CanCon classic and giving it a coffeehouse-friendly makeover. On the other, because it’s actually one of the weaker tracks on her stellar third album, it speaks volumes about Martin’s own artistry and what she shares with the intent of Neil Peart’s lyrics: the belief in the “freedom of music” free from “glittering prizes and endless compromises.”

Disaster Fantasies displays Martin as an ambitious singer/songwriter with a knockout voice and the ability to corral her artier tendencies into a commanding power pop band; it’s an album that works on an entirely visceral level, with no shortage of catchy earworms and bold rock guitars. And yet there are tonnes of tiny tasty bits in every corner, whether it’s Rheostatics guitarist Martin Tielli noodling noisily underneath “I Know Dullness,” Laura Barrett’s kalimba on “News of Her Death,” or Martin herself playing wine glasses or tapping the loose end of a plugged-in patch cord as part of a rhythm track. Producer Chris Stringer (the D’Urbervilles, Timber Timbre) helps Martin paint vivid sonic portraits and brings the entire project into clear focus, amplifying the rock elements and leaving space for acoustic intimacy (“Throw Me in the Water”).

Martin has been on the periphery of CanRock royalty for years now, contributing to other projects (Rheostatics, Bob Wiseman) and having her praises sung by others (Gord Downie)—Disaster Fantasies deserves a place with the best work by any of those artists. (Sept. 9)

Download: “Public Safety Management,” “Always on My Mind,” “Throw Me in the Water”

Rae Spoon – Love is a Hunter (Saved by Radio)

Spoon opens this album lamenting: “death by elektro, baby you’re killing me,” sung in a pure, unwavering alto voice over fingerpicked acoustic guitar. He could easily be singing about the musical milieu of his adopted Berlin (he’s originally from Calgary), where all things techno dominate. And yet he fesses up to mixed feelings as he simultaneously wants to immerse himself in something hedonistic and meaningless: “Take me out tonight some place I can’t hear myself think/ take me out tonight, I don’t want to know what it means.”

Much of Love is a Hunter splits the difference between Canadian country-folk songs, indie rock and synthesized electro; Spoon bends each genre to his will, and the chugging pulse of several songs could work easily in either format, like the verbosely titled “We Can’t Be Lovers With These Guns On Each Other” (yes, that’s the chorus), where he sings: “nothing’s clear under the disco lights.”

Berlin has obviously invigorated Spoon, as both this and its predecessor, Superioryouareinferior, represented several leaps forward in his songwriting. He still has a tendency to beat a chorus to death, as he does on the title track, but that tack works best when he surrenders to the electronics, as on “You Can Dance.” As strong as much of Love is a Hunter is, one senses that a remix album would be even better. (Sept. 2)

Download: “Death by Elektro,” “You Can Dance,” “Dangerdangerdanger”

Superchunk – Majesty Shredding (Merge)

For a band whose sound is so frenetic and furious, Superchunk are just so… normal. Miraculously, they’ve been around for 21 years. There were no drug-fuelled flame-outs. They have kids. They never broke up, they just shifted priorities for a while. There’s no compelling reason to put out a new album, other than to prove something to themselves.

Which they do on Majesty Shredding. Their first 12 years saw them slowly maturing and changing, to the point where 2001’s Here’s to Shutting Up sounded like almost an entirely different (and, I alone would argue, better) band than the caffeinated hyperactivity of the early singles, which were at the height of grunge.

Here, however, they ditch the string sections, acoustic guitars and keyboards—or at least relegate them to the background—and return to the all-out pogo-friendly rock’n’roll band they always were. Underneath the squeals of feedback, the guitar interplay is often egghead-ish, and Mac McCaughan still revels in singing out of his range, but there’s nothing boyish about it anymore. Superchunk are adults who write songs titled “My Gap Feels Weird,” but there’s nothing self-conscious about the music.

For fans who follow McCaughan closely in both Superchunk and his solo project, Portastatic, they’ll note that while the lines between those two were often blurred, Majesty Shredding is unmistakably vintage Superchunk, the sound that fans first fell in love with in the mid-’90s. Only now there’s nary a wasted note; they know that what they have together is special and worth hanging on to. (Sept. 30)

Download: “Digging for Something,” “Crossed Wires,” “My Gap Feels Weird”

Richard Thompson – Dream Attic (Shout Factory/Warner)

It’s been said that Richard Thompson is one of the greatest British songwriters of the last 40 years. It’s been said that Richard Thompson is one of the greatest guitarists anywhere. And it’s been also said that his studio work doesn’t do justice to his great talent. So by recording 13 new songs in front of a live audience, Dream Attic should be the album to convince any non-believers, right?

Wrong. As someone who has repeatedly tried and failed to understand Thompson’s appeal—including 1982’s much-venerated Shoot Out the LightsDream Attic does little to change my mind. He does assemble a worthy band, featuring Joel Zifkin on violin, best known for his work with Kate and Anna McGarrigle. And the live approach does serve him better than his tepid studio work to date.

But his songs are still caught in an awkward spot between British folk and Americana singer-songwriters, and far too polite to ignite any fireworks either way. For such a renowned sultan of the strings, he writes dense songs that leave little room for him to stretch out—and when he does, perhaps his modesty prevents him from sounding anything but reserved at best. Only on the syncopated 6/8 Celtic rocker “Sidney Wells” does he really let loose. Which is a real shame, because I’d much rather hear him play guitar like that than spend 80 minutes listening to him sing flat. (Sept. 30)

Download: “Haul Me Up,” “Burning Man,” “Sidney Wells”

Neil Young – Le Noise (Warner)

Ever since CD technology was born, Neil Young has been taking the advice of his now-deceased producer, David Briggs, who told him: “All you have to do now is get closer to the source. Keep getting purer and purer.” In doing so, he’s been faithful to analog technology and capturing the essence of live performance, and how it sounds in real time, with a rock’n’roll purist’s approach to guitars-bass-drums that’s been his template since a few ill-regarded experiments in the ’80s.

Yet here he is, in what is a CanRock wet dream come true for many, teaming up with fellow expat Canadian Daniel Lanois, one of the most influential sound sculptors and studio hounds of the last 30 years. Lanois is known to have a deep respect for both raw live performances and carefully arranged, densely layered studio arrangements filled with haunting atmospherics.

The two men meet in the middle here, and part of the joy of Le Noise is hearing them learn from each other. Other than a few obvious studio tweaks, Le Noise sounds like Neil Young playing by himself in a room full of guitars and amps—there are no drums, and very little bass—with Lanois nearby twiddling knobs and manipulating his live performance, adding textures, distortion and tape-loop effects to enhance the trademark off-the-cuff nature of Young’s signature sound. And, of course, there’s plenty of reverb—which Lanois always lays on thick when he’s working with elder statesmen (Bob Dylan, Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson, Neville Brothers).

Young has always loved dirty electric guitars, but he’s never sounded fuzzier and cracklier than he does on Le Noise; Lanois knows better than to make Neil Young sound pretty, and so instead he helps him amplify his grittiest tendencies with a raw, bleeding sound—while simultaneously reining it in so that the effect is focused, not sloppy, a painting where the artists’ bold use of colour is still kept between the lines.

For all the glorious sound, however, Young himself comes slightly unprepared for the occasion. In what could have been a defining career album—the likes of which he hasn’t had since the early ’90s, with Ragged Glory, Harvest Moon and Sleeps With Angels—Young, in typical fashion, sounds like he showed up to the session with nine songs he happened to have coughed up the month beforehand, the crushing naivete of “Angry World” being the most glaring example.

Perhaps knowing the importance of his date with Daniel Lanois, however, Young does offer two autobiographical songs. One, “Hitchhiker,” is far too literal: “And then I did this. And then I did that” (note: not actual lyric, but close). The other, the slightly Spanish-tinged acoustic song “Love and War,” sums up themes he’s dealt with “since the back streets of Toronto”: “I sang about justice and I hit a bad chord/ but I still sing about love and war.”

Despite its magnificence, Le Noise is largely a missed opportunity. If we’re lucky, it’s much more than a one-night stand; should these two giants continue their relationship, they’ll find they have plenty more to discover. And just remember, the relationship between Lanois and Dylan started with Oh Mercy before they went on to make Time Out of Mind. (Sept. 23)

Download: “Love and War,” “Peaceful Valley Boulevard,” “Walk With Me”