Monday, March 25, 2013

Julia Ward

 “The curious never get old.” It’s a line from a song by Chris Brown and Kate Fenner, who were playlist mainstays on my campus radio program (1992-2002). I thought of that phrase often when remembering my friend Julia Ward, who passed away last week after her third bout with cancer. She was 52. She leaves a devoted husband, two incredible girls in their early 20s, a teenage boy (who I sadly never got to know), and many, many devout friends drawn to her spirit.

What follows is what I read at her wake in Guelph on Saturday. I was the only speaker who wasn’t a family member, neighbour or close friend. In some ways, what I said was selfish: what this woman meant to me, me, me, someone who probably knew her less than everyone else in the room. I wasn’t there to watch her struggles of the last five years. We never had conversations lasting several hours. We only broke bread on a handful of occasions. And yet, I think it says something about a person when she manages to touch someone who barely knew her, and that’s what I wanted to articulate.

I’m posting this here because I think our relationship also speaks to the relationship between a fan and any artist or writer or broadcaster attempting to communicate to the world—what it means to get a fan letter, what it means to connect a face to a voice, what it means to find out that someone found that bottle you tossed in the ocean and took your message to heart.


I first met Julia because she was a fan of my campus radio show. Hosting and programming a campus radio show is, for many and certainly for me , a very personal endeavour. In many ways, you’re baring your many idiosyncrasies and tastes for the world to hear. You’re inviting them into your bedroom, your living room, your head. Whatever is going on in your life is bound to be reflected in your choices. It can be an isolating experience: just you and the mic and some records in the booth, with no possible way to know how many people—if, in fact, any at all—are listening to you. 

The only time you really find out is when someone picks up the phone and calls in a request, or when, once a year, you turn into a huckster and beg your hypothetical audience to donate to the station during a fundraising drive. Mostly, it’s just people you know on the other end of the line, people who already like the music you do, people you work with, people you drink with. But I also had Julia.

For whatever reason, Julia was a total stranger who loved my show. We didn’t have any mutual friends—we still don’t, really. She was 10 years older than me. She had a real job and two young girls to raise; I had nothing of the sort. I suspect, as I now know about people over 30, that though she still loved music passionately, it was harder and harder to find reliable sources of new inspiration. When you find one, it can become a lifeline.

Having a fan outside of your own experience is a huge boost. It means you’re not just operating in a vacuum. It means you’re actually connecting with people. Julia called in requests and pledged generously to the show. But I’d also made a new friend. It’s not like we saw each other socially, but whenever we’d talk on the request line or see each other downtown there would be this unspoken shared acknowledgment that was more than just a casual greeting. It was: “Oh yes, you—I get you. You and I, we’re the same tribe. You’re one of the good ones.”

I wasn’t the only one. Tellingingly enough, she had a similar relationship with a host of another morning radio show on CFRU. Years later, that host and I got together. A few years after that, we moved in together. A few years after that, we had a child together. Julia was always excited about every one of these developments, and my fondest memories of her now are of when we’d visit her as a family in the past two years.

She always had that glow. She always had a giving spirit. She always had that look in her eye that said, “I believe in you.” I felt like Julia Ward was always on my side, rooting for me. And I feel incredibly richer for that. I know I’m not the only one.

Friday, March 22, 2013

March 2013 reviews

The following reviews ran in the Guelph Mercury and Waterloo Record this month.

Highly recommended: Justin Timberlake, Devendra Banhart, Blue Hawaii, Billy Bragg

Apparat Organ Quartet - Pólýfónía (Head in the Sand)

This Icelandic group claim to be the only organ quartet in the world—who's going to argue? Joined by a propulsive rock drummer, the keyboardists play every kind of antiquated synth or organ they can get their hands on, sing through Vocoders, avoid pre-programmed tracks, and write sci-fi stadium anthems. This is not the slick techno of Daft Punk, nor is it the improvisational raw synth rock of Toronto's Holy Fuck. This is Kraftwerk on steroids. Yes, it's a schtick, and your tolerance for it over the course of an album may be limited, but rarely does keyboard music sound this visceral. They're making their first trip here for Canadian Music Fest later this month, with three shows in Toronto. Roofs will be raised. (March 14)

Download: “Konami,” “Polynesia,” “Macht Parat Den Apparat”

Devendra Banhart - Mala (Nonesuch)

In the early 2000s, there are few artist who squandered such great potential as Devendra Banhart. With a wonderfully elastic, Jeff Buckley-esque voice, an inventive approach to lo-fi recording, quirky songs and a pronounced Latin influence, his first three albums were magical. Of the three albums that followed, two of them were indulgent, silly, often embarrassing, and eclectic to the point of confusion. If Banhart has fans left still ready to follow him, they deserve to be rewarded. And now they have.

Mala was made by just Banhart and long-time sideman Noah Georgeson in a home studio where they purposely tried to limit their options. The result is a sonically consistent, playful recording that plays up to all of Banhart's many strengths and eccentricities. It’s also a focused collection of solid songs that give his voice a chance to shine. Latin rhythms, garage rock, electro dreaminess and plaintive acoustic tracks blend perfectly together in a subdued, experimental eclectic vibe not unlike Yo La Tengo—in fact, this may be a better Yo La Tengo album than that band's latest. Even the deadpan duet with his fiancée, entitled “Your Fine Petting Duck,” which starts out as an acoustic tarantella before somehow morphing into a techno pop track sung in German, somehow makes perfect sense in the context of the album—which is saying a lot. (March 14)

Download: “Won't You Come Over,” “Hatchat Wound,” “Fur Hildegard Von Bingen”

Belle Star – s/t (independent)

The Belle Game – Ritual Tradition Habit (Boompa)

Wild Belle – Isles (Sony)

It was almost 10 years ago that every new band seemed to have “wolf” in their name. This month, for whatever reason, the debut albums by Belle Starr, The Belle Game and Wild Belle all came out within a week of each other. Though they couldn’t be more stylistically different, it’s still easy to get them confused.

Wild Belle is the Chicago brother-sister duo of Elliot and Natalie Bergman, who play an odd, modern hippie/hipster take on roots reggae. Elliot plays baritone saxophone, all manners of keyboards and electric kalimba; Natalie is the disaffected, flat vocalist who also handles some keyboards. How they ended up signing to a major label is a mystery—did they have the same Sony A&R rep as synth-pop weirdos MGMT? The Talking Heads’ rhythm section, Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz, get a shout-out in the thank yous, and it’s easy to hear the connection with their Tom Tom Club. While the sound is initially intriguing—especially the kalimbas and baritone saxophone clashing with the lo-fi electro reggae rhythms—it wears thin quickly, primarily due to Natalie’s limited vocal range.

Vocals are not an issue for Belle Starr, which unites three Canadian fiddle players—one of whom, Miranda Mulholland, has played extensively with Great Lake Swimmers in recent years—who also sing gloriously together and, um, happen to be incredibly easy on the eyes, almost as if someone purposely put these three women together to target the CBC and folk festival demographic. Sadly, “New Girl Now” is not a Honeymoon Suite cover, though they do tackle songs by Bruce Springsteen and Justin Rutledge—which is a risky venture, because the originals don’t approach the same craft.

The Belle Game is a new Vancouver band that sounds like—a Vancouver band. Rainy-day ’80s noir pop never dies in that town, and powerful vocalist Andrea Lo soars over low-key instrumentation (pianos, vibes, trumpet, strings) that occasionally swell into the dramatic and anthemic. There’s a lazy, hazy air to the recording, not unlike that on recent records by neighbours Brasstronaut or Kathryn Calder. There are elements of equal greatness here, but this is still a band finding its feet. (March 28)

Download Wild Belle: “Keep You,” “It’s Too Late,” “Another Girl”

Download Belle Starr: “Tougher Than the Rest,” “Charity Kiss,” “Arthur’s Air”

Download The Belle Game: “Wait Up For You,” “River,” “Blame Fiction”

Blue Hawaii - Untogether (Arbutus)

Mozart's Sister - Hello EP (Merok)

Young Montreal group Blue Hawaii features vocalist Raphaelle Standell-Preston of Braids and her partner, one-time Berlin resident Alex Cowan, both part of the same scene that spawned Grimes (a former roommate), and who are currently opening for Montreal buzz band Purity Ring. 

The vocals are often clipped and the melodies fractured, though nonetheless gorgeous throughout. The beats are glitchy yet deep, not a common combination in experimental pop bands using electronics, nor is it particularly easy to pull off—but if anyone can, it will be a group from Montreal (or Berlin), where electronic music is part of the lingua franca. 

There are no sappy anthems, and given the choice between an obvious answer and colourful abstraction, they opt for the latter every time. There are no big hooks, but none are needed; it's easy to be carried adrift on the lush harmonies and lulling beats. There are obvious nods to Laurie Anderson, Kate Bush and Bjork here—even a dash of very early Eurythmics at their most experimental—with modern R&B programming and James Blake-ish abstraction. Untogether is a bold, stunning and beautiful album, and enough of a tabula rasa to translate into any language.

Somewhat similar is Mozart's Sister, the project of Montreal's Caila Thompson Hannant. While her approach is just as left-field, she's much more interested in pop hooks and conventional vocal bravado--which she's already put to work in her supporting role in Montreal party band Think About Life (she was also one half of Shapes and Sizes, who were signed to Sufjan Stevens's label, and she played bass in Miracle Fortress). This EP puts a polish on some earlier, Internet-only tracks and shows that she's thinking bigger than just a bedroom project. (March 7)

Download Blue Hawaii: “Follow,” “Sierra Lift,” “Sweet Tooth”

Download Mozart’s Sister: “Contentedness,” “Mozart’s Sister,” “Single Status”

David Bowie - The Next Day (Iso/Sony)

When the 66-year-old David Bowie announced his first album in 10 years, there was much rejoicing. But wait—has anyone but the most fervent fans listened to anything Bowie has done in the last 20 years? Were we all really expecting greatness from a once-great artist who, while still exhibiting excellent taste in his public endorsements of new artists, has done precious little to enhance his discography after his first two decades of classic records?

There's plenty about this record that justifies the hype: Bowie is in fine voice and the fiery arrangements show that he's not ready to mellow out any time soon. He may open the album singing,  "Here I am not quite dying / my body left to rot in a hollow tree," but you'd never guess that from his performance. The production by long-time producer Tony Visconti casts off any trend-chasing attempt at modernity and hearkens back to his late '70s recordings—like, oh I don't know, maybe 1977's Heroes, the album cover of which is recycled here in full, with the title scratched out and a large white box over the 35-year-old image of Bowie. It's almost as if Bowie was saying, "I know everyone is going to listen to this digitally anyway, so why bother with a new album cover?"

Bowie has announced he's not going to tour—perhaps ever again—and because fans had given up on the idea of new material, he's free to do whatever he likes. More power to him. Ultimately, though, that makes it disappointing that a), he's mostly content to retread past glories instead of going out on a limb, and b), that the songs here are merely okay--if anyone other than Bowie was singing them, it's unlikely anyone would care. The Next Day may well be the best Bowie album in 20 years, but just like everything else he's put out in that time, it's primarily for the diehards. (March 14)

Download: “Dirty Boys,” “The Stars (Are Out Tonight),” “(You Will) Set the World on Fire”

Billy Bragg - Tooth and Nail (Dine Alone)

Though political folk singer Billy Bragg has been incredibly active in the last two decades—as an activist, touring act and author—fans are unlikely to recall any of his new songs that match the power of his work in the ’80s. The notable exception was when he teamed up with Wilco to set music to Woody Guthrie poems, on the highly successful Mermaid Avenue series.

Bragg returns to Americana here, recruiting producer Joe Henry and some key sidemen (pedal steel player Greg Leisz, Canadian bassist David Piltch) to help him make a full-blown Neil Young-style country album, written and recorded as quickly as possible in Henry’s California house. Bragg’s voice has reached a lovely, low maturity—albeit still with the heavy Essex accent that is his trademark—perfect for the tear-in-his-beer heartbreakers he’s written this time out, the kind of classic country ballads Elvis Costello keeps trying, and largely failing, to write. Bragg is in such fine form here that he even pulls off the hardest trick in the book: writing a song about songwriting that actually manages to be universal and emotionally poignant (“Handyman Blues”).

Bragg can’t avoid the political, of course, though recently he’s redirected his topical songs away from his albums and made them available as instant downloads. Here, however, the pointed “There Will Be a Reckoning” succeeds as a timeless all-purpose anthem, while “No One Knows Nothing Anymore” somehow sidesteps becoming a tired tirade from a grumpy old man.

Determined not to be a total sad sack or doomsayer, Bragg ends the album singing (and whistling) “Tomorrow Will Be a Better Day.” And no doubt it will be, if this album is indicative of a creative rebirth for Billy Bragg. (March 21)

Download: “No One Knows Nothing Anymore,” “Handyman Blues,” “Do Unto Others”

Grapes of Wrath - High Road (Aporia)

Interesting album title, for a trio that took two decade-apart increments to bury long-simmering resentments among the original members. Last year a reunion tour by this '80s Kamloops, B.C., group garnered rave reviews, and that energy obviously poured into recording sessions with producer Darryl Neudorf (Neko Case, Two Hours Traffic)--an energy that wasn't necessarily there the last time the two songwriters, Tom Hooper and Kevin Kane, got together in 2000. As contemporaries of R.E.M., it's great to hear a band that didn't burn out by sticking around too long, so the Grapes' particular take on new wave Byrdsian paisley pop sounds remarkably rejuvenated here. Kane and Hooper split the song list down the middle: the March break pop anthem “Mexico” soars; the acoustic ballad “Take On the Day” is a worthy successor to earlier triumph “All the Things I Wasn't”; the psychedelic ballad “I'm Lost” is luxurious; the harmonies throughout, of course, are magnificent. Well worth burying the hatchet for, and another fantastic chapter for a band who were dangerously close to being a distant memory for many. (March 21)

Download: “Mexico,” “Take on the Day,” “Waiting to Fly”

How to Destroy Angels - Welcome Oblivion (Sony)

Trent Reznor announced recently that he's resurrecting Nine Inch Nails after a four-year hiatus. In the meantime, he's been focusing on film scores—his work on The Social Network bagged him an Oscar—and this new project with his wife, Mariqueen Maandig, only now releasing their debut. “The more things change / everything stays the same,” she sings, and nothing here is a radical departure from Reznor's past, other than the fact that his vocals are not front and centre, and the overall sound is moody rather than menacing. Reznor's main strength continues to be as a producer first and foremost: he's capable of crafting creepy but astounding aural environments. As a songwriter, however, there's very little to latch on to here--which is a real shame considering the possibilities Maandig brings to the group. Perhaps Reznor is best at soundtracks and Nine Inch Nails, and not much in between. (March 7)

Download: “Ice Age,” “Keep It Together,” “The Loop Closes”

Low - The Invisible Way (Sub Pop)

When you’ve been a band for 20 years (and a married couple for longer), sometimes you need a friend and fan to come in and remind you what you do best. And so after three albums of necessary sonic detours—some of which took their trademarked hushed sound and dead-slow tempos and introduced crashing electric guitars, uptempo numbers and electronics—Low called on Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy to sit in the producer’s chair.

Tweedy had invited Low to open a Wilco tour several years back, which means that unlike previous outside producers (Steve Albini, Dave Fridmann) he witnessed their strengths at work night after night: what better prep before heading into the studio? That means the band has never before sounded this focused; being the hushed minimalists they are, they've always been meticulous and deliberate, but Tweedy ensures that they never settle for succeeding on mood alone. These songs sound refined, crafted. Hence The Invisible Way is, perhaps, if not the best album of Low’s career (that would be the sprawling The Great Destroyer), it's certainly the most consistently strong. 

Drummer Mimi Parker takes the lead more often than usual here, and the frequent occasions where husband Alan takes the high falsetto harmony above her are as transcendent as always. Only the penultimate track, “On My Own,” a dirge-y, noisy number with a monotonous, endless closing refrain of the phrase “happy birthday" threatens to derail the entire album, before Mimi returns with a minimal piano song that concludes everything on yet another lovely note—and there could never be too many of those on any given Low album. (March 21)

Download: “Plastic Cup,” “So Blue,” “Just Make It Stop”

Palma Violets - 180 (Rough Trade)

Here's a next-big-thing rock act from Britain that actually sounds like they can deliver. Obviously recorded live—tempos lurch and accelerate, and they play with the energy of four young dreamers breathing down each others' necks mere inches away from each other—180 doesn't boast any fancy production tricks or unusual sounds; everything here could be sourced from a local vintage store; every song could be sourced from vintage records, for that matter. Any group of geeks who meet playing Clash songs around a campfire at a music festival (in this case, Reading) could arguably achieve the same thing, but Palma Violets have the garage-rock Holy Trinity of swagger, soul and—for the most part on this somewhat uneven album, which stumbles toward its finish line—songcraft, immediately elevating them above other pretenders to the throne. Lou Reed turned 71 this week; these young turks could be his grandkids, doing him proud. (March 7)

Download: “Best of Friends,” “Step Up the Cool Cats”

Rhye - Woman (Universal)

The makeout album of summer 2013? If the lavender and chamomile tea leaves in your cup started singing softly in your ear, it would sound a lot like this. The album begins like a vintage Disney film, with a string section playing an opening theme before being joined by low brass, swooping harps and a wordless choir. Then the soft, sexy beats come in, and sweet nothings whispered by an androgynous voice with Brazilian bossa nova detachment—which is one way of saying it’s a man who sounds an awful lot like a woman. And not just any woman, but Sade, whose shadow looms large over everything on the debut by this hotly tipped duo—one of whom is the Toronto singer Mike Milosh, who toiled in obscurity (with three albums to his name) before hooking up with a Danish producer in L.A. before building considerable online buzz in the 12 months before this album appeared. It's like The XX settling down on a Caribbean island, or Feist setting up shop in a spa town after Let It Die. There's no faulting the mood set here, though it's impossible to imagine ever listening to it in the foreground outside of candlelit dinners and film placements. (March 21)

Download: “Open,” “3 Days,” “One of Those Summer Days”

Sound City - Various Artists (Sony)

Dave Grohl is a first-class geek. Why else would the Foo Fighters founder make his debut as a documentary film director with a movie about a sound mixing board—not an artist, not a label, not even a studio, but a piece of technological equipment that means nothing to anyone who's not a professional musician? The board in question was used to make classic records by Fleetwood Mac, Neil Young, Paul McCartney, Tom Petty and others, including Nirvana for Nevermind, which is when Grohl's fascination began. When the studio housing it went out of business, Grohl had it shipped to his garage and invited some of the film's interview subjects over to record new songs. You can't fault Grohl for his affability and intentions: who else would put '80s pop star Rick Springfield and the vocalist from L.A. hardcore punk band Fear on the same album? Who else would think to match the singer from Slipknot with the guitarists from Cheap Trick and Kyuss? Most importantly, who else could convince Paul McCartney to write and record a new song with the surviving members of Nirvana? 

The McCartney song is a delicious WTF moment that actually works, strange as it is to hear the 71-year-old Beatle screaming, "Mama, set me free!" (Is his mama even still alive?) The same is true of a surprisingly muscular Rick Springfield, who does more than just triumph over low expectations: he kicks some serious ass. Sadly, the same cannot be said of almost everyone else here. Stevie Nicks sounds great, and writes a new minor-key song with Grohl perfectly suited for her, yet the lyrics are frighteningly awful. The rhythm section of Rage Against the Machine prove, after more than a decade as Audioslave, that they've lost any groove they once had. And everyone just sounds like watered down versions of their normal selves, including Grohl. Stunt-casting supergroups rarely work; this album is no exception. (March 14)

Download: “The Man That Never Was” (feat. Rick Springfield), “Your Wife is Calling” (feat. Lee Ving), “Cut Me Some Slack” (feat. Paul McCartney)

Suuns - Images Du Futur (Secretly Canadian)

It's not just electronic acts from Montreal making waves; Suuns accomplish just as much with only one keyboard in their arsenal, on top of a live rhythm section and dreamy guitars. They're rooted in '70s German art rock, with metronomic rhythms and lightly arpeggiating melodic lines underscoring disaffected vocals; much more soulful than shoegaze, more electrifying than the electronic crowd, and, on “Bambi,” capable of some an icy yet visceral post-punk disco throwdown. Singer Ben Shemie communicates using slurred, monotonous vocals with major attitude, recalling the British band Clinic, who made one great album before spinning their wheels for the next decade; this is the album Clinic should have made years ago. Suuns add some essential rock'n'roll energy into Montreal's avant-garde scene, and they're hitting their stride on this, their second album. (March 7)

Download: “2020,” “Minor Work,” “Bambi”

Justin Timberlake – The 20/20 Experience (Sony)

Ever since Michael Jackson’s death, everyone agrees it’s unlikely anyone will ever replace him or replicate his success. Which is true, for myriad reasons. But if anyone is going to come close, it’s Justin Timberlake—and this is his Thriller.

Timberlake’s appeal is obvious: other than his looks, his dancing and his boy band history (’N SYNC had the biggest-selling album of the 2000s), his elastic, falsetto voice continues to improve, he’s pushing himself musically, and he’s got his own Quincy Jones—producer mastermind Timbaland—in his corner, turning traditional R&B on its head, nodding to the past and vividly envisioning a bold new future.

Timberlake takes his time: not only did it take him seven years to follow up FutureSex/LoveSounds, but the opening track here, the Al Green/D’Angelo channelling “Pusher Love Girl,” takes eight minutes to unfold—one of three tracks here to do so. Nothing about this album is indulgent, however: songs are suites that shift gears with no shortage of ear candy colouring every corner of the sonic spectrum.

“Don’t Hold the Wall” opens with doo-wop harmony before introducing Indian percussion and samples set to a Southern hip-hop beat and crickets in the background; four minutes later it all breaks down leaving only an Exorcist-style minor piano key motif with a child’s voice, before the whole thing halts for a sparse, bass-heavy techno beat that sounds a lot like driving through late ‘80s Detroit. “Let That Groove Get In” has a New Orleans groove executed by electronic drums, a tight horn section and a sample of field recordings from Burkina Faso. The one downtempo song, “Blue Ocean Floor,” features seven minutes of backward-tracked swells and Timberlake in choir-boy mode; it’s entirely enchanting. Lead single “Suit and Tie” has a snare drum that sounds like a submarine ping, and harp-like piano sweeps run like an ostinato throughout. It’s hard to imagine any other modern pop artist attempting such ambition while still making catchy, accessible music.

Much of the credit, of course, goes to Timbaland, who after being ubiquitous in 2006—behind the boards for Timberlake and Nelly Furtado—managed to fall off completely, being almost entirely MIA in recent years. This is as much a comeback for him as it is for Timberlake, and it sounds like he’s been bottling up seven years worth of his best beats. Maybe Timberlake had a contract specifying first right of refusal.

The only place Timberlake stumbles is lyrically. There’s nothing wrong with an album of silly love songs, including one about travelling in a “Spaceship Coupe”—which is no longer science fiction when sung by one of the only pop stars who could actually afford extraterrestrial travel. But Timberlake has more than a few laugh-out-loud moments here: “If you’ll be my strawberry bubblegum, then I’ll be your blueberry body pie”?? And what’s with “Suit and Tie,” where he chants, “I be on my suit and tie / s--t tie, s--t tie”? Thankfully, there’s too much else going on to ever notice or care.

Rihanna might be the defining R&B artist of the last 10 years because of her endless stream of #1 hits, but you’d never listen to one of her albums all the way through. Timberlake wants and gets pop thrills, but he also knows what it’s like to crawl inside a rich musical world for over an hour. Apparently he’s ready to release another album later this year, but we’re going to absorbing this one for a long, long time. (March 28)

Download: “Don’t Hold the Wall,” “Strawberry Bubblegum,” “Let the Groove Get In”