Friday, January 31, 2014

January '14 reviews

The best new records I heard this month were ones I reviewed for The Grid: Rosanne Cash and Hidden Cameras.

 In Cash’s case, I’d always liked and respected her, but I’d certainly never fallen head over heels for anything she’s done. This record, however, is flawless: I don’t dole out 10/10 ratings lightly. I’m also greatly enjoying her 2010 memoir, Composed, which has been sitting on my desk at work for, well, three years, but I just picked it up this week (read Carl Wilson's excellent review here). Cash plays the Flato Markham Theatre in Markham, Ont., on Saturday, Feb. 1. My Grid review is here.

The Hidden Cameras are a band I wondered if I would ever love again the way I did from about 2002-05. To me, they seemed to have stalled, and I didn’t enjoy any of Joel Gibb’s newer songs as much as I did those that sprung from his initial burst of inspiration. This album makes me a believer again: both the sound and the songs signal an entirely new chapter. The Hidden Cameras play a noon-hour show at the University of Guelph on Feb. 13, a show at the Starlight Lounge in Waterloo that same night, and Lee’s Palace in Toronto on Feb. 15. My Grid review is here.

Here are the other January 2014 releases reviewed in my column for the Waterloo Record and Guelph Mercury.

Couer de Pirate – Trauma (Grosse Boite)

At the end of a TV drama there’s often a plaintive piano track, often sung by a pixieish woman, sometimes a cover version. Quebecois superstar Couer de Pirate was commissioned by just such a TV show to do 12 such covers, which comprise this, her English-language debut. It’s an odd showcase of the woman’s talents, as this is very much a one-dimensional representation of her capabilities: every song is the same tempo, features almost the exact same piano chording, and she sounds careful never to betray any actual emotion (lest it distract from the TV montage, no doubt).

And so here is a gimmicky reworking of Amy Winehouse, mopey numbers by The National, Bon Iver and Patrick Watson, not-bad takes on Nancy Sinatra, Tom Waits and the McGarrigle sisters, and a surprising reinvention of Kenny Rogers’s “Lucille.” But there are also all-too-obvious picks: does anyone need another cover of “Ain’t No Sunshine” or “Dead Flowers”? Why cover “Last Kiss” after Pearl Jam did? And for anyone whose followed Couer de Pirate’s career closely, it’s more than disappointing that her take on The Weeknd’s “Wicked Games” is nowhere to be found.

As with most covers albums, this is a mild distraction—and an odd move into the Anglosphere from a woman who has sold hundreds of thousands of records in her native tongue. (Jan. 23)

Download: “Lucille,” “Summer Wine,” “Heartbeats Accelerating”

Fred Eaglesmith – Tambourine (EOne)

Somewhere in a small town in North America tonight, Fred Eaglesmith and his band are playing a small community hall packed with fans. The next night, it will happen again in a new town. And then again. And again. In an age of blockbusters, Eaglesmith is a small-scale niche marketer par excellence, putting out 17 records in 33 years and touring endlessly. He’s had much more popular singers cover his songs and land Top 40 hits with them, but he still works with Guelph producer Scott Merritt and makes his records in a tiny hamlet in Norfolk County, with one microphone and his five-piece band—two guitarists, a mandolin player and a rhythm section—all playing together at once. It’s the kind of country and early rock’n’roll that Eaglesmith, 56, grew up with. Tambourine could be 1964, it could be 2014, and it sounds all the better for not letting us know the difference.

Although Eaglesmith’s recordings have evolved over the years, the sheer volume of them could lead you to think they’re interchangeable. He’s been working with his current band for several years now, ever since the death of long-time sidekick and mentor Willie P. Bennett, and they bring a renewed vigour—as well as three-part female harmonies—to his delivery. But Tambourine stands out as being one of Eaglesmith’s most solid collection of songs in many years; it’s not just mood, nuance and performance that he and Merritt nail perfectly this time out. And with “Nobody Gets Everything,” he’s most certainly written another hit—for someone else to eventually sing, while he continues to get in the van and do his own thing. (Jan. 30)

Download: “What It Takes,” “Nobody Gets Everything,” “Train Wreck”

Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings – Give the People What They Want! (Daptone)

There’s a track on Sharon Jones’s new album called “Long Time Wrong Time”: it’s been four years since we heard new material from this hard-working soul singer, but it’s never the wrong time to hear Sharon Jones. This album was pushed back seven months while Jones battled Stage 2 pancreatic cancer—which forced her to take the longest break of her career.

So much about Jones’s personal story is inspiring, from her hardscrabble upbringing to her decades of obscurity to her late-in-life stardom to this current medical battle; every time you hear her voice, you want to root for her. Listening to her fifth album, easily her best, you hear a woman who would never let something like a potentially life-threatening disease get in the way of a good show.

So of course Jones is fantastic, and of course her Dap-Kings are the tightest backing group this side of the E Street Band (they’ve been used by Amy Winehouse and Michael Bublé, among others). They’ve been at it full-time for more than 12 years now, and what started as a retro revival soul shtick has fully evolved into songs and a production approach that doesn’t recall glory days long past: it often exceeds them. Give the People What They Want delivers 10 tracks that most often recall the Staples Singers: not just Jones in Mavis’s role, but guitarist Binky Griptite’s evocation of Pop Staples’s guitar, and the increased role of backing vocalists Saundra Williams and Starr Duncan.  

Jones sings here about how “People Don’t Get What They Deserve”—and while she may been sidetracked lately, there’s every indication here that her upward trajectory is about to go sky high. (Jan. 16)

Download: “Stranger to My Happiness,” “You’ll Be Lonely,” “Long Time Wrong Time”

Doug Paisley - Strong Feelings (Cameron House/Warner)

Everyone loves Toronto songwriter Doug Paisley—as they should. His 2010 album Constant Companion was hailed as a classic by all who heard it; it was a slow-building word-of-mouth favourite, a collection of homespun songs that sounded like you’ve known them all your life, sung them around campfires in the summer, kept you warm in long Canadian winters. Leslie Feist sang on that album. Mary Margaret O’Hara sings on this one. The Band’s Garth Hudson plays on both. Afie Jurvanen of Bahamas has toured with him, and appears here—as does Bazil Donovan of Blue Rodeo and avant-garde sax man Colin Stetson. If his soft-spoken delivery is any indication, Doug Paisley is not an extrovert rustling up any favour he can; these people all came to him.

Paisley’s craft comes from such a well-worn tradition, from Gordon Lightfoot through to Sarah Harmer, that there is little room for surprises. And yet “Where the Light Takes You,” an otherwise straightforward Blue Rodeo-esque mid-tempo country song, is transformed in the coda into a minor-key psychedelic turn with the sudden appearance of analog synth that pushes the song into Pink Floyd territory. Likewise, “What’s Up Is Down” would be a standard folk ballad were it not for the jazz piano, Mary Margaret O’Hara on backing vocals, a sad trombone and a soloing saxophone.

Constant Companion is a hard album to top; Paisley doesn’t exactly do that here. But Strong Feelings is still a more-than-worthy introduction for most folks to Paisley’s talents—enough to illustrate the rare, intangible gift he possesses, the one that separates the merely good from the truly great. (Jan. 30)

Download: “Song My Love Can Sing,” “Radio Girl,” “Where the Light Takes You”

Bruce Springsteen – High Hopes (Columbia)

High hopes, indeed—that sums up the way every Springsteen fan has felt for the past 20 years, a period of time when the icon has both thrilled and chilled, rarely consistently. Few of his albums are true clunkers (Working on a Dream); a few can stand strong alongside earlier triumphs (Magic); some are merely successful sidetracks (We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions). Springsteen himself likely has high hopes for this record: his last album, Wrecking Ball, was his first ever to not be certified gold sales status in the U.S.

As a compilation of stray tracks and covers from the last decade, High Hopes is predictably scattershot: part well-trod cliché, part overdue (he’s been playing “American Skin” live for the past 14 years), and partly a welcome chunk of worthy new songs. It also rounds up a few strong covers: Australian punk band the Saints’ “Just Like Fire Would,” the droning “Dream Baby Dream” by Suicide, and the title track, by obscure L.A. band the Havalinas.

Despite the fact the album was made with different producers and different band members—now-deceased E-Streeters Clarence Clemons and Danny Federici are here, as is everyone else who’s been in and out of the band in the last decade—it hangs together surprisingly well, due mostly to the fact the material never sinks as low as the worst moments on (the otherwise not-bad) Wrecking Ball.

The only misstep is the prominent role afforded guitarist Tom Morello, whom Springsteen clearly adores and grants second billing on most of the tracks here (listed as “featuring Tom Morello”), even shared lead vocals. Springsteen obviously feels like he’s tapping into the youthful energy of someone merely 15 years younger than him, allowing Morello to take multiple solos employing his patented pyrotechnics from his rap-rock days in Rage Against the Machine. Ever wonder what Eddie Van Halen would have sounded like in the E-Street Band? To find out, one must suffer through the heavy-handed take on the 1995 song “Ghost of Tom Joad,” where Morello indulges in unnecessary shredding.

Holding pattern Springsteen—maybe that’s the best we can hope for while we wait for a tour announcement. And pray that Morello stays home. (Jan. 16)

Download: “American Skin (41 Shots),” “Just Like Fire Would,” “Down in the Hole”

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Purple Snow, William Onyeabor, Saada Bonaire

Purple Snow: Forecasting the Minneapolis Sound – Various Artists (Numero)

It takes a village to raise a Prince. Right?

When Prince blew up with Purple Rain in 1984, one of the more curious aspects of his mystique was that he was from… Minneapolis? His futuristic, sexy amalgam of new wave synths, rock pyrotechnics and R&B swagger came out of a frozen town so far north it’s practically in Canada—how did that even happen?

Turns out Prince was less an anomaly than one might think. Purple Snow digs deep to find Minneapolis recordings from 1974-84, discovering no shortage of talented musicians slugging it out in bands that were lucky to release a single or two. The scene was undeniably competitive; to rise above everyone else around there—and then to be taken seriously by New York/L.A. standards, considering you came from such a backwater—you almost had to be as ridiculously gifted as Prince.

He appears here as a session musician on only two tracks; as much as this package is peripherally about him, the real joy is discovering everyone who taught him how to sing falsetto, how to work those analog synths and drum machines, how to strut, how to borrow and steal from everything around you to come up with something new. Between 1977-83, Prince was not a visionary: he was merely in step with what was happening in his city at the time; his solo work evolves with the rest of the city, from R&B influenced by Earth Wind & Fire to synthy new wave.

The premise here is a bit odd: the claim that the Minneapolis sound went on to be massively influential in the wake of Purple Rain. The album’s extensive liner notes admit that’s hardly true, with one exception: superstar producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis (Janet Jackson, Boyz II Men) appear in several acts here (they left The Time before that group’s appearance in Purple Rain; the group is oddly absent here). Future R&B star Alexander O’Neal was kicked out of The Time by Prince; he has two solo tracks here that are far better than what he was later known for. Prince’s closest high school friend, André Cymone, who later married and cowrote with Jody Watley, has one track. 

Purple Rain was the culmination of the Minneapolis scene, not a launching pad. And despite the fact that I've just spent most of this review taking about Prince's biggest album, there's very little here that actually sounds anything like it. 

Purple Snow is a collection of should’ve-beens and never-weres trying to heat up a frigid town. Some are incredible, therefore earning the desired reaction of any rarity compilation (i.e., How did that never become a hit?!). Some are mired in the cheese of the era, but, remarkably, there is no dud among these 32 tracks. And the deluxe packaging—including a 142-page book—is suitably reverent and incredibly well-researched, as one expects from the Numero label, who chose this to mark their 50th release. It looks and sounds suitably regal.

Download: Herman Jones – “I Love You,” Sue Ann Carwell – “Should I Or Should I Not?” Alexander O’Neal – “Do You Dare”

 Saada Bonaire – s/t (Captured Tracks)

In the ’80s, Leonard Cohen liked to use an oud, an Arabic stringed instrument, on top of his drum machines and synthesizers. Perhaps not unsurprisingly, few others followed his lead (in Western pop music, anyway)—except for Saada Bonaire, a no-hit wonder from Germany, circa 1983, whose never-released album was issued (as opposed to reissued) late in 2013.

Saada Bonaire was conceived by a Bremen club DJ who employed his fiancée and her friend, neither one of them singers, both of whom dressed like Bedouin women, to front a band of 20 musicians found at a local immigration centre, as well as a German reggae band and a jazz saxophonist who’d played with Stan Kenton and Charles Mingus. The album was made in Kraftwerk’s studio by the man who engineered the Slits’ album Cut. It was bankrolled and championed by an EMI employee who was simultaneously working on Tina Turner’s soon-to-be blockbuster Private Dancer album.

That employee ran afoul of EMI management for going five times over budget with Turner, and for failing to curb costs with the decidedly bizarre Saada Bonaire. Guess which of those two artists got the cut. Only one single was released; it became an underground hit in Greece, and later a sought-after DJ trophy, which cleared the path for this resurgence of interest.

There’s no way this album could sound as good as its backstory. It doesn’t. The singers’ Germanic deadpan vocals (in English) are unintentionally hilarious—and grating, after a while. In small doses, however, Saada Bonaire is exotic in every sense: the incongruous elements miraculously coalescing in a rare time-capsule example of ’80s production and studio musicianship salvaging a pretty thin surface.

Download: “You Could Be More As You Are,” “More Women,” “Shut the Door”

William Onyeabor – Who is William Onyeabor? (Luaka Bop)

Indeed. What we do know about the mysterious Onyeabor is that he is a Nigerian musician who put out eight albums between 1977 and 1983, filled with futuristic Afrobeat that took Fela Kuti’s vision, mixed in some Kraftwerk and disco and messages both apocalyptic and spiritual. No one knew where to find him, however, and this compilation was more than five years in the making; once found, the elusive Onyeabor refused to answer any direct questions about that period in his life. He’s spent his post-music career as a successful businessman in the semolina trade.

This collection makes a solid case for Onyeabor’s forward-thinking innovations and ability to fill a dance floor, with 10-minute trancelike epics with stipped-down rhythms, female backing vocals, insistent single-string rhythm guitar tracks, and percolating synths—all of which demand to be played at maximum volume for full effect. This is not background music.

Maybe knowing more of Onyeabor’s backstory would make this music sound better than it already does—but that seems unlikely.

Download: “Body and Soul,” “Something You Will Never Forget,” “Let’s Fall in Love”

2013 cleanup

Everyone knows no good new records ever get released in early January, which is why I spent most of this month’s Waterloo Record column reviewing albums I missed from the end of 2013. See also: yesterday’s review of the magical Nick Buzz album.

Highly recommended: Africa Express Presents: Maison des Jeunes, Brandy Clark, Patty Griffin

Worth a listen: Robbie Fulks, Alison Moyet

Africa Express Presents: Maison Des Jeunes – Various Artists (Transgressive)

This album was recorded in Bamako, Mali, over seven days last October. Damon Albarn arrived with Brian Eno, Nick Zinner of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and others, and set up a studio at a local youth centre. They corralled the best young local acts they could find—perhaps through word of mouth via the more established acts Albarn booked on the U.K. tour called Africa Express—and somehow came out of that week with an 11-song album that is an embarrassment of riches. There’s no mistaking the Malian roots here—koras and n’gonis abound, and the sound is familiar to anyone familiar with Rokia Traoré, Ali Farka Touré or Amadou and Mariam—but Maison Des Jeunes is modern and vibrant. Though there are some stripped-down, gorgeous acoustic tracks—the likes of which you might expect—there are also roaring electric guitars, modern electronics and hip-hop influences enhancing and playing off the traditional instrumentation, while the drumming is, naturally, phenomenal (especially on tracks by Lil Silva and the Lobi Traoré Band).

There are no African names here recognizable to Western audiences—yet. You’re unlikely to hear a better compilation of music from any genre or continent for the rest of the year. (Jan. 23)

Download: Songhoy Blues – “Soubour,” Lil Silva – “Bouramsy,” Lobi Traoré Band – “Deni Kelen Be Koko”

Brandy Clark – 12 Stories (Slate Creek)

As will quickly become evident in this entry of 2013 catch-up, I barely listened to any country music in the last 12 months. But I can’t imagine anything being better than Brandy Clark.

When you’re a songwriter for hire, even when you’re in your mid-30s and you’ve scored Nashville hits for Miranda Lambert, LeAnn Rimes, and newcomer Kacey Musgraves, there’s some subject matter best kept to yourself. Singers like a sure thing; risks are few—despite the fact that the likes of Lambert and Musgraves owe a large part of their success for their resistance to complacent country music stereotypes.

Though Brandy Clark is musically conservative—12 Stories is note-perfect, tasteful, conventional country—she throws caution to the wind when penning narratives of sin, sex, revenge and regret. Clark’s characters cheat, carouse, imbibe and inhale—mostly because the men in their life have let them down: “Boy, if you build a fire, you better bet she’s got a match.” Clark can be deadly serious, a bonafide tearjerker, yet also has a wicked and cheeky side: the protagonist in “Stripes” resists wreaking violent revenge on her ex-husband because, as she says, “There’s no crime of passion worth a crime in fashion / the only thing saving your life is that I don’t look good in orange and I hate stripes.”

This album is called 12 Stories for a reason: they are Alice Munro-meets-Elmore Leonard in miniature. And yet despite the fact that two of these songs were previously recorded by LeAnn Rimes and Reba McEntire—and Clark also has a Grammy nomination for Kacey Musgraves’s “Follow Your Arrow”—this powerhouse debut was, sadly, obscure outside of critics’ circles (I only discovered it after reading some year-end lists), released to little fanfare in October by a tiny label with only one other artist on its roster. In yet another year when mainstream country deserved so much mockery (just Google “Grady Smith” and “Gawker” for an illustrative video montage of 2013’s crimes against country music), it’s no wonder Clark was held up as a beacon of light. (Jan. 2)

Download: “Stripes,” “Hold My Hand,” “Hungover “

Robbie Fulks – Gone Away Backward (Bloodshot)

Fulks was a leading light of the alt-country scene of the late ’90s, a wiseacre who revelled in wordplay, one-liners and sharp satire, but who also demanded to be taken seriously. He had clearly studied all the country music songwriting greats, and didn’t want to settle for being anything less than in their company.

Fulks has not been as active in recent years; I’ll admit I also lost track. But on Gone Away Backward, he’s sounding better than ever: no longer a joker, his wit is instead focused entirely on capturing the pain and disappointment of the New Depression, set to entirely acoustic arrangements featuring little more than guitar, banjo, fiddle, bass and four-part harmony. Even the instrumental tracks stand out—which, for a wordsmith like Fulks, says a lot about his evolution as a songwriter. (Jan. 2)

Download: “I’ll Trade You Money for Wine,” “Where I Fell,” “Sometimes the Grass is Really Greener 

Patty Griffin – Silver Bell (A&M)
Patty Griffin – American Kid (New West)

Silver Bell, released in October, is Patty Griffin’s third album. American Kid, released five months earlier, is her eighth. You follow? The singer/songwriter, who has written hits for a who’s who of Nashville and is a current collaborator (personal and professional) with Robert Plant, has a long and varied career, and American Kid is worth the while of any roots music fan—that almost goes without saying at this stage in Griffin’s career.

Silver Bell is a whole other story. Recorded in New Orleans at Daniel Lanois’s Kingsway Studio in 2000, it was shelved by her record label. She re-recorded some songs for later albums; others were covered by the Dixie Chicks; the whole project was widely bootlegged and a fan favourite. Said record company finally decided to release it 13 years later, recently remixed by Glyn Johns (The Who, Eric Clapton)—which must be bittersweet for Griffin, as it’s an astounding album, one that vastly overshadows her newer material.

Here, she sounds like an amalgam of Emmylou Harris, Kathleen Edwards, Lucinda Williams and Sam Phillips, both vocally and in terms of songwriting heft. Musically, there’s little here that sounds like Nashville at all: there are Arabic motifs, New Orleans rhythms, scorching electric guitar, raw rockers that wouldn’t be out of place on Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville or Weeping Tile’s Cold Snap, and, on the fuzzed-out “Perfect White Girls,” what sounds like a template for everything Melissa McClelland currently does in Whitehorse.

Eclecticism aside, the songs are fantastic, and it’s hard to imagine them ever sounding better than they do here, in Griffin’s hands, with this band, in this studio. No one said the music business ever made sense, but better late than never to hear this Silver Bell ring. (Jan. 2)

Download from Silver Bell: “Little God,” “Perfect White Girls,” “Silver Bell”
Download from American Kid: “Don’t Let Me Die in Florida,” “That Kind of Lonely,” “Get Ready Marie”

Jessy Lanza – Pull My Hair Back (Hyperdub)

This new Hamilton singer/producer grew up loving ’90s R&B, which is obvious in her cooing vocal melodies and some of her rhythmic approaches. Her production style—with help from Junior Boys’ Jeremy Greenspan—is far from slick or glossy, filled as it is with analog synthesizers, skittering beats that draw from underground strains of house music, and long instrumental passages that sound like remixes of Top 40 hits where only hints of the hook are evident. Lanza makes it all work, coming off like a more mainstream Grimes at times, but is best enjoyed in small doses; the album as a whole feels featherweight. (Jan. 9)

Download: “Keep Moving,” “F--k Diamond,” “Against the Wall”

Lenka Lichtenberg – Embrace (independent)

Born in Prague, based in Toronto, singing in Yiddish, Hebrew, Russian and English, Lenka Lichtenberg is a klezmer vocalist who intertwines her various musical sources until they become indistinguishable, bound together only by her voice. She gets comparisons to Loreena McKennitt, which are not unwarranted: there’s a similar pristine vocal tone and meticulous, delicate arrangements designed for concert theatres where you can hear a pin drop. That’s in part why it’s refreshing to hear Guelph remixer Eccodek get his hands on the track “Open My Eyes” and breathe some life into it (you can hear it on Soundcloud). Hopefully that collaboration convinces Lichtenberg to pump some bass into her musical backbone. (Jan. 9)

Download: “Open My Eyes,” “Raise a Cup of Joy,” “Vayn fun lebn”

Alison Moyet – The Minutes (Cooking Vinyl)

Thirty years ago, Alison Moyet left her first band, the electro duo Yazoo. Her solo career since then was full of ups and downs and label frustration, followed by a long period of silence. The Minutes is her return—in parts—to the electronic backdrops that contrast and complement her soulful voice perfectly. Sadly for Yazoo fans, that doesn’t mean a return to the disco or experimental pop heard on the classic Upstairs at Eric’s—that was another time, another place. “Suddenly the landscape has changed” is the first lyric Moyet sings here. Of course, it’s not exactly sudden, but hearing her come even within close proximity of the sound that spawned her talent on the world is a relief.

Moyet now makes adult pop music the way any 52-year-old British singer would, somewhere between the polarities of Massive Attack and Kylie Minogue. Working with producer Guy Sigsworth (Seal, Bjork, Alanis Morissette), who drenches her many minor-key melodies in melancholic pomp. At its worst, it drowns out Moyet herself; the best moments happen when they either strip everything back (“Filigree”) or write a major-key pop anthem (“When I Was Your Girl”) or take their sole excursion onto the dance floor (“Right as Rain”).

Moyet has a voice that demands to be heard; hopefully this album is just the first step of a larger comeback. (Jan. 16)

Download: “When I Was Your Girl,” “Right as Rain,” “Filigree”     

 Doug Tielli – Keresley (Tin Angel)

Doug Tielli, Martin’s youngest brother, has been making music for almost 20 years, and yet Keresley is only his second solo album. Recorded in the titular rural British town (30 minutes east of Birmingham), Keresley features little more than Tielli’s gorgeous, elastic voice, acoustic guitar, drums and trombone. Sometimes he channels Nick Drake, sometimes his acoustic guitar sounds like a Malian kora, sometimes it feels like he’s back home in Toronto playing improv at the Music Gallery with jazz-informed players. It’s lilting and lovely. Tielli has spent most of his career playing well with others, but he’s even better when left entirely to his own devices. (Jan. 9)

Download: “Water Falls,” “Oak,” “Big Man of the Underbrush”