Tuesday, June 23, 2015

June 2015 reviews

Highlights this month, from my weekly Waterloo Record column (where these reviews ran originally):

Highly recommended, previously reviewed: FFS (Franz Ferdinand and Sparks), Kamasi Washington

Highly recommended, reviewed here: Salomé Leclerc, Nozinja

Worth your while: Lemon Bucket Orkestra, Merna, Nao, Socalled, Jamie XX

Salomé Leclerc – 27 fois l’aurore (Audiogram)

Ooooh, witchy women. As loathe as I am to be quoting the Eagles, the phrase comes to mind when listening to this underrated Montreal chanteuse, who takes her place alongside a new wave of wonderfully weird Canadian ladies: Austra, Lydia Ainsworth, Lisa Conway of Del Bel, Louise Burns, Alana Yorke, et al. All have classically trained voices (or at least sound like they do), all specialize in minor keys and more than a bit of morbidity, all make autumnal melancholy.

Leclerc has zero profile in the anglosphere, but she sold 10,000 copies of her debut album in Quebec and France; it was produced by French singer Emily Loizeau, which helped its profile. Leclerc started performing as a teen, and is a graduate of something called the École nationale de la chanson (yet another Quebec cultural institution the rest of Canada can envy), which explains her gift for melody. What’s even more striking here is her arrangements, which might feature just a brass section, fuzzed out bass and tumbling drums, or a full rock band, or Omnichord and electric guitar. Every production decision here sounds deliberate and meticulous; nothing is left to chance. On top of it all, Leclerc’s voice conveys layers of meaning even if you don’t understand a word of French.

Is this the most underrated Canadian record of the last 12 months? (June 18)

Download: “Arion,” “L’icone du naufrage,” “Attendre la fin”

Lemon Bucket Orkestra – Moorka (Fedora Upside Down)

This year, Toronto’s Lemon Bucket Orkestra celebrate their fifth anniversary as a band. They arrived several years after Eastern European sounds started to creep into the mainstream, with bands like Beirut and Gogol Bordello selling out huge shows across the continent (this continent, that is, but Europe as well). In the wake of those acts came a lot of dabblers, who threatened to turn this music into a watered-down trend like Celtic and ska before it. Lemon Bucket, however—many of whom are of Eastern European descent, though they’re a multicultural band—were never dabblers.

On their second full-length album, recorded in a barn near Waterloo, the Orkestra interpret songs they learned from the source: from musicians they met while touring Ukraine, Serbia, Bulgaria and Romania. Lemon Bucket built their reputation as a live act with irrepressible energy; on record, you appreciate much more their skills as players and arrangers: there are three violinists, including bandleader Mark Marczyk; five brass players; two wind players; three percussionists, an accordionist and a guitarist. And yet they play as one incredibly tight unit, through convoluted time signatures and breakneck speeds.

No wonder, of course: these guys play all the time, in concert halls, in street festivals, on random corners, even on Air Canada flights (a YouTube clip of this went viral in 2012). Their tireless dedication to both their craft and the heritage of this music comes through in every note here—but even more important, it’s a really good time. (June 25)

Download: “Prescacanka,” “Kolomyjka,” “Mar Domenesc”

Merna – The Calling (W.A.R. Media)

This Toronto singer’s debut album under this name (she used to record as Ayah) finds her full of swagger and soul: she comes out swinging right off the top, with the bold “Young & Reckless,” and maintains that intensity for another nine tracks. Executive produced by Ali Shaheed Muhammad of A Tribe Called Quest, Merna has the range and power of a Mary J. Blige or Melanie Fiona, with the forward-thinking production acumen of Zaki Ibrahim or Santigold. Lots of strings (or synth strings) provide plenty of oomph, pushing Merna into Shirley Bassey territory at times (“Games We Play”). This came out last November; Canada shouldn’t be sleeping on this record any longer. (June 18)

Download: “Games We Play,” “All I Want (I Wonder),” “Young & Reckless”

Giorgio Moroder – Déjà Vu (Sony)

One of the most influential producers in pop history returns from retirement after 30 years, a few years after two of his biggest fans, the French duo Daft Punk, won a Grammy for Album of the Year by imitating some of Moroder’s greatest hits—and setting an autobiographical ramble by the man himself to music in a track named after him.

For 10 years in the late ’70s and early ’80s, Moroder had a massive stream of hits for David Bowie (“Cat People”), Blondie (“Call Me”), Irene Cara (“Flashdance”), Berlin (“Take My Breath Away”) and more. He sold millions of records for Donna Summer by bringing electronic music into disco, and is considered the godfather of techno for making minimalist hits like “I Feel Love.”

But Moroder was first and foremost a pop producer. So even if Daft Punk restored his reputation, those expecting him to bust open a new genre or do something experimental are going to be disappointed in Déjà Vu, which is tailor-made for the EDM generation. He’s not wiring up all his analog synths again; he’s making big shiny tunes for today. As the man himself says, to quote the title of an instrumental track here, 74 is the new 24.

And so he teams up with a team of young vocalists—Charlie XCX, Mikky Ekko, Foxes and Matthew Koma (the latter two have had hits with Russian house DJ Zedd)—and veritable grandmother Kylie Minogue. On one of the worst matchings of producer and singer and song in recent memory, Moroder employs Britney Spears to sing Suzanne Vega’s “Tom’s Diner”—the less said about which, the better. But Sia soars, naturally, on the title track, and Foxes fares well on “Wildstar.”

It all adds up as more of an homage not to Moroder’s past catalogue as much as his own influence on modern sounds in Ibiza. This is not for geeky crate-diggers and Mojo magazine readers; this old man wants to make records for kids of the 21st century. Just like he always did. (June 18)

Download: “4 U With Love,” “Déjà Vu” (feat. Sia), “Diamonds” (feat. Charlie XCX)

Nao – February 15 (Little Tokyo)

Song of the summer? The last couple of years the continent’s critics have fretted endlessly about this dubious designation, as if it conveys some vital importance about how we’ll look back on this period of time in pop music history. And so what if it was Iggy Azalea in 2014?

For what it’s worth, I’ll nominate the lead track on the second EP by this London singer, “Inhale Exhale.” Its mid-tempo, ascending bass line of five eighth notes makes for a fantastic funk riff, the kind that wouldn’t sound out of place on an Erykah Badu or Janet Jackson or Beck record, while Nao’s deceptively girly voice demonstrates true grit.

Follow-up track “Zillionaire” could easily have been just as strong, if not for a cloying chorus that’s just as annoying as Travis McCoy and Bruno Mars’s not dissimilar “Billionaire.” “Apple Cherry” sounds like Grimes doing ’90s R&B, while “Golden” is the kind of single Beyoncé might make if she tried on some subtlety for a change.

Nao hasn’t arrived with a lot of hype: she’s put out her EPs on her own label, her only real claim to fame is singing backup vocals with Pulp once, and she contributes to a track on the new Disclosure album. Her music does all the talking. (June 4)

Download: “Inhale Exhale,” “Apple Cherry,” “Golden”

Nozinja – Nozinja Lodge (Warp/Maple)

For the last 40 years, Western ears have usually recoiled from the tinny synths that dominate music from afar, be it Asia, the Middle East or Africa. Syrian singer Omar Souleyman, who collaborates with Bjork and FourTet, helped to change that perception, and now we have South Africa’s Nozinja, the pioneer of the Shangaan electro sound.

What is Shangaan? Sometimes it sounds like the preset demo on a Casio keyboard played at three times the speed. Sometimes it sounds like a deft electro adaptation of township jive or mbaqanga, with marimbas melding with syncopated synth stabs, traditional vocals and 180-bpm electronic rhythms.

Nozinja is Richard Mthetwa, who assembled a Shangaan compilation for Damon Albarn’s label, Honest Jon’s, a few years back. That led to some tracks for a label run by Caribou’s Dan Snaith. Here the attention is solely on his own work and the evolution of Shangaan; Mthetwa brings in elements of dancehall reggae, ’90s jungle, Latin beats, and filters it all through his unique vision. On “Xihukwani,” he recreates the bass line from New Order’s “Blue Monday” and throws it into a swirling symphony of staccato synths and tumbling drum machines.

Ah, but can you dance to it? They do in Limpopo, apparently, and can do so for up to an hour—a frenetic pace that seems impossible to maintain. The rest of us will probably listen and grin and vibrate with excitement. (June 11)

Download: “Nwa Baloyi,” “Baby Do U Feel Me,” “Xihukwani”

Socalled – Peoplewatching (Dare to Care)

“I’m neither fish nor fowl,” says Josh Dolgin, a.k.a. Socalled, in an interview recently. He’s an Anglo Jew living in Montreal who loves klezmer, hip-hop, country, Latin music and jazz—ideally all at the same time. He’s too strange for the mainstream—where his soundtracks to puppet shows and gay porn raise eyebrow—and he’s too nerdy for the cool kids.

Yet he’s a hometown hero in Montreal, because his music wouldn’t be out of place at any one of the city’s summer music festivals. He tours France regularly. He attracts collaborators such as James Brown sideman Fred Wesley and jazz legend Oliver Jones. He provided the theme for the popular Canadaland podcast. And he got the once-in-a-generation gig overhauling the theme to CBC Radio’s As It Happens, Moe Kaufman’s “Curried Soul”; Socalled’s “Curried Soul 2.0” closes out this new record.

If his radio themes provide a gateway into Dolgin’s demented world, then Peoplewatching is as good a place as any to dive in deep (although 2011’s Sleepover is his strongest record). “Everyone Else Must Fail” (its title borrowed from Genghis Khan) features his longtime lead vocalist, Katie Moore, and embodies everything Socalled does well: minor-key melody, hip-hop beat, country vocals and dorky rapping (he rhymes Punky Brewster with Wayne and Shuster). “Bootycalling” is enjoyably ridiculous.

The surprise, however, is the earnest and touching portrait of his Mile End neighbourhood, “Fire on Hutchison Street.” It’s also the only track where Dolgin plays unaccompanied; ironic, then, that the great collaborator is most effective all on his lonesome. (June 11)

Download: “Fire on Hutchison Street,” “Curried Soul 2.0,” “Everyone Else Must Fail”

Jamie XX – In Colour (XL)

What does the third member of The XX, the one who isn’t singing or playing guitar or bass, do exactly? Jaime XX is not a DJ—outside of clubs, anyway. He’s partially an electronic percussionist, playing live MPC. He’s remixed Radiohead, Adele, FourTet and Gil Scott-Heron. He did the title track from Drake’s Take Care, featuring Rihanna. Here, he steps to the front to make a solo record that doesn’t sound that far removed from The XX—in part because his bandmates Romy Madley-Croft and Oliver Sim (sounding more and more like Tindersticks’ Stuart Staples) appear on three tracks—but with more four-on-the-floor action and some blissed-out ecstasy letting some light into the austere British melancholy.

In Colour is a fine debut, but owes so much to FourTet, Boards of Canada and other ’90s survivors whose new records are largely ignored or taken for granted, while Jamie XX racks up dozens of cover stories and glowing reviews. Seriously, if Moby put out this record—and he could—would anyone care? I’d like to put that to a test in a blind listening party.

Meanwhile, The XX is working on their third album, expected later this year. It probably won’t feature guest spots from Young Thug and Popcaan and you probably won’t dance to it—but anything’s possible. (June 4)

Download: “Sleep Sound,” “Obvs,” “The Rest is Noise”

Monday, June 22, 2015

Kamasi Washington - The Epic

Kamasi Washington – The Epic (Brainfeeder)

 ‘Tis the season for jazz festivals, and anyone who tells you the genre is dead clearly isn’t looking hard enough. Sure, it’s now a niche in terms of sales, but there is no shortage of artists dedicated to sustaining and expanding the most creative musical movement of the last 100 years—whether it sounds like what you consider jazz or not, like the improvisational magic of Tanya Tagaq and her band.

And then there’s a superstar like rapper Kendrick Lamar, whose 2015 album To Pimp a Butterfly—which has sold more than half a million copies so far—draws heavily on jazz. And not polite, cocktail-bar jazz that fits easily into a bumping 4/4 beat, either. Lamar uses jazz as music of struggle and expression and freedom. In order to do that, he called on Kamasi Washington, who grew up in the same neighbourhood, South Central L.A., that Lamar did.

Who is Kamasi Washington? This is the 32-year-old tenor saxphonist’s debut album. He’s been a sideman for everyone from Herbie Hancock to Snoop Dogg to Raphael Saadiq. He runs with Flying Lotus, who perhaps more than anyone is bringing a jazz sensibility to electronic music. They share a bassist, a man known only as Thundercat (who’s also from South Central, as is Washington’s entire band). But let’s run some numbers here. In addition to the core band—which involves two bassists, two drummers, two keyboardists and a trombonist, with Washington on tenor sax—this album has a 32-piece orchestra on it, and a 20-person choir. If you buy a physical copy, it’s a three-record set. It’s 172 minutes long. There are 17 songs. Epic? You bet. In this case, there is definitely strength in numbers.

Its most compelling moments are, of course, when the full cast in on display, and those are the tracks that will first convince you that this is something far beyond any jazz record you’re likely to have heard in recent memory. But three hours of that would be exhausting, of course. Washington’s consistently strong melodies provide a tether for casual listeners. Washington’s many moods involve a bit of swing, some sparse, delicate ballads, and the soothing presence of traditional jazz vocalist Patrice Quinn on several tracks. Naturally, he lets every member of his band stretch out considerably—notably organist Brandon Coleman on “Isabelle” and a stunning bowed-bass solo on “Miss Understanding” by Miles Mosley. On “Re Run Home,” Coleman breaks out his wah-pedal and his clavinet, and with the help of full percussion section, drives a 14-minute jazz-funk excursion that is likely your best gateway drug to reveal the rest of this glorious world of sound.

Listeners might be led in the door by Washington’s more famous employers, but Washington is second-fiddle to no one. If you’re the kind of jazz appreciator who only buys one modern jazz album every year (or decade), well, this would be the one.

Download: “Re Run Home,” “Miss Understanding,” “Changing of the Guard”

Friday, June 19, 2015

Father to son

My father taught me a lot of things—of course. Riding a bike. Throwing a baseball. Realizing that I had absolutely no aptitude for household repairs. That’s what fathers do. In many ways, he and I are very different people. He went to business school. I got a history degree. He votes Conservative. I vote anything but. He almost exclusively reads James Patterson novels. We agree on Elmore Leonard and Michael Lewis, but otherwise our literary tastes diverge completely.

It’s what my father taught me about music that, culturally, registers the most. I’ve lived my whole life in music: as a fan, as a creator, as a critic, as an insufferable addict who needs to discover five new things a week. My father is nowhere near as crazy as I am. But he is, according to his friends, the guy at a bridge party or hunting lodge who always has the CDs or the playlist, the guy with the tunes everyone admires. Many of the staple artists of his life are also staples of mine: I was raised on ’50s and ’60s pop and rock; the sound of Duane Eddy’s twangy guitar instantly feels like a hug from my dear old dad.

My father isn’t a rock snob. He also loves classical music, the more bombastic, the better. I still can’t hear Tchaikovsky’s War of 1812 without picturing my dad conducting an imaginary orchestra in our living room. He has a soft spot for country music. He loves the Bee Gees, embracing the swagger of those neutered men without ever compromising his old-school masculinity. (This is perhaps why I love Prince.) More than anything, though, my dad loved the ladies. The big-throated belters: Janis Joplin, Bonnie Tyler, Grace Slick, Ronnie Spector. Later on in life, whenever I’d be playing Lone Justice or Concrete Blonde or k.d. lang or Neko Case, he would always excitedly ask me, “Who is that?!”

I have a distinct childhood memory of asking my dad, “Why does all your music sound so different? Don’t most people just like either rock or country or classical?” “Good music is good music, son,” he said, more than likely ruffling my hair for loving emphasis.

The first time I ever felt I’d made an impact on my father was when I started making mix tapes taken from the radio. I had one in particular that had UB40 and Men Without Hats and Eurythmics and Culture Club and other 1982 favourites; it was in constant rotation in our family car. As a typically vain child, I thought I felt my dad’s pride in my curatorial vision every time we put it on and he sang endearingly off-key to every track. You can’t fake that, right?

My son’s love of music is pure and enthusiastic. He responded to Polmo Polpo and Brian Eno records as an infant (or at least I like to think he did). As soon as he could move his body, he’d wiggle to Grimes. At seven months old, we took him to see the TSO perform the "War of 1812 Overture" at Luminato; he wasn’t bored for a second. He obsessed over Raffi so much that he once, at age two, started singing a Raffi song before stopping and saying, “Oh wait, I forgot the guitar part”—and proceeded to sing the one-bar guitar intro before the vocal line. Out of all the music we play constantly in the house, he’s latched onto Chuck Berry. Now three, the boy pointed out that “in both ‘Sweet Little Rock’n’Roller’ and ‘Rock’n’Roll Music,’ Chuck Berry sings about melody.”

Other than plundering my way through percussion and ukulele and piano, my son doesn’t see me play much music. One day I asked my son what instruments he’d like to play when he grows up. “Accordion and saxophone,” he replied. He had no idea I played both in bands for years. Not sure where he got that from.

I can’t wait to hear his first mix tape.

(This was originally published on iVillage in 2014. Thanks to Adina Goldman for soliciting it.)