Highly recommended this month: Japandroids, The Xx
As always, these reviews originally ran in the Waterloo Record.
Streaming is great for sample purposes, but please find a way to directly support your favourite artists financially.
Austra – Future Politics (Paper Bag)
Austra’s Katie Stelmanis must be an optimist to title both a song and an album Future Politics in 2017. If she is, she keeps her sunniness to herself in the actual music. Unlike the buoyant disco that illuminated the second Austra album, 2013’s Olympia, Future Politics doesn’t sound like a fun night out in the least—not that it has to be, of course, but it’s even more dour than the goth electro of the 2011 debut. Stelmanis wrote this material living in Montreal and Mexico, away from her Toronto home, and that isolation informs the more sombre mood this time out. The twin sisters from Tasseomancy are no longer in the band; their harmonies are missed; likewise, her talented band sounds underutilized here. (Jan. 19)
Stream: “Future Politics,” “Utopia,” “I Love You More Than You Love Yourself”
Japandroids – Near to the Wild Heart of Life (Arts and Crafts)
“If they try to slow you down, tell them all to go to hell.” So went the chorus to “The House That Heaven Built,” one of many anthems on 2012’s Celebration Rock that vaulted Japandroids from poorly kept secret of the Vancouver underground into beloved rock’n’roll saviours. And yet they did slow down: guitarist Brian King moved to Toronto; drummer Dave Prowse stayed in Vancouver; they took two years writing and recording this, their third album and first in 4½ years.
Japandroids are a guitar-drums duo, but there’s nothing simple about them. Wild Heart is a huge leap forward in terms of songwriting, performance and production. Whereas before they could be accused of simply extending a lineage that runs from Bruce Springsteen to the Constantines, here they really come into their own. These are much more than just drunken Saturday night odes to youth, romance, rock’n’roll and the open road (not necessarily in that order) that used to be Japandroids’ stock and trade. That still exists here: “North South East West” is exactly the kind of fist-pumping catharsis one expects from this band; expect this one to be a key part of the soundtrack of 2017. But they’re both in their mid-thirties now, and so their signature intensity is being applied to varying tempos and textures, including instrumentation that will be difficult to duplicate onstage as a duo. Wild Heart is very much an album as opposed to a live document.
Slowing down, in more ways than one, has made Japandroids an even better band. Great rock bands are getting fewer and fewer. This one is fighting the good fight. (Jan. 26)
I interviewed the band for this Maclean’s article.
Stream: “North South East West,” “Near to the Wild Heart of Life,” “In a Body Like a Grave”
Abigail Lapell – Hide Nor Hair (Coax)
Abigail Lapell is the latest signee to Rae Spoon’s Coax label, which has emerged as a vital documenter of communities often marginalized in the Canadian music scene, whether it’s trans advocate Spoon themselves, klezmer firebrand Geoff Berner, or the cross-cultural electronic grooves of LAL. Where Lapell fits in there isn’t exactly clear: there’s nothing revolutionary, sonically or lyrically, on her second full-length album of haunting, gorgeous modern folk music. Co-produced by Chris Stringer (Timber Timbre), he and Lapell enhance her solo guitar skills with the most subtle yet effective textures. (Jan. 26)
Stream: “Fur and Feathers,” “Night Bird and Morning Bird,” “Murder City”
Sleater-Kinney – Live in Paris (Sub Pop)
A friend mused recently: does anyone make live albums anymore, and if so, why? YouTube clips abound; it’s certainly no mystery what a band sounds like live, on any given tour, on any given night. They don’t even function as documents of greatest hits anymore; anyone can assemble one of those with a streaming playlist (or have an algorithm do it for them). (I expand on this idea in this Maclean’s article.)
The only real reason to release a live album is if you’re at a stage in your career where you’ve reinvented and/or improved on studio versions of these songs. By that token, there’s no reason for this live album from Sleater-Kinney’s 2015 tour. The Oregon trio are hands-down one of the most ferocious rock bands you’ll ever see, and their comeback album No Cities to Love—after an eight-year hiatus—showed that they sounded even better than ever. A third of this live album are songs from that record, sounding note-perfect; another third is from 2005’s The Woods—again, sounding almost identical to the studio versions. Which is to say, they kick serious ass: every slashing power chord of Carrie Brownstein’s, every cathartic caterwaul of Corin Tucker’s, every monstrous drum fill from Janet Weiss (I could listen to her play the opening to “Entertain” on loop all day). If for some bizarre reason you ever thought Sleater-Kinney was a studio band, this album lays that notion to waste.
The songs from earlier records are, naturally, more alive and fiery than when Sleater-Kinney was a younger band, than when they had yet to play those songs hundreds of times. The geekiest of fans will delight in hearing them—in one of their earliest songs, “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone”—change a reference to Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, to honour his creative partner and now-ex-wife Kim Gordon. But this is not a greatest hits record; it’s a set list, and a good one at that. In that sense, it’s a fair introduction to the band for newbies—and a decisive rebuttal to anyone who ever doubted the depths of this trio’s powers. (Jan. 26)
Stream: “A New Wave,” “Entertain,” “Dig Me Out”
The Xx – I See You (XL)
It’s almost like The Xx never went away. In the 4½ years since their second album was released, their sound has been ubiquitous in commercials, in Drake songs (he sampled them on the title track to 2013’s Take Care), and in straight-up rip-offs (the Chainsmokers’ “Don’t Let Me Down,” admittedly inspired by The Xx’s guitar sound, was one of the biggest radio hits of 2016). The name of that 2012 second Xx album? Coexist. How prophetic.
And now: I See You. On it, the British trio accept the fact that they’re now playing for a much bigger audience, as opposed to being shy 20-year-old goth kids making incredibly sparse music that married the mood of dour new wave classics with pop songs and modern electronics. The success of beatsmith Jamie Xx’s 2015 solo album informs many of the textures heard here underneath (and, often, above) Romy Madley Croft’s signature guitar sound and Oliver Sim’s R&B-inspired bass lines. Whereas earlier Xx songs stuck out on radio playlists, the subtle EDM textures heard here puts them even more squarely in the mainstream.
Yet the most beautiful thing about The Xx is that they haven’t in the least changed what it is about them that set them apart from everyone else in the first place. Though tempos are occasionally upbeat, there are no sunny pop songs. Sim and Croft, childhood friends who are perhaps the only two gay people (of different genders) to duet in the same band, will always sound like outsiders, like childhood friends since kindergarten still singing for each other in the shelter of their bedroom (though Sim, in particular, has improved greatly as a vocalist; Croft didn’t have to). “I will be brave for you / do the things I’m afraid to do,” sings Croft, in one of the album’s most affecting moments. Another is when Sim, a recently reformed alcoholic, sing, “I go out, but every beat is a violent noise.”
In almost every way, The Xx have proven how to maintain one’s artistic integrity in the face of massive success. No wonder everyone wants to rip them off. (Jan. 12)
I wrote about The Xx for Maclean’s here.
Stream: “Dangerous,” “Brave For You,” “On Hold”