Sunday, December 09, 2018

Best of 2018

1. U.S. Girls – In a Poem Unlimited (Royal Mountain/4AD)

There’s no reason pop music should be “important.” But when an artist hits that sweet spot between great songs, catchy melodies, solid grooves, top-notch production and lyrics seeped in empathy that also fume with fury and challenge listener’s assumptions—well, that’s perfection. U.S. Girls, which has evolved from Meg Remy’s solo bedroom project into a brilliant band that encapsulates a tiny corner of Toronto’s creative community, not only made a brilliant record that sounds timeless, but also a record that encapsulates 2018: rage against rampant misogyny, writ large (“Pearly Gates”) and small (“Velvet 4 Sale”); questioning the legacy of political heroes (“M.A.H.”); the personal toll of environmental destruction (“Rage of Plastics”); yadda yadda yadda (“We all know what’s right … so what are we going to do to change?”). That Remy does this inside slinky pop songs that sound better every single time you spin them makes In a Poem Unlimited an absolute triumph. On top of all that, her live band is killer, and her a cappella gospel ensemble performance at the Polaris Music Prize gala was one for the ages. This poem is indeed unlimited. Original review here.

2. Low – Double Negative (Sub Pop)

In one of the best punk singles released in this year of incredible corruption and distortion of truth and dissolution of shame, Superchunk sang about how “to see the rot in no disguise / oh, what a time to be alive.” On one of the year’s best albums, Low sang about “Always Trying To Work It Out” while the lead vocal mutated and warped over guitars and electronics distorted beyond recognition, morphing and mutating over a steady floor-tom pulse; only drummer Mimi Parker’s backing vocal holds fast as a single source of purity in what otherwise sounds like beauty and purity rotting before our ears. Twelve albums into their career, Low is still challenging itself and scaring the crap out of everyone else. Double Negative sounds the way 2018 felt. Which makes it a shoo-in for this year’s time capsule. Original review here.

3. TuneYards – I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life (4AD)

Much like US Girls, TuneYards tackles many modern woes: social alienation, the perils of technology, California wildfires, the bubble of white privilege, colonial co-option of music of stories—you know, all the fun stuff. Oddly enough, Merrill Garbus and company do have a lot of fun, and manage to make all this a part of a wild dance party that’s largely delivered just by the duo of Garbus and right-hand man Nate Brenner. This Private Life has a plethora of layers, both musical and lyrical, in which one can dive in deep while dancing down the street. Original review here.

4. Jeremy Dutcher – Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa (independent)

Yes, part of the appeal of this Polaris Prize-winning record is that there is literally nothing else like it in the world: an opera singer and pianist who sings exclusively in an almost-forgotten North American Indigenous language spoken by fewer than 100 people in the modern age. But concept aside, it’s also simply a powerful and emotional listening experience, listening to Dutcher dance with the ghosts of his elders. Small wonder he’s smashing barriers left, right and centre, and finding a global audience of music fans for his hyperlocal history project. Original review here.

5. Bonjay – Lush Life (Mysteries of Trade)

If Lush Life contained only the unadorned vocals of Alanna Stuart, it would still be on this list—for she delivers the most shiver-inducing, knockout vocal performance of the year on this record. But it’s the music here, co-written with Bonjay’s other half, Ian Swain, that truly transforms Stuart’s vocal skills into a killer pop record that, at times, sounds like Kate Bush making a shockingly successful stab at dancehall, produced by Bjork in a pre-dawn Berlin. And yet: it sounds so fully and completely Toronto at the same time. Original review here.

6. Lotic – Power (Tri Angle)

This sound sculptor is a trans Texan woman living in Berlin. Needless to say, their music crosses borders effortlessly, finding exquisite beauty in off-kilter or even scarred sounds, borrowing equally from the avant-garde side of trap hip-hop, neo-classical composition and the icy edges of European minimal techno. Original review here.

7. Dennis Ellsworth – Things Change (independent)

Singer-songwriters rarely cut it for me anymore—unless they’re this good. This Charlottetown record-store clerk is a prolific guy with plenty of pleasant-enough albums, but he knocks it out of the park here, with the help of producer Joel Plaskett. Twelve songs in 40 minutes, staving off one midlife crisis after another, each encapsulating all the best singles of ’90s indie rock and alt-country, enough to make Jeff Tweedy jealous. “Life is cruel but beautiful,” goes my favourite song here, one that’s been on constant repeat since the first day I heard it. Easily the most underrated record of the year. Original review here.

8. Cadence Weapon – s/t (EOne)

Most MCs are more than happy to talk primarily about themselves; Cadence Weapon, on the other hand, is an astute observer and portrait painter: of people, of music scenes, of urban ennui. His lyrical game has a poet’s eye, one that continues to improve with age, but it’s the musical vision here that’s truly captivating. Birthed in both Montreal and Toronto, the music here is big, bass-y and bold, hip-hop informed by EDM trends without ever succumbing to the noisy, ham-handed clichés of that genre. It’s also diverse: no two tracks here sound the same, which is a rarity these days in albums of any genre. Original review here.

9. Sons of Kemet – Your Queen is a Reptile (Impulse)

Saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings has been a light in London’s jazz scene in recent years, fronting several bands and floating just under the radar—until now, with Sons of Kemet’s debut for venerable label Impulse, and a spot on the Mercury Prize shortlist. Backed up by a tuba player and two drummers, Hutchings delivers one breathtaking performance after another, drawing from New Orleans funk to reggae to Mingus swing to hip-hop to wherever the rhythm takes him and his cohorts. They’re brilliant at raising the roof; it’s the quieter moments here that are more surprising, and make for a well-rounded record. Plus, the song titles send you scurrying down wormholes of Black history. Original review here.

10. Anna Calvi – Hunter (Domino)

Calvi is a close runner-up to Bonjay’s Alanna Stuart for delivering the vocal performance of the year, displaying an operatic breadth over dramatic art-pop that draws from a template seemingly specified to British music in 1997-98: Radiohead’s OK Computer, PJ Harvey’s Is This Desire, Portishead’s Dummy, Bjork’s Homogenic. But if the musical template sounds familiar, Calvi’s vocals take everything to a whole other plane, bending gender stereotypes at every turn. She’s also a killer guitarist, and her drummer is a perfect match. Original review here.

11. Janelle Monae – Dirty Computer (Universal)

“If the world should end tonight / I had a crazy, classic life.” Sure sounds like it: Monae is a consummate entertainer, especially now that she’s dropped the more robotic elements of her “Arch-Android” persona. Dirty Computer delivers on all the promise she’s ever shown; we always hear about who’s supposed to be the new Michael Jackson, a debate that Monae can easily put to rest. Original review here.

2. Hubert Lenoir – Darlène (Simone)

The first three tracks on this Québécois francophone’s debut move from jazz to glam rock to metal, and the rest is just as successfully eclectic. This kid has total starpower, the talent to back it up, and the curiosity that will ensure a long career. This is just the start. Extra points for the tenor saxophone, which U.S. Girls also put to good use this year. Original review here.

13. La Force – s/t (Arts and Crafts)

In 2013, Ariel Engle made my favourite record that year as one-half of AroarA (with Broken Social Scene’s Andrew Whiteman). La Force is her solo debut, and it’s a stunner: her haunting vocals sing torch melodies and droning folk songs over syncopated rhythms and new wave textures. Original review here.

14. Neneh Cherry – Broken Politics (Smalltown Supersound)

Neneh Cherry has had many phases of her 30-year career: pop star, African music explorer, midwife to Massive Attack, collaborator with FourTet and free jazz trio The Thing. All those sides of her unite on this, her second album with FourTet, moving easily through a variety of moods and genres.

15. Fucked Up – Dose Your Dreams (Arts and Crafts/Merge)

As someone who only ever enjoyed this hardcore punk band in the smallest of doses—despite their oft-grandiose, artsy ambitions—I fell hard for this opus, which delivers the kind of musical diversity they’ve always strived for, complete with many guest vocalists lifting the weight off Damian Abraham. This is the album they’ve been aiming to make all these years. Original review here.

16. Zaki Ibrahim – The Secret Life of Planets (independent)

With both Ibrahim and Neneh Cherry putting out albums in 2018, here’s hoping they get a chance to meet, play some shows together, and trade notes, because they’re very much cut from the same cloth. Though she shares Cherry’s jazzy bent, Ibrahim has a thing for classic synths that sets her apart from elders or the new crop of nouveau R&B singers. This record sums up why I once dubbed her approach “sci-fi soul,” a descriptor she’s taken to heart. Original review here.

17. Onyx Collective – Lower East Side Part Three (Ninja Tune)

This NYC jazz ensemble is known for popping up in random spots all over the city, so it’s apt that this record sounds like it was made in a subway station, both sonically and for the raw energy and conversational tone between the players. This is the antithesis of smooth jazz, but neither is it abrasive or deliberately challenging. Isaiah Barr’s saxophone is a siren’s call that draws you deep into a dance with the rhythm section. Before you know it, you’ve missed your train and learned a valuable lesson: the journey is more important than the destination. Original review here.

18. Richard Reed Parry – Quiet River of Dust Part One (Arts and Crafts/Anti)

A member of one of the world’s biggest rock bands wants you to simmer down and immerse yourself in a two-part concept album (the second instalment drops on March 21) about life, death, and the liminal space between the two. It doesn’t sound that good on paper; thankfully, it does on record—and even more so live. Parry shies away from the term “psychedelic folk,” but that pretty much sums up this amalgam of very early Pink Floyd, Brian Eno, Arthur Russell, Caribou, and those very tiny parts of Animal Collective that aren’t inherently terrible. This is the kind of record that will suspend time—if you let it. Original review here.

19. Rae Spoon – Bodiesofwater (Coax)

I’m a sucker for artists who hit their stride on the other side of 40, and Rae Spoon is one. Bodiesofwater finds the Western Canadian artist chock full of pop hooks and interesting arrangements that draw from between indie rock, folk-country and electronic textures. “Do Whatever the Heck You Want” is an irresistible earworm of affirmation, while “You Don’t Do Anything” is the sharpest political song of the year, next to Steven Page’s “White Noise.” Original review here.

20. Jack White – Boarding House Reach (Sony)

This is just so delightfully batshit crazy. The Jack White I love best is when he really doesn’t give a shit and just lets loose. Also: if Beasties besties Mike D and Ad Rock ever feel like kicking out some new jams, they should give White a call. Original review here.

Tribute acts—as good or better than the originals: 

Angelique Kidjo – Remain in Light (Kravenworks). In which a modern African artist reimagines the Talking Heads’ greatest album and recasts it with a decidedly modern bent that crosses just as many borders as the original. In doing so, Kidjo also illuminates subtexts and prescient points in David Byrne’s original lyrics. This is essential listening that works on several levels—including just pure pleasure.  Original review here.

Meshell Ndgeocello – Ventriloquism (Naive). Lots of people cover pop and rock songs from the ’80s and ’90s, but Ndgeocello illustrates that the R&B of the time was also full of solid songwriting that transcends time, even if the names Al B. Sure and Ralph Tresvant and Force MDs don’t get bandied about much anymore. Yes, there are songs here by Prince, Sade, Tina Turner and Janet Jackson, but they don’t stand out any taller from the many underrated gems here, and Ndgeocello breathes welcome life into each equally. 


Alanis Obomsawin – Bush Lady (Constellation).

I didn’t even know the legendary filmmaker was a musician until relatively recently. Seeing the then-85-year-old play a 15-minute set solo, with just a drum, at the National Arts Centre as part of a Native North America gathering this past February, was, quite simply, one of the most mesmerizing and inspiring performances I’ve ever seen in my life. This woman exudes otherworldly charisma in the same way Patti Smith, Bjork, PJ Harvey, Nick Cave or Gord Downie all do for me, yet she does so with just her Piaf-like voice and the tiniest of gestures. That this recording sat in her closet for the past 30 years, after a very brief private run, is insane to me. It’s gorgeous, haunting, and vital. Original review here.

Prince – Piano and a Microphone 1983 (Warner).

There is always more to Prince—and there’s always more Prince. This previously unearthed solo set is exactly as advertised, and it’s revelatory in many ways, not the least of which is his skill as a pianist. (Yes, we always knew he could do everything, but hearing him naked here is a whole other trip.) This is hardly for hardcore fans only. Original review here.

2017 albums I fell in love with in 2018:

Snotty Nose Rez Kids –  The Average Savage. Review here.  

Amyl & the Sniffers – Big Attraction. Review here.

Saturday, December 08, 2018

Prairie winds: Colter Wall, Belle Plaine, Foxwarren

Backstage at Regina's Artesian on 13th,
Oct. 31. I'm squatting, on the right; Dustin Ritter
is standing, third from right
November 2018: the month I finally learned that Regina has a music scene. And man, oh man, was I missing out.

On my recent book tour promoting The Never-Ending Present, my schedule placed me in Regina on Hallowe’en, a night when a lot of venues were unwilling to host a book event—except the Artesian on 13th, a converted church now being run as a co-op venue. The only catch? I had to rent the venue. So I decided to book a full-on rock show and charge a cover to take care of expenses (and pay the band, of course). My fellow Polaris Prize juror Darlene Barss agreed to host the evening and forwarded me a few names, which sent me down a wormhole. Several local scenesters sent their regrets, including Megan Nash, Library Voices and Nick Faye.

The Dustin Ritter Band agreed to put together a bunch of local all-stars, only one of whom—Marshall Ward of Rah Rah—I was previously familiar with (that band’s 2015 album Vessels was one of my favourites that year). The others were Travis Rennebohm and Ethan Bender from Tiger Charmer, Christopher “Tiny” Matchett, Tyler Gilbert and Bryce Van Loosen. Everyone did an ace job, and the gig couldn’t have gone better, musically speaking, and there was a wonderful, generous spirit in the room (although attendance-wise, yes, booking a gig on Hallowe’en is not a great idea).

That night I met Blake Berglund and Melanie Hankewich (a.k.a. Belle Plaine), who bought a copy of the book and expressed regrets that they couldn’t take part in the show, because they’d just got back from tour that day. I knew Belle Plaine’s new CD had arrived on my desk just before I left on tour; she was going to be in Toronto soon, opening for Colter Wall, whose record I’d reviewed in advance before I left.

So in the space of a month I’ve gone from being totally ignorant of Regina’s incredibly fertile music scene—including forgetting the fact that Andy Shauf is from there, and being unfamiliar with the Dead South—to being acutely interested.

Mea culpa: I’m also the jackass with a Canadian studies degree who misspelled Saskatchewan in a national music magazine 15 years ago. But at least I know that canola is a modern variant of what used to be called rapeseed.

Colter Wall – Songs of the Plains (Sony)

Quick: name the last great songwriter from Saskatchewan. [ed note: what an ignoramus! Jon Bartlett will kill you for not remembering Shauf.] I’d suggest the duo Kacy & Clayton of Wood Mountain Hills in south Saskatchewan, but I’ll forgive you if you haven’t heard of them (yet). Colter Wall (son of a recent provincial premier, no less) has been the talk of Nashville for a couple of years now, and when he travels the world he’s surprised no one knows anything about his home province. So, much like his Albertan friend Corb Lund, who sings backup here, he’s made his songwriting primarily local—and in doing so, has found universal appeal.

Produced by Dave Cobb (Sturgill Simpson, Chris Stapleton, Brandi Carlile), Songs of the Plains sounds like a campfire record, with little more than guitar, upright bass, and the instantly recognizable harmonica of Mickey Raphael, a.k.a. Willie Nelson’s right-hand man. The stark setting serves Wall’s rich baritone well, making the material that much more haunting—which is appropriate, because much of what Wall does is rooted in an antiquated view of Prairie life.

He covers of Wilf Carter and three other old cowboy songs, but gets his history a bit confused on the otherwise worthy “Saskatchewan in 1881”: “Mr. Toronto man, go away from my door / got my wheat and canola seed / you’re asking me for more / you’d better fly before I produce my .44.” The word “canola” wasn’t coined until 1978, for a genetically modified derivative of the not-so-friendly “rapeseed,” so no one in 1881 would have referred to their crops as “canola.” One would suspect such a strongly self-identifying Prairie boy to know that.

No matter: otherwise, this sophomore record shows that Wall is more than just a historical re-enactment act. (Nov. 2)

Stream: “Plain to See Plainsman,” “Saskatchewan in 1881,” “Wild Dogs”

Belle Plaine – Malice, Mercy, Grief & Wrath (Rawlco)

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about Colter Wall’s second album, and asked the rhetorical question: when was the last time you heard a great artist from Regina?

What an ass. I need to take that back. Big time. Not just because of this new album by Belle Plaine, but because having recently visited the city, I’ve been awakened to a wealth of talent in the roots rock and country world there that makes it one of the most exciting music scenes in Canada. And Belle Plaine’s album might make the best argument why that is.

Belle Plaine is Melanie Hankewich, who grew up in Fosston, Saskatchewan (it’s between Humboldt and Kelvington, due east of Saskatoon—but basically in the middle of nowhere). This is her third album, and she draws deeply from her local community: Colter Wall, Kacy Anderson (of Kacy & Clayton), Megan Nash, and Blake Berglund, who is her partner, guitarist, and a solo artist in his own right. The album is produced by Jason Plumb, best remembered as the frontman of the ’90s band the Waltons.

All that talent is put to use on nine songs that range from traditional country to torch songs to more contemporary singer-songwriter fare, all showcasing Hankewich’s haunting, jazz-trained voice. She draws character portraits of loss and longing, occasionally inhabiting stories much older than she—and, in the case of opening track, “For All Those Who I love,” an abusive father filled with regret. She’s also able to write a classic country zinger, like the song with the chorus: “Is it cheatin’ if you don’t get laid? / Is it a gig if you don’t get paid? / Is it a crying shame if my tears don’t fall?” (Nov. 16)

Stream: “Golden Ring” feat. Megan Nash, “Is It Cheating” feat. Colter Wall and Blake Berglund, “Laila Sady Johnson Wasn’t Beaten By No Train”

Foxwarren – s/t (Arts and Crafts)

You’re an artist from a small regional centre in Canada who finally achieves international recognition under your own name, with sold-out shows across North America and Europe. For your follow-up, you decide to… resurrect your obscure band from ten years ago and put out its debut album, with your name nowhere on the cover? An odd choice, yes, but that’s exactly what singer-songwriter Andy Shauf—whose 2016 breakthrough album The Party landed on the Polaris Music Prize shortlist—has done with Foxwarren, a group of old Regina friends who decided to finish what they started a decade ago.

On the surface, it’s not that different from Shauf’s solo work: the baked couch-potato vibe rarely strays from mid-tempo, the late-Beatles production aesthetic is delicate and exquisite, and of course Shauf’s slightly marblemouth vocals are distinctive. For whatever reason—maybe it’s Shauf’s own musical maturity, or maybe because these old mates (especially the drummer) bring out the best in the man who played every instrument on The Party himself—this is more musically rewarding than The Party on several levels. Which makes the decision to keep Shauf’s name out of the brand all the more puzzling. (Nov. 30)

Stream: "To Be," "Everything Apart," "I’ll Be Alright”

Alexandra Stréliski, Gonzales

Alexandra Stréliski – Inscape (Secret City)
Gonzales – Solo Piano III (Arts and Crafts)

It’s a good time to be a classically trained solo pianist. Look no further than last month’s Polaris Music Prize, where the big cheque went to Jeremy Dutcher’s opera-inspired reimagining of the music from his Indigenous roots. Also on the shortlist was Jean-Michel Blais, who managed to silence a talkative crowd at the gala with a spellbinding instrumental performance. Internationally, Nils Frahm and Ólaf Arnalds play in big halls to audiences who don’t normally go to see classical performances.

Some credit for this wave has to go to Chilly Gonzales, the Canadian expat to first Berlin and then Paris (and now Cologne), whose 2004 album Solo Piano was a runaway hit in France, and made considerable waves elsewhere in the Western world. Gonzales is a restless musical searcher who dabbles in many genres—including a guest turn on Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories—but has returned to the Solo Piano concept now for the third time. As he should: on much of his other works, his versatility is both a blessing and a curse. When he sits alone at the piano, however, playing with equal parts subtlety and gentle flourish, the depths of his talent are focused entirely on one instrument, in one style. As he has deepened his connection to the classical world—his 2015 album Chambers was made with the Kaiser Quartett—his writing is less whimsical, more mature. After years spent building his reputation as a joker, Gonzales is being taken seriously and has stepped up his game.

Alexandra Stréliski is a Montreal pianist and composer whose second album, Inscape, contains several songs that appear in the HBO mini-series Sharp Objects, directed by fellow Québécois Jean-Marc Vallée; she’s also worked with him on Dallas Buyers Club, Demolition, and Big Little Lies. For all the talk about the new wave of Quebec directors running away to Hollywood and leaving the domestic industry behind (hello, Denis Villeneuve), the ongoing collaboration between Vallée and Stréliski is heartening. It’s also led to streaming numbers in the multi-millions.

As to be expected, Stréliski’s composition and gentle and meditative, designed to be both evocative and transparent. There is a mournful melancholy throughout, a darkness underneath the beauty; few, if any, of these songs will be soundtracking sentimental rom-coms. In a crowded field of pianists, this record stands out. (Oct. 5)

Stream Gonzales: “Prelude in C Sharp Minor,” “Famous Hungarians,” “Present Tense”
Stream Alexandra Stréliski: “Plus tô,” “Par la fenêtre de Théo,” “Burnout Fugue”