Wednesday, November 14, 2018

The Dill - Greetings From

The Dill – Greetings From (Dead Radio, Love)

Who the heck is “the Dill” and why has he released a 52-song debut album?

Dylan “the Dill” Hudecki played with long-running By Divine Right in the early 2000s—which was when the band was arguably at the height of its (limited) popularity. You’d be forgiven if you don’t remember him; literally dozens of people have floated in and out of that group, with singer/songwriter José Contreras being the only constant. But Hudecki was/is a bon vivant, a curious and engaging guy who makes friends easily. To make his debut album, he called upon some of those friends, including heavy hitters like Sarah Harmer, the Arkells’ Max Kernan, Rheostatics’ Martin Tielli, key members of Broken Social Scene, Born Ruffians, and various other all-stars from the Southern Ontario rock scene of the ’90s and 2000s. He started this project in 2002; the final tracks were finished earlier this year. As he jokes in his press release, “It was a 16-year labour, so this baby is an adolescent already.”

You’d be correct to be suspicious of all this: a little-known scenester making a bloated record of random recordings with all his famous and semi-famous friends? This doesn’t usually go well.

Here, however, it most definitely does.

Greeting From The Dill sounds like a guy who’s spent a lifetime immersed in all his favourite records and finally finds the time and talent to distill that passion into a song cycle that draws from rock, country, pop and psychedelia. The Dill’s vocals can be an acquired taste, but nothing about the performances or the production is remotely shabby; for a project that spans time periods and different studios and completely different personnel, it sounds remarkably consistent. The songwriting is surprisingly strong as well, with particular debts to ’50s and ’60s Brill Building style, particularly the doo-wop vibe of “Stop Time,” featuring Max Kerman.

The original release contained 52 songs and was sold as download that came with a physical deck of cards (of course), featuring artwork by 45 different visual artists. Twelve of those songs have been committed to a vinyl record by Elora label Dead Radio, Love [ed: yes, there’s a comma there], run by the same people who put on Riverfest every August, a festival which this year featured headliners the Flaming Lips—an act with which much of this album has a lot in common. (Aug. 10)

Stream: “Stop Time” (feat. Max Kerman), “Did I Drop the Ball or Miss the Boat,” “I Love You in Kenora” (feat. Sarah Harmer)

Monday, November 12, 2018

Bodega - Endless Scroll

Bodega – Endless Scroll (What’s Your Rupture?)

It’s a lesson that rock’n’roll has to learn over and over and over again: keep it simple, stupid. Guitar, bass, drums and vocals that value enthusiasm over pitch: that and a few great riffs are all you need. The Stooges, the Sex Pistols, Nirvana, the White Stripes: every generation of rock’n’roll needs a back to basics. This New York City act could be that band in 2018.

There is nothing remotely original about Bodega (not to be confused with the ’90s indie rock band from Toronto): one can draw a straight line from The Fall to Pavement to Le Tigre to here. There is one less obvious reference point: Toronto’s Barcelona Pavilion (2001-05), to which Bodega bears an uncanny resemblance—though that band was obscure enough that it’s unlikely to ever come up in conversation (but if, like me, you remember them as one of the most exciting acts of the so-called “Torontopia” movement of the time, it’s hard to unhear the comparsion).

These three women and two men are too effective as players to be considered amateurish; they simply know how to utilize the bare minimum for maximum impact. Co-lead vocalists Nikki Belfiglio and Ben Hozie are neither singers nor rappers—they’re more like sloganeers, articulating the ennui of the digital generation (“All day at work / stare at computer! / come home from work / stare at computer! / do my own work / stare at computer!”) and documenting the mundanities of everything from moving boxes to masturbation.

"Your playlist knows you better than your closest lover," shouts Hozie at one point. If you have Bodega on your playlist, at the very least it means you’re funny, critical of consumer culture, suspicious of people who can’t interact IRL, and have long fantasized about forming a rock band with your closest friends, if you haven’t already. (July 27)

Stream: “How Did This Happen?” “I Am Not a Cinephile,” “Bookmarks”

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Prince - Anthology; Piano and a Microphone 1983

Prince – Piano and a Microphone 1983 (Warner)

After the shock of Prince’s death in April 2016—as well as the surprise that he didn’t have a will, and the future of his estate was in question—speculation turned to what might be in his legendary vault. It’s a literal vault, in the basement of his studio/residence/entertainment complex Paisley Park, filled with more than 8,000 tapes of music made by the notorious workaholic over the span of 35 years.

Two-and-a-half years later, the first release from the vault is this intimate tape which is exactly as advertised: Prince, alone at a piano, in a studio in a basement “family room” (according to engineer Don Batts) for 34 minutes, working out new songs, reinterpreting a song from his last album (“International Lover,” from “1999”), and covering Joni Mitchell and an old gospel song. There’s nothing polished about occasionally hissy demo tape: this is just Prince playing around, for his own pleasure.

And yet: my God. We already know a lot about his genius as a guitarist, a singer, a songwriter, a producer and arranger. Here we see his piano skills to be pretty much the equal of his other skills (okay, maybe not guitar), and hearing his voice in all its multi-octave, expressive glory against such a stark backdrop is also revelatory.

There are only a few complete songs here, including an incredible Nina Simone-style sketch of “17 Days,” a song that would be the B-side for “When Doves Cry” the following year. We hear “Strange Relationship” four years before he recorded a full-band funk version for “Sign O the Times.” There’s a snippet of “Purple Rain” that bleeds into an equally brief turn on Mitchell’s “A Case of You,” where his jazzy chord voicings are just as interesting but different from Mitchell’s originals. He beatboxes on “International Lover.” And there are three songs that have never surfaced on any official release.

When he died, Prince had returned to this format, on an acclaimed tour also called Piano and a Microphone. No doubt there are great tapes from that as well. But to hear him in 1983, right before Purple Rain made him one of the biggest stars in the world, is an astonishing document that even the most casual Prince fan will find thrilling. All those deluxe reissues of music we’ve already heard can wait, as long as the vault is full of stuff like this. (Sept. 23)

Stream: “17 Days,” “Wednesday,” “Mary Don’t You Weep”

Prince – Anthology 1995-2010 (Sony)

When Prince died in 2016, no one wanted to hear this music. The Prince we want to remember is the hitmaker and innovator that ruled the 1980s, from roughly 1980 to 1992. The way his narrative is understood, Prince then lost his way in battles with record companies and changing musical trends, fighting back by releasing as much music as possible—sometimes four albums in a single year. Even diehard fans had trouble keeping up and wading through his output.

Which is a shame. Prince being the indisputable musical genius he is—as a singer, a guitarist, songwriter, producer, arranger, bandleader—of course there are dozens of tracks from that time that rival his greatest work. Prince being Prince, though, means that the casual fan would have to wade through a lot—and we’re talking about *a lot*—of material to find the golden needles in the haystack. Most didn’t bother. (I'm guilty as charged.)

For the first 15 years of his career, Prince recorded for Warner Brothers, the execs at which gave the prolific artist a very long leash—but not long enough for the man who, after his death, left a literal vault of unreleased music that it will likely take decades for musicologists to wade through. Being on Warner meant that the public was only tasting the cream. In the early ’90s, as Prince became more disenchanted with his label, the albums started to get more bloated: the one named after his unpronounceable androgynous symbol had some of his finest hits (“7,” “My Name is Prince”) along with some of his worst dreck. It was a pattern that plagued the rest of his career.

When Prince started declaring himself a “slave” and demanding “emancipation,” all bets were off. His music from 1995 onward flowed directly from his id, for better or worse. He wasn’t going to make it easy for us. We had to accept the whole package deal if we were still on board.

Full disclosure: I’m a massive fan of Prince’s first 10 albums, which are almost flawless (let’s not talk about Batman). I remained faithful through all the ’90s, including the Emancipation period, and then fell off completely in the 2000s. He released 11 records that decade, with varying degrees of distribution, some of which I don’t ever remember even hearing about (2004’s Slaughterhouse? 2009’s MPLSound? Anyone?). Ideally, this kind of compilation should be a godsend.

It’s not. It’s just as messy as any Prince album of the period in question.

Yes, there are unquestionable, underappreciated classics like the 2006 single “Black Sweat,” which deserves to be on any list of Prince’s greatest tracks. It gathers up fun throwaways like the 2007 rock song where he declares that, “I love you, baby, but not like I love my guitar.” It collects some stunning R&B ballads like “Crucial,” which was bumped from 1987’s Sign O the Times for “Adore,” or 2007’s “Somewhere Here on Earth.” It rescues two tracks from 1996’s Chaos and Disorder,  Prince’s last proper record released under his Warner contract; the title track is perhaps his most underrated rock song. There are some fine funk tracks from later years, including “Northside” (2004), “Chelsea Rodgers” (2007) and “Ol’ Skool Company” (2009).

But—even for me, someone who didn’t pay a lot of attention to this material at the time—it’s obvious there are some questionable calls. There are six songs from 1995’s The Gold Experience,  a single-disc album that spawned one hit single—and that song, “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World,” is not even on here, due to ongoing licensing issues (it was his first post-Warner hit, licensed to various labels at the time). Two of those Gold Experience songs include Prince at his most self-parodic (“P. Control”) and an unusually vindictive and uncharacteristic dip into misogyny (“Eye Hate U”). Who wants to hear those again? Compare that to the three-disc 1996 album Emancipation,  which only gets two songs on this compilation. Emancipation was a bloated mess, yes (let’s leave “Www.Emale.Comin the dustbin of time), but it’s exactly the kind of album that needs to be redeemed by some selective editing—six more great songs from that album could easily replace some of the space-filler found here. Anthology would benefit from "Face Down," for starters:

There are some helpful reminders sprinkled throughout, however, of brilliance that was relegated to fan-only releases. Most people have never heard the all-acoustic album The Truth, which was packaged with 1998’s mail-order-only Crystal Ball. Because—well, why would you, unless you’re a complete Prince fanatic? Likewise, excerpts from the One Night Alone album (and the follow-up triple live album, which is stunning), featuring mostly just Prince at the piano, deserve a much wider audience than they had. There’s even one of the four 14-minute jazz suites that comprised 2003’s N.E.W.S., which is much better than you think it’s going to be, as is the track from the similar jazz instrumental album Xpectation, from the same year (and both are better than anything on 2001’s The Rainbow Children, which is also represented here thrice).

If the point of Anthology was to whittle out the excess, it fails dramatically. Fans are left to wade through the original albums yet again—although at least that’s easier to do, now that they’re all available for streaming. The best that can be said about Anthology is that it points fans in various directions, but it is by no means a destination. (Aug. 24)

Stream: “Black Sweat,” “Chelsea Rodgers,” “Guitar”

Thursday, October 04, 2018

Cowboy Junkies – All That Reckoning

Cowboy Junkies – All That Reckoning (Latent)

This venerable Toronto band now has 16 studio recordings under their belt (depending how you count). This, like 2010’s Remnin Park and 1996’s Lay It Down, is easily one of their best from the back half of their discography. It’s their first album of original material in eight years, so maybe guitarist Michael Timmins has been quietly crafting this strong set of songs since then, or maybe his work with Tom Wilson’s Lee Harvey Osmond inspired him here. Or maybe they finally realized what their secret weapon has been for 35 years now.

As a longtime fan, I’d propose this theory: the best Cowboy Junkies albums are the ones where bassist Alan Anton is brought to the fore. Why? Anton’s a fine bass player, but certainly not showy, and melodic only when he needs to be. He’s less noticeable than the musical genius of Jeff Bird, who provides musical colour on a variety of instruments, and it’s Michael Timmins who provides most of the fireworks—subtle and otherwise—during his guitar solos’ unique take on bluesy psychedelia, which are still refreshingly raw after all these years, refusing to succumb to slickness. Singer Margo Timmins is reliably consistent, engaging, and gets even better with age (as does drummer Peter Timmins): but on the band’s lesser records she can’t prop up a weak song on her own—and thankfully she doesn’t have to here.

So what is it about Anton? It’s less about what he actually plays, than the fact that when he’s up front in the mix beside Margo, everything else that makes the Cowboy Junkies great is dispersed judiciously for maximum effect. Less has always meant more for this band; the more layers they pile on, they less effective they’ve been. When those guitar swirls dance in and around Anton’s bass lines—regardless of the tempo—they weave a magical tapestry that elevates this band above all others in the same wheelhouse. It’s not what you have: it’s how you use it.

All that said, one of the best songs here is the closing track, “The Possessed,” which is mostly just Margo and a ukulele. And no, it’s not remotely twee, in part because, 30 years after “Misguided Angel,” this band still writes great songs about Satan.

Elsewhere, All That Reckoning is filled with the distemper of the day, with musings on hate and fear and a chorus that goes, “Sing me a song of America.” But it never gets clunky or preachy; Michael’s is too careful a writer to do that, and his character studies are as vivid as always. Just like the accompanying music, everything is in its right place.

When the Cowboy Junkies come through your town this year—a fall jaunt starts Oct. 10 in Kingston, with dates in Ottawa, Guelph, Burlington, Blyth, Markham, and Collingwood—don’t take them for granted. And give the bassist some love.  (July 13)

Stream: “All That Reckoning Pt. 1,” “Wooden Stairs,” “Shining Teeth”