Monday, April 27, 2015

Colin Stetson and Sarah Neufeld – Never Were the Way She Was

Colin Stetson and Sarah Neufeld – Never Were the Way She Was (Constellation)

She’s a member of Arcade Fire; he sometimes plays with Arcade Fire. She founded Bell Orchestre; he joined later. He has three albums of solo saxophone performances; she has one of solo violin. They both record for Montreal’s Constellation Records. Both are fond of chugging eighth- and 16th-note rhythms. They run yoga studios together. They’re a romantic couple. This album was inevitable.

And yet, like any collaborations, it’s often a compromise, where each performer merely adds texture to a piece that’s perfectly in keeping with the other’s normal modus operandi. There are moments here where one person is merely duplicating the other’s part, just on a different instrument, a different octave. Both these performers have their own unique style: surely they’re not suddenly going to reinvent themselves.

The best moments here are when they play off each other, trading roles, intertwining, their ghostly vocals harmonizing in the ether while their instruments wrestle with each other on Earth. As with their solo records, this was recorded live, with no overdubs, which makes the spectrum of sounds here all the more impressive. In so much of his solo work, Stetson has us asking, “How does he do that?” The sounds themselves, however, are not unfamiliar. On “With the dark hug of time,” however, it’s unclear exactly what the hell he’s doing at all: it’s completely mystifying, evocative and magical.

I’d still rather hear a new Bell Orchestre album or see Stetson follow up his New History of Warfare trilogy album with something completely different, but there’s no denying the chemistry—musical and, er, otherwise—these two have finally bottled.

Download: “Won’t Be a Thing to Become,” “In the Vespers,” “The Rest of Us”

Friday, April 24, 2015

Terra Lightfoot - Every Time My Mind Runs Wild

Terra Lightfoot – Every Time My Mind Runs Wild (Sonic Unyon)

There’s lots to love about Hamiltonian Terra Lightfoot’s second album: her songwriting has improved tenfold; she’s got a roaring rock band behind her; she’s steeped in the most durable elements of classic rock, country and Americana, and her music is exactly what you (okay, me, at least) want to hear when you hit the bar on Friday night.

But records like that are a dime a dozen. Lightfoot has something else going for her.

Everyone, it seems, loves a man who sings like a woman. And everyone loves a woman who dresses like one of the guys on stage. But what of the woman in a dress with a masculine—or, at the very least, androgynous—voice? It’s not just that Lightfoot has a lower range, it’s the timbre of her voice that sounds like no one else, male or female. She’s the Alison Moyet of Canadian roots rock. It’s what makes or breaks her appeal; it doesn’t leave anyone sitting on the fence, especially when she hangs onto notes at the climax of a chorus ("No Hurry"). Producer Gus Van Go (Whitehorse) pushes her to go big or go home; even the sparsely arranged ballads here (“NFB,” “Splinter”) don’t shy away from big, brassy moments—and she pulls it off every time.

That approach applies not just to her voice: this is Lightfoot putting all (or most) of her cards on the table. Opening with a rollicking electric waltz, she frontloads the album with rockers before branching out to tender folk songs or a 1950s 6/8 shuffle or two-step country. Every Time My Mind Runs Wild is brimming with confidence, a calling card for a young artist more than ready to make her mark.

Download: “All Alone,” “No Hurry,” “Emerald Eyes”

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Jim Guthrie's Twenty Years and Thousand Songs

Jim Guthrie released his first cassette 20 years ago. I was living in Guelph, Ontario, and had a campus radio show; so did he. He was friends with Aaron Riches and Nathan Lawr and Nick Craine; so was I. But we didn’t know each other, and I didn’t know his music. Four years later I heard 1999’s A Thousand Songs, which compiled tracks from four self-released cassettes. Now, of course, the world has recognized the genius of Jim Guthrie, a book has been written about him (Who Needs What, by Andrew Hood, out this month on Invisible Publishing), and the label that was formed to release A Thousand Songs, Three Gut Records, is universally acknowledged as a catalyst to the sea change in Canadian music that made the likes of Broken Social Scene and Arcade Fire possible (both those bands—of course—are big Jim Guthrie fans).

But at the time, I thought something along the lines of: “Who is this time-frozen freak who wants to stay home and listen to Mel Tormé, rides bikes without chains halfway around the world, and has dreams of dirty fingernails? The guy who’s as ridiculous as Ween but as heartbreaking as Elliott Smith but with more bottom end and soul than either (‘shit yeah, I can dance’), is he some kind of lo-fi Lindsey Buckingham hooked on video games, subsisting on a diet of something known only as ‘curry toast’? Is this what would have happened if Paul McCartney ditched Wings to join German weirdoes Can? Did some tracks from a Ry Cooder soundtrack for Wim Wenders get thrown on here by mistake? Seriously, what the fuck is going on? There’s no way this could be the sound of a small-town guy who only picked up a guitar a year or two ago.”

And yet it was. And it was magical. And it was leaps and bounds ahead of anyone I’d heard in Guelph—or anywhere else. “Hey there, High Fidelity record-store clerks, I see your Beta Band’s Three EPs and I raise you A Thousand Songs. Get ready to fold.” Before I heard Guthrie’s music, I assumed his pals were hyperbolic when they hyped his genius, or were at least merely using the local teen punk scene as a low-bar benchmark. They weren’t.

There are tracks on A Thousand Songs where Guthrie sounds like Carl Sagan trapped in a black hole with Blade Runner synths swirling around him, or perhaps like one of Alvin’s chipmunks fucking around with a toy piano. There are times when he gets downright slinky (“Sexy Drummer,” “Wear in the World”) and even freaks out for the DJ booth (“Focus on Floor Care,” which should have been a 12” on Ninja Tune). Some tracks should be on a Hal Hartley soundtrack. Or Friday Night Lights. Many are full of interruptions: a phone ringing, the sounds of schoolkids next door, even a toilet flushing. A Thousand Songs conflates tiny moments of perfection and imperfection and dares you to tell the difference. It’s profound and profane. Most of all, it’s profoundly curious. Sometimes it’s just a guy screaming into a crappy microphone: “Wama-lama-ding-dong-wooooo-EEEEEE—woooo!!!!” Much like life itself.

Since then, Guthrie has released three more proper albums (Morning Noon NightNow More Than EverTakes Time) and written plenty more material for ad agencies (“Hands in My Pocket”), indie films (Indie Game: The Movie), and odd collaborations (the most high-profile being Human Highway, a duo with superfan—and soundalike—Nick Thorburn of the Unicorns and Islands). His work for video games like Sword and Sworcery have introduced him to a whole new audience; old fans will be surprised to learn that his gaming work is infinitely more popular than any of these classic albums he’s re-releasing now.

To celebrate the 20th anniversary of his first cassette—which included “I Don’t Wanna Be a Rock Star”—Guthrie is giving A Thousand Songs a re-release on 180-gram double vinyl with updated artwork. But that is not all—oh no, that is not all. With it comes a Bandcamp download code for 11 new re-recordings of songs from the album, made with his current live band and recorded by long-time confidant Andy Magoffin. This summer, Guthrie will also make available on Bandcamp all four of his early cassettes (only select material made it onto A Thousand Songs): Home is Where the Rock IsVictim of Lo-FiDocumenting Perks Part 1Some Things You Should Know About Sound and Hearing). Finally, Who Needs What author Andrew Hood has compiled his own mix tape as a companion to the biography, available as a download with purchase of the book: it’s a career-spanning mix of Guthrie’s greatest non-hits of the past 20 years, including a full version of his Capital One ad, “Hands in My Pocket,” never before available. Indeed: who needs what? Take what you want, take what you need.

Twenty years on, A Thousand Songs no longer seems like such an aspirational, grandiose title after all.

Full disclosure: Jim Guthrie commissioned me to write this, offering to pay me in yet-to-be-determined culinary and vinyl treats, grooming tips, and a promise to never talk to me about cats. He's written his own thoughts on all of this noise here

Alabama Shakes - Sound and Color

Alabama Shakes – Sound and Color (ATO)

There’s one good reason—and only one—why, in 2011, this band shot from obscurity to festival headliner in the space of a year: the voice of Brittany Howard. This now-25-year-old sounds like a woman at least twice her age and steeped in Southern traditions of gospel and blues. That she is a woman of colour playing electric guitar and fronting a white rock band stands out all the more in the incredibly segregated world of American music. Of course she’s going to turn heads. That she looks like a nerdy librarian while testifying like Otis Redding sets her even further apart.

And yet what we heard on the 2012 debut, Boys and Girls, was sadly unremarkable: no better or worse than any local bar band.

That’s changed. Big time. Sound and Color is an immense leap forward on every level: almost a complete reinvention, a revelation by a group far more eclectic than they had previously let on.

Considering Howard’s star wattage, she no doubt faced external pressure to ditch the dudes and go it alone. Thank god she didn’t: years of touring have developed an incredible chemistry, a genuine understanding of interplay and dynamics. They’re also simply better as technical players, especially drummer Steve Johnson. Listen to “Give Me All Your Love”—which on the one hand is one of the most astounding vocal performances you’re likely to hear this year, in which a wailing Howard could make Robert Plant weep like a baby—where every instrument’s role is as integral in the song’s emotional heft.  

Sound and Color opens with the sound of—wait a minute, what? Vibraphone and upright bass. Then, over a slow, syncopated beat and a string section, Howard slips into a sonic rapture, emulating Prince and Al Green, singing about synaesthesia and sounding splendorous while doing so. It’s slow-burn, psychedelic soul, and it’s your first clue that this is not a garage rock record.

The punchy second track, “I Don’t Want To Fight,” starts the party proper. It sounds like something Jack White would produce for Amy Winehouse, until the beat drops and Howard enters with a high, pained rasp—not unlike Janis Joplin, the singer to whom she’s most often compared, somewhat inexplicably. (Bluesy woman fronting a rock band? Apparently there was only ever one.) But it’s a dodge: Howard’s not going there. For starters, she’s not a one-trick pony. Her voice explores masculine depths and what sounds like soaring falsetto—many of the slow jams here owe some debts to fellow Southern soul space cadets D’Angelo and Erykah Badu. She snarls like the Strokes on “The Greatest”; she slinks like Norah Jones on “This Feeling.” Is there anything she can’t do?

The music keeps you guessing: just when you think it’s going to be an R&B record, some Southern rock takes over. Just when you think it’s going to be ballad-heavy, a rave-up comes next. On the penultimate track “Gemini,” things get downright spacey and trippy for more than six minutes, like a Funkadelic deep cut, culminating in a fuzzed-out, droning guitar solo.

The album closes with Howard singing about how she’s “loving so deeply I’m in over my head.” It’s hard to imagine how a woman this massively talented fronting a band this good could ever be in anything over her head. Full control, full confidence, moving forward.

Download: “Don’t Want To Fight,” “Guess Who,” “Give Me All Your Love”