Friday, June 22, 2018

Laurie Anderson & Kronos Quartet – Landfall

Laurie Anderson & Kronos Quartet – Landfall (Nonesuch)

How has this collaboration not happened before? In more than 40 years of being the most visible paragons of the American avant-garde, the quintessentially New York performance artist and the San Franciscan string quartet were likely just too busy to bother getting together: Kronos, for its part, has released more than 50 albums in the last 30 years alone, and spends much of its time commissioning new works from composers much more obscure than Anderson. And because Anderson, a viola player, has always surrounded herself with groundbreaking technology, she likely felt she didn’t need a string quartet behind her—not even the most forward-thinking one around.

They’ve combined forces here on a song cycle about the 2012 buttressing New York City took from Hurricane Sandy. Anderson—who once recorded a live album in NYC mere days after 9/11—excels at articulating loss and shifting paradigms, which is evident when she speaks of watching her basement full of career souvenirs fall victim to the flood. “I looked at them floating there in the shiny, dark water, dissolving, all the things I’d carefully saved all my life becoming nothing but junk. And I thought, ‘How beautiful. How magic. How catastrophic.’ ” Landfall is not just all elegy all the time, however; her characteristic wry wit also comes into play (“I was in a Dutch karaoke bar, trying to sing a song in Korean”).

The music is a perfect match, with Anderson’s electronics-laden viola providing an otherworldly counterpoint to the sound of the acoustic string quartet, who are more than capable of creating wondrous textures on their own.

Landfall works so well that one hopes this isn’t the last time these two artists collide—but it’s in each of their character to move on to greater challenges. (March 9)

Stream: “We Learn to Speak Yet Another Language,” “Helicopters Hang Over Downtown,” “Everything is Floating”

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Jack White – Boarding House Reach

Jack White – Boarding House Reach (Sony)

Who’s with me?!” announce a chorus of people at the beginning of “Corporation,” one of the most gloriously whacked-out songs on this batshit-crazy new Jack White album. By the end of the five-and-a-half-minute funkfest, White is whooping maniacally, in ways we’ve never heard from him—or any other major artist of these times.

It’s worth noting that Jack White was one of many collaborators on Beyoncé’s Lemonade album—an album where the carefully constructed superstar took her music places it had never been before, and allowed her voice to sound vulnerable and raw. The result was one of the most acclaimed albums in recent memory. By breaking her own mould, Beyoncé—a superstar known largely for her singles—became even bigger than she already was.

That said, Lemonade is considerably more commercial than Boarding House Reach, which will baffle and befuddle many. Jack White is pigeonholed as a rock’n’roll traditionalist, someone who can write Zeppelin riffs and fiddle-driven country songs and write modern-day blues anthems. For people who want the progression of music to stop in 1982, White is their man.

But White is clearly no one’s man. (And on the androgynous album cover, he’s clearly playing with notions of manhood in general.) “Do you want everything? Then you can have everything. But what is everything?” he asks on “Everything You’ve Ever Learned,” preaching over a track driven by congas, synth strings and fuzz bass. “Respect Commander” has synth stabs lifted from Detroit techno, over a furious live drum beat that pauses only for an organ interlude and then a short slide into a slow Hendrixian blues. The Metallica-esque drumming on “Ice Station Zebra” is interspersed with barrelhouse piano and amateur rapping, including the line, “You create your own box, you don’t have to listen to any of the label-makers printing your obituary.” On top of all that, the album is peppered with equally dramatic and silly spoken-word interludes.

What does this all mean? Either "Sisyphean dreamer" Jack White has lost his mind or he’s actually hitting a creative peak. I vote for the latter.

We’ve come to expect our favourite artists to repeat the same formula ad nauseam, when every hit song seems formulated to get not only on radio but an ad placement and somehow all lead up to a headlining festival slot—a formula that White himself is as guilty of as anyone.

Boarding House Reach, on the other hand, embraces absurdist juxtaposition. White’s musical passions are even more eclectic than expected, and he’s determined to stuff it all into every track here. Sure, his rapping sucks, but he’s not making rap music: he’s simply pulling from every possible direction and smashing square pegs until they fit into every hole. People like Beck do this and make it sound slick; White is deliriously sloppy, and therefore ten times more interesting.  

Who’s with him? (March 30)

Stream: “Corporation,” “Over and Over and Over,” “Respect Commander”

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Kate Fenner – Middle Voice

Kate Fenner – Middle Voice (Wolfe Island Records)

We don’t hear Kate Fenner’s voice enough. It’s been 10 years since her last album (see my interview here), since which she’s surfaced only as a guest on projects by her former musical partner Chris Brown, with whom she was in the Bourbon Tabernacle Choir and an acclaimed duo who released several underrated classics, including 1999’s Geronimo. She’s also performed with legendary performance artist Joan Jonas in New York City, which Fenner has called home for 23 years now.

Middle Voice is easily the most accomplished of her three solo records to date, largely because of the depth of her songwriting. Fenner was once known primarily as a great interpreter, working with Brown but also for covers of Mary Margaret O’Hara (“Help Me Lift You Up”) and the Rheostatics (“Stolen Car”); her cover of the Tragically Hip’s “Scared” remains sadly unreleased. (She is one of only three musicians to have toured with the Hip as part of the band.) Here, however, a Bob Dylan cover doesn’t hold a candle to her own material.

Fenner’s soulful and rich voice has always been suited to melancholy, and it’s only become more so in middle age, with lyrics that mine that time in one’s life—fertile material for novelists, but less frequently so for songwriters. Fenner has never been a trivial writer, but her pen has become sharper with age. That she remains in such strong vocal shape after throat surgery in 2015 is all the more impressive—her performance on a George Harrison cover (“This is All”) is a total show-stopper.

 (official video for "The Yield" is on Vimeo here)

Fenner has plenty of old friends and peers on board, including Norah Jones and guitarist Bill Frisell. Those marquee names are just part of the background scenery here, however, along with old friends Chris Brown and Tony Scherr and many more; it’s Fenner who is front and centre, where she’s always belonged. (March 23)

Stream: “This Divorce,” “Beatrice,” “This Is All”

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Kae Sun – Whoever Comes Knocking

Kae Sun – Whoever Comes Knocking (Moonshine)

Kae Sun does not merely have an incredible voice, one that helped his 2013 song “The Ship and the Globe” rack up more than four million views on YouTube. He has a unique voice: one with a timbre and accent that sets him apart from everyone else in the pop sphere. It helps that his music also exists outside of genre: like the best pop music, it borrows freely from classic balladry, electronic music, reggae—all of which is almost secondary underneath the melodies he decorates with his vocal skills.

Kae Sun is the stage name for Kwaku Darko-Mensah Jr., who was born in Ghana and moved to Hamilton as a teenager. He now lives in Montreal, where the pan-African enthusiasts of the Moonshine monthly DJ night have rallied to release his long-awaited, third full-length album. Because of his ethnicity, Kae Sun often gets pigeonholed as “world music,” which makes about as much sense as Ruth B (“Peter Pan”) or the Weeknd getting the same designation because they’re Ethiopian-Canadian. Kae Sun makes pop music, pure and simple: readymade for radio and better than most things on Top 40 today. The presence of multiplatinum Quebec star Ariane Moffatt might help him break down some doors in that province; the rest of Canada will have to take him on his own terms. Which shouldn’t be a problem with singles like “Treehouse” or “Stalk.”

“This house wasn’t built on rock’n’roll,” he sings in the opening line of the record, his voice running through a Leslie speaker to sound otherworldly. No, Kae Sun’s foundation is much sturdier than that. Though he started out as an acoustic guitarist, you’d be hard pressed to hear anything but electronic textures on Whoever Come Knocking—a synthetic makeover that doesn’t sacrifice his soul. The arrangements and grooves are solid, and with that voice front and centre, Kae Sun crosses all borders with ease. (March 2)


Stream: “Treehouse,” “Stalk,” “Breaking”

I wrote about Kae Sun, Pierre Kwenders, Zaki Ibrahim and Afrotronix for the Globe and Mail here

Monday, June 18, 2018

Tracey Thorn - Record

Tracey Thorn – Record (Merge)

“Oh, what year is it? Still arguing the same shit.” Tracey Thorn is 55 years old, old enough to have lived through several ebbs and flows in modern feminism. She calls her fifth solo album a collection of “feminist bangers,” and while it’s not quite likely to set dance floors on fire—in ways that “Missing,” her smash 1995 single with Everything But the Girl managed to do—it more than lives up to the first half of her descriptor. “I am my mother / I am my sister / And I fight like a girl,” she sings on one of the album’s many highlights.

Thorn retired Everything But the Girl in 2000 (after giving birth to twin girls, ironically enough). Her solo work since then has largely consisted of downtempo piano ballads and modern folk songs, which perfectly underscore her untouchable lyrical mastery in depicting midlife crises in well-executed character sketches—particularly on the piercing 2010 album Love and Its Opposite, which should be essential listening for any parent on the other side of 40. (Try not to cry during “Oh, the Divorces.”)

This album finds her writing from a similar place—there is no mistaking that this is an album written from a certain vantage point in life—but musically she’s not acting her age, for better and worse. “Dancefloor” sounds exactly like an older person’s idea of modern dance music, and falls flat. But conversely, the nearly nine-minute “Sister” sounds perfect, a slinky groove featuring the rhythm section of Warpaint with Corinne Bailey Rae on backing vocals, which never wears out its welcome.

Whether they work or not—and they mostly do—the musical choices are part and parcel with the lyrics, Thorn told the Financial Times. “If 2010’s Love and Its Opposite was my mid-life album,” she said, “full of divorce and hormones, then Record represents that sense of liberation that comes in the aftermath, from embarking on a whole new ‘no fucks given’ phase of life.” As it should be. (March 2)

Stream: “Queen,” “Sister,” “Babies”