Sunday, February 26, 2017

February 2017 reviews

Highly recommended this month: Sampha, Ryan Adams, Tinariwen

Highly recommended, reviewed earlier this month: Sam Patch

As always, these reviews first ran in the Waterloo Record.

Streaming is great for sample purposes, but please find a way to directly support your favourite artists financially.

Ryan Adams – Prisoner (Blue Note)

In a discography that seemingly stretches beyond 100 full-length albums (it’s actually 16 in the past 17 years), the most beloved work by songwriter Ryan Adams is his 2000 solo debut Heartbreaker (given a deluxe reissue treatment last year). Recorded shortly after the demise of his first band, Whiskeytown, it’s the sound of a young man putting his life back together again, reckoning with the trail of broken hearts behind him—including his own.

This time, his first record of original material in three years—not, of course, counting his full-length interpretation of Taylor Swift’s 1989, released in 2015, alternately praised as a brilliant homage or an opportunistic gimmick—is comprised of songs written after the dissolution of his seven-year marriage. The theme is crystal clear in songs like the title track, “Breakdown,” or “Haunted House,” which would have fit in perfectly on Bruce Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love record (an obvious touchstone here).

This reviewer will fully admit to not having followed Adams after 2001’s Gold, for a variety of reasons—one of which is that the excess of material didn’t seem to factor in any quality control. I’m sure I’ve missed plenty of gems along the way, and so maybe Prisoner isn’t in fact his best record in years. But it sure sounds like it could be—quite literally, as the production here is sparse and yet dense with detail: the electric guitars are graced with subtle shades of ’80s chorus pedals (like one of Adams’s many heroes, the Replacements), the acoustic guitars shimmer front and centre, and the rhythm section (including Adams on bass) is full and rich. Daniel Clarke on organ is also a key asset, particularly on the album opener, “Do You Still Love Me?”

It’s normally an insult to any artist’s creative process to suggest that personal pain and tumult necessarily results in great work, but nevertheless: this is another Heartbreaker for the ages. (Feb. 23)

Stream: “Do You Still Love Me?” “Haunted House,” “Breakdown”

Julie Byrne – Not Even Happiness (Ba Da Bing!)

It’s hard to picture Julie Byrne singing in New York City. That’s where the Buffalo-born, itinerant singer/songwriter now lives—and, presumably, performs frequently enough—but there’s nothing in her music that suggests she lives anywhere but, say, a remote cabin outside the hippie town of Asheville, North Carolina. Her gorgeous, often sombre, acoustic folk music is far removed from any kind of urban hustle and bustle; experiencing her in a Brooklyn club must feel like a rare bird sighting, of a species far out of its element. Byrne’s music is meditative, sometimes mournful, a respite. Her fingerpicked guitar-playing sets her apart for legions of other unplugged indie rockers; her style is a continuation of recent neo-folkies like Marissa Nadler, Jennifer Castle or early Iron & Wine. She’s not a strict folkie, however: closing track “I Live Now as a Singer” sets her pleasantly adrift on a sea of synths. Her husky voice is seductively somnambulant: listen to this album during the daytime at your own risk. (Feb. 23)

Stream: “Follow My Voice,” “Natural Blue,” “I Live Now as a Singer”

Ron Davis – Pocket Symphronica (Really/EOne)

This Toronto jazz pianist launched a project in 2013 called Symphronica, with the Windsor Symphony Orchestra, which he described as a “jazz trio integrated into the orchestral format.” On paper, that sounds—well, horrible. In real life, however, Davis completely pulls it off. Here, he repeats the feat with a more manageable lineup: a string octet augmenting a jazz quartet of keyboards, guitar, bass and drums. He bills it as “my take on the evolution of music.” Eesh. Best to stick to the music. Davis’s jazz skills are impeccable, of course, and he’s surrounded himself with string players like cellist Andrew Downing and violinist Aline Homzy, who deliver soaring solos as well as fit into more stringent arrangements. He tackles traditional Jewish songs, reconfigures Beethoven, and, in a bizarre twist, adapts Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face.” It all works. (Feb. 2)

Stream: “D’Hora,” “Fugue & Variations on Gaga and Poker Face,” “Presto”

Gina Horswood – Porcelain (independent)

The finest country music album I heard last year was by Canadian expat Tami Neilson, who now calls New Zealand home. Apparently we traded her for Gina Horswood, a chart-topping Australian who moved to Canada three years ago to start anew far from her Oceania home. On this, her first Canadian-bred release, she recruits producer Andre Wahl (Hawksley Workman, Luke Doucet), keyboardist Robbie Grunwald (Jill Barber) and other studio aces to round out her minimal-twang, torch-song take on vintage country. Horswood has little in common with commercial country; she’s a balladeer by trade—there are few, if any, uptempo songs here—and her deep, rich voice digs deep into the material. Canada’s gain, Australia’s loss. (Feb. 2)

Stream: “Come Hell or High Water,” “Trouble,” “Porcelain”

Terra Lightfoot – Live in Concert (Sonic Unyon)

It’s been almost two years since Hamilton songwriter Terra Lightfoot vaulted from obscurity to the forefront of Canadian roots rock, when her album Every Time My Mind Runs Wild—and, more important, her live show—was endorsed by everyone from Blue Rodeo to Daniel Lanois to Randy Bachman, all of whom fell in love with her powerhouse pipes, killer songs and winning stage presence. And it wasn’t just fellow artists: audiences kept coming back for more, which is why the Canadian Independent Music Association awarded Lightfoot with something called the “Road Gold” certification, for selling more than 25,000 tickets over a 12-month period (perhaps the true measure of success in the streaming age).

While she puts finishing touches on a new record, due this fall, Lightfoot is releasing this live album recorded at McMaster University with the National Academy Orchestra of Canada, adding bold string, brass and woodwind textures to her rollicking brand of bluesy rock’n’roll. While Lightfoot is such a radiant figure on stage—evident even with just the audio here—the strength of her band often doesn’t get enough credit, particularly keyboardist Jeff Heisholt. Here, the combined force of her brothers in arms and the added orchestra elevate nine of her last album’s 11 tracks. Of course, it’s still no substitute for seeing her in the flesh—with or without orchestra—but it’s a winning document of an artist on the verge of realizing the depth of her potential. (Feb. 16)

Stream: “NFB,” “Lily’s Fair,” “Never Will”

Luísa Maita – Fio da Memória (Cumbancha)

This Sao Paulo singer/songwriter comes from a musical family who were active during the heyday of bossa nova and samba, influences that are more than evident on her 2010 debut album and this long-awaited follow-up. But Maita is anything but a retro act; Fio da Memória is decidedly modern, and would be just as at home on a bill with ghostly post-punk revivalists Warpaint or psychedelic electronic Latino artist Helado Negro. Her confident, sometimes breathy vocals are a calming force amidst percussive rhythms and often-ominous minor chords that subvert the sweetness of traditional bossa nova. (Feb. 2)

Stream: “Na Asa,” “Around You,” “Folia”

Danny Michel – Khlebnikov (Six Shooter)

Stan Rogers merely sang about the “Northwest Passage.” Danny Michel wrote and recorded songs in the Northwest Passage: on board a Russian icebreaker, accompanied by a guitar-toting Canadian astronaut (guess which one), en route to Ellesmere Island. Michel has been on a roll in recent years; the man who has been wowing K-W audiences since he was a teenager continues to improve and mature as a songwriter. He was good before; he keeps getting better. On this concept record chock full of references to the frozen sea and breaking ice, he’s clearly musically influenced by the Slavic vibe aboard the Russian ship; the more rousing songs here no doubt go down even better with a few shots of vodka. After recording his guitar and vocals in his cabin, he took the tracks back to Ontario where his long-time confidant Rob Carli fleshed them out with tasteful orchestration. And have you ever wondered what Chris Hadfield sounds like singing in Russian? No, me either, but it sure works here—the kind of magical moment that only Michel could conjure. (Feb. 2)

Stream: "Khlebnikov," "Lifeboat," "The Dishwasher's Dream"

The Sadies – Northern Passages (Dine Alone)

For the first 10 years of the Sadies’ existence, they were easily the hardest-working band in Canada: Six albums, one soundtrack, one double live album, three full-length collaborations, and hundreds of live dates a year. The last 10 years have not been as productive—only one album every three or four years—but their writing is no longer merely a vessel to showcase their superior talent as players and as a band. Their psychedelic take on country and punk gets increasingly complex on tracks like “The Elements Song; their lyrics hit direct targets on the timely “God Bless the Infidels” and on the haunted storytelling of “The Good Years.” The production remains the same: the brothers Dallas and Travis Good love trebly guitar tones and hazy washes of sound—that’s the Sadies sound, and they’re certainly not getting any slicker in their old(er) age. Nor would their fans want them to. (Feb. 9)

Stream: “Riverview Fog,” “Through Strange Eyes,” “God Bless the Infidels”

Sampha – Process (Young Turks/XL)

He’s appeared on tracks by Beyoncé, Drake, Kanye West and Solange. He was the featured vocalist with electronic act SBTRKT. He released two solo EPs in the past seven years. But now U.K. R&B singer Sampha is ready for the limelight with his solo debut, Process, in which he stakes his own claim in the reinvention of his chosen genre. Even in an era when the likes of Frank Ocean are blowing open all preconceived notions of what modern soul music can sound like, Sampha sounds several steps apart from any of his American counterparts. That’s evident on the stuttering syncopated beat on “Blood On Me,” on the science-fiction-soundtrack textures throughout the whole album, on the clipped sound samples that echo Matthew Herbert’s work in the 2000s, on the elastic melodies that owe as much to Bjork as they do Marvin Gaye. Sampha is a stunning vocalist, enough of one to carry some of the weaker songs, but that’s not even the real appeal here: it’s his entire approach to sound. He and co-producer Rodaidh McDonald (The Xx) take an avant-garde approach: they are to R&B what Joni Mitchell is to folk, what Kate Bush is to pop. In many ways, this is a better Radiohead record than the one that band themselves put out last year. Sampha isn’t out to make pop hits, even if “Blood On Me” has a good shot and “Like the Piano” is the rare straight-up ballad in his oeuvre. Expect him to have as much influence behind the scenes as he does up front. (Feb. 23)

Stream: “Blood on Me,” “(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano,” “Kora Sings”

Strength of Materials – Inclusive Fitness (independent)

Ford Pier is one of the most creative, inventive, intuitive, brilliant musicians in this country. And sometimes I have no idea what he’s on about. Here, he ditches his usual rock format and puts himself in front of a string quartet to play music that is unlike anything you would ever expect—even if you had a faint idea of what to expect. Pier is known as a sideman for the Rheostatics, Veda Hille, DOA and dozens more, and has developed a side career as a string arranger. Like everything he does, he doesn’t sidestep into this role lightly: the arrangements are sharp, strange, dynamic, and often as rhythmically complex as they are harmonically rich. On top of it, Pier himself barks, shrieks, croons and cajoles as a vocalist; he is not the spoonful of sugar that makes the musical medicine go down. But who says string sections have to play nice? Strength of Materials is daring and defiant. (Feb. 2)

Stream: “The Purdie Shuffle,” “Ship of the Line,” “June 13”

Tinariwen – Elwan (Anti)

Nothing changes; everything changes. Tinariwen, a name that means “deserts” in their native Tamashek language, were formed in the Saharan desert in the early 1980s by Tuareg musicians who had been drafted into war. Eventually putting down their guns for guitars, they evolved into international ambassadors for the desert blues style of northern Mali, starting with their first Western release in 2001. Fifteen years later, they’ve fled their home environs due to the threat of Islamist militants who have been desecrating historical sites and banning music itself—in one of the most culturally rich areas of the world, no less. To make matters worse, one of the band’s former associates became a born-again Salafist, leading the charge against music’s “corrupting” influence and founding a movement, Ansar Dine, that invades towns and sets all musical equipment on fire. One member of Tinariwen was kidnapped by Ansar Dine, and later released.

And so Tinariwen became a band on the run. Elwan is the second Tinariwen album since their exile; like 2014’s Emmaar, it was partially recorded in a tent in the California desert, with members of Queens of the Stone Age and other kindred spirits in trippy, guitar-driven psychedelia (Mark Lanegan, Kurt Vile). Other sessions were held on the Algerian coast and in Paris, where they recorded a fine 2015 live album.

Very little ever changes from one Tinariwen release to the next; sometimes the magic is there, sometimes it’s not. With such potentially transcendent music, that’s hardly surprising. Emmaar found the band sounding out of place and uninspired; the California desert was clearly not their home, and Tinariwen’s invited guests/hosts didn’t help matters any—their presence seemed more like stunt casting to tweak interest in yet another Tinariwen album. This time out, however, something has clicked, even in California: there is a firm resilience in the languid grooves, a quiet strength that never bubbles over. There are more acoustic guitars, bass lines that bring a sparse funk feel to some tracks, and the trademark group vocals and distorted blues guitar leads.

Of course, Elwan arrives at a curious time. Tinariwen have an American label and U.S. dates on their upcoming tour (they’re scheduled to play Massey Hall in Toronto on April 12), but because of their roots in the Western Sahara countries of Libya and Algeria—two countries on Donald Trump’s “Muslim ban” list—one has to wonder if they’ll make into that country at all. (Mali is not on that list—yet.) If they do, expect those shows to be a necessarily cathartic release for both audience and band, each persecuted by despots and theological madmen, long after they believed such battles should have been long over. (Feb. 9)

Stream: “Sastanàqqàm,” “Arhegh Ad Annàgh” “Assawt,”

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Sam Patch – Yeah You, and I

Sam Patch – Yeah You, and I (Dep)

Tim Kingsbury is the last member of Arcade Fire—other than the two founders—to put out a solo record. “I never meant to bury it / But I was set in my ways … Is it too late to start again?” he asks on the opening track, “Oversight.” The answer is clear: of course not. 

His colleagues Sarah Neufeld, Richard Reed Parry and Jeremy Gara have all explored more experimental and abstract music in their solo projects; Will Butler (younger brother of co-bandleader Win Butler) put out a loose and raw rock’n’roll record (and an even looser and more raw live album immediately afterwards). All of them except Neufeld are part of a cover band on the side, Phi Slamma Jamma, playing songs by the Everly Brothers, Jonathan Richman, Neil Young, Devo, CCR, Prince and others. It’s that band’s set lists that, in retrospect, inform Sam Patch: catchy pop songs over standard rock’n’roll chords. 

But Sam Patch often takes a more esoteric bent, with sci-fi synths slowly modulating over pulsing 4/4 rhythms on acoustic and bass guitar, while drummer Jeremy Gara syncopates underneath: it all answers the never-posed question about what a collaboration between Tom Petty and Stereolab might sound like. Kingsbury’s choice of synth sounds is gloriously kaleidoscopic, and he scores points with this reviewer for repurposing the sound of Rough Trade’s “Crimes of Passion” here on “Listening.” Basia Bulat plays bass and provides backing vocals, facilitating Kingsbury’s taste for rich harmonies. Like many Guelph indie rock kids of the ’90s—such as his peer Jim Guthrie—Kingsbury held Chicago’s avant-rock scene of that time in high regard, and so here he seeks out John McEntire and Doug McCombs of Tortoise for assistance on two tracks. 

Kingsbury is not a mumbling sideman who finally musters enough courage to step to centre stage: he was fronting his own band (featuring Richard Reed Parry) back in 2002 when he was first spotted by Win Butler, and here he proves to be an engaging vocalist, particularly on the sombre closing track, “Up All Night.” 

There’s a new Arcade Fire record expected this spring, which is naturally going to overshadow Kingsbury’s long-overdue debut. Comparisons are inevitable, and so it boils down to this: Sam Patch has every bit the melodic and textural strength of Arcade Fire, without ever sounding claustrophobic and minus the tense dramatics (with the exception of the fuzzed-out rocker “Listening,” which provides the sole hint of menace here; meanwhile, “Never Meant No Harm” nods to the Caribbean rhythms of Reflektor). Tim Kingsbury has always been the most underrated, invisible member of Arcade Fire; that perception ends right now. And with eight songs clocking in at 35 minutes, Sam Patch leaves us wanting more—much more.

Stream: “100 Decibels,” “St. Sebastian,” “Listening”

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

January 2017 reviews

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”