Some reviews from the last three months of my column in the Kitchener-Waterloo Record, a mainstream daily paper west of Toronto. Arranged alphabetically. I'll spare you my thoughts on the John Mellencamp or Korn Unplugged records.
Air – Pocket Symphony (EMI)
Easy listening is not supposed to be difficult. Yet that’s exactly the raison d’être for French band Air. On the surface, they’re all about rays of California sunshine and lattes on the Left Banke, portraits painted with shimmering synths, delicate acoustic guitars and muted pianos. Yet nearly every track on this, their fourth proper album (excluding soundtracks), is rife with suspension and tension underneath the blissful exterior. Even in the gentlest moments, there’s still a creeping paranoia underneath that suggests something is amiss.
Though most of Pocket Symphony features vocals, Air excel when the jettison the ESL and focus on instrumentals. Night Sight and Mayfair Song would both make excellent themes for a 70s dystopian sci-fi flick, while Lost Message sounds adrift in space, the loneliest place of all—Rocket Man has nothing on this track.
Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker makes a noteworthy cameo, mumbling through a song—One Hell of a Party—that sounds like he wrote and performed it during the worst hangover of his life. Mer du Japon is the only flashback we have here of the Saturday night preceding the Sunday morning coming down that the rest of Pocket Symphony exists in.
The only major disappointment here is that this material doesn’t live up to the even more haunting songs they coughed up for Charlotte Gainsbourg to coo over on her 2006 album, or betray the depth of influence they portrayed on their an eclectic chill-out DJ mix for the Late Night Tales series, also from last year. (K-W Record, March 22, 2007)
Apostle of Hustle – National Anthem of Nowhere (Arts and Crafts/EMI)
With its dense 2004 debut Folkloric Feel, Apostle of Hustle became the most underappreciated and misunderstood offshoot of Broken Social Scene. While other branches such as Jason Collett, Stars, and Metric were considerably more pop than the parent project, Apostle of Hustle existed in its own private world, carving out a unique sound through thick layers of rhythmic complexity, guitar atmospherics, and songwriting that rarely made it simple for the listener.
But if that album failed to find an audience, National Anthem of Nowhere manages to maintain all the mystery of the debut while simultaneously taking a more direct and visceral approach that pays off pop dividends without dumbing it down. The Latin influence is more pronounced, the melodies are brought to the forefront, and bandleader Andrew Whiteman’s inventiveness as a guitarist continues to inspire awe.
National Anthem of Nowhere is a richly rewarding sonic feast, the best thing to emerge from the Arts and Crafts camp since BSS’s breakthrough You Forgot It In People. Furthermore, Whiteman’s songwriting is superior to that band’s overreliance on sonic strengths, which puts him at the front of the pack. This time you can bet he won’t be left behind. (K-W Record, February 8, 2007)
Bloc Party – A Weekend in the City (Warner)
Unknown band makes it big overnight, tour the world for a year, release a remix record, come home and take a lot of drugs, and attempt to make a bold statement about the vapidity of modern life. How many times have we heard this before?
Bloc Party get ready to stumble right off the top, by proclaiming: “I’m trying to be heroic in an age of modernity.” From there, singer Kele Okereke tries in vain to make us feel his pain. Believe it or not, these are actual lyrics from the same opening track: “I order the foie gras and I eat it with complete disdain. Bubbles rise in champagne flutes, but when we kiss I feel nothing. Feasting on sleeping pills and Marlboro reds, self-pity won’t save you.”
I’ll say. Cry me a river, rock star! There are countless more examples, all of which can be summed up when Okereke sings, “I am a martyr, I just need a motive.” Sadly, that’s from Uniform, one of the better songs here. The rest are all written from the perspective of a repentant club kid who, in a moment of clarity, realised that there are far greater political concerns than consumerism. Call me back when you’ve read a few books.
Fortunately for all involved, Bloc Party as a band is better than Okereke as a wordsmith. They’re the rare stadium rock band who try to avoid guitar clichés, much like their obvious heroes in U2—whose recent producer Jacknife Lee mans the boards here. And arguably, Bloc Party are the better band these days. Okereke has a soaring, grandiose voice to match his earnesty, but it’s drummer Matt Tong who saves the day time and again, ensuring that every song has a furious backbeat, even the songs that threaten to sink into the treacly territory of Coldplay.
Let’s wait for the remix version of this album—an instrumental one. (K-W Record, February 15, 2007)
Holly Cole – s/t (Alert/Universal)
She’s been away so long, no wonder her new self-titled seems like a re-introduction.
After two criminally ignored pop albums in the late 90s, Cole returned to her jazz roots for another overlooked album, 2003’s Shade. This release once again features material more than 50 years old, but Cole remains a sly stylist who can make any song her own, including chestnuts by Irving Berlin, Cole Porter and Henry Mancini. And she gets more than just musical inspiration from these sources; on the sole original here, she manages the Porter-esque trick of rhyming “the falls of Niagara” with “the theorem of Pythagoras.”
Helping her out this time is returning producer/bassist Greg Cohen, who recorded Cole’s third album, 1993’s Don’t Smoke In Bed. Cohen has deep roots in New York City’s jazz scene—he gigs regularly with Tom Waits and John Zorn—and calls in plenty of small woodwind and brass ensemble help to flesh things out. This isn’t a big band sound contrived to compete with Cole’s vocals; instead, they help steam up the room and add some raunch to both the torchy numbers and zippity finger snappers.
Diana Krall it ain’t, and in an increasingly sterile atmosphere for loungey female vocalists, Cole manages to sound even more refreshing today than she did when she arrived 20 years ago. (K-W Record, March 22, 2007)
Ry Cooder – My Name is Buddy (Nonesuch/Warner)
If Howard Zinn had written The Incredible Journey, it might have read like the backstory included in this Ry Cooder record, which is ostensibly about the travels of Buddy Red Cat, Lefty Mouse and Reverend Tom Toad through dustbowl America with a copy of Marx’s Das Kapital in hand.
Despite the oddball animal narrative, Cooder pens plenty of potent and raw folk songs, like the soul stomper Sundown Town and Three Chords And The Truth, the latter an ode to Pete Seeger, Paul Robeson and Joe Hill. But because the bandleader doesn’t surrender vocal duties more often, it’s hard to stick with a 70-minute album when you don’t care for the narrator.
Much like Cooder’s most recent album Chavez Ravine, this is a dense narrative that relies more on concept than it does individual songs, and shines largely on the presence of guests: accordionist Flaco Jiménez, fiddler Mike Seeger, the Chieftains’ Paddy Moloney and Cooder’s favourite soul duo of Terry Evans and Bobby King. (K-W Record, March 22, 2007)
Deerhoof – Friend Opportunity (Kill Rock Stars)
If Yoko Ono had all the Beatles on her side and put them together with the The Who's rhythm section, she would likely twist and turn pop and rock conventions into barely recognizable fragments. Pieced back together, it would sound something like Deerhoof. This San Francisco trio have a deserved rep as musicians’ musicians—which is why they get opening slots for Wilco, Radiohead and the Flaming Lips—but their new material finds them getting simultaneously weirder and more accessible. They’re not interested in being difficult for its own sake—after all, this is Friend Opportunity.
Deerhoof are proof positive that experimental rock doesn’t have to be bloated and boring. It’s more than Satomi Matzusaki’s girlish voice that give this a sense of innocent play, though that certainly lends it a wistful naïveté. Instead, the entire band pushes and pulls the rhythm in obtuse directions while not being afraid of power chords or sing-song melodies. Blips, blurps and crazy keyboards frequently fight for space alongside the band’s rock instrumentation, and yet only a band like Deerhoof could make any sense of this. Hopefully plenty of new fans can, too. (K-W Record, February 1, 2007)
Endless Highway: The Music of The Band – Various Artists (429/Koch)
The Band remain one of the great enigmas of rock history. How did these out-of-time hosers—and their Arkansas drummer— channel the spirit of music from the Southern states into their own unique musical voice, a sound that has yet to be duplicated?
Plenty of musicians have looked to The Band for inspiration, so it’s a wonder that no has assembled a tribute before now; conversely, it’s small wonder that hardly anyone here manages to capture the mystique so central to The Band’s sound.
Part of the problem is that The Band are hard to cover, although it can certainly be done: witness Serena Ryder’s recent take on This Wheel’s On Fire, or Chicago chanteuse Kelly Hogan’s stunning take on Whispering Pines (neither versions appear here).
But My Morning Jacket should know better than to pummell the life out of It Makes No Difference; instead they rob this heartbreaking song of its frailty and beauty. Only the core of the song itself saves it from becoming a soulless modern rock ballad. They’re the worst offenders here, though the painfully pasty northerners in Death Cab for Cutie fail miserably when singing about “ol’ Virginie” on Rocking Chair.
The rest of the line-up is equally uninspiring: Jack Johnson, Gomez, Guster, Blues Traveler, Lee Ann Womack, all of whom merely run through the songs in faint homage to the originals. Others shine merely by paying proper reverance, such as Rosanne Cash on Unfaithful Servant, and the Roches on Acadian Driftwood.
Oddly enough, it’s the lone Canadian here—Vancouver’s Steve Reynolds—who chooses to put his own stamp on the material, by slowing down Stage Fright and making it an acoustic lament in tune with the lyric, rather than the carnivalesque rock of the original.
This was released to commemorate the 30th anniversary of The Last Waltz. Here in Canada, the CBC put together its own tribute with Colin Linden, Tom Wilson, Luke Doucet, Oh Susanna, Great Lake Swimmers and others, broadcast on the day of the actual anniversary, and it outclasses this affair in every aspect. Hopefully that will get its own CD release sooner than later. (K-W Record, February 1, 2007)
Friends in Bellwoods – Various Artists (Out of This Spark)
When people write about the Toronto music scene, names like Broken Social Scene, Final Fantasy, K-OS and others usually dominate the discussion. Of course, there’s plenty more going on underground, but perhaps the most shocking thing about this Friends of Bellwoods compilation—other than the fact that it’s overflowing with amazing music, spread over 36 tracks on two discs—is that so much of it is new to even the most dedicated follower of indie fashion.
Local showgoers will likely know Guelph’s D’Urbervilles and We’re Marching On, Ottawa’s The Acorn, Toronto’s Ohbijou and Brampton’s Meligrove Band. This will also introduce you to the plaintive country of Friday Morning’s Regret, the morning-after folk of Jonas Bonnetta, the electro gay dance party of Kids on TV, the 90s indie rock of Germans, the synth pop of Montreal’s Telefauna, and one-off projects like Water Colour and The Dinghies. Throw in relatively more established names like Snailhouse, Gentleman Reg, Barzin and the Constantines’ Bry Webb, and you have a perfect time capsule of Ontario music for 2007. (K-W Record, February 8, 2007)
Kyp Harness – Fugitives (maplemusic.com)
Kyp Harness is a Canadian writer whose work deserves a place in the nation’s official songbooks, even though most of his discography has flown underneath all radar. His latest is a limited-run, self-released collection once again produced by Dale Morningstar (of Gord Downie’s band) and full of dense wordplay illuminating corners of hope in a desert of desolation and moral corruption.
In the past, Harness would usually detail the woes of the world in a verse and find redemption in love by the time he hit the chorus. This time, Harness finds all his answers in God: a God, he says in the liner notes, that is “far from being a mascot for war, for stealing from the poor to give to the rich, for anti-choice and sexual discrimination.” This God is perfectly in line with Harness’s lyrical mission from the beginning: compassion, forgiveness, justice and truth.
Because of this, Fugitives doesn’t sound like Harness’s “Jesus record,” even if he doesn’t make any attempt to mask his inspiration. Instead, like Harness’s best work, it’s a rock album recorded live in a room, with subtle gospel overtones to match the lyrical message, and a singer set on exploring the moral sphere of his world—only this time with a guiding hand leading him out of the darkness. (K-W Record, March 1, 2007)
Peter, Bjorn and John – Writers’ Block (Red Ink/Sony BMG)
Their name suggests a Scandanavian coffee house folk trio; their acronym implies reliable comfort food. This PB&J use loping lo-fi hip-hop beats with whistling melodies to augment familiar elements of underground British 80s pop, such as jangly guitars, soft keyboards, and earnest portraits of romantic minutiae. At first glance, PB&J sound like a summit between the Housemartins and New Order, with ESL-accented vocals that conjure unlikely comparisons: early Costello, Sloan’s Chris Murphy, 54.40’s vocal harmonies.
Thankfully, PB&J have enough oddball tricks up their twee sleeves—dulcimers, flamenco guitars, clarinets, and choruses catchy enough to pass as nursery rhyme—to set them apart from their hodgepodge of influences. Songs like the jaunty break-up number Let’s Call It Off, the tourist jingle Amsterdam, and The Chills—the latter driven by tumbling percussion and hissing castanets—give their closest competitors The Shins a run for their money. (K-W Record, March 15, 2007)
The Stooges – The Weirdness (Virgin/EMI)
How can you go wrong? One of the greatest rock’n’roll bands ever, progenitors of punk rock, not only get back together to play ecstatically received live shows, but they recruit a powerhouse bassist from the generation after them (Mike Watt of the Minutemen) and the best raw rock’n’roll producer from the generation after that (Steve Albini of Nirvana and thousands of others). Guitarist Ron Asheton sounds like he hasn’t missed a beat since the band split up in the 70s, and even Fun House saxophonist Steve McKay is back in the fold.
Trouble is, the iconic Iggy Pop sounds like he wrote this entire album in about ten minutes and five beers. In between puerile push-button rants about ATMs and Greedy Awful People, the fleeting moment of wit is when Iggy manages to rhyme “Obama” with “baby mama” and “intifadah.”
In retrospect, anyone who had high hopes for this has likely not listened to an Iggy Pop album in decades. If they had, they’d realise that he’s an embarrassing old fart who’s only successful when he’s chest-deep in self-parody (see: Kick It, his duet with Peaches).
Weirdness, indeed. (K-W Record, March 22, 2007)
Lucinda Williams – West (Lost Highway/Universal)
Earlier in her career Lucinda Wiliams excelled at character narratives. This album, however, is either written about one severely heartbroken and messed up character, or the artist herself at a painfully emotional low. The narrator here is struggling to overcome loss, sinking deep into depression, and dissecting the dark dissolution of a relationship’s dying days.
And those are the happy songs. Williams’ southern drawl milks the material for every ounce of pathos—she sounds like she’s bleeding all over the microphone, which with material like this makes it all the more effective. The lyrics are much more than blubbering and blather, however. Williams’ eye for sharp poetic detail and her gift for phrasing make up for the fact that she’s wallowing in woe.
While her lyrics stand among her best, there are few musical moments here to match their power. Melody is often sacrificed for poetic cadence, and her backing band is content to leave gaping holes in her opiated, loping two-chord songs. Sometimes that works: Unsuffer Me is a few power chords short of becoming a Black Sabbath tune, where an ominous, heavy bass progression underscores Williams’ plea for someone to “undo my logic/ undo my fear.”
If your Valentine’s Day went swimmingly well, avoid this album at all costs. But if you need a good bawl, Lucinda Williams is your new best friend. (K-W Record, February 22, 2007)
Amy Winehouse – Back to Black (Island/Universal)
Winehouse became a platinum success in her native UK with her debut album of hip-hop inflected jazz pop, but here she comes out swinging with a sassy set of soul that draws equally from Motown and Phil Spector girl groups of the 60s. Producer Mark Ronson, who helmed some of Christina Aguilera’s recent comeback, gives her a punchy, vintage sound courtesy of a brassy horn section and members of Sharon Jones’s Daptones and Antibalas—you’d be hard to find two modern acts better at reproducing old school soul and funk. And the 22-year old Winehouse has the pipes to belt out bangers dedicated to dissing rehab and deadbeat dudes; her lyrics betray a bit too much of her bratty youth, but that barely matters when she’s got the sound down. (K-W Record, January 11 2007)
You Say Party! We Say Die! – Lose All the Time (Paper Bag/Universal)
Death and loss might be themes in this Vancouver band's moniker and album title, but you'd never infer that from the joyous racket they stir up on their first proper full-length.
This is more than just a racket, however. Vocalist Becky Ninkovic kick off the record by yelling "This is a test! This is a test!" Except that they already got their test out of the way, on 2005's debut EP, which landed them plenty of live dates across Canada and in Europe. The EP suggested a flash-in-the-pan one-trick-pony, not unlike Toronto's Controller Controller or Vancouver's The Organ, who also tapped the darker side of early 80s post-punk pop before hitting a creative glass ceiling and calling it quits.
What separates YSP!WSD! from a crowded field of compatriots is their versatility, amply displayed on these 12 tracks, an early contender for best Canadian debut of 2007. Ninkovic easily moves between yelping punk ingénue ala the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' Karen O, to a brooding crooner like late period PJ Harvey. Meanwhile, the band behind her don't depend on mere disco beats to ensure danceability, and have enough sense of dynamics to pull off a sparse piano ballad.
They close the album by advising, "Don't say goodbye: say, 'good journey.'" They have a long, promising and productive one ahead of them. (K-W Record, March 15, 2007)