Friday, November 16, 2007

October 07 review round-up

More files from the mainstream daily papers the Kitchener-Waterloo Record and the Guelph Mercury today.

In alphabetical order: Baby Eagle, Devendra Banhart, Jully Black, Broken Social Scene (Kevin Drew), Chris Brown/Kate Fenner, Chamillionaire, The Go! Team, Joe Henry, Iron & Wine, Joni Mitchell, the Rizdales.

Not appearing here, but that did run in the paper: will.i.am, Stacey Kent, James Blunt, the Acorn, San Serac, Sally Shapiro. If you work for any of these people and need a clipping, let me know.




Baby Eagle – No Blues (Outside)

The Constantines’ Steve Lambke branches out on his second album as Baby Eagle, expanding on the sparse settings that marked his first foray into solo acoustic material. This time, he traveled to to Sackville, NB, to team up with Julie Doiron, members of Shotgun and Jaybird and Feist’s touring band, all of whom provide eerie accompaniment to Lambke’s haunting lyrics. His thin, reedy voice is the litmus test for listeners, especially in such a stripped-down context as opposed to the Constantines’ rock onslaught. It isn’t ideally suited for this material, yet when it cracks—which it does often—it creates an intriguing sense of desperation to songs like "Driving Blind" and the title track. (October 18, 2007)




Devendra Banhart – Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon (XL/Beggars)

One must be wary of the artist who thinks they can do everything. Here, Banhart tries on a closet full of new clothes: a young Elvis, a Haight-Ashbury hippie, a snarling psychedelic punk, a Brazilian troubadour, a gospel preacher, a singer in Santana, a spaced-out reggae singer who has lost his drummer.

There is great danger for this to descend into a schizophrenic mess, the work of an egomaniac who doesn’t know when to say no—which, truth be told, was the fate that awaited Banhart’s last album, Cripple Creek. But Thunder Canyon revels in its diversity, and Banhart never takes any of it too seriously. After all, anyone who writes a Jewish doo-wop song called “My Shabop Shalom Baby” can’t be all bad.

Not that he’s always goofing off. The chameleonic Banhart clearly loves all these musical genres without irony, and his songwriting adapts no matter what corner of the world he finds himself in. His spine-tingling vocals are always the focus—even if you’re not always sure that it’s still him on lead vocals. (October 4, 2007; a different review runs in this month's Magnet)




Jully Black – Revival (Universal)

Jully Black has been a star in the making since she was a Toronto high school student guesting on some of that city's hottest hip-hop singles. Her vocal talents have never been questioned, but until now she never had the right material to truly shine on her own—despite the fact that she's written for Destiny's Child and Nas. That changes starting now.

After touring with the Black Eyed Peas several years back, she bonded with their drummer Keith Harris, who produced this, her second major label release and a surefire breakthrough. With Harris at the helm, Black finds the enviable middle ground between neo-soul revivalists like Amy Winehouse and mainstream R&B like Mary J. Blige. Skittering beats, rock guitars, punchy piano riffs and gospel backing vocals all help strike a fine balance between big soul numbers—like the lead single, a cover of Etta James' “Seven Day Fool”—and contemplative ballads such as the socially conscious “Just a Moment” or the tribute to her late sister, “Catch Me When I Fall.”

It's hard to top the opening four songs—which include the feminist reggae anthem Queen and the party-starter DJ Play My Song—but Revival never sags. Soon enough Jully Black will be known for much more for her music rather than being a celebrity correspondent for E-talk Daily. (October 25, 2007)




Broken Social Scene Presents: Kevin Drew – Spirit If… (Arts and Crafts/EMI)

The overwhelming amount of talent in Broken Social Scene—which of course includes Feist, Jason Collett, Stars and Apostle of Hustle—threatened to crush the band entirely on their 2005 self-titled album, where an avalanche of sound overwhelmed any sense of direction or solid songwriting.

Co-founder Kevin Drew adopts a much more subtle approach here, allowing tiny details to colour a series of songs that outline his own personal turmoil (read: divorce) of recent years. It’s just as dense as any other Broken Social Scene album, yet everything breathes much easier. Drew doesn’t want to hit you over the head this time out; many of this album’s greatest pleasures are all but inaudible if you’re expecting the epic art rock he’s built his reputation on. It even appears deceptively slight upon initial listens.

Guests include all the usual BSS suspects—including Feist, Stars’ Amy Millan, most of Metric—as well as some personal heroes of Drew’s: Pavement’s Spiral Stairs, Dinosaur Jr.’s J Mascis—and, uh, Tom Cochrane. (Skeptics alert: forget “Life is a Highway”—go back to Red Rider, right up to the “Boy Inside the Man” days.)

Because this is (kind of) a solo album, Drew also prints his lyrics for the first time, and mixes his vocals up front. Unlike his earlier songs—where the abstraction allowed the listener to project whatever they liked onto them—these are simultaneously more direct and yet still leave plenty of room for the listener’s own imagination. He also moves effortlessly from ambient electronics, acoustic folk, propulsive pop and raging rock—and even better, sometimes he makes it all in the same song.

Best of all, Spirit If… is never predictable, even in the carte blanche world of Broken Social Scene. (October 11, 2007)




Chris Brown and the Citizens' Band – Oblivion (chrisbrownmusic.com)
Kate Fenner – Magnet (katefenner.com)

Brown and Fenner's careers have been intertwined for over 20 years now, ever since they were high school students in the Bourbon Tabernacle Choir, and then later as a duo. It used to be that Brown was the socially conscious poet and songwriter behind Fenner's rich and resonant voice; as time goes on, Fenner has become a songwriter who can stand on her own and Brown's voice gets better with age.

Now that they're charting separate paths, they still share the same backing band and Brown writes three songs on Fenner's second solo album. One of them is the majestic epic “Paris,” where Fenner delivers one of her finest vocal performances with a Cohen-esque lyric that also stands as one of Brown's best.

He saves a few more knockouts for his own album: the inspirational title track; the gripping political screed “The Gates” (which boasts the opening line, "The rapture came, and it only let them down"); and “Image of a Man,” a powerful ode to the passing of Johnny Cash that features Sarah Harmer on backing vocals. Yet for Brown, it's all or nothing. Despite his all-star Citizens' Band of New York City's finest session players, little else on Oblivion manages to match those three tracks.

Fenner's Magnet, on the other hand, steers a more even keel, from the stately opener “Autumn Trees” to the Fleetwood Mac-ish soft pop of “Leo” and “How Hard It Is,” and concluding with the torchy piano cover of Paul Simon's “Some Folks' Lives Roll Easy,” with renowned jazz player Jason Moran. (October 25, 2007)




Chamillionaire – Ultimate Victory (Universal)

Anyone who thinks Southern rap is a one-dimensional pimp-and-ho show ala Hustle and Flow should meet Chamillionaire. Granted, the Grammy-winning MC (whose smash single “Ridin’” even warranted a Weird Al parody) spends almost half of his 80 minutes here on just such material. But he also pens some pointed political material that’s practically unheard of in this corner of the genre. Rather than blinging it up, his self-consciously materialistic rhymes actually possess insight into Bush-era America’s relentless pursuit of capital. After Iraq and Katrina, Chamillionaire would argue—Soprano-style—that cashing in however you can is not only fair game, but the only way to survive while the country burns. Yet even when telling straight-up ghetto tales, his strong storytelling still packs more into a single verse than 50 Cent does in an entire album. (October 18, 2007)




The Go! Team – Proof of Youth (Secret City/Fusion 3)

Double-dutch schoolgirls rap over 70s TV show themes: it doesn’t get any deeper than that descriptive blurb on the second album by this UK act, whose 2005 debut was a delightful sugar rush that sounded like Beck DJing a 60s pop club night. Many of those tracks were built on borrowed beats—few, if any, were used with permission. Now that The Go! Team are left mostly to their own devices, the thrill is gone. Maybe legal difficulties prevented the band from using the samples they wanted. Or, more likely, maybe this one-trick pony ran out of ideas very quickly. Not a single track here provides the debut’s initial pleasure: the vocals are shrill, the fun seems forced, and the cameo by Chuck D of Public Enemy is just plain weird. The youth of which they boast proof has a lot of growing up to do. (October 11, 2007)




Joe Henry – Civilians (Anti/Epitaph)

Though he’s been a singer/songwriter for over 15 years, with a worthy discography of his own behind him, Joe Henry is better known for producing vintage-sounding comeback albums for soul artists such as Solomon Burke and Bettye LaVette. Such is his reputation among musicians that the notoriously independent Ani DiFranco chose him as her first outside producer ever—a move that resulted in her best album in years.

While Henry’s recent solo work found him getting too wrapped up in ornate production, here he strips everything back to basics. His torchy vocals wrap themselves around songs about squandered goodwill and civil wars of various stripes, set to a wealth of waltzes anchored by guitarist Bill Frisell and Toronto bassist David Piltch (Holly Cole, k.d. lang). Henry is a classy guy, his aesthetic best dressed up in ragged dinner jackets and well-aged red wine, struggling to maintain poise and dignity amidst decay.

Yet such is the sustained mood that all the songs blend into each other, demarcated only by Henry’s killer one-liners particular to each narrative. He also indulges his flair for the theatrical: he’s been hanging around enough soul vocal vets to think that each line deserves maximum drama, though his own talents are much better suited to understatement.

He never misfires completely, however, and this is one of the finest singer/songwriter albums of the year. But he could take some lessons in brevity. (October 11, 2007)




Iron And Wine – The Shepherd’s Dog (Sub Pop/Warner)

Iron and Wine’s Sam Beam was never your typical folkie in the first place. Even though his first two sleeper hit albums were acoustic affairs with hushed vocals, he managed to transcend many of the clich├ęs that come with the genre via extremely subtle shades and sometimes surrealistic lyrics—none of which distracted from the welcoming warmth from his campfire-friendly vibe.

The Shepherd’s Dog is the kind of album that all fans of acoustic acts dread the most: the one where the artist decides to expand their sonic template and invite all sorts of friends on board, just to see what happens. So here we find electric guitars, African rhythms, sitars, harmoniums, vocals run through Leslie speakers, trippy keyboards and other treats layered into Beam’s skeletal song structures.

It’s a credit to his sense of restraint that for Iron and Wine, more actually is more. Beam’s songs lose none of their intimacy while painting with plenty of new colours. He avoids any overt rockism by eschewing drum kits and using various hand percussion instead. As a result, even the heaviest moments here are never overbearing, and his excursions into dub reggae and psychedelia possess a weightless grace that makes them all the more engaging.

Sam Beam is never going to be just another guy with an acoustic guitar. This is not only stuffed with more memorable songs than most of his peers, but the headphone-friendly production pushes this clear into classic territory. If you were entranced by Beam’s beauty in the past, The Shepherd’s Dog suggests that he’s only beginning to bloom. (October 4, 2007; a different review runs in the current issue of Magnet)




Joni Mitchell – Shine (Hear)

Joni Mitchell doesn’t thank George W. Bush in the liner notes to her new album. But if it wasn’t for the moral chaos that is Bush’s legacy, it’s unlikely the legendary songwriter would have been roused from retirement for her first album of new material in nine years.

Five years ago, Mitchell announced her retreat from the music industry. As she watched the world go to hell in a handbasket, however, the guitarist picked up her pointed pen and her long-neglected piano to write a scathing series of songs about the end of the world as we know it. Everything from holy wars to a scorched earth to “cellphone zombies” feed into her frustration, with mixed results. Often it sounds like Al Gore wrote these lyrics, rather than the subtle poet that Mitchell is at her best.

Unlike much of her work of the past two decades, Mitchell strips things down here to little more than guitar, piano, a rhythm section and some saxophones—no layers of heavy synths, treated electric guitars or jazzy passages to muck everything up. It gives the work a greater gravitas, and her apocalyptic narratives are given plenty of room to breathe—even if her reduced vocal range still shows the effects of years of smoking.

She throws a bone to old fans with a version of “Big Yellow Taxi.” While it fits right in thematically, its jaunty rhythm—subdued as it is here—is out of step with the other sombre tales of “mass murder mysteries.”

Mitchell does betray some reserved optimism in the title track and the closing “If,” which is adopted from the Rudyard Kipling poem. But the mood of the album is best summed up with the embittered line: “If I had a heart, I’d cry.”

Now how does that go down with your coffee? (October 18, 2007)




The Rizdales – Radio Country (rizdales.com)

It's little wonder that rockabillly legend Wanda Jackson often taps London, Ontario's Rizdales to be her backing band. Not only are they well schooled in classic country, but they share her sardonic view of romance on songs like “High Heeled Homewrecker” and “I Could Tell You Lies.” Husband/wife duo Tom and Tara Dunphy pen poisoned valentines to each other with subtle wit and the kind of rich character writing that the genre has always excelled at. To top it off, both are compelling vocalists and Tara is responsible for the fine fiddle licks. (October 25, 2007)

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