Thursday, November 15, 2007

September 07 review round-up

Today's Eye Weekly has an article I did on Tinariwen; transcript will arrive in the coming days. Note that their website has a spiffy new design. That's the good news. The bad news is that none of the links to older stories work anymore, so I'll do my best to update this here site to ensure everything is copacetic.

Because I moved house in September, I forgot to post some reviews that ran in the mainstream daily newspapers Kitchener-Waterloo Record and Guelph Mercury. October's will follow shortly, as will material from Eye Weekly as soon as the links work.

Reviewed here in alphabetical order: Baby Elephant, Blue Rodeo, 50 Cent, Hot Hot Heat, Lyle Lovett, Madlib, Carolyn Mark, Sixtoo, Weakerthans, Kanye West.

Not appearing here, but ran in the paper in September: Polaris Prize compilation, Manu Chao,
Ben Harper, Exploding Star Orchestra, Paul Anka. If you work for any of these artists and need a clipping, let me know.

Baby Elephant – Turn My Teeth Up! (GFM/Sonic Unyon)

When Prince Paul sampled Parliament on the classic De La Soul album 3 Ft. High and Risin’, he knew as well as anyone else that keyboardist Bernie Worrell was responsible for the way we have heard synths and keyboards in pop, funk and rock music since the mid-70s.

Here, Prince Paul and Worrell team up with some of the latter’s former collaborators—including George Clinton, David Byrne and Nona Hendryx—to make a pop album that’s considerably more focused than Worrell’s jam-based band the Woo Warriors. The “teeth” of the title refer to his arsenal of keyboards, which colour every corner of this futuristic funk with nary a guitar in sight. He’s just as freaky as ever, as are some of the other guests that Paul lines up—including original dancehall MC Yellowman, who sounds about 90 years old.

Worrell, on the other hand, is totally timeless, which is to be expected for such a sci-fi freak. In an era where synths are too often used as crutches for the lazy, Worrell reminds us what a difference it makes when they’re in the hands of a master. (September 13, 2007)

Blue Rodeo – Small Miracles (Warner)

Nearly every song here finds Blue Rodeo acting exactly their age, approaching failed relationships with regret and enduring occasional bad times for the greater good. These lyrical themes are exactly what you might expect from a band that has endured a series of line-up changes and solo albums from the two main songwriters. But what we really expect is a collection of songs that could hold a candle to their best work—which we don’t get here. Jim Cuddy scores the only knockout here with the small-town-small-minds ballad “This Town,” but otherwise both he and Greg Keelor seem stuck in first gear. Eleven albums and 22 years later, it might be a small miracle that Blue Rodeo are still together, but this certainly sounds like they’re phoning it in. (September 27, 2007)

50 Cent – Curtis (Aftermath/Universal)

On the laundry list of crimes against modern culture that 50 Cent is guilty of, nothing is more galling than the fact that he cops to his con and openly laughs at his own audience. “I ain’t even gotta rap now, life is made … I’m laughin’ straight to the bank with this/ ha-ha-ha-ha!”

Not that he cares about anyone but himself: not the bitches he’s bangin’ (“bring ‘em in/ kick ‘em out”), not the suckas he’s clockin’ (“I’ll Still Kill”), not any poor sod that doesn’t serve as a means to an end. Furthermore, he continually wants it both ways: to be the respected king of the ’hood while kickin’ back in the south of France and shopping for shoes in Milan.

“If I give you all of me, what you gonna give me back?” asks Mary J. Blige during a vocal cameo. It’s a fair question. What do we get out of this beyond a verbal beatdown in every single verse by this “stanky rich” gangsta narcissist?

50 Cent splits his time evenly between checking his bank account (“I Get Money”), checking his back for any perceived indignation (“Fully Loaded Clip”), and finding new ways to be the most misogynist seduction artist in the history of pop music. That is, until Eminem shows him up on the loathsome “Peep Show,” offering to defecate on the object of his affection. Good thing such harmless juvenilia is being marketed to kids. Even Justin Timberlake and Timbaland can’t sex up the lifeless “Ayo Technology.”

None of the other high profile guests, on-and-off-mic, fare much better. 50 Cent has coasted by with lame lyrics before, but this time his biggest problems are the boring beats, muddy production and lack of any serious pop hooks—a blessing in disguise for those wishing he’d just wither up and go away.

As tiresome as this is, what’s particularly hilarious is “Man Down (Censored),” where the blanked out vocals make you wonder what 50 could be possibly saying that’s worse than the cursing, cocksuckin’ and motherfuckin’ going on in the rest of the track, with 50 repeatedly boasting “I’ll murder ‘em” in the chorus.

Even funnier is his recent off-stage show of being publicly offended by a video game called Shoot the Rapper, featuring an animated character physically modeled after him. It seems that the tough guy can’t take a taste of his own medicine—even though that very recipe is what made this dumb-ass douchebag famous in the first place.

Hopefully he’s man enough to keep his rap retirement pledge should Kanye West wind up on the top of the charts this week. (September 13, 2007)

Hot Hot Heat – Happiness Ltd. (Warner)

The bombastic and theatrical title track here concludes with a lighter-in-the-air power ballad ending repeating, “It’s all over now.”

Which it could have been: after their tepid sophomore album Elevator, many were ready to write off this Victoria, BC power pop band—including founding guitarist Dante DeCaro, who defected to the much more promising Wolf Parade shortly after Elevator was released.

Noting that Hot Hot Heat have unnecessarily resurrected a track here from an earlier EP (“5 Times Out Of 100”) isn’t a good indicator of new ideas, either.

And yet Happiness Ltd. finds them rediscovering exuberant the pop hooks that they used to excel at, while maintaining a variety of moods. Singer Steve Bays has toned down some of his more annoying vocal tics without entirely surrendering his personality as a singer. The rest of the band continue to be inspired by the 80s, but this time there is less influence from the skinny tie post-punk crowd than by the stadium/radio pop that the Killers are trying to resurrect—and there at least three or four anthemic tracks here that would put the latter jokers to shame, especially with drummer Paul Hawley and bassist Dustin Hawthorne injecting some badly needed vitality into this type of material. (September 20, 2007)

Lyle Lovett – It’s Not Big, It’s Large (Lost Highway/ Universal)

If the album title sounds a bit defensive, it’s because Lovett is still crawling back into the third phase of his career, following a seven-year lapse that found one of the most refreshing songwriting voices of the 80s oddly silent.

His last album, 2004’s My Baby Don’t Tolerate, was his most conventional Nashville album, with little of the sardonic storytelling that always set him apart. This time out he’s still playing it straight, but he welcomes back some of the R&B and gospel influences that were his trademark in the early 90s.

Sadly, it’s a trade-off for the fact that his songs were more engaging the last time out. The best material here is the stuff that sounds like Lovett and his Large Band fooling around, like the playful “Make It Happy” and “Up in Indiana.” The strength of his band and the gospel backing singers elevate the weaker material, and Lovett himself is in fine voice.

On one chorus here he sings: “Life’s been good to me… It could be all downhill from here.” Doubtful, of course. Yet still, this is far from his finest hour. (September 20, 2007)

Madlib – Beat Konducta Vol 3-4: India (Stones Throw/Koch)

Now that all the vintage soul samples appear to have been snapped up, hip-hop producers are starting to look elsewhere. Kanye West can be heard sampling Ethiopian and German records these days, but hot underground hip-hop producer Madlib has bigger fish to fry: India, home to the biggest music and film industry outside of the U.S.

Here he has his way with hundreds of Bollywood soundtracks, slicing them into tiny two-minute hip-hop instrumentals: 34 tracks in 61 minutes. There’s plenty of funk to be found on the subcontinent, and many of the minor key string samples from this rich source material fit in perfectly with Madlib’s hazy, lazy signature sound.

For a man whose prolific output has more than its share of quality dips, he sounds genuinely inspired here. And who knows—maybe some of it will creep into the work he’s doing right now with Ghostface Killah and Erykah Badu. (September 27, 2007)

Carolyn Mark – Nothing is Free (Mint/Outside)

As anyone who has been there will tell you, Saltspring Island in B.C. is overflowing with beauty and splendour, characteristics that have always attracted a large artistic community. Carolyn Mark doesn’t live there—she hails from Victoria—but by recording her sixth album on Saltspring, the songwriter has emerged with her prettiest collection to date.

She’s always been a strong singer—after all, she holds her own with Neko Case in their duo The Corn Sisters—but she’s never sounded better than she does here. The natural reverb helps, courtesy of the community hall where this was recorded mostly live with virtuoso violinist Diona Davies (Geoff Berner, Po’Girl) and guitarists Paul Pigat and Paul Rigby. Without a drummer present, Mark doesn’t have to project at rock-band levels and every player exudes elegance on both the ballads and the bluegrass-tinged numbers.

Which is all a bit strange: despite the pristine environment, the lyrics suggest that the salty songwriter is doing some Sunday morning soul-searching, going through a mid-life crisis triggered by one too many tours. More so than ever, Mark’s songs concern the fallacy of fidelity—especially on the road—and being “Poisoned With Hope” when it comes to finding happiness in either life or one’s career. (September 20, 2007)

Sixtoo – Jackals and Vipers in Envy of Man (Ninja Tune/Outside)

Few people can make a compelling album of instrumental hip-hop, but Montreal’s Robert Squire—aka Sixtoo—is certainly one of them, and this may well be his finest work. Jackals consists of 13 unnamed tracks mixing dark beats with brooding textures of piano and guitar that sound like they’re lifted from a spy movie soundtrack.

Sixtoo has long since retired as an MC, but his short attention span ensures that he can ride a steady groove while consistently shifting all the other elements of a track to maintain interest. The moody background never gets too morose before the big beats bounce everything back to the dance floor, albeit one where jazzy excursions and druggy and dubbed-out disorientation are the norm.

Montreal scene trainspotters will note that two members of Wolf Parade show up here (drummer Arlen Thompson and electronics manipulator Hadji Bakara), though this is Sixtoo’s show from beginning to end. (September 27, 2007)

The Weakerthans – Reunion Tour (Anti/Epitaph)

Perhaps the worst writing advice ever is to “write what you know.” Because of that tired maxim, we’ve been cursed with generations upon generations of self-absorbed songwriters who think that every domestic detail is worthy of a major artistic statement.

John K. Samson of Winnipeg’s Weakerthans has proven to be a master at mapping melancholy and awkward emotions, on albums like 2000’s classic Left and Leaving—an album that announced the arrival of a major Canadian songwriter. But after battling a bad case of writer’s block in recent years, Samson returns with 11 character sketches that are far from autobiographical: a bus driver, a medical oddity, a dot-com capitalist, a legendary NHL goalie, and a guy who spotted Sasquatch. Written with his usual flair for economical prose, each song reads like a short story with maximum detail conveyed in a few short lines.

The Weakerthans’ last album, 2003’s Reconstruction Site, showed a danger of the band milking its past punk sound while offering redundant roots rock shadings as an alternative. Yet here they find inventive ways to embellish their core strengths as a 4/4 rock band, with drummer Jason Tait once again proving to be their secret weapon on vibes, percussion, keyboards and banjo. Even the track here that most recalls—or, uh, rips off—previous work (the opening anti-anthem “Civil Twilight”) sparkles with a life lacking in most of the last album.

If Left and Leaving was a perfect encapsulation of how poetic punk rockers grapple with adulthood, Reunion Tour is written with a wealth of perspective and empathy, set to a diverse musical landscape that succeeds on both the rockers and the reflective numbers.
(September 27, 2007)

Kanye West – Graduation (Roc-a-Fella/Universal)

Having the biggest ego in hip-hop takes a lot of work. Which is part of the reason why Kanye West sounds humbled on this follow-up to 2005’s pop masterstroke Late Registration.

Lyrically, he dials down the hubris—well, as much as he can—and even ends his Graduation speeches with Big Brother, a bittersweet ode to his mentor, Jay-Z. Musically, he reaches even further than usual: samples here include sensitive 70s folkie Laura Nyro, psychedelic German rock band Can, Steely Dan, and—on the album’s hands-down highlight "Stronger"—French electro-house superstars Daft Punk. Even when his borrowing is less blatant, West still has the most catholic taste of any mainstream hip-hop artist.

Most of this material is considerably more laid back than you’d expect from this attention magnet. With the exception of "Stronger," there’s little here that’s likely to light up a club. West is in a contemplative mood, which works both for and against him: the reflective "I Wonder" and "Flashing Lights" are both striking, string-laden dramas atop heavy beats, while "Everything I Am" is a sappy sag and "Drunk And Hot Girls" sounds like a stoned, late night reflection on a life of vacuous clubhopping. A few more fireworks would have helped.
(September 13, 2007)


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