Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Eyeful of reviews, fall 07 p1

In the interest of further housecleaning, here are some reviews from Eye Weekly that I've neglected to post this past fall. Because their website is still under major construction, the full text is included here, with a link to the unGooglable original review.

More will follow tomorrow, with some live reviews after that.

In alphabetical order, today's serving includes: Bella, Mark Berube, Buck 65, Vic Chesnutt, Imani Coppola, Cuff the Duke, Dragonette, Duran Duran, Fiery Furnaces, Frightened Rabbit, Teki Latex, Bettye Lavette.




BELLA
No One Will Know
(Mint)
**

Vancouver: the city where the 80s never die, especially new wave pop performed by excitable twentysomethings who just saw Pretty in Pink and bought their first synthesizer. To their credit, Bella do this better than most, and actually sound like they could evolve into a multi-dimensional band—as opposed to, say, The Organ, who mastered a rut and never got out of it. But unlike similar retro-miners The Rosebuds or Imperial Teen, who guest here—both of whom remember the 80s first-hand—Bella are little more than promising youngsters. After forty minutes of treading water, nothing gets much deeper here than the title track’s typically non-committal teenage lyrics: “Don’t look at me that way and I won’t look at you/ and no one will know.” Maybe once they’re comfortable enough to make eye contact, Bella will make some real connections. (October 18, 2007)




MARK BERUBE
What the River Gave the Boat
(Kwalu)
****

Vancouver singer/songwriter Mark Berube is much more than another well-traveled dapper dude. Exhibit A: the guy can write a song called “Pretty Little Bird” that is nowhere near as na├»ve and nauseating as the title suggests. Instead, that track—like many on this album—contains wonderful images and narrative portraiture that suggests he’s studied closely at the feet of Mr. Waits and Mr. Cohen. Berube’s lyrical travels take him to Montreal, Berlin, Vancouver, New York City, Africa and an unnamed battleground on the poignant “War Without End,” which dodges any modern-day specifics and sounds appropriately timeless. Musically, on the other hand, he’s usually at home, parked on his piano stool and conjuring classic cabaret melodies with a rainy West Coast morning outside his door. His good luck streak continues with elegant string arrangements, sympathetic production and a soaring voice that reminds us what Rufus and Hawksley would sound like if they weren’t such drama queens. (September 13, 2007)




BUCK 65
Situation
(Warner)
****

After years of exploring in and outside of hip-hop, Situation marks Buck 65’s return to the genre, with the ace help of Haligonian DJ/producer Skratch Bastid. Yet on the mic, Buck’s decidedly non-hip-hop hobo fogey MC persona persists, this time waxing not-so-nostalgic for the year 1957, a year that he argues defined the cultural shift in post-war America. He has a variety of reasons; many of them seem to stem directly from The Notorious Bettie Page—and not specifics of her subversion or a parade of “scum bags and cum rags,” but actual dialogue from the film. Even without this concept, an occasionally breathless Buck is on top of his lyrical and musical game, incorporating his increasingly catholic tastes with consistently bangin’ Bastid beats. Situation might be his most accessible album to date, but that’s just because he keeps getting better. This career artist continues to be in a class of his own. (October 25, 2007)




VIC CHESNUTT
North Star Deserter
(Constellation)
**

Everything about this album works beautifully—except Chesnutt’s songs themselves. On his thirteenth studio album, the Georgia songwriter shacked up in Montreal with the Constellation Records posse, who provide tasteful and eerie backing to some of Chesnutt’s best vocal performances in years, as coaxed by engineer Howard Bilerman and producer (and Fugazi filmmaker) Jem Cohen. This makes it the best album by Constellation house band A Silver Mt. Zion, but sadly—as has been true for the last ten years or so—Chesnutt’s material doesn’t live up to his early-90s heights, leaving us with an hour of tuneless dirge. Hopefully the experience will kickstart his muse and warrant a return visit; it would be a shame to waste this opportunity. (November 22, 2007)




IMANI COPPOLA
The Black & White Album
(Ipecac)
***

It’s unlikely anyone remembers Imani Coppola as a one-hit youngster who sang “Legend of a Cowgirl” over a Donovan sample in 1997. For those that do, she’s still a savvy eclecticist whose juvenile lyrics distract from her skills as a pop songwriter and multi-instrumentalist. She’s a convincing soul singer (“Let It Kill You”), dabbles in dirty hip-hop (“Keys 2 Your Ass”) and has punk rock sass to spare on the bi-racial rant “Woke Up White.” Now that she’s been rescued from obscurity by Mike Patton—who not only signed her, but employs her as a violinist in Peeping Tom—her genre hopping will reach more receptive ears than the suits who dumped her a decade ago. (November 22, 2007)




CUFF THE DUKE
Sidelines of the City
(Hardwood/Universal)
****

On the opening track “If I Live Or If I Die,” Cuff the Duke singer Wayne Petti clearly has mortality on his mind – both his own, and likely that of his tumultuous band as well. After Petti's refreshing solo acoustic album followed up CTD's flawed but inexplicably popular second album, he and remaining original member Paul Lowman now bounce back with a renewed sense of purpose. Sidelines sparkles with life, succeeding everywhere that the last attempt failed – especially when they merge piano pop with their penchant for guitar epics, which they nail here on “Surging Revival” and “Failure to Some.” Their rootsier leanings lose any final traces of hokiness, and the Calexico-esque horns are a nice touch on the unfortunately titled “Ballad of the Tired Old Man.” They even pull off the unthinkable by bestowing some romantic nostalgia to their hometown on “Rossland Square.” It all adds up to what could be a breakthrough – their Oshawa Tree, if you will. (October 18, 2007) (My cover story on the band in this week's paper can be found here.)




DRAGONETTE
Galore
(Universal)
*

Pop music is never as easy as it looks. And just because ex-folkie Martina Sorbara is now dressing the part of a teen idol doesn’t mean she can blow bubblegum. Any Torontonian with prior knowledge of Sorbara’s past (and partner Dan Kurtz’s time with The New Deal) is likely to charge Dragonette with shameless popportunism. But ultimately it’s the lame material that slays Dragonette: most of these tracks are indistinguishable from Hilary Duff’s attempts to sound “edgy.” Sometimes a pop makeover can invigorate a career (see: Nelly Furtado), and Dragonette’s preliminary UK success suggests that they’re already fooling one market. The only time Sorbara sounds remotely convincing is when she sings: “Wash me/ god, I want to get this off me/ if you want to love me, stop me.” (September 20, 2007)




DURAN DURAN
Red Carpet Massacre
(Epic/Sony BMG)
*

Ever since they reformed the original line-up, all the dough they raked in on those reunion tours probably went towards hiring the triumvirate that brought sexy back: Danjahandz, Timbaland and Justin Timberlake himself. All three men sound like they were hired just to be namedropped in the marketing material; Timberlake, for example, didn’t seem to have the guts to cut off Andy Taylor’s awful guitar solo on “Falling Down.” Timbaland’s vocal cameos might be embarrassing, but at least they distract from the fact that no one bothered to auto-tune Simon LeBon’s increasingly wretched voice. It’s not a coincidence that the best track here is a Danjahandz instrumental; unfortunately for Duran Duran, that’s not going to sell a lot of concert tickets. (November 15, 2007)




FIERY FURNACES
Widow City
(Thrill Jockey)
***

Eleanor and Matthew Friedberger joke that they wrote this new album with the help of a Ouija board. For better and worse, it certainly sounds like it. Musically, the Friedbergers filter Wings and Zeppelin riffs and rhythms through synths and Chamberlain organs, with results that are consistently fascinating and ridiculously unpredictable, a crash course of tangential fantasies that miraculously flow together thanks in part to drummer Robert D’Amico and Eleanor’s convincing charisma. Unfortunately, Matthew uses the same scattershot approach to unleash a confounding lyrical onslaught for his sister to sing, which at times crowds out almost any pleasure to be found. When she’s denied a melody, the frantic words-per-minute rate is a waste of Eleanor’s increasingly versatile range. Thankfully, Widow City mostly sticks to the unlikely sweetness of 2006’s Bitter Tea—especially on the bonafide pop song “Ex-Guru,” which new labelmate David Byrne has already covered. (October 18, 2007)




FRIGHTENED RABBIT
Sing the Greys
(Fat Cat)
*

These are certainly greys, all right. This timid band of Glaswegians wield beige and banal indie rock guitars that try to prop up flaccid melodies and arrangements that shouldn’t have made it past the basement. This isn’t even fey enough to be friendly for the cardigan crowd. Even the titles here will have you instantly counting sheep: “Be Less Rude,” “Music Now” and, of course, “Yawns.” More offensive than Frightened Rabbit itself is the fact that the usually reliable Fat Cat Records has been signing even more snoozers like this (Tom Brosseau, David Karsten Daniels). (November 22, 2007)




TEKI LATEX
Party La Plasir
(EMI)
*

Teki Latex, known to some as an MC in franco hip-hop kings TTC, deserves one star for hiring Feistian producers Gonzales and Renaud Letang to navigate his foray into commercial pop music. Decked out in the most garish neon colours imaginable—as seen in the video for “Les matins de Paris”—the tone deaf Teki has zero personality as a pop singer on titles like “Disco dance with you” and “J’aime la pop music.” He enlists Feist to hide under her Peaches-sidekick alias Bitch Lap Lap, rapping in French and chanting: “The shit is the ish/ the ish is the shit.” Were it not for that stunt casting, it’s highly unlikely this would ever have been exported outside of France. (November 22, 2007)




BETTYE LAVETTE
The Scene of the Crime
(Anti/Epitaph)
**

The crime in question here is how this ended up being such a waste of time. Bettye LaVette is a 61-year old soul singer who isn’t on a comeback trail; she’s still arriving after languishing in obscurity after scoring one teenage hit in 1962. In 1972, she would record her debut album at the legendary Muscle Shoals studio for Atlantic Records—who promptly shelved the album. (It finally surfaced on a French label in 2002.) This new album pairs her with the Drive-By Truckers, whose Patterson Hood grew up at Muscle Shoals, where his father was a co-owner and bassist. Recorded back at Muscle Shoals, LaVette herself is in killer form, snarling like a spurned sexpot (and recalling recent reissues by fellow underdog Betty Davis). Yet everyone around her is far too reserved—intimidated, even. Instead of lighting a fire under her ass, they leave her dramatic vocals hanging out to dry on top of deadly dull bed tracks. The only time they connect is on the autobiographical “Before the Money Came (The Battle of Bettye LaVette),” which she co-writes with Hood. Otherwise, when she sings “You Don’t Know Me At All,” you have to wonder how intently she’s looking at the band. (September 20, 2007)

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