More reviews from the past several months in Eye Weekly. Live reviews will follow shortly. Links connect to the original review on the Eye site, currently under construction and full of bugs--for example, the site says I gave Nathan Lawr a mere one star, instead of the proper four he deserves. Don't believe everything you read.
In alphabetical order: Nathan Lawr, Red Stick Ramblers, David Shrigley's Worried Noodles, Bob Snider, Stars, Bobb Trimble, Turbo Fruits.
NATHAN LAWR AND THE MINOTAURS - A Sea of Tiny Lights (Minotaur Music)
Nathan Lawr has been an MVP in Toronto’s music scene for years now, ever since his time behind the skins for Royal City and the Fembots, among others. And yet his solo work as a singer/songwriter—this one marks his third full-length—remain mysteriously unheralded, especially considering how accessible and instantly likeable they are compared to some of the delightful oddballs he hangs around with. Lawr corrals his usual cast of all-star support—including members of the Fembots and Hylozoists and horn arrangements by Feuermusik’s Jeremy Strachan—but the real attraction here is Lawr’s finest collection of melodic, rootsy pop songwriting to date, powered by more piano than in the past. His increasingly poetic pen allows him to write about James Loney, Columbine and foreign policy blowback without ever getting into heavy-handed specifics. If there’s a flaw here, it’s that Lawr’s subdued vocals don’t sound as excited about the material as they should. Belt it out, boy! (September 27, 2007)
RED STICK RAMBLERS - Made in the Shade (Sugar Hill)
Red Stick Ramblers deliver hot twin-fiddle Louisiana action with touches of Western swing, Owen Bradley balladry and—on the closing epic “Smeckled Suite”—some sunbaked Spanish guitars that come off like early Calexico jamming with Dirty Three. No need for a hipster alert, however, as Red Stick Ramblers are traditionalists through and through, right down to the front porch recording of the inevitable instrumental entitled “Katrina.” They can be squeaky clean country folk when they wanna be, but Red Stick Ramblers sound best when they fire up the fiddles at the forefront and “Laisse Les Cajuns Danser.” (November 22, 2007)
VARIOUS - David Shrigley’s Worried Noodles (Tomlab)
Who is David Shrigley, and why does he deserve a tribute from 39 awesome oddballs culled from the international pop underground? He’s a Glaswegian poet who did the artwork for the latest Deerhoof album—their Shrigley collab “You Dog” is the only non-exclusive track here—but he also once put out an LP-sized collection of songless lyrics, which have now found a musical home thanks to the likes of Franz Ferdinand, David Byrne, Trans Am, Grizzly Bear, and Torontonians Final Fantasy and Hank. But the baffling, childlike lyrics barely matter when this two-CD set serves as the best mix tape of 2007. (November 22, 2007)
BOB SNIDER - A Maze in Greys (Borealis)
It’s been five years since we last heard from Kensington Market folkie Bob Snider. He’s been living in Nova Scotia and seemingly spending more time writing books about his craft (On Songwriting, On Performance) than the songs that have made him so beloved among his peers. Once again, producer David Baxter assembles Toronto’s top session players—including old Snider pal Bob Wiseman—to provide textural colour to Snider’s songs, which run the risk of sanding off his quirkier edges of yore. They certainly add plenty, but Snider himself sounds distracted; the solo moments here are what really shine. (written for the November 22, 2007 issue, though has yet to run)
STARS - In Our Bedroom After the War (Arts and Crafts)
Stars have always been more convincing in the bedroom than on the battlefield, much better at romance than rocking out. This time out, however, all their ambitions come into complete focus, especially on the knockout first half. First single “Take Me to the Riot” is such a triumph of a pop song—particularly the anthemic 5/4 chorus—that it’s almost easy to overlook Torq Campbell’s consistently cheap use of revolutionary imagery to inject his lyrics with weight (“Barricades,” the title track). Even if his bleeding heart is in the right place, his lyrical characters come off like radical chic voyeurs parading off-Broadway with carefully torn Che t-shirts; thankfully the music itself rises above that. While Campbell is alternately infuriating and totally charming, his foil Amy Millan exudes warmth and cool at every turn. Yet this isn’t merely a singers’ album: the deft rhythm section adds twists and turns; the string arrangements and keyboards exude elegance; the production magnifies both the sweeping grandiosity and the intimate details. The title track speaks of reinvention, but this is a distillation of everything Stars have been working towards for years; the only thing being reborn is our own expectations. (September 20, 2007)
BOBB TRIMBLE - Harvest of Dreams; Iron Curtain Innocence (Secretly Canadian)
Why anyone would ever have paid $1500 for an original vinyl copy of these albums only proves that obscurity trumps quality in the rabbit hole of the record collecting world. Of course, Trimble has a great back story: he was a bedroom four-tracker in small-town Massachusetts in the early 80s, running his voice through Leslie speakers, employing 12-year-old boys to be his band and reveling in all things fragile and flanged. But just because he’s an unheralded loner specializing in limp psychedelic folk-pop doesn’t mean that his music speaks to the “ugliness of the Reaganesque suburban nightmare,” as the unintentionally hilarious liner notes suggest. Wonderfully wacko and beautiful moments do exist here, but not enough to exonerate this exhumation. (November 22, 2007)
TURBO FRUITS - s/t (Ecstatic Peace)
This is a side project for Be Your Own Pet’s Jonas Stein, an upstart Nashville teen band blessed with that ever-so-rare gift of making it seem like an original and exciting idea to start a punk band. Lightning doesn’t often strike the same lucky sod twice, and the fact that Stein is a less charismatic vocalist than BYOP’s Jemina Pearl is the first strike against him. The limitations of a guitar/drums duo is the second. But the Turbo Fruits have their share of charms, squeezing out a sludgy power that draws more directly from proto-punk 60s garage, at times with subtle dashes of country and rockabilly that reflects their home state. They’re not engaging enough to forgive some of the more forgettable material, but they score with “Fight This!”—which is either about the health issues of 9/11 rescue workers, endlessly extended tours of duty for soldiers in Iraq, or none of the above: “Gotta go for the government/ haven’t even recovered yet/ my sinus is filled with shit/ there’s red, white and blue in my spit.” (September 13, 2007)