Tuesday, July 29, 2008

June reviews 08

So much housecleaning to be done, and apologies for the delay. Much of July for me has been a build-up to the Hillside Festival last weekend--about which I'll have plenty to say very shortly--and only now does my schedule seem like it's returning to a semblance of normality.

In the meantime, I've been meaning to post these June reviews for... oh, about a month now--aka five years in the blogosphere. For whatever reason, June was fogey month... in a good way.

Don Brownrigg – Wander Songs (Weewerk/Outside)

More than any other provincial Canadian population, Newfoundlanders can be found in every corner of the country; they know what it means to leave home, they know what it means to have your life packed in a suitcase, and they know the pull that the motherland has on their cultural consciousness.

This Newfoundland songwriter opens his astounding debut album by advising the listener: “Don’t be afraid of the world if you ain’t out there in it.” Halfway through, he covers a song written by two of his uncles, who impart similar worldly wisdom: "Remember, fights and people's wives are to be left alone/ and if all else should fail you/ please remember home." Throughout Wander Songs, Brownrigg sings about leaving home for a transient life of “bags and boxes.” He does so in an old soul’s voice that’s perfectly suited for what he calls “these A.M. times.”

Befitting a child of such a strong oral culture, Brownrigg writes melodies that barely need any ornamentation at all—and yet the expert production work of mandolin player Donald McKay allows space for subtle shadings of banjo, lap steel, spoken word interludes, guest guitar from Jim Bryson and backing vocals by Jenn Grant. Between McKay’s sonic touches and Brownrigg’s haunting voice, there’s an enchanting sense of mystery heard on every one of these 11 songs, which fall somewhere between the sparse atmospheric beauty of Daniel Lanois and the masterful storytelling of Newfoundland songwriting legend Ron Hynes.

Wander Songs was released quietly in Brownrigg’s adopted hometown of Halifax late last year; it’s now being brought to wider attention by Weewerk, the label converted the world to the Great Lake Swimmers—whose fans will find plenty to love here. (K-W Record, June 26)

Solomon Burke – Like a Fire (Shout Factory/Warner)

On his last album, the soul survivor Solomon Burke headed to Nashville, where his towering voice was welcomed by a group of players more rustic than R&B. The experience wasn’t a one-off, it seems, as Burke is still carrying a bit of a twangover— a strong country influence can be heard loud and clear on Like A Fire, along with the blues, gospel and soul that have been his trademarks for the last 40 years. Producer/drummer Steve Jordan hooks him up with Eric Clapton, Keb’ Mo’, Jesse Harris and other guests who provide material worthy of Burke’s booming vocals, though none of them are as excellent a match as Ben Harper’s song "A Minute To Rest And A Second To Pray"; Harper’s own backing vocals and dobro playing are the one time any of the studio musicians here dare to compete with Burke’s presence. Even when Burke decamps to the hotel bar to croon "If I Gave My Heart to You," he maintains the dignity and class that he exudes in every other setting. Like a Fire is another worthy chapter in his productive comeback. (K-W Record, June 26)

Elvis Costello and the Imposters – Momofuku (Lost Highway/Universal)

So far 2008 has been a good year for the fogies, not just Al Green. Witness R.E.M.’s miraculous resurrection to relevance, the bold comebacks from Erykah Badu and Portishead, and decent albums by James, Joe Jackson, Sheryl Crow—hell, these days even Def Leppard sound better than they have in decades.

When word got out that the ultra prolific Elvis Costello was recording a stripped-down album in six days, there were hopes that a sense of immediacy might override his tendency to overwrite and overcook, which usually leaves listeners feeling more exhausted than entertained or enriched. Sadly, that’s exactly what happens here yet again.

For a guy who normally spends too much time on his band arrangements, here he doesn’t spend enough. If he was writing three-chord rock’n’roll songs, this approach would be fine, but simplicity doesn’t come easy to Elvis. These are songs that need more than a couple of takes for even the finest studio musicians to wrap their heads around. Many of them would be better served by stripping down them even more, like the Loretta Lynn co-write "Pardon Me Adam, My Name is Eve."

Elements of Costello’s finest work are in place—namely the keyboards of Steve Nieve and Costello’s own vocals, which retain their gritty edge when he’s fronting a rock band. He’s also bolstered by female vocal harmonies courtesy of Rilo Kiley’s Jenny Lewis. The occasional song stands a slim chance of holding its own against his best work ("Drum & Bone," "Turpentine"). But for an artist of Costello’s calibre, this just doesn’t cut the mustard. (K-W Record, June 5)

Al Green – Lay It Down (Blue Note/EMI)

Five years ago, soul fans were ecstatic to learn that the Rev. Al Green had reunited with Willie Mitchell, the producer and architect of Green’s early 70s work. And yet the two albums that resulted from that reunion (2003’s I Can’t Stop and 2005’s Everything’s OK) were little more than aesthetic pleasures: Mitchell didn’t have the material—or the willpower, it seems—to push Green to the kind of powerhouse performances he’s capable of.

Enter the new school: drummer/producer Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson of the Roots and keyboardist/producer James Poyser were put in charge of Green’s latest project, and it turns out that the young musicians who were probably conceived to Green’s music know him better than his old bandmates do.

Lay It Down stands as a high point in Green’s entire discography, full of the lush strings, smooth guitar licks and deep grooves that cushion his buttery bedroom vocals, which haven’t aged an iota. It opens with the slow and stately title track, but soon kicks into high gear with "You’ve Got the Love I Need," where Philly soul singer Anthony Hamilton and the Dap Kings Horns (Sharon Jones, Amy Winehouse) provide the punch that helps propel Green to one of his greatest vocal performances since "Let’s Stay Together."

Despite Thompson’s hip-hop background and Poyser’s career building the neo-soul movement through his work with Erykah Badu, Lauryn Hill and Common, they don’t attempt to modernize Green or pair him up with incongruous duet partners (although the Corinne Bailey Rae track is suitably sleepy). They do, however, provide him with more of a backbeat than even most of his vintage work had, as the big funk drums on "I’m Wild About You" illustrate. They’re also responsible for the strength of the material: they and the rest of the backing band co-write every song here with Green. (K-W Record, June 5)

Emmylou Harris – All I Intended To Be (Nonesuch/Warner)

The album title suggests autobiography, as if this was a work of a veteran artist reflecting on her life. Quite the contrary—throughout her storied career, Emmylou Harris has been a conduit for other people’s stories, acting best as an interpreter of other songwriters and as a harmony vocalist and duet partner. Until recent years, her own songwriting has taken a back seat; this album, however, is the first where her own compositions stand tall beside the work of masters such as Tracy Chapman, Billie Joe Shaver, Merle Haggard, and the McGarrigle sisters (she co-writes several songs with the latter).

All I Intended To Be is a classic storyteller’s album, filled with rich character narratives of love, loss, resilience and disappointment. As always, Harris’s warm vocals bring her characters to vivid life, but such is the songwriting standard here that she barely has to—even an atonal mumbler could communicate the crushing heartbreak heard in her song "Gold." In Harris’s hands, however—along with Dolly Parton and Vince Gill on backing vocals—the effect is devastating.

Musically, Harris strikes a balance between the Daniel Lanois-influenced work of her past decade and her more traditional country roots, making the aptly titled All I Intended To Be a summation of everything she’s accomplished in the past 40 years. (K-W Record, June 19)

The Notwist – The Devil, You And Me (Domino/Outside)

This German pop group made a minor North American splash in 2002 with an understated gem called Neon Golden, wherein they merged the icy world of digital bleeps and blurps with bluesy electric guitars and melancholy pop. Part of its artistic success was the fact that The Notwist never sounded like they were trying to prove anything—unlike more ambitious albums by the likes of Radiohead and others. If anything, The Notwist were too subtle for their own good, starting with the narcoleptic vocals of singer Markus Acher.

Acher still sings like he’s sleepwalking, but that’s part of his charm—especially when delivering defeatist witticisms like, “Remember, the good lies win.” Here, over harsh guitars that sound like sirens and an avalanche of tumbling drums, Acher promises, “I won’t sing you algebra.” And yet The Devil, You And Me finds The Notwist becoming considerably more complex.

They improve considerably on Neon Golden’s template, upping the abstract beats that populated their side project 13 And God, relying less on the once-novel juxtaposition of acoustic guitars and electronic percussion, and becoming simultaneously more traditional and more experimental—maintaining the kind of admirable consistency at the core that few other acts can accomplish.

Songs like the title track and "Gone Gone Gone" are one step away from straightforward Coldplay balladry, though elsewhere they toy with textures and rhythms that draw from dreampop spawned in bedroom electronics; "On Planet Off" harkens back to the dubbed-out dropped beats of late 90s trip-hop, without sounding dated in the least.

The Notwist will never be a band that makes a huge first impression; their pleasures are best discovered slowly, if not secretly—and six years after Neon Golden, it sounds like they wouldn’t want it any other way. (K-W Record, June 26)

James Pants – Welcome (Stones Throw/Koch)

When a man called Mr. Pants welcomes you to his party, you have every right to be suspicious. But this debut album delivers a non-stop thrill ride of electro funk that touches on hip-hop, garage rock, disco and all stops in between, with live drums and subsonic bass synthesizers giving it a low-down, raw and dirty feel that guarantees a full dance floor.

Mr. Pants keeps the vocals to a minimum, but he doesn’t need vocal hooks to keep your interest. He pulls off some impressive jazz keyboard noodling and funky drumming throughout, boasting some serious chops, the kind not normally found from basement dabblers—from Spokane, Washington, no less.

If Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters backed up Kraftwerk, it might sound something like this, although this isn’t entirely a retro ride; Pants has also clearly studied the slice-and-dice approach to electronics spawned in the last decade. And for someone who’s obviously a huge music geek and record collector, none of this sounds studied or self-conscious, no matter how much stylistic ground he covers. There’s a party in these Pants; consider yourself invited. (K-W Record, June 5)

The Wet Secrets – Rock Fantasy (Rodeo Peanut/ Six Shooter)

Plenty of artists have proved that you do not need electric guitars to be a great rock band; few do it as well as The Wet Secrets. Singer Lyle Bell boasts a meaty bass guitar, fuzzed out to the maximum, and he's bolstered by tubas and trombones to boost the bottom end. This is the third ongoing project for this prolific Edmontonian: he also fronts the dense rock duo Whitey Houston, and is part of the Shout Out Out Out Out electro-dance army. The Wet Secrets take lessons that he learned in both bands and amps them up into a fist-pumping fury of ecstatic profanity packed into pop songs with kiss-off titles like "Get Your Own Apartment" and "Grown Your F---ing Moustache, A---hole." With their marching band uniforms and background in burlesque troupes, it's not surprising that the lyrics are little more than juvenile jokes—but that doesn't distract from the powerful arrangements, the huge hooks or the way that engineer Diego Medina brings it all to vivid life. This was released locally in Alberta a while back; the national re-release features remixes from Cadence Weapon and Nik Kozub from the Shout Outs. The Wet Secrets don’t just dream about a Rock Fantasy; they’re ready to start living it. (K-W Record, June 12)
Note: They were also the best thing I saw at this year's NXNE festival, where Bell's vocals proved to be even stronger than on the album and superceded the schtick of the outfits.

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