Thursday, August 07, 2008

July 08 reviews pt 2

More July reviews from the K-W Record.

Ratatat – LP3 (XL)

Even the most maligned musical choices of previous eras can be re-assimilated into exciting new music, given enough distance from the source material. And it’s hard to imagine a particular corner of pop culture that’s more maligned than TV themes from the late '80s and early '90s, full of harmonized electric guitar leads over electronic beats, usually serving no purpose other than to make '70s studio musicians sound somewhat contemporary at the time.

And yet that’s the first thing that comes to mind when listening to Ratatat, a Brooklyn duo who hunker down with an assortment of modern gadgetry and their unabashedly cheesy guitars. There are occasional ironic winks, like when they pull out the Peter Frampton-esque talkboxes. Though unlike their earlier amped-up, adrenaline-fuelled techno-rock jams, Ratatat have matured enough to know when they’re in danger of gratuity.

Here, they make spaced-out soundtrack music that draws from California pop, German electronics, Spanish and Jamaican rhythms and Italian soundtracks. These influences are imitated as much as they are fully absorbed into an original new vision, making their evocative instrumentals ideal 21st century bachelor pad music. (K-W Record, July 10)

Ron Sexsmith – Exit Strategy For the Soul (Warner)

Let’s start with the title: why does one’s soul need an exit strategy? Exit from where? From this life to the next? From hell into heaven? Does the soul have a will of its own and is it in charge of its own destiny, or is that judged by a higher power?

Ron Sexsmith doesn’t address any of these issues directly, of course, and nowhere here do we get to the heart of this seemingly mixed metaphor. His lyrics on his recent records have not been immune to apocalyptic tension; Sexsmith sees the role of the singer/songwriter as reflecting that zeitgeist while offering a comforting dose of optimism, no matter how world-weary his trademark laconic delivery might sound. Even “One Last Round,” a song about drawing from dry wells and the oblivious intoxication that accompanies environmental exploitation, Sexsmith paints his picture with major keys and a jazzy arrangement.

The producer here is Martin Terefe, the man who, four years ago, finally broke the radio barrier that Sexsmith had sought his entire career. He did so then by giving Sexsmith a slightly Europop sheen that worked surprisingly well; here, Terefe takes him to Cuba and adds earthy horns and comparatively unoriginal arrangements that don’t do Sexsmith any favours. Terefe seems to go for the counterintuitive every time: some of these could stand to be punched up considerably; others, like “Brandy Alexander”—co-written by Feist and first heard on her album The Reminder—deserve a much lighter, folkier touch.

Sexsmith himself offers a mixed bag. With a songwriter of his talent, there’s plenty of worthy material here—particularly his subtle, poignant political nods (“Impossible World,” “One Last Round”). Sadly, however, at this point in his discography, he’s often content to rely on a clichéd turn of phrase and milk it for both a chorus and a title: “Ghost of a Chance,” “Thoughts and Prayers,” “Hard Time," "Music To My Ears.”

Sexsmith bookends the album with two instrumental piano vignettes that feature some of the loveliest melodies here. Maybe he should take a cue from his fellow Feist collaborator Gonzales and see what happens when he strips everything down to the bare essentials, devoid of all other distractions. (K-W Record, July 10)

Sigur Ros – Með Suð í Eyrum Við Spilum Endalaust (XL)

Even at their most uplifting, Icelandic band Sigur Ros have always been steeped in sadness. If you ever heard a crack of light coming through the clouds in their music, it was drenched in so much melancholy and melodrama that it was as much of a relief as it was a moment of pure beauty. To their credit, Sigur Ros have woven many magical moments out of that formula for their decade of existence.

Immediately off the top of Með Suð í Eyrum Við Spilum Endalaust, a flutter of la-la-la's and handclaps give way to acoustic guitar chords bouncing from side to side—and you know that this is not the Sigur Ros that your anaesthesiologist told you about. Now, the gnomes that always seemed to be singing while stuck inside ancient glaciers have now been thawed out and are cavorting naked through the forest. (That's not just a perverse image from my own imagination—check out the video in all of its naturalist splendour.)

The remainder of the album is still populated by epic songs where haunting strings, bold brass, bowed guitars and piano ballads provide a backdrop for vocalist Jonsi Birgisson's achingly beautiful vocals.

But the difference is that there is much more optimism all around, even when tempos slink to a crawl and the band barely plays above a hush. It's evident in the melodies, in the use of soft acoustic guitars, and in the delivery of Birgisson, who is no longer hiding behind his own imaginary language ("Hopelandic") to mask any trace of lyrical intent; now, he sings in straight-up Icelandic (or so we're told) and there's even one song in English. The band is also more comfortable condensing their strengths into four-minute frameworks, though this could barely be considered a concession to pop format.

Such an idiosyncratic act as Sigur Ros will always exist in their own world; this time, the fog has lifted and the sun is shining through. (K-W Record, July 3)

Violet Archers – Sunshine at Night (Zunior)

As a founding member of the Rheostatics, one can't really blame Tim Vesely for pulling the plug on the band after 27 years; they had begun to drift apart in irreparable ways, and the new material felt like spinning wheels. And yet when he struck out on his own, on the Violet Archers' 2005 debut album, it sounded like a regression rather than a liberation. There, Vesely—part of one of the most wonderfully creative bands to ever come out of Canada—seemed stuck in a monotonous groove, with little distinguishing one mid-tempo number from another.

All of this points to why Sunshine at Night is such a welcome statement of renewal for Vesely as a songwriter, and a proper launch for his new band. For starters, the tempos are considerably more varied than last time out, and his live band—featuring ex-Weeping Tile drummer Cam Giroux and Vancouver keyboardist Ida Nilsen—show their teeth when necessary. Marked by Vesely's characteristically low-key delivery, the mood and the colours of Sunshine at Night are consistent—arguably to a fault, much like last time. The difference now is that Vesely has assembled an album's worth of songs that stands with his finest, particularly the beautiful bookends (“You and I,” “Listening”) and the title track.

Vesely sings, "I'm so tired of beating myself at my own game/ it's so lame!" But with Sunshine At Night, he proves to be very much still in the game—and it's certainly not lame. (K-W Record, July 3)

Wolf Parade – At Mount Zoomer (Sub Pop/Outside)

When the first album by this Montreal band came out in 2005, many headline writers were quick to come up with cheesy tag lines such as "Hungry Like the Wolf." Cringey as that may have been, there was an unmistakable hunger and drive behind the anthems that populated Wolf Parade's repertoire, where prog rock keyboards collided with classic rock guitars, thundering drums and sci-fi sound effects in the background. This was a band that had something to prove: perhaps to stake their own place in the overload of hype for Montreal bands at that time; perhaps out of frustration from the false starts that saw earlier projects fizzle; perhaps because they were piss-poor underdogs whose gear was held together by duct tape.

Now, each member has devoted considerable time to various other projects—two of which, Spencer Krug's Sunset Rubdown and Dan Boeckner's Handsome Furs, are almost as popular as Wolf Parade itself. Reunited here, their initial sense of urgency is noticeably missing—which is not necessarily a bad thing, as earlier material often displayed a bulldozer's approach to subtlety. Yet though the anthemic quality has been toned down, Wolf Parade has yet to find a suitable substitute as a raison d'etre.

At Mount Zoomer sounds decidedly more introverted than the brash boys of the debut—not just in tempo and texture or the fact that this time out they produced the album themselves, but in the immediate impact of the songs themselves, with only “The Grey Estates” and “Bang Your Drum” as stand-out tracks.

Judging by this material, both songwriters are doing more creative work in their own respective bands—albeit here they’re aided by the drive provided by drummer Arlen Thompson. As a unit, Wolf Parade are now more comfortable breaking out of carefully composed rock songs to ride out longer grooves. Closing track “Kissing the Beehive” pushes the ten-minute mark—though not to great effect, and judging by the messy wash of guitar effects wafting over the entire track, only keyboardist and sound scientist Hadji Bakara should be entitled to take solos.

"All this work here, just to tear it down," sings Boeckner on a track called “Language City.” While Wolf Parade are hardly tearing down their original sound, they are pulling back the reins and plotting their next move—making Mount Zoomer not an actual destination, but a rest stop en route to hopefully greater heights. (K-W Record, July 17)

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