More autumnal housecleaning.
These reviews ran in the mainstream daily newspapers the Kitchener-Waterloo Record and the Guelph Mercury in October.
Azeda Booth – In Flesh Tones (Absolutely Kosher/Sonic Unyon)
Chad Van Gaalen isn't the only Calgarian hoarding vintage synthesizers, though it's safe to say that Azeda Booth has the bigger collection. This quintet play planetarium pop music heavily influenced by the likes of Mum, Four Tet and the more abstract corners of Radiohead's discography, with androgynous vocals that make Sigur Ros sound downright butch, especially when they whisper lines about being "face down in the middle of the parking lot"—sounding like they were actually recorded in said state. Rhythms are occasionally scattershot, while the warm synth sounds and dream-like vocals provide a comforting cushion throughout even the most discombobulated moments—of which there are a few. This being a debut album, Azeda Booth are more in love with sounds than songs, but their sonic landscapes are intriguing enough—and unique in this country—to keep an eye on. (October 30, 2008)
Laura Barrett – Victory Garden (Paper Bag/Universal)
Perhaps I’ve been too easily charmed by Laura Barrett from the beginning: anyone venturing into the world as a singer/songwriter armed with only a kalimba (African thumb piano) and somehow making it work must surely have many other hidden talents. On her first full-length album, Barrett goes for broke, decorating her songs in all sorts of oddball orchestrations. Though the instruments may sound familiar, none of it sounds remotely conventional—and her lyrics follow suit, detailing hippopotamus and marsupials that get up to souped-up shenanigans.
There many isolated moments of beauty and brilliance here, and yet Victory Garden is totally confounding at almost every turn. Barrett is either an absolute genius or she’s completely bonkers; this is not an album that anyone will feel ambivalent about. If anything, it’s her lyrics and careening melodies that are the most distracting; much of the backing music, when left to its own dense devices, is playful and fascinating. Placing it alongside surrealist lyrics chains it to folk/pop expectations that do it a disservice. If anything, Barrett should take this even further and trust her instrumentals to tell entire stories.
However, even when Barrett stumbles in her songwriting, producer and co-arranger Paul Aucoin (the Hylozoists) ensures that there’s always a fascinating background behind her to fill in all the blanks. (October 2, 2008)
Bloc Party – Intimacy (Warner)
"This is the not the time to start a new love/ this is not the time to sign a lease, " sings Kele Okereke on Bloc Party's third album. When writing that line, he couldn't have known about global financial insecurity, and nor was he anticipating the Canadian electorate's decision to stick with the devil they know. But for Okereke and his bandmates, it sounds like they're not afraid to try on as many new clothes as possible.
And more power to them; they were always an interesting band with latent greatness, but now that they’ve thrown most of their formulas out the window, anything goes. There are still more than a few hints here of what U2 would sound like in 2008 if they had any cojones, and some updated 80s influences alongside newer nods to recent Radiohead and neo-prog rock such as Deerhoof and Battles. Squealing guitars, cascading brass and even Balkan choirs compete with scattershot drum programming, icy synths and Okereke’s plaintive uber-Brit yelping. Rather than a band exploring its identity crisis, Bloc Party are well on their way to developing their own sound, and moving leaps and bounds beyond the
Though drummer Matt Tong is still the main star here, increasingly inventive guitarist Russell Lissack threatens to steal the spotlight; vocalist Okereke is still the weak link, though thankfully his lyrics don’t sink to the self-absorbed depths they did last time out. Back then, he was jaded about the rock star lifestyle; this time he’s no doubt reinvigorated enough by his bandmates’ inventions to step us his own game. (October 23, 2008)
Buena Vista Social Club – At Carnegie Hall (Nonesuch/Warner)
Most long-lost live albums now seeing the light of day are from at least 30 years ago. But with the Cuban supergroup Buena Vista Social Club, it’s been a mere 10 years since this landmark performance; many of them were in their 80s then, and many of them are no longer with us. The cynic would argue that because the members are dying off, this release is an attempt to keep a flagging franchise going.
But who’s complaining? This documents a historic occasion, a victory lap for once-forgotten musicians who were retired or shining shoes when their Social Club became an international phenomenon. And when players like pianist Ruben Gonzalez are ignited by the outpouring of emotion from the crowd, the band embarks on captivating improvisatory flights that the studio albums only hinted at. The impassioned duets between Ibrahim Ferrer and Omara Portuondo are highlights, but mostly the singers take a backseat to the electricity of the band. This live album features all eight tracks from the original album and eight more from the various solo albums, assembled in a beautiful package that makes it equally worthwhile for collectors and newcomers. (October 23, 2008)
Calexico – Carried To Dust (Quarterstick/FAB)
Calexico have always been a band willing to try anything that suits the mood of their surrounding Arizona landscape: Mexican mariachi, cinematic desert-driven soundscapes, covers of classic rock and bleak British new wave, sparse instrumentals and lush pop songs. For all their many successes, there are occasionally times when it sounds like they're trying a bit too hard—as it did on 2006's Garden Ruin, where they tackled straight-up rock songs for the first time.
Carried To Dust finds them retreating to a mellower mood, and in the process they distill many of their strengths. They've made albums as good as this one before, but years of touring with an expanded band has made them that much more confident in every move. The mariachi flourishes coalesce with sunstroked, slow-burning country torch songs and traces of dub reggae into a cohesive new direction. Singer Joey Burns sticks to his lower register—sounding more and more like his previous employer, Giant Sand's Howe Gelb—whispering mysterious melodies as just another instrument in the mix, maintaining all focus on the meticulously arranged musical backdrop.
Calexico's last three albums have often been sidetracked by detours, for better and worse; here, they've settled on a single route—albeit the most scenic one possible. (October 30, 2008)
Calexico play the Phoenix in Toronto this Tuesday, November 18, with Cuff the Duke.
The Dears – Missiles (Maple/Universal)
If destruction and rebirth are common themes on this Dears album, there are literal reasons for this. Singer Murray Lightburn and keyboardist Natalia Yanchak had a baby before recording began, and by the time the process finished they were the only remaining band members. All of this factors directly into the subdued tone of Missiles, which strips away the guitars and modern rock bombast heard on 2006's disappointing Gang of Losers; in their place are eerie organs, subtle soul licks, acoustic guitars, synthetic strings, drunk drum machines and more than a few shades of Pink Floyd—including the tenor sax on the opening track, and the David Gilmour-esque guitar solo on "Lights Off." The high gloss of recent Dears recordings has also been scaled back; Missiles is a raw and intimate document of tumultuous times, both personally and politically. Lyrically, Lightburn still sees life-and-death issues everywhere he turns, and—as always—the lines between melodramatic and maudlin are very fine indeed ("Gotta get milk for the baby!"), especially when the children's choir and funereal brass show up on the ten-minute, brooding closing track "Saviour." By that point, however, Missiles proves to be such a record of redemption that that the Dears can be forgiven the occasional indulgence. (October 30, 2008)
Final Fantasy – Spectrum 14th Century EP; Plays to Please EP (Blocks Recording Club/ Sonic Unyon)
Owen Pallett can sell you almost anything. The man won the inaugural Polaris Prize with a concept album about Dungeons and Dragons titled He Poos Clouds; he is also a darling of CBC's Vinyl Café, has been invited to curate his own European festival, and has built his reputation for a stunning live performance involving only a violin and a loop pedal.
These two EPs pose their own challenges: one is another concept piece, this time set in a 14th century village, and the other orchestrates one of Toronto's most difficult and underappreciated songwriters.
Spectrum 14th Century finds Pallett's songwriting continue to evolve and move well beyond pop music constraints without sacrificing any of his melodic gifts; his instrumentation is also getting more diverse, with steel pans, trumpets, and contributions from his occasional employers in Arcade Fire and Beirut.
Plays to Please finds him reinventing the songs of Deep Dark United's Alex Lukashevsky, whose own albums are often impenetrable—and yet Pallett finds beauty and coherence in these songs by setting them to live and lush orchestration, liberating them from the expectations that come from Lukashevsky's usual rock/folk settings.
Each EP clocks in at less than 20 minutes; each is equally satisfying and indicative of Pallett's many talents. And as stopgaps before his long-delayed new full-length, they'll help us forgive him for taking his sweet time. (October 16, 2008)
Ben Folds – Way to Normal (Sony BMG)
Smart-ass, or sensitive guy? Ben Folds has always been a balance of both, especially on the three fine albums he made with Ben Folds Five in the last half of the 90s. But his last album, Songs for Silverman, showed him mellowing into a boring balladeer with little of the personality heard on earlier works. Way to Normal, on the other hand, finds him pounding on his piano again with glee, relishing in the rock'n'roll release of it all.
Unfortunately, his lyrics are often downright juvenile and unbefitting a writer who's capable of much better. The opening track is about falling on his ass on-stage in Hiroshima; the humour doesn't develop much further from there. "Effington" is about a town where Folds fantasizes about starting "a new effing life." The four-times-wed Folds revels in the word "bitch" and profane asides that suggest a mid-life crisis and/or regression is going on—which is sad, because much of the music here is what longtime Folds fans have been waiting for since 2001's Rockin' the Suburbs. There's a fantastically furious piano solo in "Dr. Yang"; "Free Coffee" finds him mining Radiohead rhythms to an oddly wonderful effect; "Cologne" is one his finer ballads.
Most of this album finds Folds trying to figure out who he was, who he is and who he should be—searching for his own "way to normal," if you will. (October 16, 2008)
Fucked Up – The Chemistry of Common Life (Matador/Beggars Banquet)
There are easy reasons why this Toronto hardcore punk band have been making international headlines, starting with their name. There’s also the reputation of their live show, where singer Pink Eyes is known to be the most self-lacerating singer since early Iggy Pop. And they’ve gone on the record in several articles musing about their own self-destruction.
But what makes Fucked Up more than just obnoxious drama queens is the ambition of their music. They open their album with a solo flute, and include two tracks of ambient instrumentals; in the hands of a lesser band, these would be cheap signifiers of “musical maturity.” But throughout The Chemistry of Common Life, Fucked Up show that they’re just as much recording studio sticklers as they are a chaotic live act. There’s more than a few plodding punk rock numbers here, and the proceedings get infinitely more interesting when guests show up, such as vocalists Dallas Green (City and Colour, Alexisonfire) and Katie Stelmanis. But on tracks like the opening "Son The Father" show in spades, Fucked Up are far more multidimensional than their media image might portray.
While this isn’t the masterpiece it’s being made out to be, it’s obvious that this band does have such a work in them—if they stay together long enough to write and record it. (October 23, 2008)
Girl Talk – Feed the Animals (Illegal Art)
Years ago now, the mash-up was king—for about a month. Take the vocals of a bubblegum pop song and set it to a hardcore hip-hop beat, or vice versa—it wasn’t rocket science, there were hundreds of them floating around the net, and the appeal wore off quickly.
And yet Girl Talk is a mash-up DJ who is one of the hottest live acts in the States right now. He’s also getting tons of press—mostly revolving around the mystery as to why no one has sued him for every penny he’s ever made, considering the brazen copyright lawbreaking going on here. That is part of the reason he’s offering it as a pay-what-you-can download from his website.
Each track here contains dozens of samples drawn from every corner of the pop music map, mixing up Metallica with Lil Mama, Flo-Rida with the Velvet Underground, and plenty of 80s one-hit wonders with today’s gangsta rap. There’s something to be said for the “poptimism” of it all, playing to the omnivorous tastes of a new generation for whom nothing is uncool or off-limits. Girl Talk makes it work in all its ADD glory, and there’s a reason why he’s the only mash-up artist anyone’s still talking about: he’s that good.
But is Girl Talk the innovative artist he’s made out to be, or is he simply a great party DJ? There’s very little here that isn’t instantly recognizable and meant to play to a crowd, so it’s not like the guy is bringing obscurities to life. He’s also using full verses and choruses, not recontextualizing small snippets. This music only works because we know (most of) it so well already—so why should we care about who Girl Talk is as an artist? And, by extension, should he or anyone else be paid for it?
Of course, no one will be arguing about any of this when you put Feed the Animals on at a party—which you will, and which you should. Let the academics debate and leave the geeks to trainspot every sample; everyone else will revel in the exhilaration of these cheap thrills that are, ultimately, even more disposable than the one-hit wonders he pilfers at will. (October 9, 2008)
Hanggai – Introducing Hanggai (Introducing)
When it comes to “world music” fads, Chinese and East Asian music is usually at the bottom of the list. There’s never been an act from that corner of the world that’s even approached mainstream success in the west—but if anyone could, it’s Hanggai.
This is a group of Mongolian musicians living in Beijing, playing traditional Chinese string instruments and incorporating some of the throat singing technique of their native land. The frog-like vocals, minimal percussion and droning melodies of the ehru (a two-stringed violin-like instrument) are utterly entrancing on the slower numbers; the more upbeat tunes here have an unexpectedly Celtic lilt to them. This is a string band, after all, and at some point a fiddle tune is still a fiddle tune—only Hanggai don’t sound like they fit easily into either eastern or western traditions.
The surf guitar that shows up in "Five Heroes" throws the listener for a loop, as does the relentless chugging rhythm of Wuji—which could pass for an acoustic metal song, complete with guttural vocals.
Introducing Hanggai is a world unto itself—which is maybe what “world music” should be about in the first place. (October 16, 2008)
Koushik – Out My Window (Stones Throw/Koch)
Until now, Koushik was known—if he was known at all—as a sidekick to Caribou, the psychedelic electronic artist who snapped up the 2008 Polaris Prize last month. And it’s very obvious what the two have in common, other than a childhood spent in Dundas, Ontario: a love of reverb, ghostly sounds, and hints of 60s pop. But where Caribou relies of propulsive percussion and duelling drum kits, Koushik prefers much more laconic sonics.
Out My Window is a dreamy and deconstructionist pop album that, though melodic, takes a carefree and unhurried approach to its hooks. There are hints of hip-hop production in the beats and loops, and it’s easy to see why Koushik caught the ear of Stones Throw, the label that is home to the left-field jazzy grooves of Madlib.
Yet Koushik is ultimately about melody or beats, just mood and abstractions. Some may find it slight, but it’s hard not to get swept up in the sun-baked atmospherics and rumbling reverb that envelopes everything. Just don’t consume while operating heavy machinery. (October 9, 2008)
Lyrics Born – Everywhere At Once (Anti/Epitaph)
The man they call Lyrics Born has one of the finest flows in hip-hop, with a laid-back, charismatic and clever Californian drawl that suits his every move, from electro funk to pop to Barry White balladry, with plenty of live instrumentation shaking up his sample-based approach of the past. And while he has no problem adapting his flow to his expanded musical palette, many of the tracks here don’t measure up to his own mic skills. For a guy whose last record was an entirely engaging and successful remix album that mostly regurgitated his debut, it’s a bit shocking that most of this album comes off as mere filler. When he’s on point, he’s capable of some of the year’s finest party tracks ("Don’t Change," "Hott 2 Deff"); those are definitely worth a download. Lyrics Born has it in him to be an album artist; unfortunately, this is not that album. (October 9, 2008)
Monkey – Journey to the West (XL/Beggars Banquet)
Damon Albarn is never dull, even if he falls flat on his face. The one-time frontman of Britpop sensation Blur has done plenty of globetrotting in the past ten years, both with his animated supergroup of sorts, Gorillaz, and a quickly-forgotten band that brought together members of The Clash, The Verve and Fela Kuti's band.
Monkey is another project with his Gorillaz collaborator Jamie Hewlett; this time they take on Chinese opera. Not the classical kind heard in Farewell My Concubine (one of my favourite movies of all time) nor the type heard recently in Stephin Merritt's Showtunes project, which was equally as inspired by Gilbert and Sullivan.
Monkey is a mix of all of this and more, a cross-cultural carnival with nary a nod to pop convention, despite the occasional drum machine or electric guitar. With Mandarin lyrics, there's no hint here for English speakers what sort of narrative is taking place; the music is cinematic enough to make its own suggestions, with equal nods to classical traditions from both east and west, and elements of sci-fi bachelor pad music, prog rock and electronic pop.
What could be a frantic trainwreck of good intentions and bad directions is instead a captivating aural journey, aided by the ADD effect of having 22 tracks that rarely clock in at over two minutes. Surprising at every turn, the sound of Albarn and Hewlett monkey-ing around is more rewarding than anyone might have imagined. (October 30, 2008)
Krista Muir – Accidental Railway (Indica)
This Montreal chanteuse once liked to play dress-up in a character called Lederhosen Lucil, an act that took her touring around the world. This, however, is her second solo album playing it straight, and Muir proves that she has the emotional depth to outlast her cartoonish alter-ego.
She’s mostly abandoned the kitschy synths in favour of ukuleles and omnichords—thrift store instruments that could be just as campy, but in Muir’s hands they attain the perfect level of melancholy. Singing in English, French and Greek, Muir almost always hits the right emotional chords, especially on "Leave Alight" and "Concrete Lovesong," two of the most haunting songs you’ll hear this season. Muir also likes a good left turn when she finds one; a song like "Officer" moves through several moods successfully, including some minor key British folk motifs. Her attempts to rock out Jonathan Richman-style don’t work as well, but they’re by no means overstated nor distracting. (October 16, 2008)
Raphael Saadiq – The Way I See It (Sony BMG)
It must be hard for a veteran American R&B singer watch a new crew of Brits steal their sound and storm the airwaves. Raphael Saadiq plans to beat Amy, Duffy and Jamie and join them at the same time, by mining Motown and other vintage soul grooves to launch what should be a surefire comeback. Saadiq has had commercial success before—first in the late 80s with Tony! Toni! Toné!, and then in the late 90s with Lucy Pearl; he’s also been behind the boards for benchmarks of the neo-soul movement, such as D’Angelo.
With The Way I See It, Saadiq doesn’t go for an entirely retro recording ala Sharon Jones and the Daptones: this is still very modern, but it’s full of string sections, glockenspiels, guitar licks and big brass. Saadiq is a phenomenal singer, smooth like Smokey Robinson and seductive like Marvin Gaye. And most importantly, he’s got the songs to match the sound, each one delivered around the three-minute mark and leaving no room for wasted notes. Even when he calls in Joss Stone for a duet on "Just One Kiss," she only sticks around for two verses and two choruses before they fade out, deftly avoiding any soul-singer ego showdown. Inviting Jay-Z to rap over the slow jam "Oh Girl" is a significantly less successful move—thankfully that’s relegated to “bonus track” status.
When Stevie Wonder shows up to play harmonica on "Never Give You Up," it’s not just a gimmicky cameo—it’s a reminder that talents of that calibre are few and far between, and Saadiq has all the right stuff. (October 2, 2008)
Santogold – s/t (Downtown/Warner)
Genre-hopping polyglot pop is increasingly common, but few have the songcraft to pull it off effortlessly. On her debut album, Santogold jumps from MIA-influenced ragga pop to surf rock, with lo-fi electronics, nods to 80s new wave, reggae grooves and pop hooks to spare—especially when she plays it comparatively straight on the Fleetwood Mac-ish "Lights Out," or on "I'm a Lady," where the guitars sound remarkably like the Pixies' "Where is My Mind?". Santogold's solid choice of collaborators, including DJ Diplo, pull everything together, but Santogold herself—despite strong vocal performances—doesn't seem particularly invested in anything she's singing, often coming off like a robotic automaton told to try on a new set of clothes on every song. The grooves and the hooks make this easy to overlook; expect even better things when she sinks into her own skin. (October 30, 2008)
Rob Szabo – Life and Limb (robszabo.com)
One of the strangest aspects of the current financial crisis is that it comes as a surprise to anyone. Mountains of debt and high-risk mortgages are bound to come crashing down eventually—something that K-W songwriter Rob Szabo certainly knew when he wrote "That Cold Hard Sell": “There’s nothing like that cold hard sell/ they’re getting away with murder/ there’s nothing like no money down/ and don’t pay ‘til next December.” What he surely didn’t know was that he would be releasing the song within weeks of the collapse, rendering it a much more visceral listen.
He’s not as topical—or as rollicking—on the rest of Life and Limb, though it is once again a fine showcase for this underrated singer/songwriter and his well-crafted acoustic pop and country leanings. Longtime collaborator/co-producer/co-writer Steve Strongman helps Szabo keep things simple, which works well: his melodic gifts and vocal talents require very little ornamentation at all. That’s why the album’s one major misstep is when they call in a children’s choir on "He Loves You," a waltz where Szabo pleads with a friend not to leave her husband; the children merely make everything that much more mawkish. It’s a strange move for a man who exercises considerable taste and restraint on the rest of this album. (October 2, 2008)
Lucinda Williams – Little Honey (Lost Highway/Universal)
Lucinda Williams' car wheels have been spinning for the better part of the last decade, after releasing three of the finest roots rock albums of the 90s. "Come on and give me another chance," she can be heard moaning halfway through Little Honey, but there's little here to give us reason to do that.
She woke up from the crippling depression that defined much of her 2007 album West, an album that stood out from her recent work on the strength of its lyrics alone. This time out, she ups the tempo occasionally, but resorts to silly metaphors and cheap rhymes, with nary a trace of the character writing that defines her best work. Her increasingly laconic vocal stylings don't help matters any; she often sounds like she's being propped up in front of the microphone. Her delivery is most effective when she strips everything down to primal, raw blues on “Heaven Blues”—too bad the lyrical content unintentionally reinforces David Byrne's notion that "heaven is a place where nothing ever happens."
There's a new album out by a devout Lucinda disciple, Montreal's Angela Desveaux; you'd be much better off buying that record to get your Lucinda fix. (October 23, 2008)