Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Springtime 08: New Life, Live Shows

This blog may have been inactive over the last month, but there's been plenty of live action in Toronto that I've had the pleasure to be privy to. As noted here and here and finally here (with my retort in the comments), Destroyer was not one of them. Here's a brief recap.

March 27
Burnt Sugar at Lula Lounge.

This is an arkestra conducted by guitarist and cultural theorist Greg Tate, featuring fine funk and jazz players, yet it never really coalesced in the unexpected ways I expected—if that makes any sense. I was hoping for more sense of rhythmic and harmonic freedom, but instead the band seemed content to ride rather simple grooves that one sympathetic colleague uncharitably described as "jam band territory." The much-ballyhooed "conduction" employed by Tate and his band members didn't seem any different than what every jazz band on the planet does: communicate through eye and hand gestures on stage, with or without a baton in your hand.

There were definitely inspired moments, mostly courtesy of the alien-like MIDI saxophonist and the punchy baritone player. But overall, I much prefer the wilder and more inclusive antics of Toronto's own Dave Clark and the Woodchoppers Association, who have been conducting improv sessions for the better part of ten years now. Anyone who's witnessed the Woodchoppers at the Tranzac, at the old Ted's Wrecking Yard, or Clark's annual Hillside Festival workshops knows exactly what I'm talking about. Clark pushes his players—and often the audience—in every possible direction and isn't afraid to rip everything apart before pulling it back together, making Burnt Sugar seem downright safe in comparison.

March 28
Kalimba Summit: Kahil El'Zabar, Njacko Backo, Laura Barrett, Nifty at Tranzac.

As one can tell from hyper-self-conscious articles like this one, Toronto's indie rock community suffers from a load of white guilt when it comes to building bridges to the rich world music community here. But thanks to the valiant efforts of people like David Dacks of The Abstract Index and, more specifically, Jonny Dovercourt of The Music Gallery and Wavelength, events like this are starting to become more commonplace. And hopefully they become less stilted than much of this evening ended up being.

Nifty is Matt Smith, who formed Les Mouches with Final Fantasy's Owen Pallett back in the early days of Torontopia. His debut album, A Sparrow! A Sparrow!, was one of the most pleasant surprises of 2007, involving sound collage, metallic percussion pieces, aquatic techno and avant-garde folk songs. In many ways, Nifty is everything I always hope Sandro Perri's various projects (Polmo Polpo, Glissandro 70, his self-titled folk material) will be but rarely are to these ears.

Live, however, Smith is stuck behind his sampler, loop pedals and mixing board, with nothing much to focus the eyes on other than his highly questionable 80s fashion choices. And while the reverb-drenched recording rarely gets stuck in a swamp, the live set does exactly that all too often. As for his use of kalimba, it was obviously inspired in part by Congotronics, but he didn't take it far enough in that direction to hold the interest of the audience faction who came to hear the headliners.

Laura Barrett has single-handedly brought the kalimba to the attention of Toronto's indie community, and it's safe to say that she was the impetus for this evening's programming. Her two EPs to date don't do proper justice to what she does and where she's going: her crazy busy kalimba playing is the perfect complement to her abstract sense of melodics that recalls late-period Joni Mitchell—in a good way—and the new material, due out this fall, showed her continuing to grow away from her cutesy beginnings.

Barrett claims to have felt a bit out of place on a bill with Njacko Backo, an African-Canadian from Cameroon who fronts a band called Kalimba Kalimba—obviously not a newcomer to the instrument. Backo also spends part of his time performing and teaching for school children, a trait that came across all too well at this performance. His lyrics were simplistic and sadly often cloying. He appeared to be having some rhythmic difficulty perhaps due to a bad monitor mix, and the way he joked about bullying the audience into crowd participation had the counterintuitive effect of feeling uncomfortable.

The evening took a total shift when Kahil El'Zabar took the stage. A tall, cool and commanding figure, he took a markedly different approach than everyone on stage before him. El'Zabar plays the blues, sparse and full of soul, and without the busy rhythms that mark most kalimba playing. He has the demeanour of a seasoned jazz dude, the kind who can casually remind you that he's played with everyone from Paul Simon to Nina Simone to Pharoah Sanders without seeming like a total jackass. He works himself into a trance, to the point where he's humming gutturally and practically twisting his head around Stevie-style, lost in the moment and pulling us in with him. It had been a long night at that point, but there wasn't any question of anyone bailing early once El'Zabar cast his spell.

He made a great speech (among many) that gave Laura Barrett some props and then invited everyone on stage for a final jam. The collaboration was less remarkable than we'd hoped, and perhaps a visibly unimpressed Njacko Backo did the right thing by curtailing it early on. But it was worth trying—as was this bill, which if nothing else introduced Barrett and El'Zabar to new audiences and each other. More culture clash, please.

March 31
Sunset Rubdown at Lee's Palace.

I've seen Sunset Rubdown plenty of times, including very early band incarnations at tiny gigs in Montreal. I've even seen them plenty of times at Lee's Palace; this would be my third time. And because I somehow postponed spending any serious time with the latest album—Random Spirit Lover, which came out last fall—this gig wasn't on my radar at all. Until, that is, my old friend Mark "The Nooch" Nichol wrote and asked if I was coming; he's the latest addition to his Mile End Sunday soccer mates in Sunset Rubdown, playing kalimba, bass, and percussion, and I had yet to see him in the band.

The Nooch did not disappoint, and neither did the rest of his new crew. They're packing more muscle now that there's a bass being traded about on stage. Camille Wynn-Ingr still sounds magical harmonizing with Spencer Krug, who remains one of the more endearingly awkward men currently fronting a powerhouse band. And the two dudes trading guitar and drum duties take an inventive approach to both instruments that elevates the arrangements far above the realm of rote rock bands.

The new material is better than I remembered the album sounding, especially the song that Helen Spitzer always thinks sounds like Big Country. And I'm still baffled at the sight of people holding hands, singing and swooning to "Us Ones In Between," though it's a lovely sight.

April 8
Jens Lekman, Final Fantasy at Great Hall

Hearing brand new Final Fantasy material was reason enough to go to this show. Seeing Jens Lekman live for the first time was another. And I'd be lying if I said that the fact that I live about a 30-second walk away from the beautiful, hallowed venue wasn't yet another still.

Despite its beauty, the Great Hall has some serious acoustic problems, which plagued much of the Final Fantasy set. It put off Owen Pallett somewhat and didn't help his nerves about debuting new material that he didn't consider finished works. Not that it mattered: the new songs sound great, punctuated with lots of staccato rhythms he creates by bouncing his bow on the strings, sounding not unlike Japanese kotos. The new album will be called Homeland, due out in the fall, and Pallett described it as being set in a "fictional world where I am the supreme deity." Um, isn't that the case with all narrative fiction, in song lyrics or otherwise?

Jens Lekman had a lot of love from the crowd for his Swedish Jonathan Richman schtick, which would fall flat on its face were he not such a charmer. He's as deadpan as the Flight of the Conchords, and yet because of his ESL lyrics it's not always clear when he's conning you and when he actually thinks he's nicked an awesome rhyme. Either way, his charisma outweighs the cheese, and his way with classic melodies supercedes any other shortcomings. Plus, for this performance he was joined by Final Fantasy's projectionist Steph Comilang, who added visual splendour to the stripped-down set that otherwise featured only a percussionist and the occasional backing tape.

Lekman wrapped up the evening by performing in the park beside the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (I was in bed by that point); something he'd obviously planned from the beginning of the set, and seemed itchy to ditch the formality of the stage show to get to it.

April 10
Hilotrons, Andy Swan at Horseshoe

Ottawa's Kelp Records crew rolled into Toronto with a couple of well-kept secrets, a niche that Kelp seems to have nailed down. It's a specialty that no label aspires to, and while Kelp may be a sensation in their hometown—witness their ability to throw massive weekend-long parties at the city's major venues every April to celebrate their anniversary—they're far under the radar in Toronto.

That's true even of their only Toronto act, singer/songwriter Andy Swan. Changing the name of his long-running band Detective Kalita to The Michael Parks doesn't help, nor does the fact that he just released a solo album under his own name (Andy Swan's Ottawa).

He's got some critics in his corner, he has the undying loyalty of his Kelp peers who talk him up every chance they get, and he has Polmo Polpo's Sandro Perri playing slide guitar for him occasionally. He also has an arsenal of great songs, but not the kind that make an immediate impression or that his modest stage persona is about to give you a major sales job on. Swan is so subtle that it's taken me years to cotton on to what a talent he is; every time I've seen him I fall further under his spell, and this performance sealed the deal. Without a major hustle behind him, Swan can only hope for a Ron Sexsmith-esque career revival a few more albums down the road.

The Hilotrons are major stars in Ottawa, yet rarely play outside the city limits. That should change with the release of Happymatic, a fine pop album that makes you instantly forget about all those other herky-jerky Devo-tees who are giving art-damaged early 80s pop music a bad name.

The Hilotrons boast a bouncy rhythm section capable of twisting beats upside down and around, while vocalist Mike Dubue unleashes synth squiggles in between a pitch perfect vocal performance. We expect so little from male singers in rock band these days, leaving the operatic performances to melodramatic drama queens in moody art rock bands or sensitive folkie acts. Dubue is having none of that. He's a belter who doesn't need multiple takes to get it right; he nails it every time, as does every instrumentalist standing behind him on stage.

I'd heard earlier recordings by this band and found them mildly interesting at best; Happymatic was a pleasant surprise. But nothing prepared me for how jaw-droppingly awesome the Hilotrons' live show is—miss them at your peril. They certainly don't deserve to be relegated to "well-kept secret" status.

April 14: Man Man, Yeasayer at Lee's Palace

Man Man has always sounded insane. Lead singer Honus Honus howls to a point well beyond hoarse while attacking his keyboard; drummer Pow Pow looks like he'd be sequestered in a straitjacket had he chosen any profession other than percussion; the rest of the band look like a ragtag crew of salty sailors with a questionable grip on sanity. And yet the music has always worked: their strange mash-up of klezmer, cabaret, barrelhouse piano, kitchen sink percussion and raunchy blues managed to never get completely unhinged. Until now.

Maybe they've been playing these songs too long on the road and are bored by now, but there was a perverse desire to play everything twice as fast. The manic marimba player looked like he was ready to lose some limbs. As if to compensate, cracks started to show in their collective stamina by set's end, allowing them to play the until-now rare live treat "Van Helsing's Boombox," a track that's as tender as Man Man ever gets.

Not that anyone in the crowd seemed to mind. Word of mouth has built up over the past three years, thanks in part to the fact they now share a label with Tom Waits and Nick Cave, and there were no doubt many newbies who came out to witness the spectacle. The band seemed all to eager to please, pushing everything over the top and barely able to stay in one spot for more than two bars. Honus Honus in particular had trouble focusing on his piano, because he had a perverse desire to smash yet another piece of percussive metal every two bars or so, while the other Men Men pushed their already-ridiculous falsettos well beyond the breaking point.

Man Man on a bad day are still infinitely more entertaining than most of what builds a buzz on the blogosphere these days—which brings us to opening act Yeasayer. This Brooklyn band might be one of the hippest things among those born after 1980, but anyone a bit older than that will be forced to recall Oingo Boingo for the first time in over 20 years. Individually they're amazing players, but that doesn't for a second excuse the monotonous mess they get into. As soon as they took the stage, I realized that I had actually seen them before once, in NYC, and had made a point of forgetting about them. Visually, they're a motley crew, with a preppy vocalist that looks like a young John Linnell from They Might Be Giants, bookended by a Latvian mafia bassist gyrating his hips and a noodly guitarist focusing on his effects. One song with a First Nations vocal feel managed to cut the mustard, but the rest of the set felt downright punishing.

So did Man Man, I'm sure, for some people. Even this day-one fan found them a bit much on this outing, like they were trying to hard to impress the larger audience that had suddenly shown up to see them. Just be yourselves, Men.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Dan Bejar's Mass Destruction

Because an entirely off-the-record comment I made to Carl Wilson last Friday has surfaced on his blog, I feel a need to elaborate. Not that I feel like Samantha Power exactly, but some further context is required.

Carl asked me if I was going to see Destroyer last week at Lee’s Palace, knowing that I was almost as big a fan as he is. I gave Carl a short, flippant answer. This is the long, verbose one.

Writing about Lou Reed, Lester Bangs once said that heroes exist only to disappoint you. Throughout Destroyer’s career, singer/songwriter Dan Bejar seems to have been on a mission to convince me that the rock’n’roll game is little more than a ruse, a farce, something to held in contempt. That he does this while making brilliant rock records is all the more confounding. Yet the deeper into his discography that we get, the less I find reasons to care. His mission, it seems, has been accomplished.

My favourite live memory of Destroyer comes from a set in Montreal on the Your Blues tour. During the song “Don’t Become the Thing You Hated,” Bejar’s vocal delivery drew out the first two words of the title in such a way that one woman beside me turned to her friend: ‘What did he say? Don’t be a cunt?’

For a man with a knack for dazzling wordplay, Bejar claims that his lyrics have no deeper meaning or connectivity. The guy who writes songs for one of the more over-the-top pop arrangers working today—Carl Newman’s New Pornographers—shows up at that band’s shows practically sneering at the audience and seemingly oblivious to the towering symphonies being created behind him. As for his own Destroyer shows, here’s a review I wrote for Eye Weekly about the 2006 Rubies tour (it has since been lost in that publication’s website redesign):

Destroyer’s Dan Bejar has spent his career projecting a carefree, some would argue ironic distance from rock grandeur—right down to the band name itself. It’s little wonder that the stenciled lettering on the bass cabinet proudly proclaimed, “College rock still sucks.”

Not that “college rock” doesn’t deserve it, as this textbook evening proved on many counts, like the earnest solo folkie opening act who should stick with open stage nights (Nedelle); leaving the campus radio hit (“Painter in Your Pocket”) off the set list; a limp, impress-me crowd debating the merits of Pitchfork at the bar.

Finally, we have the misunderstood melodicist being praised for his most “accessible” album yet, mostly by latecomers waiting to anoint something more conventional from a career contrarian. The lit crit vultures circle, trying to parse meaning from fleeting poetic fragments, while their confused dates wonder what the fuss is about.

This was Destroyer’s first Toronto show since Bejar decided to start playing the rock’n’roll game—little things like consistent touring, appearing on magazine covers, and performing with his aesthetically estranged cohorts in the New Pornographers. Yet no matter how lovely the new Destroyer’s Rubies is, like much of Bejar’s best work, it’s a slow burner. And outside of the warm and sympathetic production by longtime Vancouver midwives JC/DC, many of Destroyer’s strengths get dwarfed in a live situation—starting with the martyrdom of Ted Bois’s keyboard flourishes, and ending with Bejar’s own clipped caterwauling that only manages to mask the lyrics that everyone showed up to hear in the first place.

What’s ultimately frustrating, of course, is that Bejar can pull it together when he wants to, like his ahhh-mazing falsetto on “Rubies,” or the moody blues reinvention of “It’s Gonna Take an Airplane.” Yet as he’s openly admitted to anyone who asks, he hates rock clubs and doesn’t want to be there. You can’t accuse the man of dishonesty, but you’re better off in your bedroom with a set of headphones. That’s probably where Bejar wants you anyway, in “the elegance of an empty room.”

I’m not suggesting that Bejar has any kind of weird obligation to be as excited about performing music as his fans are to see him do it. I’ve been enthralled by plenty of artists for whom performance is low on their priority list. But the older I get, the less tolerance I have for live shows that seem like a tease or a con or an exercise in patience. At worst, it’s arrogance: ‘Oh, you really love my music? Let’s see if you’ll put up with me acting like none of this matters. And by the way, you’re an idiot for showing up.’

Despite the fact that he’s made a living off it for years now, I’m sure Bejar would argue that none of it does matter. When 2000's Thief and 2001's Streethawk were making critical waves, Bejar rarely played a town he wasn’t living in at the time (Vancouver, New York, Montreal). Toronto, of all places, could certainly wait. The first time I saw him play, I had to go to CMJ in New York City to see him at a Merge showcase. “The listeners of the world are on your side!” I heckled, quoting one of his lyrics. I really have no idea why I did that now.

Since then I’ve seen various Destroyer bands of varying qualities. The best one was perhaps the one that Merge assembled for him at the label’s 15th anniversary in Chapel Hill in the summer of 2004, consisting primarily of Merge office staff—including label had Mac McCaughan (Superchunk, Portastatic) on giddy guitar, who appeared to be living out a rock and roll fantasy on stage that a bored Bejar didn’t want any part of. No matter—the set was majestic. As, for that matter, was the time he played most of Streethawk in its entirety opening for the New Pornographers’ Twin Cinema tour on its Montreal stop.

I fell in love with Destroyer's music around the time of the 2000 album Thief. I say "around the time of" because it took me a while to warm up to Bejar's winsome whine and way with words, both lyrically and vocally. Once I did, however, I was entranced by his tentative embrace of rock and folk clichés wrapped around lyrics that cast dispersions on the entire premise of the music industry itself. Bejar possessed the kind of distanced vitriol that one would expect from a more abrasive music maker, not one so obviously well steeped in the elements that make a great rock record.

As I (and others) wrote at the time, Bejar managed to combine the wordplay of 60s Dylan, the folkie/glam affectations of early 70s Bowie, the wit of 80s Morrissey and the obscurantism of 90s Malkmus. What's not for a record collector to love, other than to get gleefully lost in the meta-ness of it all?

2001's Streethawk: A Seduction sealed the deal: a perfect album that I still return to regularly, where the rock moves were ratcheted up and the tender moments rang true despite the distance one could still sense from Bejar's aloof delivery.

Since then, Bejar's bounced around a lot in my consciousness: the lazy This Night introduced him to a bigger audience after he signed to Merge. Your Blues polarized his fan base further, but I was one of the few at the time who loved it (I still do). The Frog Eyes version of Your Blues (heard on the Notorious Lightning EP) pummeled any beauty out of the originals. Destroyer's Rubies was alternately beautiful and meandering but ultimately a step backwards to This Night. His collaborative work in the band Swan Lake embraced the weirdness again, for the better (again, I was in the clear minority on that one).

Those are all musical impressions. Lyrically, Rubies was the first time I believe he started sinking into complete self-parody, and it started to effect the way I viewed the back catalogue as well. The more I immerse myself in the ongoing Destroyer discography, the more I think he’s just making fun of me and every other pretentious asshole who wants their music to “mean” something. At this point it’s almost as if he’s daring us to parse any kind of meaning at all from his lyrical barrage.

Bejar is not the only one, of course. Someone must still be buying Stephen Malkmus records.

Critics love writers who weave verbosity into pop songs, because they’re convinced it actually means something—even if it clearly doesn’t. Beck, Wu-Tang Clan, The Fiery Furnaces’ Matthew Friedberger—just because you give off the illusion of a self-contained absurdist world with self-referential signifiers doesn’t mean that there’s actually anything going on.

But in the case of each of those three artists, at least the act of going along for the ride can be fun—much more fun than the way someone like Elvis Costello or Bob Dylan makes it almost medicinal, daring you to write your grad thesis on it.

Bejar used to be fun, and occasionally still can be. But why would you ever bother being that verbose if you actually don’t have anything to say? What kind of a poet, other than a self-declared con artist, would claim that his choice of words is entirely arbitrary and devoid of intent?

I approached the new album, Trouble in Dreams, with trepidation. My recent reaction to Destroyer hasn’t been helped by the fact that the album closes with a chorus that says, “You’ve been wandering around/ you’ve been fucking around.”

These Trouble times contain some fine moments, but it mostly sounds like spinning wheels. This is no fault of his band, who also played on the two most laissez-faire Destroyer albums (This Night, Rubies). Likely informed by some serious time on the road, they’ve found their groove, with arrangements sounding less like they were conjured up in a single afternoon. Quite the contrary: they’re elaborate, often quite gorgeous, and in many cases the arrangements are better than the songs themselves. To the band’s credit, I’d much rather hear some of this material with Bejar out of the mix entirely: “Shooting Rockets,” “Plaza Trinidad,” “Foam Hands” and especially Ted Bois’s keyboard flourishes on “Leopard of Honor.”

Bejar himself comes through on “Introducing Angels,” “My Favourite Year” and “Libby’s First Sunrise,” all of which are all quite lovely. So there’s my typically Libran assessment: despite my profound disappointment with it, seven of the 11 songs on Trouble in Dreams are interesting enough for me not to give up on Destroyer entirely.

But you’d have to pay me to go see it live.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Spring Cleaning 08 pt 2

More spring cleaning from the vaults of the last three months.

The HeavyGreat Vengeance and Furious Fire (Ninja Tune/Outside)

For all their obsessions with American soul and rock music, the British rarely do either right these days. Here, however, is The Heavy—a band from a tiny town outside of Bath who make dirty, raw garage rock and R&B that sounds like Curtis Mayfield fronting the Stooges. Lead singer Swaby bounces between swaggering bravado and a tender falsetto—he sounds like he’s well steeped in the Temptations’ psychedelic period. While none of this would work without his cocky charisma, it’s the devilishly distorted fat bottom grooves that drive this record, even when the tempo slows down to a torchy crawl. None of this is particularly original—especially the one track that lifts directly from the Spencer Davis Group—sitting somewhere between the retro revival of Sharon Jones and the futurist soul of Gnarls Barkley. Yet The Heavy are cheeky enough to pull it off, to get you reaching for the volume knob, and they give us one more reason to forget about Lenny Kravitz entirely—as if we needed one. (K-W Record, March 20)

Magnetic Fields - Distortion (Nonesuch)

A man can only wield a ukulele so long before he runs back to the electric guitar. Anyone who thought Stephin Merritt was lost to NPR and Chinese operettas after signing to Nonesuch will delight in the sound of the literally titled Distortion, which sounds like Merritt got caught up in the excitement of the recent Jesus and Mary Chain reunion. On the surface, the sonic atmosphere is the only thematic thread here—unusual for the mind of Merritt, who never sets pen to paper without a concept in mind. Most of the songs are about loathing—of both the self (“Too Drunk to Dream”) and others (the anti-OC anthem “California Girls”). It’s the running order that reveals a loose narrative. Merritt spends most of the first two thirds of Distortion repelling all those around him (“Mr. Mistletoe,” “Please Stop Dancing” before a wave of regret hits (“I’ll Dream Alone”) and he spends the final three songs equally fascinated and frustrated with the emotional detachment of others. Naturally, he uses the most extreme examples possible: a nun fantasizing of being a sex worker, a zombie’s lover, and a musing on the carefree life of a courtesan. Longtime fans will welcome back the vocal presence of singer Shirley Simms, a star of 69 Love Songs who was shut out of 2004’s i. Whether Merritt’s return to lo-fi will fly at the Lincoln Center remains to be seen, but his melodic mastery is never in question. (Magnet, Winter 2008)

Steve Reid Ensemble - Daxaar (Domino)

Steve Reid is an elder statesman among drummers. Just look at his resumé: Miles Davis, James Brown, Fela Kuti, Sun Ra, Marvin Gaye, and recent collaborations with electronic composer and producer Four Tet, a.k.a. Kieran Hebden.

Riding a wave of renewed interest thanks to the Hebden projects and some reissues of his free jazz material, Reid recorded this album as an ensemble leader with local musicians in Dakar, Senegal. Sadly, the African influence is largely transparent. Real sparks are few and far between, and it's more than a bit disappointing that the laid-back locals never really rise to Reid's rhythms.

Neither, for that matter, does Hebden. Other than ably serving as the session producer, Hebden adds very little to the music when he gets his hands in there. The electronic sounds on the terribly titled "Jiggy Jiggy," in particular, sound like the band is being attacked by seagulls; elsewhere, he's more subtle but equally ineffective.

As a musician, perhaps Reid is more effective at taking orders than giving them; he deserves greater challenges than this. (K-W Record, February 7)

The Ruby SunsSea Lion (Sub Pop/Outside)

Singer/songwriter Ryan McPhun has lived by the ocean all his life: first in California, now in New Zealand. It certainly sounds like he’s spent a lot of time meditating in front of vast expanses of water; not only do many of his songs evoke a lush, warm and tropical ambiance, but you can actually hear the ocean in the background of several tracks here, with either actual birdsongs or instruments that are reverb-ed beyond recognition until they sound like aquatic fauna.

At one point McPhun does meditate on the "Morning Sun," and there are certainly moments where it sounds like Sigur Ros staging an operetta in a grotto where the piano is slipping into the sea. But this isn’t one of those soothing “sounds of nature” albums for your massage therapist.

The beauty of Sea Lion is its ability to create an entirely logical, self-contained environment where Phil Spector produces New Order on a remote African island. And despite the beautifully arranged vocals that owe more than a few obvious debts to Brian Wilson, the Ruby Suns are one of those rare bands that have learned from the more outré elements of the Beach Boys’ catalogue rather than aspiring to make a slavish imitation of the clichés that mark that group’s most popular songs.

The Western pop is only one element at work here. An acoustic Brazilian rhythm might be interrupted by an interlude of ukuleles and coconuts, which is then swept away by a loping brass section and Hawaiian guitar before giving way to African guitar lines and a choir singing in Maori. Sure, sometimes it sounds like a lo-fi Fruitopia commercial. More often than not, however, the adventures of McPhun and the Suns add up to a wildly rewarding ride that’s a wonderful left-field surprise. (K-W Record, March 27)

Vampire Weekend – s/t (XL)

Here's a band that is often judged by their pedigree rather than their actual music, so let's get that out of the way first. Vampire Weekend are a band composed of New York City university students with song titles like "Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa" and "Oxford Comma." Surely, goes the common critical argument, they must be smarty-pants upper crust cultural tourists who include ironic winks at African music in their heavily layered Big Apple bouillabaisse. “Feels so unnatural,” they sing, “Peter Gabriel too.” Whatever that means.

Yet Vampire Weekend’s debut is refreshing for its simplicity, for the way it feels entirely natural and joyous. It taps into the giddy, propulsive amateurism that has fuelled so much great pop music from the 50s to the great new wave songwriters of the 70s (David Byrne, Joe Jackson) to Toronto’s Hidden Cameras, not to mention the Third World mirror mutations of Western pop music that Vampire Weekend also borrow from, creating an odd cultural feedback loop that provides critics with endless cocktail conversation.

Because of their New York home and African interests, Vampire Weekend have been saddled with endless comparisons to Paul Simon’s Graceland, which is ridiculous for several reasons, starting with the fact that this is much more fun on a Saturday night. Furthermore, Simon hired the best of the best South African session players for that album, and a key part of Vampire Weekend’s unique charm is their ability to draw from that music without attempting to emulate it outright. This isn’t an album for ethnomusicology students, but if you’re trapped next to one at a party where this is playing, I’m sure they’d have some interesting theories.

None of this chatter matters during the course of these 11 songs, especially when arpeggiating cellos dance around the beat breakdown in Walcott, or the joyously strained group backing vocals affect a collective falsetto on Blake’s Got a New Face, or when secret weapon songwriter/producer/keyboardist Rostam Batmanglij pulls out his harpsichords and mellotrons. Drummer Christopher Tomson sounds like he’s fresh out of high school concert band and discovering skinny-tie new wave and calypso at the same time. There’s a martial stiffness to his playing, and yet his timing never falters and the grooves never get too slippery.

The stripped down arrangements are key here; the recording sounds raw and live and doesn’t rely on dense layers—a rarity from bands of any level or genre these days. As a band, Vampire Weekend do all their work in the rehearsal hall, not the studio. This is a band that thinks horizontally, not vertically: sparse, clean guitar leads are unsullied by any accompanying arsenal of rhythm guitars, and every song’s dynamics are driven by simple stops and shifts in the arrangements.

Explaining this music doesn’t make it sound any better than it already does, for Vampire Weekend succeeds primarily with uncomplicated songs and melodies that would work almost as well if Jonathan Richman played them on acoustic guitar. And their timing couldn’t be better: this is ideal musical escapism for the dreariest days of February, though you’re likely to be listening this consistently for the next 12 months and beyond. (K-W Record, January 31)

WoodhandsHeart Attack
(Paper Bag/Universal)

It’s been years now since the rock kids discovered how much fun it is to make live electronic dance music, and the benefits of that are now in full bloom. Witness the career resurrection of Daft Punk, the crossover success of their prodigies Justice, or the emergence of live bands like Toronto’s Holy Fuck and Waterloo’s own Bocce.

Woodhands are the latest to toss their hat into the ring, and they’re a bit too late. Here, they run a high risk of coming across as dabblers and not diehards. Paper-thin indie rock vocals don’t help matters, and there never seems to be enough of a bottom end to make any kind of dance floor impact—thankfully the drummer is decent enough to keep it interesting. When they try their hand at Junior Boys-style electro-balladry on "Straighten the Curtain," the adolescent lyrics prove to be far too distracting.

Only on the deliberately delirious track "Dancer"—with a faux-Busta Rymes freak-out chorus contrasting with lovely lady vocals in the verse and synths that threaten to spin out of control—do Woodhands deliver. (K-W Record, March 27)

Hawksley Workman - Between the Beautifuls (Universal)

What a strange four years it's been for Hawksley Workman. After going for the gusto with 2003's Lover/Fighter -- where the flamboyant Toronto singer/songwriter softened his edges in a fair bid for U2-style arena pop -- Workman released a stripped-down piano album, recorded a reportedly dark and adventurous album that was then scrapped, and has finally surfaced with Between the Beautifuls. It's the sound of someone who craves less drama in his life, who's backing off from any grand statements -- musically or personally.

It's entirely possible that the greatest weight on this album is expectation. If this album was made by anyone else -- Ron Sexsmith, say -- it would be a collection of melodic songs nice enough for CBC daytime radio consumption, as delivered by an exceptional male vocalist.

From Workman, however, we've come to expect a bit more swagger, a bit more hunger and certainly more sexuality; if his early records sounded like an artist in love with the world and discovering that "singing is about sexual confidence,'' Between the Beautifuls is made by a guy who not only hasn't been naked next to anyone in a long time, but has lost any desire to.

Apparently Workman is selling his "missing" 2006 album at live shows; it would be fascinating to hear how it contrasts with this comparatively neutered album. "Someday we'll be bored,'' he sings here, "and we won't have time for these catastrophes anymore." It sounds like that day has come. (K-W Record, February 7)