Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Nov/Dec 08 reviews

Final batch of 08 reviews from the Kitchener-Waterloo Record/Guelph Mercury. Year-end picks to follow shortly--and from what I've read elsewhere so far, I'm on an entirely different planet than most of the critical consensus (other than my love of Fleet Foxes--sorry, Dave Morris). Which is fine with me.

Amadou and Mariam – Welcome to Mali (Warner)

After decades of obscurity, this duo became international stars on their last album, Dimanche a Bamako, with the help of co-producer Manu Chao. He brought his own otherworldly sense of cross-cultural displacement to their already-rich Malian stew of influences. Chao isn’t around this time, but Welcome to Mali continues to bridge the traditional instruments and motifs of their homeland with a broad approach to international pop—with mixed success.

The album opens with "Sabali," a track produced by the Gorillaz’ Damon Albarn, which suggests the duo are going to leave not only ill-defined world music behind, but the world itself; Mariam sounds like she’s broadcasting from an alien space station atop oscillating synthesizers. Albarn sticks around for the next track, playing keyboards that imitate a balafon (the Malian marimba). But from there on in, Welcome to Mali plays it relatively safe. It sounds much like any other West African recording helmed by French pop producers: a slick, funky pop record that succeeds best when it lays back, and threatens to fail when it goes for the grand gestures—both musical and lyrical, as on the middling track "Africa," featuring Toronto MC K’naan.

As expected, the harmonies here, between Amadou and Mariam as well as backing vocals by the Barry Sisters, are exquisite. But it’s Amadou’s guitar work that shines through here much more than on Dimanche a Bamako; "Masiteladi" and "Sekebe" show off his fiery fretboard skills.

The latter track, a driving dance number, also features punchy horns and Daft Punk-ish synthesizers, and a rousing call-and-response vocals. It closes the album on a high point; coupled with the opening track, it’s the bookends here that reveal the world of possibilities Amadou and Mariam are capable of. (November 27, 2008)

The Bicycles – Oh No, It's Love (Fuzzy Logic/Outside)

The problem with most pop songs is that they flog a dead horse; "don't bore us, get to the chorus," goes the old refrain. But once you get to the chorus, you should really get right back out again; a weak chorus doesn't get better with repetition.

The Bicycles are all about the economy, stupid. And they know your time is precious, which is why Oh No, It's Love packs 18 songs into 40 minutes. Much like their mentors Sloan, whose 2006 album Never Hear the End of It segued a series of short songs together, the Bicycles prefer to keep things moving along; unlike Sloan, the Bicycles never seem to run out of good ideas as they traipse through 70s pop, garage rock, 60s British Invasion, shades of country and even bits of glam. Every member is a multi-instrumentalist, and lead vocals are shared between them; this is one variety show where there's no time nor talent shortage to stay in one spot for too long. (November 6, 2008)

Tracy Chapman – Our Bright Future (Warner)

The morning after Barack Obama’s presidential victory, I scanned my vinyl collection for the appropriate soundtrack to usher in a new era. For whatever reason, the first record that jumped off the shelf was Tracy Chapman’s remarkable debut album from 20 years ago; that collection of songs articulates so much of the racial, class and gender lines that still divide America, detailing aspirations of transcendence and heartbreaking realities. “Finally the tables are starting to turn,” she sang back then, “talkin’ bout a revolution.” In 1988, that was only wishful thinking.

Lo and behold, one week after Obama’s win, Tracy Chapman has an album called Our Bright Future. While obviously there’s no direct link, surely it’s a sign of something that this is not only her finest collection of songs in a very long time, but it’s also her most optimistic. She sings of days “like the first day of spring” and looks forward to a time when “our bright future is in the past.” Her character writing is in fine form, the love songs are sweet but never saccharine, and Chapman’s luxurious voice is front and centre, backed up by transparent and tasteful arrangements by a who’s-who of L.A. studio musicians.

Sign her up for the inaugural ball. (November 13, 2008)

Castanets – City of Refuge (Asthmatic Kitty/ Sonic Unyon)

Tom Petty once told us that "you don't have to live like a refugee." But listening to Castanets' City of Refuge suggests that displacement and despair can spawn sparse yet captivating creations. Raymond Raposa is the one-man band that is Castanets, and he apparently recorded these 15 songs by himself in a motel room in the middle of nowhere. That story sounds a bit too good to be true—for starters, it doesn't explain some of the drowsy turntablism that shows up as an occasional texture here—but it does paint a picture of loneliness and desolation. Coloured primarly by dusty desert electric guitar lines, City of Refuge owes more than a few debts to Ry Cooder's evocative soundtrack work, with some spacey electronics and subtle Latin influences in the mix. There's no question that Raposa is in a bleak place; he sings, "As long as I've lived, I've wanted to die." Yet the theme of refuge prevails; he does find solace and safety in the long, empty spaces between notes here. The most optimistic he gets is when he covers the gospel standard "I'll Fly Away," which is a natural thematic fit; he doesn't dwell on it, however, placing it halfway through the song cycle, and only for 90 seconds at that. For Raposa, the City of Refuge is still a mirage that threatens to evaporate before his eyes; hopefully once he finally gets to walk those gilded streets, his music will be just as evocative. (November 27, 2008)

Dungen – 4 (Kemado)

Swedish psychedelic rock with flutes, glockenspiels and jazzy piano riffs might not be your cup of tea—until you hear Dungen. And even if you’ve heard them before, 4 is a major step up for bandleader Gustav Estes’s ability to seamlessly weave pastoral pop music, fuzzed-out guitar rock and jazz together; think of a bizarre cross between Black Sabbath and Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, only sung in Swedish. Special credit goes to Dungen’s new drummer, Johan Holmegard, for channelling the spirit of the recently deceased Mitch Mitchell of the Jimi Hendrix Experience; like Mitchell, Holmegard possesses both a deft and delicate touch that morphs into the monstrous when necessary. Everyone else here is equally tasteful; the guitarists definitely love their solos, but they come more from the Santana school of sensitive noodling, rather than the all-out wankfests that too many psych bands indulge in. (November 20, 2008)

Fembots – Calling Out (weewerk/Outside)

The Fembots are two Torontonian men who reside in a studio they call the Junkshop. Their earliest recordings found them playing around with all sorts of odd noisemakers that sounded like the creation of a mad inventor. This time out, they actually do have a mad inventor in the band: Iner Souster, who makes beautiful and unique instruments from recycled and reused detritus. These creations also double as sculpture; you can preview some of them here.

Souster became an honorary member of the Fembots for this recording, which also features drummer/songwriter Nathan Lawr; both get co-writing credits here. Many of the songs were written with Souster’s creations providing the initial backdrop; more conventional guitars and keyboards were layered on later, which leave the odd textures to fade into the background. Which is too bad, because—as their last album proved—the Fembots simply aren’t as interesting when they play it straight. Although “straight” is an extremely relative term here; the Fembots still hail firmly from left field.

But there’s no point in dwelling on what Calling Out could have been; what it is is a lively collection of songs that once again draw from urban observations and religious reckoning. Opening track "Good Days" sets the bar high for the rest of the album, with a rousing chorus that declares: “All you Christian soldiers and all you Muslim martyrs/ you got it wrong/ life is good.” (November 20, 2008)

Flaming Lips – Christmas on Mars DVD (Warner)

Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne has spent the better part of a decade making this film in his basement and his backyard—which is incredible, considering the set design and his ability to evoke sci-fi films and Cold War paranoia from the ’50s and’60s. Unfortunately, ambition alone doesn’t make this film much more than a tedious hallucination, a disconnected dream sequence that doesn’t even succeed as lo-fi B-movie kitsch. A gallery of stills from this film is more exciting than enduring awkward, jargon-heavy dialogue. The accompanying soundtrack fares slightly better, if only because meandering instrumental sci-fi music is much easier to absorb than a meandering, plotless sci-fi movie. (December 11, 2008)

Kocani Orkestar – The Ravished Bride (Crammed/Fusion III)

When North Americans think of brass bands, they usually think of New Orleans. Apparently, so does this Macedonian brass ensemble, whose third album finds them funkier than ever; it sounds like their tuba player has been studying the syncopated likes of the Rebirth Brass Band and the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble. The trombones and trumpets are as fast and furious as ever, but it’s actually the clarinetist here who steals most of the solos, with the accordion player scurrying along right behind him; there’s also a couple of surf rock guitar solos that seem to come out of nowhere. But no matter who’s in the lead, this is a non-stop thrill ride—even the boozy waltzes—guaranteed to please fans of both traditional acts like Mahala Rai Banda or Taraf de Haidouks, as well as New World acts like Beirut and Balkan Beat Box who have brought these sounds to North American ears in recent years. (November 13, 2008)

Leila – Blood, Looms and Blooms (Warp/Fusion III)

Dreams are all about distortion: of time, of sight, of sound, of context. Composer/producer Leila Arab draws heavily from dream worlds in her music, where signifiers from past eras collide with decaying futurist visions. She sets up these scenarios and then lets them disintegrate before our ears. The opening track finds her running every instrument through various levels of distortion, crafting a broken beauty that complements the descending melodic lines, and preparing us for the coming audio journey.

The cover art is also telling: a man in a crescent moon overlooks a sinister-looking tree trunk that is wrapped in a strange architectural fantasy of tubes, bells and whistles; it could be the cover of a particularly dark children's book from 50 years ago, or a still from the Caro/Jeunet film City of Lost Children.

Blood, Looms and Blooms is a rich, imaginative and evocative album that justifies every minute of Leila's eight-year absence from recording. In the interim, Leila recorded and toured with Bjork, who is an obvious kindred spirit; they are both musical omnivores with a deep love for classical music, peculiar electronics and joyous dance beats. Leila doesn't venture into clubland often here, although “Little Acorns” does boast a bouncy Brazilian hip-hop beat with tinny synth horns, a comically slippery bass line, and little girls attempting some ragga toasting.

Most of Leila's grooves are dark and ominous, like the rattling bass synth underneath the track “Mettle”; dripping tap water dictates the beat, while guitarist Andy Cox (English Beat, Fine Young Cannibals) tears into spooky guitar riffs that Leila tweaks into oblivion. For all her tendencies toward noise and dissonance, she can also play it completely straight: “Young Once” is a live recording featuring her on unadorned piano, accompanied by cello and two clarinets; the result is just as affecting as the most heavily produced material here.

The most fascinating moments are when she allows everything to collide, as she does on “Daisies, Cats and Spacement”: there, a sensual jazz vocal guides pizzicato strings playing tarantella rhythms, while manipulated harpsichords skitter over snare drums that drag the beat into dungeons of reverb. At times, these tracks recall the unrealized potential of Tricky in the mid-90s; the association is bolstered by her choice of vocalists Terry Hall (the Specials) and Martina Topley-Bird, both of whom were frequent Tricky collaborators at the time.

The only misstep here is an atrocious cover of the Beatles' “Norwegian Wood,” which not only bears no melodic resemblance to the original, but the arrangement falls flat compared to the creativity heard on every other track here.

Few artists from the late 90s electronic scene continue to push themselves forward and create albums as spellbinding as their early works, but Leila is one of them. It obviously helps to hibernate for a while; just ask Portishead. (November 6, 2008)

Ohbijou/Acorn – split 12” single (Kelp)

These two Ontario bands have toured together many times; listening to this vinyl single that they share, it’s easy to see why. They both explore an adventurous take on folk rock, with a deep appreciation for classic pop songwriting that never falls into cliché; they both share a small-town melancholy made for Canadian winters and CBC playlists; they both love their cellos and banjos as much as their electric guitars. On this 12” vinyl single, they offer up one new song each, and cover each other.

The Ohbijou side is considerably stronger; not just featuring their new song "Tender Bones," but also The Acorn’s sympathetic reading of Ohbijou’s "Steep." The new Acorn song, on the other hand, doesn’t come close to the heights they scaled on 2007’s Glory Hope Mountain, and Ohbijou turn in a rather clunky rendition of a very early Acorn track that’s barely recognizable here. Being such close friends, these two bands would never try to compete; no wonder this comes to a draw. (November 20, 2008)

Roxanne Potvin – No Love For the Poisonous (Alert)

Before Roxanne Potvin's performance at the Hillside Festival last summer, one of her biggest fans turned to me and started extolling the singer/guitarist's many virtues. After a minor avalanche of glowing adjectives, he stopped suddenly and said, "But she really has to cut out all those ballads."

That sentiment sums up Potvin’s second album—especially when, ten songs into it, she finally lets loose with a visceral and soulful wail on the gospel funk of "Dig Deeper." Knowing that she’s capable of that, it’s hard to understand why she exercises such comparatively polite restraint on the rest of this album.

That said, it’s hard to fault Potvin for being such a tasteful pop crooner on material that serves well as smooth Sunday morning soul music, on tracks such as "Paralyzed," "Who’s the Enemy" and "Laws of Nature." Key to this album’s success is the earthy production by Dave Mackinnon of the Fembots, bolstered by the veteran K-W rhythm section of bassist Mark McIntyre and drummer Roger Travassos, who push Potvin along with grooves that exercise considerable muscle even on the quietest moments (The Puzzle). (November 27, 2008)

Peter Project – s/t (Fuzzy Logic/Outside)
iNSiDEaMiND – Scatterpopia (Public Transit Recordings)

These two Toronto artists are among the few who still take turntablism as a serious artform, one that owes an obvious debt to its hip-hop origins but can mean so much more than that.

The Peter Project is a playful tour-de-force that draws heavily from obtuse dialogue samples culled from TV and children’s records, matched with jazzy flute loops, walking bass lines, spy movie themes and psychedelic keyboards—as well as a few harpsichords, for good measure. “If the music got really weird, then you’d get really weird, too,” promises one of the anonymous, disembodied voices heard here, and it’s true—though the Peter Project is careful to welcome some real live human beings into his fantastical sonic playground, namely Toronto MCs such as More or Les, the Word Burglar, Zaki Ibrahim and Masia One. There’s some scratchtastic action on the turntables as well, but that takes a backseat to the beats and the oddities sandwiched in between.

iNSiDEaMiND come from more of a sound art background than the dance floor. Somewhere between the playful sonic narratives of Kid Koala and the eerie urban landscapes conjured up by the so-called “illbient” movement of the late 90s, iNSiDEaMiND are masters of mood and manipulation of sound. Although there are moments of funk and jazz here—including one collaboration with Montreal beatmaster Ghislain Poirier, and another with Toronto jazz saxophonist Colin Fisher— iNSiDEaMiND are most captivating when they set themselves adrift on a sea of crackling vinyl, to see what they will find. (November 13, 2008)

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers – Running Down a Dream DVD (Warner)

As Running Down a Dream begins, we’re introduced to Tom Petty and his Heartbreakers celebrating 30 years together, at a hometown concert in Gainsville, Florida. The performance is perfunctory and confirms suspicions that casual Petty fans might have about the man’s career: that he’s a competent and dependable songwriter, if not a bit bland and entirely predictable.

So why would you sit through a four-hour documentary about such an artist?

For starters, there’s much more to Petty than meets the eye. Anyone who only knows him from the last 20 years of his career—as the laid-back author of songs like "Free Falling" and "You Don’t Know How It Feels"—will be surprised to discover what a powerful rock band the Heartbreakers were in the early days, and how they bridged the worlds of 60s rock and 70s new wave. It was actually the UK, obsessed with punk at the time, that first embraced the all-American rocker before he ever found success at home.

Petty came of age at a time where his close circle of friends and collaborators could include members of the Beatles, the Byrds, Fleetwood Mac, Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, the Eurythmics and Pearl Jam—all of whom feature prominently in this film. Yet it’s the relationships inside the Heartbreakers that are key here, especially his two right-hand men: guitarist Mike Campbell and keyboardist Benmont Tench.

Petty has a reputation as a stubborn man of principle, one that once sued his record company in the late 70s, at a time when the music business was being collapsed into an oligopoly. Years later, he would help dig his commercial grave at radio by writing a single called "The Last DJ," about the death of independent programming in an age of media conglomeration. On a less endearing note, he refused Stevie Nicks’s offer to join the Heartbreakers because “there are no girls in the Heartbreakers.”

Petty’s private life as an adult is not on display; there’s little mention of his first wife or his children. His early years, however, are well documented through interviews and copious amounts of Super-8 footage taken by his family and his early bandmates.

Directed by Peter Bogdanovich, Running Down a Dream is far more engaging than expected—especially considering that it’s basically an extended episode of Behind the Music. But despite its length, there’s nary a rambling moment, and all of the live footage informs the narrative.

Fairweather fans will find it compelling enough; anyone with a well-worn copy of Petty’s greatest hits record will be in heaven. (December 11, 2008)

Q-Tip – The Renaissance (Motown/Universal)

Though it’s been in the works almost as long as Chinese Democracy, The Renaisssance succeeds everywhere Axl Rose fails: here’s a beloved icon who comes back swinging like his former self while sounding entirely of the moment as well, oozing with charisma the entire time.

In the nine years since his last album, this legendary MC reunited with A Tribe Called Quest for a couple of tours, and recorded two solo albums that were shelved by the record company. And yet here it sounds like he never left; he doesn’t sound desperate to prove anything to anyone.

The Renaissance is full of the laid-back charm that built his rep in the first place, set atop boom-bap grooves and jazzy bass lines. There’s some starpower help from Norah Jones, D’Angelo and Raphael Saadiq, but no other MCs to distract from Tip’s flawless flow—which is especially evident on the extended a cappella intro to "Dance on Glass," where it’s almost disappointing once the beat kicks in. Live grooves drive some of the best moments here, like the sparse, squiggly bass on the disco of "ManWomanBooogie" or the guitar-driven funk trio heard on "Good Thing."

When he rattles off the names of his hip-hop heroes on "Life Is Better," it’s a potent reminder of how few of them built sustainable careers. And maybe absence makes the heart grow fonder, but there’s every sense here that Q-Tip will still be making classic records years from now. (December 4, 2008)

Serena Ryder – Is It OK? (EMI)

For a young woman with such a confident voice, that’s a rather insecure album title. But for a woman who can stun a room into silence with an a cappella performance, Ryder decides pulls out the big production courtesy of John Alagia (Dave Matthews Band, John Mayer); thankfully, it never threatens to overshadow Ryder’s formidable presence. With the exception of one or two subdued numbers here—including the closing "Dark as the Black," which is the highlight—Ryder is ready to leave her folkie beginnings behind and go for the all-out belting here (for better or worse), assuming a role in Canadian music that’s been vacant ever since Amanda Marshall went AWOL. Ryder set her sights high on her 2006 major label debut, If Your Memory Serves You Well, where she tackled the classic Canadian songbook with aplomb; this is meant to be her coming-out party as a songwriter and ... well, she’s still an amazing singer. In that sense, this is certainly OK. Just OK, though. (November 13, 2008)

Spam All-Stars – Introducing (Introducing/Fusion III)

The sound of Miami’s Spam All-Stars can be explained by the resumés of the band and their extended family, which includes James Brown, Sly and the Family Stone, Shakira, Antibalas, Phish and many more; bandleader/songwriter/DJ Andrew Yeomanson is of British/Venezuelan heritage and was raised in Montreal, Toronto, Bogota and Miami. These are top-notch Latin funk players who were first assembled 15 years ago, and whose first five albums are compiled for this, their first international release; naturally, it’s a non-stop party that allows room for subtle shadings as well as heavy funk grooves. The production is smooth, but not entirely slick; it’s likely ten times as atomic in a live setting, and now that they’re poised to make major inroads outside of the Sunshine State, it’s more likely we’ll witness that close to home soon enough. (November 6, 2008)

Rae Spoon – Superior You Are Inferior (Scratch)

Rae Spoon sings about being “off the grid and underground,” which befits a performer who bounces between Berlin, Montreal and his hometown of Calgary. It also suits a singer/songwriter who sings high lonesome folk songs with steel guitars and cellos and then switches to subtle synths and electronic percussion without missing a beat. Rae Spoon sounds like a naturalist adrift in the modern world, trying to find a way “to get the ocean on our side” on songs such as “Come On Forest Fire Burn the Disco Down,” and “We Become Our Own Wolves.” The songwriting and arrangements are uniformly strong; Spoon’s bell-clear and androgynous voice could use more variation, instead of sounding like a formal recital, but that’s a minor complaint as this worthy artist otherwise expands his sonic palette with great success. (December 4, 2008)

Stompin' Tom – The Ballad of Stompin' Tom (EMI)

In a recent Globe and Mail profile of Stompin' Tom Connors, the writer says that Tom "no longer listens to country radio. It's too homogeneous, he says, with too many people trying to do the same kind of song again and again." The irony is rich, coming from a man who is nothing if not homogenous, writing the same kind of Canadiana again and again, with little more than three chords, an acoustic guitar and a Maritimers' drawl. This album features unnecessary re-recordings of three earlier songs (including the now-ubiquitous “Hockey Song”), a cover of his idol Wilf Carter's “Take Me Back to Old Alberta,” and ten new songs that mine similar territory, as well as the sweet “Bride & Groom Waltz.” Unlike his contemporaries, this 72-year-old isn't concerned with late-career grativas or matters of mortality; he's still writing about "workin' in the bush of Buctouche" and hamming it up on songs like “Chickie Pooh,” which would even embarrass Fred Penner. Most affecting is the title track, which is rich in detail from Connors' hard-luck childhood; it's also a helpful précis in case you don't have time to read his 2000-page autobiographical tome (which, sadly, is now out of print). (November 6, 2008)

Kanye West – 808 & Heartbreak (Roc-a-fella/Universal)

Harder? Better? Faster? Stronger? Not this time. Kanye West likes to come off as invincible, both in his music and his off-stage persona, but here—his first album since the death of his mother last year—he lets his guard down to soak in melancholy, 80s pop, and self-pity. This is not a hip-hop album at all, and not a single one of these tracks is likely to be heard in a club; thankfully the timing is such that West doesn’t have to compete with the likes of 50 Cent this time out—because even a weak 50 Cent album would probably beat out a head-scratcher of a record like this one. In the words of Q-Tip, this is like “cold grits without the hot sauce.”

808 & Heartbreak finds West singing more often than not, albeit with copious help from an auto-tuner. With the kind of artists he has on his speed dial, there must be a good reason why he didn’t ask for vocal help; instead, we’re stuck with what sounds like second-rate Akon and/or T-Pain. What could have been a serious artistic left turn—not unlike Beck’s Sea Change or Mutations albums—instead falls prey to a simple production gimmick.

It doesn’t help that his musings on fame are increasingly nauseating, on "Welcome to the Heartbreak" and a horrendous solo piano bonus track with a bizarre Pinocchio analogy—he just wants to be a real boy, you see. It makes matters worse that the track sounds like it was recorded on a cellphone at the back of a stadium. And it’s not like he hasn’t been successfully reflective before—even on the subject of his mother, as he was on Late Registration’s “Hey Mama.”

This is all a shame, because West’s increased infatuation with 20-year-old synthesizers elevates some of the sub-standard pop songs here, and the Roland 808 drum machine of the title is used to maximum effect. He has plenty of fine production scattered throughout here, but it would be much more interesting to hear him apply it to a young, impressionable artist—maybe even one who can sing—rather than his own insufferable self-absorption. (December 4, 2008)