Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Antony and the Johnsons

One of my favourite memories of working at CBC Radio's Brave New Waves was when Antony Hegarty came in for an interview, during his first club tour ever in 2005. I had met him once before in New York City the year before, when his debut album was re-released by Secretly Canadian, and he was playing their label showcase at CMJ, at a bar with live mermaids. So I knew that he was a kind, gentle and self-effacing man, who was much more goofy and humble than the magical powers of his singing voice would suggest.

When he came into the CBC studio, he brought his cellist Julia Kent with him and played a couple of songs on a grand piano (including "The Lake," which inexplicably does not appear on one of his own releases). I've been around musicians my entire adult life, in formal and informal settings, but hearing him sing from the other side of a glass was a literally breathtaking experience, and one that I still feel privileged to have witnessed. Writers trip over themselves trying to come up with adjectives to describe his presence, so I'm not even going to try. One listen and you'll know soon enough yourself.

And yet as much as I love the man, my love for his music hasn't often extended past a few certain songs ("Cripple and the Starfish," "Hope There's Someone," "Fistful of Love" among others). When it all comes together, it's spellbinding; often it doesn't, and if it wasn't for his vocal presence it would be awkward and amateurish. Sometimes that's true of his stage show as well; seeing him at a Montreal club after that radio performance was a slight letdown (reviewed here).

The new album The Crying Light is no different. As he points out in this interview, there are no climaxes or dramatic builds here; it's more "pastoral" (his word). For all its flaws, I did enjoy the diversity of 2005's I Am A Bird Now, which had room for soul songs amidst the plaintive piano ballads. When set to a groove, like on "Shake That Devil" from last fall's Another World EP, Antony's voice soars like his hero Nina Simone's. Some of those urges were satisfied by his appearances on 2008's debut album by critically acclaimed neo-disco act Hercules and Love Affair, where he sang and co-wrote five of the ten tracks.

To the best of my knowledge, this interview is the only Canadian one Antony is doing for this album. It was delayed several times over the Christmas holiday, and I wasn't convinced it was actually going to happen. Not being blown away by the new album, that was fine with me. But once we had a date and started chatting on a lazy Sunday morning--about everything other than music, it seems--it quickly became one of my favourite interviews of recent years. Not just because of the man's charm, or his occasional loopiness (see the part about butoh visualization techniques), but because he's a thoughtful, serious and articulate guy on a breadth of subjects.

Thanks to Exclaim for assigning this; my article for them appears in the new issue here. (Also recommended: Sofi Papamarko's A.C. Newman chat.)




Antony Hegarty
January 4, 2009
Locale: phone conversation on a Sunday morning

A lot of your songs are about escape, and often there’s an element of transformation as well. Listening to your work with Hercules and Love Affair, it strikes me that disco itself is often inherently about escape and transformation—sometimes a different kind of escape than the kind that you talk about in your songs. How do you see the aesthetic of classic disco in what you do in both Hercules and your solo stuff?

Escape and transformation mean two different things to me. Transformation is a means of escape. (long pause, stutters) I would like to think the songs work on a process of transforming something, as opposed to just getting away from something. On “Another World” I wanted to be very direct about the feelings I was having. It wasn’t about getting away, it was about acknowledging something and going through a process. That means something different to me than escape. And—sorry, what was the other question?

I was asking about escape in disco lyrics.

Actually, that prompts another tangent. There are a lot of songs on this album that are more pastoral than the last one. Last time a lot of songs had a climax or a catharsis. A lot of these songs are more like landscapes.

They don’t build to a climax.

It’s not the focus. Some of them are more observational. It has an emotional stillness to it. That’s a result of me being at a different stage of my life. But to relate to your question about disco escapism, what I liked about the Hercules songs were that they weren’t about cutting away from reality and having an escapist high. It didn’t seem like an avoidance tactic. The lyrical content of those songs is quite emotionally centred. That’s what made them interesting to me, at least [Andy Butler's] lyrics. The ones I wrote for the album were a bit more hardcore. The ones that he wrote were about being emotionally present and awake. That, in my mind, was reflective of his generation: a sweetheartedness, and open-heartedness that the generation after me came to the table with.

What’s the age difference between you two?

He’s in his 20s and I’m in my late 30s. There were a bunch of musicians coming up in New York around 2000, people like Devendra Banhart and Coco Rosie, who were willing to make themselves more vulnerable in their work than my generation had been, with a few exceptions. When people think of disco as escapism, they’re often thinking of dancing as a means to that escape, to let go of your worries and surrender to joy. Of course that’s a great thing. I’ve got to focus on integrating those things. How can we be present and acknowledge the reality of our lives today, and have a sense of wholeness? You don’t have to go into a state of denial to experience joy. I think that’s a theme for me, which is why I take issue with this notion of escapism.

Listening to “Another World,” I heard it as a lament for the current world that the narrator is mourning. In a song like “Hope There’s Someone”—there’s hope in the title, a hope that someone will be there at the end of their time on earth. Whereas “Another World” is a bit fatalistic; the narrator has already resigned him or herself to the concept of death—maybe of the planet, maybe of themselves. They could be looking for another natural world or the next stage in their own life.

I was a bit worried about that, that it would seem fatalistic. And I did get that feedback when I was first playing it. I ended up finding that it’s a feeling, it’s not a fact. Sometimes it’s important to move through your feelings to find out what’s on the other side. With that song, I was very consciously trying to write a song that placed me emotionally in this burgeoning reality of a collapsing environment. I wanted to sit with the emotional reality of that, instead of becoming overwhelmed and going into denial, which is what I do in my pedestrian life. In a weird way, I emerged with the voice of a girl from the future singing this song. I hope it’s not construed as reporting a reality, as I felt like it’s an emotional condition.

I also think about grieving. The reality is that there’s a lot lost already to grieve, in relationship to the environment and the world that created us and gave birth to us. It has suffered tremendously at our hand. The thing about grief is that you can’t start to grieve until you’re in a place of safety. If you’re still in control mode or denial, you can’t grieve. Grieving is part of the healing process. I also just wanted to go down on record that we were feeling this way in 2008. That felt really important to me. It’s something that has really become part of the collective consciousness—definitely the collective unconscious, anyway. All of us are in a state of confusion about our relationship to our environment.

The past year was such a huge year in history, not only for what happened, but for the beginnings of events that are about to happen, both positive and negative. Psychologically, there has been a lot of bridging between previous denial and an acceptance of reality, and trying to survive emotionally—both in the immediate terms of what’s coming economically, and longer terms environmentally. It’s been a year where people are examining the purpose of what we do. I’m really curious to see in the next 12 months, but also the next few years, how much that trickles down and how much re-examination we actually do about the damage we do to each other and the world.

In America, we’re still so protected from the frontier of that shift, of people that are affected environmentally. There are, obviously, millions of people who are being affected environmentally. And certainly a lot of other species. Another question is, what’s my relationship with the consciousness of other species? I was raised a Catholic, and raised to believe that we have a separation between ourselves and the animals, the mountains, the trees. Now, after studying Butoh when I was younger, I’m more open to singing a song from a lot of different perspectives. There are plenty of animals from whose perspective you could sing “Another World.” That’s just today’s reality. That’s interesting to me as a creative jumping-off point.

There’s a book called The World Without Us. Have you read that or heard of it?

Yeah, it’s been really popular. People take a lot of consolation from that book, but I think it’s a pipe dream. People love to think that nature will survive, but the fact of the matter is that by the time we’re finished here, there’s not going to much else living besides us. For sure, all the mammals will be gone. The ecosystems in the ocean will have collapsed. You pretty much have to start from scratch. It’s not like some virus will come along and kill all the humans and leave all the three-trillion-times-more-tender and vulnerable creatures to live their lives.

And to be fair, that is the premise of the book—an entirely hypothetical scenario where humans disappear for no apparent reason.

It’s a fantasy to make us feel better. In reality, the opposite is true. The rest of the earth will be gone, and we’ll be stuck here. That’s the kind of loneliness I’m talking about. In a way, that book helps people feel absolved of responsibility or guilt or having a real impact on the environment. When really, we should be referencing the opposite scene: how can we come to terms with the impact we have on the environment, and how can we digest it? It calls for a shift in all our archetypes. That book speaks to the old system of looking at God, where God was all-powerful and we were powerless. God and nature would always be present. It was the absolute.

Nature was resilient and renewable.

Yeah, and we were just minions. In reality, unconsciously or not, we’ve taken on the role of God in our influence on the environment and our influence on the destinies of every other creature on this earth.

Which we have for a long time, stemming in part from what you described as the Catholic philosophy or assumption that we have domain over the natural world.

It’s a rotten, patriarchal set-up that has led us to the point. Also, this idea that this earth is just a holding place where we can prove our goodness before heading off to heaven. Heaven is the destiny. The earth, at best, is some kind of feminine, slightly wicked presence that we’ve been trying to expunge from our spiritual views for 2000 years. The earth was always considered the feminine, and there’s no room for the feminine. I mean, look at the fucking Pope on Christmas Day, with what he was saying! It’s the same fucking shit that’s been going on—it’s a fucking joke, that this Nazi Youth Pope is belching out this idea that gay and transgender people are as much of a threat to the future of humanity as the decimation of the rainforest. What more of a disturbance could he possibly to do both the rainforest and humanity? Oh, it’s just rancid.

It’s very interesting you bring up these analogies, because I was just about to ask you about how there are environmental themes on this record and much of your previous work dealt with gender issues. What linkages do you see between the two? You were just talking about the connection between the patriarchy and the feminine earth. Is this a shift in your writing, or is it all interconnected?

Well, (sighs), I do have my own little theories. I think there’s a huge link between an emotionally, intuitively shut-down society—what I would define as the characteristics of a patriarchal society, or one with patriarchal values—and that creates the pathway that makes this outcome possible. When we’re shut down from our relationship with our mother, or the mother and child inside us, to our vulnerability—it’s from that place of vulnerability or feminine intuition that we perceive our interconnectedness with the environment…

Our empathy.

Yes. It’s all those things. With the economic model we have now, that’s not one of its values. It’s not built on compassion. What would compassionate capitalism look like? No one ever said capitalism was ethical. You read those articles about people working in Auschwitz or something, or even in more subtle ways, when people work at a huge corporation or something. They can go to work and function in ways that are so cruel, because they function as cogs in a structure that has a different value system. They participate in that, but when they go home they have a different set of values in their heart. But what we’re perpetuating is something quite virulent. Our approach to the earth at this point is virulent. We’re just consuming it and killing it. Even those of us with the best intentions, like me—I’m still flying around in planes. And I’m still struggling with it. It’s still abstract to me. But the reality is not abstract. It’s physical, a physical impact.

I was recalling Naomi Klein’s introduction to her book No Logo, where she wrote about how she spent much of the ’90s focusing on personal identity politics at university, personal and social issues, at a time when major economic decisions were being made that effected living and working conditions in every corner of the globe, not to mention environmental impacts.

That stuff drives me crazy. It’s just dawning on me, what we were talking about at the beginning about bringing an inner life to the table and finding its relation to the world around us. All these people fussing and fighting about gay marriage on the night of the election—it’s just another pathetic set-up by the right-wing. They’ve pulled that card for the last three campaigns. It’s always, “Here comes gay marriage, here comes abortion.” It’s always an election-year issue, and this crap gets put on the ballots to discourage people from voting liberal. All the gay people are in an uproar about their little piece of the pie and, I mean, there’s a time and a place. Gay rights will be useless if we’re all floating on a piece of Styrofoam in 50 years. We have to integrate our personal development and our personal conflicts with a relationship to the world around us—not just to society, but with ecology.

So it’s not picking our battles, it’s about integrating these struggles?

Well, look, I don’t know what I’m talking about. I’m just an idiot. You can hear me struggle to put words together. In the mid-90s it was a problem, that all these academics were in their thinktanks. I remember taking a class in feminist ecology at NYU in 1991, and at most campuses I’m sure we felt that we were just so far from view. It’s only in the last five years that we really started taking it to heart, and it’s because it’s undeniable now. Everyone’s perception of the weather is that it’s changed. I think it’s interesting what you said about that lady [Naomi Klein]. I wonder about that.

And another thing about gender issues and gay identity: I think people gave away a lot of their power, especially the gay community, when they settled for a definition of what gay identity entailed. It’s become such a battle over relationships. People’s perception of what being gay could mean has really been eroded by the identity that they’ve been marked as.

Is there a static gay identity? It seems to me like there’s less of one than there is a static heterosexual identity, which still revolves around the nuclear family.

With a heterosexual, you can at least participate in a variety of different cultures. But if you’re gay, you’re sold this merchandise, this music that you have to listen to, through the cultural promoters, the magazines and whatnot. You’re sold this serious of behaviours that you’re supposed to engage in. The point is, what else does it mean to be gay? I think of sexual orientation as a secondary characteristic of a gay—or for me, transgender—identity. Sexual orientation is just another behaviour.

Maybe there’s something intuitively more different about a gay person than what they want to have sex with. Maybe there’s a consciousness or an awareness that a gay person can bring to the table. Or an ecology or a different sense of the environment, as a result of growing in a culture where you feel so alienated and so separate, you do get a different perspective of your relationship with the world. Those are tools that could be applied to having a more bird’s-eye view. Maybe gay people could be ecologists!

Maybe there’s a more spiritual basis for their difference than their orientation. It’s a bit reductive. People got short-changed when they were told that being a faggot means you’re a cocksucker.

In certain Native American spirituality, there’s the notion of being two-spirited, and it’s perceived as being a gift and not a negative thing at all, it’s a value of perception and empathy. Two-spirited people were often healers.

I am friends with some two-spirits in Vancouver, and they have a much more soulful idea of what their identity is about. It’s amazing and really empowering.

I’m curious about the song “Epilepsy is Dancing.” Disease as a metaphor appears in other songs of yours, and I’m wondering what it is about being diseased—or being perceived as being diseased—that you think creates empathy and understanding.

Having seizures is typically associated with being possessed or witchcraft. It can be seen as an ecstatic experience that makes you an untouchable; historically, people are frightened of that. For me, it presents a total loss of control; you’re definitely engaged, although not in a way that you’ve consciously chosen. You’re participating in life in a very different way. The song is a simple narrative about a person that loses that control and then reflects on it later, about the choreography of it.

Butoh provides the visual backdrop to both the EP and the new album. I’ve been reading about it lately, on a surface level, but how would you describe it to a layman?

There are two different things. There is butoh as a form that a ton of different dancers are exploring new vocabularies for. But for me, it was about Kazuo Ohno and a very particular type of dance that set him apart from the pack. The album is dedicated to him, because he is my art hero and art parent, in a way. He’s one of the co-founders of butoh.

It emerged from traditional Japanese forms of noh and kabuki, and then informed by expressionism and apocalyptic imagery after the nuclear holocaust in Japan, and Jean Genet’s writings and a lot of experimental, new ideas that were coming out of dance and performance in the early ’60s.

It’s characterized by a sense of transformation, of momentum or a spirit or an energy that reaches beyond the parameters of the human form. Often it also visualizes an aspect of the natural world. It’s almost meditational. It seeks to embody the atomic movement of a stone or a mountain, or the feeling of growing inside a tree. That’s one plane of it. It’s also metaphysical in dealing with time and space, the idea that you can reach across time in a different way, and perform propelled by the spirit of your great-great-grandmother, or dancing with the ghosts in the walls around you. With Kazuo Ono, there is a lot of exploration of a divine child and his mother. A lot of butoh focuses on issues of life and death.

What’s interesting about Kazuo Ohno is that he converted to Catholicism in his ’50s. You hear a lot about artists who convert to Eastern theologies, but you rarely hear about eastern people converting to Western theologies.

Especially Catholicism!

He did a lot of explorations of dancing from Jean Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers. This is total speculation on my part, but he was probably drawn to the more ecstatic elements of Catholicism. Eastern religions tend to be stoic and impersonal; the idea is for the self to erase in a way. Catholics are still into mountaintop ecstasies and the crying and the blood sacrifices. There is a devotionalism that Catholics draw on, whereas Eastern religions are more about dissolving into oneness.

What elements in your own writing or work do you think tie in directly to the concepts of butoh?

Especially on stage for me, I’m always applying the vocabulary I studied in butoh, as a singer. Rarely am I mining my personal life for motivation to sing. Usually, I’m engaged in seeking a creative impulse, or a set of imagery that can propel me through the song or the moment, to unveil the present for me in a different way.

Maybe as I’m singing, a flock of flamingos are bursting out of my heart, and I ride the momentum of those birds as I sing forward. Maybe when the audience exhales it creates a green mist collects before them, as a momentum, and it dances in a circle that resolves in a huge glowing pool in the middle of the room, and we all look at it and I sing into that place. There are so many different creative flights of fancy that I can take when I’m on stage that motivate and engage me in a creative joy that makes me want to sing.

Do you think other singers could learn from dance and visualization, as opposed to mining their own emotional terrain in performance? The latter can be very crippling, I would imagine, night after night. Very draining.

(laughs). A lot of my songs come from somewhere very personal. What I just described is more of a tool in performance, to expand on the songs. It’s affected all areas of my life: my writing, my approach to lyrics, and the way I move through imagery. I think a lot of that comes through studying butoh.

I studied with this teacher named Maureen Fleming, who was amazing. Before that I went to a performing arts school, which was so focused on technique and things that were too abstract to me. Maureen would just plug me right in with a crazy image that really worked for me. Some people are very structural, and they need to know how to pull in this muscle and push out that muscle. If they get the structure of the body right, they can inhabit the form. For me, it’s totally emotional and bound to intuition and creative dreaming, this thing that makes me want to dance into space with my voice, or in relationships in general. It’s a freedom, an abandon.

I get really bound up when I get into structural, physical stuff. When I can take a flight of fancy in my creative mind, that can carry me through anything—including expressions that I would never be able to figure out how to do, if left to my own devices. It’s a communion with the world around you; it’s not just about you anymore. It’s a relationship with your creative muse, which is a gift.

The sound of your music has changed over the years. The first record was comparatively elaborate; even though there are strings all over this record, it still sounds stripped down next to the first one. I’m wondering if that’s a result of your own confidence through those processes you’re describing, finding a lot of those things in your voice as opposed to dressing up the music—and even you yourself physically, in how you present yourself onstage.

When I started performing, it was like singing into a wind machine, when you perform in night clubs at 2 a.m. You have to make a really strong, theatrical statement to get your point across to a bunch of drunk people who want to have sex. If your goal is to make them cry, you have to push. Generally speaking, I had a full-on sense of theatrics.

As it progressed and I got more involved in the music world—as opposed to presenting in these theatrical performance contexts—I realize there’s a lot more room for subtlety, and for intimacy. How to communicate that is different in the recording than it is live. The voicing is different.

It’s been a slow learning curve for me in the studio, to make a recording effective. I’m still a student of that. It’s like combing the most tangled dreadlock every time. I ended up piling everything on, and then spending a lot of time stripping it back down again. In the end, it’s a question of what’s essential.

-end-

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

'08 on a plate, part three

The last installment of the Top 30 of '08. Apologies for the brevity and the occasional recycling, but as my dear friend James Rocchi likes to say, December and January give every critic a bad case of "Top Ten-donitis." Part one is here; part two is here.




James Pants – Welcome (Stones Throw).
There’s a function on most music software called “quantizing,” which ensures that every element of a track is synched-up rhythmically. It’s ensured that almost all hip-hop and electronic music of the last 20 years never misses a beat—literally. I have no idea whether the man who calls himself James Pants, a bedroom producer from Spokane, Washington, is prone to abusing his “quantizing” function, but I doubt it: his raw, synth-y take on early ’80s electro jams excels with elasticity and loose grooves that sound tangible as opposed to mechanical. Handclaps, cowbells, MPCs and 808s accentuate garage rock drumming, with bubbly bass lines that slip into punk, jazz and funk. Controversy-era Prince and the Beasties’ Check Your Head are obvious influences, but there are more than a few other ants in Mr. Pants to keep us guessing.




Pas Chic Chic – Au Contraire (Semprini).
Montreal’s Pas Chic Chic give Franco pop a swift kick in the derriere, taking the Farfisa organs and song structures and stripping them of any twee leanings. Instead, they install an amplified arsenal of electric guitars that swirl around the pop melodies and threaten to drench them with droning psychedelics, while the rhythm section dallies back and forth between the dance floor and pummelling their point home. Sometimes that happens in the same song, like the album’s aptly-titled centrepiece, “Vous Comprenez Pourquoi?”, where searing, screeching guitars take over a the harrowing mid-section of a dramatic and driving pop song. Imagine Sonic Youth and Black Mountain bum-rushing the stage at a Belle and Sebastian show. Even at its most punishing and sinister, Pas Chic Chic manage to convey sentiments of sweetness and hope, when they’re not delivering menace, mystery and melody in equal doses. (adapted from a review that ran here in April)




Portishead – Third (Universal).
Loneliness never sounds lovelier than in the hands of Beth Gibbons and Geoff Barrow, who return after nine years with an album that is as dark, distorted and disorienting as it is entirely intoxicating and gorgeous. This also vindicates their legacy, which was tarnished by far too many wussy jazz singers setting half-assed torch songs to downtempo hip-hop. Even in its quietest moments, Third is a tough, tenacious and often downright creepy. If they disappear for another decade in order to craft an album as good as this one, it's worth the wait.







Q-Tip – The Renaissance (Motown/Universal).
LL Cool J put out an album this year—did anyone care? Questions about artists’ ability to age well in a hip-hop career continue to be valid, but no one told Q-Tip. Maybe a nine-year absence makes his flow grow fresher, but the Abstract MC hasn't been this on his game since the heyday of his beloved early '90s crew A Tribe Called Quest—and yet this is not a retro rehash. He’s still smooth like butta, baby, though he has yet to cheeze out entirely in his middle-age (the extraneous Norah Jones cameo notwithstanding). When he branches out into discofied funk (“ManWomanBoogie”) or guitar grooves (“Good Thang”), he pulls it off with aplomb. While many of his peers are spinning their wheels, this may well be launch Q-Tip’s own full-blown Renaissance.




The Ruby Suns – Sea Lion (Sub Pop).
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. 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. 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. (adapted from the original review that ran here)




Snailhouse – Lies on the Prize
(Unfamiliar/Saved by Vinyl).

Mike Feuerstack has spent his career in the trenches of Canadian indie music, and only now is finally reaching the prime of his career: everything here—his singing, his songwriting and his sense of arrangements—is far and above superior not only to his own discography, but to that of most of his peers in 2008, including his disciples such as The Acorn and Bruce Peninsula. Plenty of his extended family of collaborators chip in here, including old friend/drummer/producer Jeremy Gara (Arcade Fire), Angela Desveaux, and members of The Acorn and Bell Orchestre. Feuerstack’s previous work as Snailhouse had him pegged as a bit of a sad sack; while Lies on the Prize certainly has its melancholy moments, it's also a mature work that successfully balances his earlier prog influences with more straightforward singer/songwriter fare. Feuerstack has the age and experience to write with a mature voice where pessimism and harsh realism never surrender entirely to cynicism; he might live in a world where “they’ll only hear you when you lie,” but still believes that “all in good time you’ll wake up feeling fine.” These lucky 13 tracks comprise the most underrated Canadian album of 2008, which was released last June to little fanfare. With an album this timeless, however, it’s never too late to catch up. (adapted from a review that ran in the K-W Record on December 31)




Tagaq – Auk/Blood (Jericho Beach).
Considering that the origin of Inuit throat singing is a competition between two women, Tagaq plays very well with others on her sophomore album—though not necessarily other vocalists. Duets with Mike Patton and Buck 65 fall a bit flat, compared to the way her (literally) breathtaking vocal textures weave through string arrangements by Jesse Zubot and the Kronos Quartet. Tagaq is a force of nature whose live performances are largely improvisational, but here she inhabits just enough structure to allow others into her world. Her sexuality is visceral and demanding, and on “Hunger” she slows down for a sensual reflection that's spinetingling. There's no one else in Canada—and very few anywhere else in the world—who is taking vocal music to the extremes that Tagaq is.




Vampire Weekend – s/t (XL).
This album has had 12 months to sustain the avalanche of hype—after all, what band lands on the cover of Spin with their debut album? And yet, 10 flavours-of-the-months later, this still sounds refreshing and charming, the sound of an excitable young band throwing everything they have into three-chord pop songs: harpsichords and strings, African guitars, and a love of propulsive '60s pop, never once being more busy than they have to be. Where they go from here doesn't even matter; this is a classic debut in the vein of the Violent Femmes, Jonathan Richman or the Hidden Cameras.





Chad Van Gaalen – Soft Airplane
(Flemish Eye).

This humble Calgarian is a creative hero to many Canadian musicians, and this album provides 13 reasons why (along with the animated videos this multi-disciplinary artist made to accompany them). Van Gaalen makes 21st century folk music with acoustic guitars, harmonicas, video game technology, found objects, banjos and bleeps—all adorning songs suited for campfire ghost stories and layered with equal parts distortion, dissonance and devastating beauty. Van Gaalen's quavering falsetto sings, "Nobody knows where we go when we're dead or when we're dreaming," but judging by the spellbinding sonic landscape he's created here, he knows a thing or two about alternate realities.




John Zorn's Bar Kokhba – Lucifer (Tzadik).
Just look at the line-up here, and you know you can't go wrong: the Masada String Trio (Mark Feldman, Greg Cohen, Erik Friedlander), Cyro Baptista, Marc Ribot, and Joey Baron, playing songs from Zorn's second Masada songbook. This is chamber music jazz with Latin percussion and Jewish melodic motifs played by six of the finest musicians in New York City, who weave in and around each other as soloists, duos and trios all in the same track. It's sumptuous, intoxicating and, despite its superficially polite reserve, has much more bite to it than Zorn's other 2008 foray into easy listening territory, The Dreamers. His Book of Angels series is where he's doing his finest work these days, and this may well be the best installment.




HONORABLE MENTION
Don Brownrigg – Wander Songs (Weewerk)
Cadence Weapon – After Party Babies (Upper Class)
Glen Campbell – Meet (EMI)
Fairmont – Coloured in Memory (Border Community)
Al Green – Lay It Down (Blue Note)
Clutchy Hopkins – Who is Clutchy Hopkins? (Ubiquity)
Human Highway – Moody Motorcycle (Secret City)
Kocani Orkestar – The Ravished Bride (Crammed)
Mt. Eerie and Julie Doiron – Lost Wisdom (K)
Rural Alberta Advantage – Hometowns (independent)

Monday, January 05, 2009

'08 on a plate, part two

The middle ten of this year's Top 30, in alphabetical order.





Hanggai – Introducing Hanggai (Introducing).
My favourite part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC is (of course) the music section, tracing the evolution of various types of instruments. It’s fascinating to me that every culture has its own version of the guitar or lute, its own variety of wind instruments, and its own variation on a linear keyboard. Likewise, listening to a band like Hanggai—comprised of Mongolian singers and string players living in Beijing—it’s intriguing to hear what sound like Irish melodies or Native North American motifs, along with African blues (the latter a connection made a decade ago in the film Genghis Blues). Some indie rock reviewers even claimed to hear the Velvet Underground in the droning violin and precisely plodding percussion; a track like “Wuji” chugs along like a great metal song--complete with guttural vocals—only played on the two-stringed ehru instead of electric guitar. The production is perfect, falling into neither “world music” trap of being either too “authentically” raw nor too Westernized slick. Whatever makes your world go round, Hanggai is like everything and nothing you’ve ever heard before.





Veda Hille – This Riot Life (Ape House).
This veteran Vancouver singer/songwriter sings about how “this spring is the one other seasons aim to be,” and being blessed with “ridiculous abundance.” She may well be singing about her “Lucklucky” eleventh album, which is rich with simple hymnal melodies, raging piano prog-rock and chamber-music arrangements, with dashes of klezmer and Japanese cabaret. And though this makes the disc sounds deadly serious, Hille is full of levity and irreverence towards her spiritual subjects, like those “sacred hearts that bleed all over everywhere” and the “kid of God [who] stays up all night long.” No wonder The Weakerthans slid her some of their Echo songwriting prize money. For fans of: Rheostatics, Kate Bush, Sufjan Stevens, John Zorn's Masada. (originally appeared in Eye Weekly’s year-end wrap-up here.)




Hilotrons – Happymatic (Kelp).
Normally, the musicians of the Hilotrons’ age and experience that I find the most interesting have usually graduated beyond rock music by their mid-30s. And yet here, Ottawa’s finest live band write and perform peppy pop with the energy of a band half their age, but with the smarts and the chops that can only come from seasoned veterans. It’s hard to pick an MVP in this band: drummer Philip Shaw Bova is a strong contender, for driving the beat of “Emergency Street” alone; the push and pull between bassist Damian Sawka and rhythm guitarist Paul Hogan; the squelchy synth blasts coming from keyboardists Mikes Shultz and Dubue; and Dubue’s strangulated pitch-perfect vocals, which embody the inner geek who finally gets to dance and show up the rest of the office at the Christmas party. Are Hot Hot Heat still around? If so, why? Especially when the Hilotrons render them and the vast majority of their ilk entirely irrelevant.




iNSiDEaMiND – Scatterpopia (Public Transit Recordings).
The album by these Toronto turntablists opens with what sounds like a black box recorder, though where exactly their flight path leads is never clear—but this is clearly about the journey not the destination. Scatterpopia is not about dance floor climaxes or macho posturing; instead, iNSiDEaMiND peer into the dark corners of their vinyl collections to create captivating sound art. Abstract turntablism and what was once called “illbient” music seems almost antiquated ten years after its heyday—anyone listened to DJ Spooky lately?—yet iNSiDEaMiND manage to mine new textures and breathe new life into the genre, over successfully stuttering beats that keep the listener on edge while never veering right off the rhythmic cliff ala Autechre. They get help from bass-heavy beatmaster Ghislain Poirier on “Twilight Harvest,” though “Yopo’s Secret Recipe” shows they can bring the bounce on their own when they want to. The occasional vocalist is a pleasant distraction, but this is instrumental music that’s rich with its own narratives.




Kardinal Offishall – Not 4 Sale (Konlive/Universal).
The veteran Toronto producer/MC was hotter than ever in 2008—not just because he was on the Tonight Show and scored a Top 10 hit in America (the Akon duet "Dangerous," just in case you weren't near a radio all summer), but because that track was little more than a gateway drug to the more sublime pleasures and thrills heard on Not For Sale. Kardinal had a solid album's worth of blazing tracks to back it up, with hard rhymes about ghetto resilience, satirical skits that skewer gangsta ignorance, and bountiful bass-heavy beats that draw from ragga, reggae, '80 pop, mainstream R&B and the darker edges of hip-hop.







La India Canela – Merengue Tipico From the Dominican Republic (Smithsonian Folkways).
This Dominican woman plays a fast and furious accordion at neck-jerking tempos, matched note-for-note by her bassist and saxophonist, who are just as melodic and nimble, especially when tumbling triplets interrupt the relentless two-step rhythms. Together, they shred their way through originals and merengue classics with endless adrenaline. No wonder this music is traditionally the soundtrack for cockfighting. (This ran as part of Exclaim's year-end coverage here)








Leila – Blood Looms and Blooms (Warp).
Disappearing for much of the last decade gave Leila the chance to sit back and contextualize trends in electronic music since her first album. As a result, Blood Looms and Blooms draws from early Portishead and Tricky, borrows some of the beats she crafted for Bjork, delves into more distorted territory, moves into druggy dreamscapes ala Boards of Canada, dabbles in sound art and chamber music, reaches back to Tangerine Dream, and relaxes with some Brazilian/Baltimore bounce for good measure.








Magnetic Fields – Distortion (Nonesuch/Warner).
Since hitting the jackpot with 69 Love Songs ten years ago, Stephin Merritt has for the most part spread his best songs over various projects and albums, some more gimmicky—sorry, conceptual—than others. Sometimes he strikes gold, as he did on the underrated Gothic Archies tie-in with the Lemony Snicket series. But the songs on Distortion are united only in their aesthetic, which involves waves of icy, reverbed and tinny guitars framing consistently excellent examples of Merritt’s arch lyrics and superior melodies. 69 Love Songs singer Shirley Simms returns as guest vocalist, and Merritt is as droll as ever; their duet “Please Stop Dancing (In My Head)” underscored the fact that these songs were near-impossible to forget.





Jun Miyake – Stolen From Strangers (Do Right!).
Cultural dislocation sounds positively intoxicating in the hands of Japanese flugelhorn player Jun Miyake, who bounces between Bulgaria, Brazil, New York City, Tokyo, and his adopted hometown of Paris. Bleary-eyed bossa nova for “Le Voyageur Solitaire” predominates, with detours into fractured French chanson and Japanese crooning. I knew nothing about Miyake before the Toronto label Do Right! licensed this album for North America; now I want to dive into his entire discography during a month of Sundays.









Nomo – Ghost Rock (Ubiquity)
Ghost Rock opens with what sounds like a Morse code signal from outer space, before launching a beat that sounds like Tony Allen turned inside out and upside down. The next track kicks in with some Konono-inspired distorted kalimba, and from there on in Nomo take Afrobeat to psychedelic locales that are often promised by anxious Western scribes but rarely materialize in the still-worthy flood of ’70s compilations that continued to emerge throughout 2008. Producer Warren Defever (His Name is Alive) deserves a lot of credit for how amazing this album sounds, though the band has no problem carving out an identity of their own in the increasingly crowded Afrobeat revival.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

'08 on a plate

In alphabetical order, my Top 30 of '08.



The Awkward Stage – Slimming Mirrors, Flattering Lights (Mint).
Vancouver singer/songwriter Shane Nelken writes fantastic classical pop melodies, expands his arrangement skills on this second album, and is the kind of “smart” songwriter that isn’t winking at you in every second phrase or, even worse, flexing his thesaurus for vocab brownie points. He never comes off as smug or showy—not even when writing a jazzy waltz called “True Love on Three With Feeling.” His lyrics here are, for the most part, astounding. Nearly every song either paints a complete narrative portrait or contains plenty of poetic zingers per capita; his turns of phrase and internal rhyme schemes put him up there with Randy Newman; perhaps someday soon even Leonard Cohen, circa I’m Your Man, (although obviously an entirely different tone and a slim fraction of the generational gravitas). Yet for all his wordiness, Nelken never tries to cram more words-per-minute to crowd the melody. And the arrangements are universally excellent: the acoustic songs are lush and lovely, while glammed-up guitars give songs like “Hey Modern School Girl” and the raucous “Anime Eyes” more punch than was ever heard on the band’s debut album two years back. “Mini Skirt of Xmas Lights” covers all the band’s bases in one song. (this was adapted from this earlier post)



Erykah Badu – New Amerykah Part One: 4th World War (Universal).
In a year when even the most conservative commentators had to acknowledge the decline of the American empire, Erykah Badu was documenting its dissolution and attempting to make sense from the chaos in a way that few soul artists have done ever since Sly Stone disappeared in a drug-induced fit of paranoia. This doesn't have the easy answers of retro soul or lightweight jazzy and modern R&B; in the New Amerykah, Badu's brand of soul music promises, "We take your history and make it a modern mystery."








Calexico – Carried to Dust
(Quarterstick/Touch and Go).

While there's always been a joyous element listening to a band of Calexico's caliber explore various genres and textures—notably Mexican and mariachi elements—Carried to Dust not only displays their prowess as instrumentalists and arrangers, but as songwriters. And by fully exploiting the lower end of his vocal range, Joey Burns is no longer the sideman who stumbled into fronting a band. The Latin influences are integrated here in ways that they’ve been striving for since their inception. Calexico has been searching somewhat restlessly for years; it sounds like they're finally home.






Dungen – 4 (Kemado)
I’ve heard this Swedish band’s other records in passing, and I’ve even seen them live once; nothing left much of an impression until now. I don’t know if they’ve changed or if I have, but from the first snippets I heard online, I found this completely captivating, and not just because they’re the first band with a flute that I’ve enjoyed since early Belle and Sebastian. The fuzzy psychedelic prog numbers are melodic and epic; the jazzy piano interludes are wintry and wonderful; even the two guitar-wank pieces manage to be compelling. For fans of: Black Sabbath, Van Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Vince Guaraldi.







The D'Urbervilles – We Are the Hunters
(Out of This Spark)

I've spent too many years in shitty bars listening to too many boys play the same chords the same way, but there is no other rock'n'roll band in the land that pulls me to the front of the stage, throws my hands in the air and has me screaming with reckless abandon like an adolescent girl discovering these visceral pleasures for the first time. And the album lives up to every second of the live show--engineer Chris Stringer deserves full marks for combining the sonic pleasures of both AC/DC and Martha and the Muffins. An earlier review is here; interview is here.






Kathleen Edwards – Asking For Flowers (Maple/Universal).
Canadian songwriters used to have a strong storytelling tradition of which there are only traces now: the Weakerthans' John K. Samson, Chad Van Gaalen, and Kathleen Edwards. Edwards hits her stride on this, her third album, where she balances one-liners with fully formed short stories, and is backed up by ace players, including keyboardist Benmont Tench. I’m still not sure why she’s a better singer live than she is in the studio, but the songs are the show-stealers here. More verbiage here.









Fleet Foxes – s/t (Sub Pop/Outside).
Anyone who fell in love with the gorgeous folk pop of Fleet Foxes’ 2008 debut found that it made much more sense knowing that the band is situated in the natural splendour of the Pacific Northwest. The environmental effect is obvious. Canyons of reverbs are applied to the stunning four-part harmonies that weave through every melody here; the music has the majesty of mountains, while every flourish of orchestral percussion sounds like the collapse of an ocean wave. This isn’t merely a case of critical clich├ęs; Pecknold is a writer who explicitly references mountains, “quivering forests,” hills, and meadowlarks, as well as Seattle landmarks. (adapted from this piece in Exclaim magazine’s year-end wrap-up)





Forest City Lovers – Haunting Moon Sinking (Out of This Spark).
Kat Burns kills me. For starters, I’m a sucker for subtle ladies who sing melancholy morning melodies with lots of pianos, strings and clarinets. Burns is an unusual female vocalist: she’s certainly not a rocker, and nor is she showy or cutesy; in fact, she’s often totally deadpan, though never dull. She’s consistently strong, steady and with just a hint of a quaver that betrays a slight vulnerability underneath the calm exterior. Burns is a vivid writer with an eye for the smallest details, as heard on songs like “Orphans” and “Waiting on the Fence,” and can say so much in the offhand way she delivers a line like: “Maybe I’ll never have your baby, if our love runs out of time.” On top of that, her Lovers are fully engaged in making sure every note counts, knowing exactly when to expand and contract, and with enough ego in check to sit out most of any given song entirely, if necessary. Mika Posen’s violin provides not only the expected textures, but a wonderful melodic counterbalance; she also provides some of the slight Eastern European motifs heard here. (originally ran as part of my pre-Polaris posts in September, here)
Forest City Lovers play the Tranzac in Toronto this Saturday, January 10, and the Albion in Guelph on January 16 as part of Out Of This Spark’s anniversary celebrations. They will also be touring with Geoff Berner in February.




Fuck Buttons – Street Horrsing
(All Tomorrow's Parties).

Normally I don’t enjoy anything that would probably cite Skinny Puppy as an influence—never mind something that sounds like my refrigerator is under demonic possession—but these sons of Suicide extract great beauty from abrasive and droning electronics. It helps that the percussion is kept to a minimum and steers away from clich├ęs—it’s more tribal than techno—and the vocals veer between unintelligible distorted screams and what sounds like either bird calls or primate mating rituals. Whatever the reason, this Horrsing around felt cathartic and cleansing.






Larkin Grimm – Parplar (Young God).
Plenty of artists like to identify as outsiders, whether they are or not. And usually it's easy to spot the ones who are putting on some kind of front, trying to out-weird each other to mask insecurities and—more often than not—inadequacies. That's certainly not the case with Larkin Grimm, who was raised in a religious cult in Georgia, studied sculpture at Yale, lived in Alaska for a while, and identifies as transgendered. You don't have to know any of that to appreciate her spellbinding third album, but it goes a long way in explaining what mysterious and miraculous worlds she uncovers on the 15 tracks here. At its heart, Grimm's music owes its largest debt to country, blues and mountain music traditions, with bits of birdsong, brass bands, sinister string sections and hand-crafted instrumentation assisting her in creating some of the freakiest folk around. Grimm's fairy tales are grounded in traditional melodies, tinged with more than a few hints of Eastern psychedelia and featuring fantastical lyrics about bodily parts and fluids, as well as the occasional unicorn. Her own backing vocals at times sounds like a hysterical Joan Baez trying to restrain herself in the middle of a drug trip, while Grimm's lead vocal remains cool, stern and steady. No matter how strange things get, however, Parplar is a beautiful record, and one that deserves to be discovered. (this review ran in the K-W Record, Dec 31)







Hanggai – Introducing Hanggai (Introducing).
My favourite part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC is (of course) the music section, tracing the evolution of various types of instruments. It’s fascinating to me that every culture has its own version of the guitar or lute, its own variety of wind instruments, and its own variation on a linear keyboard. Likewise, listening to a band like Hanggai—comprised of Mongolian singers and string players living in Beijing—it’s intriguing to hear what sound like Irish melodies or Native North American motifs, along with African blues (the latter a connection made a decade ago in the film Genghis Blues). Some indie rock reviewers even claimed to hear the Velvet Underground in the droning violin and precisely plodding percussion; a track like “Wuji” chugs along like a great metal song--complete with guttural vocals—only played on the two-stringed ehru instead of electric guitar. The production is perfect, falling into neither “world music” trap of being either too “authentically” raw nor too Westernized slick. Whatever makes your world go round, Hanggai is like everything and nothing you’ve ever heard before.





Veda Hille – This Riot Life (Ape House).
This veteran Vancouver singer/songwriter sings about how “this spring is the one other seasons aim to be,” and being blessed with “ridiculous abundance.” She may well be singing about her “Lucklucky” eleventh album, which is rich with simple hymnal melodies, raging piano prog-rock and chamber-music arrangements, with dashes of klezmer and Japanese cabaret. And though this makes the disc sounds deadly serious, Hille is full of levity and irreverence towards her spiritual subjects, like those “sacred hearts that bleed all over everywhere” and the “kid of God [who] stays up all night long.” No wonder The Weakerthans slid her some of their Echo songwriting prize money. For fans of: Rheostatics, Kate Bush, Sufjan Stevens, John Zorn's Masada. (originally appeared in Eye Weekly’s year-end wrap-up here.)




Hilotrons – Happymatic (Kelp).
Normally, the musicians of the Hilotrons’ age and experience that I find the most interesting have usually graduated beyond rock music by their mid-30s. And yet here, Ottawa’s finest live band write and perform peppy pop with the energy of a band half their age, but with the smarts and the chops that can only come from seasoned veterans. It’s hard to pick an MVP in this band: drummer Philip Shaw Bova is a strong contender, for driving the beat of “Emergency Street” alone; the push and pull between bassist Damian Sawka and rhythm guitarist Paul Hogan; the squelchy synth blasts coming from keyboardists Mikes Shultz and Dubue; and Dubue’s strangulated pitch-perfect vocals, which embody the inner geek who finally gets to dance and show up the rest of the office at the Christmas party. Are Hot Hot Heat still around? If so, why? Especially when the Hilotrons render them and the vast majority of their ilk entirely irrelevant.




iNSiDEaMiND – Scatterpopia (Public Transit Recordings).
The album by these Toronto turntablists opens with what sounds like a black box recorder, though where exactly their flight path leads is never clear—but this is clearly about the journey not the destination. Scatterpopia is not about dance floor climaxes or macho posturing; instead, iNSiDEaMiND peer into the dark corners of their vinyl collections to create captivating sound art. Abstract turntablism and what was once called “illbient” music seems almost antiquated ten years after its heyday—anyone listened to DJ Spooky lately?—yet iNSiDEaMiND manage to mine new textures and breathe new life into the genre, over successfully stuttering beats that keep the listener on edge while never veering right off the rhythmic cliff ala Autechre. They get help from bass-heavy beatmaster Ghislain Poirier on “Twilight Harvest,” though “Yopo’s Secret Recipe” shows they can bring the bounce on their own when they want to. The occasional vocalist is a pleasant distraction, but this is instrumental music that’s rich with its own narratives.




Kardinal Offishall – Not 4 Sale (Konlive/Universal).
The veteran Toronto producer/MC was hotter than ever in 2008—not just because he was on the Tonight Show and scored a Top 10 hit in America (the Akon duet "Dangerous," just in case you weren't near a radio all summer), but because that track was little more than a gateway drug to the more sublime pleasures and thrills heard on Not For Sale. Kardinal had a solid album's worth of blazing tracks to back it up, with hard rhymes about ghetto resilience, satirical skits that skewer gangsta ignorance, and bountiful bass-heavy beats that draw from ragga, reggae, '80 pop, mainstream R&B and the darker edges of hip-hop.







La India Canela – Merengue Tipico From the Dominican Republic (Smithsonian Folkways).
This Dominican woman plays a fast and furious accordion at neck-jerking tempos, matched note-for-note by her bassist and saxophonist, who are just as melodic and nimble, especially when tumbling triplets interrupt the relentless two-step rhythms. Together, they shred their way through originals and merengue classics with endless adrenaline. No wonder this music is traditionally the soundtrack for cockfighting. (This ran as part of Exclaim's year-end coverage here)








Leila – Blood Looms and Blooms (Warp).
Disappearing for much of the last decade gave Leila the chance to sit back and contextualize trends in electronic music since her first album. As a result, Blood Looms and Blooms draws from early Portishead and Tricky, borrows some of the beats she crafted for Bjork, delves into more distorted territory, moves into druggy dreamscapes ala Boards of Canada, dabbles in sound art and chamber music, reaches back to Tangerine Dream, and relaxes with some Brazilian/Baltimore bounce for good measure.








Magnetic Fields – Distortion (Nonesuch/Warner).
Since hitting the jackpot with 69 Love Songs ten years ago, Stephin Merritt has for the most part spread his best songs over various projects and albums, some more gimmicky—sorry, conceptual—than others. Sometimes he strikes gold, as he did on the underrated Gothic Archies tie-in with the Lemony Snicket series. But the songs on Distortion are united only in their aesthetic, which involves waves of icy, reverbed and tinny guitars framing consistently excellent examples of Merritt’s arch lyrics and superior melodies. 69 Love Songs singer Shirley Simms returns as guest vocalist, and Merritt is as droll as ever; their duet “Please Stop Dancing (In My Head)” underscored the fact that these songs were near-impossible to forget.





Jun Miyake – Stolen From Strangers (Do Right!).
Cultural dislocation sounds positively intoxicating in the hands of Japanese flugelhorn player Jun Miyake, who bounces between Bulgaria, Brazil, New York City, Tokyo, and his adopted hometown of Paris. Bleary-eyed bossa nova for “Le Voyageur Solitaire” predominates, with detours into fractured French chanson and Japanese crooning. I knew nothing about Miyake before the Toronto label Do Right! licensed this album for North America; now I want to dive into his entire discography during a month of Sundays.




Nomo – Ghost Rock (Ubiquity)
Ghost Rock opens with what sounds like a Morse code signal from outer space, before launching a beat that sounds like Tony Allen turned inside out and upside down. The next track kicks in with some Konono-inspired distorted kalimba, and from there on in Nomo take Afrobeat to psychedelic locales that are often promised by anxious Western scribes but rarely materialize in the still-worthy flood of ’70s compilations that continued to emerge throughout 2008. Producer Warren Defever (His Name is Alive) deserves a lot of credit for how amazing this album sounds, though the band has no problem carving out an identity of their own in the increasingly crowded Afrobeat revival.

The last installment of the Top 30 of '08. Apologies for the brevity and the occasional recycling, but as my dear friend James Rocchi likes to say, December and January give every critic a bad case of "Top Ten-donitis." Part one is here; part two is here.




James Pants – Welcome (Stones Throw).
There’s a function on most music software called “quantizing,” which ensures that every element of a track is synched-up rhythmically. It’s ensured that almost all hip-hop and electronic music of the last 20 years never misses a beat—literally. I have no idea whether the man who calls himself James Pants, a bedroom producer from Spokane, Washington, is prone to abusing his “quantizing” function, but I doubt it: his raw, synth-y take on early ’80s electro jams excels with elasticity and loose grooves that sound tangible as opposed to mechanical. Handclaps, cowbells, MPCs and 808s accentuate garage rock drumming, with bubbly bass lines that slip into punk, jazz and funk. Controversy-era Prince and the Beasties’ Check Your Head are obvious influences, but there are more than a few other ants in Mr. Pants to keep us guessing.




Pas Chic Chic – Au Contraire (Semprini).
Montreal’s Pas Chic Chic give Franco pop a swift kick in the derriere, taking the Farfisa organs and song structures and stripping them of any twee leanings. Instead, they install an amplified arsenal of electric guitars that swirl around the pop melodies and threaten to drench them with droning psychedelics, while the rhythm section dallies back and forth between the dance floor and pummelling their point home. Sometimes that happens in the same song, like the album’s aptly-titled centrepiece, “Vous Comprenez Pourquoi?”, where searing, screeching guitars take over a the harrowing mid-section of a dramatic and driving pop song. Imagine Sonic Youth and Black Mountain bum-rushing the stage at a Belle and Sebastian show. Even at its most punishing and sinister, Pas Chic Chic manage to convey sentiments of sweetness and hope, when they’re not delivering menace, mystery and melody in equal doses. (adapted from a review that ran here in April)




Portishead – Third (Universal).
Loneliness never sounds lovelier than in the hands of Beth Gibbons and Geoff Barrow, who return after nine years with an album that is as dark, distorted and disorienting as it is entirely intoxicating and gorgeous. This also vindicates their legacy, which was tarnished by far too many wussy jazz singers setting half-assed torch songs to downtempo hip-hop. Even in its quietest moments, Third is a tough, tenacious and often downright creepy. If they disappear for another decade in order to craft an album as good as this one, it's worth the wait.







Q-Tip – The Renaissance (Motown/Universal).
LL Cool J put out an album this year—did anyone care? Questions about artists’ ability to age well in a hip-hop career continue to be valid, but no one told Q-Tip. Maybe a nine-year absence makes his flow grow fresher, but the Abstract MC hasn't been this on his game since the heyday of his beloved early '90s crew A Tribe Called Quest—and yet this is not a retro rehash. He’s still smooth like butta, baby, though he has yet to cheeze out entirely in his middle-age (the extraneous Norah Jones cameo notwithstanding). When he branches out into discofied funk (“ManWomanBoogie”) or guitar grooves (“Good Thang”), he pulls it off with aplomb. While many of his peers are spinning their wheels, this may well be launch Q-Tip’s own full-blown Renaissance.




The Ruby Suns – Sea Lion (Sub Pop).
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. 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. 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. (adapted from the original review that ran here)




Snailhouse – Lies on the Prize
(Unfamiliar/Saved by Vinyl).

Mike Feuerstack has spent his career in the trenches of Canadian indie music, and only now is finally reaching the prime of his career: everything here—his singing, his songwriting and his sense of arrangements—is far and above superior not only to his own discography, but to that of most of his peers in 2008, including his disciples such as The Acorn and Bruce Peninsula. Plenty of his extended family of collaborators chip in here, including old friend/drummer/producer Jeremy Gara (Arcade Fire), Angela Desveaux, and members of The Acorn and Bell Orchestre. Feuerstack’s previous work as Snailhouse had him pegged as a bit of a sad sack; while Lies on the Prize certainly has its melancholy moments, it's also a mature work that successfully balances his earlier prog influences with more straightforward singer/songwriter fare. Feuerstack has the age and experience to write with a mature voice where pessimism and harsh realism never surrender entirely to cynicism; he might live in a world where “they’ll only hear you when you lie,” but still believes that “all in good time you’ll wake up feeling fine.” These lucky 13 tracks comprise the most underrated Canadian album of 2008, which was released last June to little fanfare. With an album this timeless, however, it’s never too late to catch up. (adapted from a review that ran in the K-W Record on December 31)




Tagaq – Auk/Blood (Jericho Beach).
Considering that the origin of Inuit throat singing is a competition between two women, Tagaq plays very well with others on her sophomore album—though not necessarily other vocalists. Duets with Mike Patton and Buck 65 fall a bit flat, compared to the way her (literally) breathtaking vocal textures weave through string arrangements by Jesse Zubot and the Kronos Quartet. Tagaq is a force of nature whose live performances are largely improvisational, but here she inhabits just enough structure to allow others into her world. Her sexuality is visceral and demanding, and on “Hunger” she slows down for a sensual reflection that's spinetingling. There's no one else in Canada—and very few anywhere else in the world—who is taking vocal music to the extremes that Tagaq is.




Vampire Weekend – s/t (XL).
This album has had 12 months to sustain the avalanche of hype—after all, what band lands on the cover of Spin with their debut album? And yet, 10 flavours-of-the-months later, this still sounds refreshing and charming, the sound of an excitable young band throwing everything they have into three-chord pop songs: harpsichords and strings, African guitars, and a love of propulsive '60s pop, never once being more busy than they have to be. Where they go from here doesn't even matter; this is a classic debut in the vein of the Violent Femmes, Jonathan Richman or the Hidden Cameras.





Chad Van Gaalen – Soft Airplane
(Flemish Eye).

This humble Calgarian is a creative hero to many Canadian musicians, and this album provides 13 reasons why (along with the animated videos this multi-disciplinary artist made to accompany them). Van Gaalen makes 21st century folk music with acoustic guitars, harmonicas, video game technology, found objects, banjos and bleeps—all adorning songs suited for campfire ghost stories and layered with equal parts distortion, dissonance and devastating beauty. Van Gaalen's quavering falsetto sings, "Nobody knows where we go when we're dead or when we're dreaming," but judging by the spellbinding sonic landscape he's created here, he knows a thing or two about alternate realities.




John Zorn's Bar Kokhba – Lucifer (Tzadik).
Just look at the line-up here, and you know you can't go wrong: the Masada String Trio (Mark Feldman, Greg Cohen, Erik Friedlander), Cyro Baptista, Marc Ribot, and Joey Baron, playing songs from Zorn's second Masada songbook. This is chamber music jazz with Latin percussion and Jewish melodic motifs played by six of the finest musicians in New York City, who weave in and around each other as soloists, duos and trios all in the same track. It's sumptuous, intoxicating and, despite its superficially polite reserve, has much more bite to it than Zorn's other 2008 foray into easy listening territory, The Dreamers. His Book of Angels series is where he's doing his finest work these days, and this may well be the best installment.




HONORABLE MENTION
Don Brownrigg – Wander Songs (Weewerk)
Cadence Weapon – After Party Babies (Upper Class)
Glen Campbell – Meet (EMI)
Fairmont – Coloured in Memory (Border Community)
Al Green – Lay It Down (Blue Note)
Clutchy Hopkins – Who is Clutchy Hopkins? (Ubiquity)
Human Highway – Moody Motorcycle (Secret City)
Kocani Orkestar – The Ravished Bride (Crammed)
Mt. Eerie and Julie Doiron – Lost Wisdom (K)
Rural Alberta Advantage – Hometowns (independent)