Friday, May 01, 2009

April reviews 09

April reviews from the mainstream daily paper the Kitchener-Waterloo Record.

Arcade Fire – Miroir Noir DVD (Merge)

You already know way too much about your favourite band. You’ve read their blog. You’ve heard them shoot their mouth off to any writer or radio host who will listen. You’ve seen all the amateur live video on YouTube. There is no mystique, no curiosity left.

That’s why, at a time when every moderately successful artist has a documentary DVD on the market, Arcade Fire’s Miroir Noir is so refreshing. There are no interviews here. There are very few complete songs, and most individual tracks are spliced together from footage of rehearsals, recordings and concerts. At other times, songs from the 2007 album Neon Bible appear in radically reductionist mixes, with only one or two instruments in isolation.

The film opens with the band members being put to sleep (or sedated) and lying lifeless on the floor; the next 70 minutes flows like a series of disconnected dreams and distant memories—which, no doubt, is probably how they remember the media whirlwind and the year-long world tour they started in March 2007. The through line of the film’s loose narrative is the disembodied voices of fans and bewildered innocents who called the 1-866-NEON-BIBLE number, which was set up as part of a mysterious marketing campaign that preceded the album’s release; their occasionally confessional ramblings are equally poignant and pointless. Halfway through the film, one caller decries the lack of “exciting developments” that the viral marketing promised; his voice is set to the image of guitarist Tim Kingsbury mowing the lawn.

Like the idea of a 1-800 number itself, Miroir Noir gives the viewer the illusion of intimacy and access to the band—there are plenty of candid moments, both beautiful and ridiculous—yet we don’t know any more about Arcade Fire by the end of the film than we did going in.

With handheld cameras, director Vincent Morisset and cinematographer Vincent Moon capture the energy and charisma of the band in a variety of settings, playing in cramped elevators and massive stadiums. One of the only live tracks to appear intact is fan favourite “Lights Out”—which consists almost entirely of footage of fans freaking out in the front row.

Other bands have tried this esoteric approach before—particularly Radiohead’s moribund Meeting People is Easy—but they usually don’t accomplish anything more than proving how boring life as a rock band really is. Miroir Noir, on the other hand, is mysterious, wondrous and enigmatic. (K-W Record, April 2)

Bell Orchestre – As Seen Through Windows (Arts and Crafts)

Two strings, two brass, guitar, saxophone and percussion—that’s the entire instrumentation of Bell Orchestre, though it certainly doesn’t sound like it on “Stripes,” the opening track of the Montreal ensemble’s second album, where everything is distorted beyond recognition while announcing a stately fanfare over top of pulsing tape loops.

Though the instrumentation comes into clearer focus on the rest of the album, a sense of mystique and wonder lingers. The brass section—trumpet and French horn—emulate a pachyderm parade on “Elephants,” a track where a bowed upright bass plays a dub reggae bass line, the violin swoops and dances around the melody, junkyard percussion crackles underneath Spanish handclaps, and at one point the string section and the drum kit hammer out a thrash metal rhythm. In the hands of almost anyone else, this would be a train wreck, albeit a lively and scenic one; Bell Orchestre tie it all together with taste, coherence and restraint. Not to mention beauty—their meticulous attention to detail is rewarded at every turn, especially the wintry atmospheric textures that underscore nearly every track. (K-W Record, April 23)

Beirut – March of the Zapotec/ Realpeople – Holland (Ba Da Bing!)

When Zach Condon first appeared as Beirut, trumpet and ukulele in hand, he drew influence from Balkan brass music that he’d only experienced second-hand at that point. On the first of two EPs bundled together here as a new album, he ventures from his New Mexico home to Mexico itself and hangs out with mariachi horn players—although the regional influence is hardly noticeable. This isn’t the cartoonish mariachi that often bleeds into gringo music; instead, it sounds just like Beirut (the band, of course), which speaks to Condon’s aesthetic existing outside specific geographical affectations.

That’s especially true when it comes to the second half of this album, credited to the alias Realpeople, where he abandons acoustic instrumentation entirely for electro pop ala The Postal Service. When set against an entirely digital landscape (save a lone accordion), Condon’s songwriting is instantly identifiable, even on the instrumental numbers absent of his Morrissey-esque crooning style.

In both halves of this release, Condon creates his own musical cartography that promises picturesque musical postcards for years to come. (K-W Record, April 2)

The Decemberists – The Hazards of Love (EMI)

The Decemberists’ singer/songwriter, Colin Meloy, has been mocked relentlessly for the literary aspirations he invests in his lyrical narratives. Which is entirely unfair—in this era of diminished expectations, Meloy should be commended for holding up a storytelling tradition and adapting it to his modern rock/pop/folk band.

Until now, that is. The Hazards of Love is the kind of bloated excess that Meloy’s critics have always accused him of, when in fact what made all his earlier records so compelling was his ability to create vivid characters and narratives in the space of a five-minute song. Here, he pens an hour-long opus with guest vocalists playing supporting characters, a children’s choir (of course), and jarring shifts of mood and genres (including metal).

And while the ambition is admirable, as is the musicians’ craft, the music itself is not. Given such a broad mandate, much of The Hazards of Love sounds the same—because a lot of it is the same, this being an opera with recurring motifs. But rather than providing continuity or hinting at thematic links, these motifs are merely tiresome over the course of an hour. Meloy has fallen down his own rabbit hole, letting the concept trump his own creativity; there’s nary a song here that compares with anything on their 2006 album The Crane Wife, which featured a similar (if less complex) narrative arc.

If anyone, Colin Meloy is the kind of songwriter that should be able to pull this off—which makes it all the more tragic that he doesn’t. (K-W Record, April 9)

Depeche Mode - Sounds of the Universe (Mute)

Fever Ray - s/t (Mute)

After 30 years as a member of Depeche Mode, Dave Gahan sings, "There's a fragile tension that keeps us going." The last half of the band's career has been bumpy, both personally and musically, which is likely why many fans are ecstatic to hear that Sounds of the Universe marries the two most beloved periods of the band: the analog synth sounds of their earliest hits and the more guitar-driven textures that fuelled their commercial breakthrough in the early '90s, when they were transformed into a stadium rock band.

But if Sounds of the Universe resembles classic Depeche Mode sonically, their best songwriting days are long behind them. There's a lot of soul searching going on in the lyrics, though it doesn't get much deeper than "peace will come to me" or "my little light will shine so bright" or "we are here/ we can love/ we share something." Their therapists must have trouble staying awake, and lacklustre melodies don't make it any easier for the audience.

Much more fascinating is Depeche Mode's labelmate Fever Ray, a new project for Karin Dreijer Andersson, one half of the icy Swedish electronic duo The Knife. As Fever Ray, Andersson still explores electronic textures -- many of which could have been borrowed from early Depeche Mode records -- though she also employs marimbas and other malletted percussion that sound just as eerie and alien as the synths that moan and whistle in the background. Andersson consistently toys with her vocals, pitching them up to helium levels and down to a manly baritone, adding even creepier overtones to her Nordic goth atmospheres. And, unlike Depeche Mode in 2009, she has the melodies to match her moods; these songs crawl under your skin and haunt you for days.

Fever Ray owes a lot to various '80s oddballs -- Kate Bush, Cocteau Twins, Dead Can Dance and others -- but is anything but imitative. By taking cues from artists who forged such singular sounds of their own, Fever Ray creates her own vivid imaginary world with a confident, unique vision. (K-W Record, April 30)

Mike Evin – Good Watermelon (Just Friends)

I hate to judge a book by its cover, but Mike Evin seems like a really nice guy who really does want to offer you a slice of watermelon, as he does with an outstretched hand on the cover of his album, titled Good Watermelon. On the back of the album he’s pictured playing piano in someone’s backyard, decked out in a wide sun hat and flashing that grin again, while his friends chow down on—you guessed it—some good watermelon.

Inside are nine songs that sound like they were written by a talented summer camp counsellor with a knack for classic pop hooks, writing sunny slice-of-life songs like “Rockin’ Receptionist,” “Sweet Family Outings,” “Goodnight Crickets,” and—yes, of course—“Good Watermelon.”

Despite the hokiness, it’s hard to dislike Mike Evin, and not just because he seems like a really, really nice guy. He writes piano pop that owes large debts to Randy Newman, Joe Jackson and Ben Folds; he’s both a great singer and a fine keyboardist; and he’s a fan of warm-sounding, live analog recordings.

Like any good watermelon, it tastes sweet, isn’t the least bit filling, and could probably benefit from a vodka injection—though that doesn’t usually happen at summer camp. (K-W Record, April 16)

Marianne Faithfull – Easy Come Easy Go (Universal)

Marianne Faithfull sounds like death warmed over. But of course, that’s been her schtick for the last 30 years, and it's worked wonders on classic albums like 1979's Broken English, 1987's Strange Weather and 2002's Kissin' Time. On each of those, she's played up her femme fatale character and survivor instincts to full effect, and with top-notch collaborators.

This album holds similar promise, with an inspired song selection—covers include Neko Case, Morrissey, Merle Haggard, Brian Eno, Dolly Parton and the Decemberists—and a guest list that includes Rufus Wainwright, Nick Cave, Cat Power and others.

Yet rather than rising to the talent surrounding her, Faithfull sounds content to simply show up and let everyone else do the work. She seems incapable of breathing any life into these songs, sounding either distracted or on her death bed—especially when paired with a singer like Antony Hegarty, who is happy to steal the show from the distracted old bird on an eight-minute bout of ridiculousness called “Ooh Baby Baby.” Several songs fall awkwardly outside her vocal range, such as Neko Case's “Hold On Hold On” and the Decemberists' “The Crane Wife Part 3.”

What's worse is that normally reliable producer Hal Wilner, who captured so much of her fragile mystique on Strange Weather over 20 years ago, doesn't seem to know what to do with this material either, offering arrangements that sound as lost as she is.

Easy Come Easy Go is one of those awkward late career albums that threatens the artist’s integrity: no one wants to hear them warble and whimper into that good night. (K-W Record, April 9)

Green Go – Borders (Pheromone)

As one of those bands of rock kids who recently discovered the simple pleasures of disco beats, squelching synthesizers and shouting in unison, Guelph’s Green Go somehow sidestep the dozens of deadly traps that similar bands fall into on a debut album, with dexterity and dynamics that make them more than a one-note wonder. Their exuberant youth is the best and worst thing about them; the boy-girl duet “Set Me Free” falls flat, and most of the lyrics are silly at best (“let’s eat brains for breakfast!”). But the killer rhythm section redeems all, with its two-percussionist attack at the forefront of every track. No doubt they raise the roof at live shows; as a debut album, this will be a fine ambassadorial calling card. (K-W Record, April 16)

Junior Boys – Begone Dull Care (Domino)

The title of the third album by this Hamilton synth duo couldn’t be more apt. It’s borrowed from a film by pioneering Canadian animator Norman McLaren, but that’s just a red herring (other than that there’s a track here called “The Animator”). The “care” that went into this sparse, well-polished album is obvious, but it never rises above the “dull” and one wishes it would just “begone.” For all the incredulous international fuss over them, the Junior Boys have never presented a convincing case for being interesting or innovative either as electronic musicians or songwriters, despite minor redeeming moments.

Their sound is solidly rooted in early ’80s electro-pop, but there are plenty of artists then and now who mine that particular territory much more effectively, and singer Jeremy Greenspan is compelling neither as a vocalist—listening to his quiet croon urging you to “work it baby, work it” is mildly embarrassing—nor as a lyricist. “I see you better when the lights are out,” goes one chorus, which is about as profound as Gino Vanelli’s infinite wisdom about how “black cars look better in the shade.” As a wanna-be romantic, Greenspan’s come-ons are major turn-offs: “Every second takes its toll/ with every kiss you kill me more/ I’m here and undecided/ so come close and watch me until I die.”

Thanks, but no thanks. Begone, dull album! (K-W Record, April 2)

K-OS – Yes! (Universal)

The first thing you hear on the fourth album by K-OS is an agitated woman exclaiming: “Do you have any idea of chaos you caused around here? Nobody knows what you’re doing!” To which a man responds, “That’s exactly the way I like it!”

On his fourth album, Canada’s best-selling hip-hop artist isn’t exactly out on an avant-garde tangent, but there are still precious few artists who meld hip-hop, pop and rock so seamlessly—and find a commercial audience doing it—without ever sounding forced or genre tourism.

K-OS comes out swinging on the first four tracks here by saying Yes! to everything: Bollywood strings, choirs, Latin percussion, vocoder vocals and what sounds like electronic Japanese kotos all colouring his polyglot hip-hop/pop while he rhymes “ostentatious” by boasting that he’s “flippin’ scripts like Ellen Page is.”

From there, however, Yes! begins to run out of steam as K-OS starts to focus on single ideas as opposed to throwing everything together. He has never shied away from artistic risk; after all, this is the MC whose first big tour was with only a tabla player and a guitarist. He’s capable of writing big pop songs, but the catchiest songs here are interpolations: the awkwardly titled “I Wish I Knew Natalie Portman” lifts the melody from The O.C. theme, Phantom Planet’s “California (Here We Come)”; “Eye Know Something” resurrects the lone solo hit for ABBA’s Frida (“I Know Something’s Going On”), but doesn’t do much with it other than milk the chorus. He fares better teaming up with Metric and The Dears on “Uptown Girl,” or when he confronts his own contrarian and crusty reputation on “Burning Bridges.”

K-OS finds himself in a strange position: stylistically he embodies so much of what makes today’s pop music so thrilling, yet he’s an album artist in an era of downloading singles, and yet his albums are never as rewarding as individual tracks in isolation—tracks that wouldn’t cut it as radio singles, because they’re too weird. Not that a true artist should bother thinking about these matters—and K-OS clearly couldn’t care less. If his audience is willing to go along for the ride, more power to him. (K-W Record, April 23)

Metric – Fantasies (Last Gang)

Metric have always acted like bigger stars than they deserve to be—and it’s a strategy that worked, for the ambitious Toronto band got very far with very little other than the star power of lead singer Emily Haines. Now, however, Metric have made the record they’ve always promised us they would. Packed with hooks, rock riffs, and new wave textures, Fantasies retains their love for big radio songs but still leaves plenty of room to breathe. They laboured over this for a long time, and it shows: it sounds like they spent most of that time cutting off all the extra fat, and ensuring that every tiny detail is in complete focus, adding layers of subtle colour to the overall picture. The synths are both atmospheric and aggressive, competing for space with Jimmy Shaw’s muscular guitar, which avoids the monotonous modern rock trappings it mined in the past. Haines has never sung better than she does on “Collect Call,” and her melodies shine through on every track. She sings about “Stadium Love,” and there’s no doubt that Fantasies is the album that will take them to the top—and it will be well-deserved. (K-W Record, April 16)

Telekinesis – Telekinesis! (Merge)

“All of a sudden it’s summer,” sings Telekinesis bandleader Michael Benjamin Lerner, and you can practically feel the clouds part and the sunshine hit your skin when the second track here, “Coast of Carolina,” explodes with a fuzzy power pop guitar riff and bop-ba-da backing vocals. Lerner follows in the footsteps of Sloan, Matthew Sweet and dozens of others (including Vancouver’s criminally underrated Awkward Stage) by taking early ’70s guitar pop and performing the near-impossible task of making it sound fresh and exciting. Even more impressive, Lerner is a multi-instrumentalist one-man show who is as good a drummer as he is a singer, and producer Chris Walla (Death Cab for Cutie) helped him record one song a day without a single wasted note. Together, Walla and Lerner know when to heave on the layers, and when to pull back from the sonic onslaught at the perfect strategic moment to let the listener breathe. This debut is barely over a half-hour long, but— like those two prime months of summer themselves—you can pack a year’s worth of memories into a very short time. (K-W Record, April 2)

Thunderheist - s/t (Big Dada)

Thunderheist has been one of the most hotly tipped live acts out of Toronto in the last two years, and anyone who’s seen them can attest to the unstoppable personality of frontwoman Isis who, with her partner in crime Gramzilla, can rally even the most jaded, crossed-armed, chin-stroking cynic onto the dance floor.

Therefore, this eagerly anticipated debut album is inevitably a minor letdown next to the live show. After all, this is still a new act, and when heard in the light of day, most of Isis' party invocations to "light your ass on fire" don't really hold up to scrutiny. On the other hand, Gramzilla's production comes into clearer focus. His love of dirty south hip-hop, '80s electro and glitchy beats creates a speaker-shredding avalanche of decadent disco. Everything clicks on the single “Jerk It” and a handful of other tracks that are worth downloading, but for now Thunderheist still belongs in the clubs. (K-W Record, April 30)

The Tragically Hip – We Are the Same (Universal)

We Are the Same—as what? As we were 20 years and 11 albums ago? As you, our everyman Canadian audience? As a dependable Canadian institution, despite cosmetic changes to our sound over the years?

The title seems disingenuous after hearing the ubiquitous radio single “Love is the First,” which is like nothing else in The Tragically Hip’s discography: it opens with a guitar riff that could be from The Smiths, the bass line is borrowed from the Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer,” the squelchy guitar solo takes a page from Rage Against the Machine, and singer Gord Downie is spitting out the verses with a hunger and determination he’s rarely shown in the studio.

The rest of We Are the Same is nowhere near as radical, though producer Bob Rock is clearly keeping these once-complacent CanRock icons on their toes. As he did on the underrated 2006 album World Container, he enforces an economy in their songwriting, leaving no time for pointless jamming and helping Downie focus on melody. He’s also open to the idea of the male operatic backing vocals, accordion and pipe organ that weave their way through “The Last Recluse,” or the orchestral arrangements on “The Struggle Has a Name” and “Depression Suite.” Less encouraging is when some of the ghastlier ghosts from Rock’s resume rear their heads—like the backing vocals on “Frozen in Your Tracks,” which sound like Dr. Feelgood-era Motley Crue.

Overall, however, this album refines the kind of band that The Tragically Hip have been trying to be ever since they entered middle age. Exhibit A is “Coffee Girl,” a superior rewrite of 2001’s “Lake Fever,” with a trumpet solo and Downie indulging a classic old fogey trope: mooning over a “beautiful and disaffected” barista and her choice of mix tapes. He redeems himself by reveling in the marvels of the minutia of her routine, a feat he repeats with most of his characters here. “Don’t want to look for words,” he sings, “don’t want to work that hard,” and as a result he leans toward the literal rather than the abstract for much of the album.

Granted, sometimes the mundane details are simply that. “Are you going through something? Because I am too.” “You are my heart. This is how I feel.” In both instances, those aren’t throwaway lines in the verses, but a chorus beat into submission.

Despite the red herring of the title, We Are the Same shows The Tragically Hip successfully entering a third stage of their career, one that finds them focused, engaged and acting their age. (K-W Record, April 9)

Two Fingers - s/t (Paper Bag)

As an instrumental solo artist, Two Fingers’ Amon Tobin never had trouble conveying narrative in his constantly shifting soundscapes. Here as Two Fingers, with collaborator Joe (Doubleclick) Chapman, he dives into deep bass sounds, Bollywood melodies, '60s go-go, heavy reggae and futurist funk, making this the first Amon Tobin album you might actually dance to, instead of taking a headphone trip. Which is why it's unfortunate that he felt he had to employ some painfully average MCs to rap on top; Sway and Ms. Jade merely interject with annoying vocal hooks, while only dancehall queen Ce'Cile shows any sign of personality that enhances the beats. The two instrumental tracks are dark and brooding enough to fit into one of Tobin's solo albums; if only the other tracks were given space to breathe, Two Fingers would get two thumbs up. (K-W Record, April 30)

Patrick Watson - Wooden Arms (Secret City)

After the success of his Polaris Prize-winning album Closer to Paradise, Patrick Watson stood at a crossroads: he could either veer closer to the mainstream or he could dive off the deep end with his immensely talented band to chart their own course.

Watson chose the latter -- a wise move, considering that this group excels at colouring outside of the lines (and often off the page) instead of trying to fit into a pop format, where they usually erred on the side of overwrought bombast. This may or may not be what Watson is singing about on one of the more straightforward songs here, a country-ish number called “Big Bird In a Small Cage.”

That track is one of the only songs to sing along to; much of Wooden Arms draws from Watson's classical background and his bandmates' love of unusual soundscapes and percussion. There are no attempts to rock out; instead, they embrace every strange sound they can get their hands on to craft hallucinogenic and cinematic set pieces for their own sonic universe. It works best when it fits inside a cabaret song—as on “Beijing,” “Hommage” or “Machinery of the Heavens”—but Watson and company can be almost as engaging when they embark on an entirely fantastical and incredibly imaginative detour.

That said, much of Wooden Arms is admirable more than it is enjoyable, but Patrick Watson proves that he's on a path that few other artists in this country dare to forge. (K-W Record, April 30)

Neil Young – Fork in the Road (Warner)

No, the title does not refer to a radical shift in Neil Young’s trademark sound. (It’s no Trans.) Instead, Neil is all fired up on the idea of electric cars and other sustainable modes of transportation—an unlikely subject for a rollicking rock’n’roll album, yet this sounds like the most fun that Young has had in ages.

“It’s the economy, stupid,” read a sign in Bill Clinton’s campaign office in 1992; it sounds like Neil had a similar sign in his studio. Not only is he obsessed with economic collapse and economical energy use, the music is economical as well. Uncharacteristically for Young, there’s little to no fat here, and even if the spirit of the project—and the lyrics—is spontaneous, he’s still whipped up classic guitar riffs and anthemic melodies tailor-made for open highways and dreams of possibilities. “Just singing a song won’t change the world,” he admits, so he makes sure the music matches his message.

Some of the material here is no doubt corny—and not just the songs about ethanol. But Young’s earnest energy shines through, even when he’s unashamedly embracing his role as Cranky Old Man on the title track. On Fork in the Road, Neil Young is as optimistic as he is ornery, striking a balance that’s been all too rare in the last two decades of his career. (K-W Record, April 16)