Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Jan '10 reviews

Quick plug: Stuart Berman will be hosting a live performances and interview with Charles Spearin, revolving around one of my favourite albums of 2009, The Happiness Project. It's free at Harbourfront Centre this Thursday night, Jan. 28.

The following reviews ran in the Kitchener-Waterloo Record and Guelph Mercury.

All Tomorrow’s Parties DVD (ATP/ Sonic Unyon)

All Tomorrow’s Parties is not a concert film; nor is it a documentary. Instead, it’s a series of snapshots of the 10-year-old U.K. music festival, interspersing live footage, candid shots of performers, and more than a few infuriating portraits of stoned British music fans goofing around in the seaside holiday resort where the original ATP festival is held (it has since expanded to put on events in London and in the U.S.).

What’s most fascinating about this countercultural celebration is the eclecticism: ATP takes pride in assembling iconoclasts whose only real common thread is a unique approach to their chosen genre of music—if they’re not already inventing new genres themselves.

And so the film opens with the danceable prog rock of Battles and closes with Grizzly Bear singing a cappella on a beach. In between we see visceral performances by stars and legends such as Portishead, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Patti Smith and Iggy Pop with the Stooges, as well as the comparatively unknown like the Balkan folk group A Hawk and a Hacksaw (playing acoustically in an arcade), poet Saul Williams and visceral crowd-pleasers Les Savy Fav. Not everyone is warmly embraced, however; there’s a painful clip of comedian David Cross being booed off the stage.

Cleverly interspersed with the modern doc footage is archival footage of British seaside vacationers from decades past, as well as various psychedelic effects that add to the stream-of-consciousness approach. The whole film functions as a surrealist dreamscape, without any narrative or particular point: just an immersive, ephemeral experience that overloads the senses. Not unlike an ATP weekend itself, no doubt. (K-W Record, January 21)

Boogaloo Pow Pow: Dancefloor Rendez-Vous in Young Nuyorica – Various Artists (Honest Jon’s)

Compared to the comprehensive compilations put out by reissue labels Soundway and Analog Africa, the relatively brief liner notes found inside this collection seem slight, as they attempt to explain the evolution of ’60s and ’70s Hispanic-American (mostly Puerto Rican) music as it morphed from mambo and cha cha cha into boogaloo and shingaling. And the tracks, some of which are licensed from EMI and Universal, are probably not terribly rare.

But who cares? Every track here puts a strut in your step, from the screamin’ hot “Cool Jerk” by Kako, to the insanely tense build-up in Manny Corchado’s “Pow Wow,” to solid tracks by better known artists like Tito Rodriguez, Willie Rosario and Ray Barretto. The horns are blazing, the rhythms are unstoppable, and the whole thing is a party in a can. Other compilations can try and contextualize all they want: on this one, every single track speaks for itself—and it’s commanding you to dance. (K-W Record, January 7)

5 Years of Hyperdub – Various Artists (Hyperdub)

Arguably, the genre that U.K. critics call “dubstep” is just the latest semantic shellgame for the ongoing evolution of electronic music. In this case, it’s dark, often doomy beats that mine everything from Kraftwerk to Jamaican dub reggae to Timbaland’s take on hip-hop, with staggered beats, jittery synthesizers and a sparse, icy sheen best suited to late night chill-outs, no matter the tempo and despite the occasional abrasion.

In what is largely a singles-based scene, Burial and Kode 9 are the two key dubstep artists (actually, the only ones) to have made a mark with full-length albums. And it’s easy to hear why: their tracks here (three from Burial, five from Hyperdub founder Kode 9) leap out from the rest of the pack and display an inventiveness that can easily stretch out to an album’s length. Burial lets snippets of sound slowly sink into the dub mix, building maximum tension as he decides what to reveal from behind the curtain, while subsonic bass and disembodied vocals cast hypnotic spells. Kode 9 constructs soundscapes like the Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA raised on reggae instead of dusty soul records.

Outside of the two principals—and the almost-as-well-known (and that’s entirely relative, of course) Zomby—5 Years of Hyperdub offers mostly diminishing returns. Media hyperbole notwithstanding, dubstep is hardly revolutionary enough to the point where even its lesser lights are fascinating. Of the 15 other artists on this 32-track double CD, only Darkstar, Joker and Black Chow leave any kind of impression. L.A.’s Flying Lotus is the only non-Brit invited, and he sounds like he’s on a whole other trip entirely; meanwhile, The Bug, who predates dubstep, sounds like he dusted off something horribly dated from 10 years ago rather than his far superior new material.

Casual observers would be better off sampling Kode 9 or Burial; the rest is recommended as a time capsule for serious explorers only. (K-W Record, January 14)

Legends of Benin: Afro-Funk, Cavacha, Agbadja, Afro-Beat 1969-1981 – Various Artists (Analog Africa)

Every year there is no shortage of African compilations that hit the market, but only in recent years has this niche market taken off: thanks in large part to two record labels, Soundway in the U.K. and Germany’s Analog Africa. You can’t go wrong with anything in their collective catalogues, but of the hundreds of dollars I’ve spent on their albums in the last couple of years, one album stands heads and shoulders above the rest: Legends of Benin.

On the surface, Legends of Benin has what every great African comp has: a mix of Afrobeat, American funk, Latin rhythms and jazz. But the four artists focused on here— Gnonnas Pedro, El Rego, Honoré Avolonto and Antoine Dougbé—share an entrancing aesthetic that sheds busier arrangements and leaves plenty of sonic space for deep bass lines, owing more than a bit to not just James Brown but Jamaican reggae, even if only one track here draws any direct reggae influence (Avolonto’s “Tin Lon Non”). Each man is a compelling vocalist, whether they’re screaming over furious funk or crooning over languid guitar rhythms.

Though this all may appear par for the course, compiler Samy Ben Redjeb has hit the goldmine with these four men, as every single track here is nothing short of mindblowing, from the opening dancefloor killer of “Dadje Von O Von Non” to the haunting closing lament of “La Musica en Verité,” both by Gnonnas Pedro. Sure, these compilations are pricy, but know that a), Redjeb goes to great trouble to track down the artists and compensate them or their families accordingly (as detailed in his fascinating travelogue liner notes), and b), it’s worth every hard-earned cent. (K-W Record, January 7)

Magnetic Fields – Realism (Nonesuch/Warner)

The sincerity of songwriter Stephin Merritt is often questioned; and in return, Merritt questions why we demand sincerity and earnestness from our songwriters—especially those with acoustic guitars. When the Magnetic Fields use synths or hazy waves of distorted guitars, it’s easier for listeners to appreciate the hilarious narratives and rhyme schemes that Merritt employs regularly, even though there is often serious heartbreak and pathos in those same songs.

And so here, on an album where the instrumentation is entirely pre-rock’n’roll era—and which actually features a song called "We’re Having a Hootenanny Now"—Merritt continues to balance what can be dismissed as novelty songs with more serious fare. More often than not he attempts both at the same time, employing witty wordplay to illustrate emotional complexity, which is Merritt’s specialty.

Musically, Merritt defines Realism with ukuleles, mandolins, toy pianos and cello countermelodies colouring all the songs here; synths and drums are verboten, and electric guitars are rare. Shirley Simms and pianist/percussionist Claudia Gonson share vocals with Merritt, recalling the Magnetic Fields’ defining work, 1999’s 69 Love Songs.

Indeed, much of Realism sounds vaguely familiar: several tracks sound like they could have been culled from various other albums in the Merritt discography. Longtime fans might wish Merritt would take his own advice from one of the songs here: “Do something out of character/ anything/ do something true.”

And yet, being the master craftsman that he is, it doesn’t at all sound like he’s stuck in a rut; each song stands with his best, making it an ideal entry point for anyone unfamiliar with his massive body of work.

That said, if you find the idea of a man chorus singing a verse in German on a song called “Everything is One Big Christmas Tree” to be more nauseous than novelty (or, more accurately, a comment on consumerism plastic smiles), then Merritt’s Magnetic Fields are a taste you’re unlikely to acquire. (K-W Record, January 28)

Olatunji! – Drums of Passion (Sony Legacy Edition)

This Nigerian percussionist is credited with bringing African drumming to the American mainstream—influencing John Coltrane, Carlos Santana and the Grateful Dead, and leading to performances at Kennedy’s inauguration and at key Martin Luther King Jr. rallies. This 50th anniversary re-issue offers ample reasons why, with a gorgeous remastering job, informative booklet, bonus tracks and the 1966 follow-up More Drums of Passion as a bonus disc. The latter, recorded by Miles Davis’s producer Teo Macero, is arguably even more fascinating, more frenetic and more accomplished.

Sure, there are more than a few moments that make you feel like you’re trapped at a folk festival drum circle—until you realize that not only is Olatunji a true master, but this is the album that changed the way North Americans thought about music. The percussive onslaught is impeccably arranged and augmented by gorgeous choral chants (think: Gainsbourg’s “Couleur Café”) and, on the bonus tracks, some jazz instrumentation as well, which works perfectly and is a welcome change of scenery.

Sony’s Legacy Edition imprint is one of the only major labels to do loving reissues properly, and though this isn’t likely to be one of their bigger sellers, it’s treated with appropriate reverence. (K-W Record, January 7)

Panama 2: Latin Sounds, Cumbia Tropical & Calypso Funk on the Isthmus 1967-77 – Various Artists (Soundway)

Panama 3: Calypso Panameno, Guajira Jazz & Cumbia Tipica on the Isthmus 1960-1975 – Various Artists (Soundway)

The most fascinating reissues of recent years have focused on cross-cultural clashes: Ethiopiques, Cambodia Rocks, many of the Sublime Frequencies releases, etc.

In a geographical centre like Panama, however, anything and everything goes: there is plenty of American jazz with Latin rhythms—as had already been popular in the U.S. for at least 20 years by the time these recordings were made—but also heavy influences from the Caribbean and Colombia, and similar strains heard in Afro-funk, to say nothing of the subtle influences from the diverse group of international migrant workers that were brought to Panama to finish the canal in the early 20th century.

And so here we have Latin jazz, R&B, calypso, salsa, merengue and even some raw garage rock guitars. Peculiar to these compilations is the Panamanian style of tipica, which is related to the slow Colombian cumbia, though often featuring accordion and sharper percussion. Compiler Roberto Ernesto Gyemant goes to great detail in his engaging lead essay for both compilations, as well as with notes on individual tracks.

Not only does Gyemant know where to find the quality rarities, he knows how to sequence them. Both comps move effortlessly from sparse calypso to raging big band jazz to percussion-heavy tracks like Ceferino Nieto’s “El Pajaro Zum Zum,” which features a monstrous drum break that’s bound to end up in a killer hip-hop track before the year’s end—in fact, nothing else seems to happen in the song, except huge drums, subtle bass, and Nieto screaming in incomprehensible English like James Brown with an itch he can’t scratch.

For a breather, there is the slow, deep funk of Los Silvertones’ “Carmen,” with its Funkadelic guitars and Ethiopian-sounding saxophones, or the slinky groove of the Duncan Brothers’ “Dreams,” or the lilting reggae of Sir Jablonsky’s “Juck Juck.”

Only a few artists appear more than once; it’s not hard to fall in love with the calypso crooner Lord Cobra or the psychedelic sounds of Los Silvertones. But even amidst the wealth of artists heard here, there’s shockingly little repetition stylistically, which means neither of these compilations ever wear out their welcome. (K-W Record, January 21)

Yoko Ono Plastic Ono Band – Between My Head and the Sky (Chimera)

It shouldn’t surprise anyone who’s ever heard any of her music that Yoko Ono, at age 66, is still wonderfully weird. Certainly, there are placid moments and musing on mortality on her latest album. But right from the opening track, “Waiting for the D Train,” she’s wailing and cackling over garage rock guitars and post-punk dance grooves—showing the likes of Karen O who’s still the boss.

For all the ridiculing she’s endured over the decades, she’s been largely vindicated by new generations of musicians who try to push the envelope in ways they later discover Ono was doing 35 years ago. And so Between My Head and the Sky is a victory lap for her, as she leads a funky band helmed by her son Sean and Japanese electronic artist Cornelius, and continues to use her voice in ways precious few singers do (for better or worse). The only serious pitfalls are the more maudlin pleas for peace on tracks like “Healing,” which haven’t grown any more complex since the naïve absurdity of the bed-ins.

Ono’s timing is perfect: not because of the much-ballyhooed Beatles reissues of 2009, but because people like the Flaming Lips, Bjork and other freaks have crept closer to the mainstream, and combined with the strength of this album, it’s the perfect time for skeptics to take a second look. (K-W Record, January 28)

RJD2 – The Colosuss (Electrical Connections)

There was a time when a DJ album meant certain things: sampling, scratching, hip-hop beats, techno. These days, however, a DJ is expected to be more eclectic, both in the club and on CD. RJD2 has expanded beyond the cinematic hip-hop that defined his earlier work—the kind that attracted the producers of TV’s Mad Men, who picked one of his tracks as their theme song—and made a diverse pop album that includes everything from harpsichord funk (“Giant Squid”) to spy movie themes (“The Stranger,” “Small Plans”) to ’80s R&B and swinging ’60s pop (“Walk With Me”).

Musically, he pulls it off with aplomb—he’s slowly been moving from an entirely sample-based artist to a multi-instrumentalist. It’s the tracks with vocals that stop The Colossus from greatness: not that the singing is bad, either by RJD2 himself or guest vocalists, but he hasn’t really figured out how to work with a vocal melody yet—because until now, he’s successfully focused on letting the music do all the talking. Ironically, this would be a better pop album if it didn’t have any vocalists on it. (K-W Record, January 28)

Spoon – Transference (Merge)

Few rock bands take minimalism to the max the way Spoon do, stripping away all excess fat and focusing on the bare essentials. It’s an approach that worked to brilliant effect on their 2002 breakthrough Kill the Moonlight, which took an approach almost akin to dub reggae, in terms of what instruments would suddenly drop out of the mix and when.

After two slightly more conventional—and increasingly popular—albums, Spoon have now pulled everything back again to make the sparsest album of their career. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work as well this time. Far too many songs find the entire band chugging away on the same quarter note, in a fashion more suited to demos than a finished product. It could be that this is their point: leaving so many blank spaces to let the listener project whatever they want between the lines. Or it could be just lazy.

This being Spoon, however, all is not lost. Five of the album’s 11 tracks show signs of former brilliance (“Mystery Zone,” the 2009 single “Got Nuffin”); “Who Makes Your Money” is a trippy take on opiated R&B; closing track “Nobody Gets Me But You” channels early-’80s Prince and the minimalist funk of ESG. “Goodnight Laura” is an uncharacteristically straightforward piano ballad.

Those are the only songs where it sounds like they’re actually trying; too much of Transference sounds like they just gave up. (K-W Record, January 21)

Vampire Weekend – Contra (XL)

For whatever reason, this young band’s debut album proved to be remarkably divisive. For every fan won over by their innocent charm and breezy songwriting, they faced a nasty detractor put off by their preppy ways.

Contra is bound to meet the same fate, as Vampire Weekend unspool some of their arrangements to explore different textures, and use the studio more creatively than merely capturing their live sound and adding a string section. Here, they appear to have been listening to New Order, ska, soca, and surf rock, all of which collide with varying degrees of success. Multi-instrumentalist whiz Rostam Batmanglij has no shortage of inventive ideas, but deciding to let vocalist Ezra Koenig use Autotune on the dreadful “California English” was not one of them.

If Batmanglij is the band’s secret weapon, Koenig is their not-so-secret albatross. His lyrics, which at best are cute and clever, are mostly cloying and clunky on much on Contra—no more so than on the horrific closing track, “I Think UR a Contra,” which may or may not have something to do with a couple comparing their communication with right-wing Nicaraguan rebels of the ’80s. Or whatever. The listener’s first warning is when Koenig leads off the album with the couplet: “In December, drinking horchata/ I look psychotic in a balaclava.”

Maybe the South African township jive they love so much has equally inane lyrics—who knows? For English speakers, Koenig is largely a dippy distraction from an otherwise interesting band, one that shows signs of successfully dodging a sophomore slump. (K-W Record, January 14)

Hawksley Workman – Meat (Isadora)

The last time we heard from this prolific performer, he had released an album with the ridiculous title Los Manlicious, where he tapped into the swagger that has defined his most sublime moments. That swagger is still there, and Workman is indulging some of his wilder urges on tracks like “(We Ain’t No) Vampire Bats,” while still allowing room for intimate moments like the piano ballad “Song for Sarah Jane” and the anthemic R&B slow jam “The Ground We Stand On.”

But if the performances and the production bring out the best in him, aside from the aforementioned standouts Workman’s songwriting doesn’t measure up. The lyrics are as whimsical as always, and you’ll either love or hate his odes to baby mosquitoes, Tokyo bicycles, and French girls in L.A.

The problem is that none of the tunes demand the enthusiasm that he creates in the studio for them; maybe they’ll come across better live. If not, fans won’t have to wait long for his next album, Milk: the single, “We Dance to Yesterday,” is already out and the album is due in the spring. (K-W Record, January 28)

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