August reviews from the Kitchener-Waterloo Record and Guelph Mercury.
Aphasia – The Crocodile Society of Aphasia (White Wabbit/Arts and Crafts)
This Taiwanese post-rock cinematic instrumental band make their North American debut with what is actually their second album; the first, suitably enough, was a film score. Yet what might work for brooding indie dramas doesn’t come alive on disc; this also sounds decidedly stuck in the late ’90s, when bands sounding exactly like this were popping up across North America and the U.K., particularly Mogwai and Godspeed You Black Emperor and other disciples of Slint. Aphasia may be the best post-rock cinematic instrumental band in Taiwan, but the world market was saturated a long time ago. (Aug 26)
Download (iTunes, eMusic, amazon.com): “Metal Tank,” ‘Behind the River,” “This is a Go”
The Books – The Way Out (Temporary Residence)
David Byrne must love this band. This electroacoustic duo from upstate New York combine two of Byrne’s favourite things: absurdist recontextualiztion of everyday oddities in North American culture (which Byrne has done in both his lyrics and visual art), and manipulation of found sound and speech into a musical narrative (as Byrne did with Brian Eno on My Life in the Bush of Ghosts).
The Books take a playful approach to avant-garde and pop composition, delighting in nonsensical children’s stories, meaningless new age platitudes, the violent one-upmanship of grade-school taunts, and random overheard radio dialogues. These are all spliced together neatly into song structures, akin to Kid Koala’s more outré moments, or the playful pastiche of vintage Negativland. The Books took five years in between records, and returned with their most immediately appealing and accomplished album to date. (Aug 12)
Download (iTunes, eMusic, amazon.com): “A Cold Freezin’ Night,” “I Am Who I Am,” “Chain of Missing Links”
Budos Band – III (Daptone)
If you’ve ever wondered what it would sound like if an Ethiopian jazz band wrote the score to a ’70s New York City police film, it would sound a lot like Budos Band. And even if you’ve never stopped to contemplate such a thing, all you have to know is that Budos Band use a killer three-piece horn section—one baritone saxophone and two trumpets, which easily conjure maximum authority—four percussionists, flute, organ, guitar, bass, drums and a vintage studio sound (ala their labelmate Sharon Jones) to meld funk influences from around the world—and, if you believe the band’s bio, traces of Black Sabbath—into an arresting amalgam that is finally beginning to transcend its source material. The most obvious example is a Beatles cover, “Reppirt Yad” (read it backwards), which moves the original into a minor key and half the tempo and covers it in a haze of psychedelia that renders it unrecognizable. (Aug 26)
Download (iTunes, eMusic, amazon.com): “Reppirt Yad,” “Golden Dunes,” “Unbroken Unshaven”
Kathryn Calder – Are You My Mother? (File Under: Music)
It says a lot about Kathryn Calder’s voice and charisma that (her uncle) Carl Newman picked her to join the New Pornographers as a pinch-hitter when Neko Case can’t join them on tour, and also a keyboardist and featured vocalist in her own right. Calder’s own band, Immaculate Machine, was proof of her potential. Now that she’s stepped into the spotlight on her own it’s clear that the esteemed company she keeps and years of experience have rubbed off. Of course her lovely voice is front and centre, but it’s her songwriting that really stands out here. String sections, mandolins, melodic lead guitar and atmospheric textures establish a breezy, West Coast vibe; some of the glee-club tendencies of the Pornographers also appear, though never carry things over the top. If she keeps this up, it won’t be long until the qualifying phrase “member of” is dropped from her CV. (Aug 12)
Download (iTunes, eMusic, zunior.com, amazon.com): “Castor and Pollux,” “Down the River”
Cumbia Beat Vol. 1: Experimental Guitar-Driven Tropical Sounds from Peru 1966-1976 - Various Artists (Vampisoul)
If your only impression of Peruvian music conjures images of those ubiquitous buskers with pan flutes, there’s a whole world waiting to be discovered. Cumbia originated in Colombia, but mixed with indigenous Peruvian elements and Cuban influences became known as “chicha,” and like most global music in the ’60s, was invigorated by the international reach of rock’n’roll, electric guitars, and organs.
Contrary to this compilation’s title claim, there’s very little here that could be considered “experimental”—there are no wigged-out detours or anything out of the ordinary—but that doesn’t distract from the consistently compelling rhythm, which is a mix of mambo, cha-cha-cha, early ska music and rock instrumentals, with electric guitars and percussion at the forefront.
Vampisoul has done an admirable job of curation and colourful design, with a 20-page book offering a plethora of vintage pictures and extensive liner notes in English and Spanish. At a time when cumbia is making a comeback, both among vintage record collectors and followers of a new digital cumbia movement on Argentina’s ZZK label, this compilation sets a high standard. (Aug 19)
Download (eMusic, amazon.com): “Un Silbido Amoroso” by Los Wemblers de Iquitos, “Pasion Oriental” by Los Destellos, “El Escape” by Los Mirlos
Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse – Dark Night of the Soul (EMI)
Is there anyone Danger Mouse (Gnarls Barkley, Gorillaz, Beck, Black Keys) hasn’t worked with? Not after his latest project, a collaboration with Sparklehorse, with guest vocalists that include Black Francis of the Pixies, Julian Casablancas of the Strokes, Iggy Pop, Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips, and, uh, David Lynch.
Anyone who has heard the surrealist film director speak—or shout, as he did in Twin Peaks—may have trouble imagining Lynch singing, but he makes it work in the two of the dreamier tracks here. Lynch also took photographs for the liner notes and the website, and one would be forgiven for wanting to hear more of his influence on the music—which skews much more conventional than one might think, not that far removed from a rock version of Gnarls Barkley or an extension of his most recent project, Broken Bells, with James Mercer of the Shins (who also shows up here).
Considering the star power involved, it’s fair to expect much more from this project; almost everyone involved appears to be going through motions. That doesn’t, however, explain why EMI held back its release for over a year. Yet it’s also not a vindicatory victory lap for the late Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse, who committed suicide last year; adding to the morbidity factor is the presence of fellow suicide victim Vic Chesnutt, singing a song called “Grim Augury.” It’d be nice to announce that Dark Night of the Soul is a fitting tribute to their legacies, at the very least; instead, it’s a mere curiosity. (Aug 5)
Download (iTunes, amazon.com, puretracks.com): “Revenge” (featuring the Flaming Lips), “Little Girl” (featuring Julian Casablancas), “Dark Night of the Soul” (featuring David Lynch)
Forest City Lovers – Carriage (Out of This Spark/ Arts and Crafts)
Even though Kat Burns established herself as one of the finest new songwriters in Canada on her 2008 album Haunting Moon Sinking, the newest line-up of Forest City Lovers—with the ace production help of Chris Stringer—has helped colour her songs and provide her with welcome muscle. Burns is nothing if not subtle: musically, lyrically and vocally. She would never be accused of being an emotive vocalist, and her lyrics can easily drift by until you realize the depth of imagery at work. Violinist Mika Posen (Timber Timbre) and bassist and guitarist Kyle Donnelly and Timothy James (both of the ex-Guelph band the D’Urbervilles) all provide delicate touches to songs that are equal parts breezy California folk pop, twee British indie rock and Euro cabaret. Drummer Christian Ingelevics—who has settled into a position that has rotated frequently in the history of the band—guides the twists and turns of Burns’s songwriting with ease. After Carriage, no one will underestimate this band again. (Aug 5)
Forest City Lovers will be playing on September 22 at the Ebar in Guelph, and September 25 at the Grist Mill in Waterloo.
Download (iTunes, eMusic, amazon.com, puretracks.com): “Tell Me Cancer,” “Minneapolis,” “Believe Me”
Iron Maiden – The Final Frontier (EMI)
Is this really The Final Frontier? You promise? Being one of the mightiest forces in the history of British heavy metal, Iron Maiden don’t have anything to prove to anyone—except maybe why they should continue making new albums instead of just being a touring machine. Unlike on their recent live album (and documentary) Flight 666, here they sound old and tired and going through more than a few motions. Tempos are sludgy, there’s very little spark in the performances, and the best spots here are actually the sci-fi epic power ballads. With a band of this stature, they run the risk of sounding as dated as their cover artwork—but a retro trip would be far more rewarding than this tepid tiptoe through new material. (Aug 26)
Download (iTunes, puretracks.com, amazon.com): “El Dorado,” “Starblind,” “The Man Who Would Be King”
Javelin – No Mas (Luaka Bop)
Every summer there has to be at least one new act that takes ’80s electro as a template and throws every other aspect of global pop music from the last 40 years on top of it. This year, that group is Javelin. There are times when they sound like the French band Air on adrenalin, others when they could have escaped from an early Nintendo video game, and then there are moments when they could be soundtracking a ’70s Bollywood film. There are also warm and dreamy space-pop tracks, a.k.a. “chillwave,” apparently. If there is some kind of joke at work here, you certainly don’t have to be in on it. Just raise a glass of something fruity and frosty. (Aug 5)
Download (iTunes, eMusic, amazon.com): “Oh! Centra,” “Intervales Theme,” “Tell Me What Will It Be?”
Tom Jones – Praise and Blame (Lost Highway)
Tom Jones has cut the cheese—from his act. For all his formidable, virile vocal talent, Tom Jones has been kitschy in almost everything he’s done, from the swinging ’60s to his ’90s comeback covering contemporary tunes. Not that there’s anything wrong with that: the man is a monstrous talent and a charismatic performer.
On the raw and spiritually inclined Praise and Blame, however, there is nary a wink to be found. “What good am I?” Jones asks on the opening track, and then spends the rest of the album proving to any doubters just exactly how good he is. Instead of hearing Tom Jones bellowing over a big band or glitzy modern production, he reins himself in to front a stripped-down band playing American gospel and folk music. The man who was Elvis Presley’s favourite male singer has no trouble at all conjuring both the brimstone and the humility necessary to pull it off. This is a million miles away from Vegas: Jones is reverential to this music’s raw roots, especially on the bare-bones “Burning Hell,” where the narrator’s existential questions are driven home by only a raunchy electric guitar and stomping drums—it’s almost shocking that Jack White wasn’t involved somehow.
This back-to-basics approach has drawn comparisons to Johnny Cash’s late-in-life comeback—they both cover “Run On (God’s Gonna Cut You Down)” and “Ain’t No Grave,” for starters—but this 70-year-old has considerably more zip left in him than Cash ever did during those often-morbid albums. Both men have authoritative voices, but Tom Jones sounds just as vital as he did during his prime—perhaps even better. For that, he has a lot to praise Jesus for, and so do we. (Aug 5)
Download (iTunes, amazon.com, puretracks.com): “Burning Hell,” “Strange Things,” “Nobody’s Fault But Mine”
Seu Jorge and Almaz – s/t (Now Again)
Michael Jackson’s cultural impact may have been enormous, but oddly enough, no one dares cover his songs. His work is so tied up in time, place, production and personality that translation is tricky.
Leave it to Brazilian actor/singer Seu Jorge then, to take “Rock With You” and make you forget that it’s anything but his own. His lazy, hazy version is a soft seduction for the bedroom, not the ballroom. He owns the song so completely that it’s easy to mistake for one of his own—and it’s hardly even the highlight of this album.
Technically, nothing is Jorge’s own on this album of covers, mostly of Brazilian songwriters, but with a few left turns thrown in—like Kraftwerk’s “The Model,” which also fits in seamlessly.
Jorge has assembled some of Brazil’s finest players here to let their hair down with some chilled-out psychedelic soul music drenched in dreamy dub technique. His baritone voice brings Barry White to the table, while the Beastie Boys’ Mario Caldato ensures that the mix of samba, rock, R&B and reggae all settles into the same sonic space.
If this is the hottest summer in recent history, Seu Jorge and Almaz is the perfect soundtrack. (Aug 19)
Download (iTunes, eMusic, amazon.com): “Everybody Loves the Sunshine,” “Cristina,” “The Model”
Luisa Maita – Lero-Lero (Cumbancha)
When it comes to laid-back Brazilian rhythms, there’s a fine line between languid and lovely bossa nova and featherweight cheese. Sao Paulo’s Luisa Maita navigates this terrain expertly with modern electronics, sparse ornamentation, and the ability to be delectably delicate without running the risk of withering into a mere wisp. Though it’s perfectly suited for lazy days, this is not lazy music; there is a depth of Maita’s music that branches well beyond the diluted coffeehouse version of Brazilian music we hear most often. Maita is the daughter of a Brazilian singer whose one album has become a sought-after collector’s item; there’s no reason why people won’t still be hunting for this album 30 years later. (Aug 12)
Download (iTunes, eMusic, amazon.com): “Desencabulada,” “Fulaninha,” “Marie E Moleque”
Danny Michel – Sunset Sea (independent)
Danny Michel may still live outside of Guelph, but it sounds like he’s been spending plenty of time in warmer climes. The album title might conjure images of your last Caribbean vacation, and much of the music does too: recorded partially in Belize and Costa Rica, island rhythms are everywhere, along with kalimbas, marimbas, and some nods to New Orleans. There’s nary a country song or rock move to be found; Michel’s songwriting is adaptable enough to almost any genre, and he pulls off everything here with aplomb. Then again, when has he not? (Aug 12)
Download (iTunes, zunior.com, eMusic, cdbaby.com): “Switchman,” “Norma Desmond,” “Wish Willy”
Palenque Palenque!: Champeta Criolla & Afro Roots in Colombia 1975-91 – Various Artists (Soundway)
For all the great work the Soundway label has done lately, they’re bound to come up short occasionally—at least, short compared to the consistent excellence of, say, its Panama series. Palenque Palenque! focuses on Colombia, which, like Panama, is a cultural crossroads of Latin American, Caribbean and African influences. But whereas in Panama that led to a great diversity of music, much of the material here is stuck in a similar groove. It’s more raw and repetitive, and recommended primarily for the deep diggers. (Aug 26)
Download (iTunes, eMusic, amazon.com, soundwayrecords.com): “Los Soneros de Gamero” by Los Soneros de Gamero, “Pim Pom” by Wganda Kenya, “Naga Pedale” by Cumbia Siglo XX
Pomegranates: Persian Pop, Funk and Psych of the ’60s and ’70s - Various Artists (Finders Keepers)
In a surprisingly underreported incident recently, Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei—who banned Western music when he was president of Iran in the ’80s—has now declared that music itself is somehow “not compatible” with the values of an Islamic republic, and should not be practised or taught in modern Iran. Granted, this isn’t as serious an issue as, say, sentencing women accused of adultery to death by stoning. But it is a strong punch in the gut to anyone who knows how rich Iranian culture is, especially its music.
Needless to say, Khamenei would find this new compilation of Persian pop to be beyond haram. Like much of the world in the ’60s and ’70s, Western pop music—in fact, global pop music in general—was being merged with indigenous music in Iran, creating fascinating hybrids. So not only are there nods to rock’n’roll and psychedelic pop music, but there are Parisian accordions, Indian table and sitar, Latin rhythms, cinematic funk and more, all backing up melodies that are, for the most part, more in tune with traditional Iranian music (though at times could be mistaken for Bollywood, also the site of very similar fusions during this time period).
None of it sounds like a half-assed cultural appropriation mishap; everything flows perfectly. Some of the performers here are Iranian legends, like Googoosh—who is still recording and touring, and sold out the Air Canada Centre in Toronto as recently as 2006—while others are unlikely to be recognizable to anyone but the Iranian diaspora.
All the more reason to pick up Pomegranates and pray that Persian music isn’t entirely extinguished by an increasingly paranoid, tyrannical regime. (Aug 19)
Download (amazon.com): Helelyos by Zia, Gol-E Aftab Gardoon by Nooshafarin, Talagh by Googoosh
Shangaan Electro: New Wave Dance Music From South Africa – Various Artists (Honest Jon’s)
Ever notice how most African compilations that surface on these shores don’t date back any earlier than the early ’80s? That’s because, much like American R&B and soul music, synthesizers were often a poor substitute for blazing horn sections; likewise, drum machines were no match for the powerhouse percussion heard on those ’70s recordings.
This compilation, on the other hand, is firmly rooted in ’80s production style, with hyperkinetic drum programming, mad marimba sounds and tinny keyboards that play some of the most insane music you’ve ever heard—in part because it’s consistently set to a neck-snapping 180 bpm, sounding like Soweto township jive on 45 setting. Details can be hard to cling to when it’s all whipping by so fast, but it’s safe to say that this is the kind of African compilation perfectly suited to anyone who thinks they’ve heard it all before—because until they’ve at least heard the insanity of Shangaan, they most certainly haven’t. (Aug 19)
Download (iTunes, eMusic, amazon.com): “Nwamfundla” by Tshetsha Boys, “Naxaniseka” by Tiyiselani Vomaseve, “N'wagezani My Love” by Zinja Hlungwani
Charanjit Singh – Synthesizing: Ten Ragas to a Disco Beat (Bombay Connection)
The backstory to this reissue is so good it sounds like a hoax. In 1982, Bollywood composer Charanjit Singh decided to play Indian ragas on a synthesizer, with a pulsing electronic disco beat, presaging house music, techno and other popular forms that this album doesn’t just hint at—it lays out the template explicitly. And while the rhythm is as hypnotic and repetitive as you would expect—the bass line is suspiciously similar on almost every track—but the versatility of the lead synth work is head-spinning: imagine synth wizard Bernie Worrell (Parliament, Talking Heads) soloing for five minutes in Indian scales over acid house tracks. It’s safe to say there was nothing else remotely like this in 1982; it’s equally safe to say there’s nothing like it in 2010, either. (Aug 26)
Download (iTunes, eMusic, amazon.com): “Raga Madhuvanti,” “Raga Todi,” “Raga Yaman”
Hawksley Workman – Milk (Six Shooter)
The more ridiculous the better—that’s usually been the case for Hawksley Workman, who has always been at his best when he lets it all hang out instead of trying to play polite. And yet: be careful what you wish for. Milk is Workman at his most unhinged, his most libidinous—and his most embarrassing.
It’s not because he is embracing electronic beats and glittery pop—as opposed to the U2-style theatrics, the delicate piano songs, or the glam and indie rock he’s done in the past. Musically, he sounds as adventurous as he ever has; the MOR politeness has been chucked out the window, hence the song “Not Your Parents’ Music”—which owes a large debt to pop megaproducers the Neptunes.
Lyrically, however, he hits several all-time lows, starting with statements like “everybody gets born to a mommy and a dad” (from “Who Do They Kiss?”) and choruses about “Warhol’s portrait of Gretzky/ pretty f—ing sexy” and something about how he’s “gotta keep you in my suicidekick clothes.”
And, despite its Eddie Van Halen-style guitar solo, the less said about the song titled “Stay Drunk and Keep F---ing,” the better.
When he’s not being over the top, he’s downright dull, on ballads like “Devastating,” or coming off like a low-rent Metric (“Robot Heart”) or worse—like the mall-punk-pop of “Chemical” (which, not surprisingly, is a radio hit).
At one point, Workman sings, “Somewhere between Stephen Morrisey and the mindblowing genius of Jay-Z/ I sit and wonder of career blunders and listen to the oldies show.” Funny, so do we. (Aug 12)
Download (iTunes): “Not Your Parents’ Music,” “Snow Angel,” “Wayside”
The World Ends: Afro Rock and Psychedelia in 1970s Nigeria – Various Artists (Soundway)
Surely there is one man somewhere in Nigeria who held all of that country’s musical output of the 1970s—and that of its immediate neighbours Ghana and Benin (sorry, Togo)—captive and hidden away, and waited for someone from Soundway Records to sell him their soul in exchange for access to his vaults. There’s no other explanation for the flood of incredible music that the label has put out in the last two years, which renders decades of similar yet shoddy compilations entirely moot.
The World Ends is no exception: two discs packed with African takes on psychedelic rock and R&B, with considerable cross-pollination with local traditions. Though the focus is on rhythm, as is to be expected, there’s also plenty of fiery lead guitar work and great pop and soul songwriting as well, making this more than a straight-up African funk collection—and an essential selection in the Soundway catalogue. (Aug 26)
Download (iTunes, eMusic, amazon.com, soundwayrecords.com): “Blacky Joe” by P.R.O., “Life’s Gone Down Low” by the Lijadu Sisters, “Breakthrough” by the Funkees