The following reviews ran in the Kitchener-Waterloo Record and the Guelph Mercury last month.
Antony and the Johnsons – Swanlights (Secretly Canadian)
“Everything is new,” sings Antony in the opening moments of his new album. But is it? For all the heavenly powers of his voice, and a handful of heartbreaking songs to his credit, Antony Hegarty has been in the “most promising” category for far too long. With the innate talent he has, not to mention the number of legends and peers who line up to work with him, it’s shocking that none of his albums are as good as they can be.
Swanlights is no different; in fact, it shares a lot of melodic and stylistic similarities to songs on his breakthrough, 2005’s I Am A Bird Now, right down to the token Stax-style soul song (“Thank You For Your Love”) and a meditation on death (“The Spirit Was Gone”). Yet there are no knockouts here; much of Swanlights is content to let Antony’s voice do all the heavy lifting. And when Bjork shows up for a duet, it’s a really bad idea, two eccentric voices indulging in their eccentricities and never meeting in the middle; they should know this by now, from earlier misfires featured on her Volta album.
With a unique artist like Antony, the effect of a co-writer or a producer could dilute everything that makes him special—or it could be the best thing to ever happen to him. It’s worth the risk to find out. (Oct. 7)
Download: “Christina’s Farm,” “Swanlights,” “Thank You For Your Love”
Belle and Sebastian – Write About Love (Matador)
Belle and Sebastian’s most recent album—2005’s The Life Pursuit—was a coming-out party of sorts for the previously bashful and bookish band, who suddenly discovered muscles they didn’t even know they had, and made a bright, big pop album that was more than enough to satiate fans in the five years since.
Write About Love is equally confident and accomplished, but doesn’t feel like it has as much to prove. So even if the peppiest numbers here are unlikely to get all your local librarians to start shimmying—which was the case with almost every track on The Life Pursuit—there is still a boldness to even the ballads here (“Calculating Bimbo,” “Read the Blessed Pages”). Violinist Sarah Martin spends more time in the spotlight, either taking lead vocals or trading off with bandleader Stuart Murdoch; Norah Jones shows up for a sultry duet on “Little Lou, Ugly Jack, Prophet John.” The only weak link is guitarist Stevie Jackson; surely his sole song here—the drippy and peppy song “I’m Not Living in the Real World”—can’t be the best he’s penned in five years.
The only significant difference heard here in Belle and Sebastian’s formula is Murdoch writing more explicitly about his spirituality, specifically on “The Ghost of Rockschool.” But, as with everything in this band, he is as successful at being earnest as he is when he’s considerably more coy. (Oct. 21)
Download: “I Want the World to Stop,” “Little Lou, Ugly Jack, Prophet John,” “I Didn’t See It Coming”
Jim Bryson and the Weakerthans – The Falcon Lake Incident (MapleMusic)
Jim Bryson spent the last three years touring as a member of The Tragically Hip, Kathleen Edwards and the Weakerthans, and released a live album that was superior to any of his three studio efforts. Now, employing the Weakerthans as his backing band, the always reliable Ottawa songwriter continues his winning streak with his finest collection of songs to date, songs that share a sense of nuance and storytelling with the Weakerthans' poet-in-residence John K. Samson—albeit Bryson is no match for Samson’s peerless eye for poetic detail. Indeed, working alongside Samson—as a musician in his band, not as a co-writer—should be intimidating for any songwriter, but these two men have much in common, starting with their subtlety; the difference is that while neither are prone to grand statements or bland sentiment, Samson can casually drop a lyric that stops you in your tracks, and Bryson's songs sneak up on you slowly.
As a backing band, the Weakerthans don't try to adopt a hard-sell attitude to this set of songs; for all their strengths as players, what they do so effectively on their own albums is allow Samson the space to spin his narratives inside entirely conventional rock songs. So while their marquee status on Bryson's project will no doubt boost its profile, there's little about The Falcon Lake Incident that sounds much different than any other Jim Bryson album; being the all-around good guy of Canadian rock that he is, he's never had trouble attracting top talent to his studio records.
Come for the Weakerthans; stay for Jim Bryson. (Oct. 28)
Download: “Metal Girls,” “Up All Night,” “Raised All Wrong”
Coco et Co. – St. Denis (independent)
Two roommates in the long Montreal winter, writing sad love songs, but not to each other. Come springtime, they scour yard sales for cheap keyboards and start recording. Andrew J.P. Sisk sounds defeated but not down and out; Miranda Durka lurks in the background, largely resisting the urge to add female vocals and invite obvious comparisons to influences like The XX or Low (or, they claim, Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin); when she does, it’s that much more effective, and not at all imitative.
“You could be super if you wanted to,” Sisk sings over a disco beat on the cheapest drum machine imaginable, and there’s no doubt that these songs could truly shine with a bigger template. But they don’t want to, and nor should they. The intimacy heard here is what makes St. Denis so special, recalling the bedroom recordings of powerful sad-sack ’90s songwriter East River Pipe.
They’re not “fixed on the precious,” as they sing; these songs speak loud and clear on their own, especially “Radio”—which easily deserves a place on a list of the all-time great songs on that well-worn song topic: “You’ve been broadcasting/ and you’re wondering/ how it could be/ no one’s listening.” As the medium of radio disappears, and even the plethora of podcasts amounts to little more than white noise, the song is a lament for a lost form of communication. Hopefully someone’s listening—and why wouldn’t they be? Coco et Co. are giving away this entire album for free here. (Oct. 7 )
Diamond Rings – Special Affections (Secret City)
Over the course of the last year, there have been no less than four colourful and inventive videos that introduced Diamond Rings to an international audience much bigger than the project’s lo-fi bedroom beginnings would have indicated. Behind the ’80s fashion and synthesizers are John O’Regan’s songs, which boast the same melodic mastery and economy that he shows in his other band, the D’Urbervilles, whose 2008 debut, We Are the Hunters, is one of the most underrated Canadian rock records of the last decade.
And so now that the album is finally here, fans of O’Regan might be forgiven for having expected a bit more from Special Affections. Whereas the D’Urbervilles debuted with a mature, spacious and raw album that sounded like a band with much more experience, Diamond Rings still sounds like a work in progress. O’Regan is still figuring out how to make his limited tools—mostly cheap-sounding synths and drum machines—work to his advantage. On the other hand, it’s no worse than some of the early ’80s synth pop albums that obviously inspired him; but seeing how Janet Jackson and Kylie Minogue are also key influences, O’Regan’s not quite ready to make a big pop record.
None of this is a slight on the songs; Special Affections has 10 songs that are incredibly catchy, even at their moodiest (“Give It Up,” “Play By Heart”). O’Regan’s baritone lends a goth overtone to even the peppiest pop song, and it’s safe to say that no one else today is combining R&B, ’90s indie rock and ’80s synth pop as successfully as he is here. As good as Special Affections may be, it’s exciting to imagine where else O’Regan can go. (Oct. 28)
Download: “All Your Songs,” “On Our Own,” “Something Else”
The Drums –s/t (Universal)
Two song titles here pretty much sum everything up: “I Need Fun in My Life” and “It Will All End in Tears.” The Drums sound like they’re trying too hard to have fun—and failing. A friend and fan described them to me as a “happy Joy Division”—a contradiction in terms, but one that accurately describes the aesthetic and intent the Drums are working with. Yet there’s nothing joyous about this, despite their best efforts; the vocals are whiny, the lo-fi bedroom-band aesthetic gets weary fast, and the lyrics aim for Morrissey-style wit and come up flat. And when they actually do try and get serious on a ballad like “Down by the Water,” it’s barely listenable. Drop the Drums; go for Diamond Rings instead. (Oct. 28)
Download: “Best Friend,” “Let’s Go Surfing,” “I Need Fun in My Life”
Ben Folds & Nick Hornby – Lonely Avenue (Nonesuch)
That massive music geek and novelist Nick Hornby might eventually try his pen at writing lyrics seemed inevitable. That he would turn to Ben Folds also makes sense; the piano popsmith has a knack for turning uncomfortable subject matter into melodic rock songs and reflective ballads.
Unfortunately, Folds has been past his prime lately, and this album is no exception. Musically, the best thing about this album is the string arrangements by Paul Buckmaster, known for his work with David Bowie, Elton John and Leonard Cohen.
Lyrically, Hornby’s presence is barely felt, mostly because he either writes awkward prose that has no place in melodic pop or he sinks to a juvenile level that Folds seems all too happy to indulge (“Levi Johnston’s Blues”). Hornby sounds overly self-conscious, writing songs about songwriters both fictional and real (“Belinda,” “Doc Pomus”), poets (“Saskia Hamilton”) and Internet critics (“A Working Day”).
I don’t want to read a novel by Ben Folds; now I know I don’t want to hear Nick Hornby make an album. (Oct. 7 )
Download: “Your Dogs,” “Picture Window,” “Belinda”
Michael Franti & Spearhead – The Sound of Sunshine (EMI)
It’s hard to imagine a more apt title for an album that sounds out of place anywhere but on a beach “with the waves in motion and everything smelling like suntan lotion.”
Michael Franti may have built his reputation as a politically active songwriter, but—after bouncing back from a health scare—here’s he’s never anything less than a purveyor of positivity, whistling while he walks, and bathing in the beauty of the world. Franti has always been an inspiring figure, on stage and lyrically, but rarely has he ever sounded so completely blissed out as he does here, even while he recognizes that all is not well. “Today I’m just glad to be alive,” he sings on “Gloria,” an arm-waving anthem where he counts his blessings and his loved ones rather than surrender the tribulations of the troubled world outside.
Spearhead’s musical mandate continues to mine reggae, soul, and pop, but they’re slightly less successful as a rock band; “The Thing That Helps Me Get Through” sounds more than a bit like Lenny Kravitz, albeit on a good day. With recording done in Bali, Jamaica, San Francisco and in various hotel rooms, it’s no wonder the album sounds like it was made beside a beach—it probably was. (Oct. 14)
Download: “The Sound of the Sunshine,” “Hey Hey Hey,” “The Only Thing Missing Was You”
Olenka and the Autumn Lovers – And Now We Sing (independent)
If you’re born with a low, husky voice like that of Olenka Krakus, are you genetically predisposed to sing songs of the down and out, of motel dwellers and society’s forgotten? No matter, as Krakus would be a compelling figure no matter her subject matter, and there are few other female vocalists who sound anything like her, either in performance or her songwriting.
On her stunning 2008 debut album, Krakus drew from her Polish heritage to write gutsy eastern European melodies, and assembled a sympathetic band that brought their own influences to the table. Here, she abandons traditional approaches—though not the instrumentation—and takes some sidesteps into country music, but for the most part maintains her own idiosyncracies. For that reason, And Now We Sing sounds more like a transition album, whereas its predecessor was more cohesive and satisfying. Nonetheless, Olenka and the Autumn Lovers are still a unique presence, and not a band you should miss live. (Oct. 14)
Download: “East End,” “Motel Blues,” “Go”
Owen Pallett – A Swedish Love Story (For Great Justice)
Owen Pallett had literary ambitions on his triumphant 2010 album Heartland, the lyrics of which involved a meta-fictional construct. Whether Pallett succeeded or not is subject to much debate; some found the lyrics too distracting from the splendour of the music.
Perhaps as a reaction to Heartland’s glorious excess, A Swedish Love Story is a much simpler affair: four relatively straightforward pop songs. Or are they? “Scandal at the Parkade” references homophobic politicians in Jamaica and Uganda, and yet the chorus appears to be about cottages and repeats the phrase imploring someone to “button them down.” Musically, however this is the most consistently pop Pallett has ever been, still focused primarily around layers of his violin, but the bookending tracks on this four-song EP use a jaunty drum machine, while the songs in the middle balance strings and synths, delicacy and drama, pomp and pop. (Oct. 7)
Download: “Scandal At the Parkade,” “A Man With No Ankles,” “Don’t Stop”
PS I Love You – Meet Me at the Muster Station (Paper Bag)
Paul Saulnier is a man in love with sound—mostly the sound of his guitar, the sound of his guitar amp, and the sound of his guitar’s feedback. For all we know, he is also intricately obsessed with the sounds emanating from his guitar case and his guitar strap, perhaps even his guitar pick. He is a man in love with guitarists of all stripes: Jimi Hendrix, The Edge, the Jesus and Mary Chain, My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields.
It’s obvious he’d rather let his guitar do most of the talking; his double-tracked vocals are often buried in the mix, though it’s not hard to notice that he’s a howler and a scowler in the tradition of Frank Black, Lou Reed, and Spencer Krug (Wolf Parade, Sunset Rubdown). While the heavily layered Meet Me at the Muster Station certainly sounds excessive—the band is a duo, though you’d never guess that from this dense recording—Saulnier makes sure to dole it out in small doses; rare is the song here that breaks the three-minute mark. (Oct. 14)
Download: “Meet Me At the Muster Station,” “2012,” “Butterflies and Boners”
Sufjan Stevens – The Age of Adz (Asthmatic Kitty)
Sufjan Stevens has never suffered from lack of ambition. He became one of the biggest indie sensations of the last decade with accomplishments that include two albums about the state of Illinois and one about Michigan, electronic music—later adapted for string quartet—based on the Chinese zodiac, and a conceptual art project about the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.
There is no overarching narrative to The Age of Adz—his first album of new vocal material since his 2005 breakthrough Illinois—other than that he has fallen in love. And a messy love at that: one full of heightened emotional drama, optimism, doubt, and the unpredictable fluttering of the heart. Stevens sets out to chart all of this with erratic electronics, flowery flourishes of woodwinds and brass, choral vocals, and lyrics that he admits are “futile devices.” Indeed they are: on the opening track, the love of his life appears to be someone on whose couch he sleeps after they’ve tucked him in, someone whose abilities to crochet he finds “mesmerizing.”
Perhaps not surprisingly then, Stevens’s extended love letter is remarkably devoid of passion. As the cascading flutes dance around big string sections and intrusive electronic percussion—while a choir sings “there’s too much riding on that”—this material sounds simultaneously like an intellectual exercise rather than an emotional statement, and a chaotic mess of various paint cans spilled randomly over a canvas. There is a tension on almost every track here; Stevens sounds conflicted about surrendering to the volatility of love, like he’s been repressing himself for decades, throwing himself into various arcane pursuits and avoiding the sloppy world of real emotional engagement until now. And now that the floodgates have opened, he finds it hard to focus.
On the penultimate track, “I Want to Be Well,” the normally nauseatingly polite Stevens claims, “I’m not fucking around.” On the 25-minute closing track “Impossible Soul,” however, he then spends almost half an hour fucking around, shifting genres, moods and instrumentation in a manner more scattershot than in any way intriguing. He goes right off the rails at the 10-minute mark, when the normally pitch-perfect Stevens uses AutoTune on his voice, while the choir chants in the background and the electronics start sounding like angry insects. That the last 10 minutes of the song is an attempt at inspirational disco doesn’t redeem a thing, although the listener has to concur when the choir repeats ad nauseum: “Boy we can do much more together … Girl, I want nothing less than pleasure.” Agreed. Too bad we don’t hear it here.
The rest of the album is just as confounding and joyless. On “Now That I’m Older,” it sounds like Stevens is beyond old: he’s actually dead and gone, surrounded by the choral moaning of the ghosts of the past. Maybe that moaning is the sound of his fans, wondering what the hell happened, wondering if falling in love is indeed a form of madness. It sure sounds like it. (Oct. 21)
Download: “Futile Devices,” “Too Much,” “I Walked”
The Thermals – Personal Life (Kill Rock Stars)
This album begins with singer Hutch Harris promising “I’m Going to Change Your Life”; it ends with him singing “You Changed My Life.” In between there are a lot of promises made, promises kept and promise betrayed—often in the same song. Such is life, no?
Harris has a somewhat histrionic way of singing that suggests that something life-shattering is always at stake, but he’s never hectoring or whiny or a variation on an emotionally stunted emo boy. The Thermals have all the excitement and innocence of a teenage punk band, but with a decidedly adult take on emotional complexity. Musically, Harris is relying less on rhythm guitar and lets the rhythm section and his own melodic leads do the heavy instrumental lifting; whereas this band was once a Ramones-like reductionist take on punk pop, Personal Life has more in common with the Pixies—except that Harris is rooted in real life rather than surrealism.
Most importantly, however, every one of these 10 songs sounds like a readymade classic: the songwriting, the performances, and the production (by Death Cab For Cutie’s Chris Walla, who’s also made great albums by Gord Downie and Tegan and Sara in the past year) all combine to make perhaps the finest raw rock’n’roll you’ll hear this year. (Oct. 28)
Download: “I Don’t Believe You,” “Never Listen to Me,” “Not Like Any Other Feeling”
Yann Tiersen – Dust Lane (Anti)
French composer Yann Tiersen’s North American career hinges around one fluke album: the soundtrack to the film Amelie, which was largely comprised of songs from his earlier solo albums. Since then, he also composed to the score to the Academy Award-winning German film Good Bye Lenin!, collaborated with American songwriter Nina Nastasia, and put out a solo album in 2005. The man is much more than whimsical and melancholy accordion songs, and there’s very little on Dust Lane that sounds like Amelie.
Even if accordions and violins are still present, the tone is much more mournful—inspired by death in Tiersen’s family—and, at times, apocalyptic. It has much in common with Montreal’s Godspeed You Black Emperor, full of sawing strings, minor keys and ominous climaxes, especially on the haunting “Palestine.” Spoken passages, ghostly vocals, analog synths, scorching guitar textures and calm acoustic passages all culminate in the carnal closing number, “Fuck Me,” a duet that serves a final moment of uplift and optimism. (Oct. 14)
Download: “Dust Lane,” “Dark Stuff,” “Fuck Me”
Corin Tucker Band – 1,000 Years (Kill Rock Stars)
As one of the two frontwomen for Sleater-Kinney, Corin Tucker was one of the most powerful post-riot-grrrl voices in punk rock for much of the past 15 years. That band is now on indefinite hiatus, and Tucker has released her debut solo album of what she calls “middle-aged mom” music. That’s not entirely true, of course—this doesn’t sound anything like Sarah McLachlan, even if some Sleater-Kinney fans might think it does.
Tucker is exploring a different side of her voice and her writing, toning down the intensity, employing pianos, acoustic guitars and strings and occasionally clashing with her explosive past: “Thrift Store Coats” starts as a piano ballad before turning into a somewhat tentative rocker. If this was a debut album, it would be promising but not fully realized; coming from Tucker, we can’t help but wonder what her former bandmates would have brought to this material, even with the shift in mood; though Tucker herself sounds great, she doesn’t quite gel with her collaborators here.
But we do know that this is definitely not the last we’ll hear from her. As she sings on “Doubt”: “Break up with the boogie? / break up with the beat? / But I just can’t forget what it means to me/ I tried, but I couldn’t leave.” (Oct. 21)
Download: “Half a World Away,” “Doubt,” “Miles Away”