Friday, May 21, 2010

May '10 reviews

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




Broken Social Scene – Forgiveness Rock Record (Arts and Crafts)

One of the biggest bands in the land—physically, that is, if not in terms of critical praise—asks for your forgiveness. But they don’t do so humbly or on bended knee. Instead, they do it with the biggest gesture possible: a warm, inviting album that distills all of their epic reach and subtle sonics, a work that—after several shaky years trying to live up to the grandiosity of 2002’s You Forgot It In People—delivers on every promise this band ever made.

This success likely has everything to do with the way this album was made. Although more than 30 people appear on it, the bulk of it was recorded by the seven core members in Chicago, far enough away from the many distractions—and expectations—of their Toronto lives. The result is that even the slightest of songs here have a focus that some of this band’s more meandering moments have lacked in the past: witness the delicate haze of the summery, sweet-nothing and spliced-up bossa nova of “Highway Slipper Jam,” or the undulating drums and cascading keyboards of opening track “World Sick.”

The amorphous nature of Broken Social Scene—both its membership and its musical vision—coalesces on anthemic rock (“Forced to Love”), arty balladry (“Sweetest Kill”), and psychedelic pop (“Texico Bitches”). And yet as big as Forgiveness Rock Record sounds—many instruments and vocals are pushed to barely distinguishable yet effective levels of distortion, though never as a distracting gimmick—it’s not out to grab you by the throat and make a Big Obvious Statement on first spin. It reveals itself slowly, until all those tiny moments add up to earworms that demand compulsive listening. The sonic layering here is masterful, adding breadth and depth to what are often sketches of songs—sketches, mind you, that also place melody at the forefront.

“The shuck and jive is over,” they sing triumphantly near the end of the record. By that point, they’ve worked hard to prove it: the album’s first six songs in particular are sequenced to be sure shots. Bandleader Kevin Drew is most often at the forefront, though Apostle of Hustle’s Andrew Whiteman scores with “Art House Director,” and Brendan Canning writes the best Pavement song in 15 years with “Water in Hell.”

Most promising is BSS’s relative newcomer, singer Lisa Lobsinger; she was brought on after the band’s other female singers (Feist, Emily Haines and Stars’ Amy Millan—all of whom appear here on “Sentimental X’s,” singing “what we want is off and on”) became too busy being indie superstars to tour with BSS. Lobsinger comes into her own on the somewhat Scandinavian, shimmering and pulsing “All is All,” which is surely the closest Broken Social Scene has ever come to a pop single.

Depending on how closely you follow the personal and musical dramas behind Broken Social Scene, you may wonder why they’re bothering to ask for your forgiveness. No matter: this is an album not only for anyone who ever believed in the band, but for anyone who could never quite figure out what the fuss was about. Kevin Drew is wont to proclaim on stage: “We do this for you.” This time out, it certainly sounds like it. (May 6)

Download (zunior.com, iTunes, eMusic, amazon.com, puretracks.com): “World Sick,” “All is All,” “Sweetest Kill”




The Dead Weather – Sea of Cowards (Third Man)

Real rock and roll should like sweat, sex, and shamanistic voodoo. It should not sound like work. It should sound like the Dead Weather.

Jack White’s new group formed not much more than a year ago; this is its second album, and immediacy is everything. There is a spark to every song here that sounds like a first take, a spontaneous combustion that seems to surprise the players themselves. None of the individual songs are spectacular; none of that matters. The Dead Weather is about chemistry, about blood, about guts.

It’s also about the blues. Vocalist Alison Mosshart snarls and struts her way over monstrous bottom-heavy blues, while Dean Fertita effortlessly extracts fractured, blistering leads from his guitars and organ. But this is clearly Jack White’s band: not only does he share more vocal leads with Mosshart on this album, but his drumming sets the pace and the tone of the proceedings.

Even more than the performances, the sound of Sea of Cowards is spectacular: you don’t have to be a sonic scientist or a gear geek to appreciate the rich tones, the reverb, the live room, or the way that every instrument—including Mosshart’s gripping and growling voice—stakes out its own space.

As he seeks out new challenges and new opportunities outside playing guitar in the White Stripes, Jack White is still learning how to make great rock’n’roll records. This one may well be his best studio recording yet. (May 20)

Download (iTunes, puretracks.com, amazon.com): “Hustle and Cuss,” “Gasoline,” “I Can’t Hear You”




Frog Eyes – Paul’s Tomb: A Triumph (Dead Oceans)

I don’t know who Paul is or how he died or why his tomb might be considered a triumph, never mind the title of the fifth album by Victoria, B.C.’s Frog Eyes—a group never known to spell anything out for the unsuspecting listener. It’s hard to discern what bandleader Carey Mercer is on about at any given moment; it certainly sounds random, although any of the well-respected musicians who have worked with him will swear on their own artistic reputations that the man is a certifiable genius. Others just think he’s certifiable.

So by saying that Paul’s Tomb is indeed a triumph and by far the most rewarding album of Mercer’s extensive discography may mean merely that it doesn’t sound like you’re being wrestled to the ground by a screaming lunatic with a cowbell and a volume of Milton’s poetry. Except that it does still sound a bit like that—only in a good way. “Everybody’s got a hole in their heart / everybody’s got a darkness in their gut,” he bellows, and you’d better believe him.

Opening track “A Flower in a Glove” features Mercer working his strangulated yodel to maximum emotional effect, sounding like he’s been bound and gagged for years, only now given the chance to defend himself to his interrogators. The majestic, stately guitars sound at times like a bizarre cross between Neil Young’s Crazy Horse and King Crimson’s Robert Fripp; Melanie Campbell’s inventive drumming ensures that nothing ever settles into a comfortable rock groove—and on the rare occasions when it does, it brings everything else into a clearer focus and provides a fleeting moment of resolution (not a common commodity in Frog Eyes songs).

Whereas Frog Eyes used to bludgeon the listener with a non-stop assault, Paul’s Tomb—and “A Flower in a Glove” in particular, which miraculously refuses to wear out its welcome after nine epic minutes—displays a much more powerful grasp of dynamics. By retreating even just a bit to create open space, the musical explosions are that much more effective, and Mercer is more than ever in command of his often unruly voice. Much of this new focus is a credit to the production, which is crisp and capable of capturing the many colours at work here.

Frog Eyes are unlikely to ever break through beyond an underground cult status, but Paul’s Tomb may well be the album that causes naysayers to reconsider, and the curious to perk up their ears. (May 13)

Download (iTunes, eMusic, amazon.com): “A Flower in a Glove,” “Odetta’s War,” “Rebel Horns”




American Idiot: The Original Broadway Cast Recording featuring Green Day (Warner)
Flaming Lips – Dark Side of the Moon (Warner)

Cover songs are one thing. Covers of specific albums are another, especially when performed by one artist. Or, in the case of Green Day’s American Idiot album, when it’s adapted into a Broadway production.

It’s not entirely strange that American Idiot landed on Broadway—it’s neither more nor less ridiculous than The Who’s Tommy, for starters, and the music is melodic and just as catchy as anything from, say, Grease; Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong knows a lot more than three chords, and though until recently he never talked about his early background singing show tunes, he’s not coming into this completely out of left field.

But as infectious as almost all these songs are, why would anyone want to hear someone other than Green Day perform them? The arrangements—and certainly the instrumentation—rarely stray from the original album, making this one big karaoke project. Meanwhile, none of the singers are suited to the punk rock backdrop—everyone here, talented though they are, sounds like fish out of water—or the cast of Glee.

The Flaming Lips have never feared the ridiculous, a character trait usually manifested in their wonderfully imaginative stage shows, or the ill-advised homemade sci-fi film Christmas on Mars. Deciding to cover Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon isn’t the worst idea in the world—it’s actually been done before, in reggae form, by the Easy Star All-Stars—and yet the Flaming Lips have somehow managed to make a complete trainwreck out of it. Very few of their versions are faithful—which is fine and admirable—but most of them fall flat or flame out completely (especially the god-awful “Great Gig in the Sky”). Only “Brain Damage,” the closing track, emerges unscathed and somewhat consistent with the Lips’ finest moments; otherwise, this is best left in the dark. (May 20)

Download Green Day (iTunes, amazon.com): “21 Guns,” “Are We the Waiting,” “Last of the American Girls”
Download Flaming Lips (iTunes, amazon.com): “Brain Damage,” “Speak to Me,” “Any Colour You Like”




Grupo Fantasma – El Existential (NatGeo Music)

Very little of the live power exhibited by this blazing hot Latino band is diminished once they haul themselves into a studio. Scorching, often psychedelic and surf-y guitar leads are almost secondary to the heavy percussion section, which is prominently placed in the forefront of the mix. Rock, reggae, cumbia and salsa comprise the Fantasma formula, but all that really matters is that this a party from start to finish. If there’s a difference on this new album, it’s the presence of keyboards: electric pianos, Farfisa organs and accordions that add even more depth to a rich palette. Track for track it’s not as consistently strong as their breakthrough Sondidos Gold or their live album, but it’s still the work of an ace band at the peak of its powers. (May 13)

Download (iTunes): “Montanozo,” “Calor,” “Hijo”




Hole – Nobody’s Daughter (Universal)

It would be unfair to say that Nobody’s Daughter sounds like a cartoon cut-out version of Courtney Love—because Love’s public persona has never been anything less than cartoonish. Her public persona has arguably always superceded her musical acumen, notwithstanding her one bonafide classic, 1994’s Live Through This.

Nobody’s Daughter is only Love’s third album since then, and it’s the first one to sound remotely like the same artist—on the surface, anyway. The grungy guitars are back, Love is singing with a Iggy Pop-esque drawl that curls the end of every phrase, and she’s skewering the sisterhood on songs like “Skinny Little Bitch” and “Loser Dust.”

And yet she is a shadow of her former self: as a singer, as a songwriter, as a charismatic personality. Nobody’s Daughter (an unfortunate title, considering her recently lost custody battle) sounds like an artist who has been out of the game for too long and trying too hard to get back in—never more so than on the cloying “How Dirty Girls Get Clean.” There are attempts, on tracks like “For Once in Your Life” and “Letter To God,” to aim for the kind of scarred, lived-in wisdom of Marianne Faithfull, but Love is far too clumsy and completely lacking in class to pull that off. As for the rockers, she has no trouble conjuring a tortured scream, but neither the songs nor her backing band do her no favours; frankly, Dakota Fanning kicks more ass on The Runaways soundtrack.

“I never wanted to be some kind of comic relief,” she pleads, “please show me who I am.” Nobody’s Daughter is not a raging return, nor is it so terrible that it will satisfy her naysayers’ need for a trainwreck. Instead, it’s innocuous, which for an attention magnet like Courtney Love is a kiss of death. (May 6)




Holy Fuck – Latin (XL)

The first thing we hear is a primitive drum machine get off to a stuttering start before it accelerates rapidly and excitedly, like it can’t wait to get off to the races. And why wouldn’t it? Though Holy Fuck has been around for half a decade now, this is the first recording made with a consistent rhythm section, one that’s been in place for over two years, and which has been yanked all over the globe to play any gig, anywhere, anytime. That means that drummer Matt Schulz and bassist Matt McQuaid are often the engines on much of the material here, allowing principal sound sculptors Brian Borcherdt and Graham Walsh to vivisect their keyboards and unleash glorious noise and textures that they somehow shape into melodies. Without the rhythm section, much of this would be curious abstraction—which it sometimes is anyway, like on the Eno-ish soundwash of “1MD”—but with such a powerhouse acting as the anchor, and with less reliance on riffs as their earlier work, Holy Fuck hit upon a winning formula that is more visceral than dance music, more liberating than rock music, and more inviting than the avant-garde circuit bending that spawned their approach to improvisation in the first place. (May 13)

Download (iTunes, eMusic, amazon.com, puretracks.com): “Red Lights,” “Lucky,” “Stilettos”




Greg Keelor – Gunless OST (Warner)

The movie Gunless may play with clich├ęs of Western movies, but its soundtrack embraces them fully—to great effect. Blue Rodeo’s Greg Keelor obviously marinated himself in Morricone before assembling this haunting score, which is teeming with twangy guitars ringing out whole-note chords and deep-tremolo leads, while a lone trumpet and a swelling string section emerge on the horizon. Keelor doesn’t at all sound like he’s stretching himself here; on the contrary, his melodies and arrangements (with Bryden Baird, who led Blue Rodeo’s short-lived horn section) range from the sweeping to the stark and simple—and always short, with most tracks barely beyond two minutes. (May 6)




LCD Soundsystem – This is Happening (EMI)

This is not happening. Not at all. LCD Soundsystem, one of the defining bands of the last decade in American music, is going out with a whimper. It doesn’t help that one song has a chorus admitting that “I all I want is your pity.” At one point bandleader James Murphy, who recently announced that he is retiring the band, mocks the burden of expectation, taunting: “You wanted a hit/ but that’s not what we do.”

That may be true—despite the fact that their 2005 single “Daft Punk is Playing At My House” was an anthem demarcating the crossover between rock and club music. But not only does a song like “Drunk Girls” sound like shameless pandering (for starters, it’s the only song less than five minutes long) from a band that was once refreshing and original, but This is Happening finds Murphy is exhausted and defeated, in peril of sad self-parody—which is hard to do seriously, for someone who was so self-deprecating in the first place, someone who debuted in 2002 with the lacerating hipster screed “Losing My Edge.” After achieving so much in the interim, Murphy sounds like he’s actualized his low self-esteem.

Every song sounds like the same two-chord vamp at different speeds and ever-so-slightly different keyboard patches—which, on paper, is not that different a descriptor for LCD’s finest moments. Yet far too much of this material sounds directly like inferior versions of older LCD material, and Murphy’s vocals are mostly to blame; some tracks would function fine as instrumentals (“Pow Pow,” “You Wanted a Hit”). Worst of all, it’s hard to imagine anyone who isn’t on heroin listening to all seven minutes of “Somebody’s Calling Me,” which manages to be sluggish, punishing, abrasive and dull—and more than a little bit like Iggy Pop’s “Nightclubbing” played at half speed.

It’s a sad swan song for a band that once synthesized so many of the best elements of underground dance music movements of the past 30 years. The party is definitely over. (May 27)

Download (iTunes, amazon.com, puretracks.com): Drunk Girls, Pow Pow, Dance Yourself Clean




The National – High Violet (XL)

The National’s singer Matt Berninger asks, in all earnesty, “What makes you think I enjoy being left to the flood?” Well, for starters, he seems to love it there, drowning in his mid-life crises, perpetually “stuck in New York and the rain’s coming down,” and moaning about how “I don’t want to get over you” on a song titled “Sorrow.”

That The National specialize in bummer rock is not a crime; they come from a long lineage of velvety, baritone-voiced men who cast their tales of decay in a certain elegance: Nick Cave, Interpol, Tindersticks, Black Heart Procession, even Bruce Springsteen on his darkest days (Bruce is a fan). And while the band is decent—though, with the exception of drummer Bryan Devendorf, rarely more than that—Berninger continually walks a line between the profound and the profoundly pointless, both lyrically and in his limited emotional range.

High Violet may sound nice at the end of a red-wine-soaked evening in the back of a cab driving past big-city lights, but in the bright light of day it rings more than a little hollow and a lot less glamorous. (May 27)

Download (iTunes, eMusic, puretracks.com, amazon.com): "Anyone’s Ghost," "Little Faith," "Runaway"




New Pornographers – Together (Last Gang)

The New Pornographers have always been pop music maximalists: more harmonies, more guitars, more keyboards and, most especially, more pop hooks in three minutes than many artists muster on an entire album. What’s changed over the years is how bandleader A.C. Newman balances his sugary musical diet: when is it too much?

On Together, the fifth New Pornographers albums, Newman continues to dream big while scaling back the intensity. Lead single “Your Hands (Together)” features a heavy Black Sabbath riff and huge harmonies worthy of ABBA; “Moves” has the best rock cello section since ELO; Neko Case shines on her two lead tracks and in prominent supporting roles; newest member Kathryn Calder steps up on the jaunty “Sweet Talk, Sweet Talk”; Dan Bejar chimes in with the kind of concise pop songs he no longer writes in his ever-expansive main project, Destroyer.

Other than Bejar’s wobbly waltz “Daughters of Sorrows,” Together is a rich, rewarding Pornographic experience, a welcome bounceback from the disappointing Challengers (2007), a continuation of their previous high point Twin Cinema (2005), and not a moment too soon to assert itself as the power pop gem of summer 2010. (May 13)

Download (zunior.com, iTunes, eMusic, puretracks.com, amazon.com): "Crash Years," "Your Hands (Together)," "My Shepherd"




Mike Patton – Mondo Cane (Ipecac)

Mike Patton is one of the most versatile vocalists in the world: he made his name with heavy metal in Faith No More, and has since hopped into klezmer with John Zorn, classic soundtracks, lounge lizardry, experimental noise, 20th century classical, trip-hop, hip-hop, straight up pop and—naturally, it would seem—a collaboration with Bjork. Here, on one of the few albums to bear his own name, he dives deep into Italian pop of the ’60 and ’70s, embracing its operatics and its orchestration in both their most shamelessly romantic and sinister sides—sometimes at the same time, as on the sugary sweet “Deep Down,” which concludes with a devilish chant.

For all his trickster tendencies to push the boundaries of whatever genre he’s working in, Patton is perfectly capable of playing it straight. He’s not playing this music to mess with it: this is a loving homage (and in part a personal one, as his ex-wife is Italian, and he lived in Bologna for many years). His voice is perfectly suited to this expressive material, and he nails every rolled “R” with panache. He only unleashes his heavy metal growl once, on the garage rocker “Urlo Negro”—which, true to character, is sandwiched between the two most gorgeous and lush tracks here.

Recorded live with a 40-piece orchestra, Mondo Cane is one of the most accessible discs in the Patton discography, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less deliciously rewarding or unique. (May 20)

Download (iTunes, eMusic): “Deep Down,” “Il Cielo In Una Stanza,” “L’Uomo Che Non Sapeva Amare”




Justin Rutledge – The Early Widows (Six Shooter)

Conventional wisdom has it that a songwriter standing alone with an acoustic guitar is driven to write stronger melodies, in the absence of additional ornamentation. Toronto’s Justin Rutledge defies said convention by strapping on an electric guitar, embracing a full band—including two drummers and a gospel choir—and coming up with the most compelling album of his career.

It could be the guiding hand of producer Hawksley Workman, whose stellar work here overshadows anything in his own discography recently. It could be the sympathetic arrangements by some of Toronto’s top studio musicians, including Blue Rodeo’s Bazil Donovan on bass, pedal steel whiz Burke Carroll (whose touches sound more like Pink Floyd than standard country shadings), and Vancouver violinist Jesse Zubot. If you believe what you read in the mainstream media, it might be the presence of novelist Michael Ondaatje, who co-writes one mere song here.

But ultimately, all of that is window dressing; all credit must go to Rutledge, who has stepped up his songwriting game considerably on this, his fourth album. If his previous work was pleasantly inoffensive CBC fare, The Early Widows is evocative and haunting, its melodies filling the cavernous spaces left by the sparse arrangements. Rutledge’s voice can tend toward the quavering sensitive balladeer, but for the most part he exhibits quiet strength, taking his own advice, perhaps, to “be a man about this”—especially when he holds his own with his backing gospel singers, who thankfully blend in perfectly rather than sounding like an exotic afterthought (although “Snowmen” does get into Pink Floyd’s “Great Gig in the Sky” territory). And although most of The Early Widows is drawn from dynamic, moody material, Rutledge also shines when he plays it straight on the country-ish “Miss Montgomery” and the rollicking rocker (and urban refugee anthem) “The Heart of a River.” (May 27)

Download (zunior.com, iTunes): “Be a Man,” “The Heart of a River,” “I Have Not Seen the Light”




The Sadies – Darker Circles (Outside)

It’s been three years since the extremely prolific Sadies put out a studio album, and if we are to read anything into the lyrics, there have been some dark days for the Good family. Brothers Travis and Dallas have never shied away from a good murder ballad, but Darker Circles faces different kind of demons: disappointment, decay, deference and the death of dreams. It’s not just the weighty subject matter that makes Darker Circles such a strong record. The delay between releases also suggests that they’ve spent more time living with and working on these songs; producer Gary Louris (Jayhawks) ensures nothing here is half-baked, or a mere excuse to showcase their instrumental dexterity. This time it sounds personal—and it’s a much better record because of it. (May 20)

Download (iTunes, eMusic, zunior.com, amazon.com): “Another Year Again,” “Choosing to Fly,” “Whispering Circles”