The following reviews appeared in the Kitchener-Waterloo Record and Guelph Mercury in June.
Bei Bei and Shawn Lee – Into the Wind (Ubiquity)
Chinese-Western musical match-ups are all too rare; successful ones rarer still. The pairing of Bei Bei Zheng and Shawn Lee is nothing short of perfect: she is a master of the gu zheng, or a Chinese zither, and he is an extremely adaptable funk instrumentalist and film composer. The gu zheng is most familiar to Western audiences from martial arts films; hearing it paired with Shaft-worthy instrumentation is evocative splendour—it’s amazing Quentin Tarantino didn’t think of it first. (He was too busy recycling old soundtracks, apparently.) Though Bei Bei comes from an obviously classical tradition—she’s a teacher and has even written a textbook about the instrument—she’s more than willing to bend the instrument’s capabilities to whatever cinematic mood Lee conjures up, from sparse, smoky jazz to bossa nova to action-sequence soundtracks. The gu zheng’s harp-like qualities at times recall Alice Coltrane’s enchanting jazz records, though Bei Bei is much more playful than spiritual. (June 17)
Download (eMusic, amazon.com): “Hot Thursday,” “East,” “The Master Room”
Cowboy Junkies – Renmin Park: The Nomad Series Volume One (Latent)
Michael Timmins is having a mid-life creative renaissance. After 10 years of Cowboy Junkies albums that only the most diehard of the band’s fans heard, the guitarist and songwriter bounced back in 2009 with a new band, Lee Harvey Osmond (with Blackie and the Rodeo Kings’ Tom Wilson and Skydiggers’ Josh Finlayson), that tapped into the sparse and spooky nature of the Junkies’ best recordings.
Now back with the Junkies, Timmins launches the first of four albums they intend to put out in the next 18 months, a schedule that sounds ridiculously ambitious for a band well past their prime—until you hear how strong this album is.
Renmin Park was written after Timmins and his family (not his siblings in the band) lived in China for three months, an experience that shapes the setting of Timmins’s short stories in the lyrics, but more importantly seeps into the music as well. Ehru and pipa solos fit perfectly into the Junkies’ sound, and Chinese singer Zuoxiao Zuzhou takes lead vocals on “A Walk in the Park,” co-written with bassist Alan Anton and guest keyboardist Joby Baker; two other tracks (“My Fall,” “I Cannot Sit Sadly By Your Side”) are written by Chinese writers and translated into English, sung by Margo Timmins.
If the Junkies have been in a rut recently, Renmin Park widens their scope considerably, while remaining as intimate as their finest moments. Michael Timmins appears to have asserted more control here than ever—he also introduces his own, scraggly voice for the first time in the band’s 25-year history—yet it’s actually bassist Alan Anton who rises from the background to glue all these new elements together, especially on the handful of tracks where he adopts a dub reggae backbeat while Michael and keyboardist Baker provide textural touches that tap into the band’s psychedelic, Velvet Underground beginnings.
The sound is captivating enough; Michael Timmins has also written some of his strongest songs in years. Longtime Junkies fans will be ecstatic; fair-weather fans are more than encouraged to check in and help this Canadian institution celebrate their 25th anniversary on a high note. (June 17)
Download (iTunes, amazon.com): “(You’ve Got to Get) A Good Heart,” “My Fall,” “Stranger Here”
Crystal Castles – II (Last Gang)
If notoriety is any measure of success, Crystal Castles are one of the biggest Canadian acts internationally. Listening to their second album, however, it’s near impossible to imagine why.
The first album, which featured a demo recording that became a MySpace sensation, was a decent electro album that was equal parts abrasive aggression and goth gloom with melancholic melodies buried beneath the bleeps and blurps.
Yet none of that promise is heard here, which—for a band that induces riot-like behaviour at live gigs—sounds remarkably muzzled. Singer Alice Glass is rarely let loose to squeal bloody murder; her most effective moments come when she’s at her most detached and robotic (notably on a cover of Platinum Blonde’s "Not In Love"). Ethan Kath’s production dips into cheesy ’90s rave territory and rote ’80s electro fetishism; even at it’s most aggressive here (which isn’t that often) it still sounds like it would fade into the background on a fashion runway.
For all their adoring crowds, Crystal Castles attract a large amount of venom, due to their prickly and prank-ridden public personas. But this time the venom may well come from fans wondering why Crystal Castles sound like they’re made of sand. (June 3)
Download (iTunes, eMusic, amazon.com): “Celestica,” “Baptism,” “Not in Love”
Gord Downie and the Country of Miracles – The Grand Bounce (Universal)
The best and worst thing about Gord Downie’s solo records is their sloppy, unproduced nature. Outside the confines of The Tragically Hip—confines that applied much less to their last album, the creative comeback We Are the Same—Downie has hired musicians that embrace scrappy first takes, wrestle with wrong notes until they sound right, colour outside the lines when possible and settle into a punk-country shuffle when necessary.
They still do all of those things on The Grand Bounce, Downie’s third solo album with this group of players, though this time everything is brought into brighter focus, in large part due to the influence of producer Chris Walla (Decemberists, Tegan and Sara). Thankfully, it’s not as polished as most of Walla’s work, like his own far-too-polite band Death Cab for Cutie and its spin-off project The Postal Service; Walla respects the raw nature of the Country of Miracles while also bringing out their best. As a result, Downie sounds more in control here—as he naturally does with The Hip, where he remains one of the most captivating frontmen in rock’n’roll—as opposed to surrendering to the spontaneity of his bandmates.
The songwriting stands out this time as well; Downie is writing to his band’s strengths, particularly guitarist Dale Morningstar and vocalist Julie Doiron, while some songs (“The Drowning Machine”) sound like a younger, hungry Hip, minus the bluesy riffs that defined many of their earlier classics. (June 3)
Download (iTunes, puretracks.com): “The East Wind,” “Yellow Days,” “As a Mover”
Drake – Thank Me Later (Universal)
He was Canada’s biggest hip-hop superstar ever, even before his debut album came out. So why, now that we’re all paying attention, does he do nothing on said debut but whine about how empty and meaningless the life of a rich and famous rap star is? What a way to squander a wave of goodwill for the upstart underdog—imagine an Academy Award winner making an acceptance speech about how much the win will ruin their life.
Drake grew up as a child TV star, so he’d already experienced a small level of fame before he was being wined and dined by U.S. rap royalty. So on some level, his love/hate relationship with fame comes naturally, and on the album’s first single, “Over,” he sums up his discomfort in his new mega-celebrity status, unsure whether he’s still playing a role or whether it’s his real life: “What am I doing? Oh, that’s right, I’m doing me.”
That might be tolerable for a single—and yet Drake spends the vast majority of his debut album deconstructing the jetset life, how easy it is to get laid, how hard it is to have so much money, and wondering if it’s all worth it.
Cry me a river. Isn’t there a recession going on? Isn’t the world going to hell? Are we supposed to feel sorry for him? Or is he trying to comfort the rest of us lowly listeners by explaining how success is not all that? Is this some self-deprecating Canadian complex, ill at ease in the belly of American celebrity culture?
No matter which, it’s indulgent emo rap that rings hollow on almost every level—even the music is limp, without even a single escapist track that might make it on the dance floor—and it’s entirely unclear what exactly we’re supposed to be thanking him for. (June 24)
Download (iTunes, puretracks.com, amazon.com): “Over,” “Fireworks,” “Karaoke”
Fred Eaglesmith – Cha Cha Cha (Lonesome Day/E1)
After 15 albums in a 30-year career, Brantford, Ontario’s Fred Eaglesmith is currently enjoying his biggest mainstream success, with the likes of Miranda Lambert, Alan Jackson and even Toby Keith recording his material. When it comes to his own albums, however, Eaglesmith is content to get weirder.
On Cha Cha Cha, it sounds like Tom Waits got Leonard Cohen’s back-up singers hammered with Los Lobos, getting David Lynch to film the whole thing. The Ginn sisters provide backing vocals that are alternately elegant and creepy, a perfect complement to Eaglesmith’s increasingly raspy voice—which is put to work singing songs of romantically devastated men who think their lover is “being careless with my love,” is “playing tricks on me,” has been “gone too long,” and who spend their days hallucinating said lover’s appearance all around town.
As one might expect, Cha Cha Cha has a slight Latin vibe, mixed with twangy guitar, Farfisa organs and ’50s rock’n’roll. Because Eaglesmith recorded it at home—though still employing long-time collaborator Scott Merritt to mix the album—it has a decidedly more raw sound. Obviously, Eaglesmith is fine letting others make radio-friendly versions of his songs; left to his own devices, he likes to dwell in the shadows, where attention to sonic detail is as important as lyrical narratives. In fact, on their own, most of these songs are merely average: it’s Eaglesmith’s eerie delivery and morbid mood that really makes them shine. (June 17)
Download (iTunes, amazon.com, zunior.com, eMusic): “Careless,” “Sliver of the Moon,” “Dynamite and Whiskey”
Minotaurs – The Thing (Static Clang)
Once a drummer, always a drummer. Though Nathan Lawr (Royal City, King Cobb Steelie) moved from behind the skins to become an acclaimed singer/songwriter in his own right, he is once again slave to the rhythm in his new project, Minotaurs. Lawr isn’t drumming here—he leaves that to CanRock veteran Don Kerr (Ron Sexsmith, Rheostatics)—but has written a set of songs that rely almost entirely on rhythm. (That, and a killer horn section.) Opening track “Caught in the Light” sets the pace, easily falling into the type of Afrobeat groove that’s driven so many recent reissues of ’70s African obscurities. Several other tracks follow a similar template, but this is not Lawr’s Afrobeat record—even if perhaps it should be, seeing how those are the standout tracks. His tendencies toward traditional Western songcraft still shine through—though often it sounds like he’s trying to tame these wild Minotaurs, when really, he should be letting them loose to follow wherever the beat takes them. (June 24)
Download (iTunes, eMusic, zunior.com): “Caught in the Light,” “Get Down,” “Pink Floyd”
Janelle Monae – The Archandroid (Bad Boy/Warner)
“Am I a freak?” asks Janelle Monae, “Or just another weirdo? / Call me weak / Or just call me your hero.”
Hero it is, then. Her haircut and style might be the first thing you notice—like on her explosive performance on David Letterman’s show a couple of weeks back—but Monae’s myriad talents are what make her a star, not just the fact that she can out-glam Gaga if she wants to.
Vocally, she can be Grace Jones one moment, Lena Horne the next, and then sound as giddy as a young Michael Jackson, dropping huge pop songs, soul revue rave-ups, wigged-out hip-hop like her friends in Outkast and dancing like James Brown in the process. Then, just for the hell of it, she’s slice off some British psychedelic folk music or Broadway-style show tune—because she can. That she is capable of doing anything is obvious. Should she?
The Archandroid contains 18 tracks, including a couple of pseudo-classical instrumental interludes that have something to do with the fact that Monae has somehow envisioned this album as parts two and three of a soundtrack to the silent film classic Metropolis—which I don’t believe for a second. She doesn’t need that kind of backstory to sell herself as an enigmatic, multi-talented tour-de-force—it’s all there in the music itself.
But if The Archandroid is a tad show-offy and a bit too long, it never entirely wears out its welcome, thanks to at least four or five killer tracks and Monae’s seemingly endless charisma. Prince is undoubtedly also high on her list of influences, though unfortunately The Archandroid is more like Diamonds and Pearls-era Prince—past his prime but before the total decline. Monae is on her way up, of course, and there’s no doubt she’ll be bathing in the purple rain soon enough. (June 3)
Download (iTunes, puretracks.com, amazon.com): “Tightrope,” “Cold War,” “Dance or Die”
Parallels – Visionaries (E1)
Cameron Findlay was the live drummer in Crystal Castles before striking out to form Parallels; if CC has ’80s presets in their keyboards, Findlay likes to take it back further, mining warm analog synth sounds as if music stopped progressing after Kraftwerk’s Man Machine album.
Findlay teamed up with singer Holly Dodson (whose father spent the ’70s avoiding synths in the colossal CanRock band the Stampeders), who plays the part of ice princess effectively—warmer than, say, the faceless Sally Shapiro, but not as charismatic as Lykke Li or Annie. Parallels are very much a genre band and a promising one at that, but Visionaries suffers from a sameness that gets wearying after more than a couple of tracks at a time. (June 3)
Download (iTunes, amazon.com): “Nightmares,” “Ultralight,” “Needless to Say”
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers – Mojo (Warner)
Don’t do drugs, kids. If you do, you’ll wind up 60 years old and playing boring blues rock—no matter how good you were a mere 20 years ago, or 20 years before that.
Tom Petty is not a man who should be singing the blues—nor, for that matter, at his age, should he be paying women backhanded compliments like: “She was kinda cute/ if a little past her prime.”
His nasal voice is perfect for snarling rockers, tiny perfect pop songs and laid-back country rock; singing the blues simply brings out his worst, laziest tendencies. He doesn’t have the curmudgeonly character or evasive wordplay that his friend Bob Dylan does in order to pull this off; instead, he sounds like an old bore singing about partying with motel maids (which he does on “The Trip to Pirate’s Cove”) or his first acid trip (which he does on “First Flash of Freedom”).
The Heartbreakers do their best—in particular stalwarts Mike Campbell on guitar and Benmont Tench on keyboards—and several tracks would be fine without Petty involved, like the lite reggae “Don’t Pull Me Over” or the shuffle of “Running Man’s Bible.” But the world is full of great bands backing up lacklustre songwriters—it’s just sad that fate has befallen the Heartbreakers. (June 24)
Download (iTunes, amazon.com, puretracks.com): "High In the Morning," "Something Good Coming," "Don’t Pull Me Over"
Sean Nicholas Savage – Movin Up in Society (Arbutus)
Plenty of artists adopt a retro sound; few sound like actual artifacts from times gone by. Sean Nicholas Savage, an Edmonton expatriate now living in Montreal, sounds like he hasn’t heard any new music since Bob Dylan went electric; Savage’s sound is very much rooted in the early ’60s Greenwich Village folk scene, with his warbly, slightly nasal tenor imbued with all the wide-eyed idealism and naivete of a Prairie boy suddenly “sleeping in a car in New York City.” His lyrics may not be terribly deep (“giant brain up in the sky/ tell me what is on your mind”)—he’s no Ian Tyson—yet his voice is entirely captivating, and the lo-fi, acoustic recording is enchanting, especially the contributions from the soprano backing vocalists and violinist. At times it recalls a more wistful and romantic Ray Condo—another Westerner who moved to Montreal to make country music—or a rural take on the sweet simplicity of Swedish songwriter Jens Lekman. Hopefully his new city life inspires some lyrics to match his musical vision. (June 10)
Download: the entire album is available for free here.
South Rakkas Crew – The Stimulus Package (Mad Decent)
With the lone exception of Kardinal Offishall’s 2008 pop hit “Dangerous”—which unfortunately overshadowed the criminally underrated album it appeared on, Not 4 Sale—the tiny but vital group of Canadians making Caribbean-influenced dancehall pop has rarely made international waves. South Rakkas Crew might be the ones to change that.
South Rakkas Crew grew up in Mississauga and Brampton, worked in Toronto briefly (including on Barenaked Ladies tracks), and then fled to Orlando where they found work with ’N Sync, of all people, and even Michael Jackson, while maintaining links to club culture, in particular Jamaican dancehall. That dichotomy has made fans out of Thom Yorke and Tricky as well as Beyoncé and Justin Timberlake, and, most importantly, Diplo—the Baltimore DJ who helped give birth to M.I.A.’s career, as well as Santigold’s, and who is one-half of the electro-dancehall-pop duo Major Lazer. Diplo has put out South Rakkas Crew mix tapes and albums on his Mad Decent label, where they’re right at home alongside other artists under heavy Jamaican, Brazilian and hip-hop influences.
Unlike their like-minded peer Poirier in Montreal, South Rakkas Crew come from a decidedly more pop background, meaning the hooks are huge and the beats much bigger than most people from the underground who came to the dance floor late in the game. That doesn’t mean they play it safe, however: one of the most engaging tracks on The Stimulus Package is their remix of sorts involving oddball art-punk band Deerhoof, and their 2008 pop song “+81”; stripped of its signature guitar riff, the Crew pull apart the other hooks embedded in the track and cut the tempo in half.
They may be globetrotters now, but it’s not hard to hear the new sound of the suburbs—the culturally rich, cross-pollinating suburbs, not the sleepy enclaves of yore—in South Rakkas’ polyglot pop. (June 10)
Download: the entire album is available for free here.
Tracy Thorn – Love and its Opposites (Merge)
Everything But the Girl always seemed like one of those ridiculous British names for disposable pop bands of the ’80s (see: Pop Will Eat Itself, Wet Wet Wet). But that band’s singer, Tracy Thorn, is definitely not making music for girls and boys anymore: this, her second album, is for mature audiences only. And by mature, I mean anyone with enough life experience to be in a long-term relationship that either fractures after years of slowly developing cracks, or somehow survives despite years of disappointments. Mature in a way that will no longer accept a tired cliché like “I miss you like deserts miss the rain.”
Thorn let’s you know exactly what you’re in for right off the top: “Oh! The Divorces” is a devastating song about watching friends fall apart, lost idealism, the fallacy of romantic pop songwriting, and the fall from passionate beginnings to mundane custody obligations—the latter is done during the song’s bridge in a mere 11 words: “the honeymoon/ the wedding rings/ the afternoon handovers by the swings.” Ominously, the song both opens and closes with the question: “Who’s next?”
Love and its Opposites is not a breakup album—after all, Thorn is still married to her former EBTG bandmate and father of her children, Ben Watt. Rather, it’s full of well-crafted observations of middle age in general: parenting teenagers (“you worry about growing up/ I worry about letting go”), singles bars (“Can you tell how long I’ve been here? / Can you smell the fear?”) and family ghosts in the old hometown.
The lyrics are the real selling point; on first listen, the music is merely pleasant and, well, adult. Thorn’s melancholy, empathetic voice is nothing if not subtle, but understatement serves her well; the arrangements here are often sparse, but always spot-on, and there are enough colours and tempos to rescue it from being a middle-aged mope. Much like the quiet, unseen daily dramas that she documents, there is far more going on here than first meets the eye. (June 10)
Download (iTunes, eMusic, amazon.com, puretracks.com): “Oh! The Divorces,” “Kentish Town,” “Singles Bar”
Andre Williams – That’s All I Need (Bloodshot)
This 73-year-old bluesman isn’t up to any new tricks on his latest album, other than that he’s digging into more of a late-night psychedelic blues trip than he has in the past, thanks to a group of Detroit players, most of whom—with the notable exception of Motown session legend Dennis Coffey—are from much younger generations. Williams is an oddly compelling vocalist, equally sexy and sinister, cool and creepy, even when he’s just chanting the word “tricks!” over a minimalist blues backdrop, or squeezing every bit of pathos out of a song titled “When Love Shoots You in the Foot.” Williams sounds a bit spent: he doesn’t seem capable of belting it out, but nor does he have to, and his calm command of the feisty youngsters behind him lends him even greater authority. (June 24)
Download (iTunes, eMusic, amazon.com): “There Ain’t No Such Thing as Good Dope,” “Tricks,” “Cigarettes and My Old Lady”