These reviews ran in the K-W Record and Guelph Mercury this month.
Chancha Via Circuito – Rio Arriba (ZZK)
ZZK is a club and label in Buenos Aires that specializes in a digital take on South American cumbia music. Pedro Canale started out as the merch guy at the back of the club, but with his second album as Chancha Via Circuito, he finds himself at the forefront of the movement. That’s because there’s nothing gimmicky about what he does: he’s not simply playing cumbia rhythms that he’s spliced together on his laptop. His tempos get pitched around at will, making him sound more like an avant-garde turntablist at times, and yet he also brings in a breadth of traditional acoustic sounds that give his project much more warmth than his entirely digitally dependent peers. Guitars, cellos, percussion that sounds like pebbles, marimbas and pan flutes abound. Most of Rio Arriba is comprised of his original tracks, but his remixes for other artists contained here are just as revealing, especially his work with Miriam Garcia and Alicia Solans, who are obviously South American but sound Balkan—proof once again that cultural cross-pollination comes alive on the digital dance floor. (Apr 14)
Download: Jose Arride – “Quimey Neuquen Remix,” Miriam Garcia and Alicia Solans – “Pintar el Sol Remix,” “Puente”
Galaxie – Tigre et diesel (C4)
Anyone who finds Malajube too odd, who finds Karkwa too bland, or in general has yet to hear any francophone Quebecois music that kicks their ass, then this record by Galaxie should not be so far, far away.
If Gordie Johnson of Big Sugar wrote songs with Beck for Black Mountain to perform with Stereolab—in French, no less—then you’d have the third album by this Quebecois band (who unfortunately used to have “500” affixed to their name, causing much confusion with the influential cult band Galaxie 500). Fuzzy, somewhat blusey guitar riffs are given a lo-fi glam treatment with fluttering synthesizers in the background, all of which demands to be played at maximum volume, ideally with a bottle of Maudite in hand.
Galaxie love their ’70s sounds, but don’t get lost in retro reverence. Olivier Langevin is the rare guitarist who noodles effectively, and his band, which includes acclaimed solo artist Fred Fortin on bass and two members each on female vocals and keyboards (not all the equipment are 30 years old—there are some definite modern electro moments here) sound massive with merely the simplest arrangements. Unlike most franco rock bands, there’s nothing clunky about the cadence here; Langevin knows how to write a hook in the universal language. And on “Jusqu’a la fin,” he writes a perfect cliché acoustic ballad that hits all the right chords, readymade for campfires and high school slow dances everywhere.
Other Quebecois bands will get more hype in the anglo press, but this is the one that the rest of Canada—especially our rock radio stations—really needs to hear. (Apr 28)
Download: “Camouflar,” “Jusqu’a la fin,” “Diesel 2”
Jim Guthrie - Sword and Sworcery EP (Dark Flute)
If you’re an avid Twitter user, you may have noticed the hashtag #sworcery pop up in your feed, especially if you have particularly geeky gaming friends. It refers to a new video game by a Toronto design team that’s climbing the iPad app sales charts—almost overcoming the ubiquitous Angry Birds. Guelph’s Jim Guthrie has been an integral part of the game’s development since the beginning.
If this video game’s upward ascension continues—and it’s only been out for a couple of weeks—Sword and Sworcery may soon become the main calling card of Guthrie’s prolific career, which includes a stint with Royal City (who got a shout-out from Arcade Fire on the Junos), acclaimd solo albums, film soundtracks and ubiquitous ad jingles. And because video games—even nerdfests like this one—reach an infinitely larger audience than oddball Canadian indie records, it’s likely to be the most lucrative as well.
Like any video game music, Guthrie wrote this with loops in mind—how long the player stays in a certain mode determines how long they hear a particular passage of music. And yet for the album versions, he’s edited them into cinematic songs that have elements of ’70s horror films, ’80s Asian action movies, and fantasy narrative video games of the ’90s. It’s easily the most ambitious thing he’s attempted, and Guthrie is more than up to the challenge, producing an album that succeeds entirely independently of the game it was commissioned for.
Guthrie has a “normal” album due later this year, but anyone who’s been waiting for him to follow up 2003’s Juno-nominated Now More Than Ever shouldn’t hesitate to get their game on with Sword and Sworcery. (Apr 7)
Download: “Lone Star,” “The Ballad of the Space Babies,” “Bones McCoy”
Hauschka – Salon des Amateurs (Fat Cat)
The concept of “prepared piano”—which means inserting various objects between the strings of the piano, creating percussive sounds—is rarely employed outside avant-garde music circles. And that’s a realm where German pianist Hauschka, aka Volker Bertelmann, is certainly comfortable, as his sublime 2005 album simply called The Prepared Piano illustrated. Since then he’s made some records that are poppier than others, exploring orchestration and electronics along the way. Here, however, he returns to the prepared piano and applies it to pulsing rhythms—courtesy of guest musicians Joey Burns and John Convertino of Calexico and drummer Samuli Kosminem of Mum—that employ the repetition, build-up and release of techno music without ever using four-on-the-floor drums that would make the link all too explicit. Instead, Salon des Amateurs is a delicately orchestrated, peppy and percussive piano suite that serves as a perfect summation of this prolific composer’s oeuvre to date. Granted, there is not much variation to be found here, and after a while all the plinkety-plink sounds like a soundtrack for a clockmakers documentary or a Jean-Pierre Jeunet film—if you’re into that kind of thing. (Apr 28)
Download: “TwoAM,” “Girls,” “Subconscious”
Johnny – s/t (Merge)
Not many people know that Norman Blake, of ’90s Glaswegian rock band Teenage Fanclub, has been residing here in Waterloo for the past several years. That in part explains why that band has only put out two albums in the past 10 years, but it doesn’t explain how Blake continues his transatlantic connections with this new project, a collaboration with Welsh weirdo Euros Childs, of the offbeat psychedelic band Gorky’s Zygotic Minci.
Fans of both bands will not be surprised: Childs’s playful sense of pop meets Blake’s more muscular arrangements in the middle, and the result is rich with sunny harmonies, piano pop, country leanings, and odes to, um, bread. Everything is economical and under three minutes, except “Cave Dance,” which starts out as a goofy two-minute dance song before beginning eight minutes of droning space rock. No matter—the indulgence is perfectly excusable, given the pure pleasure that colours every other corner of this debut from two veterans who don’t feel like they have any time to mess around. (Apr 14)
Download: “You Was Me,” “Bread,” “I’ll Make Her My Best Friend”
k.d. lang and the Siss Boom Bang – Sing It Loud (Nonesuch)
The cover image is promising: k.d. lang, one of the greatest singers of the last half-century, beaming and holding a megaphone. The name of her backing band is also promising: for the first time since disbanding her country outfit the Reclines over 20 years ago, lang is collaborating with a real band, one whose moniker hints at swing and sass and verve. Perhaps lang will finally have an album of original material that matches her unearthly talent, yes?
No. Not since 1992’s Ingenue has lang managed to pen material that suggested she was doing so as anything more than an exercise. Sing It Loud is the closest she’s come to that transformative time, but it pales in comparison. The title track is the nadir; ironically, absolutely nothing about it makes you want to sing it loud. The lone cover here is of the Talking Heads’ song “Heaven”: “Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens,” a sentiment that sums up the approach to songwriting here.
Of course, lang is in fine voice—when is she not?—but the band, while capable of dreamy torch-song textures, don’t have much personality of their own; they certainly can’t breathe life into the material. Despite the cover art, there is very little bounce to lang’s step here. We know we’ll never again hear the irreverent cowpunk of her youth, but still, one longs to hear her belt out something other than a mid-tempo ballad.
On “Inglewood,” she sings: “Take me to a place where music sounds good again / the place where I could’ve been / the place where I should’ve been.” Hear, hear. (Apr 14)
Download: “I Confess,” “Asleep With No Dreams,” “Heaven”
Malajube – La Caverne (Dare to Care)
Despite their many strengths, Malajube always seemed to be hiding behind something. (For most anglophones, that would start with their French lyrics, but if that’s a stumbling block for you, then you can’t be helped anyway.) The band’s 2006 breakthrough Trompe l’oeil buried their pop hooks under layers of grunge; the 2009 follow-up Labyrinthes found them taking some fascinating prog-rock turns, as, of course, Quebecois bands are prone to do. La Caverne, on the other hand, aims for the gut on the opening track and first single “Synesthesie,” which captures all their strengths in under three minutes, stuffed full of melodic guitar rock over a disco beat. (It’s a formula they repeat on another Caverne cut, “Le Blizzard.”)
From there, Malajube continue to strip away the layers and focus on spacious, atmospheric rock that is equal parts Modest Mouse and Pink Floyd (“Mon Oeil” sounds suspiciously like Pink Floyd’s “Us and Them”). Their sense of arrangement, which they pushed to the limit of Labyrinthes, is much more focused on brevity and clarity throughout La Caverne—which, building on their previous successes, will undoubtedly continue their winning streak as the international torchbearers of Quebec’s criminally neglected francophone rock scene. (Apr 28)
Download: “Synesthesie,” “Sangsues,” “Le Blizzard”
Miracle Fortress – Was I The Wave? (Secret City)
This dreamy one-man band’s debut album, Five Roses, combined Beach Boys pop, ’80s new wave and ’90s psychedelic shoegaze music in a way that sounded entirely fresh, despite the obvious touchstones. This time out, Miracle Fortress main man Graham Van Pelt is stuck primarily in the ’80s, with this album’s best tracks sounding like a subdued take on New Order or even Men Without Hats. There’s less to distinguish Miracle Fortress from dozens of similar acts on the scene.
What’s more—or, more accurately, what’s less—is that of the 10 tracks here, four are short instrumentals. That leaves about three songs for Van Pelt to prove himself—which he does, thankfully. The once-hyped, now-forgotten Junior Boys, for example, would kill to write songs like “Spectre,” “Everything Works” and “Miscalculations.”
The Fortress has been breached, but there is still some treasure hidden inside. (Apr 28)
Download: “Spectre,” “Everything Works,” “Miscalculations”
Robbie Robertson – How to Become Clairvoyant (Fontana North)
The older he gets, the more apparent it is that Robbie Robertson is a musical sponge. He may have written the classic songs by The Band (though drummer Levon Helm has a thing or two to say about that), but without his Band-mates Robertson has often sounded lost—with the sole exception of his 1988 solo debut, which was more of a Daniel Lanois album with a lot of helpful guests.
Here, Robertson invites Trent Reznor, Robert Randolph, Tom Morello and other people who are more talented than he is these days, as well as Eric Clapton—and yet he still comes up short with a boring boomer record in which he sits around and reminisces about more creative times. Granted, it may be the first time he’s written so autobiographically—but who cares? I’d rather read his upcoming book.
It’s telling that one of the best tracks here, “Madame X,” sounds like telephone hold music with a melody cribbed from a Big Chill favourite, Smokey Robinson’s “Tracks of My Tears.” (Apr 7)
Download: “He Don’t Live Here No More,” “Madame X,” “Fear of Falling”
Paul Simon – So Beautiful or So What? (Concord)
Veteran performers are either ignored as irrelevant or lauded for being on the comeback trail; there doesn’t seem to be any in-between for an artist like Paul Simon. His last album, the excellent 2006 Surprise, produced by Brian Eno, was his most impressive collection of songs—as well as his most fascinating production job—since 1990’s Rhythm of the Saints, and yet it vanished without a trace. Now, everyone is tripping over themselves to praise this new album, which offers mixed results at best.
Simon is at his best when he’s crossing cultures, like the West African guitar atop tabla in “Dazzling Blue,” or the Malian kora that dances around the fine folkie fingerpicking of “Rewrite.” “Love is Eternal Sacred Light” is a blues stomp, which is crying out for someone less polite that Simon to do a rip-roarin’ version.
Perhaps not coincidentally, those tracks also inspire the better lyrics on this release: the tepid, straightforward acoustic ballad “Love & Hard Times,” on the other hand, inexplicably shifts from a tale about God and Jesus visiting Earth to a story of a long-time romance (did he get distracted halfway through writing it?). The title track tries to use his recipe for chicken gumbo as a metaphor for a “life’s what you make of it” lesson—needless to say, to no avail.
Simon does deserve credit for not standing still, however. Much of his discography bears little sonic resemblance to each other, even if lyrically he consistently plays the part of the slightly bumbling and bewildered philosophical fuddy-duddy astutely observing the modern world that’s leaving him behind. As on Surprise, there are themes of mortality and spirituality—particularly on "Afterlife," which envisions heaven as just another bureaucracy to endure. But mostly, unlike the music, his lyrics sound like a caricature of himself—which, as the self-deprecating title hints, he may well be aware. (Apr 21)
Download: “Dazzling Blue,” “Rewrite,” “Love is Eternal Sacred Light”
Timber Timbre – Creep On Creepin’ On (Arts and Crafts)
The album title, while funny and appropriate for the spooky sounds of Timber Timbre, is undeniably campy—and, unfortunately, so is some of this third album by Toronto’s Taylor Kirk, augmented here by a new band that includes quivering saxophones, droning violins and plinking piano.
The band’s 2009 self-titled sophomore record was a masterpiece of mood, of tiny terrors and tension; here, those eighth-note piano pulses and Kirk’s Elvis impersonation start to sound like crutches, even if the arrangements are otherwise inspired, the work of violinist Mika Posen in particular adding equally eerie and lovely textures.
Of the 10 songs here, three are incidental instrumentals, experimental pieces that offset the album’s more conventional creep and provide welcome left turns. The result is an album that puts Timber Timbre in the paradoxically purgatorial situation of both spinning its wheels and stretching its legs; its brevity suggests that Kirk himself is unsure which direction he wants to be pulled. (Apr 7)
Download: “Bad Ritual,” “Woman,” “Too Old To Die Young”
TuneYards – Whokill (4AD/Beggars)
In a release week where Paul Simon sounds old and tired and TV on the Radio are stuck in a rut, along comes a new TuneYards album that makes both of those artists sound like conservative fogeys.
TuneYards is Merrill Garber, a Vermont native who started her musical career in Montreal and now lives in Oakland, California. Previously a solo performer who made lo-fi bedroom recordings, she now collaborates with bassist Nate Brenner, invited other guests and takes advantage of the possibilities in a real studio. While she used to come across as a ukulele player that sounded like Joni Mitchell immersed in post-punk dance music and African rhythms, now she explores all those sides at once, creating a unique fusion that makes this one of the most fascinating albums this year.
Whokill is as dense as an early Public Enemy album, as joyous and melodic as a Vampire Weekend record, as natural as birdsong and as wonderfully weird as Mary Margaret O’Hara or Kate Bush all at once. Though those may be comparison points, her music doesn’t actually sound like any of these people at all, yet it effortlessly evokes their adventurous spirit.
She front-loads the album with the most in-your-face aspects of her performance: full-throated hollers, pounding drums, distorted sounds, syncopated rhythms. But there’s a lovely and tender side to her as well, and when she doesn’t feel like throwing everything at the wall at once—though she’s one of the few artists than can do so effectively without looking like a show-off—she can be delicate and haunting.
Whereas her contemporaries like Animal Collective and Dirty Projectors wear their weirdness with a sense of self-conscious pride, TuneYards puts on no airs at all: as oddball as she is, Garber is entirely intuitive, earthy and visceral. This music comes from her gut, and it’s sure to hit you in yours. (Apr 21)
Download: “My Country,” “Bizness,” “Doorstep”
TV on the Radio – Nine Types of Light (Universal)
You can take the band out of New York City, but you can’t… oh wait, maybe you can take the New York City out of the band. Since their inception a decade ago, TV on the Radio have captured the sound of post-9/11 New York, with all its beauty and paranoia, isolation and hopefulness all wrapped up in gospel-tinged vocals on top of one of the few rock bands whose use of electronics weren’t rooted in retro ’80s trappings, marking them as one of the most original bands of the new century.
Here, after their triumphant 2008 album Dear Science and pursuing side projects, they decamped to L.A., and appear to have been sapped of any and all inspiration. There’s no drastic change in sound, just 13 largely flat tracks that sound like they’re punching the clock—something one would never before accuse this band of doing. A song with the chorus, “My repetition, my repetition is this” may pay homage to Toronto’s Dream Warriors and their “My Definition” single, but it wears out its welcome rather quickly. “Caffeinated Consciousness” bears an odd and uncanny resemblance to INXS’s lugheaded “Guns in the Sky”—which, if you’re going to pick an INXS song to rip off, that should be last on your list.
Despite the material, vocalist Tunde Adebimpe remains compelling, pulling off some convincing Al Green turns here. The rhythm section—featuring bassist Gerard Smith, who passed away from lung cancer shortly after the album’s release—is inventive and unpredictable, never settling into a straightforward rock or funk groove, which works both for and against them. David Sitek is a guitar hero ala The Edge, less about showy technique than he is about texture. TV on the Radio are no less a great band than they were before, and so while the sound of them sleepwalking is less than commendable, it’s still better than most groups’ A-game. (Apr 21)
Download: “Killer Crane,” “Forgotten,” “Second Song”