Friday, April 08, 2011

Wye Oak, Geoff Berner

Some reviews I couldn't wait until the end of the month to run.

Wye Oak plays Toronto this Saturday at the El Mocambo; Geoff Berner has a series of Canadian dates starting on Monday in Peterborough, and comes to the Tranzac in Toronto a week today.

Wye Oak – Civilian (Merge)

Wye Oak don’t sound like a rock band, certainly not a rock band from a city like Baltimore. They sound like a force of nature: a rushing river, a towering mountain range, an expansive Montana plain. Not that they sound natural: there’s nothing acoustic about Civilian, their third album, which is full of raging electric guitars and distorted sounds. But the way this duo conjure the elements at their disposal is magical, the way a sonic gust suddenly slaps you like a galeforce wind, the way Andy Stack’s drums gallop and lurch, following the push and pull of Jenn Wasner’s guitars, the way Wasner’s calm and understated vocals anchor everything like the eye of a hurricane.

It’s a massive sound for a duo—Stack juggles keyboards while drumming—but imagining the challenge of reproducing this live shouldn’t distract you from this incredibly vivid recording. Themes of regret and loss dominate—the opening lyric is “Two small deaths happened today”—but Civilian is powerful and uplifting, despite being a bit a downer on the surface.

It’s not easy to get to know—in fact, I’ll go so far as to say I hated this album the first few times I heard it—but as it slowly draws you in, its layers and beauty reveal themselves easily. Their lineage is obvious—Neil Young and Crazy Horse, Dinosaur Jr., Yo La Tengo—but they take the best of all those acts and reinvent them for a new decade. With each album, Wye Oak has improved exponentially, and Civilian is no exception. It’s their first full-blown classic, and likely the first of many.

Download: "Civilian," "Plains," "Holy Holy"

Geoff Berner – Victory Party (Mint)

Geoff Berner calls himself the “avenging angel of klezmer,” on a mission to rescue the music from being a museum presentation of Yiddish culture by injecting it with new songs that celebrate the more transgressive, political past of its Eastern European roots. But in order to do that, a captivating live show was never enough: Berner needed a great album to help fulfill his mission. Finally, with the aptly named Victory Party, that’s what he now has.

Previous recordings were functional snapshots of his live show, but here he’s turned the reins of production over to Josh Dolgin, aka Socalled, a master musician with his own unusual ideas of reimagining klezmer culture. Dolgin called in two hot-shot young New York City musicians to augment Berner’s band (which now includes not one, but two killer violinists), stripped most of Berner’s accordion out of the mix, and added various textures that bring these songs—which also comprise his strongest set in years—to vivid life.

But even if this is the slickest sounding Berner album to date, it’s still plenty raw and rude. He howls his way through the title track, turns over lead vocals to violinist Diona Davies on the silly subversion of Jail, and sets tales of RCMP brutality to an early 20th-century a Russian folk song called "Daloy Polizei"—which translates literally as “f—k the police” (as Berner points out in the song). He revisits his punk roots for the self-explanatory hipster takedown "I Kind Of Hate Songs With Ambiguous Lyrics," and pulls off a poignant Yiddish-Chinese sweatshop lament with surprising beauty.

On top of all that, it’s all wrapped up in a gorgeous package by the Montreal design team Tin Can Forest—this is not an album you should download, because the physical package is more than worth it.

Download: "Wealthy Poet," "Daloy Polizei," "Rabbi Berner Finally Reveals His True Religious Agenda"

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