Monday, May 30, 2011

May '11 reviews

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

Austra – Feel It Break (Paper Bag)

Toronto singer Katie Stelmanis has been an opera student, a feminist punk (Galaxy), a member of a folkie choir (Bruce Peninsula) and a solo artist struggling to navigate harsh electronic sounds with her songwriting vision.

Now that she’s emerged on the international stage leading the band Austra, Stelmanis delivers a fully formed, confident album wrapped up in ’80s goth and new wave. Her aesthetic doesn’t succumb to cheap irony or a fashion statement: Stelmanis is deadly serious, and except for the piano heard on closing track “The Beast,” she constructs an entirely artificial, evocative soundscape for her haunting songs. As an opera kid, she doesn’t hesitate to unleash her full vocal power; she’s a much more dynamic and less shrill singer than she was on her 2008 solo album she released under her own name.

Even though there’s no escaping the onslaught of synths, the input of percussionist Maya Postepski and bassist Dorian Wolf (formerly of Spiral Beach) animates the music beyond the icy exterior, especially on the surefire single “Beat and the Pulse,” and at times Stelmanis even sounds playful with her vocal arrangements. The lyrics are best avoided (“Sign! The! Consent forms!”; “I want your blood / I want to eat my hair”), but with a voice like Stelmanis’s and the sound world she creates around it, they’re barely noticeable. (May 26)

Download: “Lose It,” “Beat and the Pulse,” “Spellwork”

Beastie Boys – Hot Sauce Committee Part Two (EMI)

Once a hip-hop group plateaus, rarely, if ever, do they step back on their game. So after a decade that included a spinning-wheels hip-hop album, a lacklustre instrumental album, Adam Yauch’s battle with cancer, and a two-year-old scrapped release date for an album called Hot Sauce Committee Part One, there was little reason to expect that they’d come back swinging with an album that’s easily their best since the 1992 classic Check Your Head.

As on that album, the Beasties sound hungry here: they’ve got something to prove, and there’s no time to mess around. No two tracks here sound alike. When they strap on their punk rock guitars (“Lee Majors Come Again”), they sound like bratty 20-year-olds again. When they detour into Jamaican rock steady with singer Santigold (“Don’t Play No Game That I Can’t Win”), they’re confident and capable genre jumpers who feel right at home in a new suit. When they drop an instrumental track (“Multilateral Nuclear Disarmament”), their funk sounds futuristic rather than retro. When they get wiggy on “Tadlock’s Glasses,” they take their abstract psychedelic hip-hop to places that their many previous journeys into abstract psychedelic hip-hop—and there have been quite a few, making a genre they have almost entirely to themselves—had yet to go.

The Beasties aren’t revisiting past glories, nor are they trying to play catch-up with acts more than half their age. Instead, they openly cop to their grandpa status and rap about sipping Persecco, while musically they borrow from the best and invent the rest, solidifying their status as iconoclasts. (May 5)

Download: “Make Some Noise,” “Don’t Play No Game That I Can’t Win,” “Multilateral Nuclear Disarmament”

The Cars – Move Like This (Universal)

The worst thing you can say about the new album by the Cars—the first album in 23 years by the new wave pop band of the late ’70s—is that it sounds too much like the Cars. To name but one example, “Sad Song” has the same guitar sound, the same handclaps, the same drum beat, the same synthesizer, and the same laconic vocals as many of their greatest hits from the first three albums. The ballad “Soon” is as good, if not better, than their mid-’80s smash hit “Drive.”

Singer Ric Ocasek might be in his mid-60s, but he still sounds like a disaffected young punk. The songs he crafted for this comeback are a distillation of every hit he’s ever written—or even produced, for that matter, as fans of Weezer will attest (Ocasek produced that band’s “blue” and “green” self-titled albums). Getting these Cars on the road again, it’s obvious what an influence they’ve had on every kind of power pop in the last 30 years—even on artists as different as No Doubt (which Ocasek also produced) and LCD Soundsystem (which he did not), as the opening track "Blue Tip" illustrates.

Ocasek throws everything he has into 10 concise pop songs that easily rival the group’s classic 1978 debut. There are no attempts to update their sound or do something different. Why should there be? Everyone loves vintage Cars. (May 12)

Download: “Blue Tip,” “Soon,” “Sad Song”

Danger Mouse and Daniele Luppi – Rome (EMI)

Perhaps it’s fitting that for an album posing as a soundtrack to a non-existent film, appearances are everything. Here we have a superstar American producer, Danger Mouse (Broken Bells, Gnarls Barkley), teaming up with an Italian film composer, Daniele Luppi, along with A-list cameos from Jack White and Norah Jones, all setting up camp in the same studio in Rome where master composer Ennio Morricone recorded many of his greatest scores.

That all looks good on paper, and Rome sounds fantastic from a purely aesthetic standpoint: the production is impeccable, the orchestration and use of choral voices is delicate and lovely. But compared to what is trying to be achieved here, the music on Rome doesn’t really measure up to its points of inspiration or even, say, a half-decent record by Air, or Beck doing one of his homages to Serge Gainsbourg’s Ballade de Melodie Nelson.

Jones and White provide pleasant distractions, offering a few anchor moments to an album that otherwise fades easily into the background (which, arguably, a great soundtrack should do anyway). White is clearly having some fun with the role-playing—especially when his lyrics for “The Rose With the Broken Neck” contain so many non-sequitur metaphors that one wonders if he was intentionally trying to write English lyrics like an ESL Italian writer might.

Rome might make me want to go out and rent a Fellini movie or buy a Morricone record or book a plane ticket—or maybe just savour a fine espresso—but I’m not sure I need to hear it again. (May 26)

Download: “Theme of ‘Rome,’ ” “The Rose With the Broken Neck,” “Problem Queen”

Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues (Sub Pop)

If you fell in love with Fleet Foxes’ flawless debut, Helplessness Blues offers mostly diminishing returns. Bandleader Robin Pecknold has been quoted extensively talking about how laborious the writing and recording was, in part because the band’s unexpected popularity kept skyrocketing and delaying the process. As a result, the songs often sound second-guessed and overcooked, not the naturally flowing magic that was so present the first time around. The only time they sound like they’re stretching out a bit is when free jazz saxophones start skronking in “Blue-Spotted Tail”; it’s a nice touch, if not a bit bewildering. It’s a quick distraction from the fact that as lovely as those harmonies are, they can’t carry an album on their own. (May 12)

Download: “Helplessness Blues,” “Montezuma,” “Lorelei”

Gorillaz – The Fall (EMI)

Damon Albarn doesn’t do anything small—or does he?

Most Gorillaz albums involve all sorts of stunt casting of superstars, and their 2010 arena tour featured upwards of 30 people on stage, from hip-hop MCs to African musicians to two members of The Clash to a full New Orleans brass band. Yet this album, released online last Christmas and getting a physical release now, finds Albarn alone in his hotel room or in the back of the tour bus, with only his tablet computer and some synthesizers. Most tracks were made in one day, each at a different tour stop, and the album unfolds in the order of recording during the month of October 2010.

And so the most popular project among Albarn’s many tangential pursuits—Gorillaz have sold millions of albums and scored several Grammys—delivers a low-key, downtempo, 2 a.m. album that sounds like Albarn’s personal post-adrenalin dreamstate as he cruises the highways of North America. It’s a consistently weird, disembodied experience. But that consistency works in its favour, whereas the three previous Gorillaz albums suffered from too many ideas competing to make a pastiche of pop music based in the kind of borderless utopia that Albarn promotes outside the band with his impeccably curated record label, Honest Jon’s.

The Fall is content to exist in its own world, a Zooropean vision of America filtered through an entirely digital lens. The gospel-tinged trip-hop track “Revolving Doors” is the closest Albarn gets to a pop song here; everything else is a fleeting snippet of a synth squiggle, a disembodied country song, or eerily robotic Muzak. The one acoustic song, featuring just legendary soul singer Bobby Womack and an acoustic guitar, somehow fits in seamlessly, despite its apparent incongruity—the kind of trick that Gorillaz keep trying on all their other albums, yet for the first time there’s nothing here that sounds remotely self-conscious.

The Fall is what it is, and it’s a lovely, curious little thing. (May 5)

Download: “Revolving Doors,” “Little Pink Plastic Bags,” “Bobby in Phoenix”

Man Man – Life Fantastic (Anti)

“If you gotta smash some plates to relax, do it, do it, do it!”

The members of Man Man (yes, they’re all men) no doubt take their own advice, judging by the joyous delerium of their live show, which finds frontman Honus Honus leaping off his seat to pound on his piano, while his bandmates assault various percussion instruments. It’s a cathartic experience for band and audience alike, though it would be a stretch to call it relaxing.

On past albums, like the excellent 2006 release Six Demon Bag, Man Man were manic, with their more violent tendencies tempered by tango, Balkan and cabaret influences. It could get a bit cartoonish; 2008’s Rabbit Habits—their first release on a high-profile label—started to sound like a parody of themselves.

Which is why Life Fantastic sounds so glorious: it takes all the madness and kitchen-sink approach of their early albums and brings it down several notches. Producer Mike Mogis (Bright Eyes) helps them focus and find the beauty that’s always lurked on the edge of their rough and raw approach. But if some of their edges have softened somewhat, Man Man remains a unique and powerful band brimming with personality and originality. Clarinets, marimbas, banjos, string sections and the insanely inventive drumming of the man known only as Pow Pow all collide and coalesce in unexpected arrangements that, even in their occasional dissonance, never hit a wrong note. With a new Man Man album this good to behold, life is fantastic indeed. (May 12)

Download: “Shameless,” “Piranhas Club,” “Dark Arts”

Moby – Destroyed (EMI)

His mainstream success now a distant memory, Moby’s albums have become more personal and intimate; 2009’s lovely Wait For Me was a surprisingly strong return to form after years of pandering. Likewise, Destroyed is Moby’s ode to what Bruce Springsteen calls “the wee, wee hours” when the rest of the world sleeps, where those doomed to be awake find themselves witnessing a disembodied, alienating and occasionally magical vision of the world. The soundtrack to that existence, in Moby’s hands, is full of ghostly synths, vocoders and beats that sound pillowy even at accelerated tempos.

But it also sounds like Moby dusted off some tracks he found from 1993; he’s done all of this before, and better—and so have dozens of innovative new producers working similar territory who are biting at his heels (2010 albums by Pantha du Prince and Trentemoller spring immediately to mind). The vocal tracks try too hard to tie together his insomnia theme far too literally, whether it’s Moby himself singing or one of the four female vocalists here.

If he’s trying to replicate the monotonous experience of homogenous hotel rooms around the world: mission accomplished. Why he thought anyone would want to experience that in their own carefully curated home—or anywhere else but one of those hotels—is anyone’s guess. (May 26)

Download: “Be the One,” “Rockets,” “Lie Down in Darkness”

Sam Roberts Band– Collider (Secret Brain/Universal)

Sam Roberts is a mensch among Canadian musicians: all-around good guy, a good-looking guy at that, and creator of some of the breeziest CanRock singles of the last decade. And initial news of this, his fourth album, sounded promising: his band decamped to Chicago to work with producer Brian Deck, known for his inventive work with Iron & Wine, Modest Mouse and Califone. First single “The Last Crusade,” which features a punchy horn section, suggested that Roberts had been listening to some vintage West African funk that had crept into his sound in a supple and subtle way.

But there is no serious reinvention here; sadly, there’s not much inventiveness at all. Even at his weakest moments, Roberts can usually deliver decent pop songs, but over half of the tracks here fall flat. Then again, that’s about the usual ratio for Roberts—even his smash hit debut album didn’t contain more than an EP’s worth of solid material. Whenever Roberts is ripe enough for a greatest hits album, it will no doubt be his defining artistic statement, and several tracks here may well be on it; until then, minor tweaks of his sound can’t carry a full album. (May 26)

Download: “The Last Crusade,” “Without a Map,” “Streets of Heaven”

J. Rocc – Some Cold Rock Stuff (Stones Throw)

Before DJ Shadow’s 1998 classic Endtroducing, turntablist albums were mostly showboating affairs stuffed with scratch-happy pyrotechnics—like Yngwie Malmsteen albums for hip-hop heads. Endtroducing was the game-changer, a cinematic masterpiece. Since then—what? Some Kid Koala albums that are easier to respect than to love, and a grossly underrated avant-garde tour-de-force by Toronto’s Insideamind, 2008’s Scatterpopia. That’s why this debut solo album by J. Rocc sounds like such a breath of fresh air.

J. Rocc came up in the ’90s as part of the Beat Junkies, a turntablist crew who helped keep the art alive, but as a solo artist he’s less interested in showing off scratch technique or elaborate construction. Instead, Some Cold Rock Stuff is an original hip-hop blend of Bollywood funk, Brazilian tropicalia, jazz, disco, downtempo and anything else he wants to throw into the mix, all the while sounding refreshing and original. He’s neither a retro throwback nor a forward-thinking futurist; instead, he’s a craftsman, a master instrumentalist creating a well-rounded album for every mood and taste. (May 5)

Download: “Don’t Sell Your Dream (Tonight),” “Party,” “Play This (Also)”

Raphael Saddiq – Stone Rollin’ (Sony)

At this year’s Grammy Awards, a tribute to the late great soul singer Solomon Burke was led by Raphael Saddiq, a wickedly talented singer, guitarist, songwriter and producer whose career has evolved from ’80s teen idol in Tony Toni Tone to a hip-hop hybrid in Lucy Pearl to a retro soul man. Unfortunately, the Grammy organizers not only didn’t introduce Saddiq by name, they relegated him to second banana status while Mick Jagger strutted out and made it all about himself instead.

But never mind the Rolling Stone; focus instead on Stone Rollin’. Saddiq opens his latest solo album with “Heart Attack,” a garage-y rave-up that sounds like a hybrid of Sly Stone and CCR, and the rest of the album is just as raw and refreshing. Saddiq is normally a slick guy; this sounds like he’s loosened up considerably, turned up his guitar amps, and whipped a band into shape to knock out one live take after another in the studio.

Though Stax-era soul music is the prime inspiration here, Saddiq dips back deeper to ’50s rock’n’roll and Chicago blues. His voice—and what a voice it is—is laced with a tiny bit of distortion here, and he’s more than happy to grunt, snort and whoop it up everywhere he can; this a side of the usually smooth Saddiq that we haven’t heard before. Stone Rollin’ is not all rough and tumble, though; there are some string sections and softer moments that make this more than just a lost weekend in the garage.

Raphael Saddiq may be one of the last great soul men alive. And because he’s at least 20 years younger than the soul greats of the ’60s, he may hold that title for a long, long time. (May 19)

Download: “Heart Attack,” “Daydreams,” “Stone Rollin’”

Sloan – The Double Cross (Murder)

When celebrating your 20th anniversary, the last thing you want is people wondering: are they still around? Or worse: why are they still around? Sloan provide definitive answers to both by coming out swinging on their tenth album.

For a band that has always prided itself on being a four-way democracy, there have always been albums where someone isn’t pulling their weight. This is not one of them: every member brings their best game to the table, not just individually—they’ve had a tendency to retreat to their silos in the past—but together, as on the Chris Murphy/Andrew Scott song “She’s Slowing Down Again,” or the way some songs cross-pollinate, inserting a chorus of one into the coda of another. Jay Ferguson, the most consistent Sloan songwriter of the last decade, once again scores the album’s sweetest spots, and Patrick Pentland’s rockers sound much more inspired here than he has lately.

If anniversaries are a moment for self-examination, this band’s 20th proved to be a rallying point to give them a raison d’etre. There’s no point sitting around and waiting for radio royalties and festival paycheques to roll in, and so The Double Cross sounds like they’re proving something to themselves as much as their fairweather fans. There isn’t a wasted moment in any of these 12 songs: it’s the sound of a band that is still very much alive and fighting, not resting on a recorded legacy but continuing to make it. (May 12)

Download: “Shadow of Love,” “Unkind,” “Green Gardens Cold Montreal”

Socalled – Sleepover (Dare to Care)

Josh Dolgin, aka Socalled, has always been more talented than his music—a novelty mix of klezmer and hip-hop and jazz—would suggest. Which is why it’s such a joyous relief that he finally has an album that fulfills all of his potential as a songwriter, a keyboardist and, most importantly, as a producer, a conduit capable of building bridges between disparate communities. Sometimes it’s silly—which was the primary problem with previous Socalled recordings—but generally Dolgin creates an inclusive party where anything and everything happens. “Work With What You Got” is an inspirational pop song featuring hip-hop pioneer Roxanne Shante, calypso king The Mighty Sparrow, sawing cellos, Serbian brass master Boban Markovic, a children’s chorus, jazz piano and country singer Katie Moore—which is followed immediately by a straight-up Canadiana folk rendition of Peggy Seeger’s “Springhill Mine Disaster.”

Amid all the guest stars—which include James Brown’s trombone player Fred Wesley, Algerian pop star Enrico Macias, Warren Spicer of Plants and Animals, Gonzales, house music pioneer Derrick Carter, and dozens more—it’s Katie Moore whose star shines the brightest here. Though her solo material outside of Socalled situates her in folkie mode, Dolgin puts her to work on disco, funk and torch songs, where she conveys a haunting intimacy even when she’s belting it out. Her ballad showcase, the downtempo torch song “Told Me So,” is an absolute show-stopper.

If earlier Socalled albums seemed a bit forced, a bit too self-conscious, Dolgin’s playful curiosity pays off here with an album that’s as exciting and culturally diverse as his hometown of Montreal: it’s the sound of a St. Laurent street party come to life. (May 19)

Download: “UNLVD,” “Told Me So,” “Richi”

Amon Tobin – ISAM (Ninja Tune)

Amon Tobin built his reputation in electronic music on jazzy samples sliced and diced microscopically and refitted for the dance floor. But on his eighth album, there is neither dancing nor jazz to be found. Continuing to develop the sound world heard on his intriguing 2007 album Foley Room, ISAM sounds more like film composer Ennio Morricone scoring a spooky video game with field recordings of aquatic insects. There’s something creeping around every corner of this album. Tobin toys with tension and release, rarely ever falling into a metronomical meter. Sure, that means that most of ISAM sounds like your iPod is melting before your ears, but digital deconstruction rarely tastes this delicious. (May 5)

Download: “Journeyman,” “Lost & Found,” “Bedtime Stories”

Chad Van Gaalen – Diaper Island (Flemish Eye)

Sometimes you have to judge an album by its title, and this is one of the most disappointing releases of 2011. This Calgary singer/songwriter is one of the most fascinating figures to emerge from the Canadian underground in the last 10 years, and his last album, 2009’s Soft Airplane, was a perfect marriage of his fractured folk, grungy guitars, broken electronics, and fragile kitchen-sink arrangements. At his best, Van Gaalen’s work sounds like a simple three-chord song is the only thing keeping everything in his world from falling apart, that his warbling falsetto is the only light leading you through sonic and emotional wreckage.

Here, however, it just sounds like wreckage, period. There’s a fine line between making your music sound effortless and sounding like you couldn’t be bothered. On Diaper Island, Van Gaalen dumps material that sounds unfinished and half-baked. Or a little too baked, as the case may be—this sounds very much like a stoner slacker party that you’re not invited to.

Certainly there are minor moments of invention: small sonic treats and strange sounds that Van Gaalen conjures out of seemingly nothing on this characteristically lo-fi recording. He’s also more upbeat than usual, with a few tracks recalling the punk side of Eric’s Trip. But it’s largely devoid of Van Gaalen’s usual charm, and the songwriting largely just sounds lazy.

Van Gaalen is a great artist who’s not the type to bow to anyone’s expectations, and more power to him—but in a career of hits and misses, this one is definitely off target. (May 19)

Download: “Sara,” “Do Not Fear,” “Replace Me”

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