Monday, July 25, 2011

July '11 reviews

The following reviews ran in the Kitchener-Waterloo Record and Guelph Mercury this month.

The Abrams Brothers - Northern Redemption (Fontana)

These three prodigies from eastern Ontario have long been on Canadian country music’s “most-promising” list: they were the youngest Canadian group to ever play the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, they’ve had hits on CMT, and they’re road warriors before they’ve even turned 20. This is their fourth album, but the first two are out of print; for all intents and purposes, Northern Redemption will be their introduction to a much wider audience. And they’re more than ready for their close-up.

That they are accomplished players is a given: they were raised in a bluegrass family, and that music community embraced them early on. They’re also well-schooled in classic Nashville harmonies, and more than a few times here they sound like the Byrds. But producer Chris Brown (of Chris Brown and Kate Fenner fame, not the R&B star) took the band under his wing, introduced them to members of Broken Social Scene and a bevy of New York City session musicians, and so now they’ve moved into more of a rock direction, embracing electric guitars while still punctuating the driving rhythms with stabs of fiddle.

Most importantly, the songs establish the Abrams Brothers as songwriters: even though there are three covers here—Coldplay’s “Viva La Vida” (somewhat gimmicky), Big Star’s “Thirteen” (impossible to screw up), and Brown’s “While You Sleep” (an underrated Canadian classic)—the original songs all sound like modern country classics, and prove that this trio is much more than three young, pretty pickers. (July 7)

Download: “Window,” “Nothing at All,” “Thirteen”

Archers of Loaf – Icky Mettle (Merge)

Archers of Loaf was a band of a time and place, a band that helped define American indie rock in the ’90s, a band that was the soundtrack for righteous twentysomethings searching for a confident voice peering through waves of guitar feedback. Though Archers of Loaf didn’t reach larger audiences in the way that their peers in Pavement or Superchunk did—the closest they got to mainstream success was being hand-picked by Weezer to open a tour—their fans cherished their little-known secret and often wore that obscurity as a point of pride. Sure, every smirking hipster had some Guided by Voices records—but did you know about the Loaf?

Eric Bachmann’s lyrics reinforced the insularity, the rejection, the acceptance, the boredom, the passive aggression and the outright aggression of the college-age crowd, all delivered with a hoarse holler on top of trebly guitar lines that threaten to unspool, only to be whipped back into place by the pummelling rhythm section. Fronting a muscular, masculine band, Bachmann purposely kept a distance from rock-star posturing; one of the most gripping and visceral songs on this, their debut album, features a chorus with the line: “It’s a waste of my time to pursue this/ so self-indulgent to think you’d like this song.”

Icky Mettle came out in 1993, and remains the fan favourite—even though its follow-up, Vee Vee, was far superior, and the band continued to evolve before calling it quits in 1998. Performing as Crooked Fingers since 1999, Bachmann did his darnedest to distance himself from Archers, developing into one of the most consistently compelling—though perennially underrated—singer/songwriters in the U.S. Hearing him here, finding his voice as a writer, is fascinating, even when he’s not entirely successful. There’s an entire 14-song bonus disc here of singles and b-sides (as well as the 1994 EP Greatest of All Time) for fans to parse—much to Bachmann’s own bemusement: he told the website Stereogum that “the last thing I want to do is listen to bootlegs of my band from when I was 24 years old.” [I highly recommend reading the rest of that interview, whether you're a fan or not, for a good discussion of the ups and down of revisiting youthful glories on the other side of 40.]

But Bachmann has a lot to be proud of; at their best, the Archers wrote anthems that still sound electrifying today, and likely always will. Their entire discography has been out of print for ages, and so it makes perfect sense that Bachmann’s current label, Merge, is making it all available again. The band has hit the reunion circuit to rave reviews, but don’t expect Bachmann to revert to his 24-year-old self again: he’s already got a new Crooked Fingers album due in the fall, and it’s going to be hard to top his 2008 masterpiece Forfeit/Fortune. If he’s proven anything over his long career, however, it’s that he’s constantly exceeding his fans’s expectations—which makes it easier to revisit the earliest glory days. (July 28)

Download: “Web in Front,” “Plumb Line,” “Wrong”

Battles - Gloss Drop (Warp)

Battles are one of the only rock groups that make Rush sound like a bunch of simpletons. Like Rush, Battles is a trio—although not by choice, as fourth member and frontman-of-sorts Tyondai Braxton during the making of this record—who combine prog rock and electronic music, balancing intricate composition and visceral force.

Though Braxton’s departure is a loss, this was always a band of equals, and the remaining trio is overflowing with creative ideas. Unfortunately, bringing in outside vocalists is not one of their better ones; if they were insecure about their new situation, they shouldn’t be. Lead single “Ice Cream,” with Matias Aguayo, is a great track—but not because of him. No one should invite Gary Numan to do anything anymore, never mind sing, and Blonde Redhead’s Kazu Makino doesn’t add anything to “Sweetie & Shag.” The Boredoms’ Yamantaka Eye, on the other hand, fits right in, mostly because his unintelligible barking resembles just another weird sound among many on this record (not unlike what Braxton used to do in the band).

Guitarists Ian Williams and Dave Konopka delight in extracting otherworldly sounds out of their instruments, often sounding like music boxes made of gamelan. Drummer John Stanier is nothing short of astounding, never once delivering a conventional beat but consistently forceful and thunderous. The tracks this time sound more linear and cinematic than a collection of riffs; as a result, it’s a bit more of a chin-stroker of an album rather than a prog-rock party machine like the debut, Mirrored was, though no less enjoyable. (July 7)

Download: “Ice Cream,” “Futura,” “Wall Street”

Blackie and the Rodeo Kings – Kings and Queens (File Under: Music)

Blackie and the Rodeo Kings make it sound so easy.

Ah yes, yet another great song by either Colin Linden, Stephen Fearing, Tom Wilson, or some combination thereof with friends like Colin James or Ron Sexsmith. Look at that, yet another sublime guitar solo. And what do we have here? Why, a guest list of 14 women who rank among the most iconic and powerful female voices of the last 30 years: Rosanne Cash, Cassandra Wilson, Emmylou Harris, Mary Margaret O’Hara, Exene Cervenka and Serena Ryder.

The album works best when the songs are actually structured as duets, a long-lost art in modern songwriting (Steve Earle and Stars being the only consistent examples). Some of the guests get their own star turn—Pam Tillis helms most of her song “My Town Has Moved Away”—but often the women are afterthoughts or counterpoints, with many an opportunity squandered. Even Lucinda Williams is essentially just singing backups on Tom Wilson’s “If I Can’t Have You.”

Why didn’t these Kings want to abdicate further? Maybe they didn’t want to write too many songs they couldn’t perform live without a lady on stage, but it’s odd that a group built on camaraderie wouldn’t fully embrace the duet concept. (July 7)

Download: “If I Can’t Have You” (w/ Lucinda Williams), “Another Free Woman” (w/ Sara Watkins), “Got You Covered” (w/ Roseanne Cash)

Eleanor Friedberger - Last Summer (Merge)

As one half of the Fiery Furnaces, one of the most prolific rock bands of the last decade, Eleanor Friedberger is known for squeezing as many syllables into her melodies as possible, in verbose songs written by her brother Matthew. On her first solo record, one might expect her to relax a bit and take it easy. Which she does, to a degree, on an album that is wistful and breezy compared to the often dense and frenetic work of the Furnaces—though there are still plenty of tracks where words tumble out of her mouth as if from a free-associative fever dream.

Eleanor hasn’t done much of the songwriting in the Fiery Furnaces since their somewhat bluesy debut album; she’s said that much of this album reflects on a time just before that, when she first moved to Brooklyn. If the songs sound a bit thin, no matter: with her natural charisma, Friedberger can sell a listener just about anything, and the laid-back charm of the arrangements here go a long way, like the sax solo that outros opening track and first single “My Mistake.”

The best and worst thing about Last Summer is the absence of brother Matthew; the added space leaves a luxurious space around Eleanor’s voice, but there’s no doubt his musical wizardry would also have provided welcome embellishment—he can be subtle when he wants to be (which is rarely). Hearing the small pleasures of her first solo album makes one appreciate eve more the productive middle ground where the two siblings meet. (July 14)

Download: “My Mistake,” “I Won’t Fall Apart On You Tonight,” “One-Month Marathon”

Shuyler Jansen – Voice from the Lake (Scratch)

What if, right after recording Tonight’s the Night in 1975, Neil Young and Crazy Horse were hired to score the dystopian 1976 sci-fi film Logan’s Run? Right, odd question.

But what if one of the finest Canadian purveyors of gothic psychedelic country outside of the Sadies made a record with the two guys who produce the New Pornographers and Destroyer? That question isn’t so ridiculously hypothetical, as Old Reliable’s Shuyler Jansen proves by heading to Galliano Island to work with John Collins and Dave Carswell, who help him achieve a towering sound with layers of spacey synthesizers, eerie violins, Hammond organs, and fuzzy electric guitars.

Equally anthemic and haunting, Voice From the Lake shines not just because of the production and arrangements—which are uniformly stunning—but Jansen’s songwriting, which hasn’t been in this fine a form since the 2002 Old Reliable album Pulse of Light / Dark Landscape, an unheralded classic of Canadian alt-country. Though fans of that genre will no doubt love this, it should also introduce Jansen to the kind of wider audience who enjoy Neko Case’s recent material (her guitarist, Paul Rigby, appears here). Either way, his underdog days are soon behind him. (July 14)

Download: “Totally Anonymous,” “Wedding Band,” “Kill January”

The Jolly Boys – Great Expectations (E1)

Any time you get a bunch of 80-year-old musicians in a room together, somebody bills it as Genre X’s “answer to the Buena Vista Social Club.” In this case, Genre X is mento, the Jamaican precursor to both ska and reggae, dating back to the 1940s. The Jolly Boys were Jamaica’s main mento act, and though none of the original members remain, vocalist Albert Minott has been singing with them on and off since the 1960s.

The Buena Vista comparison crumbles, however, with a quick glance at the source material on Great Expectations, comprised entirely of gimmicky covers, mostly new wave and punk songs. Johnny Cash (whose “Ring of Fire” is also covered here—horribly) did a somewhat similar thing on his acclaimed American Recordings series, but at least he brought something original to those songs, at the very least, a sense of gravitas; those albums also featured a range of material, not just from one genre of music. Great Expectations merely sounds like a froggy old man being put up to something by snickering fortysomething hipsters who have a hard-on for the Trainspotting soundtrack (hence the two Iggy Pop songs, a New Order song and Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day”).

Great Expectations is more than just a failed experiment or a bad record—it’s an atrocious record, one that’s beyond embarrassing and guaranteed to clear any party after the initial titters die down. Because of that, it almost has to be heard to be believed—but only once, and only 30 seconds of each track at a time. (July 21)

Download: “Rehab,” “Don’t You Want Me,” “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”

Seun Kuti – From Africa With Fury: Rise (Knitting Factory)

The life and music of Fela Kuti is now a Broadway smash, following years of a Fela revival and interest in the father of Afrobeat. The father’s sons have also been active: first Femi, and now Seun, who comes into his own on his second album. His debut was notable not only for his lineage, but because he employed much of Fela’s last band, Egypt 80. This time out, he recorded in Rio de Janeiro with iconic producer Brian Eno, who mined father Fela’s beats for his work with Talking Heads in the early ’80s.

Eno doesn’t try and change anything about what Seun does—this is neither an experimental record like Eno’s solo work, nor a pop album like his high-profile clients Coldplay and U2—but he does make Egypt 80 sound even more fabulous than they do live, which is no small feat. From Africa With Fury is neither a retro Afrobeat album nor a self-consciously modern update: it’s simply a dense, danceable delight, punctuated by political bile. Which sums up any classic Fela recording, of course, and the differences between this and that are splitting hairs, except that Eno somehow makes every instrument in Egypt 80—including Seun’s voice—sound even more percussive. (July 7)

Download: “African Soldiers,” “Mr. Big Thief,” “Rise”

Washed Out – Within and Without (Sub Pop)

That this is one of the summer’s most-discussed albums in the underground says a lot about this year’s heat wave. Have everyone’s brains been melted into mush? Because Washed Out sounds exactly like you think it would, based on the name: like there might have once been some tracks there, but everything has been diluted and decayed and left to fade in the sun. The vocals are limp, the rhythms are comatose, the synths sound lazy, and the songs could pass for ’80s Howard Jones b-sides. The whole exercise seems designed for someone who can’t get out of bed, which for all we know, Washed Out’s main man Ernest Greene never did—it sounds like he was singing lying down. You know things are bad when a roto-tom fill is the most interesting moment on the entire album. It’s about as exciting as watching static on television—and equally colourful. (July 28)

Download: “Far Away,” “Echoes,” “Before”

Gillian Welch - The Harrow and the Harvest (Acony/Outside)

With the U.S. on the brink of bankruptcy, and the rest of the world not looking much better, it’s not a complete stretch to think that dustbowl days might well be upon us. Which is why the voice of Gillian Welch, accompanied only by her banjo, singing, “Hard times ain’t gonna rule my mind” is enough to make you hold your chin up, look your child in the eye, and focus on positivity in the present.

Not that The Harrow and the Harvest is a sunny, good-times record. Far from it. Welch and her musical partner David Rawlings—who are the only two people on this beautifully sparse record—sing about a “dark turn of mind” and a litany of downers, and concluding that, well, that’s “The Way It Goes,” “that’s the way the cornbread crumbles.” Of course, Welch is singing neither of days gone by or days to come; instead, she sings in the omniscient voice of a narrator who’s been around since the dawn of time, who’s seen it all and lived to tell us that we do, somehow, manage to survive.

Welch sounds weary, almost opiated, but her voice doesn’t crack, she never misses a note, and both she and Rawlings show remarkable discipline and strength playing so delicately at such slow tempos for so long; they’re obviously concentrating extremely hard while making everything sound entirely effortless, all so that you, dear listener, can luxuriate in the loveliness of it all on a slow summer morning.

It’s been eight years since Welch’s last album, Soul Journey; a full 10 years since her last good one, 2001’s Time (The Revelator), which was easily the most accomplished album released in the wake of O Brother Where Art Thou’s runaway success (Welch had two songs on the soundtrack). What took so long? Welch says she didn’t think her songs were good enough. Clearly she got over a huge hump: every track here is stunning and shames any other songwriters’ album you’re likely to hear this year. All fallowness is forgiven. (July 21)

Download: “Scarlet Town,” “The Way It Goes,” “Hard Times”

Zomby – Dedication (4AD)

Few who stay true to its darker, spookier beginnings of dubstep have managed to pull off a full-length album, however, and there was every reason to believe that Zomby—who has been recording tracks since 2007—might be one of them. This, his debut for the influential label 4AD, is poised to position him for much bigger success than his debut, the early ’90s rave-scene homage Where Were You in ’92?.

When Zomby comes alive, he’s successful at creating an eerie, tense sense of doom with his skittering beats, sparse synth pads and 8-bit sounds from primitive video games. Opening track “Witch Hunt” intrigues with what sounds like 128th-note hi-hat programming, interrupted by gunshots. And like his peer Burial, Zomby employs disembodied, ghostly vocals that appear only as fractured mirages stuttered throughout a track, as he does on “Natalia’s Song.” When he tries to add a real vocalist, as he does on “Things Fall Apart,” the track does exactly that. (And why did he invite Animal Collective’s Panda Bear? That guy ruined an otherwise beautiful track on Pantha du Prince’s 2010 album Black Noise.)

But if Zomby can create mood, he rarely follows it through. Too much of Dedication sounds like the germ of an idea—or, more frequently, merely one synth preset—instead of a fully developed track. Acoustic pianos are probably intended to provide a more organic feel, but they sound just as stiff and cold as every other keyboard here. Even when he appears to let loose a bit, as he does on “Digital Rain,” the tracks sounds devoid of any warmth or human element.

Then again, should we expect anything more from an artist called Zomby? (July 28)

Download: “Natalia’s Song,” “Witch Hunt,” “Riding With Death”

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