Friday, September 02, 2011

Aug '11 reviews

These reviews ran in the Kitchener-Waterloo Record and Guelph Mercury last month.

Beirut – The Rip Tide (Ba Da Bing!)

Beirut bandleader Zach Condon has the voice of a romantic traveller, which is what he is: from his home in Albuquerque, New Mexico to Paris to Prague and beyond, with his ukulele and trumpet in tow. In the tender warble of his tenor, one can hear the youthful longing for experience, the fascination with new worlds, the friendly stranger who will offer you the shirt off his back and a drink from his glass, the mysterious siren who convinces kindred spirits to line up behind him and form a marching band parade through the centre of town.

That’s been the story of Beirut since its 2006 debut, Gulag Orkestar, became a word-of-mouth sensation, when Condon, the humble home recorder, was suddenly a bandleader attracting rapturous crowds who would storm his stages only to sway and swoon along with him. More recently, Beirut has spawned a cottage industry of tribute bands in Brazil, proving that his mongrel take on Eastern European folk music is truly adaptable to all cultures.

The Rip Tide is only his third full-length, and despite its brevity, it proves that since that debut album Condon has worked best in small doses, most recently on two 2009 EPs, March of the Zapotec and Holland, the latter exploring his electronic side. The sound of Beirut is so lush and lovely that it’s hard to quibble with it, but The Rip Tide finds Condon treading water; if you’re new to the band, then maybe this will sound every bit as intoxicating as the debut. For older fans, it’s hard to argue with more of the same, but it’s more interesting to imagine where Condon’s curiosity will take him next. (Aug. 18)

Download: “Santa Fe,” “East Harlem,” “A Candle’s Fire”

Charles Bradley – No Time For Dreaming (Daptone)

Why, you might ask soul singer Charles Bradley, is it No Time for Dreaming? He answers quickly, with a voice that takes no prisoners, in the opening couplet of the first song: “The world is going up in flames / And nobody wants to take the blame.”

Bradley rides that righteous rage throughout most of this, the debut album for the 63-year-old singer, where, among other woes, he laments the unravelling of the American social fabric. And he does so over the sound of the civil rights era in which he grew up; his backing band is led by Thomas Brenneck, of Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings and the Budos Band.

Bradley sings like he’s been waiting his whole life to make this record—which he has. Working as a chef and a construction worker while looking for a musical break on the side, he was discovered doing a James Brown tribute in Brooklyn. (Listening to his performance here, there’s no doubt he was convincing in that role.) Brenneck provided him with a young, eager backing band and coaxed him into writing original material, based in part on his hardscrabble life (“Why Is It So Hard? (To Make It in America),” “Heartaches and Pain”). Even when he’s at his bleakest, his performance and his passion break through the darkest clouds; like anyone raised in the gospel tradition, Bradley is ultimately an optimist who finds refuge in love and urges us all to “go back to the golden rule.”

Though this record came out quietly earlier this year, Bradley has had an exceptional summer: he’s a highlight of a new Spin magazine tribute to Nirvana’s Nevermind (available for free download from the mag’s website), and his performance at Sackville, New Brunswick’s SappyFest a few weeks ago—a festival that’s a mecca for indie music lovers across the country—was the talk of the entire weekend, almost outshining Arcade Fire’s secret show there.

Charles Bradley doesn’t have time for dreaming, because his dreams are finally coming true. (Aug. 11)

Download: “The World (Is Going Up in Flames),” “No Time For Dreaming,” “The Golden Rule”

Hollie Cook – s/t (Mr. Bongo)

In the last 10 years there’s been a huge renaissance of classic ’60s and ’70s soul music, recorded with analog equipment and virtually indistinguishable from albums of the original era. Now it’s reggae’s turn.

The debut album by Hollie Cook takes a similar approach to roots reggae and rocksteady; unlike most modern reggae records, there’s no hint here that dancehall or hip-hop ever happened. Likewise, there’s no attempt to cross-pollinate or demonstrate Cook’s catholic tastes; this is nothing if not remarkably consistent.

Thankfully, it’s also much more than that. Cook—who has direct connections to ’70s punk, being the daughter of Sex Pistols drummer Paul Cook, and having served time in a recent incarnation of the Slits—is a breezy but engaging singer, and never uses her genre as a two-chord crutch: she writes great pop songs, just as many of the great singles of reggae’s first 20 years were, and sets them to deceptively simple arrangements with deep rhythm sections, big, churning organs and short, sharp horns.

Though reggae fans and followers of former punk greats will be the first to cotton on to her, she deserves a much more mainstream audience. (Aug. 4)

Download: “Walking in the Sand,” “That Night,” “Cry”

Dominik Eulberg – Diorama (Traum)

This German techno producer used to be a park ranger, which makes a lot of sense when you hear the rich textures he uses to create his playful, colourful and vivid approach to electronic dance music, one that can be imagined coming to life at a rural rave deep in the woods. His melodies are played on synths that sound like bells, his drum machines have a deep, analog texture to them, and everything in between has a shimmering, evocative warmth that continues to soothe even when the tempos accelerate or the mood turns darker. Though some of his rhythms occasionally draw from the minimal glitchiness of the last decade in German music, much of Diorama could just as easily be found on early ’80s records by Kraftwerk or Tangerine Dream. Which doesn’t make it retro; instead, the futurism of those acts is instead clearly vindicated. (Aug. 4)

Download: “Islandmuschel 400,” “H20,” “Die 3 Millionen Musketiere”

Fountains of Wayne – Sky Full of Holes (Yep Roc)

In mainstream consciousness, Fountains of Wayne are known primarily as a one-hit wonder (“Stacy’s Mom”). Outside of that, the band is known to the record-collector crowd as clever and consistent songwriters who exist somewhere between Barenaked Ladies, Weezer and Ron Sexsmith. In his spare time—which is not inconsiderable, seeing as how FoW put out an album every four years—singer/songwriter Adam Schlesinger has penned hits for Katy Perry, Jonas Brothers, Tom Hanks movies (That Thing You Do), John Waters Broadway musicals (Cry Baby) and Stephen Colbert Christmas TV specials, as well as running two side projects, one with the Smashing Pumpkins’ James Iha.

So even though Schlesinger takes his time and risks wearing himself thin, Sky Full of Holes is well worth the wait. He utilizes pop culture references not just as cheap signifiers, but as telling details of his characters, like the woman of whom he writes, “She’s been afraid of the Cuisinart since 1977.” He’s also conscious of clichĂ©—like the tired trope of the lonely musician writing a song for a lover back home—and yet still manages to pen the touching “A Road Song,” with the chorus, “I’m writing you a road song that you can call your own.” That makes him one of the only people since Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s “Your Song” to actually pull that off.

Suitably, the music behind those lyrics sounds instantly familiar, like a series of lost ’70s AM radio hits, which makes Fountains of Wayne irresistible to any pop fan on the other side of 40. Sky Full of Holes also sounds warmer and more welcoming than most of their previous recordings; now that they’re off the major-label treadmill, their acoustic side is brought to the forefront, without toning down the tempos of their patented power pop. (Aug. 18)

Download: “The Summer Place,” “Richie and Reuben,” “A Dip in the Ocean”

Heavyweights Brass Band – Don’t Bring Me Down (independent)

You know when you walk by a group of buskers and you think, “Oh, isn’t that cute, there’s a New Orleans-style brass band playing a Michael Jackson cover.” It’s fun for a minute or two, you toss them some change, and then you move on. Heavyweights Brass Band probably sound just fine on a street corner, but there’s little on their debut album that suggests they’re much more than festival filler. Over half the tracks here are covers—including BeyoncĂ©’s “Single Ladies” and Jackson’s “Beat It”—but other than a somewhat inspired version of Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” (which, above all else, is a great melody), they’re all tiresome at best, and none more so than Justin Bieber’s “Baby,” a song that sounds even worse when someone other than him does it. The originals are passable, but there still doesn’t sound like there’s any serious fire in this band. Brass bands should not be polite, as anyone who’s seen or heard Chicago’s Hypnotic Brass Ensemble can attest. These guys, on the other hand, sound like they’ve never had a blister on their lips. (Aug. 11)

Download: “Bad Romance,” “The Plunge,” “City Dreams”

Aline Morales – Flores, Tambores, e Amores (independent)

Morales is perhaps the most visible Brazilian musician in Toronto, as the former bandleader of drum corps Maracatu Nunca Antes. Here, she dials down the volume for an album of tender tropicalia and bossa nova, where her voice sounds just as compelling over vibraphones and muted trombones as it did when it was being projected over thundering drums. Even when she’s singing softly, her voice is as strong as it is seductive, and the arrangements are likewise delicate but powerful. If she wasn’t singing in Portugese—the linguistic rhythms of which are an integral part of this album’s appeal—Morales could easily envision a mainstream crossover to the Sade crowd. Summer’s not over yet; it’s not too late to unwind with this beautifully breezy Brazilian record. (Aug. 18)

Download: “Como Polen,” “Rosa,” “Um Cheiro Que Arrepia”

National Parks Project – Various Artists (Last Gang)

When you’re in a van touring Canada, the true splendour of this country is not always apparent from the Trans-Canada Highway. And when you’re hustling from gig to gig, there usually isn’t a lot of time to stop and smell the wild roses. Which is why this collection of Canucks was probably ecstatic to be invited by Parks Canada to spend some quality time in this country’s national parks, being photographed by some of the country’s top documentary filmmakers, and creating music in the wild.

The result has surfaced in 13 episodes of a TV series for the Discovery Channel (which can also be viewed here), a series of six EPs, and this album collecting some of the more focused moments from the often improvisational collaborations. The well-curated cast reads like the Polaris Prize people put this all together: Sarah Harmer, Shad, Besnard Lakes, Great Lake Swimmers, Kathleen Edwards, Sam Roberts, Tanya Tagaq Gillis, John K. Samson of the Weakerthans, Miracle Fortress, and more, including members of Billy Talent, the Deadly Snakes, Godspeed You Black Emperor, Death From Above 1979, Woodpigeon and the Luyas.

As one would expect, much of the material sounds like it was written for a nature documentary; the catch is that it was written on location. It’s not all acoustic guitars and hand drums; most of the musicians manage to either plug in or make do—hip-hop artist Cadence Weapon, for example, brought solar-powered backpacks that he could plug his sampler into, which he used to capture natural sounds and transform them into percussion. It is, however, almost uniformly reflective and mellow, with the sole exception being an up-tempo percussive track from Sebastien Granger, Woodhands’ Dan Werb and Jennifer Castle.

Sometimes actual songs are created; the album opens with two of the most straightforward tracks here, one by Sarah Harmer, Jim Guthrie and the Constantines’ Bry Webb, the other by Old Man Luedecke, Great Lake Swimmers’ Tony Dekker and Snowblink’s Daniela Gesundheit. Generally, the less literal the lyrics are, the better, although Christine Fellows—who travelled to Bruce Peninsula with John K. Samson and Sandro Perri—captures sublime imagery in “Marr Lake.”

Mostly, however, the process produces ambient instrumentals that effectively convey the sense of space and awe that a national park is supposed to inspire, like Tanya Tagaq Gillis with the Apostle of Hustle. Sometimes—like the track by Ohbijou’s Casey Mecija, Ohad Benchetrit of Do Make Say Think, and drummer/producer Don Kerr (Rheostatics, Ron Sexsmith)—the result is an epic amalgam of both approaches, and is the highlight track of the entire project. (Which is good, as the episode it came from is one of the most harshly reviewed of the entire series.)

And yet much of this isn’t as rewarding as it might look on paper, despite the more-than-impressive cast of characters. The material was written and recorded quickly, and much of what ended up on this compilation are short snippets that aren’t fully developed; people like Sam Roberts and Kathleen Edwards seem wasted. But it is fascinating to hear artists taken out of their comfort zone, both physically and with new, perhaps unexpected collaborators. One of the more revealing tracks features Graham Van Pelt of electro-dream-pop act Miracle Fortress with Mishka Stein of the cinematic art-rock band Patrick Watson, and the real wild card, Ian D’Sa of pop-punk megastars Billy Talent, who has never sounded more like Peter Buck of R.E.M.—an obvious but often unacknowledged influence on his guitar style—than he does here.

The album is much like a national park itself: beautiful, somewhat inaccessible, its greatest charms lying in subtle moments and unexpected surprises rather than the obvious. (Aug. 25)

Download: “Long Time Before This” – Sarah Harmer, Jim Guthrie, Bry Webb; “Welcome to the Dark” – Old Man Luedecke, Tony Dekker, Daniela Gesundheit; “Mystic Morning” – Casey Mecija, Ohad Benchetrit, Don Kerr

Peaking Lights – 926 (Not Not Fun)

Peaking Lights is to reggae what Shabazz Palaces (see review below) is to hip-hop: a 21st-century mutation that colours outside almost every line. There’s nary a trace of traditional reggae in Peaking Lights, but everything they do is influenced by Jamaican dub and its approach to texture. The married couple of Indra Dunis and Aaron Coyes always start with a reggae rhythm, though usually programmed on cheap, minimal electronic percussion that merely floats in the background. The focus is instead on distorted, dream-like, indistinguishable instrumentation and Dunis’s airy voice. Her dreary, distracted vocals are the weak link. When they work, they suit the lazy vibe perfectly, deadpan and drenched in sunbaked reverb. Too often, however, she just sounds bored—which is too bad, because the creative lo-fi soundscapes swirling around her are fascinating. There’s much here that’s reminiscent of the mid-’90s ambient dub band from Vancouver, Perfume Tree—and if that reference means anything to you, you need to hear Peaking Lights. (Aug. 4)

Download: “All the Sun That Shines,” “Hey Sparrow,” “Amazing and Wonderful”

Shabazz Palaces – Black Up (Sub Pop)

“Psychedelic hip-hop” usually means one of two things: someone has shamelessly sampled ’60s psychedelic pop music and rapped over it (e.g. Edan), or they’ve created something entirely abstract and impenetrable (e.g. Georgia Anne Muldrow). Which makes a case for this deliciously weird debut record by Shabazz Palaces as being the first truly great psychedelic hip-hop album—ever. “Catchy, yes, but trendy, no,” goes one line.

Fans of ’90s alt-hip-hop act Digable Planets—whose 1994 album Blowout Comb was a much-beloved underground favourite of that decade—should note that it is that group’s Ishmael “Butterfly” Butler who is behind Shabazz Palaces, although he purposely masked that fact while releasing two earlier EPs, not revealing who was behind the mask until shortly after the album came out last month.

Shabazz Palaces is nothing if not mysterious: rhythms can fall out of meter or shift entirely during the course of a track, perhaps, say, after everything drops out for a random kalimba interlude. Butler demands the listener “clear some space out so we can space out,” and there’s no telling where a track will take us, either musically or lyrically. Lyrically, Butler is often obtuse (check the song titles), but such is the relaxed cadence of his flow that nothing underneath it could possibly be discombobulating.

Traces of the Digable Planets’ jazzy underpinnings can be heard, and the album closes with a refrain from the Last Poets, a group who were, along with the late Gil Scott-Heron, the ’70s jazz progenitors of political hip-hop. But Shabazz Palaces is decidedly 21st-century in its approach to sound and texture, making avant-garde hip-hop that can both rock like early LL Cool J and flake out like Lee “Scratch” Perry jamming with Sun Ra.

Does any of it make sense? If you have to ask, you’ll never know. Strap on some serious headphones and enjoy the trip. (Aug. 4)

Download: “An echo from the hosts that profess infinitum,” “Youlogy,” “Swerve… the reeping of all that is worthwhile (noir not withstanding)”

William Elliott Whitmore – Field Songs (Anti)

William Elliot Whitmore is a gruff guy in his early 30s who sounds like he’s worked the fields for the past 50 years. In fact, he does work in fields—he still lives on his family farm in rural Iowa on the banks of the Mississippi River, and Field Songs may well have been recorded on his back porch. (The only sounds we hear are Whitmore’s voice, either a banjo or acoustic guitar, and occasionally a bass drum and a tambourine—all underscored by an army of crickets and frogs.)

Unlike his Anti Records debut, 2009’s Animals in the Dark—which was a thunderous, angry, political record with a full band—Field Songs is intimate, detailing personal struggle and hardship. “If you have burdens, don’t carry them / bury them in the ground,” Whitmore sings, although he’d obviously rather set them to song and deliver them with his gutsy, gripping vocals, which makes even the quietest songs here sound gigantic.

Field Songs is suitably timeless, with only the occasional modernity sneaking into the lyrics—there’s a lyric about “the manifest destiny of the factory farms.” Along with the near-perfect Gillian Welch album released last month, it’s been a good summer for bare-bones acoustic singer/songwriters. (Aug. 11)

Download: “Don’t Need It,” “Everything Gets Gone,” “Not Feeling Any Pain”

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