Monday, December 19, 2011

December '11 reviews

These reviews appeared in the Kitchener-Waterloo Record and Guelph Mercury this month.

Kate Bush - 50 Words for Snow (Fish People/EMI)

Compared to her last album, the disappointingly conventional 2005 album Aerial, 50 Words of Snow sounds much like the Kate Bush that her fans cherish, the iconoclast who has influenced several generations of boundary-pushing performers.

Opening track “Snowflake” is instantly familiar, in part because it sounds like it could have appeared on 1985’s masterpiece Hounds of Love, but also because it consists of little more than a relentless piano riff that—while beautiful—doesn’t change over the course of nine minutes (making it one of the shorter tracks on this seven-song album). As the rest of the album unfolds, it becomes apparent that even though Bush is still in magnificent voice, still writing outside of any pop music convention, still sounding gorgeous, her songs simply don’t match the rest of her talents.

In many cases, they’re unintentionally funny. Granted, intention is difficult to gauge, but 50 Words for Snow is such a sombre, po-faced album that one can only assume it’s deadly serious. There’s a song written in the first person as a snowflake, a song about Yeti, and a song about dreaming a sexual encounter with a snowman (and his “ice-cream lips”) who, of course, ends up melting in her bed.

Then there’s the extremely literal title song: Bush strings together 50 poetic synonyms for snow—i.e., “swans-a-melting,” “vanilla swarm,” “icyskidski” and “whippoccino”—while she intermittently urges on the male narrator (played by actor Stephen Fry) with lines like, “Come on, Joe, just 22 to go … just like the Eskimos … let me hear your 50 words for snow.” Bush has always had a playful side that’s helped her realize her best work; this song, however, is asinine.

That leaves Elton John, of all people, to save the day. He shows up as a duet partner on "Snowed in at Wheeler Street," a story about star-crossed lovers throughout history. It sounds like an odd pairing—although Bush scored a hit in the early ’90s covering “Rocket Man”—but John relishes the role and sings his ass off, giving the song his all and emoting in ways he hasn’t really done in over 30 years. It’s an inspired moment in both of their recent discographies (which might not be saying much), and that track alone is enough to suggest that Bush’s best days might not be so far behind her after all. (Dec. 1)

Download: “Snowed in at Wheeler Street,” “Snowflake,” “Wild Man”

Couer de Pirate – Blonde (Grosse Boite)

Montreal’s Béatrice Martin was kittenish and coy on her fey debut album in 2008, but now this cat has grown claws. The young francophone pop singer has gained considerable swagger on this, her second album, as she struts through swinging-’60s throwbacks that owe as much to British pop of the period (think Petula Clark) as well as Parisian yé-yé and Lee Hazlewood productions. Her voice, while still girlish, is rarely if ever cutesy—Duffy, please take note. Engineer Howard Bilerman (Arcade Fire, Godspeed You Black Emperor) and arranger Michael Rault (a young Edmontonian who records raw retro rock under his own name) help Martin expertly dress up her songs in lovely colours without ever sounding ostentatious. Sam Roberts drops by to sing a duet—in French, of course, as Martin sticks to her native tongue throughout. Anyone who’s ever fallen in love in or with Montreal will find plenty to love here, but the real success of Blonde is that it is much more universal than that. She’s already got a Top 10 album in France, but there’s no reason a language barrier should stop her from conquering the rest of the world. (Dec. 1)

Download: “Adieu,” “Danser et danse,” “Les amours dévouées”

Pink Floyd – Discovery (EMI)

Pink Floyd’s back catalogue has been a cash cow for at least the last 35 years; most famously, 1973’s Dark Side of the Moon holds the record for having the longest run on the Billboard charts (25 years), and has already been remastered and re-released twice before. It appears again, of course, in this deluxe box set—merely a small component of extensive Pink Floyd reissues this autumn—which coincidentally came out around the same time that legendary major label EMI announced that it was being broken up and its parts sold to Universal and Sony. On the heels of endless Beatles repackaging and a new blockbuster from Coldplay, Discovery is EMI’s swan song.

No one really needs to own yet another copy of Dark Side, Wish You Were Here or The Wall, each of which are also being re-released individually in ridiculously expanded packages meant only for the fan who thinks he has everything. And certainly no one needs the three albums that followed The Wall (or, I would argue, even The Wall itself, one of the most wretched albums in the rock canon), though of course they are included here.

The real appeal—other than a lovely 60-page booklet detailing the band’s artwork and imagery through the years—is having all the pre-Dark Side material assembled together; it comprises half of this 14-album, $200 set (less than $15 an album, including doubles, in case you want to break it down). Some of it holds up better than the rest—Atom Heart Mother in particular is revelatory, Meddle is merely muddling, the Barbet Schroeder soundtracks are trifles—but it’s gratifying to hear Floyd in such a playful, exploratory mode, making music that can conceivably be executed by four creative people in a room.

Naturally, it all sounds fantastic; Pink Floyd is nothing if not an audiophile’s band, and this doesn’t disappoint. And albums like Ummagumma still manage to sound remarkably fresh and devoid of cliché; it’s somewhat mindblowing, in today’s culture, to imagine an album this far out there could ever sell platinum (which it eventually did). It’s a welcome contrast to the often-bloated, super-serious, rock-operatic blowhards they became.

Come for the acid, leave for the cocaine. (Dec. 8)

Rihanna – Talk That Talk (Universal)

Rihanna wants to be all things to all people: pop star, dancehall queen, raunchy electro diva, arena-rock power balladeer. She’s a perfect chameleon, and with her cool, collected and compelling voice she soars above the armies of fembots and divas she shares space with in the Top 40. Yet on Talk That Talk, she merely alternates between feel-good, inspirational pop music for the whole family—“we all want love!” goes one track suitable for a Disney movie—and then lurid, hypersexual strip-club soundtrack material that’s about as artful and seductive as a 30-second clip on a free porn site.

Rihanna scores best when she amps up the Eurodisco techno on Lady Gaga-style club bangers like “We Found Love,” or takes a left turn by rewriting the song “Intro” by downbeat British band The XX. Though it’s entirely based around a sample of the original, Rihanna uses it as carte blanche to insert her own melody and soaring vocal. Rather than a ripoff, it sounds like an inspired collaboration—and not a terribly surprising one, as The XX, despite their minimalist moodiness, has always professed their love for modern American R&B.

The tarty tracks are also the weakest here, though they’re obviously the subject of more media scrutiny. Rihanna’s played the bad girl more than once before—last time we heard from her, she was wielding whips and chains—and now she’s into genderbending, urging you to “suck my cockiness, lick my persuasion,” or singing, “Let me grab my dick while you sit on top / do it right there while the whole world’s watching.” Somewhere, Prince is blushing—and more than a few parents of tweens are scrambling for the off button. (Dec. 1)

Download: “Where Have You Been,” “Drunk on Love,” “Roc Me Out”

The Roots – Undun (Universal)

This veteran hip-hop group will try to convince you that Undun is a concept album about one man’s urban struggles and the choice between an honest life and the criminal element. Don’t hold your breath for a Broadway musical, however; there’s precious little to distinguish this from the other 12 albums in the Roots’ discography, thematically or musically. That said, it comes on the tails of their late-career high, 2009’s How I Got Over, where they proved that taking a gig as a house band on a late-night talk show actually reinvigorated them creatively. And yet while that album worked on a variety of levels, Undun finds the Roots returning to well-crafted albums that are easy to respect but hard to actually like. There are more guest vocal hooks this time around, and a short four-song classical suite to close the album, but mostly the appeal remains in ?uestlove’s drumming and production aesthetic—which isn’t enough to carry an entire record on its own. (Dec. 15)

Download: “Stomp,” “The Other Side,” “Make My”

Sigur Ros – Inni (XL)

If there’s a proper heir to Pink Floyd in the last decade, it’s Sigur Ros. Exploratory, fragile, bombastic, obsessed with the science of sound, and—on their best days—mind-blowing, this Icelandic band have released five albums of varying quality; every one has its high points, but mostly they each feel overwhelming and a bit overproduced. It’s odd, then, that this two-disc live album (the soundtrack to an acclaimed concert film directed by Arcade Fire collaborator Vincent Morisset) doesn’t feel bloated in the least.

Recorded in 2008, Inni features just the core four members of the band—no strings, horns or other window dressing (and barely any crowd noise). And yet the music consistently sounds massive, even at its most minimalist. This band has the ability to convey volumes with the sparsest arrangements of notes; when the tension erupts, it’s positively thunderous. What keep it grounded are the small moments of imperfection amidst the otherwise epic constructions: a feedback squall, a whimsical accordion line, singer Jonsi warbling off-mic. Even though they’re a seasoned band, nothing here sounds rote or bled to death; Inni is full of vitality, and a snapshot of a band at the height of their powers. This is the definitive document of Sigur Ros. (Dec. 8)

Rae Spoon – I Can’t Keep All of Our Secrets (Saved by Radio)

When someone close to you dies, nothing makes sense anymore. Black is white, up is down, and somewhere in the middle of it all you can hopefully find some sort of clarity and insight that leads you to a greater truth. Rae Spoon wrote this, his sixth album, in just such a state, and the result is his strongest work to date.

Spoon is often found between states. Once a solo country singer from Calgary, who identifies as a transgender man, Spoon spent time in Berlin before settling in Montreal and transforming into a full-on electro artist with a singer/songwriter’s heart. Here, his strong, boyish voice is put to work over arrangements that old-timers will think are reminiscent of New Order, and youngsters will think sound like Diamond Rings; unfortunately, they don’t have a lot of teeth to them to work as actual club songs, which leaves the material in a tentative state between reflective ruminations of loss and a desire to bust out on the dance floor.

Either way, these are the finest melodies he’s penned to date, and so the disembodied, in-between state of the material works in its favour. On “Are You Jealous of the Dead?” there is enough reverb on his voice to sound like he’s singing from the other side; the song itself starts out as a fractured bossa nova before becoming an electro anthem. “Curse on Us,” which is set to a sort of techno reggae backdrop, is improbably one of the strongest tracks here.

Nothing is predictable about Rae Spoon at this stage of his career. While it’s a shame that a tragedy is what brought this fine work out of him, it’s inevitable that it will open even more creative and commercial doors. (Dec. 15)

Download: “Curse On Us,” “Ocean Blue,” “When I Said There Was an End to Love I Was Lying”

Kreesha Turner - Tropic/Electric (EMI)

While the new Rihanna record gets attention for its potty mouth and little else, Edmonton singer Kreesha Turner hopes to sneak up from behind and capture some of the same musical terrain on pop radio. Turner is still getting mileage out of her 2008 single “Don’t Call Me Baby” (that is, based on the number of times I still hear it in grocery stores and banks), and there’s nothing here remotely as catchy. Apparently she had four albums’ worth of material before settling on these 10 tracks; one has to wonder what it would take to be rejected from this record. That said, Turner is a far better singer than most pop moppets, and half the tracks on this album—split into two short discs labelled Tropic and Electric—draw from Caribbean and South American influences, filtered through Top 40 production values. That means there’s plenty to work with for remixes, even if the songs themselves are slight. (Dec. 15)

Download: “Rock Paper Scissors,” “I Feel My Darling,” “Love Again”

U2 – Achtung Baby (Universal)

Achtung Baby, now 20 years old, carries the most mythology of any U2 album: the earnest stadium rock band reinvents themselves in Berlin, embraces new sounds, stop taking themselves so seriously, and hit the road with a revolutionary stage show that has yet to be topped by anyone. In Jonathan Franzen’s 2010 novel Freedom, the album also becomes the soundtrack to a sexual awakening for two teenagers who later embrace capitalist excess; they lose their virginity on a pile of $20 bills while listening to “Zoo Station,” and later on “Mysterious Ways” somehow alludes to self-mutilation as well as seduction. Fill in your own metaphor.

The new anniversary reissue contains plenty of distractions: there are no less than five versions, from the basic disc itself to a two-disc set with outtakes and remixes to a ridiculous package involving six CDs, four DVDs, four vinyl records and, of course, Bono’s “fly” shades. There’s also a documentary about the album by an Academy Award-winning director, which opened the Toronto International Film Festival in September.

What about the album itself? Devoid of context, it is indeed a classic: 12 nearly flawless tracks that stand the test of time, many of which are still staples of U2’s record-grossing tours. It’s the rare mainstream success that is as intriguing sonically as it is full of accessible pop songs.

It’s hard to contextualize, however, without remembering 1991. U2 was not a band you danced to. U2 was not a band that ever used much more than bass, guitar and drums. And until then, Bono was perhaps the most earnest man in rock’n’roll, one who wouldn’t be caught dead singing “baby” nine times in a row in each chorus of a song (as he does here in “Ultraviolet”).

The first 30 seconds of opening track “Zoo Station” do sound like they would have been a game-changer in 1991—not for music in general, but certainly for a stadium rock band. Otherwise, there’s nothing revolutionary about Achtung Baby. Most of Larry Mullen Jr.’s beats sound like they were lifted from the Stone Roses. The Edge does develop his signature guitar sound further, but it’s not so drastically removed from his earlier work. On the whole, it’s not as if U2 turned their back on rock’n’roll, or at least the version of it they’d already been developing.

The second disc of outtakes contains some gems: b-sides (“Salome”), experiments and embryonic versions of songs that made the album. But it’s certainly not essential: the remixes are either pointless (minor tweaks of the original) or dated (not in a good way), and the covers, excepting The Velvet Underground’s “Satellite of Love,” are otherwise terrible ideas (Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black,” CCR’s “Fortunate Son,” Cole Porter’s “Night and Day”).

Is Achtung Baby a great album? Yes. Is it an important album? Not really. But as the old American saying goes, when a legend becomes fact, print the legend. (Dec. 8)

Amy Winehouse - Lioness (Universal)

The cynic has to wonder how quickly this was assembled after Amy Winehouse’s tragic death this past summer. Indeed, it includes her final recording—a duet with Tony Bennett for his September release, Duets II—but much of this material comes from various points from the last nine years, with a lot of it reminiscent of her pre-Back to Black breakthrough. In other words, there’s little of the spark, the vitality and the sass that made that one album an instant classic.

Any time a major star passes away prematurely, everyone ponders the possibilities and what-ifs. Lioness doesn’t offer any hints, other than suggesting that maybe Back in Black was the result of a time and place—and a producer, Mark Ronson, who has little to do with the tracks here—and not necessarily Winehouse herself, her astounding voice notwithstanding. Her voice and the arrangements are often better than the material here, but even the covers are hit and miss. On Carole King’s “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” she again teams up with the Dap-Kings—Sharon Jones’s backing band who were integral to the sound of Back in Black—and achieve the impossible, breathing new life into a song that’s been covered to death in the last 40 years. However, she stumbles through “The Girl from Ipanema”—complete with awkward scat solo—and is clearly out of her league on the Bennett duet. On a newer original such as “Like Smoke,” she takes a back seat to verses by Nas, who raps circles around her lacklustre vocals.

For a lioness, this is incredibly tame. (Dec. 15)

Download: “A Song for You,” “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” “Our Day Will Come”

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