Monday, March 05, 2012

February '12 reviews

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

Bahamas – Barchords (Brushfire)

Bahamas’ main man Afie Jurvanen is a guitar hero: not in the classic rock sense of showboating, and most certainly not in the video game world that co-opted the term. No, Jurvanen is the kind of guitar player that sounds like an entire R&B/soul band (or, alternately, Neil Young’s Crazy Horse) with the help of only a drummer—in this case, the Weakerthans’ Jason Tait. Together, they communicate volumes with negative space: the notes they don’t play are as important as they ones they do. Both men have long histories of being sidemen (Jurvanen has toured with Feist and Jason Collett; Tait’s resumé outside the Weakerthans is long and varied), so subtle inflection comes naturally to them.

Barchords is not a minimalist album aimed only at guitar geeks, however. Rather, you barely notice anything missing, largely because of the strength of Jurvanen’s songwriting, the subtle extra touches—including glorious backing vocals by Carleigh Aikins and Felicity Williams—and Jurvanen’s relaxed yet compelling approach to both his vocals and his guitar leads. There are straight-up pop songs ala Nick Lowe, atmospheric ballads ala M. Ward, and jammed-out rock songs ala My Morning Jacket, though the only time Jurvanen takes an actual guitar solo is on “Your Sweet Touch.” Though he constantly wears his heart on his sleeve, this is not a confessional sad-sack heartbreak record, and never does he sound as syrupy as Jack Johnson, the smooth surf-folk dude who became a big Bahamas fan after their 2009 debut Pink Strat and put out this record on his own label.

Slow, steady and subtle sometimes win the race; now that Barchords is finally out, the rest of 2012 will be a series of victory laps for Bahamas. (Feb. 16)

Download: “Lost in the Light,” “Caught Me Thinking,” “Your Sweet Touch”

Fred Eaglesmith - 6 Volts (E1)

Fred Eaglesmith has earned the right to do whatever he wants, after 16 albums, endless kilometres, mainstream covers, and finally landing on Letterman’s show last year. The southern Ontario country songwriter has always done things on a DIY scale—from running his own record label to putting on an annual charity picnic near his hometown of Brantford—but 6 Volts is one of the most raw recordings in his long discography.

Working again with Guelph engineer Scott Merritt—the two have been collaborating for over two decades now—Eaglesmith records his band live in the studio around a single microphone, where the banjo and the Neil Young-ish electric guitar compete for sonic space. The result is more of a garage rock record than anything else in Eaglesmith’s discography.

But no one listens to Fred Eaglesmith for the sonic landscape. The man is a master storyteller; one of the finest working in country or any genre, of any generation, and 6 Volts does not disappoint. His cast of characters includes loners, murderers, musicians, truckers, and the kind of guys who boast: “I been so lonesome, I made Hank Williams look like a party of five.” And only a true industry outsider like Eaglesmith can sound so convincing calling out fairweather Johnny Cash fans who jumped on the legend’s bandwagon late in his life: “Where were you in 1989, when it looked like Johnny was on the decline?”

Eaglesmith is a legend in his own time—and on his own terms—and 6 Volts is yet another reason why. (Feb. 9)

Download: “Betty Oshawa,” “Trucker Speed,” “Cigarette Machine”

First Aid Kit - The Lion's Roar (Wichita)

The story of the Swedish Soderberg sisters has all the makings of a flash in the pan: teenage hippie siblings in a woodland setting sing an acoustic cover of an American hit (well, an underground hit—Fleet Foxes’ “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song”) and it becomes a viral YouTube sensation (2.7 million hits and counting).

The Lion’s Roar is their first major album, but it sure doesn’t sound like it. This young band already has plenty of experience: they have another full-length, an EP, and extensive touring behind their belt, along with nods from the likes of Jack White, Lykke Li, The Knife, and now Bright Eyes: Conor Oberst sings on rousing album closer "King of the World," and Oberst’s wizard behind the curtain, producer and multi-instrumentalist Mike Mogis, is behind the boards for the entire record.

All that buzz and celebrity approval wouldn’t mean anything if the Soderberg sisters didn’t have the goods—which they do. Lead singer Klara has an astounding voice, as rich and resonant as Neko Case, and, needless to say, her keyboardist sister Johanna complements her perfectly. But it’s the songwriting that sets them apart from other ingénues; though there’s nothing fresh or original here, neither do they fall into tired clichés, and there are slight traces of psychedelia that pull them away from straightforward verse-chorus structures. They’re well steeped in Americana country and folk traditions, so that even when they write a tribute to the genre’s musical heroes (“I’ll be your Emmylou [Harris] / I’ll be your June [Carter] / you’ll be my Gram [Parsons] and my Johnny [Cash] too”), it comes off as innocent and charming rather than cloying.

Cute teenage hippie Swedish siblings may make for a good meme, but The Lion’s Roar speaks volumes about this duo’s staying power. (Feb. 9)

Download: “The Lion’s Roar,” “Emmylou,” “Blue”

Galactic - Carnivale Electricos (Anti)

Did you miss Mardi Gras? Then you need to hear Galactic, a one-stop-shop on the history of New Orleans funk, who celebrate Mardi Gras every day. They’ve worked with everyone from Irma Thomas to the Neville Brothers to Trombone Shorty to Big Freedia, and here they set out specifically to make a Mardi Gras carnival record—complete with brass bands, hip-hop, zydeco, jazz and funk—with traditions from Brazilian carnivals. They cover the 1960 Mardi Gras anthem “Carnival Time” with original vocalist Al Johnson (now age 72) and invite ’90s hip-hop icons Mannie Fresh and Mystikal to the party, along with up-and-comers from Brazil and local high school marching bands. Unlike a lot of cross-genre party bands who bring the house down wherever they play, Galactic also make fine records, and this may be their best. (Feb. 23)

Download: “Hey Na Na,” “Voyage Ton Flag,” “Ha Di Ka”

Grimes - Visions (Arbutus/4AD)

Who would dare earnestly embrace Mariah Carey and Animal Collective? Meet the deliriously confounding 23-year-old Montreal musician Clare Boucher, aka Grimes.

On her third album—but first for a larger indie label, and the first to be written up in glossy international magazines—Boucher’s girlish and acrobatic voice is delivered rich with reverb, layered with towers of her own harmonies and electronically pitched into the stratosphere. No matter how strange she makes herself sound, she is almost always singing bubblegum melodies. Her sonic backdrop owes as much to Robyn as it does to Aphex Twin or to The Weeknd—or, given the ’80s sheen of Visions, she conjures sonic images of the Cocteau Twins singing Debbie Gibson songs with Men Without Hats as the backing band.

Like Braids—her fellow weird Western Canadian transplants, Montreal neighbours and Arbutus label mates—her love of sound supersedes all else. So even if Visions boasts big beats here designed for dance floors, even if she’s writing sing-song melodies, the ecstasy of Grimes’s music comes from the opaque luxuriousness of the sonic landscape, a world as stimulating, disorienting and brightly lit as Tokyo at night, a trip through a psychedelic children’s cartoon, an abstract collision of sounds that perhaps only an ADD-addled, self-taught musician could stumble upon and decide to assemble together.

It’s entirely possible that Boucher may be a lucky musical naïf—a listen to her nebulous, earlier recordings would suggest this—but Visions displays a bold sophistication and originality, not to mention confidence and drive (she recorded this in a three-week stint, locked in her bedroom with blacked-out windows). As good as it is, Visions also suggests a dozen different directions she could go from here. An intensely creative and restless spirit, Boucher may find herself in Bjork’s company sooner than later. (Feb. 23)

Download: “Genesis,” “Vowels=Space and Time,” “Oblivion”

The Little Willies - For the Good Times (EMI)

Norah Jones, whose excellent last album veered away from jazz toward pop music, announced recently that her next solo album, due in the spring, will be produced by Danger Mouse (The Black Keys, Gorillaz). It’s safe to say that her days as a jazz artist are numbered. So if you want to hear Jones wrap her velvet tones around traditional material, she’s still hanging onto The Little Willies, her country side project, where she and acoustic guitarist Richard Julian sing songs by Willie Nelson (their namesake), Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, and others.

Much like Jones’s massively successful debut, Come Away With Me, the Little Willies offer tasteful but bloodless performances, with the advantage of mining vintage tunes. They’re all excellent musicians, the music is perfectly pleasant, and some of the cover choices are inspired (“Diesel Smoke, Dangerous Curves,” “Foul Owl on the Prowl”). But largely it sounds like little more than a sedate living room jam (literally: the band started at a Manhattan songwriters’ club called The Living Room). Jones lets her honky-tonk piano skills loose on the instrumental “Tommy Rockwood,” but there’s little here to raise anyone’s temperature—not even versions of Loretta Lynn’s fiery “Fist City” or Dolly Parton’s “Jolene.” (Feb. 9)

Download: “Diesel Smoke, Dangerous Curves,” “Tommy Rockwood,” “Foul Owl on the Prowl”

Sinead O'Connor - How About I Be Me and You Be You (Universal)

Sinead O’Connor has been pilloried by the press for the past 25 years, for any number of reasons: her politics, her personal life, her religion, her genre excursions, her inability to produce a pop hit since her 1990 breakthrough I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got.

And so after the recent dissolution of her fourth marriage (which lasted 17 days, apparently, and ended amicably) and rumours of suicide attempts, O’Connor surfaces with an album (and title) that practically dares her naysayers to take aim again. Yet surprisingly, this is getting O’Connor her best reviews in years, in part because it’s an angry rock record—for lack of a better term, if only because it isn’t reggae, religious, big band, traditional Irish, or a collection of lullabies. No doubt many long-spurned fair-weather fans feel like this is a return to form, just because O’Connor is howling once again and cursing up a storm.

That doesn’t make it a good record; in fact, much of it is downright embarrassing, even for someone who’s never been anything less than frank, singing lines that even Alanis Morissette would be ashamed to utter. Oddly enough, the most outrageous confessional wasn’t even written by O’Connor, but by American songwriter John Grant: "Queen of Denmark" has lines like, “I wanted to change the world / But I could not even change my underwear / And when the shit got really really out of hand / I had it all the way up to my hairline.” (Note to all songwriters: do not use the words “underwear” and “shit” within one line of each other, ever.) As cringe-inducing as much of the song is, it’s nonetheless powerful and written from a place of obvious pain; O’Connor throws herself completely into the vocal in a harrowing way, and the arrangement brings out the full drama of the lyric. It’s a train wreck you can’t help but be sucked into.

Her own writing, sadly, misses the mark by a mile, often not even enough to warrant a fascinating failure. She says the song "Take Off Your Shoes" is what she imagines the Holy Spirit might say to the scandal-ridden Vatican, but the song’s chorus is centred around a bizarre metaphor: “You’re running out of battery, and I don’t see no bunny around here.” Surely one of the Church’s most scathing critics could come up with a better line than that?

For anyone who wants to hear O’Connor dig her teeth into a solid pop/rock album, go back to the unjustly ignored 2000 album Faith and Courage; this one sounds more like her caving in to people who want her to do what they think she once did best. I’d rather hear Sinead O’Connor do something completely different really well—which she’s done often in the past—than sound like a parody of herself in 1990. (Feb. 23)

Download: “4th and Vine,” “Queen of Denmark,” “Reason With Me”

Nichol Robertson – Stranger Things (independent)

This Toronto guitarist cut his teeth as a sideman to dozens of performers in the city’s country, folk and avant-garde scene (he’s an occasional member of Friendly Rich’s Lollipop People and Dave Clark’s Woodchoppers), but on his debut solo album he dives deep into instrumental country music of the early ’60s. Not just stylistically—he’s an obvious disciple of Chet Atkins, and an heir to Shadowy Men’s Brian Connelly as a brilliant player combining technique and melodic reach—but aesthetically as well, as every amplifier and pedal used here is unmistakably vintage, as is the 50-year-old long-lost convention of using wordless male backing singers in instrumental music. And yet unlike, say, the raw new Fred Eaglesmith record or the ragged psychedelics of the Sadies, Robertson’s recording is decidedly modern. He employs some of Toronto’s top players, including bassist Victor Bateman and pedal steel guitarist Burke Carroll, but Robertson is the clear star here. His music may be far out of fashion, but that doesn’t make Stranger Things anything less than a stunning debut. (Feb. 9)

Download: “Stooge Country,” “Black Mountain Rag”

Skrillex – Bangarang EP (Big Beat)

If you don’t hang around anyone under 20, you might not know that a new wave of rave is sweeping North America, with Toronto’s Deadmau5 as the tribal leader. Skrillex came out of emo, metal and hardcore scenes (and played the Warped Tour with his old band when he was 16) before shifting to high-octane, distorted ADD techno. Considering his beginnings in a scene that has disdain for any musical history before Nirvana, Skrillex is surprisingly eclectic, drawing not only from squiggly video game soundtracks, recent maximalist pop like Lady Gaga and big-beat dance acts like Justice, but early rave records and even Kraftwerk-era synthesizers. Maybe that’s why he was feted by the Grammys this year.

Nothing, however, prepares the over-30 set for the stunt casting of the Doors—yes, that Doors, the surviving members anyway—on “Breakin’ a Sweat.” And Skrillex isn’t sampling them or remixing them, either: that’s Ray Manzarek on the organ and Robbie Krieger on talk-box guitar (of all things). (Estranged bandmate John Densmore is also drumming on the track, though he wasn’t in the studio at the same time. )

Fans of envelope-pushing electronic pioneers of the last 15 years like Autechre and Venetian Snares may be baffled to hear these sounds pummelled into fist-pumping anthems for mall rats, but it’s refreshing to hear someone being so playful and inventive with what is often a lowest-common-denominator market. And unlike the joyless, sexless emo world of “scene kids” that gave birth to Skrillex, this is actually music you want to dance to—while its shrill, noisy distortions will still give parents plenty to be peeved about. (Feb. 16)

Download: “Breakin’ a Sweat,” “The Devil’s Den,” “Summit”

Van Halen – A Different Kind of Truth (Interscope)

Be careful what you wish for. Van Halen fans have been clamoring for a reunion between original lead singer David Lee Roth and the rest of the band for decades; while that happened on stage in 2007 for a full tour, they’ve only got around to releasing new music now.

Thanks, guys, but you shouldn’t have. No, really—you shouldn’t have. A Different Kind of Truth is a pale imitation of the band that changed the face of heavy metal and pop music in the early ’80s. Though Eddie Van Halen rips through some blistering solos that are a potent reminder of why he was a game-changer—and his brother Alex likewise shows no sign of slowing down his tempos in his advanced age—the material itself makes it clear that the soul of the band was long ago sucked out by Sammy Hagar, Roth’s replacement in the second phase of the band’s career.

Van Halen attempt to recapture the zip of the earliest material—there are no synths anywhere here, and no power ballads—but without any riffs or vocal hooks, they’re left flopping around the studio searching for any kind of direction. Roth sounds like a grumpy old man complaining about other people’s driving, and his once bawdy self is reduced to asking, “When you turn on your stereo, does it return the favour?”

Everyone knows major label acts don’t make any money from record sales; all the dough comes from touring revenue, which a Roth-led Van Halen will no doubt be rolling in. So why bother with a new album at all? (Feb. 16)

Download: “As Is,” “She’s the Woman,” “Bullethead”

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