The following reviews ran in the K-W Record and Guelph Mercury this month.
Willis Earl Beal - Acousmatic Sorcery (XL)
Two years ago, Willis Earl Beal was spending lonely nights in Alberquerque, New Mexico, riding his bicycle around town with a CD Walkman, listening to Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Jandek and Cat Power, falling in love with the nuances of their music. Though he had no musical training, he started recording his own songs on primitive home equipment—often employing pots and pans as percussion—and postered the town, advertising his wares. One thing led to another, and now the formerly homeless musician is releasing his debut album—a compilation of tracks he recorded between 2007 and 2010—on the same label as Radiohead and Adele.
Beal’s music is, predictably, primitive. It’s also charming. He has a rich, powerful, soulful voice—unlike most lo-fi bedroom geeks—that powers songs like the plaintive ballad “Monotony” or the bluesy, fierce field holler “Take Me Away.” His guitar playing is negligible; it’s simply another sound source—along with what sounds like a distorted kalimba, various toys and unidentifiable stringed instruments—over which his compelling vocals, which are alternately fragile and confident, can soar. Attempts at rapping don’t always work; Beal is less interested in flow than in getting a lot of random phrases off his chest, but he gives it his all.
There’s definitely an element of outsider art: anyone captivated by Moondog, the street musician and serious composer who dressed like a Viking on New York City streets in the ’50s, or by Daniel Johnston, the diagnosed schizophrenic songwriter who writes heartbreaking pop songs, will find plenty to love here.
The appeal of Acousmatic Sorcery isn’t just Beal’s particular back story, no matter how interesting that may be. It’s the incongruous sound of someone who seems like an old soul who is only beginning to discover his own talents, of someone with rich life experience learning how to channel that artistically using whatever means necessary, of a lonesome heart searching for connection through creativity. He found it. (April 19)
Willis Earl Beal plays the Drake in Toronto on Monday, April 30.
Download: “Take Me Away,” “Evening’s Kiss,” “Ghost Robot”
Measha Brueggergosman – I’ve Got a Crush on You (Kelp)
Canada’s only opera celebrity (sorry, Ben Heppner) can be seen on weekly television judging Canada’s Got Talent; she’s also a go-to person for CBC panels, gala shows and as a Juno Award presenter. But if Canada knows her face (and her amazing hair), they’re not likely to have actually heard her voice—Canucks aren’t known for flocking to the opera. And so here is Measha Brueggergosman’s debut pop album, recorded live in front of audiences in Halifax and her hometown of Fredericton, with a band led by Aaron Davis (Holly Cole Trio) and a repertoire spanning spirituals, Cole Porter classics, Maritime country ballads and a song as recent as Feist’s “Cicadas and Gulls” (from her album Metals, which was released mere months ago).
Predictably, the results are a mixed bag—and sometimes downright bizarre. An opera singer doing a reggae version of Gershwin’s “Embraceable You”? It’s as bad an idea as it seems, which even Brueggergosman jokes about while ad libbing in the middle of it: “You know I wouldn’t be doing this if I was white!” On the other hand, she brings both operatic skill and earthy soul to P.E.I. songwriter Lennie Gallant’s “Tonight I Drive You Home,” an uncomfortable song in which the narrator stalks the drunk driver who killed her child, and gives him a lift home from the bar. She also duets with Gallant on the traditional Acadian song “Partons La Mer Est Belle,” putting her operatic rolled R’s to full effect on the rollicking tune.
Another duet, with fellow Fredericton native David Myles, is also the album’s only original song—and it’s one of the few tracks here where Brueggergosman doesn’t sound like she’s a circle in a square peg. The less said about the minor-key interpolation of Ron Sexsmith’s “Secret Heart” or the over-the-top version of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now,” the better.
Genre leaps aren’t easy to pull off—especially so many at once on your first time out, no matter who you are. (April 19)
Download: “Tonight I Drive You Home,” “Whole to My Half,” “Partons La Mer Est Belle”
Dr. John – Locked Down (Nonesuch)
Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys was born in 1979, just more than a decade after Dr. John’s debut album, Gris Gris, a classic slice of psychedelic New Orleans voodoo weirdness. It’s safe to say that most people who weren’t around in 1968 only know Dr. John as a New Orleans institution who shows up in The Band’s Last Waltz movie and at any event celebrating his hometown’s musical heritage.
Which is why Locked Down, produced by Auerbach, is being hailed as a return to the psychedelic quartet of albums that kicked off Dr. John’s career before he dropped “the Night Tripper” part of his name and started scoring sunny AM radio hits like “Such a Night.” It’s not, if only because it’s hard to top the trippy outré meanderings of those albums. It does retain that sense of mystery and atmosphere, anchoring it to steady funk rhythms. But more importantly, Locked Down is an astounding record that is miles ahead of anything Dr. John—or for that matter, today’s stadium rock star Auerbach—has been involved with in a very long time.
Locked Down is, as can be expected, rooted in syncopated, stuttering New Orleans funk rhythms; drummer Max Weissenfeldt (Heliocentrics) almost steals this entire show. What is not expected is that Dr. John avoids his trademark piano stylings entirely; instead, Auerbach puts him in front of various organs and vintage electric pianos, which immediately alters the sonic atmosphere. Behind him are bold, bottom-heavy horn sections, jazzy bass, gospel backing vocals and African percussion—and of course, Auerbach’s own guitar. He stays largely in the background, but when he does clear space for a guitar solo, he channels everything he has into concise, lyrical passages that speak volumes with few notes. With every production choice Auerbach makes here, the man is nothing if not tasteful.
As for Dr. John himself? He sounds as sly as he ever has. If he’s either bemused or invigorated by the youngsters willing to indulge his weird side, he’s not letting on—he’s the same character he’s been since day one. He’s certainly not phoning it in, and with all songs credited to the entire studio band, he’s happy to be a team player: both sides bring out the best in each other.
Every year some geezer teams up with a young hotshot and attempts to make a comeback record. Few succeed. This one soars. (April 26)
Download: “Locked Down,” “Getaway,” “Big Shot”
Druckfarben – s/t (independent)
Prog rock may well be the last uncool genre of music. Sure, acts like Battles, Dungen and Deerhoof have given virtuosity and technical triumphs a new, cool, edge, but barely anyone dares to dip back into the ’70s back catalogue of Gentle Giant or Emerson, Lake and Palmer. (Outside of people who know who Porcupine Tree is, the only popular example that comes to mind is the Decemberists’ Hazards of Love, easily the least loved album by that beloved band.)
Toronto’s Druckfarben couldn’t care less. Their timewarp of a debut album sounds like it was made before Trevor Horn produced a Yes album, before the death of the bass solo, before Rush started writing pop songs. For that alone, this is one ballsy band. Druckfarben’s members have day jobs as part of Classic Albums Live, where they tour theatres across North America playing complete albums by Led Zeppelin, the Beatles, Pink Floyd, etc. They met while performing two Yes albums (Close to the Edge and The Yes Album)—not one of Classic Albums Live’s more commercially successful performances, but their chemistry inspired them to strike out with original material. This is first and foremost a labour of love.
The players are exceptional: the shredding guitars, the jazzy drums, the stabbing Hammond organ, the operatic vocal chops, the unexpected acoustic ballad “Nonchalant.” And yet despite that proliferation of talent, Druckfarben are shockingly tasteful: even the noodly guitar parts are inserted as intrinsic parts of the arrangement, not just an excuse to wank. If this is your thing, it’s really your thing. Druckfarben is the brave band that redefines retro for a grossly underserved niche audience. (April 12)
Download: “Dead Play Awake,” “Nonchalant,” “Influenza”
Melanie Fiona - The MF Life (Universal)
Most Canadians hadn’t heard of Melanie Fiona before she won a Grammy last month; indeed, many Canadians still haven’t heard of this Toronto singer. But in her not-so-secret life, she’s been signed to a record deal by the man who discovered the Wu-Tang Clan, was once in a band with Drake, is signed to Jay-Z’s management company, opened for Kanye West in Europe, wrote songs for Rihanna, and duetted with Cee-Lo Green, John Legend and the Roots. Now her second album is packed with future hits ready to introduce her to the rest of the world.
Most new artists stumble on one sound and are told to stick with it; Fiona clearly didn’t get that memo from her label execs. The MF Life is the sound of an artist who obviously shares a deep love for both her parents’ R&B record collection as well as her own contemporaries; for every bluesy vamp like “Bones” (the kind Amy Winehouse would have loved to have sunk her teeth into) or Stevie Wonder homage like “Watch Me Work,” there’s a sombre, sci-fi groove ala The Weeknd (“4 a.m.”) or a bombastic, ballsy pop song like “Change the Record,” which pits Fiona’s powerhouse vocals against the piano chords from Heart’s “Alone” and thunderous drums worthy of John Bonham. And then there are the big rock guitar solos on “Break Down These Walls” balanced by the ukulele reggae—don’t laugh, it works—of “Can’t Say I Never Loved You.”
Is there anything Melanie Fiona can’t do? Not with a voice like that—one listen to the breathtaking ballad “Wrong Side of a Love Song,” and you’ll think Whitney Houston was an amateur.
Ironically, the natural splendour of her voice might work against her. As she admitted to the Globe and Mail recently, she’s had music biz people tell her that she should use Auto-Tune because radio won’t play her if she sounds too, ahem, soulful. That’s why her duet with Auto-Tune king T-Pain, “6 a.m.,” is almost comical, hearing her scold and sing circles around a guy who sounds like a philandering robot.
The highs of The MF Life last for at least half the record; the other half doesn’t meet such high standards, but it’s a safe bet that Melanie Fiona has enough singles here to dominate radio and awards shows for the next 12 months. The secret’s out. (April 5)
Download: "Change the Record" (feat. B.o.B.), "Wrong Side of a Love Song," "Watch Me Work"
The Hunger Games OST – Various Artists (Universal)
The Hunger Games is the darkest teen movie to ever become a massive success, so it’s only natural that the soundtrack is equally ominous. Opening track (and closing credit number) “Abraham’s Daughter,” by Arcade Fire, sets the tone: minor key, martial drums, harpsichord, Regine Chassagne’s childish voice cooing a haunting melody, guitar feedback and no sign of a happy ending. Better yet, instead of cannon drums and piercing synths, the arrangement here is heavy without being bombastic—it doesn’t need to beat you over the head to hammer home its point.
The soundtrack was produced by T-Bone Burnett, the man behind the Robert Plant and Alison Krauss album and the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack; his rootsy pedigree means that Arcade Fire are one of the only rock acts here. (The less said about whatever it is Kid Cudi is up to here, the better.) Most of these artists are definitely from the rural backyard of Hunger Games protagonist Katniss Everdeen, and not the posh, urbane Capitol. The Secret Sisters’ dustbowl harmonies appear on the second track, and set the tone for much of the lineup to follow: Neko Case, Carolina Chocolate Drops, Punch Brothers, the Decemberists, and the Civil Wars. They all contribute songs consistent with the theme and mood of the film—this is the rare soundtrack that sounds like it was assembled with creative care, rather than arranged by competing business interests. (Strange, then, that other than the Arcade Fire track, none of it appears in the movie.)
Even superstars like Miranda Lambert and Maroon 5 step out of their comfort zone and into the disquieting paranoia of the script—and they do it more successfully than Glen Hansard (of the Frames and Swell Season), who offers a lame punk song where he comes off like a righteous emo teenager, singing lines like, “Should I kill you with my soul?” The biggest star here is Taylor Swift, who bats .500: “Safe and Sound” is a note-perfect song for the project, and segues perfectly out of the Neko Case track; “Eyes Open,” on the other hand, is overtly literal and sounds like dialogue from the film set directly—and unsuccessfully—to music. (April 5)
Download: Arcade Fire – “Abraham’s Daughter”; Taylor Swift – “Safe and Sound”; Maroon 5 – “Come Away to the Water”
Radio Radio - Havre de Grace (Bonsound)
This Acadian hip-hop trio came out of nowhere—I mean, really, Acadian rap? Who saw that coming?—to land their album Belmundo Regal on the shortlist of the 2010 Polaris Prize alongside Broken Social Scene, the Sadies and Shad. The music was playful and intriguing, but the lyrical flow, delivered in highly regionalized Franglais, was obviously goofy, whether you understood what they were saying or not.
Radio Radio still sound like their biggest hip-hop influence is Beck. But if that’s true, then this is their Odelay, a scattershot pop pastiche that pulls in smooth saxophone, distorted accordions, AutoTune vocals, Krautrock, electro reggae, even blues. There’s precious little that most hip-hop fans would recognize—but that works in Radio Radio’s favour, as they’re clearly not trying to play anyone’s game but their own. But is that game any fun? For every wildly inventive juxtaposition, there are two more WTFs waiting around the corner.
Radio Radio get full points for originality, and Havre de Grace is exponentially more interesting than its predecessor, but they’re still a hard band to love. A bit of a blunderbuss, Jack White might say. (April 26)
Download: “Gong Hotel,” “Y’en a qui connais,” “Galope”
Sagot – Piano Mal (Simone)
Montreal is home to the apocalyptic, brooding instrumental rock band Godspeed You Black Emperor. It’s also a town that, like any francophone metropolis, loves Serge Gainsbourg. Julien Sagot thinks those two musical personalities should get together more often.
On Piano Mal, Sagot alternates between hushed crooning, sinister intonation (in French), and sitting back to let his cinematic instrumental tendencies take over, while his music draws on the darker side of French chanson, spaghetti westerns, art rock, and even white noise soundscapes—"S.O.S. Panda" is a mix of early Pink Floyd and Montreal sound artist Tim Hecker. Sometimes Sagot slides into a jaunty pop song, albeit in a minor key; sometimes he surrenders to stunningly beautiful abstraction, content to just bathe in sound. On “Un Vielle Taupe,” he strikes up a piano polka with what sounds like the Seven Dwarfs on backing vocals.
Sagot’s day job is as the percussionist in the Polaris Prize-winning group Karkwa, and this album was made with essential help from Patrick Watson’s guitarist Simon Angell. The creativity heard here, however, dwarfs both men’s other projects.
Piano Mal is consistently surprising, stunning and captivating—not just for its daring, but because Sagot makes it all work as a natural whole. It’s easily one of the best Canadian albums of the year; let’s hope Canadians outside of Quebec get to hear it. (April 19)
Download: “Piano Mal,” “Un Vielle Taupe,” “Fevrier”
John Southworth and Andrew Downing – Easterween (Sud de Valeur)
Some projects defy description by anyone who was not intimately involved in the project. That’s why it’s best to just quote from the official bio when discussing this bizarre yet beautiful cabaret pop project from Toronto songwriter John Southworth and arranger Andrew Downing.
In their words, this is about “A 500-year-old magician. A ruthless, multinational egg corporation. A love story between a Hasidic girl and an Amish boy. A band of sauciers and dumpling bakers. An egg-hunt of cosmic proportions to save us all from eternal winter. A 21st-century metaphysical fertility tale set to 19th-century surreal street-cabaret songs accompanied by a seven-piece orchestra of brass, wood and strings.”
You follow? No, I don’t blame you. But the hallucinatory brainstorming that went into what is supposedly some kind of narrative extends to the music as well, which swings and soars and should appeal to anyone with a soft spot for oddball show tunes. Southworth has always been a fine pop writer, but this is a major compositional leap for him: these are not just pop or folk songs set to small orchestral arrangements. He toys with tempo, writes broad melodic themes, and taps into Old World influences of every stripe. His voice shepherds the potentially ungainly plot with the animated warmth of a classic Disney narrator.
This is undoubtedly the most ambitious thing Southworth—or, for that matter, any other Toronto singer/songwriter in recent memory—has done. It would be underselling his talents to say it’s a minor miracle, but, really, who saw this coming? (April 5)
Download: “Morbid Fecundity,” “Robert Kirk is in his Lighthouse,” “Queen Lear”
M. Ward - A Wasteland's Companion (Merge)
The retail sales sticker on this album boasts that it features “members of She & Him.” Well, duh. M. Ward’s role as one half of that commercially successful—Zooey Deschanel being the other—kept him busy, with no less than three albums in three years, including a Christmas album, which you could buy with or without an accompanying toque, mits and wrapping paper. Thankfully, it didn’t distract him from his prime directive. The increased activity obviously rejuvenated him, and A Wasteland’s Companion is one of the most compelling collections in his discography.
Recorded in eight studios and featuring members of Sonic Youth, Devotchka, Dr. Dog, and PJ Harvey's band, the album is remarkably cohesive, touching on ’50s rock’n’roll, ’60s psychedelic folk, and ’70s singer/songwriters. On the surface, Ward is another in a long line of sad sack guys with acoustic guitars—but Ward is far ahead of his peers, as a guitarist, as an intimate vocalist just on the right side of raspy, as a stunning producer, and for speaking volumes with few words. He has the good humour here to mock his crowded milieu with the song “Me and My Shadow,” about a singer jealous of a more successful doppelganger thwarting the narrator’s ambitions.
Until now, Ward’s strengths have sometimes suffered from being too subtle. Not anymore: A Wasteland’s Companion is full of vivid sound, a diverse collection that finds him at his most fuzzed-out and rollicking, as well as burying himself in angelic harmonies and wistful string arrangements. “The First Time I Ran Away” marks Ward as one of the few musicians able to successfully conjure the legacy of Nick Drake; “Watch the Show” sounds like Sonic Youth reinvented as a rockabilly band. “Primitive Girl” is more anthemic than Ward has ever been, with a cascading piano countermelody and Deschanel providing perfect wordless backing vocals. (She also appears as a duet partner on “Sweetheart.”) And it’s unlikely you will hear a more beautiful set of music this year than the last four songs on this album, concluding with the heavenly “Pure Joy.” (April 12)
Download: “Me and My Shadow,” “Watch the Show,” “Crawl After You”
Jack White - Blunderbuss (Third Man)
Jack White has never lacked a creative outlet. When he gets bored, he just starts another band. He left a country band to start the minimalist garage rock duo the White Stripes; when that seemed limiting, he formed a songwriting partnership with an old friend in the Raconeteurs, and then jumped behind the drums and enlisted a fiery young female singer for the psychedelic stadium rock band The Dead Weather. So what does he do on a record under his own name?
Not surprisingly, much of the same. There’s not much new territory here for White, and without the creative tension of his other projects, it’s missing many of the sparks that ignite his other albums. That’s no slight to his new crew of musicians. For all the hullaballoo about his recent Saturday Night Live appearance with two bands—one all-female, one all-male—it’s the women who get the vast majority of the work here, including ace drummer Carla Azar and piano player Brooke Waggoner. White’s talented enough to play every part on this album himself, but he needs players of his own calibre to capture the sound of sweat in the studio.
Blunderbuss—a title that the dictionary defines as “ostensibly wide-ranging but poorly focused and ineffective”—may be slightly disappointing, but Jack White on an off day can still school thousands of other rockers on how to write a song, how to play guitar, how to pace an album and how to channel the history of rock’n’roll in the breadth of any given song. It’s frankly impossible for a man like that to make a bad record. (April 26)
Download: “Sixteen Saltines,” “Love Interruption,” “On and On and On”