Friday, June 22, 2012

June '12 reviews

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

Cadence Weapon – Hope in Dirt City (Upper Class)

The former poet laureate of Edmonton resumes his rap career after moving to Montreal, and delivers a tour de force of storytelling and genre-jumping. He’s no longer the 19-year-old outlier overachiever he was on his debut album; now he’s an album artist at the ripe old 26, having relocated to a bohemian paradise where he “walks down St. Laurent avec les filles de roi.” The MC born Rollie Pemberton has little competition in Canadian hip-hop—outside of Drake, with whom he shares a default position of a laid-back, laconic flow. Except unlike Drake, Cadence Weapon is in love with language rather than just himself, spitting more lyrical head-turners in one verse than most MCs’ entire tracks.

Pemberton’s skills as an MC were never in doubt; here, he proves to be an impressive singer as well, and a rapper with more varied flow than he’s shown before. Cadence Weapon is no longer just an abstract MC: he’s a punk rock howler on the climax of “Jukebox”; he’s a soul singer and shouter on “Conditioning”; he’s a slow-jam crooner on “No More Names.” He’s also an effective character actor, as on “Hype Man,” a comical role-playing narrative about the fractious relationship between an MC and a member of his entourage; it’s funny not just for its skewering of a well-worn convention in hip-hop culture, but because it applies to all sorts of power dynamics (think Michael Scott and Dwight Schrute on The Office).

That’s not even the most compelling part of Hope in Dirt City. Musically, Pemberton pays homage here to go-go funk, punk rock, Southern bounce, icy electro, R&B balladry and anything else he can find. Several tracks are constructed as rock songs, with killer bass lines and intense climaxes, and yet never veer into dreaded rap-rock crossover territory. "There We Go" is an intoxicating, icy electro ballad with a lurching, sparse beat and ominous synths, suggesting Pemberton has been hanging out with some Mutek festival folk in his newly adopted city of Montreal; the title track, on the other hand, sounds like a whole other Montreal influence: Corey Hart. Seriously, this is some Boy in the Box shit—and even more seriously, trust me when I say I’m probably one of the few people who mean that as a compliment.

The only time any one recognizable genre during the course of a whole track is the dub reggae vibe of "Small Deaths." Otherwise, anything and everything is fair game and filtered through pitched snare drums, old synths and—in a stint of seemingly stunt casting—the wailing tenor saxophone of Pemberton’s uncle Brett Miles, an Edmonton session player who lets loose in ways that haven’t been heard in hip-hop since the trumpet solo in LL Cool J’s "Going Back to Cali." Miles isn’t interested in jazzy interludes; this saxophone is out to steal the entire show, which he almost does.

For a record with broad reach, Hope in Dirt City is remarkably concise, clocking in at 11 tracks in under 40 minutes. Cadence Weapon is going for the gold and makes every sonic second here count. (June 14)

Download: "Jukebox," "No More Names (Aditi)," "Conditioning"

Neneh Cherry – The Cherry Thing (Smalltown Supersound)

Take a tough lady known for both hip-hop singles and smooth pop and stick her in front of a free-jazz band to sing covers—it sounds like a terrible idea, but Neneh Cherry pulls it off with aplomb.

Best known for her ’80s hit "Buffalo Stance" and her 1996 #1 single "Seven Seconds," Cherry has been largely silent, staying at home in Sweden, for the past 16 years. Here, she teams up with her fellow countrymen The Thing, featuring abrasive tenor saxophonist Mats Gustafsson, drummer Paal Nilssen-Love and bassist Ingebrigt Haker Flaten—three guys you wouldn’t expect to make a pop record. Which this isn’t.

The Cherry Thing sounds like neither side of the pop/jazz divide; instead, it’s a perfect meeting of the two. Cherry is an astounding, compelling and charismatic singer who always toyed with inflections in pitch, which suits a jazz context perfectly. The rhythm section here is impeccable and can do anything; it’s Gustafsson you would think would be the odd man out here, but the powerhouse player is incredibly sensitive to Cherry’s leads, cedes the spotlight easily, and never bullies any of his bandmates, though it’s his presence that provides the welcome tension driving the whole project.

The choice of material is almost incidental; this combination of players is fascinating in and of itself, no matter what they get up to. There are two originals—one by Cherry, one by Gustafsson—and covers of MF Doom, the Stooges, Ornette Coleman and Cherry’s stepfather, Don Cherry. An interpretation of “Dream Baby Dream,” a song by early electro-punk pioneers Suicide, and later covered by Bruce Springsteen, they take what was originally a monotonous, trancelike, ominous dirge and turn it into a swinging, almost inspirational number without making it hokey—no small feat. On the other hand, they maintain all of the menace of the Stooges’ song “Dirt,” where Gustafsson’s solo absolutely slays. (June 21)

Download: “Cashback,” “Dream Baby Dream,” “Dirt”

The Magic – Ragged Gold (Half Machine)

Magic doesn’t happen overnight. So even if this Guelph group sounded fully formed right from their first gigs five long years ago, it’s taken that long for their debut album to gestate. Long-frustrated fans will be happy to know that it was worth the wait.

The Magic is the brothers Gordon, Geordie and Evan—sons of folk singer James, members of Islands, and members of at least a dozen Guelph bands between them, including Geordie’s teenage years in the Barmitzvah Brothers. Anyone who saw that delightfully amateurish thrift-store band will be amazed at Geordie’s transformation into a crooning pop idol—the confidence was always there, but his vocals have improved tenfold and are now delivered with swagger and strut. His falsetto on “No Sound” is priceless—as is Evan’s baritone and the judicious use of vibraslap.

Ragged Gold shows no sign of the scruffy indie rock, noisy punk or folk music the brothers have been involved with before: The Magic is now a clean-scrubbed, ready-for-the-world international pop sensation on par with Robyn, Santigold or their old friend Diamond Rings. The sound owes much to the 1980s, though not in the way most youngsters grab an old keyboard and start hitting preset buttons.

The Gordon brothers’ fascination with the ’80s (their birth decade) involves a time when schooled studio musicians made simple pop songs much more complex than needed be. If you’ve ever played in a cover band and had to, for example, learn an entire set of Michael Jackson covers—as the Gordons did as part of Guelph’s “prom band,” King Neptune and his Tridents—or analyzed the work of Hall & Oates or Toto, you’d know that even though breezy pop melodies were always front and centre during that era, the instrumentalists compensated for the lack of showboating solos by executing tasty little tricky bits in the background. Ragged Gold is full of those tasty bits, as well as bona fide potential hit pop songs, impeccable production, solid grooves and backing vocals by Sylvie Smith, who takes a lead turn on “Call Me Up.”

Usually when a band takes five years to make an album, the end result is overcooked and bloated. But Ragged Gold is stripped down to its essence, like every good pop record should be: every synth zap, every clipped backing vocal, every sax break, every funky 16th-note rhythm guitar track is perfectly in place.

It’s going to be a Magic summer. (June 28)

Download: “No Sound,” “Night School,” “Door to Door”

Men Without Hats – Love in the Age of War (Curbside)

It’s been over 20 years since Men Without Hats had a hit single (the grungy, long-forgotten “Sideways”); about 30 years since they were catapulted out of Montreal’s electro/punk underground onto radios around the world with “The Safety Dance.” Singer Ivan Doroschuk is now leading a new trio under the old name; no doubt he’s using equipment acquired in recent decades, though there’s nothing here that would sound out of place on 1982’s Rhythm of Youth—and yet nothing about the songs here or Ivan’s own vocals sounds remotely stale. (With one exception, that is: “The Girl With the Silicon Eyes.” Enough said.) His commanding baritone still oozes charisma, and he writes direct, no-nonsense pop songs with the energy of a young punk, filtered through electronics beefed up by producer Dave “Rave” Ogilvie, best known for his work with Skinny Puppy and Nine Inch Nails.

Men Without Hats are often treated as a punchline, remembered as a one-hit wonder with a silly video involving a dancing dwarf. Behind the scenes, however, they eschewed the excesses of the ’80s starmaking machine and helped develop their hometown music scene into the artistic mecca it is today. More importantly to the everyday listener, their records, though certainly guilty of some dated filler, nonetheless featured a string of strong songs that rival any other hitmaker of the day.

Here, Ivan goes for all killer, no filler. It sounds like he’s been hoarding 11 hidden hits, waiting for the appropriate time to make a momentous comeback. The truth is that he spent most of the last 10 years raising a child in Victoria, and he wrote this album on the back of a bus with the Human League last year on an ’80s oldies tour, on his first outing as Men Without Hats since their heyday. Maybe that spontaneity and being on the road inspired these songs’ directness. Or maybe, sitting on that bus, he realized that he didn’t just want to be an oldies act—and Love in the Age of War is far, far better than anyone would ever expect. He’ll never shake the shadow of “The Safety Dance,” but Ivan is not going to stop trying. (June 7)

Download: “This War,” “Head Above Water,” “Live and Learn”

Metric – Synthetica (Metric Music)

You know that great pop album that U2 have been trying to make for the past 20 years, since Achtung Baby? Metric just did it. And, unlike U2, they achieved it without sounding like they’re trying impossibly hard to do it.

The soaring melodies, the anthemic songs, the epic scope inside a five-minute song, the Edge-influenced guitars that bleed into synth textures, the slightly clever platitudes and one-liners that straddle the line between profound and pointless—all you could ever want in a rock’n’roll record that sets its sights for the back rows of stadiums.

For the songwriting team of vocalist Emily Haines and guitarist James Shaw, their long-promising chemistry was finally firing on all cylinders by the time of 2009’s Fantasies. They’re still on a roll here, where every track is a potential hit or future classic. It’s instrumentally that Synthetica really shines: Shaw’s guitar sounds are increasingly textural, while Haines’s synth sounds are harsher than ever; it’s hard to tell who’s playing the lead on the fuzzed-out, droning “Dreams So Real,” but the buzzing, dirty sound is a perfect counterpart to Haines’s sweet and sour vocals.

The rock songs are divine, but the Robyn-ish bubblegum of “Lost Kitten” and “The Void” work just as well without distracting from the po-faced seriousness pervading the rest of the record, which seems set to score a sci-fi film about, you know, the alienation of modern life and such. (Much of it, in fact, is not unlike the Arcade Fire contribution to The Hunger Games soundtrack—and for two bands that once had nothing in common, there’s a lot of Synthetica that sounds like it’s trying to one-up The Suburbs.)

Haines is writing about lives in stasis, lives once full of promise now facing defeat and monotony: “Is this my life? Breathing underwater?” The power of songs and the power of girls are two apparently ancient concepts to the idealistic narrator of “Dreams So Real,” who resigns herself to singing: “I’ll shut up and carry on / a scream becomes a yawn.”

It’s funny, then, that after singing “we should never meet our heroes,” that Haines invites Lou Reed to appear on “Wanderlust.” On one hand, it’s an inspired nod to the counterculture icon who was central to Andy Warhol’s Factory, the birth of glam rock and punk, all key influences for Metric. On the other hand, when you invite the Lou Reed of today to be a backup vocalist, it essentially amounts to an old man muttering in the background. Even U2, for all their Lou Reed worship, has never done that.

Maybe Metric shouldn’t meet their heroes, then, and instead focus on making albums as good as this one for the modern age. (June 21)

Download: "Breathing Underwater," "Clone," "Synthetica"

Scissor Sisters – Magic Hour (Universal)

Disco legends Donna Summer and the Bee Gees’ Robin Gibb passed away within days of each other last month, prompting much nostalgia for the genre they helped define.

But disco itself is not dead—or if it is, no one had dare break that news to Scissor Sisters. On their fourth album, Scissor Sisters still specialize in falsetto harmonies, lush strings and synths and a sworn allegiance to late-’70s R&B and disco. Modern techno elements sneak through but don’t strangle the soul out of the source material; unlike, say, Madonna’s desperate attempts to sound current, Scissor Sisters bridge generations of hedonistic dance pop with ease. They’ve also got the songwriting skills to transcend the nightclub: they can dumb down one moment with a song called “Fuck Yeah,” then switch to cabaret mode and try and outdo Rufus Wainwright (not hard to do lately) on “The Secret Life of Letters”—a task the band pulls off, though bandleader Jake Shears is clearly trying to cop Wainwright’s vocal style as well; he pulls it off, but he’s always far better in falsetto. (June 7)

Download: “Baby Come Home,” “Self-Control,” “Only the Horses”

Patti Smith – Banga (Sony)

Ever since her 1996 comeback album Gone Again—written after the death of her husband, guitarist and co-writer Fred Smith, and which also included an eulogy for Kurt Cobain—Patti Smith has been the High Mistress of Mourning. At first glance, that hasn’t changed on Banga, where the subject matter includes Amy Winehouse, the Japanese tsunami and recently departed Last Tango in Paris actress Maria Schneider. Seeing as how her recent records have been more admirable for their intentions than the actual music, Banga should be approached cautiously.

Except that this, Smith’s seventh post-comeback album, is frankly the first since Gone Again that isn’t a chore to sit through. Indeed, Banga is anything but a funereal experience. Instead, Smith writes powerful anthems, touching ballads, wickedly weird detours, and retains her rep as one of the few true poets working in a rock format.

Who else would improvise a 10-minute track about a blind Italian painter, Saint Francis of Assisi, and Columbus’s discovery of the New World? Okay, admittedly, that one is for diehard fans only, although it works far better than it should. But who else opens her album with a dramatic piano chord and the opening line: “We were going to see the world”? And who else reads 19th-century Russian novels while on a Mediterranean cruise with avant-garde filmmaking icon Jean-Luc Godard and ends up writing punk rock songs about dogs that sound as vital and stirring as anything on her 1976 debut album?

As evidenced by her detailed liner notes, Smith doesn’t put pen to paper unless she’s been inspired by a particular event, person or serendipitous encounter with an antiquated cultural artifact. That makes Banga sound like it’s going to be little more than an academic exercise, which it most definitely is not. Smith and her band—who have been with her for 35 years now—still tap into the visceral inspiration that first drew them together, and play with the experience of veterans who only ever try to act their age, drawing from jazz and folk textures to fuel their vision of rock’n’roll. On top of that, her voice sounds fantastic.

Coming on the heels of her award-winning memoir Just Kids, Banga shows Patti Smith to be not a diminished legend in danger of being taken for granted by even her own fans: she is still a powerful, vital artist who shows no sign of fading away. (June 14)

Download: “Amerigo,” “April Fool,” “This is the Girl”

Cassandra Wilson – Another Country (EOne)

In case skronky sax underneath jazz vocals is not your thing (no pun intended), Cassandra Wilson has returned with a butter-smooth collection of laid-back, sultry songs she co-wrote with Italian guitarist Fabrizio Sotti. Recorded largely in Florence (which explains the cover of “O Sole Mio”), and driven largely by Sotti’s flamenco and bossa nova stylings—and with accordionist Julien Labro hovering gently in the background—Another Country has an old-world charm to it that suits Wilson perfectly. This is her 18th album, and though she’s faced plenty of competition from younger jazz singers in the last 10 years, she sounds better than ever. (June 21)

Download: “No More Blues,” “Almost Twelve,” “When Will I See You Again”

Bobby Womack – The Bravest Man in the Universe (XL)

When Damon Albarn assembles a Gorillaz album, there is usually such a dizzying array of guests that they get lost in the shuffle. Which hip-hop icon or ’70s punk pioneer or African superstar is going to show up now? It’s easy to forget Albarn not only enlisted veteran soul singer Bobby Womack for 2010’s Plastic Beach, but he also took him out on the road for an arena tour. While other Gorillaz have viable careers to turn to, Womack could use another break at the age of 68. Albarn gave him one.

Womack’s voice is weathered and world-weary—30 years of cocaine addiction will do that—but the man has got soul to spare and he’s ready to share: “Gather round me, boys and girls / I once was lost, but now I’m found.” Womack, for those that don’t know, has a CV that reads like a history of soul music, including gigs with Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone and Marvin Gaye. He also wrote for the Rolling Stones and played on Elvis Presley’s “Suspicious Minds.”

But this album isn’t a retro revival or a history lesson: instead, Albarn sends Womack floating in space, an earthly anchor to synthy sci-fi dub, chillwave and psychedelic hip-hop instrumentals. The effect is entrancing, not unlike reggae great Horace Andy’s work with Massive Attack—and a lot better than what co-producer (and XL CEO) Richard Russell achieved on Gil Scott-Heron’s 2010 album I’m New Here. Unlike that misfire, nothing here sounds like oil and water.

And yet there are times when Albarn and Russell aim low: a potential pop song like “Love is Going to Lift You Up” could easily have been given a techno boost or transformed into a George Michael inspirational anthem, but they keep it spare and simple—perhaps too simple, because the drum machine’s basic rhythm doesn’t do the song justice, and there’s not much more to the arrangement than that and the hook. Conversely, “Jubilee (Don’t Let Nobody Turn You Around)” mines Womack’s rich gospel past and sets it to a similarly rinky-dink synth backing, though this time it sounds more like the inspired music that Third World musicians create with cheap electronics (like the compilation of shangaan music Albarn’s label, Honest Jon’s, put out), rather than just a deficit of creativity.

The only other minor misfire is “Dayglo Reflection,” a duet with Lana Del Rey—and it’s not her fault. The song features a recurring sample of an old man discussing the depth an elder singer brings to material, “Because he lives life and he understands what he’s trying to say a little more.” This is offensive for two reasons: a) we already know that—we’re listening to a Bobby Womack album, for cryin’ out loud!; and b), it sounds like an unnecessary slap to Womack’s considerably less experienced duet partner, forcibly reminding us of all those ridiculous authenticity arguments that surrounded the release of her debut album. Can’t we just sit back and enjoy the song?

It’s been a good summer for the senior citizens, as the Dr. John/Black Keys collaboration proved last month. But even that was about recreating past glories, where The Bravest Man in the Universe purposely portrays a man out of time and place. (June 28)

Download: “Stupid,” “Whatever Happened to the Times,” “Nothin’ Can Save Ya”

Neil Young – Americana (Warner)

Young feels compelled to release an album a year, whether or not he has any songs worthy of releasing. On the surface, this looks like a cheap and easy, crowd-pleasing move: dipping into old chestnuts from folk traditions like “Oh Susanna,” “Oh My Darling Clementine,” “Tom Dooley,” etc., and jamming them out with Crazy Horse, his self-described “third-best garage band in the world.” What could go wrong?

Young being the contrarian he is, he doesn’t give us the pleasure of hearing traditional melodies from our childhood: in a longstanding folk tradition, he takes most of these well-worn rhymes and sings almost entirely new songs. Sometimes it’s entirely incongruous: surely “Gallows’ Pole” should not sound like a jaunty country romp. Occasionally, it’s inspired: he takes “She’ll Be Coming ’Round the Mountain” back to its roots as an African-American spiritual, and renames it “Jesus’ Chariot.” Often it’s innocuous—does the world need another version of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land”? In at least one instance, it’s downright awful, as when he butchers the ’50s doo-wop classic “Get a Job.”

It can also be so weird that it works: Young apparently got swept up in Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee fever—why else, other than as a cheeky way to close an album called Americana, would he give a garage-band workout to “God Save the Queen”? (Note: not the Sex Pistols’ song, but the actual British national anthem.) (June 7)

Download: “God Save the Queen,” “Jesus’ Chariot,” “Wayfarin’ Stranger”

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