These reviews ran in the Guelph Mercury and Waterloo Record this month.
Fiona Apple – The Idler Wheel is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do (Sony)
From that title onward, almost everything about Fiona Apple’s first album in seven years seems designed to alienate: the harrowing tight-rope of emotional stability heard in her voice, the sparse arrangements consisting only of piano and percussion, the hiccupping yodel of a chorus on the opening track, the album-length portrait of a psychologically damaged, anxiety-prone poet who feels unworthy of love. Sound like a good time?
“I just want to feel everything,” Apple sings on the opening track—and it certainly sounds like she does. She later claims that “I don’t want to talk about anything”—but she’s clearly ready to talk about everything, no matter how self-lacerating or embarrassing, such as stalking an ex-lover while cutting herself, or wondering, “How can I ask anyone to love me / when all I do is beg to be left alone?”
What’s astonishing is that Apple pulls it all off: at the age of 35, she’s gone from being a frightening waif of a pop star to an oddball artist with record company woes to her current incarnation as a defiant icon whose swagger and jazzy cadence puts her closer to Nina Simone than Cat Power. This could have been an all-too-precious examination of a precarious personality; instead it’s a melodic, commanding performance. Apple draws listeners in rather than simply treat herself like a freak show, by taking raw-nerve situations and weaving poetry out of them; she’s not angry at herself or her others as much as she is searching for answers, self-awareness and inner peace.
Musically, Apple’s voice is stronger than ever: often masculine, her tremolo conveying not fragility but a mistrust of pure tones. Her piano accompaniment is forceful though sparse, never overbearing; the percussion prefers kitchen sinks and cuts and clinks over a conventional drum kit, and yet never comes off as gimmicky. She’s not always so serious, either: the album closes with the playful, largely a cappella “Hot Knife” (set only to distant rumbling tympani drums), where Apple actually sounds like she’s having fun, while showing off an entirely different side of her vocals—pretty and soulful.
Apple has always been interesting, but never this fascinating. And other than Bjork, it’s impossible to think of anyone else in pop music or the periphery who still makes music like this on a major label. (July 5)
Download: “Hot Knife,” “Left Alone,” “Daredevil”
Badbadnotgood – BBNG2 (independent)
A cocky young jazz trio dissatisfied with their formal music college education, Badbadnotgood turned to reinventing hip-hop songs as jazz excursions, which led to viral YouTube videos, collaborations with their heroes and opening slots for jazz legends. Their debut album may have been somewhat slight musically and heavy on the novelty, but the follow-up shows how much they’ve grown in the past year, settling into their space-age psychedelic take on both jazz and hip-hop.
You don’t have to know any of their reference points to dig into their sound. In fact, knowing the original tracks by Kanye West or Odd Future or, um, Feist, is a tad distracting; one wonders why they didn’t just riff on motifs rather than crediting their source material, so far removed is the result from the inspiration. But of course doing that wouldn’t pique any interest from non-jazzheads, so they deserve full props for marketing themselves as well. Both this and the debut are available for free download from their website. (July 26)
Download: “Limit to Your Love,” “Bastard/Lemonade,” “UVM”
Canailles – Manger du bois (Gross Boite)
Canailles (not to be confused with the Toronto jazz group with a similar name) dip deep into Quebecois and Acadian folk traditions, including zydeco, and deliver the goods with raucous energy better suited for last call than a bright summer’s day. Yet they got their start staging impromptu hootenannies in Montreal parks. This, their debut album, was produced by Socalled, who was happy to set up room microphones and let the band loose: this sounds like it was all recorded live in one take, to Canailles’s credit. The result is one of the most refreshing Canadian folk records in recent memory: singers Daphné Brissette—who sounds like a backwoods Piaf—and Erik Evans holler their guts out while accordions, washboards, banjos and mandolins race and lurch around them and everyone shouts backing vocals. What could be a drunken mess is meticulously arranged, and the songs are surprisingly strong. This is not a group that shows up with an accordion and thinks that endows authenticity. Canailles have got the real goods. (July 26)
Download: “R’tourne de bord,” “Bien etre,” “Ramone-moi”
Dirty Projectors – Swing Lo Magellan (Domino)
Incredibly intelligent and talented musicians don’t always make the best music; it’s easy to disappear down the rabbit hole of virtuosity and overanalysis. For the better part of the last decade, that’s been true of Dirty Projectors’ Dave Longstreth—until now.
As a Yale graduate with an advanced sense of harmony and rhythm, Longstreth made often wrote music more difficult and conceptual than it had to be. Swing Lo Magellan, on the other hand, rocks as hard as Led Zeppelin, is as deceptively simple as vintage Joni Mitchell, and has all the pop smarts of Paul Simon (pre- and post-Graceland)—combined with a healthy dose of British folk harmonies and West African guitars. First single “Gun With No Trigger” even has the grandiose, dramatic elements of a classic James Bond theme. Most importantly, if not improbably: it all works, in service of songs that are insanely catchy despite their complexity.
Longstreth recently told Pitchfork, “You could say [the previous album] is about the idea of songs, but these [new songs] are just songs. It's less about self-consciously appropriating elements of other styles and putting them together in some clever way.” Whatever—if he wants to rationalize his new-found winning formula by self-consciously deciding to be less self-conscious, that’s up to him. The rest of us can let the luxurious pleasures of this record sink in slowly over the course of the summer.
Longstreth has made a classic rock record by sidestepping almost every classic rock cliché in the book: guitars, keys, drums and female backing vocals never do what you think they’re going to. And yet such is the skill of this band that it also doesn’t sound overthought or constricted: this music is loose and flowing, not tightly controlled. Just because it’s smart doesn’t mean it has to be sterile.
“Without songs,” begins the final track, a sparse ’50s-sounding coda that sounds like it could be a Buddy Holly demo, “our life is pointless, harsh and long.” Better late than never to figure that out. (July 19)
Download: “Gun Has No Trigger,” “Dance For You,” “Impregnable Question”
Doldrums – Empire Sound (No Pain in Pop)
Phedre – s/t (Daps)
Airick Woodhead is Doldrums, though some might recall he and his brother Daniel as one half of Spiral Beach, a wildly inventive teenage group from Toronto. After moving to Montreal and reinventing himself as Doldrums, Airick began to fly his freak flag even higher, pulling from samples, glitchy electronics, a slight Bollywood influence and some furious drumming to fuel his twisted take on pop music. He’s already got a nod of approval from Portishead, produced tracks on the new Cadence Weapon album, and has been signed to a British label. It all adds up in the studio, but the live trio has yet to live up to the recordings.
Woodhead is also behind the beats for Phedre, a side project for Hooded Fang’s Daniel Lee and April Aliermo. While both Doldrums and Phedre are lo-fi psychedelic electro-pop, Doldrums is often frenetic, while Phedre is chill and trippy, and the deadpan vocals of Lee and Aliermo sound like a Lee Hazlewood/Nancy Sinatra or Vaselines for the 21st century slacker crowd. Despite the laid-back vibe, the songs are simple yet strong; if anyone involved decided to make this their main focus, it could be much more than just a local curiosity. (July 26)
Download Doldrums: “I’m Homesick Sittin’ Up Here in My Satellite,” “Parrot Talk,” “Lost in My Head”
Download Phedre: “Aphrodite,” “In Decay,” “Ode to the Swinger”
Gentleman Reg – Leisure Life (Heavy Head/Outside)
Didn’t see this coming. I thought ex-Guelphite Gentleman Reg had put his eponymous project on hiatus, after leaving the Arts and Crafts label and reinventing himself in drag in the duo Light Fires, which has been the focus of almost all of his live shows in the last year. Little did I know that he was still with the ace band he assembled for 2009’s Jet Black (which includes Guelph keyboardist Kelly McMichael) and that he was recording new material with producer Chris Stringer, who has made most of my favourite Toronto records of recent years (Timber Timbre, Forest City Lovers, D’Urbervilles, Selina Martin).
Reg has always loved big pop music, but outside a few obvious singles, his own work rarely surrendered to big hooks and grand drama. On these five songs, which are a sneak peak at an autumn full-length, Reg doesn’t waste a single moment: he’s going for gold. These songs rock out in ways that Jet Black was just beginning to move toward; there’s barely an acoustic guitar in sight, and McMichael’s new wave keyboards help propel the sound. If Reg keeps this up on the other two EPs that will comprise the upcoming album, this is going to be his best year yet in a long, productive career. (July 12)
Download: “Waiting Around For Gold,” “I Could Be What You Wanted,” “Driving the Truth”
Hill and the Sky Heroes – 11:11 (PuckEye/EMI)
At this early point in her career, the CV of 24-year-old Toronto singer Hill Kourkoutis relies mostly on her associations with others: as a video director (Sass Jordan, Mother Mother) and a touring musician (The Weeknd, Tara Slone). Her debut album is produced by guitarist Adrian Eccleston (Drake, Nelly Furtado) and features co-writes with Serena Ryder and several other industry heavy hitters. Little of that matters once you hear her open her mouth: she’s got a ballsy, bluesy voice she places inside what she calls “alien surf rock,” but which is actually a noir-ish cabaret pop that goes for glossy production and yet is a tad too weird and dark to ever crack a radio playlist—and more power to it. Her closest comparison point as a singer is Alison Mosshart of the Kills and The Dead Weather, though Kourkoutis clearly has her own game going on. The only serious flaw with 11:11 is that it overstays its welcome, and all the best songs are front-loaded off the top. Yet that doesn’t mean Hill and the Sky Heroes aren’t the most promising new Canadian artist you’re likely to hear so far this year. (July 5)
Download: “There’s a Lie on Your Pillow,” “Rent an Ocean,” “In Retrospect (You Were the Asshole)”
Kelly Hogan – I Like to Keep Myself in Pain (Anti)
As you can tell from that title, country-soul singer Kelly Hogan has got the blues. Not that she lets it get to her: like Patsy Cline, Hogan sounds hopeful even at her most heartbroken. Which is why I Like To Keep Myself in Pain is a largely uptempo celebration—celebrating mainly the fact it’s been nine years since Hogan’s last album, the grossly underrated Because It Feel Good.
Hogan has spent much of that time as Neko Case’s BFF, backing vocalist and on-stage foil, as well as appearing with Mavis Staples, Jakob Dylan and others. She is deservedly beloved by all her peers, which is why she was able to not only commission new songs here from Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt, the late Vic Chesnutt, Robyn Hitchcock, M. Ward and many of her Chicago pals, but also to have legendary keyboardist Booker T. Jones and the Dap Kings’ Gabriel Roth as part of her backing band on the entire album.
That star power almost works against her, however, raising expectations for an album that succeeds most at its most subtle. Though she has a fabulous voice—strong, sensual and soulful—Hogan is not a showy singer. She needs a strong song from which she can channel a narrative and find emotional resonance, and only half the material here is worth hearing her sinking her teeth into. The strangest misfires are Stephin Merritt, who is unusually bland on “Plant White Roses,” and M. Ward, who seems like he’s trying and failing to be Stephin Merritt on “Daddy’s Little Girl,” with lines like: “Miami, you were my clean, dry scotch / Milan, you were the gold seam in my crotch.”
The other half of the album, of course, is fantastic. In the case of Jon Langford (Mekons, Waco Brothers), he writes her one of the strongest rock songs of his career, “Haunted,” allowing Hogan to holler like Dolly Parton. The normally wordy Andrew Bird sets music to concise lyrics by novelist Jack Pendarvis, on an homage to economic humility, “We Can’t Have Nice Things.” Soul man Roth pens the uncharacteristic ’50s-ish lounge pop song “Slumber’s Sympathy,” which sounds worthy of Roy Orbison.
Hogan’s voice is too good to remain hidden in the shadows. Hopefully this will serve as a reminder that we need to hear a lot more from her, a lot more often. (July 5)
Download: “We Can’t Have Nice Things,” “Haunted,” “Ways of This World”
KonKoma – s/t (Soundway)
Los Miticos del Ritmo – s/t (Soundway)
After the glut of amazing African reissues that have surfaced lately, all mining a golden period of the continent’s finest funk from the ’70s, one has to wonder when the well would go dry, and what labels like Soundway would do to maintain their quality standard.
One answer is to sign bands featuring old-timers who are still making exciting music as good as they were in their heyday. Enter keyboardist/vocalist Emmanuel Rentzos and guitarist Alfred Bannerman, two musicians who appear on Soundway’s beloved Ghana Special compilation, on tracks they recorded as teens. They now live in the U.K., and have teamed up with modern archivists and engineer Prince Fatty (who made last year’s grossly underrated roots reggae album by Hollie Cook) to form KonKoma. Though the Ghanaians sound great, the rhythm section here of bassist Derrick McIntyre and drummer Jose Joyette are the real stars—you could strip away the rest of this band and be satiated with just the rhythm section alone. That the rest of the band sounds so great is just icing on the cake.
Sadly, the same cannot be said of Los Miticos del Ritmo, a project for British producer and DJ Will “Quantic” Holland, who now resides in Cali, Colombia. He’s spent the last five years not only researching and compiling old cumbia records, but learning the accordion. Here, he assembles a new band of young Colombian cumbia musicians and records originals and some unsuccessful novelty covers, like limp takes on Queen’s "Another One Bites the Dust" ("Otro Muerde el Polvo") and Michael Jackson’s "Don’t Stop" ("No Pares Hasta Tener lo Suficiente"). His attention to period detail is impressive: recording live on analogue tape, and writing and arranging in the traditional style. With few exceptions, however, Holland doesn’t capture the same magic found on the older records that inspired him. You would be lucky to have a band like Los Miticos del Ritmo playing your local bar, but it’s hard to hold them to the same standard Holland met when compiling other people’s records. (July 19)
Download KonKoma: “Accra Jump,” “Handkerchief,” “Sibashaya Woza”
Download Los Miticos del Ritmo: “Willy’s Merengue,” “Cumbia de Mochilla,” “Fabiola”
Lindi Ortega – Little Red Boots (Last Gang)
When the Polaris Prize long list was announced last month, even I—a juror for the prize since its inception six years ago—had not heard a few of the 40 titles. One of them was Lindi Ortega’s Little Red Boots, which is now over a year old. Maybe I just hadn’t heard someone convince me that Ortega wasn’t any different than the legions of other country-ish singer/songwriters that populate this country’s musical landscape. My loss.
Ortega has a compelling, classic country voice, not unlike Dolly Parton’s; she prefers traditional acoustic arrangements with twangy electric guitars; she’s old-timey in spirit but Ron Lopata’s production is crisp, clean and modern. Most importantly, unlike dozens of other great vocalists, she writes kick-ass, clever and melodic songs that serve her talents well. It’s obvious why she’s just as comfortable opening for mainstream country acts as she is for veteran punk band Social Distortion (whose biggest hit was a revved-up cover of June Carter’s “Ring of Fire”).
I was late to Ortega’s party—but it sounds like it will still be swinging until her next bash. (July 12)
Download: “Blue Bird,” “I’m No Elvis Presley,” “Dying of Another Broken Heart”
Plaster - Let It All Out (Vega Musique)
Quebecois trio Plaster have backed up drag queens and hip-hop legend Lauryn Hill; they’ve played jazz festivals and opened for star DJs, and they’ve juggled various musical projects to pay their bills—all are part of the reason why it took them almost seven years to release this, their second album. Their chops and versatility are on full display—though just because these guys can do just about anything, they’re not out to prove it on every song, which means that groove is always paramount. This time out they go for a heavier, rock-infused dance vibe with many guest vocalists and MCs (and what sounds like a group of female cheerleaders, not unlike The Go Team), leaving some of the more jazz, experimental stuff to the side. As keyboardist Alex McMahon told Montreal’s La Presse, “C'est moins cérébral et plutôt headbanger.” Rock on, all you electro jazz heads. (July 12)
Download: “P.U.N.K.S.,” “Brooggere,” “Dancing Lemons”
Twin Shadow – Confess (4AD)
Nostalgia for the ’80s has been going on so long that it’s hard to believe they ever ended. As a child of that era, I’m largely fine with that, as long as it’s done as well as bands like The Magic and Diamond Rings and Grimes and Bat For Lashes and Santigold and Magnetic Fields and others do it. But seriously, this Twin Shadow album—it’s a joke, right? Some kind of deadpan Napoleon Dynamite-style non-sequitur joke that’s actually not that funny at all?
On the positive side, Twin Shadow does have fond memories of a time in the ’80s when R&B and rock weren’t living in segregation, a time when Michael Jackson used heavy guitars, when bands like INXS clearly wore their soul influences on their sleeves, and when Prince did whatever the hell he wanted.
Except Twin Shadow, though blessed with a strong voice, has yet to figure out that a retro conceit only goes so far without a personality or songs to back it up; even the best songs here sound like teen movie soundtrack filler at best (and not even Pretty in Pink—more like Weird Science), and even those songs sound remarkably similar to each other; I often forgot which one was playing, expecting a different chorus.
The biggest knock against the ’80s has always been that it was a time when style trumped substance. Twin Shadow doesn’t seem to think that was such a bad thing. (July 19)
Download: “Golden Light,” “Five Seconds,” “Be Mine Tonight”