Wednesday, October 31, 2012

October '12 reviews

The following reviews ran in the Guelph Mercury and Waterloo Record in October.

Jason Collett – Reckon (Arts and Crafts)

Every songwriter needs something to shake them up and inspire their best work. For Jason Collett, he tells us that witnessing the economic collapse of the last four years has sharpened his pen; even though he put out his last record in 2010, this collection of songs has obviously allowed the long-term effects of the 2008 crash to sink in. In the interim, he also witnessed his old friend and bandmate Andrew Cash get elected to the House of Commons as an NDP MP. Collett tells us this is a political album: to be sure, there are tracks like “Don’t Let the Truth Get to You,” “When the War Came Home” and the soon-to-be anthem of the Occupy movement, “I Wanna Rob a Bank” (with lyrics like “I want a TKO of the CEO” set to a jaunty ska beat). But even those songs are, like the majority of this album, at their core character sketches of the disillusioned, the adrift, the lost. “It’s hard to make a living,” he sings, “when it’s easy making a killing foreclosing homes.”

I haven’t been as impressed with his last two albums, which means that I’d have to go back to 2005’s Idols of Exile to find a distilled example of his formidable talent. Here, however, he’s at the height of his powers, and not just as a tunesmith: Reckon is pretty much a perfect rock’n’roll singer/songwriter record, with impeccable playing, a mix of acoustic, alt-country, pop and ’70s rock, and warm production (by Howie Beck) that provides many spinetingling moments. The real anomaly is “You’re Not the One and Only Lonely One,” which sounds suspiciously like Some Girls-era Rolling Stones, with some spooky vocoder backing vocals and a wigged-out recorder solo thrown in for good measure and absurdist pleasure. Perhaps needless to say, it’s the best song the Stones haven’t written in about 30 years.

Collett has also thankfully abandoned the affected Bob Dylan cadence that was so distracting on his last two albums; here he sounds much more like his natural self, which highlights the empathy in the lyrics.

Reckon is being packaged with a bonus disc collecting Collett’s best tracks from the last 10 years, which is just one more reason you should buy this instead of the new Dylan record: it’s Collett’s best in years, collected with his best of all time. You reckon? (Oct. 4)

Download: “You’re Not the One and Only Lonely One,” “Jasper Johns’ Flag,” “Don’t Let the Truth Get to You”

Daphni – Jiaolong (Merge)

Dan Snaith of Dundas, Ontario, has made dance music for the last decade as Caribou: sometimes of the bedroom, minimalist variety; sometimes as psychedelic rock; sometimes as astounding, vivid and fully realized as he did on 2010’s Swim. For the past year, Snaith has been quietly releasing 12” singles under the name Daphni, hastily assembled tracks using samples from non-Western recordings (mostly African) and an analog synthesizer. This is material distinctly designed for dance floors; Snaith hesitated to assemble it on an album at all. Many Caribou fans might find it too repetitive and not as delicately layered as Snaith’s main project, but there’s no mistaking that it’s the product of the same creative mind. The bass lines are nimble, the synth squiggles are melodic and endearing, and the drum programming dances around the four-on-the-floor pulse. On “Jiao,” he takes a synth solo that sounds like a nod to Charanjit Singh’s recently reissued Moog classic Ten Ragas to a Disco Beat. Snaith is not aiming for the Deadmau5 crowd, but there’s no reason Daphni couldn’t take on a whole popular life of its own. After all, The New Yorker loves it already. (Oct. 18)

Download: “Ye Ye,” “Pairs,” “Ahora” 

Four Tet – Pink (Text)

Four Tet’s Kieran Hebden has spent the last 12 years making esoteric electronic music that married clipped, folksy sounds to stuttering beats, often resulting in exquisitely beautiful chill-out music. He’s explored a lot of terrain as Four Tet, but in the last year started putting out 12-inch records focused primarily on minimal dance beats, with little of the layers that he’s known for. They’re collected here to form a surprisingly cohesive album, one that flows easily from beatless bits of beauty like “Peace For Earth” to propulsive dance tracks like “Pinnacles,” with an upright bass line pushing a disco beat, ethereal pedal steel guitar and sparse piano chords. Most tracks are incredibly long but never repetitive: on the nine-minute track "Lion," he’s still introducing new elements—like, say, a kalimba—around the six-minute mark. It’s telling that the two shortest tracks here: "Ocoras" and "128 Harps"—are the least inspired, repetitious and sound like diluted versions of his earlier triumphs. Pink is not an album for short-attention spans, and even casual listening doesn’t do it justice. It’s not background music: it deserves to be played loud in a club or alone with headphones. And after years of experimenting and uneven releases, it’s the best work Hebden has done in a long, long time. (Oct. 4)

Download: “Pyramid,” “Pinnacles,” “Jupiter”

Godspeed You Black Emperor – Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend! (Constellation)

The reclusive Montreal collective—and they actually are a collective, as opposed to just a large group of musicians—recently lamented that people find Godspeed’s music such a bummer. Why would they? Oh, I don’t know: the droning chords, the weeping violins, the desolation, the despair—all the crescendos and eventual transcendent uplift inserted into their music could never compensate for the wrist-slashing that seemed to permeate every other aspect of this band’s existence.

But hey, we all grow up. And during the decade of Godspeed’s hiatus, the members have become parents, owned successful Montreal businesses and joined multiple other musical projects. All that life experience can be detected in between the notes on this, their fourth proper album, which sounds considerably more confident and accomplished than anything else in their discography. It also illustrates why Godspeed are so much better than bands of the same era (Mogwai) or descendents (Explosions in the Sky), none of whom manage the emotional wallop and tension release at which Godspeed has excelled since their arresting 1997 debut.

Allelujah! contains just four tracks: two around the 20-minute mark, and two shorter drone pieces that provide respite. The awesome opening track features what could be a klezmer guitar line and ends with field recordings of this spring’s “casserole protests” in Montreal—the track is called “Mladic,” named after a Yugoslavian war criminal, with whom even the reviled Jean Charest is surely not a moral equivalent. No matter. Whether Godspeed is attempting a grand statement or merely messing around with atmosphere, there are much more advanced arrangements at work here than the past. The band knows that you can’t take anything for granted; you don’t get points just for showing up; and that if they were going to reassemble this unruly group, they should be firing on all cylinders. Hey kids, this is what you missed—and it sounds better now than it has since the debut. (Oct. 18)

Heart – Fanatic (Sony)

Perhaps the most successful female-fronted hard rock band in history, Heart has been on the comeback trail in recent years, with high-profile tours and a tell-all autobiography from the Wilson sisters out to coincide with this new album. And unlike on the synthy power ballads of the ’80s and ‘90s, Ann and Nancy Wilson are returning with a modern take on the raunchy rock’n’roll that launched their career, back when they were a band of Seattle draft-dodgers starting out in Vancouver (a history acknowledged on the terribly titled track “Rock Deep” here; there’s also a duet with Vancouver’s Sarah McLachlan). Produced by Ben Mink (FM, k.d. lang), Fanatic is by no means a career-defining comeback, but it’s a strong rock record that shows these sisters have a lot of life left in them yet. And listening to Ann Wilson’s powerful pipes in action, you don’t want to try and convince her otherwise. (Oct. 11)

Download: “Dear Old America,” “Skin and Bones,” “A Million Miles”

K’naan – God, Country or the Girl (Universal)

The key to being an international superstar is being everything to everyone—which of course runs the high risk of being nothing to nobody. The intensely charismatic K’naan now finds the world watching after the global reach of his single “Wavin’ Flag,” and so God, Country or the Girl is packed with arena-sized pop songs, more than a few ballads, and not so much of the hip-hop flow that launched his career. Most moves this calculated fall flat on their face; K’naan, on the other hand, is all but guaranteed to conquer all charts for the foreseeable future.

That’s because even at his cheesiest, like the inspirational Europop song “Better” (“Failure is just an excuse for me to get better”) or the Bono-assisted “Bulletproof,” K’naan has the melodies to match the bombast; while his lyrical ingenuity is nowhere near his normal highs, he still drops enough head-turning phrases that would leap out of any Top 40 playlist—and make no mistake, every song here could be a hit.

Exhibit A is “Alone,” which features Black Eyed Peas’ sampling the Romantics’ “Talking in Your Sleep,” with an insanely catchy guitar rock hook, techno build-ups, a sing-song chorus over huge power chords, and K’naan sounding like he’s having more fun than ever. That’s the most obvious song here, but surprises abound. “70 Excuses” starts out as a lovely, lilting ballad until the last 90 seconds erupts into a joyous, jazzy, African march; “Gold in Timbuktu” samples a lilting lullaby from Chilly Gonzales’s Solo Piano; “Waiting is a Drug” uses a Dave Brubeck-style piano vamp to inspire the best hip-hop track here; the kalimba-driven “Simple” seems inspired by Peter Gabriel and early U2.

Some tracks are tailor-made for tourism ads and soccer matches, but K’naan brings the strength of his personality to rescue them from insipidness. And despite this being a largely upbeat pop album—one that includes an anti-bullying song with Nelly Furtado on the chorus—K’naan doesn’t shy away from scary stories about growing up in war-torn Somalia, a street cred he played up on his first two albums but refers to here only as a reminder that he’s not all sun ’n’ roses.

Like his first two records, though, K’naan occasionally stumbles badly: “Hurt Me Tomorrow” sounds like a bad Matchbox 20 song, and a song called “The Wall” indulges in the worst geopolitical metaphor possible: “Whenever we turn a wheel, peace talk and make a deal / you remind me of Palestine and I feel so Israel / look at all the walls I’ve built / look at all the guards you’ve killed.” Thankfully, K’naan generally doesn’t conflate the personal and the political: “It’s not an earthquake or a tsunami / what you hear is the sound of my breaking heart.”

With “Wavin’ Flag,” K’naan grabbed the world’s attention; this album ensures he’s going to get even more of it. (Oct. 25)

Download: “Waiting is a Drug,” “Alone,” “Simple”

The Luyas – Animator (Paper Bag)

Art or pop? For most artists, it’s not hard to tell which side of that divide they’re on. For Montreal’s Luyas, that had always been a problem.  The tension between singer/guitarist Jessie Stein, previously of grunge pop band SS Cardiacs, and her bandmates Pietro Amato and Stefan Schneider, both of cinematic instrumental band Bell Orchestre, was distracting and failed to coalesce.

Here, however, on their third album—on which Schneider has been replaced with Land of Talk’s Mark Wheaton, and Arcade Fire’s Sarah Neufeld signs on as violin player and arranger—the Luyas hit a stride and find their identity.

Opening track “Montuno” spends 2½ minutes determining atmosphere before blossoming into a song; that’s followed by the shimmering rocker “Fifty/Fifty,” which could be a long-lost British single from the early ’90s (think: Lush, the Sundays, Laika) with much better drumming. Stein’s electric 12-string zither and Amato’s treated French horn dance with Neufeld’s strings to bring texture to the forefront, while keyboardist Mathieu Charbonneau provides the structural backbone. Stein’s wispy voice is not the focal point; although her melodies are stronger than ever, she sounds more like a little girl lost in a sound world, a dreamlike presence extending a hand to the listener.

And so for the first time, the Luyas sound less like an experimental collaboration and more of a band; the loss of the restlessly inventive Schneider is lamented, but Wheaton provides an anchor that helps bridge both sides of the Luya’s ambitions, while everyone else in the band has seriously stepped up their game. (Oct. 18)

Download: “Fifty-Fifty,” “Face”, “Traces”

Janka Nabay & the Bubu Band – En Yay Sah (Sub Pop)

This New York City band, led by a singer from Sierra Leone, joins an exciting 2012 trend whereby African immigrants start bands with U.S. and U.K. musicians and create exciting hybrids: witness also Boston Ethiopian group the Debo Band and London Ghanaian combo KonKoma, both of whom also put out excellent debuts this year. The Bubu Band specialize in high BPMs, synth-y percussion, call-and-response vocals between Nabay and female vocalists, and funky organ stabs. It’s the kind of African music that shares such a obvious debt to vintage James Brown—but not by being an African version of American R&B (and Nabay is not at all trying to imitate Brown’s vocal style), like many recently reissued African funk gems, but by demonstrating the through link to Brown’s innovations in terms of intensity, specific rhythms and structure—all the while sounding thoroughly modern, and not a throwback of any kind. This is the kind of band that needs to take a lot of their  neo-Afrophile Brooklyn neighbours to school. (Oct. 25)

Download: “Tay-Su-Tan-Tan,” “Ro Lungi,” “Rotin”

A.C. Newman – Shut Down the Streets (Last Gang)

The singer/songwriter who normally fronts the power pop sugar rush of the New Pornographers has never been known to tone it down, even on his solo records. This is the first solo venture that stands apart from everything else he’s done in the past 12 years: both in tone and in content. With the death of his mother and the birth of his son, Newman is in a surprisingly direct frame of mind; for a man known for indecipherable lyrics that rely more on phonetics than emotional content, this is the most candid Newman has ever been. But because of his past, that also means he’s the least likely songwriter to slip into maudlin territory; this is not an ultra-personal confessional.

Musically, Newman is using psychedelic and folkie textures—banjo, accordion, flutes and hammered dulcimer, anyone?—to imbue these songs with plenty of room to breathe, which is not what we’re used to hearing from him. Newman’s trademark sound involves dense orchestration, so it’s a revelation to hear him in this context, like he’s learning to relax for the first time in his life (as a 44-year-old new dad, no less). The music is no less complex, but it’s less fussy, much more welcoming. The oft-arch craftsman has suddenly become warm and fuzzy, and Newman wears it well. Neko Case drops by to provide ample backing vocals, but unlike her role in the New Pornographers, she’s never out to steal the show: this is The Newman Show, through and through, and he’s never sounded better. (Oct. 11)

Download: “I’m Not Talking,” “You Could Get Lost Out Here,” “There’s Money in New Wave”

Snowblink – Inner Classics (Arts and Crafts)

Snowblink is beautiful—that much is obvious upon first listen. Daniela Gesundheit’s weightless voice and the meticulous, sparse arrangements are immediately gripping. The songs themselves—not so much, on first impression.

But give it time, and the craft begins to reveal itself: this is much more than just brilliant production (courtesy of Chris Stringer) and a great voice (two, actually: co-conspirator Dan Goldman contributes a soothing baritone whisper underneath Gesundheit’s dulcet tones). Though she may be working in a North American alt-folk idiom, Gesundheit easily draws from Indian, African and East Asian scales in her melodies—“Safety Stories” sounds like it could be from a Chinese opera—while always rooted in hazy, California-sun-tinted folk music, with a few faint traces of country and surf music just for kicks. 

Snowblink recently performed as part of Feist’s band at the Polaris Music Prize gala, and it’s easy to see why they appeal to her: there is a similar desire to marry the delicate and pretty to the unexpected and daring. Snowblink creates a glorious opiate of a sound, one that defies any easy description, except to say that the more time you spend with it, the greater the reward. Feist knows that; so should you. (Oct. 11)

Download: “Unsurfed Waves,” “Best-Loved Spot,” “Black & White Mountains”

Tame Impala – Lonerism (Modular)

Flying Lotus – Until the Quiet Comes (Warp)

The best psychedelic music doesn’t require the listener to take any drugs: the musicians and engineers have already done all the work for you, moving instruments and strange sounds around your stereo system and painting your room with all sorts of new colours you didn’t even know existed. Both Australian rock band Tame Impala and Los Angeles electronic producer Flying Lotus excel at modern psychedelia, but they come at it from entirely different angles.

Tame Impala is considerably more traditional. We know and love these sounds from the first psychedelic wave in the ’60s: the shimmering organs, the thunderous drums, the phasing pedals, the crunchy guitar solos—even the lead singer’s voice sounds like John Lennon, just for added time warp effect. And yet outside of the Flaming Lips—whose vision has taken a darker turn in the last five years—few people are making psychedelic pop rock that is equal parts fun and fuckery. Tame Impala are like a vintage roller coaster: you know all the tricks, but every twist and turn can still seem like a surprise and it’s no less thrilling than the slick new model next door.

Flying Lotus doesn’t go for thrills. He’s happy to not just consistently pull the rug out from underneath you, but to take the floor away as well, and then proceed to ricochet you around his hard drive. Beats fall where they may. Jazz guitar and piano pop their heads into view. Massive bass sounds lurch and careen around the corners. Erykah Badu shows up as a ghostly Galadriel. Thom Yorke is here somewhere. Flying Lotus doesn’t do dance floors. This is 22nd-century jazz, utterly unfamiliar and fascinating. But is it, you know, pleasurable? That’s debatable; it’s hard to detect emotional investment at work here. But Flying Lotus is entirely in a class of his own, and as long as music like this exists, there’s no reason for us to take drugs. (Oct. 25)

Download Tame Impala: “Be Above It,” “Keep on Lying,” “Elephant”

Download Flying Lotus: “Putty Boy Strut,” “Sultan’s Request,” “Until the Quiet Comes”

The Tragically Hip – Now for Plan A (Universal)

This is Plan A? Sounds like a bunch of B-sides.

It’s not easy to sound fresh and invigorated in your 25th year of being a band—although the Hip managed to do just that on their last two studio records, where they bounced back from years of low expectations and sounded hungry to prove something again. Those albums—World Container (2006) and especially We Are the Same (2009)—were produced by Bob Rock, who is replaced here by Gavin Brown (Billy Talent, Three Days Grace).

Here, the Hip seem content to replicate their largely forgettable releases from the early 2000s: the band is on autopilot, the rock songs fall flat, and Downie’s melodies sound remarkably recycled—and not even from the Hip’s better songs. The exceptions are the title track, featuring a lovely (and long, long overdue) harmony from Sarah Harmer, and the soaring “Man Machine Poem,” which finds Downie going for a full-on bravado vocal performance—and pulling it off.

We know better than to write this band off, but Plan A is full of zzz’s. Great album cover, though. (Oct. 11)

Download: “Man Machine Poem,” “Now For Plan A,” “The Modern Spirit”

Corin Tucker Band – Kill My Blues (Kill Rock Stars)

After the demise of Sleater-Kinney—one of the most powerful rock bands of the 2000s—the two guitarists, Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker, both took time off before returning to the fold. Brownstein threw herself into comedy (Portlandia) before forming an equally ferocious new band, Wild Flag; Tucker focused on raising her two kids before forming a solo band and releasing the low-key 1,000 Years, which featured the unlikely sight of Tucker—whose state-of-emergency, emotive vocals are unmistakable—playing comparatively hushed material, even piano ballads. She herself called it her “middle-aged mom record.” It certainly wasn’t terrible, but it didn’t suit her.

Long-time fans will recognize the old Tucker here; she’s turned her amp up and is ready to holler. Her band no longer sounds like friends who dropped by to help out; they’ve developed serious chemistry, adding keyboards, backing vocals, and generally bringing out the best in her, both as a vocalist and an arranger. She brings back some of the psychedelic textures of Sleater-Kinney’s swansong, The Woods, writes a beach-party punk song like “Neskowin,” and even feels confident enough to throw in a blatantly Nirvana-ish guitar riff in “Constance” (referencing “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” no less—Tucker came of age in the same Olympia, Washington, scene that inspired Kurt Cobain.)

Tucker doesn’t sound as hungry here as she did in Sleater-Kinney—maybe she never will again until that band gets back together (which has not been ruled out, apparently). In the meantime, it’s good to hear her howl. (Oct. 4)

Download: “Kill My Blues,” “Neskowin,” “No Bad News Tonight”

Tusks – Total Entertainment (Static Clang)

The band name may be sharp and pointy, but the welcoming album title is apt. Samir Khan is a lifer in the Canadian underground, having played in more bands than even he can probably remember (some include Kepler, Snailhouse, Jim Guthrie), but on his second record as Tusks he aims for the sunny side of the street, with buoyant melodies, ’50s-inspired vocal trio harmonies, hints of new wave and vintage R.E.M. (especially the 12-string electric guitar on “New to Old Money”), and pop songs that aim for Bacharach complexity, not three-chord wonders. It’s all executed by an all-star band, including guitarist Jordan Howard (The Magic, The Acorn), drummer Steve McKay (Bruce Peninsula) and keyboardist Shaw-han Liem (I Am Robot and Proud). Even more impressive, however, are the lyrics, which are poetic reflections on family, children, legacy and death, especially on the song “Ocean”: “New tasks are at hand, there is work to be done in the names of the people who made us.” Finally, Khan knows that part of the concept of “total entertainment” is not wearing out your welcome: hence nine tracks, 31 minutes, leave ’em smiling. (Oct. 18)

Tusks are playing the Piston in Toronto tomorrow night, Nov. 1.

Download: “New to Old Money,” “Wake Them Up,” “In the Beginning/Give It Time”

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