Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Leonard Cohen's Old Ideas

Leonard Cohen – Old Ideas (Sony)

Old ideas indeed. Really, really old ideas. After all, the 77-year-old songwriter is an old man, who doesn’t write in tempos that exceed his heartrate, and whose voice has seemingly dropped yet another octave. And yet Leonard Cohen hasn’t sounded this vibrant in 20 years.

Old Ideas may refer to the fact that Cohen often takes years to complete a song. These songs sound even older than they are because, for the first time ever in Cohen’s career, he’s embraced the blues. (Blues music, that is—G-d knows he’s had the blues for a long, long time. But previously, you could count the number of Cohen blues songs on less than one hand.) Like Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison—geezers who are actually younger than Cohen—the godfather of gloom has found the simplicity of the form suits his lyrical mood of reflection, redemption, and atonement.

When he’s not falling into the blues, he’s penning songs that sound like hymns. Darkness and light, the earthy and the divine, the sacred and the profane—these dichotomies have always been Cohen’s preferred themes, but here they play themselves out musically as well as lyrically.

The most overt blues songs here are "Darkness" and "Banjo," both for their structure and the slight twang in the guitar, but four more of the 11 songs on Old Ideas adhere to loping blues rhythms, Cohen’s trademark spoken-sung cadence, and sparse instrumentation with plenty of spaces for ghosts to haunt.

That instrumentation is a key part of Old Ideas’ success. Members of his killer live band appear sparingly (except for one track, "Darkness," featuring the full band); much of the album was made in isolation by Cohen and co-producer Patrick Leonard, a mainstream pop producer best known for his work with Madonna. But acoustic guitars, violins, live drums and vintage keyboards all take precedence over the synths that Cohen has favoured for much of the last 30 years, for better and worse. “Crazy To Love You” is the first song in decades where Cohen has appeared without a band (or synths) and playing only acoustic guitar.

This is not, however, the sound of Cohen rejecting all progress to sound like an old man singing the blues with acoustic instruments. Old Ideas is very much a 2012 recording; the slick production oozes sensual textures out of every gentle tone, and all the vocals—Cohen’s as well as female vocalists Jennifer Warner, Sharon Robinson and the Webb Sisters—are luxurious and intimate in ways they’ve never been before on a Cohen album.

Of course, the music is really only about 30 per cent of the appeal of any Leonard Cohen album. Lyrically, he’s back on his game: he’s not going to return to the avalanche of imagery and insight that marked 1988’s I’m Your Man and 1992’s The Future, but he writes with much more conviction here than he did on either 2001’s Ten New Songs or 2004’s Dear Heather.

Old Ideas is very much the sound of a man taking stock of his life and his surroundings, seeking “healing of the spirit / healing of the limb.” Characteristically Cohen, sometimes he’s dark, sometimes he’s Biblical, and sometimes he’s more than able to laugh at himself—like he does on opening track “Going Home,” where the narrator expresses how “I love to talk to Leonard / he’s a sportsman and a shepherd / he’s a lazy bastard living in a suit.” Of this fictional Leonard, he sings, “He wants to write a love song / an anthem of forgiving / a manual for living with defeat”—which pretty much sums up Cohen’s entire career.

The most affecting song is “Anyhow,” a powerful plea to someone who was not just a lover—of which Cohen has had hundreds—but likely the mother of his children, or at least someone with whom he shared years of deep affection and acrimony, someone who knows all his faults intimately and has no valid reason to forgive him. And yet he persists, knowing full well he’ll never receive full absolution: “Have mercy on me baby / After all I did confess / Even though you have to hate me / Could you hate me less?” That track is followed by “Crazy to Love You,” a lyric co-written with his current flame, singer Anjani Thomas, where a former playboy settles down, somewhat unwillingly, and discovers peace of mind when he’s no longer chasing “souvenir heartache”: “I’m tired of choosing desire / been saved by a sweet fatigue.”

The sound of “sweet fatigue” was taken a bit too far on his last two albums, but here Cohen sounds alive and engaged, as playful as he was on stage in recent years. This is still not an album likely to be played during daylight hours—or even before 1 a.m. But it stands as Cohen’s most consistent set of songs in 24 years, one of his best-sounding albums ever, and a perfect capper to his recent comeback.

But as much as Old Ideas sounds like a Final Statement from Cohen’s tower of song, don’t start thinking that he’s done. Apparently he’s already halfway through his next album—and another tour is in the works.

You can read my lengthy timeline of Cohen's career at Exclaim this month.

Monday, January 30, 2012

January '12 reviews

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

Jim Cuddy – Skyscraper Soul (Warner)

I had low expectations for a Jim Cuddy solo record in 2011, expectations that plummeted when I heard that the first single was about—wait for it—the royal wedding. And yet without realizing that I was listening to “Everyone Watched the Wedding,” I was quickly sucked into a somewhat sappy, straightforward, tough-times family narrative before the chorus clued me in.

It’s tricky, but effective; Cuddy’s argues the wedding was a small moment of hope and perfection for two people, a moment that millions were more than happy to experience vicariously if only as a respite from the downer of daily drama at home. And if he could pull that off—which he does—I figured that boded well for the rest of his third solo record.

Jim Cuddy has always been comfort food, and he rarely changes his recipe, either inside or outside Blue Rodeo. For whatever reason, this is his finest collection of songs in over a decade, songs of survival, resilience and faith—both lost and regained. The title track is about staying true to the town that’s in your blood, no matter how bad things seem—a sentiment many artists are pondering in Mayor Rob Ford’s Toronto. Cuddy is no master of imagery (“why do I need you so / like a drunk needs wine”), but he’s effective at nailing simple sentiments and concise storytelling, as any solid country songwriter should.

Blue Rodeo bassist Basil Donovan is here again, as always, and Cuddy’s longtime guitarist Colin Cripps recently signed on as a member of that band. So the real discovery here is keyboardist Steve O’Connor, who shines both in solo moments and just hovering in the background; Bryden Baird provides some lead trumpet lines that shake up the sound a bit. Cuddy also leaves room for a brief cinematic cello-laden instrumental, and a tiny acoustic song that sounds like Elliot Smith.

The biggest knock on Cuddy’s solo records is that they sound exactly like Blue Rodeo, devoid of the creative tension he has with Greg Keelor. While it would be nice to hear him step outside his comfort zone, he also knows what works best for him—and Skyscraper Soul is Cuddy at his best. (Jan. 5)

Download: “Everyone Watched the Wedding,” “Skyscraper Soul,” “Watch Yourself Go Down”

Ani DiFranco – Which Side Are You On? (Righteous Babe)

There’s no mistaking which side DiFranco is on; she’s not going to be appearing on Fox News any time soon. Which is why, in this American election year, she sounds more powerful than she has in years on the title track here, an interpolation of the 1931 protest song with new lyrics and a children’s chorus, a marching band and—of course—Pete Seeger on banjo.

We expect political fire from DiFranco. After 17 albums, what we don’t expect, necessarily, is subtlety, orchestral production and economical editing, which she delivers here. It’s her first album in four years, which for the ultra-prolific DiFranco is an unheard-of gap (though easily explained by her five-year-old daughter); the extra care in the songwriting is evident.

Producer/partner Mike Napolitano gives her music more bottom end than ever—not just the work of longtime bassist Todd Sickafoose, but every bass drum hit, every baritone saxophone punch, every low note on DiFranco’s distorted electric guitar. Bells, vibraphone, harps and tympani all provide small but effective shading. DiFranco’s voice improves with age, and she’s long ago stopped showing off as a guitarist, and serves each song instead.

The album’s only weak points are when she sets her most political poetry to music (“J,” “Promiscuity,” “Amendment”). On the page, as part of typically lovely album design, the poems are powerful; as music, they’re little more than a speech.

Overall, DiFranco is older, wiser and happier, and it shows. As she herself sings, “If you’re not getting happier as you get older / then you’re f---ing up.” (Jan. 19)

Download: “Which Side Are You On?”, “Hearse,” “Mariachi”

Kathleen Edwards – Voyageur (Maple)

In the advance hype leading up to Voyageur, much has been made of Kathleen Edwards’ creative and romantic partnership with Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, the indie sensation whose 2010 album topped many year-end lists and garnered several Grammy nominations. On the surface, it’s a strange combination: Edwards has rarely strayed from the Canadiana roots rock template of her peers Sarah Harmer, Jim Bryson and Blue Rodeo; Vernon makes sensitive, mellow pseudo-folk music that sounds like it’s sung by space aliens and a ’70s L.A. studio band. What would Vernon do with Edwards’ music? Hook her up to a helium tank? Demand she strip away any literal language in her lyrics? Impose a five-piece horn section on every song?

Vernon is all about the opaque; Edwards is never anything but blunt and direct. Using their lyrics, let’s imagine a typical conversation between them. Edwards: “I know your heart is a sacred thing. You’re a comedian hiding behind your funny face.” Vernon: “In a mother, out a moth, furling forests for the soft, gotta know been lead aloft.” Edwards: “Out of the shadows, out of the cameras and the lights, you’re a chameleon and you hide behind your darker side.” Vernon: “I’m ridding all your stories. What I know is, what it is, is pouring—wire it up!”

Thankfully, Vernon doesn’t impose himself on Edwards’ music; the production is crisp and clean, and there’s little here to distinguish it from any other Edwards album, other than her continuing maturity as a writer—although 2008’s Asking For Flowers was the real sea change, where she expanded her writing voice, constructing strong narratives that were clearly not autobiographical, setting short stories to songs. Here she’s back to writing what could easily be seen as personal stories; in the last year she divorced previous collaborator Colin Cripps before taking up with Vernon, and much of the album is about beginnings and endings of relationships. She and Vernon have very little in common, musically, although her “House Full of Empty Rooms” shares chords and sounds somewhat like Bon Iver’s “Beth/Rest,” only without a Mike and the Mechanics backdrop and with about 1/20th the amount of reverb.

And yet if enough potential fans who would never give Kathleen Edwards the time of day before are suddenly interested because of the Bon Iver connection, more power to her. Edwards has yet to make a weak record, and Voyageur finds her more than ready for her close-up. (Jan. 19)

Download: “Change the Sheets,” “Empty Threat,” “House Full of Empty Rooms”

Elliott Brood – Days Into Years (Paper Bag)

Schomberg Fair – Mercy (independent)

In iTunes, the band Elliott Brood (or someone in their camp) categorizes the previously acoustic act as “punk,” proof that the now-pointless term really can apply to any band that uses electric guitars, as the Brood do for the first time here. One would be hard pressed to find anything punk about the 10 largely innocuous songs heard here with choruses like, “If I get old I’m living easy, find a nice old country home.”

Trivial semantic genre discussions aside, Elliott Brood—which boasts fiercely loyal, rabid fans—has been treading water for a while, with no sign that the songwriting is improving, Juno nominations and Polaris Prize shortlists notwithstanding. So much of their work is based on trying to get an A for effort: singer Mark Sasso does his best to channel passion, almost always sounding strained instead, and there’s no denying the band’s energy. Here, the electric guitars crackle and crunch fantastically and are a welcome addition to the band’s sonic palette; the production by John Critchley (13 Engines, Dan Mangan) is vivid, rich, and results in one of the better-sounding Canadian rock records of the last six months.

And yet it rarely adds up to anything memorable, other than hazy memories of raising a glass at a live show with their adoring audience. The songwriting is stuck in a rut, and not even the band’s apparent inspiration of visiting WWI memorials in Europe manages to spark much inspiration here.

The Schomberg Fair, on the other hand, who are Elliott Brood’s neighbours in Toronto’s quick-pickin’ roots rock community, are just as punk as Fucked Up. Schomberg Fair may have titled their last album Gospel, but they’re heavier than most metal bands. And right from the blistering banjo opening of the title track of their new EP, they throttle every song to the floor and pound it into submission, and yet still employing dynamics that give the willing victim time to breathe. Nate Sidon’s distorted electric bass is a rumbling melodic force riding the thunder of Pete Garthside’s tom rolls, while frontman Matt Bahen sings like a man who’s lived through tougher times than you’ll ever see and will kick the ass of anyone who wants to send him back there.

This EP is a bit of a stopgap before an upcoming full-length; 2010’s Gospel was a near-perfect barnburner that managed to have songs just as powerful as the performances, and one of my favourite records of that year. The EP doesn’t quite match that standard, but does pump up the production values, leave some more room for the songs to breathe while ratcheting up the intensity elsewhere, and often puts Sidon’s supporting vocals—he has a register about an octave lower than Johnny Cash—on par with Bahen’s lead.

The Schomberg Fair are too good to ignore anymore, and 2012 promises to be their breakout year. (Jan. 12)

Download Elliott Brood: “Hold You,” “West End Sky,” “Lines”

Download Schomberg Fair: “Oh Mercy,” “Orphan Bones,” “Black Train”

Nicolas Jaar – Space is Only Noise (Clown and Sunset)

This album is almost a year old, but is getting a new lease on life with strong showings on many year-end lists. And rightly so. Jaar creates luxurious, minimal techno—the kind that a mere 12 months ago was still being called dubstep, before that term got hijacked to mean electronic remixes of bad teen metal bands. Jaar keeps his tempos low, his vocals discombobulated and alien, and a variety of acoustic instruments—in particular Satie-style piano—offsetting the warm electronic bass and percussion. There are shades of Kraftwerk and even ’80s easy listening, like when a saxophone comes blazing in out of nowhere for a solo. Jaar in clearly love with sonic possibilities, and his strength as a producer outweighs any songwriting or particular beats found here. While it’s great that he’s being recognized as one of the leading lights of 2011—and several steps above the much-hyped James Blake, who mines similar territory—this fascinating but imperfect debut album is clearly just the beginning. (Jan. 5)

Download: “Too Many Kids Finding Rain in the Dust,” “Keep Me There,” “Space is Only Noise if You Can See”

The Roofhoppers – s/t (Fedora Upside Down)

The Boxcar Boys – Don’t Be Blue (Fedora Upside Down)

The record label’s name should give away what you can expect here: old-timey music that sounds the sweetest on a street corner where hats are passed to solicit audience appreciation. Both acts features lyrical clarinetist John David Williams, both acts are reverent traditionalists, both offer simple pleasures with excellent execution and devoid of cliché. The Roofhoppers are a klezmer-ish trio of acoustic guitar, upright bass and clarinet, with occasional female vocals; the Boxcar Boys are a five-piece New Orleans outfit that also delve into anything they feel like, be it Balkan melodies or haunting Hank Williams songs. Both offer much more than passing busker fancy; not only are the original compositions as much of a draw as the performances, but both recordings are perfect portraits of compelling live acts. (Jan. 19)

Download the Roofhoppers: “A Sleuth on a Park Bench,” “Church Street Khosidl,” “Roof Union”

Download the Boxcar Boys: “The Crumb Brothers,” “Paco Junior,” “Waltz for Rotman”

The Weeknd – Echoes of Silence (independent)

The final mixtape in The Weeknd’s 2011 trilogy restores the promise of the debut, House of Balloons—the second release, Thursday, was a disappointing sidestep into industrial/rock/reggae—while expanding the sound to be even more sparse at times, simultaneously more mainstream and more left-field, and thankfully no dark dips into the roofy-romance narratives that made him famous.

The real eyeopener is the opening track, a cover of Michael Jackson’s “Dirty Diana” (listed here as merely "D.D."), an odd amalgam of bad (and Bad) ’80s production sounds mixed with cheap early ’90s industrial and modern R&B—all elements that Tesfaye has toyed with before, but they didn’t sound as cheesy as they do here. Vocally, however, he absolutely nails the song; his range is equal to Jackson’s (no small feat), and the song’s subject matter fits in perfectly with his oeuvre (one of the stronger songs here has a chorus about how “you just want me coz I’m next”). As odd and reclusive as The Weeknd has appeared so far, listening to him cover the King of Pop makes you realize there’s really no reason why he couldn’t be the biggest R&B star of the next 10 years. (Jan. 12)

Download: The entire album is available for free at the-weeknd.com.

Jah Youssouf and Bintou Coulibaly – Sababou (Tall Corn Music)

Jah Youssouf is a musician from rural Mali who rarely leaves West Africa, although southern Ontario audiences got to know him when he recorded and toured with Dave Clark and Lewis Melville of the Woodchoppers Association, including regular gigs at Toronto’s Tranzac club and an appearance at Guelph’s Hillside Festival in 2009.

That same year, Chicago fan Brad Loving travelled to Mali to seek Youssouf out, and, thanks to Melville, found him at home outside Bamako with his wife, Bintou Coulibaly, in a house with no running water and electricity only from a car battery. Loving recorded the two of them—on ngoni, acoustic guitar and calabash—on a portable Zoom recorder, and released the recordings only last fall.

The unplugged intimacy—like a West African version of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings—is only the first of this album’s many charms. Youssouf is a powerful rhythm player, subtly conveying the strength of an entire band on a single stringed instrument, with Coulibaly providing minimal but effective percussion.

Most African music that we hear here involves big bands, big production, or both. Sababou may have been recorded in a living room by two people, but it’s every bit as gripping. (Jan. 5)

Download: "Faco," "Kahlan," "Folkan"

Youth Lagoon – The Year of Hibernation (Fat Possum)

If you didn’t know anything about the singer/songwriter who records as Youth Lagoon, you might think he’s a 23-year-old Midwesterner who suffers from the occasional anxiety attack. Turns out you’d be right: Trevor Powers quietly recorded this collection of fragile, dreamlike songs, and in a few whirlwind months after posting them online he found himself with a record deal, a world tour, and slots on several year-end lists. So he dropped out of the Boise State University, quit his retail job, and went on tour.

It’s hard to imagine Powers performing this material in public, however. The Year of Hibernation is music tailor-made for winter shut-ins, the distant vocals drenched in reverb, a lo-fi haze hovering over every instrument, Powers’s voice often slipping into a breaking falsetto, and crackling drum machines punctuating electric piano sounds—not unlike Beach House’s Teen Dream if someone dragged the master tapes through the mud and then threw them in a washing machine. Though much of it sounds tentative and shy, Powers is actually a great singer when he finally opens up and writes a chorus that allows his voice to soar.

Fans of fellow bedroom recorder East River Pipe will find plenty to love here; everyone else need only find themselves driving out of town on a starlit light, preferably in the midst of an existential crisis, to be ready to dive deep into Youth Lagoon. (Jan. 5)

Download: "17," "Daydream," "The Hunt"

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Bidiniband, John K. Samson

John K. Samson – Provincial (Anti)

Bidiniband – In the Rock Hall (Pheromone)

If Canadian rock had men of letters, Dave Bidini and John K. Samson would be two-thirds of a triumvirate alongside Gord Downie. Bidini, of course, is the author of 10 books about music and hockey (his latest, Writing Gordon Lightfoot, is one of his best), and for over 25 years he was a principal songwriter in the Rheostatics, arguably the most creative Canadian rock band of the ’90s. Samson is the barely prolific songwriter at the core of the Weakerthans, who with only four albums in the past 14 years became one of Canada’s most beloved bands, primarily on the strength of Samson’s prose (which he just collected into his first book, Lyrics and Poems 1997-2012).

Both men have always excelled at setting unlikely characters and situations inside compelling and moving songs. Until recently, they’ve always had help from sympathetic bandmates with whom they grew up, musicians who knew instinctively how to cast every quirky quote. Both men’s solo careers challenge them to think outside the box and make full use of new creative opportunities.

Granted, both had wide leeway before: Samson’s pop-punk bandmates have never stopped him from reciting poetry about retired NHL goalies over a detuned banjo and scraped percussion; the Rheostatics’ best and worst trait was that they were capable of and willing to try anything, making them the Canadian equivalent of equally influential and misunderstood American cult bands like the Minutemen and Camper Van Beethoven.

So what are these two bards up to now?

This is Bidiniband’s second album, so they have the upper hand. The debut, 2009’s The Land is Wild, seemed more like Bidini’s non-fiction writing hurriedly set to music—songs to be played at in-store appearances in between reading passages from his books. Here, his seasoned backing trio have been whipped into shape by regular gigging, to the point where they’re almost as sympathetic as the Rheostatics were to Bidini’s nuances. They obviously share his love of Devo, XTC, The Who and Max Webster, elements that were a small part of the Rheostatics’ avalanche of influences, but are brought to the fore here. And not in an imitative way, either; Bidiniband sounds most like, well Dave Bidini.

In fact, In the Rock Hall sounds far better than any record from the last 10 years of the Rheostatics’ discography, because this band knows how to push Bidini, and he’s more than willing to push back. There’s an explosive, though good-natured, musical tension at work here—largely the work of incredibly elastic guitarist Paul Linklater—watching these men throw endless curveballs at each other before uniting over three simple power chords and four-part harmony in a chorus (Bidini is singing better than he ever has). This is most evident on a recasting of the 1994 Rheos song “Earth,” which Bidiniband rescues from the bloated prog-rock mess of the original and transforms into a driving stadium-rock anthem. Mind you, Bidiniband has its own prog-rock mess in the form of “Eunioa,” a 10-minute adaptation of Christian Bök’s book of poetry that will really only appeal to anyone who understands what a “univocal lipogram” is.

There’s a nautical theme throughout—though there’s no reason for a native English speaker to write a song with the phrase “Big Men Go Fast on the Water” as a chorus (unless this originates as an odd translation of an Aboriginal name). Obvious novelty songs like “Popcorn” and “The Best Thing About the ’80s Was You” sound more like well-produced bar-band set-fillers than anything else—but hey, so do most of the Black Eyed Peas’ greatest hits, and (much to my chagrin) these earworms are just as catchy, if not more so, and not as dumb.

The performances—as well as the production from longtime partner in crime Michael Philip Wojewoda—outshine many of the actual songs, most of which are a baffling series of seemingly non-sequitur images and phrases. (There’s also a queer fondness for the word “tits.”) “I Wanna Go to Yemen,” Bidini sings—but why? “I’ve been waiting all this time to shine a light.” Is this a song about the Arab Spring? Doesn’t sound like it. And: “I want to see your face, eyeliner and burka” doesn’t make any sense when you realize that with a burka you don’t see any part of the face, never mind eyeliner. And why are there Burmese police shooting fishermen in a song also about a “two-bit Neil Young rip-off attack”? No matter: that latter track, “Last of the Dead Wrong Things,” is one of the most fantastic four minutes of visceral rock’n’roll Bidini has ever recorded. (Hear it here.)

And so Bidiniband’s literacy is not so much lyrical as it is musical; the real thrills here are listening to Linklater’s persistent fretboard wizardry, the throbbing, pummelling yet soulful grooves of the rhythm section of ex-Rheo Don Kerr and bassist Doug Friesen, and Bidini’s own underrated rhythm guitar skills. (Here’s your next bar argument: is there any essential rock’n’roll instrument more undervalued than rhythm guitarists? They don’t even get their own set of jokes.)

On John K. Samson’s solo album, his lyrics are the sole focus of attention; the accompanying music is mere background. He’s a prose writer first and foremost; every image and phrase is pondered over until it’s just perfect, yet there is no laboriousness heard in any single lyric. Though the ever-modest Samson will tell you that his vocal range and guitar skills are limited—hey, so is Leonard Cohen’s—he writes tiny perfect melodies and enlists trusted collaborators to fill in all the blanks.

Here, producer Paul Aucoin (Hylozoists, Cuff the Duke) casts Samson solo against just a horn section, in folk-country modes, as a piano balladeer, and—less successfully—in situations not unlike the Weakerthans. Those latter tracks are the only times when the otherwise impeccable Provincial manages to stumble. Even though the hired guns are no slouches (including Bidiniband bassist Doug Friesen and Constantines drummer Doug MacGregor), Samson already fronts an incredible rock band—anything else is going to sound second-rate. His solo work should stand further apart.

On the first single “When I Write My Master’s Thesis,” Samson steps into self-parody: any songwriter beloved by legions of English grad students is probably tempted to write a title like that all the time, but I’m not sure even Colin Meloy (Decemberists) would get away with that. Samson’s most successful narratives here are much better off set to delicately arranged downers like “The Last And,” “Stop Error,” or (a typical Samson title) “Letter in Icelandic from the Ninette San.”

As Samson sounds older (or, more accurately, his age), Bidini sounds more youthful; both promise their fans even bolder moves in the future.

Bidiniband's Toronto release show is this Saturday, January 28, at the Dakota Tavern in Toronto, 7 p.m. More dates are here.

John K. Samson was just in Toronto; Chromewaves wrote about it here. His North American tour begins on March 7 at the Grad Club in Kingston.