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”

Thursday, June 21, 2012

A week in the life: NXNE, Luminato

If you live in Toronto and claim to be a music fan, last weekend hosted an embarrassment of riches, many of them free—including outdoor shows by the Flaming Lips, Kathleen Edwards, Balkan beatmaster Shantel, our own Eastern European party machine the Lemon Bucket Orchestra, the Wu-Tang Clan’s Ghostface Killah and Raekwon, “Sugar Sugar” pop legend Andy Kim performing at a children’s festival, and finally the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.

I wanted to do it all. I did very little. Sometimes it’s far too easy to take this city for granted. And more often than not, spending time with one’s own family as a mature adult trumps the twentysomething desire to do it all, all the time. 

My week of music began at the Luminato festival, with a Wednesday noon-hour interview that Richard Flohil conducted with producer Joe Boyd, who made amazing records with Nick Drake, Mary Margaret O’Hara, the McGarrigles and R.E.M., among others, and wrote the excellent memoir White Bicycles. He’s not only a great producer, but, as one can tell from his book, he’s a wonderful raconteur, sharing stories about everybody from Muddy Waters and Duke Ellington to Pink Floyd and Fairport Convention, and how he was part of the reason why “world music” exists as a marketing genre at all. If you’re wondering what kind of record collection this guy must have, he’s happy to walk you through it here.

Two days later, it was my turn to do the interviewing. It was a thrill to be drafted by NXNE to grill iconic Canadian music manager Bernie Finkelstein on stage during the conference’s daytime proceedings. Finkelstein has just released his memoir, which shares a title with his pioneering record company, True North. It’s an entertaining read, especially his accounts of the rollicking Yorkville years that still seem incredulous to non-baby-boomer Torontonians like myself. I will, though, join other reviewers in saying that Finkelstein is too nice a guy to write his own book—he told some stories on stage that would have helped enliven his written words (I’m glad I asked him about his antithesis, Bruce Allen).

When I started listening to pop radio in the early ’80s, I was enraptured by Bruce Cockburn and Rough Trade, both Finkelstein clients, and I’ve long had major respect for the paths Finkelstein helped carve into Canadian culture: as a lobbyist for CanCon regulations in the early ’70s, as someone who wanted to give Canadian musicians a reason not to leave home yet was always thinking globally, as a key figure in the founding of funding bodies FACTOR and VideoFACT—and as a mensch who commanded the respect of most everyone he encountered. Stay tuned for a transcript of our conversation.

Most of my musical NXNE experiences were decidedly underwhelming, including one hot buzz band riding the wake of the announcement of the Polaris Prize long list. The less said, the better. Which brings us to the last refuge of the aging hipster: the reunion show. 

I was a big Archers of Loaf fan in the ’90s—and make no mistake about it, everything about the Archers is dipped in that decade, right down to the reductive comparison points: they really do sound like a 50/50 mix of Sonic Youth and Pavement, stealing only the best bits from each. But it was Eric Bachmann’s side project, Barry Black, that I loved even more, and his continuing career as Crooked Fingers has been a consistently rewarding soundtrack to the last 12 years of my life. I’ve never been disappointed by a Crooked Fingers record, right up to 2011’s Breaks in the Armor. And while I adore certain Archers songs, I never, ever put on their records, not even after the recent reissues put out by Merge Records, which necessitated the reunion and random appearances over the past year.

I wasn’t going to go to the Archers show at the Phoenix last Saturday; I didn’t feel like I needed to see it. I’d much rather see Crooked Fingers deliver a performance as fine as they did at the much smaller Drake Hotel last year—or sit at home and grumble about why Crooked Fingers can’t fill the Phoenix, feeling like the inverse of the typical music geek: “Sure, I like his earlier work, but his new, more obscure stuff is fantastic.” But my special ladyfriend was in bad need of a loud, visceral rock’n’roll experience, so we went. I’m glad we did.

Archers of Loaf opened with “Audio Whore”—a track not found on one of their four albums, and an interesting choice for a band that is clearly cashing in. Let’s get that out in the open, they seemed to say, and then let’s enjoy the rest of the night. From that point on, the Archers sounded as good—if not better—than they ever did. I honestly have no idea what the other ¾ of the band has been up to, but it sounds like they have a lot of pent-up rocking to get out of their system. And Bachmann had almost given up on music entirely—moving to Taiwan to become a teacher—before returning to reform the Archers and put out another Crooked Fingers record, and it’s obvious from his grin he’s pleased as punch anyone still gives a fuck.

Up until about the third Crooked Fingers record, every time I saw Bachmann perform he had to fend off some lughead hecklers who kept calling out for Archers song. Every time, he sternly but politely addressed it from the stage: “That’s a different band, a whole other thing. I’m doing something else right now.” That’s why when, at the 2004 Mergefest in Carrborro, North Carolina, he suddenly launched into “Web in Front” at the end of a Crooked Fingers set, the resulting roar was the most visceral fanboy release I’ve ever heard. As my special ladyfriend put it, all she saw were a bunch of bobbing bald 35-year-old heads flipping out for three minutes straight.

The scene was similar at the Phoenix on Saturday, although without the surprise element. It was obvious we were going to hear “Web in Front” at some point—no point getting worked up about it. This crowd was just as excited, if not more excited, to bellow “The Greatest of All Time” at the top of their lungs. It was funny hearing fortysomething men sing songs they wrote as self-conscious, self-loathing university students: “It’s a waste of my time to pursue this / it’s so self-indulgent to think that you might like this song” (“Might”), or the inner dialogue of inferiority-superiority complexes articulated in “Wrong.” The second-last song of the regular set was, appropriately enough, a fierce run-through of “Nostalgia.”

Who came to the Archers of Loaf show? University of Western Ontario alumni, judging by the response of at least half the room when bassist Matt Gentling asked, “Who here is from London?” It was because of the campus radio program director there that I first heard the band back in 1995; he told me the whole town was going apeshit for all things Loaf, and invited me down to see them play the Embassy Hotel when Vee Vee came out. (“Party at the Whippet Lounge!” were Gentling’s parting words on Saturday, referring to the Embassy’s adjacent bar.) I’ve since been thankful to that radio man for a lot of lovely things in my life, including the love of Loaf.

I have mixed feelings about reunions. My own ’90s band did one a few years back, in front of thousands of people, and it was simultaneously the best and worst gig of our career, for a variety of very personal reasons. I was snarky about the Pavement reunion a couple of years ago, until I ended up at the show because of other bands on the bill and wound up enjoying the band more than I ever did in the ’90s. The gig I’m most excited about this entire summer is the Shadowy Men reunion on July 14 at Lee’s Palace. (See my article and Q&A with Don Pyle in Maclean’s). Maybe because the Archers of Loaf were never anyone’s #1 favourite band, there’s less at stake and audiences are free to go with modest expectations and be blown away, as opposed to setting themselves up for disenchantment.

Eric Bachmann gave a great interview to Stereogum last summer about the reasons for the reunion and the reissues. He’s a classy guy. Read what he has to say here

After a week of reading NXNE blurbs describing bands as “blog-friendly”—I have no idea what that’s supposed to tell me about their music, other than it’s probably lame—I ended the week with most blog-unfriendly group in Toronto: the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.

Isn’t it high time the TSO got some blog love? Here it is: conductor Peter Oundjian is a phenomenal and playful performer, a charming guy, a charismatic salesman, and the reason I want to go to the symphony. My lady and I subscribed for a couple of years (at her urging) before kiddo came along, and we didn’t pick any shows he wasn’t conducting. We’ve seen him duet with Itzhak Perlman, joke with Daniel Handler, and light a match under Stravinsky’s Firebird. I also want to go disco dancing with him.

The TSO closed Luminato with a free outdoor performance of Tchaikovsky’s War of 1812 Overture to celebrate the bicentennial of the North American conflict (though the piece is actually about a French-Russian war). It was Father’s Day and I wanted to take my dad—who always cranked that track when I was a kid, conducting in the living room—and my 18-month-old boy. My parents backed out at the last minute, so my special ladyfriend and I brought buddy boy to his first classical concert, which included the debut of a Philip Glass piece, the last movement of Dvorak’s New World Symphony, and John Williams’ E.T. theme (which conductor Peter Oundjian dedicated to “all the cyclists who fly around Toronto”).

The Glass piece was, well, Glassy-eyed. No surprises there, but it did make nice accompaniment to the choreographed wind installation by Mitchell Chan and Diamond/Schmitt. The Dvorak was exquisite. The E.T. was fun. In the spirit of the evening, the evening began with both national anthems, and I’ll confess I was verklempt hearing my fellow citizens sing both with such spirit and affection (led by Kevin Fox). This wasn’t the rote beginning of a ball game; this was Toronto as a community remembering a time when the ground on which we were standing was lakeshore under invasion. This was singing a song about a legendary battle in the war we were commemorating, a song later adopted as our former enemy’s national anthem. We sang together thinking of the tribulations our two nations overcame to be the partners we are today. Yes, our relationship is still complicated. And yes, I still take a perverse glee in the fact we burned down the White House once. But there are few things more beautiful than two warring parties acknowledging the journey from the pain of the past to the pleasure of the present through art and community.

And then there was Tchaikovsky. War of 1812 Overture is an obvious crowd pleaser, from its triumphant, galloping theme to the tense, brooding build-up to the cascading woodwinds in the midst of the final flurry to the pyrotechnics that make it somewhat like the Nickelback of its day. For all its cliché, it’s still a stirring, powerful piece of music. Thankfully, baby boy thought so too, (mostly) enraptured through the entire piece and suitably impressed by the fireworks at the end. After the show was over and the musicians had left, he kept walking around, pointing at the stage and saying, “Boom!”

That one-word review, along with the wide-eyed wonder I witnessed in his eyes, was worth more to me than not just anything else I saw or heard that week, but at least the last 18 months.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Polaris Prize 2012 long list

This year’s Polaris Long List was announced yesterday, 40 albums selected by critics across the country, which will be narrowed down to a shortlist of 10 next month, and a winner chosen in September. Since Polaris started publicizing the long list a few years ago—previously only a shortlist was announced, full of mostly predictable consensus favourites—the discussion has been broadened, and many smaller records are vaulted into the national spotlight.

Though much of the list was pleasantly predictable during a musically strong year, I’ll confess that there are five albums on the long list that I have not yet heard. All of them were made available to the jury via downloads (the download list is dictated entirely by juror’s suggestions), but let’s be honest—barely anyone on the jury had the time to listen to all 150 or so albums that were made available to us. We also have to listen to music for our day jobs, and leave some time for pleasure, on top of our Polaris duties.

What did I skip out on? Dan Mangan, because I could never get past the first two songs. Winnipeg indie rockers Cannon Bros., because every descriptor I read about them sounded stuck in ’90s indie rock boredom. Ariane Moffatt, because I haven’t cared for what I’ve heard of her before, and also because this album also came out very recently. Toronto roots songwriter Lindi Ortega, because—well, I don’t know why. Saskatoon’s stoner rockers Shooting Guns because that genre generally bores me, frankly.

Overall I think it’s a fabulous list, representing so much that was great about the last 12 months of Canadian music, in many genres. The biggest shocker for me was seeing my championed dark horse, Mark Davis’s Eliminate the Toxins, appear on the list—I was sure I was ranting into a void on that one. (Even more shocking was one juror’s private admission that, even though he was a big fan of the record, he ended up leaving it off his ballot because he thought it didn’t have a chance—so who ended up voting for it other than myself and Brian Acker of Herohill, I have no idea.)

Who was robbed? Last year people were aghast that heavyweights like Sarah Harmer, Chad Van Gaalen and Drake were not on the long list. This year, it’s really only Elliott Brood fans that will be up in arms that their beloved (and overrated) band, who were shortlisted for a previous album, was shut out. Radio Radio, another previous shortlister—who put out a better record this time—was also nowhere to be found.

I’m a huge fan of moody new Toronto band Del Bel, and their excellent debut Oneiric almost made my ballot, but I knew they had little to no national traction—yet.

I wanted Sagot to score one of the franco slots over Arianne Moffatt or Marie-Pierre Arthur. This also almost made my ballot.

I was hoping that soul singer Melanie Fiona might get a nod, as her album is easily the best mainstream R&B record this country has seen in a long time (certainly the Grammys have noticed her).

Brasstronaut put out a fine record that deserves recognition, although admittedly it’s just short of greatness, and I know it was a runner-up on several jurors’ ballots.

I thought Cancer Bats were a surefire shoo-in for the aggressive set. The Pack A.D. also put out an explosive record that I thought might rally the rock crowd. Mike O’Neill and Islands also had solid records.

Some numbers

The regional breakdown this year looks like this:

Toronto: 13 (is this the first year Toronto trumped Montreal?)
Montreal: 11 (franco: 4, although Ariane Moffatt now sings in English)
Vancouver: 4 (I blame high rents)
Halifax: 3
Ottawa: 2
Edmonton: 2 (though Cadence Weapon now lives in Montreal)
Winnipeg: 2
Calgary: 1 (why does the new power centre of Canada have so little great music?)
Kingston: 1
Saskatoon: 1 (I believe it’s the first time this city has made the list)

Genre-wise, I’d put 15 of the 40 acts in a broad pop/rock/indie category, which covers everything from Cannon Bros to Leonard Cohen.

Roughly roots-based acts, covering everything from Cold Specks to Blackie and the Rodeo Kings, pull a lucky number 13.

Four hip-hop/R&B records (Cadence Weapon, Drake, Slakadeliqs, The Weeknd)

Four electronic records (Azari and III, A Tribe Called Red, arguably Rich Aucoin, arguably Grimes)

Four albums from the heavy end of the spectrum (Fucked Up, Mares of Thrace, Shooting Guns, arguably Yamantaka/Sonic Titan)

Three albums are sung entirely in French

Two artists have won the Polaris Prize before (Fucked Up, Patrick Watson)

Including those two, 11 artists have been shortlisted before (this includes the Weakerthans’ John K. Samson and Handsome Furs' Dan Boeckner, with Wolf Parade)

To my memory, only seven artists outside those 10 has made the long list.

To my knowledge, there are 10 debut albums on the list.

To my knowledge, three of these artists are over 40. One of them is over 70.

I will be seen projectile vomiting in public if the shortlist looks like this:

Cannon Bros: I’m trying to forget much of the ’90s, thanks.
Cold Specks: Amazing voice, but it’s far too soon and the songs are not there.
Drake: I can’t believe so many intelligent people take this jackass seriously.
Fucked Up: If you’re going to write a rock opera, I have to understand the words—I don’t care how old that makes me sound. Nice guitars, though.
Great Lake Swimmers: This marks the first-ever stumble by this otherwise longtime favourite of mine, devoid of the magic they’ve always had.
Dan Mangan: If I manage to stay awake during the course of this album, I’ll provide valid reasons why I don’t like it.
Parlovr: Does anyone over 25 think this band is better than just a fun night at a bar?
Joel Plaskett: Good album, but I fear this man gets points just for showing up.
Slakadeliqs: I’m not convinced this is any better than late-period Lenny Kravitz, which is what I think it is every time it shuffles up on my iPod.
Patrick Watson: It’s his first album I actually enjoy, though, like Plaskett, I’d hate to think anyone gets a free pass onto the shortlist.

Beyond that, the next three months will give plenty of Canadian music fans lots to talk about—which is the whole point of Polaris in the first place.

Friday, June 01, 2012

May '12 reviews

The following reviews appeared in the Waterloo Region Record and the Guelph Mercury this past month.

Beach House – Bloom (Sub Pop)

When you travel to a beach house, you’re there to shut off your mind, lie back and relax. You’re there to plow through a thick, thoroughly engaging novel devoid of intellectual taxation,which may or may not cause you to well up once or twice. You’re not there to compare it to previous vacations, to parse the minutiae that made one summer better than the last.

So to complain that Bloom is a pale imitation of Beach House’s 2010 breakthrough Teen Dream would be splitting hairs. For starters, it’s nearly identical: same tempos, same dreamlike, weightless atmosphere, same indistinguishable guitar and keyboard sounds, same soaring melodies, all with nary a variance in what made Teen Dream so enchanting—other than perhaps a few more hints that Disintegration is this band’s favourite album by The Cure.

It’s not ennui that cripples Bloom; this sounds just as lovely, but the songs themselves come up short. For whatever intangible reason, nothing here hits the gut in the same way it did in 2010, no individual melody pulls the heartstrings; everything here just simply is what it is. Maybe that’s all it has to be, with a fine whisky on a summer night by a moonlit lake. (May 17)

Download: “Wild,” “Other People,” “Troublemaker”

Brasstronaut – Mean Sun (Unfamiliar)

The band with one of the worst names in Canada has turned into one of our best. Or at least, the one who has made the best 2012 record for the end of a sun-stroked day, a record as refreshing as an ocean breeze, a record tailor-made for driving through the lush vistas of their native province. 

The first sounds you hear this Vancouver band’s second album resemble the noisy, buzzing insects of summer: from there, gently pulsing rhythms, spaced-out trumpet and indistinguishable textures decorate subtle, haunting melodies. Everything is drenched in an intoxicating, hazy reverb, though it’s not a cheap trick to obscure a lack of talent; these guys have jazz skills (more evident in their live show) that they underplay at every turn, offering instead fleeting glimpses of virtuosity that explain why everything gels together so well. 

I’m often guilty of conflating geography with musical inspiration (see: Sigur Ros), but there’s so much here that sounds like a lazy patio night on Commercial Drive, like a ferry ride up to Powell River, like a sunrise over Saltspring Island, like a ride through the Okanagan. Who’s behind the boards on this album? Producer Colin Stewart, who has done similarly evocative work with Kathryn Calder and Yukon Blonde in the last 12 months. B.C. tourism should have that guy on their payroll by now.

If you can’t afford a B.C. vacation this summer, Brasstronaut will be happy to take you there for 40 minutes at a time. (May 31)

Download: “Bounce,” “Francisco,” “The Grove”  

Chicha Libre - Canibalismo (Barbes)

Every couple of years, a new obscure world music trend gets its 15 minutes in the sun, while a subgenre gets maybe five minutes at best. Colombian cumbia—a hypnotic Latin mid-tempo groove with reggae overtones—became a rage about three years ago, enabled in part by some excellent compilations by the Soundway and Vampi Soul labels. Shortly after came a compilation of Peruvian “chicha” music from the ’60s, which was a more psychedelic take on cumbia, orchestrated with surf guitars, Farfisa organs and vaguely Middle Eastern melodies. It could have remained a collectors’ footnote. Chicha Libre is still around to ensure it’s not.

Chicha Libre is a modern band from Brooklyn, whose membership comprises South American, French and native New York musicians. Their 2008 debut was incredibly faithful to the original recordings of the ’60s; Canibalismo is unmistakably a modern record, even though all the vintage sounds are still there. And though chicha is still the dominant influence, it’s not the only one. American pop, African funk and other Latin rhythms all are all filtered through the lens of chicha—as well as Wagnerian opera, as their unique take on Ride of the Valkyries proves. (May 17)

Download: “La Plata,” “The Ride of the Valkyries,” “Number 17”

Cold Specks - I Predict a Graceful Explosion (Arts and Crafts)

Cold Specks is the young singer/songwrier Al Spx (also not her real name) from the Toronto suburb of Etobicoke, and her debut album—only released this week—has been building buzz ever since she leaked the song “Winter Solstice” online. Listening to that track, there is much to love: Spx’s full-throated, soulful voice, with its deep gospel and blues influences, is put to work on a slow build of a song that’s stirring and spiritual.

Listening to the rest of the album, however, there is not as much to love. Spx’s amazing voice (reminiscent of another great Toronto singer, Kate Fenner) only goes so far: her songs don’t carry the weight her voice deserves, and her accompanying musicians are often plodding and unexpressive. Too often, her voice overpowers this material: like Aretha Franklin trying to make a sombre Leonard Cohen album.

The graceful explosion promised by the album title sounds like it’s still a bit off in the future. (May 24)

Download: “Winter Solstice,” “Blank Maps,” “Hector”

Rose Cousins – We Have Made a Spark (Outside)

“You can’t keep the darkness out,” sings Rose Cousins, on the lead-off track here. Accepting this truth, the rootsy Haligonian singer/songwriter doesn’t even try to turn on many lights for the rest of her third album, which sounds like all of Kathleen Edwards’ and Neko Case’s saddest songs strung together. Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily, once you hear a heartbreaker like “The Shell,” or the way Cousins can command your complete attention with just her voice and sparse piano chords on a track like “One Way.” Cousins is a powerful though subtle singer; her songs don’t always match her haunting presence—much of this album can drag—but when all the elements align, the results are stunning. (May 3)

Download: “The Darkness,” “The Shell,” “Go First”

Demetra – Lone Migration (Head in the Sand)

Winnipeg singer/songwriter Demetra Penner is a filmmaker, painter, yoga instructor and world traveller whose official bio describes her as “an ice princess wooing you with songs about polar explorations and the perils of love born from tundra.” Naturally, her music, which recalls Jane Siberry at her best, is a bit precious. It’s also beautiful: Penner’s pure alto voice is a stunning instrument, and her chosen collaborators sound like they have plenty of experience scoring experimental films, making this more of an art rock record than the work of yet another plaintive piano balladeer. And yes, an Inuit throat singer shows up at one point. This is music inspired by Arctic travels, and Penner has made an evocative album capable of transporting the listener there themselves. (May 3)

Download: “Emergency Exit,” “Maiden of Ice,” “Lone Migration”

Dva – Hu (Indies Scope)

When reading ESL websites about European bands, the translations can often be unintentionally hilarious. But then there are the ones that you suspect are just as unusual in their native language. In the words of Czech duo Dva—or at least, a translation thereof—their previous album, 2008’s Fonok, was conceived as “folklore of non-existing nations,” and this new one is “pop for non-existing radios.” The album title, Hu, could be short for Hungary, could refer to the common Asian surname, could be the ancient Egyptian word for god—or, Hu could be a word in Dva’s own language that “means the first syllable pronounced by a human being as well as the sound of monkeys and owls.” Got that?

Yes, the two oddballs in Dva (the Czech word for “two”) sound positively bonkers, but in the best possible way. The music they make is part bossa nova, part birdsong, music that could score a spaghetti Western set in Sweden, or perhaps a fanastical video game about cute insects (they’ve actually done the latter, winning an Independent Games Award for their troubles). On the rare occasion when they throw a straightforward beat underneath them, they sound like early Lykke Li. On other occasions, they sound like an unplugged Deerhoof and Patrick Watson backing up Czech avant-garde icon Iva Bittova.

On most occasions, however, this Bohemian duo—they’re literally Bohemian, from the Czech region of Bohemia—sound like no one else in the world. Which is why Hu is the most pleasant surprise from far afield to wash up on these shores so far this year. (May 24)

Download: “Tatanc,” “Baltik,” “Valibela”

Japandroids – Celebration Rock (Polyvinyl)

Unlike Brasstronaut, Japandroids sound nothing like Vancouver’s geography. They do, however, sound like the best of Vancouver’s storied punk rock history dating back to 1976 and right up to compatriots The Pack A.D, who share the Japandroids’ approach to maximizing the amount of sound and fury that can be made by a guitar-drums duo. There are also of plenty oh-oh-oh-oh melodic choruses that could have been cribbed from the New Pornographers, and ringing, raging electric guitars and thundering drums that could be Black Mountain covering Superchunk songs. This is not lazy, laid-back Vancouver chilling out in Stanley Park; this is the sound of the street punk trying to scale the mountains.

It’s been over three years since Japandroids’ debut album made them the only rock’n’roll band out of Vancouver in the last 10 years, other than Black Mountain, to be worth crossing the Rockies for. They also nearly broke up right around that time, choosing to continue only because they became popular. They could just as easily called the whole thing off. The songs here are proof that they had a lot more life in them; this is not a band that takes itself for granted.

Lucky for us. The songwriting has improved tenfold; Japandroids are longer content to simply hide behind pure aggression, noise and energy—which is what, if anything, carried the debut album. Instead, these songs are Springsteen anthems designed for stadiums of people to sing together. The production is note-perfect: crisp and clean without ever sacrificing the raw power of the band’s live show; every guitar chord is gigantic, every drum roll a punch in the gut.

The sound of fireworks may bookend the music here as a cute play on the album title, but there are actual moments in nearly every song when you expect to hear some kind of pyrotechnics go off in time with the music.

Celebration Rock could well be to 2012 what the Constantines’ Shine A Light was back in 2002: a life-affirming, fist-pumping rock’n’roll tour de force that soundtracks a new generation. In other words, Japandroids have plenty to celebrate. (May 31)

Download: “The Nights of Wine and Roses,” “Evil’s Sway,” “The House That Heaven Built”

Norah Jones - Little Broken Hearts (EMI)

If you believe the celebrity press, Little Broken Hearts is a major departure for Norah Jones—who is now old enough to be referred to by some as “the Adele of her generation” (presumably for being a multi-million-selling traditionalist who racked up a bunch of Grammys at a young age). Gone now are the jazz standards, the delicate piano playing and the nods to country music, and in comes producer Danger Mouse (The Grey Album, Black Keys, Gnarls Barkley) to make a dark, David Lynch-ian brooder of a record with nods to psychedelia and ’60s torch-song pop music.

That may all be true—but aside from the starpower presence of Danger Mouse, all that was also true about Jones’s last album, the underrated 2009 release The Fall. And that album had much better songs than the ones Jones cowrote here with Burton; even though both are ostensibly breakup albums (“it’s not easy to stay in love unless you can tell lies,” Jones sings here), Jones seems even more bummed out here than she did three years ago.

Taken on its own merits, Little Broken Hearts is a classy, curious album, as one would expect considering the two seasoned artists at work. Danger Mouse never overplays his hand or gussies up the background; needless to say, everything sounds impeccable, and he gives Jones plenty of space to sink her teeth into every sultry syllable.

This could be the beginning of a beautiful partnership. Right now, however, it just sounds like baby steps. And Jones had already reinvented herself without any help. (May 3)

Download: “Say Goodbye,” “4 Broken Hearts,” “Travelin’ On”

Eyvind Kang – The Narrow Garden (Ipecac)

Kang is a violinist who has appeared on hundreds of recordings, from rock bands like the Decemberists to avant-garde composers like John Zorn to absolutely everything in between. Kang’s own albums tend to be highly conceptual orchestral pieces, and somewhat impenetrable. Here, however, there doesn’t appear to be a larger concept at work other than melding Middle Eastern and Asian music with Western choral music. On two tracks, Kang travels further afield into atonality and atmosphere, managing to successfully convey emotional resonance with no anchor to any traditional music at all. On the closing track, “Invisus Natalis,” Kang winds together every thematic thread on the album, injecting dissonant strings into what starts out as a seductive Arabic groove, until they eventually take over and subsume the entire piece.

Throughout, Kang is content to sit back and let others shine; his violin rarely takes the lead, unless it’s part of a full string section; most solo moments are taken by flutes or voice. That’s because this isn’t about Kang the instrumentalist; he has plenty of sideman gigs to do that. This is about the larger work—and by extension, the larger world—rather than one man’s small role in it. (May 17)

Download: “Forest Sama’i,” “Usenea,” “Invisus Natalis”

Quintron - Sucre du Sauvage (Goner)

The man known only as Quintron is a mad scientist from the 9th Ward of New Orleans, working away in the Spellcaster Lodge (aka his basement) with his wife, puppeteer and partner in crime Miss Pussycat. He builds his own drum machines, plays a Hammond organ cranked to the highest volume, hangs out with old soul singers and a guy who calls himself MC Tracheotomy, and hits the road once a year to deliver delirious dance parties across North America. He’s put out a few albums along the way, which seem but a small component in the larger art project that is his life.

This is an exception, however. Without changing his formula—chanted vocals, absurdist party lyrics (“keeping it sexy for the president!”) and big organ riffs riding over beats from his “Drum Buddy”—Sucre du Sauvage is Quintron’s best collection of actual songs to date. In somewhat of a novel twist for him, many of them feature more than one chord. He and Miss Pussycat come up with some catchy melodies as opposed to squealed exclamations. (Well, they come up with some of them. “Kicked Out of Zolar X,” about the space alien glam band of the ’70s, shamelessly borrows a melody from the ’80s hit “99 Luftballoons.”) And though there hasn’t been a huge leap in production quality—this is far from a slick studio recording—Quintron’s organ sounds louder and nastier than ever.

Perhaps to counteract the nods to more traditional rock’n’roll, Quintron spends the second half of the album—what would be the second side of a vinyl record—in a much more experimental mode. He recorded this at the New Orleans Museum of Art, where in 2011 he and Miss Pussycat were given 24-hour access as artists-in-residence to record, as well as curate their own room culled from the museum’s collection. The two halves of the album couldn’t be more different: the experimental side is made up of field recordings, organ sounds and ambient noise. It’s calm, weird, and beautiful, a lovely comedown after the revved-up debauchery of the side one. (May 10)

Download: “Ring the Alarm,” “Face Down in the Gutter,” “Kicked Out of Zolar X”

Santigold – Master of My Make-Believe (Warner)

Santigold is much smarter than the pop music game she plays. She’s been a record company executive, a songwriter for hire, a star guest vocalist, and a compelling solo performer with an eclectic debut album that, unbelievably, is now four years old. Apparently her oblivious record company wanted her to cowrite with some of today’s hottest hitmakers, who insisted she only use certain chords that would guarantee her radio play. Needless to say, she balked, turned to trusted collaborators like TV on the Radio’s Dave Sitek and DJ Diplo, and wrote songs with choruses about “a freak like me” and how “we’re all the same / we don’t want no fame.”

Master of My Make-Believe doesn’t easily fit into any pigeonhole. It boasts big pop production, but not in the bombastic sense that sucks Lady Gaga dry of any personality. It borrows heavily from modern club beats, Brazilian rhythms and dancehall reggae, but few tracks seem actually designed for a dance floor. The exceptions, oddly, are the final two tracks: “Look at These Hoes” and “Big Mouth,” each boasting strobe-light beats that makes the rest of the album sound like lullabies in comparison. “The Keepers” takes the drum beat from Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill” and makes a considerably more buoyant pop track out of it, albeit with a gloomy election-year chorus: “We’re the keepers / while we sleep in America, our house is burning down.”

It all marks her as a kindred spirit not to M.I.A., to whom she’s often compared, but to Lykke Li or Robyn, women whose strong affinity for pop hooks overrides any genre constraints or conventional instrumentation. That said, this has less hooks than her debut, but the production is much more fascinating and forward-looking. She’s looking toward the long game, not a fleeting moment of celebrity. (May 3)

Download: “The Keepers,” “This Isn’t Our Parade,” “Pirate in the Water”

Sigur Ros – Valtari (XL)

After over 12 years of singing in imaginary languages over cinematic music, one would think that Sigur Ros’s signature sound would be played out by now. To be certain, there are ebbs and flows in this Icelandic band’s discography, but last year’s live album and concert film Inni found them in peak form; if it were to be their final statement, that would have been a perfect capper to a fascinating career that’s made them the most unlikely artist of recent times to achieve a loyal mass audience.

They’re not done yet, though. If their last studio album saw them playing more with conventional pop song formats (and handclaps!), Valteri is a total retreat into abstraction. All ambience, no anthem. Micro, not macro. We don’t even hear a drum kit until halfway through the third song, “Varud”—and then we barely hear them again for the rest of the album. “Varud” is perhaps the only song here that sounds like a stereotypical Sigur Ros songs, with a stirring chorus and children’s choir; this track, however predictable for them, is still stunning. “Vardeldur” is little more than guitar swells, sparse piano and what sounds like electronically manipulated birdsong; it’s somehow the most emotionally affecting track here. Eight-minute closing track “Fjogur Piano” could be a deconstructed variation of Satie.

Who knows what this band is ever up to, or what their music means to them at any given time, but Valtari sounds like the most spiritual Sigur Ros album: reflective, humble, graceful, and leaving plenty of room for the divine between every note. (May 31)

Download: “Varud,” “Daudalogn,” “Vardeldur”

A Tribe Called Red – s/t (independent)

The synergy is so obvious, it’s shocking the merging of Aboriginal music with modern electronic beats hasn’t happened before. Well, it has—Robbie Robertson tried it in the ’90s, and there has been a healthy Aboriginal hip-hop scene for well over a decade—but no one has generated the kind of excitement that Ottawa crew A Tribe Called Red have with a series of online singles and now this, their full-length album.

ATCR don’t just throw chants over club beats—although a cursory listen might suggest just that, like their spirited remix of the Northern Cree song “Red Skin Girl.” They have in their ranks DJ Shub, a champion battle DJ with eclectic tastes beyond hip-hop or whatever today’s trend in techno happens to be. A Tribe Called Red set their Aboriginal source material to a wide palette of international influences, from Brazilian beats to goth-y German electro. The track “General Generations” takes a finger-snapping, jazzy Dave Brubeck-ish beat, throws in some nasty, dirty bass synth, and a hypnotic, looped vocal riff to create a psychedelic, trance-like effect.

This is still a crew finding its feet, however. “Moombah Wow” is a genre exercise in moombahton (a cross between house music and reggaeton, itself a mix of Jamaican dancehall and Latin salsa), and “Shottas” features rave whistles, gunshots and even the most ubiquitous and dated sound of ’90s drum’n’bass—the “Amen” break—all of which adds up to an avalanche of clichés.

Those misfires stand out all the more because everything else A Tribe Called Red does is forward-thinking and truly inspired. (May 17)

Download: “Look at This,” “Red Skin Girl (ATCR remix),” “General Generations”

Mirel Wagner – s/t (Friendly Fire)

“No death can tear us apart”—it sounds like a lovely enough phrase, the type uttered by a hopeless romantic dreaming of the eternal union between two souls in love. In the hands of Mirel Wagner, however, the phrase is quite literal: her narrator in “No Death” is ready to crawl inside the grave of a dead lover to be close to them. “I’ll keep on loving her until the marrow dries from her bones”—cheery, no? Many of her Finnish countrymen might explore similar themes in various subgenres of metal, but Wagner performs bare-bones acoustic music, not unlike Leonard Cohen’s wrist-slashing phase of the early ’70s. Wagner is so gloomy that one expects a song called “No Hands” to be about dismemberment; it’s almost shocking to discover it’s about riding a bike.

The “doom folk” label that Cold Specks claimed for herself is much more apt when discussing Wagner, who sounds like she’s been stranded in a snowed-in cabin on a northern Scandinavian coastline where “shadows swallow my reflection.” What separates her from scads of sad sacks is how scarily striking she is: her voice is instantly captivating, even if most of her songs rarely stray from monotone melodies. Nothing here uses more than sparse acoustic guitar and voice, but Wagner doesn’t need anything else to draw the listener in while she whispers ghost stories in your ear. (May 24)

Download: “No Death,” “Despair,” “The Well”

Rufus Wainwright – Out of the Game (Universal)

It’s been five years since Rufus Wainwright put out a pop album. In between there has been a tribute to Judy Garland, an opera, a live album, and a sombre song cycle for his deceased mother. Is he out of the pop game? Judging by this album, yes.

Recorded with Amy Winehouse producer Mark Ronson, advance word about Out of the Game boasted that Wainwright had found his swagger again and was toning down his operatic tendencies and flirting with R&B rhythms. None of that is evident here. There is very little groove, there are fewer nods to pop music than on earlier records, and it all adds up to not much at all. Out of the Game isn’t different or ambitious enough to be terrible, but there’s scant trace of Wainwright’s skills as a writer or arranger. Rufus Wainwright is a lot of things, but he’s never been boring. Until now.

He’s written some tedious songs in his time, but few sink as low as “Rashida,” a song about actress Rashida Jones disinviting him to a Vanity Fair party. This was obviously a shocking event that he not only found humbling, but worthy enough to document quite literally: “I want to thank you Rashida for doing this and giving me a reason to write this song / I guess I’ll have to go begging for that Vanity Fair connection / it’s been a while since I have gone begging / so very very long.” That might be excused in a couple of lines from Kanye West, but it’s beneath Wainwright to spend any time developing it into an actual song.

What’s to blame? Maybe marriage, maybe fatherhood, maybe age. Or maybe it’s because the Montreal native and onetime resident of New York City, L.A. and Berlin recently relocated to Toronto, of all places. Who knows? (May 10)

Download: “Bitter Tears,” “Jericho,” “Perfect Man”

Patrick Watson - Adventures in Your Own Backyard (Secret City)

Montreal’s Patrick Watson leads perhaps the most frustrating band in Canada. (And not just because they insist that Patrick Watson is the name of the band, not just the guy singing and playing piano.) These four gentlemen are incredibly proficient, creative and adventurous, and yet, with the exception of the occasional song, their records have been shockingly forgettable.

Which is why Adventures in Your Own Backyard is such a pleasant surprise. It opens with “Lighthouse,” perhaps the loveliest song in his catalogue, its Satie-like piano line lilting alongside atmospherics coloured in by the rest of the band, with some mariachi horns thrown in for good measure. The rest of this cinematic song cycle works much the same way, with every member scaling back and content to provide minimalist texture to every track. Watson himself, blessed with a choirboy voice that he has used too often to overemote, plays it very low-key here, barely rising above a whisper.

Best of all, Patrick Watson (the band) has abandoned any pretext of being a rock band, or even something resembling a pop band. They are instead the soundtrack to a Montreal snowfall, a Prairie road trip, a European sunrise. They’re no longer in the shadow of early Pink Floyd, latter-day Radiohead or Sigur Ros. They’re in a class of their own, and this is their finest hour—and the promise of much more to come. (May 10)

Download: “Lighthouse,” “Morning Sheets,” “The Things You Do”