I spend most Januaries (is that how you spell the plural of January?) reading various year-end lists and catching up on records I missed. And I usually, against my better financial judgment, end up spending way too much money on Boxing Day at Soundscapes and Rotate This. Soundscapes’ year-end list proved very helpful (see the William Sheller, Personal Space comp and the Meridian Brothers); Rotate’s decision to mark every CD in store down 50% made me feel somewhat better about my indulgences.
The biggest surprise for me (it was also a surprise I even bought it, but the Soundscapes review was rather convincing) was Max Richter’s reinvention of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons on the Deutsche Grammophon label, which is amazing—however, because I have nowhere near the language to write critically about it, you’re just going to have to take my word on that.
Here’s a round-up of other 2012 releases I reviewed this month for the Waterloo Record and Guelph Mercury.
Various Artists – Belle and Sebastian Late Night Tales Volume 2 (Another Late Night)
This long-running compilation series attracts some fine curators, and almost every installation is a worthy treat. Belle and Sebastian are the first to be invited back, and with good reason. They’re not record-collector favourites without reason: they have impeccable and diverse taste, ranging from Brazilian samba to psychedelic prog to electronic sitar jams to modern chillwave to ’80s pop to French chanson to, well, the undeniably awesome “Spinning Wheel” by Blood, Sweat and Tears (one of the only recognizably popular tunes here, and one of two Canadians—the other being obscure folk gem Bonnie Dobson). Remember when your friends would make you mix tapes as good as this all the time? Be thankful Belle and Sebastian are your friends. (Jan. 3)
Bjork – Bastards (One Little Indian)
Since when is a remix album better than the original? In the case of Bjork’s Biophilia, it wasn’t that much of a challenge. As someone who finds something to love in everything she does, I found that album tested even my patience. But here, surrendering her vocals to the likes of largely unknown remixers, the Biophilia material is entirely recast: the two songs Syrian pop icon Omar Souleyman tackles are indistinguishable from his own work and feature him in full command as a vocalist, making Bjork’s presence barely noticeable; These New Puritans strip most of the instrumentation away and set Bjork’s voice against a sample of a Melanesian choir—which, you know, she was probably thinking of doing anyway.
Bjork is so far removed from pop music these days that we no longer expect her to write proper songs; we can only hope to be swept up in the sonic world she creates. Biophilia’s failure was that while making music with a Tesla coil is theoretically interesting, it doesn’t go down easily with lyrics like “Like a mushroom on the tree trunk as the protein transmutates.” Whereas this group of sonic scientists don’t treat anything she does as precious—maybe they should all be hired immediately to work on her next proper record. (Jan. 3)
Download: “Crystalline” (Omar Souleyman remix); “Virus” (Hudson Mohawke Peaches and Guacamol remix); “Mutual Core” (These New Puritans remix featuring Solomon Islands Song)
Julie Doiron – So Many Days (Aporia)
Julie Doiron has spent half of her life in the public eye, and her best solo album, 2007’s Woke Myself Up, dealt with divorce and doubt and rebirth—and, Doiron’s default setting, loneliness. Where could she go from there?
On the opening track here, she sings, “I’m writing this song to prove to myself that I can still write songs.” That doesn’t bode well. And yet Doiron dances with both the devil and angel on her shoulder here, giving their dialogue a voice in song, at one moment expressing gratitude for her health and family while admitting that she thinks she “can’t make it no more” and pleading, “I need another second chance, for the 20th time in my life.” Albums about the depths of depression are one thing; this one is by someone who is trying to hold her head up against all—or at least many—odds.
Musically, Doiron is once again working with Eric’s Trip bandmate Rick White; the results are characteristically ramshackle yet charming. The surprise is that on several occasions they step out of their ’90s lo-fi grunge-folk template and come up with downright gorgeous arrangements with Fleetwood Mac-style harmonies. Alternately, Doiron is at her most haunting and sparse on the track “Homeless,” accompanied by just a bass guitar; there, she sounds more vulnerable than ever—which is saying something, considering her discography.
So Many Days is in some ways like Jodie Foster’s Golden Globe speech: is she retiring? Has she had enough? Is this it? Because Doiron’s songs have always been so personal, it’s hard to tell. But if nothing else, this album is proof that Doiron can still pull off some new tricks. (Jan. 24)
Julie Doiron plays January 24 in Waterloo at the Starlight Social Club, and on January 31 in Guelph at the Ebar.
Download: “Our Love,” “The Only,” “Beneath the Leaves”
Jens Lekman - I Know What Love Isn't (Secretly Canadian)
So much about Jens Lekman is so wrong: the incredibly earnest, twee ESL lyrics, the schmaltzy arrangements that make Belle and Sebastian sound muscular, the plaintive Swedish croon. And yet Lekman remains endearing, in a Jonathan Richman sort of way: how can you not like a guy who understands the importance of being earnest?
Sure, his double entendres are cornier than Iowa. And the amount of proper names in his lyrics makes you think he’s mostly writing these songs for his friends (or people who like to think they know him and his friends personally). More than a few lines could have been composed by eavesdropping in any café populated by twentysomethings: “ ‘Hey, do you want to go see a band?’ ‘No, I hate bands / it’s always packed with men spooning their girlfriends / clutching their hands, as if they’d let go their feet would lift from the ground and ascend.’ ”
And yet Lekman is smart enough to know that though the personal is universal, navel-gazing doesn’t serve a larger purpose: “A broken heart is not the end of the world, because the end of the world is bigger than love.” That is, of course, the chorus of a song called “The End of the World is Bigger Than Love.” And he manages to pull off an impossible feat of songwriting circa 2012: writing a song about how hard it is to write a song after a breakup: on a song that sounds as affecting as an early Leonard Cohen classic, he sings, “Every chord I struck was a miserable chord / like an F minor 11 / or an E flat major 7 / it all sounds the same / every chord knows your name.” (Jan. 10)
Download: “I Want a Pair of Cowboy Boots,” “The World Moves On,” “Every Little Hair Knows Your Name”
Shawn Lee's Ping Pong Orchestra - Reel to Reel (Ubiquity)
Multi-instrumentalist Shawn Lee has put out 10 albums with his Ping Pong Orchestra, and at least 10 more as collaborations with various artists, including the funkiest Chinese zither album you’re ever likely to hear (Bei Bei’s Into the Wind). And every one is chock full of big-band jazz, exotica, funk, ’60s soundtracks, and dub reggae, with nary a note out of place. This is one of his finer works. So why doesn’t he get any respect? He needs a legend, other than being a hard-working schlep who was raised in Kansas and now lives in London: his music career would have to meet a tragic end and he’d have to have his work resuscitated 20 years from now in order to get the props he deserves. In the meantime, here’s (yet another) lovely and worthy entry into Lee’s world. (Jan. 10)
Download: “Mirror Mirror,” “Spy Seduction,” “Soho Chase”
Meridian Brothers - Deseperanza (Soundway)
The Meridian Brothers—actually just one musician, Eblis Álvarez—mine traditional Colombian cumbia rhythms and arrangements, but send it all through a space-age sci-fi filter, performed on wiggly synths, tiny-sounding drum machines, and pitched-up vocals that put even more of an alien sheen on the whole affair. It’s like Ween and Tom Zé went to Bogota and locked themselves in a sweltering apartment with a four-track recorder. The result is suitably strange, sweaty and sumptuous and not unlike a 22nd-century Esquivel. Worldly weirdos should dive right in. (Jan. 17)
Download: “Guaracha U.F.O. (No Estamos Solos),” “Salsa Caliente (Version Aumentada),” “La Gitana Me Ha Dejado (Salsa Electronica)”
Lindi Ortega – Cigarettes and Truckstops (Last Gang)
This Toronto singer references Dolly Parton in the lyrics of the opening track here, and no wonder. She shares Parton’s timbre, tone and range, and Ortega’s songs sound like they could have been written any time during Parton’s 45-year career. If it’s her stunning voice that is the immediate draw, Ortega has also employed producer and sideman Colin Linden (Blackie and the Rodeo Kings) to steer this ship, with predictably excellent results—even though he’s perhaps the most in-demand sideman in Canada, he never steals the spotlight from Ortega’s voice. Behind the mixing board is Darryl Neudorf, the sonic architect of Neko Case’s spacious, spooky and lush discography. Both men take Ortega’s rockabilly roots approach to country and give it a sheen that will easily apply to traditionalists, the new country crowd and everyone who enjoys a tear in the beer and the occasional two-step shitkicker. (Jan. 24)
Download: “Murder of Crows,” “Heaven Has No Vacancy,” “Cigarettes and Truckstops”
Personal Space: Electronic Soul 1974-1984 - Various Artists (Chocolate Industries)
We usually think of home recording as having exploded in the ’80s, with hip-hop and punk rock, particularly. But it was in the early ’70s that high-quality tape recorders, primitive drum machines and synths all became somewhat affordable to bedroom hobbyists. Rockists might have turned up their noses at these alien sounds, but funk and soul musicians snapped them up: obviously Stevie Wonder and Sly Stone and Shuggie Otis were all over this on their classic recordings, but this collection gathers some entirely obscure, private-pressed records from the era.
Some of it could pass for the best soft-porn soundtrack you’ve ever heard—a lot of it, um, intimate by design—and some presages the current chillwave movement. At its best, however, this music takes the passion and the urgency of soul music and sets it to an otherworldly backing, where a larger-than-life vocal presence clashes with soft, pillowy—and often downright weird—sounds on songs titled “Starship Commander Woo Woo” and “Disco From a Space Show.”
Some of these artists were electric blues players; some played in popular Motown bands; some were burned out from trying to make it big with conventional recordings; some were aiming for mainstream success (like Johnnie Walker, who titled his album Farewell to Welfare for literal reasons; sadly, the song “Love Vibrator” didn't land him any big royalty cheques). The latter were not entirely out of bounds: after all, there isn’t that much separating a hit like Hall & Oates’ “I Can’t Go For That” from tracks like Jeff Phelps’ “Super Lady” or T. Dyson and Company’s “It’s All Over.”
A down-and-out artist known only as Spontaneous Overthrow has a litany of things he laments he can’t do “without money,” which he incants over a slinky, seductive yet ominous beat, one of which is: “Can’t make this record!” And yet he did, and like everyone else here, proved that you can make timeless, inspiring music with next to nothing. (Jan. 3)
Download: “I Finally Found the Love I Need” – Jerry (J.G.) Green; “All About Money” – Spontaneous Overthrow; “It’s All Over” – T. Dyson and Company
Saoco!: The Bomba and Plena Explosion in Puerto Rico 1954-1966 - Various Artists (Vampi Soul)
Before the boogaloo, before the samba, before New York City fell under the sway of Afro-Latin sounds in the late ’50s, there was Puerto Rican bomba and plena music, which originated from local traditions and fused with Cuban rhythm instruments and calypso, as well as plenty of accordion. According to the curators of this compilation, the primary architects of this sound were in Cortijo y su Combo, featuring percussionist Rafael Cortijo and singer Ismael Rivera—one source quoted in the liner notes says, “In my house, Rivera is what Elvis Presley was for the gringos.”
The Vampi Soul label can always be counted on for loving assembly, exciting graphics and quality liner notes, and Saoco is no exception. Along with their earlier collection of Colombian cumbia, as well as Sounday’s Panama series and Tumbélé compilation, it’s another valuable archive of Afro-Latin Caribbean musical history that also sounds great at a party. (Jan. 10)
Download: “El bombon de Elena” – Cortijo y su Combo con Ismael Rivera; “Karakatis Ki” – Mon Rivera Y Su Orquesta; “Cabellero Que Bomba” – Cortijo y su Combo con Ismael Rivera
William Sheller – Lux Aeterna (Omni Recording Corporation)
Imagine a Catholic choral mass performed by Pink Floyd and Serge Gainsbourg in the early ’70s, and you have William Sheller’s Lux Aeterna. Trip-hop drum beats, string sections, brass, flutes, oboes, slide guitar, some wigged-out pipe organ, a full choir and—woah, wait, what the hell is that? Three minutes into the opening track Sheller zaps us into space by throwing everything through flanger and phaser pedals. Later on, a girlish voice starts talking about Jesus, John and Paul, while spaceship sounds start whirling about. What does it all mean?
Lux Aeterna was written and recorded for a friend’s wedding in 1970 (must have been some wedding), and then 2,000 copies were printed in 1972. Naturally, it became a sought-after rarity in the interim; this is the first time it’s been available since. It’s worth the wait, not just as a weirdo oddity, but as a lush, majestic wonder. Sure, plenty of people today make music this singular and strange, but no one commissions the Opera Orchestra of Paris to record it.
Sheller was disheartened that the album didn’t achieve success at the time, but he went on to sell hundreds of thousands of records in France later in the ’70s (with the considerably less-appealing album title Rock ’n’ Dollars). This reissue includes an earlier hit pop single and some soundtrack work, making the entire package a more than welcome introduction to the strange and wonderful world of William Sheller. (Jan. 3)
Download: “Introit,” “Ave Frater Rosae et Aurae,” “Opus Magnum Part 1”
Taraf de Haidouks & Kocani Orkestar – Band of Gypsies 2 (Crammed)
One is a Romanian folk band where nonagenarians play traditional melodies at breakneck speed; the other is a Macedonian brass band that makes your lips hurt just listening to them. The nuances of the regional differences between the two are lost on this urban Canadian, so I can’t vouch for the level of cross-cultural pollination happening here (starting with the fact that one band is Orthodox Christian, the other Sufi Muslims). This is the second time the bands have recorded together since Kocani showed up on a handful of tracks on Taraf de Haidouks’ astounding 2001 live recording Band of Gypsies. While there are 27 musicians—including four accordionists and a cimbalom player—doing acrobatic tricks around each other, you’d never guess this ensemble hasn’t always been together. Yet despite the tempos, it’s missing some of the fire of each band’s earlier records, perhaps because there have been some lineup changes, perhaps because they each compromised a bit to bend to the other. Either way, it’s sadly not as strong as the sum of its parts. (Jan. 10)
Download: “Pe Drumul Odesei,” “Turceasca a lu Kalo,” “Gypsy Sahara”