These reviews ran in the Waterloo Record and Guelph Mercury in June.
Highly recommended: Austra, KJ, Heliocentrics, Jaffa Road, Dirty Beaches, Rah Rah
Austra – Olympia (Paper Bag)
Just because people think you’re a goth band, just because you’ve studied opera, just because you play synths in minor keys, just because your dance moves make it look like you’re casting spells—it doesn’t all mean you can’t make a dance-floor-friendly, upbeat album.
Toronto’s Austra was perhaps accurately pegged as post-teen-angst pop music for burgeoning coven leaders. Here, however, after being on the road for two years straight—including stints opening stadium shows for The Gossip in Europe and with buzz act The XX—they’re ready to raise the roof and give their fervent audience the dance party they’ve been waiting for.
Lead singer Katie Stelmanis is still a drama queen, and her quivering tremolo is far removed from expectations of disco divas; it remains an acquired taste. But it sounds considerably warmer here, surrounded by the Lightman twins (who also perform psychedelic folk music as Tasseomancy); one of whom, Sari, assisted with all the lyrics. Bassist Dorian Wolf (ex-Spiral Beach) and electronic percussionist Maya Postepski have also helped bring Stelmanis out of her solo-composer shell and surrender to the rhythm.
Much of Olympia owes a debt less to the Nine Inch Nails devotees of the last two decades than it does ’80s and ’90s house music (the most mainstream incarnation of which would have been Madonna’s “Express Yourself”); it’s somewhat jarring to hear flourishes of Latin percussion in the middle of an Austra song, yet it works—nowhere more so than on “Home,” which opens with clunky quarter-note piano chords that sound like a lonely schoolgirl clumsily setting her diary to music. Forty seconds later, the beat kicks in, the piano suddenly perks up, a bubbly bass arrives, and suddenly we’re in the middle of what could be the anthem of summer 2013 (or at least Pride festivities—and a Kevin Saunderson remix helps the case).
Olympia is a stirring, sexy and soulful record; it’s either the darkest disco album or the most joyous goth dance party you’ll ever witness. Either way, it’s certainly transgressive and occasionally transcendent. (June 20)
Download: “Forgive Me,” “Painful Like,” “Home”
Barenaked Ladies - Grinning Streak (Warner)
You can’t keep a good band down. The Barenaked Ladies could easily have packed it in following the tumultuous departure of co-frontman Steven Page, and listening to their first post-Page album, 2010’s All in Good Time, it was a fair question as to whether they should. Three years later, there’s nothing tentative about Grinning Streak, and the four remaining members haven’t sounded this re-energized in at least 10 years. Ed Robertson is, after 25 years in front of a microphone, singing stronger than ever. Jim Creeggan and Tyler Stewart are particularly punchy as a rhythm section, and Kevin Hearn continues to sprinkle digital fairy dust with various keyboards, including a jazzy piano solo and an ambient synth intro on opening track Limits. The production by Gavin Brown (Billy Talent, Sarah Harmer) and Howie Beck (Jason Collett, Feist) aims for pop radio saturation on every track, while Robertson’s songs alternate between Cars-era new wave and countrified dad rock done unusually well. For a band that many didn’t think would survive their million-selling debut, the third act is now shaping up remarkably well. (June 6)
Download: “Odds Are,” “Limits,” “Gonna Walk”
By Divine Right – Organized Accidents (Hand Drawn Dracula)
By Divine Right never sold a million records, but one of its former members (Feist) has. By Divine Right never transformed the city of Toronto, but some of its former members did (Broken Social Scene). By Divine Right had their brief moment in the sun in the late ’90s with a video in rotation on MuchMusic and an opening slot on The Tragically Hip’s national arena tour. Almost 15 years later, Jose Contreras is on his latest set of bandmates and, for those still paying attention, is arguably sounding better than ever. “I’m not gonna watch all my dreams die,” he sings, “when I still got a dream on the inside.”
Lone gone are their grungy days of the ’90s; BDR in 2013 are a trippy, sparse psychedelic pop band who turn happy sonic accidents into fully formed pop songs: “stupid perfection, infinite charm / got no direction, meaning no harm.” Contreras hasn’t abandoned buoyant rock music (“Mutant Message,” “No One Can Fix Me”), but even then he leaves lots of spaces in between for guitar textures, soaring harmonies and tiny keyboards.
Contreras has earned his due as an elder statesman of Toronto’s music scene, but as this record shows, not as one who sits around and talks about past glories, but as one who continues to push himself to create greatness. (June 6)
Download: “Past the Stars,” “Mutant Message,” “We F’n’R”
Camera Obscura - Desire Lines (4AD)
The Pastels – Slow Summits (Domino)
Scotland isn’t renowned for its cheery weather, but a particularly damp season must have spawned these two albums by Scottish pop bands: one dating back over 30 years, the other one of Glasgow’s most celebrated bands of the last decade.
Camera Obscura perfected Scottish sad-sack songcraft on their first four albums, particularly 2003’s aptly titled Underachievers Please Try Harder. But Desire Lines, their first in four years, represents a band out of steam, their already sleepy sound now nearly somnambulant, with no punchy pop songs to shake up the pace. Expertly executed, as always, but when you hear Tracyanne Campbell sing about how she had “a New Year’s resolution to write something of value,” you wish she’d kept her word.
The Pastels have been a band since 1981, revolving around the duo of Stephen McRobbie and Katrina Mitchell, tweaking their brand of twee through the decades and roping in members of Teenage Fanclub, the Vaselines and other Scots of note. Here, they travel to Chicago to work with producer John McEntire (Tortoise, Broken Social Scene), who hooks them up with plenty of twinkling keyboards, glockenspiels and flutes to decorate their hushed vocals. It sounds lovely, except grossly ill-suited to the limited vocal skills of the two principals—who also didn’t seem to get around to writing any songs in the 16 years since their last album. It’s hard to imagine even avid fans tuning in anymore. (June 13)
Download Camera Obscura: “New Year’s Resolution,” “Do It Again,” “Fifth in Line to the Throne”
Download: “Check My Heart,” “Secret Music,” “Plus You”
Dirty Beaches – Drifters / Love is the Devil (Zoo)
Alex Zhang Hungtai doesn’t like to give us easy answers. The Montreal artist behind Dirty Beaches buries his vocals in rockabilly reverb; his drum machines are dirty and ragged; his synthesizers are falling apart in the middle of a song; his guitars are alien instruments. Everything about Dirty Beaches sounds like a cassette that’s been decaying in a time capsule, perhaps made by someone in the ’70s trying to anticipate what pop music might be like a few decades further into the space age. It’s David Lynchian, to be sure—but not the David Lynch of Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks, but the David Lynch of Lost Highway and Inland Empire, where the familiar (in this case, shades of Gene Vincent, Suicide and New Order) quickly becomes f--ked up beyond all recognition in a nightmarish hallucination.
At least, that (somewhat) describes Drifters, one of the two halves of this double album. The companion, Love is the Devil, is an equally strange but considerably more calming instrumental suite of what sounds like ambient avant-garde jazz achieved by manipulating tape of scrambled radio signals. It’s not something you’d likely ever play when it’s not 2 a.m. while driving through the shadier side of town or through a misty countryside and reminiscing about the late, great CBC show Brave New Waves. But that doesn’t make it any less fascinating. (June 20)
Download: “Night Walk,” “Au Revoir Mon Visage,” “ELLI”
Michael Feuerstack - Tambourine Death Bed (Forward)
Formerly known as Snailhouse, Michael Feuerstack has spent much of his career as a sideman—most recently with the Luyas and Bell Orchestre—but his own discography, including this debut under his own name, is quietly consistent and captures one of this country’s strongest songwriters. There’s nothing at all showy about Feuerstack’s vocals, songwriting or guitar playing, which makes it easy to take for granted—or worse, to ignore. Feuerstack is the kind of artist that rewards close, intimate listening. Contributions from Arcade Fire’s Jeremy Gara, Little Scream’s Laurel Sprengelmeyer and Colin Stetson are just as delicate and subtle as Feuerstack’s own delivery. Lean in, listen closely. (June 6)
Download: “Leave Me Alone (feat. Little Scream),” “Trees,” “Bones in the River”
Future Bible Heroes – Partygoing (Merge)
“Sadder than the moon”—it’s not just a chorus sung by Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt on this new album by one of his many side projects, it also sums up the tone of the whole project. Merritt doesn’t write the music for Future Bible Heroes; he writes the lyrics, melodies and sings the occasional song, leaving his long-time foil Claudia Gonson to tackle most vocals. All other musical duties are handled by Christopher Ewen, whose CV is considerably smaller than his collaborators.
Partygoing is the first Future Bible Heroes album in 11 years—and it’s not worth the wait. (Though it does mean that the band’s new home at Merge Records is rereleasing all earlier material.) Ewan’s synth-only arrangements are leaden and far removed from the playful wit of Merritt’s pen. Not to scapegoat Ewan, but were Merritt to hand over these melodies and lyrics to just about anyone else, they would come to life as opposed to withering on the vine the way they do here—these arrangements are dour even by Merritt’s sad-sack standards. Sadder than the moon, indeed. (June 6)
Download: “A New Kind of Town,” “All I Care About is You,” “Digging My Own Grave”
The Heliocentrics – 13 Degrees of Reality (Now Again)
You think Tame Impala and Flaming Lips are trippy? They’ve got nothing on this jazz-funk band from London, the kind of psychedelic band who don’t require drug intake on the part of the listener, because the music is the most heady intoxicant and hallucinogen imaginable. The Heliocentrics could be a long-lost 1970 collaboration between Miles Davis and Pink Floyd (the year of both Bitches Brew and Atom Heart Mother), only this time the drummer is in charge—bandleader Malcolm Catto— and groove is king.
Since their 2007 debut, the Heliocentrics have been collaborating with Ethiopian jazz legend Mulatu Astatke, New Orleans-via-Tehran instrumentalist Lloyd Miller, and abstract hip-hop MCs Doom and Vast Aire. On this long-awaited follow-up, they embark on a dark and strange journey into spooky, slightly paranoid, and murky musical waters. Ostensibly just a trio of Catto, bassist Jake Ferguson and guitarist Ade Owusu—the latter easily conjures the soundscapes Hendrix achieved at his most ambitious—the Heliocentrics’ sound is sparse yet rich with mysterious, unidentifiable overtones: is that a Japanese koto or a kalimba run through a distortion pedal and plenty of reverb? Where are we, anyway? Who cares?
For all its disorientation, 13 Degrees of Reality doles out its doses in short bursts: most songs are less than four minutes, with plenty of interstitial interludes scattered throughout. This is jazz funk that will frighten your more polite dinner guests; wait until only the most adventurous and trustworthy lingerers remain before slapping this on at a party. (June 13)
Download: “Mysterious Ways,” “Mr. Owusu I Presume?,” “Wrecking Ball”
Jaffa Road – Where the Light Gets In (Independent)
I’ll admit that there’s a certain kind of cross-cultural music played by clean-cut music professors that drives me crazy, music that, however well-intentioned, tries to be something to everyone and fails at everything except acting as music stings between traffic reports on CBC Radio One. On the surface, Jaffa Road is that band. Underneath the depth of this recording, however, they are so much more.
The CV: Commanding vocalist Aviva Chernick is schooled in Sephardic Jewish music, which informs her melodies here, set to backing by a guitarist who plays Persian stringed instruments (oud and saz) and a sax player schooled in Indian music, along with well-rounded bassist Chris Gartner (Look People, Loreena McKennitt) and percussionist Jeff Wilson (Autorickshaw, Maza Meze).
That they’re all exceptional, virtuosic musicians is a given; it’s their chemistry, the strength of their grooves, and, most importantly, their songwriting—haunting, joyous, evocative, melodic—that sets them apart from dozens of other bands whose collective CD shelves have more than a few ’90s artifacts from Peter Gabriel’s RealWorld label.
Every member of Jaffa Road has a dozen projects on the go at any given time; it’s obvious with every note heard here, however, that Jaffa Road deserves to be their highest priority. (June 13)
Download: “On Your Way,” “Ana El Na (Oh Heal Her),” “Rakia”
KJ – Water (independent)
Alaclair Ensemble – Les maigres blancs d’Amérique du Noir (Audiogram)
With the recent release of the long list for Polaris Prize—the critic-voted $30,000 award for best Canadian album, for which I’m on the jury—there’s good reason to wonder about the visibility of quality hip-hop in Canada: this year, only one made the list of 40 albums, and that’s the Alaclair Ensemble from Quebec. Like Radio Radio before them—the franco Acadian hip-hop crew who landed on the Polaris shortlist a few years ago—Alaclair Ensemble is playful and more musically astute than their goofy tone might suggest. They owe debts to Dr. Dre’s G-funk, vintage Euro disco and Outkast, while “Babouine” is a big pop song that sounds like a Bran Van 3000 and Daft Punk mashup; conversely, “Soucoupe volante” could be an oddball match between Beastie Boys and Art of Noise. The production is boffo and bold throughout, and the lyrical flow—regardless of your French comprehension—is biting. Jokers they may be, but they never miss a beat, and this is one record that deserves to rise above the pack.
Overlooked by Polaris was Toronto’s KJ, an artist I’ll admit I’d never heard of until Water was recommended by a fellow juror. It didn’t make the long list, which is a real shame: this album is unique not only in Toronto or Canada, but anywhere else; the only thing close to it today is the psychedelic experimentation of Shabazz Palaces (formerly of Digable Planets). KJ himself has a skilled old-school flow not unlike Gang Starr’s Guru, set to future-forward beats ala Flying Lotus or Boards of Canada. The music is raw, funky, mysterious and abstract, while KJ himself is crystal clear and engaging throughout. Water is essential listening; here’s hoping it doesn’t drown in obscurity. (June 27)
Download KJ: “Bossed Up,” “The Wows,” “Riot”
Download Alaclair Ensemble: “Pomme,” “Snare Drum,” “Mon cou”
Nathan Lawr – Chance Encounter (Static Clang)
When Guelph’s Nathan Lawr reinvented himself as an Afrobeat bandleader in the Minotaurs, he seemed to be leaving behind the (admittedly modest) career he’d had as a singer/songwriter, starting with his highly underrated 2003 debut A Heart Beats a Waltz. He started recording Chance Encounter around the same time as Minotaurs’ genesis, so it’s here—released mere months after the second Minotaurs album—that Lawr lets his classic-rock melodies shine, relegating the rhythm section to a back seat. He’s self-conscious enough to title a song “Nathan Lawr’s 364th Dream About Bob Dylan,” and the rest of this EP, warmly captured by producers Andy Magoffin (Great Lake Swimmers) and Dave MacKinnon (Fembots), could easily have been released in 1975 (think Blood on the Tracks, Tonight’s the Night). While Minotaurs may be his main focus these days—and deservedly so—it’s nice to see him in vintage form here. (June 13)
Download: “Nathan Lawr’s 364th Dream About Bob Dylan,” “Thunder From Below,” “The Vision”
Maestro Fresh Wes – Orchestrated Noise (Wes Williams Enterprises)
The grandfather of Canadian hip-hop returned last year with the Black Tuxedo EP, a show-stopping tour de force that announced his return after over a decade away from the recording studio. Which is why expectations for this full-length were high, and why it’s so disappointing that Wes doesn’t live up either his own legend—or his last EP.
Orchestrated Noise is far too long and far too crowded: 18 tracks featuring folks as diverse as Measha Brueggergosman, Chuck D, Classified, Lights, the Trews, Sam Roberts and Saukrates. Without exception, the non-hip-hop collabs are terrible—not on principle, as I’m sure there’s a brilliant opera-hip-hop track waiting to be made, but the duet between Wes and Brueggergosman is downright embarrassing for both parties.
Instead, Wes shines when bridging hip-hop generations with Kardinal Offishall or new-school Toronto heroes Rich Kidd and Adam Bomb. Too much of Orchestrated Noise is spent pandering to crossover audiences (sometimes it does work, like the Blue Rodeo-sampling “Reach For the Sky”; mostly, like on “Black Trudeau,” it’s just weird). By this point, Wes’s historical role as hip-hop’s ambassador to Canada should give him enough security to, as he would say, stick to his vision. (June 27)
Download: “Gladiator (feat. Rich Kidd),” “Dearly Departed (feat. Kardinal Offishall),” “Longevity (feat. Adam Bomb)”
Peter Peter – Une version améliorée de la tristesse (Audiogram)
Among the dark horses on this year’s just-announced Polaris Prize long list is Peter Peter, a Quebec City franco purveyor of wispy vocals and soft-rock production, not unlike a male counterpart to Coeur de Pirate. This, his second album, is lush and lovely, just as accessible as the likes of Coldplay (without anglos having to worry about how bad the lyrics might be), but far more Euro and prone to left turns. With sax solos and some synths that haven’t been updated in 30 years, some of these tracks could be deep cuts on albums by The Box or Corey Hart. But there’s also enough sonic invention here that means Peter Peter wouldn’t sound out of place next to, say Sigur Ros (there’s also a slight vocal resemblance between Peter and Jonsi). With a bit of a Polaris push, Peter Peter could easily be the franco act to break through to the rest of Canada in 2013. (June 20)
Download: “Réverbere,” “MDMA,” “Rien ne se perd rien ne se crée”
Rah Rah – The Poet’s Dead (Hidden Pony)
Rah Rah may be the pride of Regina, but this album could well be a mix tape of Canadian alt-rock of the last 10 years. Are you a fan of the Weakerthans, Sloan, New Pornographers and Arcade Fire? Then this is the band for you, a CBC Radio 3 dream come true. What Rah Rah has in common with those bands is not just a penchant for anthemic, occasionally bombastic pop, but the concise songwriting to back it up. Shared male-female lead vocals and instrument juggling add to the eclecticism, and the performances are top-notch. Part of that may be because they feel time is running out, after five years as a band and writing their third album: “I spent my 20s on rock’n’roll / I’ll spend my 30s feeling old.” Nothing here sounds like geezers about to give up the game, however: Rah Rah are inherently celebratory and sound like they’ll be busting out the confetti cannons—both literally and metaphorically—for a long time yet. (June 6)
Download: “Art and a Wife,” “Prairie Girl,” “20s”
Sigur Ros – Kveikur (XL)
For a band that perfected a formula—post-Pink Floyd ambient stadium rock—then took themselves for granted then returned with a career-defining live album (Inni) and a haunting, minimalist masterpiece of a follow-up (Valtari), what could possibly be next? Sigur Ros has decided to live large.
Their lurching tempos are still the same, but the volume has increased considerably. The departure of keyboardist Kjartan Sveinsson means there is no piano to temper the more volcanic elements of the other three (including Jonsi Birgisson’s bowed electric guitar), and drummer Orri Pall Dyrason—who was muted on 2012’s Valtari—sounds itchy to get back to work. There’s nothing particularly pretty about much of this Sigur Ros album; even the most rousing songs, "Isjaki" and "Rafstraumur," are filled with strange scraping sounds filling in the sonic spaces; the latter in particular attempts to tie together nearly every stage of the band’s career into one pseudo-pop song, albeit a strange one.
For a band that could easily be phoning it in at this point, Sigur Ros are still finding ways to reinvent their wheel. (June 20)
Download: “Isjaki,” “Stormur,” “Rafstraumur”
Kanye West – Yeezus (Universal)
It’s easy to hate Kanye West for being a “jackass” (President Obama’s term), or for making dense, difficult albums like this one, which is primarily preoccupied with racial revenge porn. But the problem is not Kanye: it’s that anyone bothers taking him seriously, when he’s obviously trying to be as ridiculous as possible. “I’d rather be a dick than a swallower,” he raps, which pretty much sums up Yeezus (a word that itself sounds more onomatopoeic as an expression of exasperation than it is sacrilegious).
Lyrically, Yeezus is unabashedly misogynist, race-baiting and only occasionally clever. Kanye repeatedly squanders his talents as a wordsmith on unfunny jokes, non-sequitur outbursts and blowjob reveries that would seem immature even to a 14-year-old boy.
Yet even the most virulent ’Ye naysayer would have to have zero sense of irony not to see the self-parody in a track called “I Am a God (featuring God),” with lines like, “I am a God / Hurry up with my damn massage / in a French-ass restaurant / Hurry up with my damn croissants!” It’s hilarious, intentionally or otherwise; it also happens to be the one track here worth listening to more than once—not a coincidence.
The nadir, however, has to be his choice to use the heartbreaking lynching lament “Strange Fruit”—popularized by Billie Holliday, but Kanye samples Nina Simone’s version—in a humdrum track about a spurned lover. Appropriating one of the most powerful songs of the 20th century and the civil rights movement is offensive enough; the fact that he does so in such an atrocious manner of red-herring contextual confusion, and clipping Simone’s voice into a hiccupping burst consisting of just the word “breeze,” is even more reprehensible—to say nothing of the protracted conclusion, in which his AutoTuned warbling duets with Simone.
Musically, Kanye pulls directly from Frank Ocean, Daft Punk, Salem, Lupe Fiasco, Kid Cudi, Rick Rubin, John Legend, Pusha T from the Clipse and Bon Iver, while sampling everything from Italian moombahton duo Ackeejuice Rockers, ’90s dancehall singer Capleton, Hungarian ’70s rock band Omega and ’50s easy listening singer Brenda Lee. It’s overkill, to be sure, but nowhere near the incoherent mess that was 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (listened to that one lately?); Yeezus is just as, if not more, abrasive and jarring, and yet it’s much more focused, lean and hard-hitting.
Kanye, who made his name on an innovative yet quickly overly imitated formula, continues to challenge himself musically. Too bad the rest of his challenges aren’t nearly as interesting—or remotely enjoyable. (June 27)
Download: “I Am a God (featuring God),” “Black Skinhead,” “Send It Up”