Tuesday, November 26, 2013

November '13 reviews

The following reviews appeared in the Waterloo Record and the Guelph Mercury.

Highly recommended this month: Pusha T, the Strumbellas

Recommended: M.I.A., Deep Dark Woods, Red Hot + Fela, Omar Souleyman

Cowboy Junkies and Various Artists - The Kennedy Suite (Latent)

Michael Timmins of the Cowboy Junkies took the 50th anniversary of John Kennedy’s assassination as reason to complete a long-gestating project he’d been producing, featuring original songs by an unknown Ontario schoolteacher, Scott Garbe, obsessed with the ripples the event sent through North American culture.

Timmins had no trouble collecting an impressive circle of friends to give voices to the various characters in the song cycle. That includes generations of incredible Ontario artists, from veterans of the ’70s Toronto punk scene (who now perform as The Screwed) to country icons the Good Family to the Skydiggers to the Rheostatics to Hawkley Workman to Sarah Harmer to Jason Collett to Doug Paisley to newcomers like Jessy Bell Smith and Harlan Pepper. The backing band on most tracks is the Cowboy Junkies, minus singer Margo Timmins (who of course sings one track).

So how did it all go horribly wrong? The songs obviously captivated the Skydiggers’ Andy Maize, who gave a tape of Garbe’s demos to Timmins over a decade ago, and unless there was some serious extortion going on, clearly all the artists involved signed on willingly. When so few of them are able to breathe any life into the material, despite the calibre of talent involved, the problem has to be at the source.

Which is a shame, because there are a few gems, including the previously released “The Truth About Us” (found on the Skydiggers’ 1997 album Desmond’s Hip City) and “Parkland” (found on Lee Harvey Osmond’s 2009 album A Quiet Evil). It’s a joy to hear the Rheostatics’ Martin Tielli and Dave Clark reunite and play off each other on “Slipstream.” Outside of that, only Sarah Harmer and Reid Jamieson manage to make a song sound better than it is. 

The Kennedy Suite could have been a fascinating project; indeed, the elaborate CD packaging alone shows how much care went into the project. Let’s hope the same cast finds something else to rally around. (Nov. 21)

Download: Sarah Harmer – “White Man in Decline,” Martin Tielli and Dave Clark – “Slipstream,” Reid Jamieson – “Take Heart”

Deep Dark Woods – Jubilee (Six Shooter)

With the notable exception of the Sadies and Lee Harvey Osmond, most Canadian roots music is too safe and squeaky clean. Thank God for the weirdoes, like Saskatoon’s Deep Dark Woods, who specialize in organ-drenched, spooky and psychedelic minor-key country songs—the kind Neil Young and Greg Keelor are so good at yet rarely indulge in anymore. This, the band’s sixth album, was recorded in a Rocky Mountain cabin in Alberta. It’s helmed by L.A. producer Jonathan Wilson (Father John Misty, Bonnie Prince Billy, Roy Harper), who recorded the powerful live band direct to tape—though the group’s superstar keyboardist Geoff Hilhorst surely layered his organs, pianos and oddball synths with a few different takes.

Much of the album is morose and set to the same lurching tempo, but that all works in Deep Dark Woods’s favour. This is not a band of showboating singers or instrumentalists. Every member digs deep into the grooves, adding layers of haunting textures and backing vocals to support lead singer Ryan Boldt’s fragile lead.

I’d heard some of this band’s previous records, which never left much of an impression. Jubilee, on the other hand, is immediately striking and sounds like an instant late-night classic. This band’s years of hard work are finally paying off; you can hear it in every note. (Nov. 28)

Download: “Miles and Miles,” “18th of December,” “East St. Louis”

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire – Original Soundtrack (Universal)

We’re not in District 12 anymore, Toto. The soundtrack to the first Hunger Games film was a largely acoustic affair, reflecting the rural roots of protagonist Katniss Everdeen; the sequel is considerably slicker. T-Bone Burnett is not involved. Neither, for that matter, is Arcade Fire, who nailed the first film’s tone of fascist dread with their two contributions.

Instead, we get a lot of already mopey rockers and R&B stars shoehorning themselves into a Panem state of mind. Few survive. Coldplay display a remarkable sense of subtlety, which in this case means they’re indistinguishable from The National, who also appear; neither band phones it in, though both sound like they’re doing a better than average U2 ballad. Likewise, the Lumineers and Ellie Goulding fare better than expected.

But the meeting of hitmaker Sia with Toronto’s The Weeknd and superstar Diplo is shockingly flat; The Weeknd’s own track is even worse. Likewise, Santigold forsakes her usual firecracker personality and wades through the too-obviously-titled “Shooting Arrows at the Sky.” The album never gets worse, however, than Christina Aguilera singing, “Burn me with fire / drown me in rain”—a lyric the 16-year-old protagonist of the film would never dare write herself.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the only real standout here is 17-year-old Lorde, who covers Tears For Fears’ ’80s staple “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” reducing it to a death-row dirge and creating something more ominous than ever suggested in the original. It’s note perfect—and, at 2.5 minutes long, never wears out its novelty.

Who wins this round of Hunger Games? The actual teenager, of course. (Nov. 28)

Download: “Lean” – The National, “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” – Lorde, “Mirror” – Ellie Goulding

Lady Gaga - Artpop (Universal)

M.I.A. - Matangi (Universal)

“Pop culture was an art / now art’s in pop culture, in me.” It’s a line from Lady Gaga’s new single, “Applause,” but it could just as well apply to M.I.A. Both ladies revel in visuals, incongruous imagery, provocation and performance art: what they do in the public sphere is as important as their music. But without the music, the rest is empty.

Gaga has sold millions of records; M.I.A. has inspired millions of words from critics trying to make sense of her truly cross-cultural mashups and the political significance—if any—of her wordplay. Until now, Gaga had plenty of ace pop songs to back up the avalanche of media-baiting stunts she delighted in. Meanwhile, M.I.A. was all style and little substance; her visual aesthetic and personality far outshone her lyrics and beats.

That’s all changed.

Gaga has always excelled in maximalist pop anthems, but at least she had the melodies to back it up. Here, she sounds cloying and bored. Even for a performer who always embraced the glitz and absurdity of celebrity culture, tracks like “Jewels and Drugs,” “Swine” and “Fashion” are beyond vacant—Paris Hilton could do better. Meanwhile, her production team steamrolls over everything, making the Black-Eyed Peas sound like sultans of subtlety. The nods to post-Skrillex EDM take her out of respectable discos into low-rent meth parties with tweakers’ anthems (“Jewels and Drugs”). This record sounds too loud even at the lowest volume; it’s compressed to the point where it sounds no better from the worst computer speaker than it does from the best headphones.

“Do you want to see me naked, lover?” she asks, “Do you want to see the girl who lives behind the aura?” Well: tough. Ain’t gonna happen. The most personal Gaga gets is an attempt at a stirring piano ballad, with the unfortunate chorus: “I need you more than dope.” Other than that, she stoops as low as rhyming the planet Uranus with, “Don’t you know my ass is famous?” One can’t help but respond: yes, but for how long?

Meanwhile, reading about M.I.A. was always more fascinating than actually listening to her records. It’s not that she’s matured or mellowed: far from it. She still spits po-mo flow over unconventional beats, and she’s still more likely to turn to Angolan dance music than any trend in American hip-hop, throwing in pan-Asian elements, Caribbean rhythms and Britpop along the way.

Her beats take samples of traditional drumming—from which tradition exactly it’s hard to tell—and sets them to pitched-up synths and clipped vocals, while tempos accelerate and drag and generally lurch in ways unheard of in dance culture. “Come Walk With Me” starts out as a power ballad for the rave generation, before the video-game-Arabic-dancehall-whatever beats kick in and turn the pop melody into a frenetic ADD anthem.

It works. As does everything else here, the first time M.I.A.’s world of sound coalesces into a truly great album that matches her outsized personality. (Nov. 14)

Download Lady Gaga: “Aura,” “Manicure,” “Gypsy”
Download M.I.A.: “Matangi,” “Come Walk With Me,” “Bring the Noize”

Machinedrum - Vapor City (Ninja Tune)

It’s 2013: does anyone listen to ’90s drum’n’bass anymore, never mind make it? Roni Size and Goldie were spotted on (some kind of) comeback trail this summer, so who knows. Yet here is Machinedrum, aka Trevor Stewart, a Brooklynite now living in Berlin who got his big break when hot new hip-hop MC Azealia Banks rapped over a couple of his tracks. On his debut album for venerable beat purveyors Ninja Tune, Vapor City could have rivalled Plug’s Drum N Bass For Papa for the best electronic album of 1997. Coming out in 2013, however, Stewart incorporates elements of the noir-ish corners of dubstep, ala James Blake, and latter-day Ninja Tune heavyweights like Bonobo. There’s no mistaking the retro vibe, and it’s a reminder that not all of the ’90s was terrible. (Nov. 14)

Download: “Gunshotta,” “Don’t 1 2 Lose U,” “U Still Lie”

Sam Phillips – Push Any Button (Littlebox)

Though Phillips has a stellar reputation among those lucky enough to know her music, she’s paid many of her bills in the last decade doing incidental music for two TV series by Amy Sherman-Palladino: Gilmore Girls and the recently cancelled Bunheads. Because I loved both those shows, I felt inundated with Phillips and that that therefore gave me an excuse to ignore her more recent records. Foolish, foolish.

Composing 20-second snippets appears to have honed Phillips’s talent for concision even more: The 10 songs on this, her second self-released record, clock in at under half an hour. Phillips knows how to encapsulate joy, loneliness, disappointment and determination in tiny, perfect songs rich with melody and driven by a rockabilly backbeat with modern production. Phillips is now free of a record contract, free of a TV show, and free to make lovely little records like this whenever she feels like it. Our gain. (Nov. 28)

Download: “When I’m Alone,” “Pretty Time Bomb,” “You Know I Won’t”

Pusha T - My Name is My Name (Universal)

You spent the last month reading about Rob Ford. You might not be in the mood to immerse yourself in an album about the cocaine trade that includes tracks called “No Regrets” and “Nosetalgia.” Or conversely, that might just put you in exactly the right mood to try and make sense of the seamier side of urban life.

Pusha T has pulled this off before, as one half of The Clipse, whose 2006 album Hell Hath No Fury spun harrowing narratives atop incredible beats courtesy of Pharrell Williams’s Neptunes. Now he has a second lease on life courtesy of Kanye West, who brought Pusha T into his G.O.O.D. Music imprint, and provided production on more than half the album. Williams, The-Dream and Swizz Beatz are also on board, as are vocalists Kelly Rowland, Rick Ross, Kendrick Lamar, Future and 2 Chainz. Despite the wealth of talent, My Name is remarkably sparse and lean—the polar opposite of West’s bloated output of late. Pusha T proves to be a better vehicle for Kanye’s beats than West himself.

The big-name backup certainly helps, but Pusha T is the rare MC who can deliver street stories, smarts and charisma in equal doses. You don’t like the guy, but you can’t help but hang on every inflection in his voice: “36 years of doing dirt like it’s Earth Day?” he posits, before exhaling with either self-loathing or mockery of your own disdain: “Gawwwwwwwd.” 

One can engage the endless debate about whether or not Pusha T is glorifying the drug game—or if he’s doing so any more than countless crime shows. Pusha T tackles the subject with menace, neither celebratory nor cautionary and far removed from the undisputed crossover king, Jay-Z. Unlike Jay, Pusha T still sounds hungry, unsatisfied, and restless—and far superior to any other MC who put out an album in 2013. (Nov. 7)

Download: “Numbers on the Boards,” “Let Me Love You,” “Pain”

Red, Hot + Fela – Various Artists (Knitting Factory)

There’s never a shortage of hastily assembled, wishy-washy compilation albums for charitable causes. The Red Hot series, raising money and awareness for HIV/AIDS, has always been the exception to the rule. After releasing at least an album a year for 12 years, the series took a seven-year hiatus after 2002’s incredible tribute to Afrobeat superstar Fela Kuti—perhaps because it was hard to beat. Now a new Red Hot record only surfaces every couple of years, and this Fela-centred follow-up is more than worth the wait.

Only a few African artists participated last time. This time, it’s the Western artists who are in the minority, leaving room for Spoek Mathambo, Canadian expat Zaki Ibrahim, and, well, a lot of artists of whom you and I have never heard. Most of the major starpower, if you will, is consolidated on one track: ?uestlove, TuneYards and Angelique Kido, on an absolutely sizzling version of “Lady.” And My Morning Jacket, joined by TuneYards’ Merrill Garbus and Alabama Shakes’ Brittany Howard, get the longest track, with 11 minutes of “Trouble Sleep Yanga Wake Am.”

The largely unknown cast that fleshes out the lineup draws from Africans living in Germany, Belgium and the U.S., as well as discoveries like the Kenyan group Just a Band and Sierra Leonean hip-hop crew Bajah.

They all excel at the near-impossible task of interpreting Fela, the man who invented Afrobeat, which seems as daunting as covering James Brown. Granted, many versions are far removed from the originals, but the spirit is intact, and what is a tribute project except an excuse to reinvent? (Nov. 7)

Download: “Lady” – TuneYards, ?uestlove, Angelique Kido and Akua Naru; “Sorrow, Tears and Blood” – Kronos Quartet, Kyp Malone, Tunde Adebimpe and Stuart Bogie; “Afrodisco Beat 2013” – Tony Allen, M1 and Baloji

Omar Souleyman – Wenu Wenu (Ribbon)

When Hosni Mubarak was deposed as president of Egypt during the Arab Spring, his immediate successor was Omar Souleyman—not, sadly, the Syrian musician of the same name. One can dream.

Souleyman makes dabke, the kind of pulsing Arabic electro-folk that one imagines blasting from street carts on a dusty market alleyway—which is where the American who first brought his recordings to the West first heard them. Either a dumbek or an electronic facsimile rattles away insistently, creating an ecstatic trance that Bjork (whom Souleyman has remixed) calls “Syrian techno.” Synths set to approximate reedy wind instruments play furious, frenetic melodies that would send Ashley MacIssac spinning, while Souleyman plays the energetic frontman with the command and charisma of a Jamaican dancehall singer.

Before the civil war, this was Syrian wedding music. Now Souleyman lives in exile in Turkey, admitting that he has trouble making joyous music while his country is falling apart.

He made this, his first official Western release, with Kieran Hebden of FourTet, whose dreamy, psychedelic strains of electronica Hebden keeps to himself; he knows better than to mess with Souleyman’s working formula. The only significant change is perhaps more definition of the bass tones, creating greater contrasts with the tinny synths. Souleyman’s vocals also benefit from better microphones; everything no longer sounds overdriven, which may lose some of the appeal for his early adopters, but the improvements are incredibly subtle, and absolutely nothing has been watered down or Westernized. Hebden merely loaned Souleyman’s keyboardist some new synths.

Souleyman may be a man without a country, but the whole world is about to embrace him. (Nov. 7)

Download: “Ya Yumma,” “Nahy,” “Mawal Jamar”

The Strumbellas - We Still Move on Dance Floors (Six Shooter)

The zeitgeist could not be better for the Strumbellas—who, on the surface, are another group of beirdos with acoustic instruments that sound like Elliott Brood mixed with Funeral-era Arcade Fire, tailor-made for the millions of fans that have transformed Mumford and Sons, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, and the Lumineers into platinum acts in the past two years. Indeed, We Still Move on Dance Floors was produced by Ryan Hadlock, the architect of the Lumineers’ massive breakthrough.

Name-dropping might provide context, but the Strumbellas, who hail from Lindsay, Ont., would be a fantastic band regardless of current trends. Singer Simon Ward writes soaring melodies for both campfires and stadiums; his backing band, including violinist Isabel Ritchie, sound like they road-tested this material for a full year before capturing the energy in the studio. Unlike their folkier contemporaries, the Strumbellas are at heart an electric rock band, having more in common with modern classic rockers like Yukon Blonde or Zeus, and the songs would be as powerful no matter what the instrumentation.

Right now the Strumbellas are the kind of band with a weekly residency at Toronto’s tiny Cameron House, with their tour schedule including Irish pubs in Sarnia. Based on this sure-to-be breakthrough album, that’s all about to change very quickly. (Nov. 21)

Download: “Sailing,” “Did I Die?,” “End of an Era”

12 Years a Slave – Various Artists (Sony)

You’ve spent over two hours in a darkened theatre enduring the gripping, powerful and emotionally draining cinematic experience of being trapped in one man’s hell as a slave.

Now: relive the magic with this companion soundtrack album!

(Did Schindler’s List come with an album “inspired by” the film featuring contemporary pop stars?)

John Legend was put in charge of this project, and he’s done a largely tasteful job, maintaining the sombre tone of the film while curating something that, unlike the film, you can handle experiencing more than once. The heavy-handed score by Hans Zimmer is thankfully relegated to a bare minimum, and the solo fiddle tunes are impossible to hear without picturing the tortured expression of Chiwetel Ejiofor being forced to play for his masters. Legend himself shines on two tracks: one an a cappella, one accompanied by just guitar—both rare settings for the normally slick R&B singer. Bluesman Gary Clark Jr., Alabama Shakes and African-American opera singer David Hughey provide solid era-appropriate material, while Alicia Keys panders with a limp modern track, and Chris Cornell—wait a minute, what the hell is Chris Cornell doing here?

The film is a stunning, unforgettable work of art; the fact that the largely unrelated “soundtrack,” which on the surface seems like a quick cash-in, manages to make an impact of its own is a minor triumph. (Nov. 21)

Download: John Legend feat. Fink – “Move,” Alabama Shakes – “Driva Man,” David Hughey and Roosevelt Credit – “My Lord Sunshine (Sunrise)”

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