The following reviews ran in January in the Waterloo Record and Guelph Mercury. Highly recommended: Petra Haden, Kvety, Lee Harvey Osmond, Bob Wiseman.
Petra Haden - At the Movies (Anti)
Roomful of Teeth - s/t (New Amsterdam)
At the Movies is all about choirs and show tunes, but this is definitely not Glee. Petra Haden makes a cappella albums by layering her own voice into orchestras and reinventing the familiar: her last album was an inventive full-length cover of the album The Who Sell Out—which was arguably as good as the original. Here, she takes the familiar trope of tackling famous movie theme songs. Occasionally she dives into campy, novelty territory—how can the James Bond song “Goldfinger” not be campy?—but more often than not she takes what could be a ridiculous notion and turns it into something entirely transformational: the theme from Psycho is actually far more frightening performed entirely by female voices than by piercing strings.
Haden is mostly dealing with instrumental material, naturally, but the occasional pop song (“It Might Be You,” from Tootsie; “This is Not America,” from The Falcon and the Snowman) sneaks in, as do three key instrumentalists in guest spots: pianist Brad Mehldau, guitarist Bill Frisell and her father, bassist Charlie Haden. The one time she strays close to cliché is “Calling You” from Baghdad Cafe, a torch song staple of the last 25 years. Otherwise, you'd never expect a vocalist to interpret Trent Reznor's score for The Social Network, or to pick the Superman theme from John Williams' endless list of anthems--and Haden has the chutzpah and the talent to reimagine iconic works in her own image.
Roomful of Teeth are an eight-piece New York City vocal ensemble, in which Petra Haden would fit right in. The group grew out of a circle of modern classical composers revolving around the New Amsterdam label, which in turn is a younger generational offshoot of Bang on a Can, the leading American avant-garde collective of the last 30 years. Madrigals, Meredith Monk weirdness, Broadway, Bulgarian harmonies, yodelling, Inuit and Tuvan throat singing--they cover just about vocal tradition but doo-wop. Though it's often esoteric and edgy, they can go for grandiosity, like on the enormous chorus with the odd lyric that goes: “There is no subtlety in death / It’s like a hurricane / it’s like Farrakhan,” by composer William Brittelle. They also collaborate with Merrill Garbus of Tuneyards, who they've accompanied live, and who pens two key tracks here (though she does not appear on them).
Should Petra Haden hit the road for At the Movies, Roomful of Teeth would be the obvious choice to be her hired backing band. And I dare your local high school glee club to tackle anything from either of these records. (Jan. 24)
Download Petra Haden: “Superman Theme,” “Psycho Prelude,” “It Might Be You”
Download Roomful of Teeth: “Amid the Minotaurs,” “Montmartre,” “Quizassa”
Kvety – Bile vcely (Indiescope)
This Czech band could never be accused of a one-note shtick. A lot of central and eastern European rock music can be downright baffling to North American ears; while Kvety are enchanting and intriguing: alien, yes (Czech is not a poetic language when sung), but entirely inviting. The male vocalist’s soft delivery helps, as does the dominant role of violin, but Kvety combine melody, old-world mystery and unpredictable arrangements in an entirely original blend that begs easy comparisons: but if pressed, I’d offer Welsh weirdo folk band Gorky’s Zygotic Minci, early Pink Floyd, Swedish psychedelic jazz-rockers Dungen, Camper Van Beethoven’s Key Lime Pie and Radiohead’s The Bends. Do those make sense together? They do here. Considering the incredible 2012 album by Kvety’s labelmates Dva, where are the articles in the international press about the Czech music scene? It’s a matter of time. (Jan. 31)
Download: "Kamosi," "Papousek noci," "My deti ze stanice Bullerbyn"
Lee Harvey Osmond – The Folk Sinner (Latent)
Tom Wilson, of Junkhouse and Blackie and the Rodeo Kings, has been a mainstay in Canadian music for more than 20 years—a career, he often jokes, that has earned him “tens of dollars” over that time. And yet ever since he reinvented himself as Lee Harvey Osmond in 2009, it sounds like he’s just hitting his stride now. This is where he teams up with the Cowboy Junkies’ Michael Timmins, and together they set Wilson’s haunting baritone and bluesy songs to spare and spooky goth-folk arrangements centred around chugging, droning guitars and a healthy dose of rockabilly reverb.
Guest stars lend a hand: Hawksley Workman’s lovely falsetto on “Break Your Body,” a duet with Oh Susanna on “Big Chief,” the haunting harmonica of Paul Reddick, and the unmistakable harmony presence of Margo Timmins. As producer, Michael Timmins is careful never to crowd a song: all extraneous elements—and plenty of excellent electric guitars, courtesy of Colin Cripps, Colin Linden and Timmins—hover around the atmosphere, leaving the focus on the spare rhythms and Wilson’s commanding, though subtle, presence.
It’s Canadiana cottage-country weirdness at its finest, as well as a fine album by two guys who’ve wanted to be wise, old ragged veterans ever since they were 25 years old. Now that they are, they have even more to offer than they did in their supposed prime. It’s far too early to begin compiling a best of 2013 list, but The Folk Sinner is a good start. (Jan. 17)
Download: “Devil’s Load,” “Oh Linda,” “Honey Runnin’”
The Liminanas – Crystal Anis (Hozac)
The Velvet Underground’s debut album and a collection of Serge Gainsbourg’s ’60s hits: two albums that every member of this Parisian band probably had in common growing up. Fuzzy garage-rock guitars, primitive drums, whispered vocals, reedy organs and minor-key menace flip the usually sunny French yé-yé sound on its head, and wouldn’t sound out of place in an early Godard movie featuring reckless boho youth who worship American fashion driving through the Left Bank. It’s a bit of a one-note shtick, but that one note sounds fabulous. (Jan. 31)
Download: “Longanisse,” “Belmondo,” “Betty and Johnny”
Minotaurs – New Believers (Static Clang)
The last time we heard from Guelph songwriter and drummer Nathan Lawr, he had abandoned his singer/songwriter mode to embrace Afrobeat influences; here, on his second album leading a project called Minotaurs, he returns with much of the same band—featuring King Cobb Steelie bassist Kevin Lynn, Toronto’s most valuable saxophone player Jeremy Strachan, pianist Shaw-Han Liem—and vocalists Casey Mecija (Ohbijou) and Sarah Harmer, plus a full horn section and producer Paul Aucoin at the helm. If the first Minotaurs album boasted only a few tracks that burst with Lawr’s new-found confidence in this new territory, here he fully inhabits the swagger necessary to pull this off, and his band—in particular the horn section and the percussionists (Lawr, Aucoin and Jay Anderson)—is firing on all cylinders. The only time he stumbles is when the tempo slows down, on the closing “Windchimes in the Evening”—which is odd for a guy whose solo career started out as a balladeer. Otherwise, he’s got his calling card for summer festival season ready to roll. (Jan. 24)
Download: “Open the Doors,” “New Believers,” “Make Some Noise”
Pantha du Prince & the Bell Laboratory – Elements of Light (Rough Trade)
As an electronic musician, you can spend your whole life working on new patches for your keyboards or ways to manipulate found-sound samples.
Or you could just hire the bell carillon player for Oslo City Hall—who plays a three-tonne instrument with over 60 bronze bells—and collaborate with a local composer and Norwegian jazz players on tubular bells, marimba, xylophone, cymbals and more, while you work subtle manipulations and place subdued beats beneath it all.
Yes, there are moments on Elements of Light when you feel like Quasimodo has taken over a rave in the town square of a small European town. But Pantha du Prince, the German producer whose 2010 album Black Light is one of the finest electronic albums of the past five years, moves this far beyond an aesthetic gimmick and creates one of the few convincing compositions to bring the influence of Steve Reich and Moondog to modern electronic dance music—even if you’re unlikely to hear these tracks in an actual club, as Elements of Light is a much more rewarding headphone experience than anything else. (Jan. 17)
Download: “Particle,” “Photon,” “Spectral Spirit”
Bob Wiseman – Giulietta Masina at the Oscars Crying (Blocks Recording Club)
For much of the last 15 years, singer/songwriter Bob Wiseman has been working on film and theatre projects, while his solo albums—which, in the ’90s, were wildly eclectic Toronto all-star affairs that contained some of the most inventive and politically provocative music of the era—became withdrawn, solitary and somewhat humourless. For whatever reason, Wiseman has let the world back in to his songs: not just in the studio, where he once again corrals his ideal harmony vocalist Mary Margaret O’Hara and others, but in his songs. As the obtuse title suggests, this is a collection of character sketches, with songs about Fellini’s wife, former Haitian presidents, Neil Young and RCMP tasering victims.
Wiseman is the rare political songwriter who, at his best, can write extremely specific, name-calling songs, and have them stand the test of time--as songs from his first two proper solo albums, about government plots against native activists and Greenpeace campaigners, have done so well. Here, he's back in that mode, most successfully skewering anti-science conservative ideology in “The Reform Party at Burning Man,” where he gets Serena Ryder to do a powerful rap in the middle, notes with a sinister scowl about suppression of governmental information that "what's especially perverse is that this all feels rehearsed," and concludes the song by repeating: “We didn't vote so / you could make a joke out / of people that are broke.”
He's not all piss and vinegar—far from it. What makes this return to form so enjoyable is Wiseman's playful musicality, his skittery keyboards, his '50s-inspired vocal arrangements, the inspired drumming of Mark Hundevad and the spot-on saxophones of Shuffle Demon Richard Underhill. A touching ode to Wiseman's late friend, actress Tracy Wright, is disguised in a song about a distrusted mutual friend set to a “Whiter Shade of Pale” chord progression. The title track is one of Wiseman's loveliest melodies ever, and “Neil Young at the Junos” is, for Wiseman, an oddly reverent song about a mainstream icon.
Together with the recent success of his solo autobiographical theatrical piece, Actionable, this is a welcome reminder of Wiseman's songwriting legacy, and proof that his best work is far from behind him. (Jan. 31)
Download: “email@example.com,” “The Reform Party at Burning Man,” “Aristide at the Press Conference”
Yo La Tengo - Fade (Matador)
When Yo La Tengo was the subject of a biography last year, many people—starting with the band members themselves—wondered how such an artistically consistent, mild-mannered group could possibly provide a compelling narrative for a book. Indeed, the author instead used Yo La Tengo’s career as a way to explore the ebbs and flows of alternative music in general in the last 25 years.
And so what does one say about Yo La Tengo’s new album, their 13th proper record, which is interchangeable with any of their albums from the last 15 years? Not that their well is dry: from the outset, this musically insatiable trio have drawn from dream pop, country, R&B, free jazz, hardcore punk, funk, ambient, squalls of feedback, avant-garde soundtracks and just about everything else, all filtered through their generally soft-spoken, reverent personas.
Yo La Tengo rarely makes a wrong move, but much of Fade sounds like the band on lithium: there is no standout track, the likes of which even their weakest album can be counted on to provide; there is little variation in tempo; and even the quietest moments (with the exception of the stunning "Cornelia and Jane") often sound limp rather than softly powerful, which is normally Yo La Tengo’s forte. Maybe it’s the introduction of producer John McEntire (Tortoise), which marks the first time in 20 years the band has not worked with longtime collaborator Roger Moutenot; maybe Moutenot brought more to Yo La Tengo than anyone realized until now. (Jan. 17)
Download: “Well You Better,” “Cornelia and Jane,” “Ohm”