These reviews ran in the Waterloo Record and Guelph Mercury this month. Some of these records are not exactly new releases, but were reviewed because of either their appearance at the Hillside Festival this weekend or their appearance on the Polaris Prize shortlist—or both.
There was a mean, extended heat wave this month, which may have made me grumpier than usual. But I’ll still highly recommend the following: Los Piranas, Family Atlantica, Mavis Staples, A Hawk and a Hacksaw, Pierre Lapointe.
I stand by my assertion, however, that Purity Ring has made the worst album ever shortlisted for the Polaris Prize.
Boards of Canada – Tomorrow’s Harvest (Warp)
Gold Panda – Half of Where You Live (Ghostly International)
Now that electronic dance music (EDM) means stadium-sized raves and soundtracks a movie like Spring Breakers, the Scottish duo Boards of Canada—one of the most beloved electronic acts to survive the ecstasy era, named after nature documentaries by the National Film Board of Canada—return to get mysterious and downright eerie. There used to be a comforting—weird, but comforting—element to their chilled-out analog-synth sounds. Not unlike, say, watching Teletubbies as the sun rises to end a very long night at a rural rave outside Glasgow (which they used to host).
Here, however, on their first album in eight years, they’ve ditched the more simplistic and repetitive elements of their music and become much stronger composers. They’re still chill, but slightly on edge, like they’re revelling in the calm during a brief respite from impending chaos. Tomorrow’s Harvest is lovely yet ominous; there’s a tension throughout that never explodes. You could throw this on to relax, but you might end up looking over your shoulder every few minutes, paranoid about every bump in the night.
Equally evocative is Gold Panda, whose second album is considerably more buoyant than BoC—obviously a big influence on the dreamy, warm and organic sounds that colour the soundscapes and beats here, which also recall early Caribou and early 2000s poptronica acts like Lali Puna. Gold Panda functions better when he’s not playing for the club—the more beat-driven the track here, the less successful it is, for home listening, at least. But his equally melodic and textural approach spins a lot of charm. (July 18)
Download Boards of Canada: “White Cyclosa,” “Cold Earth,” “Reach for the Dead”
Download Gold Panda: “Flintron,” “Junk City II,” “The Most Livable City”
Louise Burns – The Midnight Mass (Light Organ)
Goth girls on the beach—who knew that would be the trend in Canadian music this summer? First Toronto’s Austra took their witchy ways and went disco, and now Vancouver’s Louise Burns writes lovely, major-key pop songs that nonetheless exist in shadows and veils of reverb, where ’50s songwriting is paired with ’80s production (big synths, thunderous drums)—not unlike what her key collaborator here, Danish producer/guitarist Sune Rose Wagner, does in his band the Raveonettes. She’s devoted to dated aesthetics from 25 years ago, but her songs—and her captivating voice—more than pull her through. (July 18)
Download: “Emerald’s Shatter,” “I Don’t Like Sunny Days,” “Mother of Earth”
Chloe Charles – Break the Balance (Independent)
This new Toronto artist throws us a curveball on the opening track of her debut album, with a doo-wop song in 6/8 time featuring pizzicato strings and a hiccupping vocal. From there, Charles dazzles with jazzy, soul-tinged folk songs that are fully formed and complex—not to mention expertly arranged (she’s a classical guitar player, and puts a cello to good use throughout) and impeccably sung (in her mellower moments, she’s part Nick Drake, part Cassandra Wilson). This is not what you’d expect from a debut album; this woman is following her own path, and it’s that unique vision that will set her far apart from other pop, soul and folkie singer/songwriter, here or anywhere else. (July 4)
Download: “Business,” “Refrain from Fire,” “Amulet”
Louis-Jean Cormier – Le Treizieme Etage (Simone)
Quebecois band Karkwa went on hiatus after their fourth album won the 2010 Polaris Prize and made major inroads into English Canada. As someone who didn’t care for it in the least, it’s been a pleasant shock to fall in love with not one, but two solo records by Karkwa alumni: first the twisted cabaret of Sagot’s 2012 album Piano Mal, and now the debut from main songwriter Cormier, who sounds much more alive and full of possibility on these songs. His melodic hooks are more direct, there’s more swing and swagger in the arrangements, and though he’s largely playing acoustic guitar, he’s still left-field enough to avoid more mainstream comparisons. “J’hais les happy ends,” he claims, but Le Treizieme Etage suggests that the end of one successful stage of his career has only meant even greater possibilities. (July 18)
Download: “La Cassette,” “Tout le Monde En Meme Temps,” “Un Refrain Trop Long”
Family Atlantica – s/t (Soundway)
In 2001, the Senegalese band Orchestre Baobob was resurrected from ’70s obscurity to reveal that Afro-Cuban rhythms didn’t develop exclusively in the Caribbean, but that in fact there had been plenty of cross-Atlantic pollination ever since sailors brought Cuban records to Dakar in the 1940s. Like African funk bands imitating James Brown, cultural lines blurred effortlessly and creating exciting, enduring music.
Family Atlantica is a new band based in London, founded by a British multi-instrumentalist, Jack Yglesias of the Heliocentrics, and his Venezuelan wife, Luzmira Zerpa. Even more so than with Orchestre Baobob, it’s impossible to place where any given track is coming from: a Malian n’goni can be heard over a cumbia beat, a full-throated South American folk singer sings over what sound like Nigerian rhythms; an Ethiopian jazz legend plays some straight-up Afro-Cuban grooves. Every so often the action slows down for an exploratory, psychedelic side trip or a steel-pan interlude. Perhaps a plaintive cello accompanies a downtempo vocal-percussion performance, or a desert-blues guitar sizzles over a simmering rumba. Whatever gets thrown into the mix, it all works. And for that reason, it might be the only “world music” album you need to hear this summer (that is, outside of Kobo Town’s neo-calypso Jumbie in the Jukebox). (July 18)
Download: “Cumbacutiri,” “Pescador Saharawi,” “Manicero”
A Hawk and a Hacksaw – You Have Already Gone to the Other World (LM Dupli-Cation)
Which other world? For Jeremy Barnes and Heather Trost, the married duo from New Mexico who comprise A Hawk and a Hacksaw, they’ve been deeply immersed in eastern European folk music for the last decade (before that, Barnes drummed with Neutral Milk Hotel; both have also played with Beirut). But even aficionados of that music may find themselves in another world listening to this album, which is simultaneously rich with tradition and yet, in both production and approach, wonderfully alien.
Dulcimers and cimbaloms are distorted and played at rapid-fire tempos; percussion can be thunderous and calamitous; ghostly voices appear and haunting piano ballads interrupt the action; psychedelic touches abound; the intense accordion and violin of Barnes and Trost bind everything together with swirling melodies in tricky time signatures.
This music is based on the 1964 Soviet film Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, set in western Ukraine, incorporating some of that film’s original score, but featuring mostly new material (hence the different title); they’ve performed the album with screenings of the film. Though A Hawk and a Hacksaw’s discography is consistently strong, this is one of their best: at the very least, it’s their most diverse and most accomplished. Drawing direct inspiration from a 50-year-old film has, ironically, broadened their already expansive boundaries. (July 4)
Download: “You Have Already Gone to the Other World,” “Witch’s Theme,” “Hora Pa Bataie”
Jay-Z – Magna Carta… Holy Grail (Universal)
Judging by the title, this is obviously a Historically Important Album. (Since when was Jay-Z a modest man?) This time, however, unlike most of his post-Black Album career in the last 10 years, Jay-Z has reason to be boastful. The beats and production here are fantastic: not as deliberately provocative (read: difficult) as Kanye West’s Yeezus, but the equal of Justin Timberlake’s 20/20 Experience, which, like this, was also helmed by Timbaland (who talked Jay-Z into making this record).
Lyrically, he’s got more fire than he’s had for years; which is really weird, considering that he’s largely talking about his art collection, his clothes and his European vacations, with a few asides about being a new parent (“Baby need Pampers! / Daddy need at least three weeks in the Hamptons!”). He’s far more engaging than he has a right to be at this point.
Ultimately, however, this is—like the 20/20 Experience—a serious comeback for Timbaland, who’s been in a creative wilderness since he ruled the pop universe in 2006. Here, he makes stadium-sized, futuristic hip-hop that’s seriously creative, with subtlety and sass; an instrumental mix of this record would challenge any underground EDM record. And yet it’s not all Timbaland all the time: Pharrell Williams helms some of the best tracks here—including the Frank Ocean feature and the all-hands-on-deck track “BBC,” with Nas, Beyoncé, Timberlake, Swizz Beatz and Timbaland—and Toronto’s Boi 1da guides Rick Ross through an ominous, noir-ish electro excursion, “F*ckwithmeyouknowigotit.”
Usually new dads don’t suddenly roar back to recording sounding like they have something to prove, but Jay-Z—who has nothing to prove to anyone, with 11 #1 albums to his credit, second only to the Beatles—has clearly decided to stop coasting on his rep. Check the exec. (July 11)
Download: “Tom Ford,” “Oceans (feat. Frank Ocean),” “Somewhereinamerica”
Pierre Lapointe – Punkt (Audiogram)
Lapointe is a platinum-selling Quebecois star who has won every major prize in that province, as well as a few in France. Naturally, the rest of Canada has no idea who he is, but this latest album—his fifth—landed on the Polaris Prize long list. As it should. It’s a sprawling, messy, ambitious epic that is to French chanson what Fucked Up is to hardcore punk. Lapointe is a Euro cabaret singer with swagger and orchestration to back him up—including clarinets, trumpets, harps, honky-tonk pianos, pipe organs, fuzzy electric guitars and even a female MC. Lapointe largely keeps the mood buoyant and playful, with the occasional gorgeous Patrick Watson-style piano ballad in the mix, but he also gets downright strange on sombre and disturbing mood pieces like “Barbara,” or the mix of Mike Oldfield and James Bond-theme pomp on “Les Ministeres” (which also features backing singers seemingly borrowed from the Star Trek theme). It’s a tour de force, as the French say, and Lapointe is too brilliant to remain a provincial concern. (July 4)
Download: “L’étrange Route Des Amoureux,” “La Sexualité,” “Monsieur”
Los Piranas - Toma Tu Jabón Kapax (VampiSoul)
One of my favourite records of 2012 was by the Meridian Brothers, a Colombian group from Bogota doing a deliciously weird, digital and psychedelic take on cumbia music. This side trio for that band’s guitarist, Eblis Álvarez, is even more outré and mindblowing—even more so for the fact that it was recorded live.
Álvarez runs his guitar through a laptop and conjures saxophones and silicon-driven bleeps and blurps, pitch bending every note and still retaining a sense of soul while sounding like the pure expression of a truly unhinged mind. The intent is crazy; the execution is Hendrixian. The rhythm section of Mario Galeano on bass and Pedro Ojeda on drums do more than keep pace; each dances delicately around the guitar while never losing track of the jazzy Latin groove, which is often kicked into overdrive. Los Piranas are the rare band that melts your mind, freak you out and still keep you dancing. The only real parallel is those early Moog exotica records by Jean-Jacques Perry and Gershon Kingsley (The In Sound From Way Out)—except transplanted to South America with a rock trio and 10 times more insane. (July 11)
Download: “Lambada de Oceania,” “Africa y America,” “Champeta de la Corrupcion y la Desgana”
July Talk – s/t (White Girl)
Tom Waits and Amy Millan fronting a band that alternates between punk rockabilly and post-Arcade Fire modern rock? Why not, says this Toronto duo, whose sugar-and-salt vocal duets are only the beginning of the appeal. They’re a whip-tight band that writes great hooks, play with dynamics, and develop bona fide tension with the help of a powerhouse rhythm section. Word is that their live show is even more explosive than what they get up to in the recording studio. (July 25)
Download: “Guns and Ammunition,” “I’ve Rationed Well,” “The Garden”
METZ - s/t (Sub Pop)
METZ IS A TORONTO BAND WHOSE NAME ALWAYS APPEARS ALL IN UPPER-CASE, EVEN THOUGH IT IS NOT AN ACRONYM.
THIS IS PROBABLY BECAUSE, JUST LIKE READING A PARAGRAPH ENTIRELY IN CAPITAL LETTERS, LISTENING TO METZ IS ASSAULTIVE, THEIR OVERALL ABRASION AND LACK OF RIFFS OR SONGS MADE UP FOR BY THE FACT THAT THEY PLAY TOGETHER MORE AS A FORCE OF NATURE THAN A TYPICAL ROCK TRIO.
THE PRODUCTION BY GRAHAM WALSH OF HOLY FUCK GIVES YOU SOME IDEA WHAT TO EXPECT LIVE; THE DRUMS ON “KNIFE IN THE WATER” SOUND LIKE THEY COLLAPSED THE WALLS OF THE STUDIO.
WHILE THE CONSISTENCY AND THE POWER IS ADMIRABLE, THE MATERIAL IS ALSO INSTANTLY FORGETTABLE, DEVOID OF MELODY AND RIFFS OR AN INCH OF SUBTLETY. METZ GET COMPARED TO NIRVANA SEVERAL THOUSAND TIMES A DAY—AND INDEED, IF YOU ALWAYS THOUGHT COBAIN’S BEATLES FETISH WAS A WEAKNESS, THEN METZ IS THE BAND FOR YOU. (July 25)
Download: “Headache,” “Wasted,” “Negative Space”
Purity Ring – s/t (4AD)
This duo take their name from an object meant to signify virginity until marriage. I’ll grant them truth in advertising: Purity Ring, the band, sound like sexless, prepubescent naifs who’ve been locked in their basement with Xboxes and haven't ever exercised a sweat gland in their life: on the dance floor, in a rock club, hauling gear, or even, I don't know, mowing the lawn.
It’s hard to believe they’re twentysomethings who had the gumption to move from Edmonton to Montreal, because they can’t seem to find more than one preset on their drum machine. At least now that they’ve had some inexplicable success, they're touring and seeing the world; in a few years' time they'll be as embarrassed listening to this record as I am for them now.
If you find Grimes, last year’s buzz act spawned from the same Montreal scene, to be fey, juvenile and annoying (I don’t, but many do), then Purity Ring takes the worst of Grimes and amplifies it by 10. In the eight years of the Polaris Prize, a lot of great music has been brought to wider attention; this atrocity, on the other hand, discredits everyone else on this year’s otherwise worthy shortlist. Let’s pretend this never happened. (July 25)
Download: “Crawlersout,” “Obedear,” “Belispeak”
Daniel Romano – Come Cry With Me (Normaltown)
Don’t tell Daniel Romano there’s a tear in his beer—he’s well aware. Romano doesn’t do his Hank Williams homage in a half-assed manner: he’s got the reedy voice (albeit deeper than Williams); the period-specific arrangements; the three-part-harmony, wordless backing vocalists; even the Nudie Cohn-style suit (made by local designer Wendy Rohife of Golden West). And then there’s the Nashville drawl that doesn’t seem native to either the Niagara Region, where Romano grew up, nor the Maritimes, where his grandparents came from. (It’s a good thing Geoff Berner isn’t playing Hillside this year, or he might have been slotted in a workshop with Romano where he could play his song “Phony Drawl.”) Romano is the type of artist who drives critics crazy debating so-called authenticity—there’s undoubtedly an element of theatre here. Whether it works for you depends entirely on whether you find his songs emotionally engaging or downright corn pone. (July 25)
Download: “He Let Her Memory Go (Wild),” “Just Before the Moment,” “Where No One Else Will Find It”
Sing Me the Songs That Say I Love You: A Concert for Kate McGarrigle – Various Artists (Nonesuch)
Beloved Quebecois singer/songwriter Kate McGarrigle died from cancer in 2010. The last 10 years of her life were buoyed by the success of her children, Rufus and Martha Wainwright, who frequently talked up the legacy of their mother and their aunt, Anna; the family—and their extended family, as well as old family friends like Emmylou Harris—performed together frequently in those years.
So it’s no surprise that the clan still sticks together and responded to producer Joe Boyd’s invitation to stage three tribute concerts in London, New York and Toronto; a documentary was made and this soundtrack released. The guest list includes all the usual suspects as well as Norah Jones, Antony, a reunited Richard and Linda Thompson (!), Robert Charlebois and, um, Jimmy Fallon (who does Loudon Wainwright’s “Swimming Song”). With a wealth of talent, beautiful songs and two discs’ worth of material, it’s more than a fitting tribute. The love and reverence every performer here has for the late, great Kate is evident in every note—particularly in Martha’s show-stopping “I Am a Diamond.”
And yet—this sounds like the longest wake you’ve ever been to. The McGarrigles had always written about family and melancholy (or both), so the set list is full of titles like “Kiss and Say Goodbye,” “Tell My Sister,” “Go Leave,” “Mother Mother,” “I Cried For Us,” “Go Leave” and “Travelling On For Jesus.” There are jubilant moments, certainly—and the song performed by members of Broken Social Scene and AroarA is a welcome change of pace, as well as a stunning reinvention—but it’s hard to shake the morbidity. It doesn’t help that it all concludes with a home demo Kate recorded before she died, of a song called “I Just Want to Make It Last,” which opens with her saying, “I’d like to thank everyone for coming to my party.” (July 11)
Download: “I Am a Diamond” (Martha and Rufus Wainwright), “Mother Mother” (Kevin Drew, Amy Millan, Andrew Whiteman, Ariel Engle), “As Fast As My Feet Can Carry Me” (Emmylou Harris and Norah Jones)
Mavis Staples – One True Vine (Anti)
The gospel/pop legend of Staples Singers fame (“I’ll Take You There,” “Respect Yourself”) has been on the comeback trail ever since Barack Obama campaigned for president in 2007. One True Vine is the second album she’s made collaborating with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy; he not only produces, but plays every instrument here except drums (handled by his 17-year-old son, Spencer). It’s an intimate affair that suits Staples even better than the more robust, bluesy bands she tours with. It also matches the tenor of the material, like the spiritual “What Are They Doing in Heaven Today,” or lead-off track “Holy Ghost” (written by the band Low, from their most recent album, which Tweedy also produced): “Some holy ghost … feeds my passion for transcendence / turns my water into wine / makes me wish I was empty.”
This is not entirely a mournful, reflective album, however. Spencer Tweedy brings a laid-back groove to a cover of Funkadelic’s “Can You Get to That?”, as well as the Staples Singers classic “I Like the Things About Me (That I Once Despised),” which features primarily just a fuzzed-out bass, drums, and Staples with backing singers. Papa Jeff knows that you don’t need to do much to dress up Mavis Staples—her voice on its own has more character than a roomful of musicians—and his minimalist approach pays off on every song. (July 4)
Download: “Holy Ghost,” “Can You Get to That,” “Far Celestial Shores”
Young Galaxy – Ultramarine (Paper Bag)
If Metric lost their sex appeal, their guitars and their finely honed songwriting skills and moved to Sweden, they’d sound a lot like Young Galaxy. This Vancouver duo play carefully quantized synth pop with icy delivery and minimal sparks. “Outside I am diamond / inside I am plain,” sings Catherine McCandless: no kidding. Neither particularly melodic nor progressive nor remotely interesting—which makes three fatal strikes against a synth record—it sounds especially redundant in a year that’s seen new records from both The Knife and Austra; it also has the counterintuitive effect of making me wistfully nostalgic for Anna Domino records, if that means anything to you. Either way, it’s a miracle Young Galaxy teleported its way onto the Polaris Prize shortlist this year. (July 25)
Download: “Sleepwalk With Me,” “What We Want,” “Fever”