The best new records I heard this month were ones I reviewed for The Grid: Rosanne Cash and Hidden Cameras.
The Hidden Cameras are a band I wondered if I would ever love again the way I did from about 2002-05. To me, they seemed to have stalled, and I didn’t enjoy any of Joel Gibb’s newer songs as much as I did those that sprung from his initial burst of inspiration. This album makes me a believer again: both the sound and the songs signal an entirely new chapter. The Hidden Cameras play a noon-hour show at the University of Guelph on Feb. 13, a show at the Starlight Lounge in Waterloo that same night, and Lee’s Palace in Toronto on Feb. 15. My Grid review is here.
Here are the other January 2014 releases reviewed in my column for the Waterloo Record and Guelph Mercury.
Couer de Pirate – Trauma (Grosse Boite)
At the end of a TV drama there’s often a plaintive piano track, often sung by a pixieish woman, sometimes a cover version. Quebecois superstar Couer de Pirate was commissioned by just such a TV show to do 12 such covers, which comprise this, her English-language debut. It’s an odd showcase of the woman’s talents, as this is very much a one-dimensional representation of her capabilities: every song is the same tempo, features almost the exact same piano chording, and she sounds careful never to betray any actual emotion (lest it distract from the TV montage, no doubt).
And so here is a gimmicky reworking of Amy Winehouse, mopey numbers by The National, Bon Iver and Patrick Watson, not-bad takes on Nancy Sinatra, Tom Waits and the McGarrigle sisters, and a surprising reinvention of Kenny Rogers’s “Lucille.” But there are also all-too-obvious picks: does anyone need another cover of “Ain’t No Sunshine” or “Dead Flowers”? Why cover “Last Kiss” after Pearl Jam did? And for anyone whose followed Couer de Pirate’s career closely, it’s more than disappointing that her take on The Weeknd’s “Wicked Games” is nowhere to be found.
As with most covers albums, this is a mild distraction—and an odd move into the Anglosphere from a woman who has sold hundreds of thousands of records in her native tongue. (Jan. 23)
Download: “Lucille,” “Summer Wine,” “Heartbeats Accelerating”
Fred Eaglesmith – Tambourine (EOne)
Somewhere in a small town in North America tonight, Fred Eaglesmith and his band are playing a small community hall packed with fans. The next night, it will happen again in a new town. And then again. And again. In an age of blockbusters, Eaglesmith is a small-scale niche marketer par excellence, putting out 17 records in 33 years and touring endlessly. He’s had much more popular singers cover his songs and land Top 40 hits with them, but he still works with Guelph producer Scott Merritt and makes his records in a tiny hamlet in Norfolk County, with one microphone and his five-piece band—two guitarists, a mandolin player and a rhythm section—all playing together at once. It’s the kind of country and early rock’n’roll that Eaglesmith, 56, grew up with. Tambourine could be 1964, it could be 2014, and it sounds all the better for not letting us know the difference.
Although Eaglesmith’s recordings have evolved over the years, the sheer volume of them could lead you to think they’re interchangeable. He’s been working with his current band for several years now, ever since the death of long-time sidekick and mentor Willie P. Bennett, and they bring a renewed vigour—as well as three-part female harmonies—to his delivery. But Tambourine stands out as being one of Eaglesmith’s most solid collection of songs in many years; it’s not just mood, nuance and performance that he and Merritt nail perfectly this time out. And with “Nobody Gets Everything,” he’s most certainly written another hit—for someone else to eventually sing, while he continues to get in the van and do his own thing. (Jan. 30)
Download: “What It Takes,” “Nobody Gets Everything,” “Train Wreck”
Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings – Give the People What They Want! (Daptone)
There’s a track on Sharon Jones’s new album called “Long Time Wrong Time”: it’s been four years since we heard new material from this hard-working soul singer, but it’s never the wrong time to hear Sharon Jones. This album was pushed back seven months while Jones battled Stage 2 pancreatic cancer—which forced her to take the longest break of her career.
So much about Jones’s personal story is inspiring, from her hardscrabble upbringing to her decades of obscurity to her late-in-life stardom to this current medical battle; every time you hear her voice, you want to root for her. Listening to her fifth album, easily her best, you hear a woman who would never let something like a potentially life-threatening disease get in the way of a good show.
So of course Jones is fantastic, and of course her Dap-Kings are the tightest backing group this side of the E Street Band (they’ve been used by Amy Winehouse and Michael Bublé, among others). They’ve been at it full-time for more than 12 years now, and what started as a retro revival soul shtick has fully evolved into songs and a production approach that doesn’t recall glory days long past: it often exceeds them. Give the People What They Want delivers 10 tracks that most often recall the Staples Singers: not just Jones in Mavis’s role, but guitarist Binky Griptite’s evocation of Pop Staples’s guitar, and the increased role of backing vocalists Saundra Williams and Starr Duncan.
Jones sings here about how “People Don’t Get What They Deserve”—and while she may been sidetracked lately, there’s every indication here that her upward trajectory is about to go sky high. (Jan. 16)
Download: “Stranger to My Happiness,” “You’ll Be Lonely,” “Long Time Wrong Time”
Doug Paisley - Strong Feelings (Cameron House/Warner)
Everyone loves Toronto songwriter Doug Paisley—as they should. His 2010 album Constant Companion was hailed as a classic by all who heard it; it was a slow-building word-of-mouth favourite, a collection of homespun songs that sounded like you’ve known them all your life, sung them around campfires in the summer, kept you warm in long Canadian winters. Leslie Feist sang on that album. Mary Margaret O’Hara sings on this one. The Band’s Garth Hudson plays on both. Afie Jurvanen of Bahamas has toured with him, and appears here—as does Bazil Donovan of Blue Rodeo and avant-garde sax man Colin Stetson. If his soft-spoken delivery is any indication, Doug Paisley is not an extrovert rustling up any favour he can; these people all came to him.
Paisley’s craft comes from such a well-worn tradition, from Gordon Lightfoot through to Sarah Harmer, that there is little room for surprises. And yet “Where the Light Takes You,” an otherwise straightforward Blue Rodeo-esque mid-tempo country song, is transformed in the coda into a minor-key psychedelic turn with the sudden appearance of analog synth that pushes the song into Pink Floyd territory. Likewise, “What’s Up Is Down” would be a standard folk ballad were it not for the jazz piano, Mary Margaret O’Hara on backing vocals, a sad trombone and a soloing saxophone.
Constant Companion is a hard album to top; Paisley doesn’t exactly do that here. But Strong Feelings is still a more-than-worthy introduction for most folks to Paisley’s talents—enough to illustrate the rare, intangible gift he possesses, the one that separates the merely good from the truly great. (Jan. 30)
Download: “Song My Love Can Sing,” “Radio Girl,” “Where the Light Takes You”
Bruce Springsteen – High Hopes (Columbia)
High hopes, indeed—that sums up the way every Springsteen fan has felt for the past 20 years, a period of time when the icon has both thrilled and chilled, rarely consistently. Few of his albums are true clunkers (Working on a Dream); a few can stand strong alongside earlier triumphs (Magic); some are merely successful sidetracks (We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions). Springsteen himself likely has high hopes for this record: his last album, Wrecking Ball, was his first ever to not be certified gold sales status in the U.S.
As a compilation of stray tracks and covers from the last decade, High Hopes is predictably scattershot: part well-trod cliché, part overdue (he’s been playing “American Skin” live for the past 14 years), and partly a welcome chunk of worthy new songs. It also rounds up a few strong covers: Australian punk band the Saints’ “Just Like Fire Would,” the droning “Dream Baby Dream” by Suicide, and the title track, by obscure L.A. band the Havalinas.
Despite the fact the album was made with different producers and different band members—now-deceased E-Streeters Clarence Clemons and Danny Federici are here, as is everyone else who’s been in and out of the band in the last decade—it hangs together surprisingly well, due mostly to the fact the material never sinks as low as the worst moments on (the otherwise not-bad) Wrecking Ball.
The only misstep is the prominent role afforded guitarist Tom Morello, whom Springsteen clearly adores and grants second billing on most of the tracks here (listed as “featuring Tom Morello”), even shared lead vocals. Springsteen obviously feels like he’s tapping into the youthful energy of someone merely 15 years younger than him, allowing Morello to take multiple solos employing his patented pyrotechnics from his rap-rock days in Rage Against the Machine. Ever wonder what Eddie Van Halen would have sounded like in the E-Street Band? To find out, one must suffer through the heavy-handed take on the 1995 song “Ghost of Tom Joad,” where Morello indulges in unnecessary shredding.
Holding pattern Springsteen—maybe that’s the best we can hope for while we wait for a tour announcement. And pray that Morello stays home. (Jan. 16)
Download: “American Skin (41 Shots),” “Just Like Fire Would,” “Down in the Hole”