Everyone knows no good new records ever get released in early January, which is why I spent most of this month’s Waterloo Record column reviewing albums I missed from the end of 2013. See also: yesterday’s review of the magical Nick Buzz album.
Highly recommended: Africa Express Presents: Maison des Jeunes, Brandy Clark, Patty Griffin
Worth a listen: Robbie Fulks, Alison Moyet
Africa Express Presents: Maison Des Jeunes – Various Artists (Transgressive)
This album was recorded in Bamako, Mali, over seven days last October. Damon Albarn arrived with Brian Eno, Nick Zinner of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and others, and set up a studio at a local youth centre. They corralled the best young local acts they could find—perhaps through word of mouth via the more established acts Albarn booked on the U.K. tour called Africa Express—and somehow came out of that week with an 11-song album that is an embarrassment of riches. There’s no mistaking the Malian roots here—koras and n’gonis abound, and the sound is familiar to anyone familiar with Rokia Traoré, Ali Farka Touré or Amadou and Mariam—but Maison Des Jeunes is modern and vibrant. Though there are some stripped-down, gorgeous acoustic tracks—the likes of which you might expect—there are also roaring electric guitars, modern electronics and hip-hop influences enhancing and playing off the traditional instrumentation, while the drumming is, naturally, phenomenal (especially on tracks by Lil Silva and the Lobi Traoré Band).
There are no African names here recognizable to Western audiences—yet. You’re unlikely to hear a better compilation of music from any genre or continent for the rest of the year. (Jan. 23)
Download: Songhoy Blues – “Soubour,” Lil Silva – “Bouramsy,” Lobi Traoré Band – “Deni Kelen Be Koko”
Brandy Clark – 12 Stories (Slate Creek)
As will quickly become evident in this entry of 2013 catch-up, I barely listened to any country music in the last 12 months. But I can’t imagine anything being better than Brandy Clark.
When you’re a songwriter for hire, even when you’re in your mid-30s and you’ve scored Nashville hits for Miranda Lambert, LeAnn Rimes, and newcomer Kacey Musgraves, there’s some subject matter best kept to yourself. Singers like a sure thing; risks are few—despite the fact that the likes of Lambert and Musgraves owe a large part of their success for their resistance to complacent country music stereotypes.
Though Brandy Clark is musically conservative—12 Stories is note-perfect, tasteful, conventional country—she throws caution to the wind when penning narratives of sin, sex, revenge and regret. Clark’s characters cheat, carouse, imbibe and inhale—mostly because the men in their life have let them down: “Boy, if you build a fire, you better bet she’s got a match.” Clark can be deadly serious, a bonafide tearjerker, yet also has a wicked and cheeky side: the protagonist in “Stripes” resists wreaking violent revenge on her ex-husband because, as she says, “There’s no crime of passion worth a crime in fashion / the only thing saving your life is that I don’t look good in orange and I hate stripes.”
This album is called 12 Stories for a reason: they are Alice Munro-meets-Elmore Leonard in miniature. And yet despite the fact that two of these songs were previously recorded by LeAnn Rimes and Reba McEntire—and Clark also has a Grammy nomination for Kacey Musgraves’s “Follow Your Arrow”—this powerhouse debut was, sadly, obscure outside of critics’ circles (I only discovered it after reading some year-end lists), released to little fanfare in October by a tiny label with only one other artist on its roster. In yet another year when mainstream country deserved so much mockery (just Google “Grady Smith” and “Gawker” for an illustrative video montage of 2013’s crimes against country music), it’s no wonder Clark was held up as a beacon of light. (Jan. 2)
Download: “Stripes,” “Hold My Hand,” “Hungover “
Robbie Fulks – Gone Away Backward (Bloodshot)
Fulks was a leading light of the alt-country scene of the late ’90s, a wiseacre who revelled in wordplay, one-liners and sharp satire, but who also demanded to be taken seriously. He had clearly studied all the country music songwriting greats, and didn’t want to settle for being anything less than in their company.
Fulks has not been as active in recent years; I’ll admit I also lost track. But on Gone Away Backward, he’s sounding better than ever: no longer a joker, his wit is instead focused entirely on capturing the pain and disappointment of the New Depression, set to entirely acoustic arrangements featuring little more than guitar, banjo, fiddle, bass and four-part harmony. Even the instrumental tracks stand out—which, for a wordsmith like Fulks, says a lot about his evolution as a songwriter. (Jan. 2)
Download: “I’ll Trade You Money for Wine,” “Where I Fell,” “Sometimes the Grass is Really Greener”
Patty Griffin – Silver Bell (A&M)
Patty Griffin – American Kid (New West)
Silver Bell, released in October, is Patty Griffin’s third album. American Kid, released five months earlier, is her eighth. You follow? The singer/songwriter, who has written hits for a who’s who of Nashville and is a current collaborator (personal and professional) with Robert Plant, has a long and varied career, and American Kid is worth the while of any roots music fan—that almost goes without saying at this stage in Griffin’s career.
Silver Bell is a whole other story. Recorded in New Orleans at Daniel Lanois’s Kingsway Studio in 2000, it was shelved by her record label. She re-recorded some songs for later albums; others were covered by the Dixie Chicks; the whole project was widely bootlegged and a fan favourite. Said record company finally decided to release it 13 years later, recently remixed by Glyn Johns (The Who, Eric Clapton)—which must be bittersweet for Griffin, as it’s an astounding album, one that vastly overshadows her newer material.
Here, she sounds like an amalgam of Emmylou Harris, Kathleen Edwards, Lucinda Williams and Sam Phillips, both vocally and in terms of songwriting heft. Musically, there’s little here that sounds like Nashville at all: there are Arabic motifs, New Orleans rhythms, scorching electric guitar, raw rockers that wouldn’t be out of place on Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville or Weeping Tile’s Cold Snap, and, on the fuzzed-out “Perfect White Girls,” what sounds like a template for everything Melissa McClelland currently does in Whitehorse.
Eclecticism aside, the songs are fantastic, and it’s hard to imagine them ever sounding better than they do here, in Griffin’s hands, with this band, in this studio. No one said the music business ever made sense, but better late than never to hear this Silver Bell ring. (Jan. 2)
Download from Silver Bell: “Little God,” “Perfect White Girls,” “Silver Bell”
Download from American Kid: “Don’t Let Me Die in Florida,” “That Kind of Lonely,” “Get Ready Marie”
Jessy Lanza – Pull My Hair Back (Hyperdub)
This new Hamilton singer/producer grew up loving ’90s R&B, which is obvious in her cooing vocal melodies and some of her rhythmic approaches. Her production style—with help from Junior Boys’ Jeremy Greenspan—is far from slick or glossy, filled as it is with analog synthesizers, skittering beats that draw from underground strains of house music, and long instrumental passages that sound like remixes of Top 40 hits where only hints of the hook are evident. Lanza makes it all work, coming off like a more mainstream Grimes at times, but is best enjoyed in small doses; the album as a whole feels featherweight. (Jan. 9)
Download: “Keep Moving,” “F--k Diamond,” “Against the Wall”
Lenka Lichtenberg – Embrace (independent)
Born in Prague, based in Toronto, singing in Yiddish, Hebrew, Russian and English, Lenka Lichtenberg is a klezmer vocalist who intertwines her various musical sources until they become indistinguishable, bound together only by her voice. She gets comparisons to Loreena McKennitt, which are not unwarranted: there’s a similar pristine vocal tone and meticulous, delicate arrangements designed for concert theatres where you can hear a pin drop. That’s in part why it’s refreshing to hear Guelph remixer Eccodek get his hands on the track “Open My Eyes” and breathe some life into it (you can hear it on Soundcloud). Hopefully that collaboration convinces Lichtenberg to pump some bass into her musical backbone. (Jan. 9)
Download: “Open My Eyes,” “Raise a Cup of Joy,” “Vayn fun lebn”
Alison Moyet – The Minutes (Cooking Vinyl)
Thirty years ago, Alison Moyet left her first band, the electro duo Yazoo. Her solo career since then was full of ups and downs and label frustration, followed by a long period of silence. The Minutes is her return—in parts—to the electronic backdrops that contrast and complement her soulful voice perfectly. Sadly for Yazoo fans, that doesn’t mean a return to the disco or experimental pop heard on the classic Upstairs at Eric’s—that was another time, another place. “Suddenly the landscape has changed” is the first lyric Moyet sings here. Of course, it’s not exactly sudden, but hearing her come even within close proximity of the sound that spawned her talent on the world is a relief.
Moyet now makes adult pop music the way any 52-year-old British singer would, somewhere between the polarities of Massive Attack and Kylie Minogue. Working with producer Guy Sigsworth (Seal, Bjork, Alanis Morissette), who drenches her many minor-key melodies in melancholic pomp. At its worst, it drowns out Moyet herself; the best moments happen when they either strip everything back (“Filigree”) or write a major-key pop anthem (“When I Was Your Girl”) or take their sole excursion onto the dance floor (“Right as Rain”).
Moyet has a voice that demands to be heard; hopefully this album is just the first step of a larger comeback. (Jan. 16)
Download: “When I Was Your Girl,” “Right as Rain,” “Filigree”
Doug Tielli – Keresley (Tin Angel)
Doug Tielli, Martin’s youngest brother, has been making music for almost 20 years, and yet Keresley is only his second solo album. Recorded in the titular rural British town (30 minutes east of Birmingham), Keresley features little more than Tielli’s gorgeous, elastic voice, acoustic guitar, drums and trombone. Sometimes he channels Nick Drake, sometimes his acoustic guitar sounds like a Malian kora, sometimes it feels like he’s back home in Toronto playing improv at the Music Gallery with jazz-informed players. It’s lilting and lovely. Tielli has spent most of his career playing well with others, but he’s even better when left entirely to his own devices. (Jan. 9)
Download: “Water Falls,” “Oak,” “Big Man of the Underbrush”