Tuesday, April 22, 2014

April 2014 reviews

Recommended this month: The Both, Doomsquad

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

 The Both - s/t (SuperEgo)

Aimee Mann almost never makes a bad album—even if they all pretty much sound identical: same impeccable production, same mid-tempo pace. If her lyrics weren’t so smart and incisive and even biting, you could accuse her records of being too polite.

Which is why it’s a tad shocking here, on a full-length collaboration with punk songwriter Ted Leo, that the first time we hear her voice it’s accompanied by a shriek of feedback underneath it. Leo, who is 10 years Mann’s junior, shakes her out of a rut—and not just because of his dirty guitar tone. Unlike a lot of high-profile pairings, The Both sounds like a 50/50 partnership that plays to both artists’ strengths. Even if you didn’t know anything about each performer’s history, it’s evident when every song features not just perfect harmony, but vocals traded off like actual duets—the likes of which barely any pop act other than Stars bothers to write anymore. Both Mann and Leo sound like they’re having fun, discovering the magic they share and raising each other’s game. (April 17)

Download: “Milwaukee,” “Volunteers of America,” “The Hummingbird”

Mac DeMarco - Salad Days (Captured Tracks) 

The term “salad days” goes back to Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, where the heroine says, “My salad days,
When I was green in judgment: cold in blood.” The 24-year-old Mac DeMarco—an Edmonton native who bounced around Vancouver and Montreal before landing in Brooklyn and becoming a buzz act—is definitely in his salad days. His blood, though, is anything but cold. On this, his third full-length (second under his own name), he sounds like nothing at all could possibly raise his blood pressure: indeed, one imagines him sprawled out on a couch, guitar in hand, microphone stand carefully arranged to reach his reclined position, his rhythm section craning their necks to try and intuit changes.

Basing this book on its cover, I had every reason to hate Mac DeMarco. Go ahead: do a Google image search. He comes off as a slacker dressed for a day at the beach in ironic retro-ugly fashion—which seems to go hand in hand with his ’80s guitar chorus pedals that make a god-awful approximation of Pat Metheny slumming with the lo-fi home recording crowd. At times it sounds like the Cocteau Twins’ Robin Guthrie trying to play with Pavement, or the British cloudgazing band The Clientele detuning their guitars in the middle of a song. He almost seems to intentionally be going for the weirdo vote by replicating those strange but beautiful private-press albums from the ’70s, obscurities that existed only in runs of 500 before being reissued in the 2000s with extensively researched liner notes (see: Donnie & Joe Emerson’s album Dreamin’ Wild, on Light in the Attic Records).

If you can get past that—and it might take a while—it becomes clear that DeMarco puts a lot of effort into making music that sounds this effortless, if not, well, bad. He’s a much better guitar player than his crappy sound would suggest, and he occasionally employs unconventional harmonies (or dissonance) in otherwise dreamy (albeit slight) melodies. Every song sounds more or less the same—does that make him lazy or consistent? (April 10)

Download: “Salad Days,” “Brother,” “Johnny’s Odyssey”

Doomsquad – Kalaboogie (Hand Drawn Dracula)

Bewitching beatsmithery from the dark woods of Algonquin Park, created by three siblings who like to filter their worldly influences through a dark haze: sludgy guitars burble up from underneath electronic pulses and looped marimbas, with haunting female vocals chanting throughout. Sometimes a funk groove or a pop song might emerge; sometimes it sounds like you’ve stumbled into a rural rave with a bunch of hippie goths. Kalaboogie isn’t just a silly name for an album; it’s named after Calabogie Lake, just west of Ottawa, where much of this album was recorded with engineer Leon Taheny (Owen Pallett, Bruce Peninsula). Fever Ray meets King Cobb Steelie? Stranger things have happened—and many of them do, here. (April 17)

Download: “When the Dead Become Infants,” “Waka Waka,” “Eternal Return”

Eccodek – Singing in Tongues (Black Swan Sounds)

This is the fifth original album by Guelph’s Andrew McPherson as Eccodek, and never has his global reach sounded so coherent. He’s long dabbled in African and Indian grooves; the fusion of the two is seamless here, even with Balkan vocals and Mediterranean oud and an American hip-hop MC entering into the mix. It sounds much better on headphones than it does on paper. McPherson built the tracks from raw material by his occasional collaborator, Jah Youssef, recorded by Lewis Melville in Youssef’s native Mali. Many other artists try to make music like this, thinking if they throw enough ingredients in the pot and slap a beat underneath it, that they’ll magically achieve musical nirvana. That’s not McPherson. There’s a good reason why this small-town guy has built a formidable international reputation: one listen to Singing in Tongues will reveal what that is. (April 17)

Download: “In Confidence,” “Singing in Tongues,” “In My Tribe”

Michael Feuerstack & Associates – Singer Songer (Headless Owl)

Montreal “singer/songer” Mike Feuerstack is easily an MVP of Canada’s musical underground. He plays or has played with the Wooden Stars, Bell Orchestre, the Luyas, Bry Webb (Constantines), Julie Doiron, Islands, and more. Here, he calls in some favours, writing nine songs for his peers to sing; the guest list includes the Weakerthans’ John K. Samson, Bry Webb, Jim Bryson, reclusive Montreal country singer Angela Desveaux, Mathias Kom (The Burning Hell), Jessie Stein (the Luyas), Little Scream, and Llewyn Davis—whoops, I mean, Leif Vollebekk. Longtime Feuerstack fan and collaborator Jeremy Gara, of Arcade Fire, is on drums. What could go wrong? Nothing, of course. Granted, it doesn’t pack the same wallop that these same singers might have covering the greatest non-hits of Feuerstack’s entire career, as opposed to entirely new material. There’s plenty of time for that—and no shortage of admirers likely to step up to the plate. (April 10)

Download: “Did I?” (feat. Bry Webb), “Stories” (feat. Jessie Stein), “Lost & Found” (feat. Jim Bryson)

Ibibio Sound Machine – s/t (Soundway)

The number of record labels devoted to reissuing African music from the ’70s has recently discovered a rich treasure of contemporary African acts in London, notably KonKoma and Owiny Sigoma Band. Ibibio Sound Machine is fronted by British-Nigerian vocalist Eno Williams, singing in her mother’s native tongue, backed by three producers and KonKoma’s Ghanaian guitarist Alfred Bannerman. They have more in common with early ’80s post-disco dance music than they do ’70s Afrobeat or highlife, favouring synth bass and modern digital production, albeit with a real horn section; at times there is also the distorted kalimba, a futuristic ghetto sound popularized by the Congolese Konono No. 1. Ibibio Sound Machine’s drumming is anything but straight-ahead, filled with tricky syncopation; between that and Williams’s non-English lyrics, it’s clear this is a band thoroughly enjoying itself straddled between two times, two places. (April 3)

Download: “Let’s Dance,” “Prodigal Son,” “I’m Running”

Justin Rutledge - Daredevil (Outside)

What a disappointing month for Tragically Hip fans. First Gord Downie’s much anticipated collaboration with the Sadies turned out largely to be a letdown, and now Justin Rutledge shows up to dump on the legacy of one of the greatest rock bands this country has ever produced.

Sure, The Tragically Hip are songwriters responsible for venerable favourites that deserve to be reinterpreted and rediscovered, and Downie’s lyrics leap off the page as poetry independent of the music. But The Tragically Hip are also a rock band first and foremost, one whose power depends largely on their internal chemistry. Here, the songs are stripped beyond bare by Rutledge, a sad-sack supreme whose music is hard to appreciate from anything but a horizontal position. Even then it can be a cumbersome chore (unusual for easy listening music), despite the high calibre of players he consistently manages to attract.

It’s not impossible to cover the Hip, but it requires imagination: compare Selina Martin’s 2011 electronic reimagining of “Grace Too” and compare it to Rutledge’s limp, somnambulant rendition heard here. Taking one Hip song and dragging it to a dead stop is not a terrible idea—once. And Sarah Polley (of all people) already did that with “Courage,” for The Sweet Hereafter soundtrack more than 15 years ago. Gord Downie’s melodies on their own rarely provide hooks: the Hip’s success has everything to do with his snarling delivery and the riffs and energy behind him. Obviously, none of that is here; oddly enough, Rutledge even seems to avoid the more melodic material available in the catalogue, and gives the best song here, “Fiddler’s Green,” to Jenn Grant to sing.

Nothing about these versions make me rethink the originals or shed new light on their merits; everything about these versions make me want to listen to the originals—or, in fact, anything else at all.

Is there an Anti-Polaris Music Prize for worst Canadian album of the year? If so, there’s no contest. I’ll grant Rutledge this about Daredevil: it’s daring, all right. (April 24)

Download: “Looking For a Place to Happen,” “Escape is at Hand For the Travellin’ Man,” “Fiddler’s Green”

Thus Owls – Turning Rocks (Secret City)

Canada and Sweden: two countries that punch above their global weight when it comes to musical talent. Surely, however, Thus Owls is the first half-Canadian, half-Swede collaboration. Singer Erika Angell (née Alexandersson) met Patrick Watson’s delightfully unconventional guitarist, Simon Angell, on tour in Europe; shortly after, they got married and started Thus Owls, with Swedish bassist Martin Höper and endlessly inventive Montreal drummer Stefan Schneider (Bell Orchestre, Luyas); organist Parker Shper rounds out the lineup. Together, they exist outside of genre or easy comparisons—even to Watson’s particular brand of art-rock. Vocal harmonies recall early Joni Mitchell, while the fearless songwriting, which plays with structure and meter, rarely ventures toward obvious hooks. The music works better on an intellectual level than on a gut one, though Erika’s vocals are more than capable of holding anyone’s attention. (April 10)

Download: “As Long As We Try a Little,” “Bloody War,” “A Windful of Screams”

Tycho – Awake (Ghostly International)

It’s amazing the difference it makes to electronic musicians when they actually form a live band and hit the road. Just ask Nicholas Jaar, who hired guitarist Dave Harrington to help him tour Jaar’s solo project, and their chemistry together led to the collaboration Darkside, arguably the best electronic record of 2013. Here, Tycho, aka San Francisco artist Scott Hansen, invites the live band he toured with to promote 2011’s Dive to join him in the studio. Dive had featured guitar and bass helping to colour the synth-drenched, dreamy, washed-out beats; with a seasoned band in the studio this time, however, Hansen taps into a live energy that steps up his game. Bassist Zac Brown (no, not that Zac Brown, of the Zac Brown Band) is just as melodic as Hansen’s U2-ish guitar lines, while drummer Rory O’Connor ensures that no one will ever again accuse Tycho of being an ambient electronic act. (April 3)

Download: “Awake,” “Plains,” “See”

Whoop-Szo – Qallunaat/Odemin (Out of Sound)

Here’s the pitch: a bunch of freaky noisemakers from Guelph travel to the second-northernmost community in Quebec to run a screen-printing program for Inuit youth, and wind up recording a double album there full of psychedelic jams, field recordings, hushed pop songs, raging prog-rock monstrosities, and anything else the landscape and the -50 temperatures inspired them to do. Even without the backstory, the music itself would inspire you to play it at your next basement party, field rave—or maybe your five-day festival of independent music and arts programming with a special focus on the weird and wonderful (i.e. Guelph’s magnificent Kazoo fest, which took place April 9-13). (April 10)

Download: “Dark Light,” “Has It Been So Long,” “Whale Songs”

Lavender Country

Lavender Country – s/t (Paradise of Bachelors)

The past 10 years of victories for the gay rights movement have been overwhelming at times; it’s hard to explain to people under 20 just what a long path it’s been, just how hostile mainstream culture was before Ellen DeGeneres and and Rufus Wainwright and Elton John living his life as a proud gay man. Country star Chely Wright came out a couple of years ago; she remains the only major country star to do so (k.d. lang had already left Nashville behind when she left the closet).

In 1973, Patrick Haggerty had been kicked out of the Peace Corps for being gay and had been sent to a mental institution to be “cured.” In Seattle, he started working with a queer support group, and Lavender Country was born of political concerns first, not musical ones. Haggerty wrote songs about electroshock therapy (“they call it mental hygiene / I call it psychic rape”), falling in love with closeted men, and revolutionary cries to “Rise up and rip this goddam system down!” The album was funded by Seattle’s Gay Community Social Services, and distributed entirely off the stage and through mail-order ads in the back of gay magazines. On paper, that sounds horrible, like a bad flashback to campus activist open-mic nights.

Granted, Haggerty’s nasal voice is an acquired taste—but then, so is Hank Williams and Stompin’ Tom Connors. His lyrics are extremely direct and devoid of subtlety—but this is country music, isn’t it? Nothing about Lavender Country is terribly unusual, except for the lyrical content.

Thankfully, Haggerty is a much stronger songwriter than one would expect for someone for whom songwriting was a means to an end. He’s much more playful than most strident shit-disturbers: he’s funny, joyous and sly, and never more so than on “Cryin’ These Cocksucking Tears,” a duet with Eve Morris, that skewers the evil that straight men do: “How long you been thinking that your shit ain’t stinking? / Well Mama’s done wiping your rear / You may need a wife, sir, but I won’t spend my life, sir / Crying these cocksucking tears.” It might be a polemical pursuit, but Lavender Country is not a screed. The first lines of the album are: “Waking up to say hip-hip hooray, I’m glad I’m gay / can’t repress my happiness ever since I tried your way.”

The social and historical importance of Lavender Country is obvious: even the Country Music Hall of Fame recognized it, in 2000, for being the first openly gay country record. Thankfully, it’s as rewarding to listen to as it is to read about.

This welcome reissue comes with a 16-page booklet, featuring a transcript of an extensive conversation where Haggerty tells his fascinating life story—which involves so much more than just music. In 1957, his dying father—a stoic, silent dairy farmer in a remote logging community who raised 10 children—knew Haggerty was gay before the teenager knew himself, and told the boy to never sneak around and always be himself. (You can read an excerpt of that story in a piece I wrote for Bunch Family here.) Years later, Haggerty became a father himself, one of the few out gay men of the time to do so. He’s a fabulous and warm raconteur; it’s safe to say that reading his story is the only time in my life I’ve ever become weepy while reading liner notes.

Whether it’s the music or the story that draws you in, Lavender Country is one of the most fascinating releases of the year. Apparently the Hidden Cameras’ Joel Gibb is working on a country folk album; if he hasn’t finished it yet, he’d be well-advised to take a trip to Lavender Country.

Download: “Waltzing Will Trilogy,” “Cryin’ These Cocksucking Tears,” “Georgie Pie”

Monday, April 14, 2014

Gord Downie, the Sadies and the Conquering Sun

Gord Downie, the Sadies and the Conquering Sun – s/t (Arts and Crafts)

Who is this mysterious Conquering Sun? What role did he/she/it have in this historic collaboration between one of the most electrifying frontmen in Canadian history and one of the greatest, hardest-working bands in Canada today? Whomever or whatever the Conquering Sun may be, it appears to have evaporated almost any sense of magic from this meeting of minds.

When the Tragically Hip singer first fronted the Sadies, it was for a CBC session—the likes of which are unlikely to ever happen again, thanks to recent cuts—where, among other things, they covered Iggy and the Stooges’ proto-punk classic “Search and Destroy.” It was a rejuvenating performance for a man whose main band only offers occasional bouts of inspiration these days, and whose solo project is purposely loose and amorphous—more often than not, wonderfully so. Fronting the Sadies for a full-length album gives Downie the opportunity to front an entirely different kind of rock band, and to fully explore the country textures that inform some of his best ballads. It’s an opportunity lost.

The best thing about the Sadies is their malleability, their ability to adapt to whomever they’re backing up; they’re as well-known for their work with Greg Keelor, Neil Young, Neko Case and Jon Spencer as they are for their own records. People want to tap into the Sadies’ energy because they obviously have something special. Too often here, they sound like a poor man’s Tragically Hip, playing different guitars—which is not a way I ever imagined I would describe the Sadies.

Three tracks on this 10-song album almost save the day. Picking up on the Stooges vibe, “It Didn’t Start to Break My Heart Until This Afternoon” is a tense and dense psychedelic punk jam; it has an energy and experimentation not heard anywhere else on the record. Conversely, “Budget Shoes” could be a classic Sadies song recast with suitably absurdist imagery from Downie; “Devil Enough” wouldn’t be out of place as a down-tempo track on a Tragically Hip album, only here it benefits from Travis Good’s mandolin and drummer Mike Belitsky’s ability to shift moods and tempos on a dime. Cling to those three tracks, fans; nothing else offered here comes close.

Downie told the Ottawa Citizen recently, “We didn’t have a ton of ideas and pretty much every idea we had we used.” On the album, he sings: “There’s no need for drama / this is one good fast job. Forget the promise, here’s what I got / you could do it in your pyjamas / this is one good fast job.” All true, with a qualifier on the word “good.” I’m not sure why a project that took four years to complete sounds so rushed and unfulfilling.

Download: “It Didn’t Start to Break My Heart Until This Afternoon,” “Budget Shoes,” “Devil Enough”