|And Then You Shoot Your Cousin|
Highly recommended: The Roots
Worth your while: Nels Cline Singers
These reviews ran in the Waterloo Record between May 22 and June 5. Other May 2014 reviews ran here.
Blondie – Ghosts of Download / Blondie 4(0) Ever: Greatest Hits Deluxe Redux (Universal)
Never saw this coming: Blondie, circa 2014, covering Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Relax”; the first half of this six-minute version is set to a morbid pace and features just piano, Debbie Harry and backing singers. After that, it really gets weird: a guitar and synth interlude then gives way to what sounds like the original backing track with an EDM makeover. By the time Harry starts pleading with us to hit her with laser beams, I’d be shocked if anyone is still listening.
Between that and the head-scratching album title, Blondie are choosing to celebrate their 40th anniversary as a band in strange style. On this, their fourth album since their 1999 comeback, they seem a tad, well, desparate: this is a double album, the second half of which features the band rerecording all of their greatest hits, without any major reinvention or imagination—so why bother?
The good news is that Blondie’s new originals sound exactly as you might hope they would: much like their 1999 hit “Maria,” this material will fit in seamlessly beside their greatest hits in a live set, even if it errs on the fluffier side, and these recorded versions have occasionally unfortunate nods to Max Martin-style modern pop production. Harry is in fine voice, while the subtle cumbia touches (including accordion) are no more out of place than the reggae that would have coloured earlier material. But between the rerecorded bonus disc, the too-long running length and the seeming inability to trust their best instincts on everything but the actual songwriting, Blondie seems to chasing ghosts rather than forging a future. (June 5)
Download: “Rave,” “Euphoria,” “Backroom”
Nels Cline Singers – Macroscope (Mack Avenue)
Pronto – The Cheetah (Butterscotch)
Rumour has it Wilco is reconvening in September. Its members have hardly been idle. Drummer Glenn Kotche put out his second album of solo percussion; Jeff Tweedy produced Low and Mavis Staples; bassist John Stirratt and multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone put out a new Autumn Defense album. Now keyboardist Mikael Jorgensen follows up his 2013 colllaboration with Greg O’Keeffe with a reissue of The Cheetah, an album he recorded at Wilco’s Chicago loft, with O’Keeffe and members of the Chicago Underground Trio, around the time he joined the band in 2001. And Wilco’s lead guitarist, Nels Cline, has put out his third album of 2014 (the only one leading his eponymous instrumental trio, however).
Cline had a prolific career before he joined Wilco; listen to any of his lyrical guitar solos in that band and it’s clear he’s much more than just another sideman. Cline plays guitar solos for people who don’t like guitar; indeed, often it doesn’t even sound like he’s playing guitar. He’s one of the only modern guitarists who can accurately be called Hendrixian: not just for technique or style or capacity for innovation, but for soul—you can feel every note Cline plays. Here he’s joined by longtime drummer Scott Amendola, new bassist Trevor Dunn (Mr. Bungle), his wife Yuka Honda (Cibo Matto), harpist Zeena Parkins and percussionist Cyro Baptista—all but Amendola are frequently collaborators with John Zorn, the king of the improv scene in Cline’s newly adopted hometown of NYC. Together, they move through somewhat traditional jazz-rock fusion to beatless noise soundscapes and everything in between (sometimes, like on “Hairy Mother,” all in the same song). Playing in a somewhat conventional rock band as a day job has hardly dulled Cline’s creatively restless spirit.
Much like in Wilco itself, Jorgensen takes a back seat to Cline when comparing these two albums. Cline belongs up front; Jorgensen works best in the background. Pronto dips into jazzy textures not unlike a lot of Tortoise-related projects in Chicago in the late ’90s, but Jorgensen’s real love is synth soundtrack work: he admits that the ’80s film and television work of Stewart Copeland and Jan Hammer were big influences when he was growing up. What sets Pronto apart is his tendency to drop a banjo in the middle of a glitch electronic track—something that no doubt appealed to Jeff Tweedy when he was casting about for new bandmates in 2001.
Download Nels Cline: “Red Before Orange,” “The Wedding Band,” “Hairy Mother”
Download Pronto: “Marsella Rambla,” “Tectonics,” “Tardigrades”
Fucked Up - Glass Boys (Arts and Crafts)
“Punk is dad.” This phrase—a play on the early ’80s rallying cry of The Expoited, “punk’s not dead”—has become a popular meme lately, and it certainly applies to Toronto band Fucked Up. Yes, some of them are dads. And even though their very name distances themselves from the mainstream, they’ve won major prizes, receive government arts funding, opened for Arcade Fire and have shown themselves to be essential cultural catalysts in their hometown and beyond. The anti-melodic growlings of singer Damian Abraham may still be repellant to many, but Fucked Up is downright respectable. As they should be: they do great work—outside the studio.
Glass Boys is an unusually concise record for this ambitious band: 43 minutes. It suits them well. And yet, they still manage to outstay their welcome. For such an explosive live act, the layers of guitars lack any attack. As always, Abraham writes some fine lyrics—and then does everything he can to make sure we can’t hear them. The band sounds like they’re running on autopilot; there are none of the temporary flashes of brilliance scattered throughout the 2011 rock opera David Comes to Life or 2008’s genre-busting Chemistry of Common Life—both flawed records, but both at least more musically interesting than this one. This is a band usually overflowing with ideas, for better or worse. Here, the only good ideas are the psychedelic Tom Petty-ish guitar solo on “Warm Change,” and hiring Gord Downie to sing a chorus about “the privilege of mass delusion.” J Mascis is on here somewhere; you’d never know it without glancing at liner notes.
So much cultural capital, so little to spend it on. That’s Fucked Up. (June 5)
Download: “The Art of Patrons,” “Paper the House,” “Sun Glass”
Coldplay – Ghost Stories (Warner)
Celebrity rags will be parsing the lyrics here to find out if this is Chris Martin’s divorce album. Who cares? Ever since the musical crime that was their breakthrough single, “Yellow,” nobody has ever listened to Coldplay for the lyrics, and they won’t now, either: “All I know is that I love you so / so much it hurts”; “In a sky full of stars, I think I saw you.”
No, the real news about Ghost Stories, their third album with producer Brian Eno, is that Coldplay sound like they’ve stepped out of the rat race, no longer shamelessly trying to be The Biggest Band in the World. Ghost Stories is a lovely, quiet, intimate album capable of converting crossed-arm skeptics (right here)—if they stay awake, that is. Ghost Stories doesn’t even feature anything resembling a fist-pumping stadium anthem or power ballad until the second-last song, "A Sky Full of Stars"; otherwise, it’s all about Eno’s trademark ambience, Martin’s falsetto and mostly electronic grooves not far removed from U2’s Zooropa—though I’m not sure that’s a comparison their record company wants to hear. (May 22)
Download: “Midnight,” “Another’s Arms,” “Magic”
Royksopp & Robyn – Do It Again (Arts and Crafts)
It’s been four years since Robyn’s breakthrough album, Body Talk, the rare electro bubble-gum pop record that never seems to get old: more than any of her other talents, it’s Robyn’s songwriting that sets her apart from all her peers. Too bad that’s not obviously evident here, a five-track collaboration with fellow Scandinavians Royksopp. The album’s centrepiece, the nine-minute “Inside the Idle Hour Club,” doesn’t even feature her vocals; the strongest song, the sultry, 10-minute “Monument,” complete with breathy sax solo, is far removed from anything she’s done before. But more power to her: the point of any collaboration is to exit your comfort zone. If the rest of this EP sounded like that, instead of a less interesting take on her usual sound, this might have worked. (May 29)
Download: “Monument,” “Every Little Thing,” “Do It Again”
The Roots – And Then You Shoot Your Cousin (Universal)
Can you imagine if Doc Severinsen made Bitches Brew? If Branford Marsalis made Voodoo? Now that the Roots moved on up with Jimmy Fallon to The Tonight Show, they’re more mainstream than ever, and are in a position to cash in big time—and yet they don’t. This is a band that always craved acceptance, to the point where they once installed stripper poles and hired dancers to “inspire” them during the making of 2004’s The Tipping Point, in hopes of conjuring a more commercial sound. So what now? Guest spots from Justin Timberlake, Jay Z and Katy Perry? Maybe even Elvis Costello, with whom they were last heard together on the full-length 2013 collaboration Wise Up Ghost?
Hardly. As we’ve known since 2009’s How I Got Over, their job as Fallon’s musical foils has freed them up to be as weird as they want to be on their own time. That means lots of minor-key piano, trippy beats and Biblical gloom and doom from MC Black Thought. The guest list is decidedly either close to home (long-time extended crew members Dice Raw and Greg Porn) or avant-garde. Jazz pianist D.D. Jackson unleashes torrents of dissonant clusters over a furious string section on "The Coming," while singer Mercedes Martinez coos soothingly in the background. It’s not John Legend singing on "Tomorrow," even though it sure sounds like it; it’s the considerably lesser-known Raheem DeVaughn. For all its left turns, however, And Then You Shoot Your Cousin is remarkably concise—clocking in at an old-school length of 43 minutes and small change.
The Roots have always been outliers: as a full live band in a DJ culture; as music historians in a rapidly changing hip-hop world; as egoless musicians able to collaborate with anyone and everyone. Now that Black Thought and Questlove—the only two remaining original members—celebrate 20 years together, they continue to push their artform and solidify a reputation as perhaps the only hip-hop artists in history who continue to improve with age. Actually, never mind hip-hop: how many artists of any genre make one of their best records 11 albums into their discography? (May 29)
Download: “Never,” “Understand,” “Tomorrow”