Highly recommended: BadBadNotGood, Culture Reject
Well worth your while: Bry Webb, Naomi Shelton & the Gospel Queens
Extracurricular activity: I wrote about the Polaris Prize shortlist for Maclean’s here.
The following reviews ran in the Waterloo Record this month.
Badbadnotgood – III (Pirates Blend/Arts and Crafts)
Jazz and hip-hop have a convoluted and one-sided history, mostly consisting of DJs lifting old jazz records for samples. Most attempts at hip-hop by live jazz-funk bands are better left unmentioned. Here, however, is Toronto’s BadBadNotGood, a jazz-trained trio who started out recording covers of current hip-hop tracks deconstructed as instrumental jazz.
It’s telling that on this, their third album but first of all-original material, BadBadNotGood has finally found its voice. It sounds less like hip-hop than the ’70s jazz beloved by crate diggers: Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters, etc. The difference is that the drums don’t ever swing; Alexander Sowinski’s metronomic style owes more to the boom-bap of early ’90s hip-hop or, obviously, the Roots’ Questlove. That means that when the band does leave the steady beats behind and go on extended jazz excursions, like on the accelerating “Kaleidscopes,” Sowinski and bassist Chester Hansen push the band in prog rock directions. Guest saxophonist Leland Whitty helps flesh out the sound on Confessions, while keyboardist Matthew Tavares switches to guitar for moodier tracks like “Eyes Closed.”
It’s unlikely any of these tracks will be jacked by MCs looking for a beat, but that speaks to how far this band has come. Rather than imitating something else or trying to insert themselves into someone else’s vision, this is the sound of BadBadNotGood coming into their own. (July 31)
Download: “Can’t Leave the Night,” “Confessions,” “Triangle”
Be Forest – Earthbeat (We Were Never Being Boring)
What if The XX were tapped to score the sequel to Twin Peaks? Italian band Be Forest wants to answer that question. Hailing from a small town on the Adriatic Coast, they capture the ennui and beauty and mystery of small-town life with tasteful reverb, cooed vocals and dreamlike guitars—with a bit of what sounds like kalimba thrown in just for the hell of it. Vocals are handled by drummer Erica Terenzi and bassist Costanza Delle Rose, both of whom share the deadpan delivery of Julee Cruise; meanwhile, the subtle rumble of a rhythm section and textural guitars recall The Cure’s Disintegration—basically, Earthbeat is one big flashback to the swooniest side of 1990, a time just before grunge flatlined the definition of “alternative” for a full decade.
Oddly enough, Be Forest was discovered by Japandroids; they covered a song by the Vancouver band known for rousing rock’n’roll anthems and buzzsaw guitars; that led to an opening slot on a Japandroids European tour. They’d be a much better fit with a band like Warpaint. But don’t let the hushed vocals and drifting guitars deceive you; there’s some serious muscle underneath. (July 3)
Download: “Captured Heart,” “Lost Boy,” “Airwaves”
Culture Reject – Forces (White Whale)
Six long years after its debut EP, Culture Reject coughs up six new songs. You know what they say about the slow and steady.
Culture Reject’s main man, Michael O’Connell, is one of the most talented and musically curious men I’ve ever met. Full disclosure: He and I used to play in a band called Black Cabbage in the mid-’90s; the band broke up 15 years ago. I’d like to think I can be objective at this point. I know his strengths and his weaknesses intimately—and there’s no evidence of any of the latter here. It’s easily the best thing he’s ever done.
Forces finds him peeling back the layers that cramped his debut EP, retaining the tiny touches and tasty bits of percussion, harmonica, trumpet and backing vocals, but scattering them sparingly across hauntingly beautiful songs by keyboardist Karri North and bassist Carlie Howell. "Quicksand" features perhaps the most evocative guitar riff you’ll hear this year. There’s a skittering, syncopated Brazilian rhythm bubbling underneath "Talking Easy." "Timeless Outrage" has all the makings of a campfire classic, one of the most unusually straightforward songs in O’Connell’s catalogue. "Avalanche" boasts a Shuggie Otis strut.
O’Connell’s release schedule doesn’t do his career momentum any favours. But when he emerges from hibernation with an album like this, that hardly matters.
Download: “In My Lovin,” “Quicksand,” “Timeless Outrage”
The Harpoonist and the Axe Murderer – A Real Fine Mess (Tonic)
Does the world need another blues duo? Let’s rephrase the question: does the world need another rock band, folk singer or MC? Just the blues duo has become a subgenre unto itself in the last 10 years, that doesn’t mean someone can’t come out of the woods—or, in this case, somewhere between Victoria and Nanaimo—and breathe new life into the form.
The Harpoonist and the Axe Murderer (named after colloquial terms for harmonica and guitar) feature Shawn Hall on soulful vocals and heavily distorted harmonica, and Matthew Rogers on guitar and drums simultaneously: no loops are involved on stage (or, presumably, on this album). No doubt it’s a killer live act and festival pleaser, but this, their third album, also works on its own merits, with huge production that puts them in the leagues of their most obvious comparison point, the Black Keys, as well as gospel-tinged female backing vocals and full horn sections. One of the best songs here is called “They Don’t Make ’Em Like They Used To”—except in the case of the Harpoonist and the Axe Murderer, I’m not sure they ever did. (July 24)
Download: “Mama’s in the Backseat,” “Don’t Make ’Em Like They Used To,” “Cry a Little”
Bob Mould – Beauty and Ruin (Merge)
Some old punks get mellow. Some go country. Some go electronic. Some wind up on weird career detours, writing scripts for professional wrestling. Bob Mould of Sugar and Husker Du has done all those things, except the country part. These days he’s back with a power trio, one that includes Superchunk drummer Jon Wurster, and his amps sound even louder than they did when he rewrote the rules 30 years ago about how noisy and fast and melodic one band could be at once. The man is 53 years old, and yet nothing about this record sounds like he’s trying to force himself to live up to the revered discography made by his younger self; he does it naturally and practically effortlessly—which makes the cover image juxtaposing then-and-now photos of Mould all the more curious. (July 31)
Download: “I Don’t Know Anymore,” “Little Glass Pill,” “Forgiveness”
David O'Meara and Hilotrons – Sing-Song (Independent)
Every poet knows that the way to reach a mass audience is to set your work to music. Gord Downie, John K. Samson, Leonard Cohen: this is nothing new. Montreal duo AroarA recently resurrected an old book of poetry by Alice Notley, In the Pines, and turned it into a Polaris Prize-nominated album (and my favourite record of 2013).
David O’Meara is an Ottawa poet; Hilotrons is the project of unsung musical genius (and I don’t use that term lightly) Mike Dubue. Hilotrons records are rich with the glorious possibilities of pop music, in terms of both songcraft and instrumental skill. Here, however, Dubue creates a captivating soundtrack for O’Meara’s urban observations, dancing around his prose with playful sound effects, snippets of melody and minimal rhythm. Only on two instrumental tracks, one an intermission and the other the finale, does Dubue employ a rhythm section. Everything else sounds like a bizarro radio drama, one whose central character delivers on his promise: “Like Picasso, I’ll happily rearrange your face.” Or your mind. (July 17)
Download: “So Far So Stupid,” “Somewhere Nowhere,” “Arrest Me”
Michael Rault – Living Daylight (Pirates Blend)
There’s a new Sloan album coming this fall. In the meantime, evidence of their influence—particularly their 1994 classic Twice Removed—is abundant in the work of young Michael Rault.
Here’s a guy who loves vintage equipment and fuzz pedals, big harmonies, late-period Beatles, Big Star, flange pedals and even the occasional sitar. Even better, Rault’s voice emits the occasional squeal of pleasure in ways that only Marc Bolan and Prince seem to have ever done effectively; if you heard it, you’d know what I’m talking about.
Rault was a boy wonder in his native Edmonton, recording his first album before the age of 20; he later lent a valuable hand on the arrangements for Couer de Pirate’s album Blonde. Since moving to Toronto, he’s been gigging constantly and joined the exciting young label Pirates Blend (A Tribe Called Red, BadBadNotGood, Zaki Ibrahim), which will hopefully prevent him from getting pigeonholed in a garage rock rut. Living Daylight is a solid record, but one gets the sense that there’s a lot more inside Michael Rault that we’ve yet to hear. (July 10)
Download: “All Alone (On My Own),” “Lost Something,” “Real Love Yeah”
Naomi Shelton & the Gospel Queens – Cold World (Daptone/Maple)
Naomi Shelton sounds like she just stepped out from the choir pews at an Alabama church—which is where she got her start as a teenager in the late ’50s. She’s been singing ever since, and since she joined the Daptone roster in the early 2000s, she’s been one of the best-kept secrets on the label; this, her second album, is the first we’ve heard from her in five years. Needless to say, her band, comprised of Daptone players (who play in the Budos Band, Antibalas and the Dap-Kings) deliver all the punch of Muscle Shoals, while Shelton and the Gospel Queens display the kind of chemistry that’s all too rare in the age of lead singers multitracking their own vocals. “You’ve got to feel the spirit down in your bones,” they sing. They don’t have to spell it out; we feel it, all right. (July 31)
Download: “Heaven is Mine,” “Thank You Lord,” “Bound for the Promised Land”
Julian Taylor Band – Tech Noir (independent)
You might remember Julian Taylor from his band Staggered Crossing, who had radio hits in the early 2000s, a major label deal, and a second album produced by Jay Bennett of Wilco. These days, however, he’s leading his own quartet, which until very recently featured bassist Ben Spivak—who recently defected to join surprise hitmakers Magic!. Spivak cowrote three songs on both the Magic! album (including the smash hit “Rude”) and Taylor’s Tech Noir.
Of the two albums, however, Tech Noir is infinitely more enjoyable, warm and welcoming. It also has better songs. Taylor has a sassy, soulful voice, and his band moves easily between soul, reggae and rock; theirs is a chemistry clearly forged by many long nights on stage. There are shades of vintage Van Morrison, Al Green, Stevie Wonder, etc.—all artists that Taylor and his band no doubt nail when they moonlight as a cover band. Pretty soon they won’t have to do that, with original material as strong as this.
Taylor doesn’t have anywhere near the money or promotional muscle that his former band had—or his former bandmate now has—but he’s undoubtedly making the best music of his career. It’s time he started turning heads. (July 10)
Download: “No Guns!” “Heatwave,” “Be Good to Your Woman”
Bry Webb – Free Will (Idée Fix)
“Positive people are having children,” sings Bry Webb. “Strength through boredom / strength through joy. … Are these postures of defeat?” Strong words and curious questions, coming from a man who led one of the greatest rock’n’roll bands to ever spring from these parts, the recently reunited Constantines—who were all about joy, certainly not about boredom—and definitely never assumed a posture of defeat.
Webb’s first solo album was a hushed ode to his newborn son; Free Will is no different. Webb may be writing about the fears and joys of being a middle-aged dad, and the music may be the tempo and volume of lullabies, yet it would be a mistake to assume this is placid, comforting music. Throughout, Webb employs not only a lap steel player, but a slide guitar player—meaning every song sounds twice as woozy and wobbly than you might expect. There are Velvet Underground-esque squalls of feedback and droning violin on the hushed “Let’s Get Through Today,” and a dissonant chord sustained by a string section on “Translator.” None of this is meant to be alienating; instead, it underscores the uncertain world the narrator is trying to navigate. “The more fucked up things get / the more I love you,” sings Webb.
Like one of this album’s most obvious influences, Bill Callahan of Smog, Free Will is meant for casual listening. It’s an album of deep lyrical and instrumental subtlety, demanding your full attention. (July 24)
Download: “A.M. Blues,” “Positive People,” “Receive Me”