Friday, June 27, 2014

EMA - The Future's Void

EMA – The Future’s Void (Matador)

In 2014, there is a new hot band every 12 hours—or less. Thanks, Internet. Who can keep up? What permeates through the noise?
Erika M. Anderson is EMA; this, her third album and first for Matador, came out three months ago. It could easily get lost in the shuffle: it’s dense and rewarding and doesn’t lend itself easily to first impressions. It’s the kind of album in which no one seems to have the time to invest anymore. Small wonder, then, that it is in part a meditation on the dearth of humanity in the voyeurism of online culture. “When everybody’s lookin’ / it’s supposed to be a dream,” she sings. “But disassociation, I guess it’s just a modern disease.”

Anderson manifests digital noise quite literally: the first thing we hear is a blast of white noise, followed by a lowest-of-the-low bass tone mixed with an ear-splitting treble frequency. (She spent some formative years in noise rock circles in the Bay Area.) Then EMA’s voice comes in with a sing-song melody—about satellites hovering over the chaos of Earth—to tie it all together. For all her love of distorted electronics, EMA has an equally sweet side: songs like “When She Comes” and “3Jane” are dependent on pianos and acoustic guitars; they are as easy on the ears as the howls of “Smoulder” are abrasive and emotionally raw. When she walks the middle ground, as on “So Blonde,” the result is reminiscent of a surefire mid-’90s alt-rock single. Rare is the young artist willing—or able—to show off so many sides of her artistic vision, yet Anderson does so with complete confidence, to say nothing of her songs and serious skills.

Anderson is 27 years old. That makes it a bit odd to hear her condemning someone for “making a living off of taking selfies … it’s such a narcissistic baby / it’s such a new millennial baby.” Considering the depth and maturity heard on The Future’s Void, it’s obvious Anderson is in this for the long haul. (June 26)

Download: “So Blonde,” “3Jane,” “When She Comes”

Thursday, June 26, 2014

June 2014 reviews

Highly recommended: Meridian Brothers, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Jack White, Slakah the Beatchild

Can’t believe I missed this in 2013: John Grant

Worth your while: everything else

The following reviews originally ran in the Waterloo Record.

Fatima Al Qadiri – Asiatisch (Hyperdub)

Born and raised in Kuwait, currently living in London and New York, Fatima Al Qadiri has never been to China. Yet she’s fascinated by the music of that country—more specifically, how the rest of the world understands Chinese music: its tonalities, its scale, how it’s been interpreted by Western ears over centuries. She describes Asiatisch as “a virtual road trip through imagined China.”

What a Chinese musician might think of this, no one’s bothered to ask; Qadiri was raised literally in between China and London—to which her style of electronic music owes its largest debt, specifically her icy, noir-ish labelmates on the Hyperdub label—so she’s arguably more entitled to this exploration than, say, some white guy from Wyoming.

The politics of her approach aside, Asiatisch is bewitching and fascinating, both melodically and texturally. This is not beat music; Qadiri opts for a more cinematic, dreamlike approach. She also has a penchant for unfashionably out-of-date synths, i.e. ones from the late ’80s, which fit her contextual motif perfectly: the sounds that are too cheezy to be either vintage or forward-looking are perfectly in line with the anomaly that is current Asian pop music, which appropriates many of Western pop’s worst habits 20 years later.

That manifests itself in the bizarre, ersatz cover of Sinead O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U,” sung by guest vocalist Helen Feng. Rather, it’s not exactly a cover: it’s titled “Shanzai,” for one thing, and takes just enough liberties with the melody that it might withstand a court challenge for plagiarism. It’s disorienting, haunting and oddly beautiful: no wonder Qadiri chose it as the opening track, setting up the rest of her conceit perfectly. (June 26)

Download: “Szechuan,” “Wudang,” “Shanghai Freeway”

John Grant – Pale Green Ghosts (Nevado)

I don’t normally review albums more than a year old. But I had never heard of John Grant before now. Or maybe I had: Pitchfork and Mojo and The Guardian and Sinead O’Connor and Elton John are all huge fans; O’Connor has covered him, and Elton John invited Grant to be on his self-curated tribute to Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.

Grant’s non-descript birth name doesn’t do him any favours in the recognition department. What makes more of an impression than anything else is the phrases tumbling out of his mouth, articulating the unthinkable—comparing a lover’s silence to Agent Orange—and using words like callypigian (look it up, it’s a good one).

In an album chock full of quotable moments, nothing beats this chorus, set to a tune worthy of Tom Petty: “I am the greatest motherf--ker that you’re ever going to meet / from the top of my head down to the tips of the toes on my feet / Go ahead and love me while it’s still a crime / don’t forget, you could be laughing 65 per cent more of the time.”

This baritone bear of a man, a failed alt-rock musician from Colorado who relocated to Iceland (where he wrote that country’s 2014 Eurovision entry), pens lush ballads and electro pop, both equally strange and profane, that sound like no one else—except perhaps a strange amalgam of Buck 65 and the Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt. Maybe Pink Floyd and Kraftwerk setting Lou Reed diaries to music, only with a much greater sense of melody. Maybe—nope, I can’t do it. John Grant is a rare and beautiful bird. End of story. His name and face might be easily camouflaged in the crowd, but these are songs you will never forget. (June 19)

Download: “Blackbelt,” “GMF,” “You Don’t Have To”

Hedwig and the Angry Inch – Broadway Cast Recording (Warner)

The greatest rock music of our time debuted 15 years ago off-Broadway; the 2001 film, starring creator John Cameron Mitchell, became a cult hit, and this year a Broadway remount of the show, starring Neil Patrick Harris, nabbed four Tony awards: hence this new cast recording.

“It’s funny how things work out,” Mitchell told the Toronto Star last week. “The original show was never a big money-maker, the movie was initially a flop, although Hedwig is always playing somewhere around the world. It’s so popular in Korea they even had a TV reality show to pick the next Hedwig in the last production.”

The story of Hedwig is threadbare: its appeal lies entirely in the title character, a failed glam rock singer who suffered a botched sex-change operation, and her relationship with a protégé who steals all her songs and becomes a star. Hedwig is both hilarious and tragic, but it’s the songs—by Mitchell and Stephen Trask—that transform it from a curiosity into a triumph. There’s already a cast recording from the off-Broadway version, the soundtrack to the film, and a tribute album (Wig in a Box) featuring Cyndi Lauper, Rufus Wainwright, Spoon, Sleater-Kinney and more. Do we need to hear these songs again?

Yes. For all its cult popularity, Hedwig still needed a proper, modern recording. The tribute album, worthy as it is, is more interpretive than reverent. The energy of the band here is more pronounced here than on either soundtrack featuring Mitchell, and the production is full of punch. Perhaps needless to say, Tony winner Harris is fantastic, as is his female foil, Lena Hall. As a bonus, there’s one new song, “When Love Explodes (Love Theme from Hurt Locker)”: “Love can be scary in the hurt locker / it’s tender and it’s raw and filled with shock and awe / and we will be consumed when love explodes.”

Every one of these songs deserves to be an American classic, and this is the recording to make the case. Hair? Tommy? Jersey Boys? American Idiot? Please. Hedwig rules them all. (June 26)

Download: “Tear Me Down,” “Wicked Little Town,” “Wig in a Box”

Hamilton Leithauser - Black Hours (Ribbon)

Some voices are too big for rock’n’roll. Hamilton Leithauser certainly had sublime moments as frontman for the Walkmen, but at some point the bombast started to sound suffocating. Here, on his solo debut, Leithauser and Walkmen guitarist Paul Maroon strip everything down and steps into noir-ish cabaret mode (hence the title, no doubt), adding marimba and the Dirty Projectors’ Amber Coffman on backing vocals when they see fit. Given room to roam over this moody, often atmospheric collection, Leithauser proves what a remarkable vocalist he truly is. He only disappoints on the tracks that sound merely like the Walkmen unplugged. Someone send this guy to Broadway. (June 12)

Download: “5 AM,” “The Silent Orchestra,” “Bless Your Heart”

Corb Lund – Counterfeiters Blues (New West)

Corb Lund and his Hurtin’ Albertans are a barn-burning live act, and have been for more than a decade. This is their first live album—of sorts. With seven fine albums behind him, Lund is consistently converting new fans—many of whom surely don’t know where to start with his back catalogue. Counterfeiters Blues is not a live album, but it finds Lund and his band revisiting his two bestsellers—2002’s stone-cold classic Five Dollar Bill and 2005’s Hair in My Eyes Like a Highland Steer—by recording selected songs from them live at Memphis’s fabled Sun Studios (former home to Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, etc.).

These are songs that these boys know inside out—and it shows. Playing the title tracks and crowd-pleasers like “Shine Up My Boots” or “Roughest Neck Around” is surely little more than muscle memory by now, but it comes off as a lot more than that. You could argue that these veterans were in awe of their historic surroundings in Memphis, but the truth is that they probably sound like this every night. This is a well-oiled machine that gets better with age, especially guitarist Grant Siemens.

Lund doesn’t need a nostalgia trip; his last album, 2012’s Cabin Fever, was easily one of his best. But this collection, which accompanies a television special about the session (included with the CD), is a welcome treat for fans old and new. (June 19)

Download: “Hair in My Eyes Like a Highland Steer,” “(Gonna) Shine Up My Boots,” “Truth Comes Out”

Meridian Brothers – Salvadora Robot (Soundway)

Your summer should sound like this: drunk, demented, delirious—and South American. This is what your World Cup party feels like after your underdog team beats all odds and you find yourself using a vuvuzela to imbibe multi-coloured sugary drinks you’ve never seen before, kissing people in the street and waking up in a strange part of town.

Elbis Alvarrez is the one-man operation from Bogota calling himself Meridian Brothers. On his third international release—not counting his side projects, including the mind-melting Los Piranas—he mashes together every equatorial genre of music (cumbia, calypso, reggae, samba) and escorts you through a funhouse of mirrors. Whether you dance or just sit there dazed is up to you.

Alvarrez has a simple methodology: set up a killer percussion track, employ minimal rhythm guitar, and then wig out on either processed lead guitar or fuzzy organs that sound like bees—all while cackling maniacally. Evil genius, or just plain genius? Maybe just the album of the summer. (June 19)

Download: “De Mi Caballo Como Su Carne,” “Un Principe Miserable Y Malvado,” “Balie Ultimo”

Shi Wisdom – Stranger Things Have Happened (independent)

Perhaps the most underrated Canadian hip-hop record of 2013 was Water, by Toronto producer KJ, where the dark, ominous beats put to shame the considerably more acclaimed work of Drake and The Weeknd; together, they all make Toronto seem like one spooky place. Now comes singer Shi Wisdom, with KJ behind the boards, and she injects some badly needed estrogen into the scene. Her ultra-cool coo is nothing short of chilling on “Young Gunner,” a harrowing tale of urban violence; that track alone should catapult her into the larger consciousness. But she has a softer and sultry side, too, one that aspires to be “sipping champagne on a yacht”—even if her uneasy aural surroundings suggest that to be more aspirational than immediately attainable. With a voice like that, however—and with KJ in her corner—surely it’s only a matter of time. (June 12)

Download: “The Key,” “Fly Too,” “Young Gunner”

Slakah the Beatchild - Soul Movement Vol. 2 (BBE)

Hip-hop has been sounding a lot less funky lately—thanks, Drake and Kanye. “Old school” no longer means a throwback to the ’80s or the Golden Age of the early ‘90s; by channelling the broken beat movement and neo-soul of the early 2000s, Toronto producer Slakah the Beatchild—on whose previous album Drake was a guest MC—now sounds positively retro, and better for it. The first lyrics you hear come from MC Spek Won, setting the tone: “Starts with a boom, ends with a bap, it’s in between the boom and the bap is the gap / in between the gap is where the magic happens / a chemical reaction.”

The last Slakah record came out under his rock/pop guise, the Slakadeliqs; it landed on the Polaris Prize long list and got a fair amount of attention, but I found it limp and uninspired. This, however, proves that he’s much more than just a genre dabbler; these tight and jazzy grooves, many of which turn themselves inside out over the course of a track, are the product of a serious vision. Guest vocalists include powerhouse soul sister Tanika Charles, newcomer Ayah and the long-lost Glenn Lewis, but they all take a back seat to the beats—and the Beatchild. (June 12)

Download: “Stompthatflo” (feat. Spek Won), “Something About Her,” “Love Fool” (feat. Tanika Charles)

William Tyler – Lost Colony EP (Merge)

If I told you this was an instrumental guitar rock record, I wouldn’t blame you for running away screaming. The genre is usually the domain of masturbatory showboaters who just don’t know when to shut up and sit back. Nashville’s William Tyler, however, is a much more delicate man than that. Having grown up as a young wunderkind playing sideman in older people’s bands (Lambchop, Silver Jews), Tyler has a deep reverence for both mainstream country (his parents are hit songwriters) and the avant-garde (he’s a big fan of Krautrock band Neu!; here, he covers a solo track by that band’s guitarist, Michael Rother). On this EP, which follows up two acclaimed albums of solo, fingerpicked electric guitar compositions, Tyler employs a backing band to allow him to explore psychedelic textures, hammer out droning power chords over a driving rhythm section, and bring the subtle virtuosity he displayed as a sideman to the forefront. Tyler’s version of Americana draws from so much more than cliché country or rock forms; this is a man whose guitar speaks many languages. (June 19)

Download: all three songs

Viet Cong – Cassette (Mexican Summer)

Matt Flegel and Matt Wallace are not Vietnamese, yet they are Viet Cong. They are also not women, yet they used to be one-half of the Calgary band Women. When they don’t claim to be anything at all, they’ve been known to be sidemen for freaky fractured folk guy Chad Van Gaalen. As Viet Cong, they play catchy, ramshackle and reverb-heavy garage rock that owes a debt to early ’80s British post-punk: opening track “Throw It Away” is a dead ringer for The Jam, while “Structureless Design” is downright goth. Psychedelic touches colour the edges, and they make the most out of their decidedly lo-fi sound. A full-length album is currently being recorded with Graham Walsh (Holy Fuck, Metz); look for it to be some of the most glorious noise of the year. (June 12)

Download: “Throw It Away,” “Static Wall,” “Unconscious Melody”

Jack White – Lazaretto (Third Man/Sony)

No artist wants to launch a new album with a public apology. A week before Lazaretto’s release, Jack White was quoted in Rolling Stone dissing various peers; this, along with messy details of his divorce last year, didn’t do well to endear him to the record-buying public. So he quickly issued a long apology on his website, claiming he was quoted out of context and has nothing but respect and/or love for those artists allegedly caught in his crosshairs. (Widely reposted, the original post in question has mysteriously been taken down.) “Would You Fight For My Love?” asks White in the title of one of his new tracks. Long-time fans may be beginning to wonder.

Maybe Jack White is a bit of an ass. Maybe he’s not. He certainly has terrible hair these days, for what it’s worth. But if we approach his music on its own terms, White gives us plenty of reason to stand by our man. His first solo album, 2012’s Blunderbuss, sounded like White suddenly liberated from the constraints of each of his other three bands; here his eclectic tastes crystallize into a far more potent punch. Country fiddles collide with blues riffs on heavy garage rock with R&B beats, and White makes it all sound effortless. (It wasn’t; uncharacteristically for White, he spent much longer than a week on this record.) He even does it while using two completely different full bands—one male, one female—each of which boasts killer keyboardists, pedal steel players and funky drummers, each of which bring out the best in him. Perhaps needless to say, his guitar sound is monstrous, and he plays with more fire than he has in ages—it’s probably the divorce talking. (The lyrics back up this thesis.)

If you only read the rock’n’roll gossip pages, you might want Jack White to fail. But once you hear this record, you can be sure that he hasn’t. (June 12)

Download: “Three Women,” “Lazaretto,” “High Ball Stepper”

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Polaris Prize long list overview

36? - Where Do We Go From Here?

The Polaris Prize long list was released last week. I “Moneyballed” it for Maclean’s here.

I didn’t mention there that I had predicted 29/40 in my previous post.

Here are the 11 I got wrong:

36? – This is the one I’m most disappointed in. It was on my ballot. More people should hear it. But as a direct result of this discussion, one programmer at a major Canadian festival told me he put the band “at the top of the pile.” (Aside: What does that mean in 2014? He still listens to discs? He puts their MP3s at the top of his playlist?)

Braids – Slightly shocking, considering their last record was shortlisted in 2011—and this one is better.

Kevin Drew – Kind of shocking, considering Drew’s profile and the strength of this record. Yet his last solo album didn’t make a long list either. Did “Mexican Aftershow Party” kill any buzz this time?

Duck Sauce – Seeing how this album follows up a hit single three years ago, not that shocking.

Egyptrixx – Not surprising; honestly, I had it as a long shot.

Hidden Cameras – I thought this was their strongest album in many moons; clearly I was one of the only ones.

Christine Jensen Jazz Orchestra – Again, a long shot; jazz doesn’t travel far in Polaris circles—or at least, a consensus jazz pick is hard to find.

Jordan Klassen – An admitted longshot. But a lovely record.

Lindi Ortega – I didn’t hear half as much chatter about her latest record as I did the long-listed one that preceded it, so perhaps not surprising.

Doug Paisley – Many people were shocked Paisley didn’t make it, considering his increased profile. Yet, as a big fan of the guy myself, I didn’t find Strong Feelings anywhere near as compelling as Constant Companion, so this didn’t surprise me.

Slakah the Beatchild – This is an unfortunate omission; there’s never enough hip-hop and R&B on the list, and this is one of the stronger Canadian releases of either genre I’ve heard in a while. Now if Shad had beats like this, he’d be unstoppable. Can someone please put those two together?

Other albums I would have loved to see get some Polaris recognition, but didn't: Nick Buzz, Shane Abram Nelken, Adrian Raso and Fanfare Ciocarlia. But hey, my #1 pick, AroarA, made the list.

2014 long-listers that surprised me:

Chromeo – This album is rather new; I hadn’t heard it at the time I voted, and I falsely assumed most jurors didn’t take this band seriously.

Cousins – I’m allergic to most things that remind me of lo-fi ’90s indie rock; I’ll admit I didn’t pay any attention to this band after hearing the record once or twice.

Cowboy Junkies’ Kennedy Suite – This is a shocker, considering what a squandering of talent is involved. So many great people involved; maybe one or two songs worthy of them to sing.

Frog Eyes – I’m really excited to see this on the list, as Frog Eyes is a unique force in Canadian music. That said, I hadn’t heard the album at the time of voting; it was released several months ago to extremely low profile, and put out properly by Paper Bag merely a few weeks ago.

Mounties – I did not think Polaris jurors still followed the careers of Hawksley Workman and Hot Hot Heat.

Odonis Odonis – Not that surprising, as this record has had good buzz. But it is surprising when you actually listen to it. Really? I also thought it might just have Toronto appeal.

Philippe B – I wasn’t sure who else other than Jimmy Hunt and Dead Obie$ would rep franco Quebec, so this was a pleasant surprise.

Solids – I honestly had no idea who this band was.

The Darcys – I wish I honestly had no idea who this band was. 
[Aside: Why do Polaris folks alphabetize “the” bands by the letter T? Oh, iTunes, you’ve ruined us all.]

Thus Owls – The Toronto Star’s Ben Rayner firmly believes this band is the second coming. I wasn’t sure who else agreed with him. Was he allowed to fill in all five slots on his ballot with Thus Owls?

Tim Hecker – Not at all surprising, considering he’s been long-listed twice before. But I didn’t sense that this had the same momentum as either An Imaginary Country or Ravedeath 1972.

And the unexpected bonus round this year goes to Winnipeg’s Greg McPherson, who got left off the long list due to some kind of computer glitch in voting. Polaris is not removing anything from the list—for obvious reasons of optics, logistics and politics—so there is, in fact, 41 albums on this year’s long list.

The shortlist will be announced July 15.