Most of the records I reviewed in my January columns were left over from 2014, either albums I didn’t get around to writing about or that I only recently discovered thanks to other people’s year-end lists.
Essential listening: Lydia Ainsworth
Recommended: Kevin Hearn, Mo Kenney, Sturgill Simpson, Frazey Ford
Raised in Toronto, schooled in Montreal and New York, now back in Toronto, Ainsworth is straight from the lineage of (obvious yet inevitable comparisons) Kate Bush, Bjork, Fever Ray and Grimes: a classically trained cellist who scores films and draws as much inspiration from visual art and dream states as she does music. Indeed, she says she wants her music to feel like “shivers caused from a lucid dream.” Mission accomplished. Ainsworth’s layered cello and electronics are entrancing; her voice is conventionally beautiful; her songs unconventionally arranged, tripping over time signatures and easily melding textures both natural and otherworldly with strong melodies tying everything together. Ainsworth has a good home on Montreal’s Arbutus Records—home of Grimes, Blue Hawaii, Braids and other wonderful weirdos—and she’s opened for Owen Pallett, another kindred spirit. But comparisons and compatriots are not even necessary when she’s made a debut album as strong as this. (Jan. 8)
Download: “Take Your Face Off,” “Moonstone,” “PSI”
Ian William Craig – A Turn of Breath (Recital)
This sounds like music playing in a gallery exhibit: ambient, evocative, slightly unsettling. Small wonder: Craig is primarily a visual artist in Vancouver, who also happens to make mysterious music employing his operatically trained voice and layered, decaying loops of ¼-inch tape, which creates strange, ghostly harmonies and textures. It’s intensely lonely music, seemingly the work of the last artist standing in a bombed-out city, alone with his machines and his melancholy, documenting the decay that surrounds him and struggling to find sunlight through clouds of dust. (Jan. 8)
Download: “Before Meaning Comes,” “Rooms,” “Second Lens”
Melanie De Biasio - No Deal (Pias)
Torch songs as they should be: slinky, seductive and sparse. This Belgian singer employs only a jazz trio of piano, bass and drums, a trio that lets De Biasio’s voice do all the heavy melodic lifting. No problem there. De Biasio’s vocals—firm and bold even at the most hushed volume—come off like Shirley Bassey on opioids. Close the doors, start up the fireplace, and crack open the red wine: this is for long winter nights. (Jan. 22)
Download: “The Flow,” “I’m Gonna Leave You,” “With All My Love”
F&M – At Sunset We Sing (independent)
This Edmonton folk trio bottomed out at the end of 2013. Two members lost a load of money in a condo fraud; two of them suffered broken bones as well (for those processing that math, guitarist/vocalist Ryan Anderson was the doubly unlucky one). So what to do? Escape to Portugal in search of inspiration and healing, of course. Can’t afford to go to Portugal? Check out a bunch of fado records from the library and load up on cheap Portugese wine to help get you through the cruel Edmonton winter. The result is their fifth album, steeped in the tradition of European melancholic drinking songs, the kind to which you raise your glass of optimism and try to forget your despair, with accordions, pianos, vibraphones and violins at hand. (Jan. 15)
Download: “And We Will Mend Our Broken Hearts,” “Kukushka,” “Take Me Out”
The late Memphis musician Teenie Hodges, best known for being Al Green’s guitarist and co-songwriter, showed up in two very different Canadian contexts in 2014. One was an appearance in the video for “Worst Behaviour,” by his nephew, Drake. The other was here, as part of the backing band for Be Good Tanya singer Frazey Ford, alongside his brothers Charles (organ) and Leroy (bass). It would be the last recording the legend ever made: the 68-year-old died shortly afterwards, of emphysema. The record is dedicated to him; it’s a worthy capper to his career, capturing much of what made Green’s rhythm section so seductive.
But Indian Ocean is not, of course, about the Hodges brothers. It’s about a Vancouver folk singer fully coming into her own on her second solo album. Ford’s ghostly lilt is suited perfectly to the subtle, smooth soul sounds heard on classic Al Green records. Where someone like Green is all about tension, repression and release—both sexual and spiritual—Ford, obviously, approaches the sound from the opposite angle: almost sneaking up on the melodies, nailing all the notes with seemingly minimal effort, and generally sounding like she’s dressed in flowing robes and reclining on a sofa while recording her vocals.
It’s hard not to be reminded of Cat Power’s 2006 album The Greatest, where that normally hushed singer also teamed up with Teenie Hodges and other Memphis musicians for a complete career makeover. It worked wonders for her; it should do even more for Ford, who is a far superior singer and doesn’t get bogged down in ballads, allowing the rhythm section to actually swing. Ford gets full points for leaning on two sympathetic backing vocalists, Caroline Ballhorn and former Mother Mother singer Debra Jean Creelman, who—like the band behind them—bring out the best from one of Canada’s most beguiling singers. (Jan. 8)
Download: “September Fields,” “Done,” “Natural Law”
Foxes in Fiction – Ontario Gothic (Orchid Tapes)
This ambient pop project by Oakville-raised, Brooklyn-based musician Warren Hildebrand was initially sparked by the mourning process after his younger teenage brother died; this most recent album is dedicated to another untimely death, of a 22-year-old friend. Hildebrand has said he wants his music to provide healing—a lofty ambition, granted, but not unreasonable. Here, on an album three years in the making, he takes his love of synth textures and tape experiments and writes lilting melodies on top, inviting guest singers and—in a small coup—string arranger Owen Pallett to flesh out his vision. It’s definitely dreamy, although somewhat emotionally detached, and fits comfortably between Cocteau Twins and Beach House. (Jan. 8)
Download: “Into the Fields,” “Ontario Gothic,” “Altars”
Jim Guthrie and Solid Mas – One Of These Days I’ll Get It Right (independent)
Jim Guthrie is on a roll. After returning to his solo career after almost a decade writing soundtracks and jingles, he released the 2013 masterstroke Takes Time and re-released his beloved 2003 album Now More Than Ever. Here, he’s turned over a bunch of tracks—snippets of previously released work, including his soundtrack to the hit video game Sword and Sworcery, as well as unreleased material—to hip-hop producer Solid Mas, who sets Guthrie’s layers of melodies and cinematic motifs to much funkier beats than he usually employs. Although it’s technically a remix album, Guthrie fans will have trouble tracing the source material—not that they should bother. Fans of ’90s Ninja Tune artists like Coldcut and the Herbaliser will also find plenty to chew on here. (Jan. 15)
Download: “And We Died Younger,” “Lenny Bones,” “Red Rust”
(Full disclosure: I was hired to write Kevin Hearn’s bio for his promotional purposes. This is not that bio. I do, however, love this record, which of course is not true of every record I’m paid to write about.)
From 2007 to 2013, Kevin Hearn was also the musical director for Lou Reed’s band, becoming quite close with the notorious legend and his wife, Laurie Anderson, before Reed died in 2013. What most people don’t know is that Hearn, whose main gig is with Barenaked Ladies, has quietly been making lovely albums of his own for much of the last decade, and Days in Frames might be his best. Hearn is a modest man; he sings like he speaks, with a quiet, inquisitive, conversational tone. His instrumental prowess is only evident on occasion; Hearn’s solo records are all songs and textures, utilizing dreamy synths, folky mandolins, and his 22-year-old relationship with the rhythm section of Great Bob Scott and Chris Gartner (all were once in the freaky prog-rock band Look People).
Losing Lou Reed, as well as an aunt to whom Hearn was very close, has the songwriter in a more melancholic mood than usual (“Up Above,” “Floating,” “Crossing Over”). Not that Hearn ever gets morbid; after all, he already survived several serious bouts with leukemia more than 10 years ago, with his humour and optimism emboldened. “Life is a beautiful puzzle and then you fall to pieces,” he sings; he sounds more bemused by life’s turn of events than thrown off course.
Because of both his talent and his reputation as a mensch for whom people want to do favours, Hearn pulls in a lot of top-notch help here: violinist Hugh Marsh (Bruce Cockburn, Mary Margaret O’Hara), Ron Sexsmith, Dan Hill, producer Gavin Brown (Billy Talent, Metric), mixer Tom Elmhirst (Adele, Amy Winehouse), and the other members of Reed’s band (who appear on the comical death-bed meditation “Floating”). Needless to say, it sounds like a million bucks.
Based on the snapshot of his life heard here, Hearn spends his days in art galleries, in Canada’s Far North, birdwatching, searching for the meaning he once found in cathedrals, and detailing a humdrum day with a wry eye. Hearn has stared down his own mortality and seen loved ones succumb to theirs; every lyric and note here is the work of a man who marvels in the tiny details and sounds of everyday life, finding the fantastical in our common experience—and then painting it with glorious sonic colours. (Jan. 1)
Download: “Gallerina,” “Cathedral,” “You Wrecked Me”
It takes a certain talent to concoct a catchy chorus with the lyrics, “Take me outside and blow my f--king head off.” That’s what Halifax singer/songwriter Mo Kenney does here, winning the dubious honour of Most Disturbing Earworm of 2014.
That’s the only thing remotely dubious about Kenney’s second album, however: that song and the nine others here introduce you to your favourite new Canadian songwriter. Produced by Joel Plaskett—who also shares all instrumental duties with Kenney, and put out the album on his own label—In My Dreams fleshes out her songs in a variety of contexts: sometimes she’s a young Nick Lowe or Elvis Costello, sometimes she’s Elliott Smith, sometimes she’s Norah Jones’s badass little sister, sometimes she’s a psychedelic balladeer. Plaskett’s influence is obvious, but hardly overbearing: Kenney’s striking voice and approach to songwriting easily stands apart. Whether it’s her own sense of economy or Plaskett’s editing, Kenney is the rare young artist who knows how to keep it brief: none of these songs are more than four minutes long; most are under three.
In My Dreams came out in September and slipped under the radar. Shame. Expect at the very least, however, to be hearing about her again at Polaris prize time in June. She plays Harbourfront Centre Theatre on March 21. (Jan. 1)
Download: “Take Me Outside,” “Telephones,” “Untouchable”
Sturgill Simpson - Metamodern Sounds in Country Music (Hightop Mountain)
As someone who loves country music too much to witness what’s happened to most of it in recent years, I rely on other people’s year-end lists to catch up on what I missed. Last year it was the incredible Brandy Clark album, which deservedly got a few Grammy nominations a few weeks back. This year it’s this Kentucky native, who moved to Nashville four years ago to suddenly try and kickstart a country music career. He’s now 35 and just put out his second album in two years, standing out not just for his ’70s outlaw sound—drenched in reverb, embellished with rich organs and psychedelic guitars—but his lyrics, which touch on hallucinogenic drugs, Tibetan Buddhism and string theory. Simpson can play it straight enough to win over an Opry crowd, or can freak out completely with lots of backwards tape and dub reggae influence on the wild closing track, “It Ain’t All Flowers,” which ventures into corners no pure country artist has dared to tread in eons, if ever.
Sturgill tries out two cover versions that reveal a lot about his duality. One is a straight-up truckin’ song, “Long White Line.” The other is a gorgeous, unrecognizable transformation of an ’80s new wave hit—I’d rather not tell you what it is, so that it sneaks up on you when you hear it. It could easily be novelty; it is not. Much like Simpson himself: he’s not just the “acid country” guy, he’s not the retro revivalist. He’s being true to himself, and dragging country music along with him. (Jan. 1)
Download: “Turtles All the Way Down,” “The Promise,” “It Ain’t All Flowers”