Highlights this month, from my weekly Waterloo Record column (where these reviews ran originally):
Highly recommended, reviewed here: Salomé Leclerc, Nozinja
Worth your while: Lemon Bucket Orkestra, Merna, Nao, Socalled, Jamie XX
Salomé Leclerc – 27 fois l’aurore (Audiogram)
Ooooh, witchy women. As loathe as I am to be quoting the Eagles, the phrase comes to mind when listening to this underrated Montreal chanteuse, who takes her place alongside a new wave of wonderfully weird Canadian ladies: Austra, Lydia Ainsworth, Lisa Conway of Del Bel, Louise Burns, Alana Yorke, et al. All have classically trained voices (or at least sound like they do), all specialize in minor keys and more than a bit of morbidity, all make autumnal melancholy.
Leclerc has zero profile in the anglosphere, but she sold 10,000 copies of her debut album in Quebec and France; it was produced by French singer Emily Loizeau, which helped its profile. Leclerc started performing as a teen, and is a graduate of something called the École nationale de la chanson (yet another Quebec cultural institution the rest of Canada can envy), which explains her gift for melody. What’s even more striking here is her arrangements, which might feature just a brass section, fuzzed out bass and tumbling drums, or a full rock band, or Omnichord and electric guitar. Every production decision here sounds deliberate and meticulous; nothing is left to chance. On top of it all, Leclerc’s voice conveys layers of meaning even if you don’t understand a word of French.
Is this the most underrated Canadian record of the last 12 months? (June 18)
Download: “Arion,” “L’icone du naufrage,” “Attendre la fin”
Lemon Bucket Orkestra – Moorka (Fedora Upside Down)
This year, Toronto’s Lemon Bucket Orkestra celebrate their fifth anniversary as a band. They arrived several years after Eastern European sounds started to creep into the mainstream, with bands like Beirut and Gogol Bordello selling out huge shows across the continent (this continent, that is, but Europe as well). In the wake of those acts came a lot of dabblers, who threatened to turn this music into a watered-down trend like Celtic and ska before it. Lemon Bucket, however—many of whom are of Eastern European descent, though they’re a multicultural band—were never dabblers.
On their second full-length album, recorded in a barn near Waterloo, the Orkestra interpret songs they learned from the source: from musicians they met while touring Ukraine, Serbia, Bulgaria and Romania. Lemon Bucket built their reputation as a live act with irrepressible energy; on record, you appreciate much more their skills as players and arrangers: there are three violinists, including bandleader Mark Marczyk; five brass players; two wind players; three percussionists, an accordionist and a guitarist. And yet they play as one incredibly tight unit, through convoluted time signatures and breakneck speeds.
No wonder, of course: these guys play all the time, in concert halls, in street festivals, on random corners, even on Air Canada flights (a YouTube clip of this went viral in 2012). Their tireless dedication to both their craft and the heritage of this music comes through in every note here—but even more important, it’s a really good time. (June 25)
Download: “Prescacanka,” “Kolomyjka,” “Mar Domenesc”
Merna – The Calling (W.A.R. Media)
This Toronto singer’s debut album under this name (she used to record as Ayah) finds her full of swagger and soul: she comes out swinging right off the top, with the bold “Young & Reckless,” and maintains that intensity for another nine tracks. Executive produced by Ali Shaheed Muhammad of A Tribe Called Quest, Merna has the range and power of a Mary J. Blige or Melanie Fiona, with the forward-thinking production acumen of Zaki Ibrahim or Santigold. Lots of strings (or synth strings) provide plenty of oomph, pushing Merna into Shirley Bassey territory at times (“Games We Play”). This came out last November; Canada shouldn’t be sleeping on this record any longer. (June 18)
Download: “Games We Play,” “All I Want (I Wonder),” “Young & Reckless”
Giorgio Moroder – Déjà Vu (Sony)
One of the most influential producers in pop history returns from retirement after 30 years, a few years after two of his biggest fans, the French duo Daft Punk, won a Grammy for Album of the Year by imitating some of Moroder’s greatest hits—and setting an autobiographical ramble by the man himself to music in a track named after him.
For 10 years in the late ’70s and early ’80s, Moroder had a massive stream of hits for David Bowie (“Cat People”), Blondie (“Call Me”), Irene Cara (“Flashdance”), Berlin (“Take My Breath Away”) and more. He sold millions of records for Donna Summer by bringing electronic music into disco, and is considered the godfather of techno for making minimalist hits like “I Feel Love.”
But Moroder was first and foremost a pop producer. So even if Daft Punk restored his reputation, those expecting him to bust open a new genre or do something experimental are going to be disappointed in Déjà Vu, which is tailor-made for the EDM generation. He’s not wiring up all his analog synths again; he’s making big shiny tunes for today. As the man himself says, to quote the title of an instrumental track here, 74 is the new 24.
And so he teams up with a team of young vocalists—Charlie XCX, Mikky Ekko, Foxes and Matthew Koma (the latter two have had hits with Russian house DJ Zedd)—and veritable grandmother Kylie Minogue. On one of the worst matchings of producer and singer and song in recent memory, Moroder employs Britney Spears to sing Suzanne Vega’s “Tom’s Diner”—the less said about which, the better. But Sia soars, naturally, on the title track, and Foxes fares well on “Wildstar.”
It all adds up as more of an homage not to Moroder’s past catalogue as much as his own influence on modern sounds in Ibiza. This is not for geeky crate-diggers and Mojo magazine readers; this old man wants to make records for kids of the 21st century. Just like he always did. (June 18)
Download: “4 U With Love,” “Déjà Vu” (feat. Sia), “Diamonds” (feat. Charlie XCX)
Nao – February 15 (Little Tokyo)
Song of the summer? The last couple of years the continent’s critics have fretted endlessly about this dubious designation, as if it conveys some vital importance about how we’ll look back on this period of time in pop music history. And so what if it was Iggy Azalea in 2014?
For what it’s worth, I’ll nominate the lead track on the second EP by this London singer, “Inhale Exhale.” Its mid-tempo, ascending bass line of five eighth notes makes for a fantastic funk riff, the kind that wouldn’t sound out of place on an Erykah Badu or Janet Jackson or Beck record, while Nao’s deceptively girly voice demonstrates true grit.
Follow-up track “Zillionaire” could easily have been just as strong, if not for a cloying chorus that’s just as annoying as Travis McCoy and Bruno Mars’s not dissimilar “Billionaire.” “Apple Cherry” sounds like Grimes doing ’90s R&B, while “Golden” is the kind of single Beyoncé might make if she tried on some subtlety for a change.
Nao hasn’t arrived with a lot of hype: she’s put out her EPs on her own label, her only real claim to fame is singing backup vocals with Pulp once, and she contributes to a track on the new Disclosure album. Her music does all the talking. (June 4)
Download: “Inhale Exhale,” “Apple Cherry,” “Golden”
Nozinja – Nozinja Lodge (Warp/Maple)
For the last 40 years, Western ears have usually recoiled from the tinny synths that dominate music from afar, be it Asia, the Middle East or Africa. Syrian singer Omar Souleyman, who collaborates with Bjork and FourTet, helped to change that perception, and now we have South Africa’s Nozinja, the pioneer of the Shangaan electro sound.
What is Shangaan? Sometimes it sounds like the preset demo on a Casio keyboard played at three times the speed. Sometimes it sounds like a deft electro adaptation of township jive or mbaqanga, with marimbas melding with syncopated synth stabs, traditional vocals and 180-bpm electronic rhythms.
Nozinja is Richard Mthetwa, who assembled a Shangaan compilation for Damon Albarn’s label, Honest Jon’s, a few years back. That led to some tracks for a label run by Caribou’s Dan Snaith. Here the attention is solely on his own work and the evolution of Shangaan; Mthetwa brings in elements of dancehall reggae, ’90s jungle, Latin beats, and filters it all through his unique vision. On “Xihukwani,” he recreates the bass line from New Order’s “Blue Monday” and throws it into a swirling symphony of staccato synths and tumbling drum machines.
Ah, but can you dance to it? They do in Limpopo, apparently, and can do so for up to an hour—a frenetic pace that seems impossible to maintain. The rest of us will probably listen and grin and vibrate with excitement. (June 11)
Download: “Nwa Baloyi,” “Baby Do U Feel Me,” “Xihukwani”
Socalled – Peoplewatching (Dare to Care)
“I’m neither fish nor fowl,” says Josh Dolgin, a.k.a. Socalled, in an interview recently. He’s an Anglo Jew living in Montreal who loves klezmer, hip-hop, country, Latin music and jazz—ideally all at the same time. He’s too strange for the mainstream—where his soundtracks to puppet shows and gay porn raise eyebrow—and he’s too nerdy for the cool kids.
Yet he’s a hometown hero in Montreal, because his music wouldn’t be out of place at any one of the city’s summer music festivals. He tours France regularly. He attracts collaborators such as James Brown sideman Fred Wesley and jazz legend Oliver Jones. He provided the theme for the popular Canadaland podcast. And he got the once-in-a-generation gig overhauling the theme to CBC Radio’s As It Happens, Moe Kaufman’s “Curried Soul”; Socalled’s “Curried Soul 2.0” closes out this new record.
If his radio themes provide a gateway into Dolgin’s demented world, then Peoplewatching is as good a place as any to dive in deep (although 2011’s Sleepover is his strongest record). “Everyone Else Must Fail” (its title borrowed from Genghis Khan) features his longtime lead vocalist, Katie Moore, and embodies everything Socalled does well: minor-key melody, hip-hop beat, country vocals and dorky rapping (he rhymes Punky Brewster with Wayne and Shuster). “Bootycalling” is enjoyably ridiculous.
The surprise, however, is the earnest and touching portrait of his Mile End neighbourhood, “Fire on Hutchison Street.” It’s also the only track where Dolgin plays unaccompanied; ironic, then, that the great collaborator is most effective all on his lonesome. (June 11)
Download: “Fire on Hutchison Street,” “Curried Soul 2.0,” “Everyone Else Must Fail”
Jamie XX – In Colour (XL)
What does the third member of The XX, the one who isn’t singing or playing guitar or bass, do exactly? Jaime XX is not a DJ—outside of clubs, anyway. He’s partially an electronic percussionist, playing live MPC. He’s remixed Radiohead, Adele, FourTet and Gil Scott-Heron. He did the title track from Drake’s Take Care, featuring Rihanna. Here, he steps to the front to make a solo record that doesn’t sound that far removed from The XX—in part because his bandmates Romy Madley-Croft and Oliver Sim (sounding more and more like Tindersticks’ Stuart Staples) appear on three tracks—but with more four-on-the-floor action and some blissed-out ecstasy letting some light into the austere British melancholy.
In Colour is a fine debut, but owes so much to FourTet, Boards of Canada and other ’90s survivors whose new records are largely ignored or taken for granted, while Jamie XX racks up dozens of cover stories and glowing reviews. Seriously, if Moby put out this record—and he could—would anyone care? I’d like to put that to a test in a blind listening party.
Meanwhile, The XX is working on their third album, expected later this year. It probably won’t feature guest spots from Young Thug and Popcaan and you probably won’t dance to it—but anything’s possible. (June 4)
Download: “Sleep Sound,” “Obvs,” “The Rest is Noise”