The following reviews ran in the Waterloo Record in July.
Highly recommended this month: Mbongwana Star, Vince Staples, Miguel
Recommended: Bully, Nick Craine, Joyfultalk, The Straggler, The Weather Station
Braids – Deep in the Iris (Arbutus)
Get out of town. That’s what Montreal trio Braids did for this, their third album, which was written and recorded after road trips to retreats in Arizona, Vermont and upstate New York. They’ve never sounded more confident, more bold—or more poppy, with the vocals of Raphaelle Standell-Preston placed high in the mix, and melodies that at times lean toward stadium pop. It’s a far cry from the esoteric abstractions that defined their first two records, though jazz-trained drummer Austin Tufts—the real star here—and his two bandmates on synths still like to throw textural and rhythmic curveballs. Sometimes their new-found directness falls flat, like on the focus track “Miniskirt”—a song about sexual harassment and an abusive family—where a powerful message and narrative comes out clumsy and awkward. Standell-Preston’s role in this closely knit trio is peculiar: her vocals sometimes seem shoehorned into the inventive arrangements, especially compared to her gorgeous side project, Blue Hawaii. (July 23)
Deep in the Iris is shortlisted for the Polaris Music Prize, and they play Lee’s Palace in Toronto on Sept. 22.
Download: “Letting Go,” “Taste Revised,” “Getting Tired”
Bully – Feels Like (Sony)
Alicia Bognanno is 25 years old—and so is the debut record by her Nashville band, Bully. That is, Feels Like feels like it could easily have come out in 1990, somewhere between the Pixies and Nirvana, maybe around the same time Courtney Love’s Hole or Bettie Serveert were first forming. Most new bands revisiting ’90s indie rock and/or grunge only take on the worst parts: amateurism, lugheadedness and punishing volume. Bully, on the other hand, bring great melodies, strong lead guitar parts, dynamics and a joie de vivre overriding their early 20s angst—and of course feminine energy, which is what made the ’90s different from other rock eras in the first place. Part of the reason it all sounds so effective is that Bognanno is a recording engineer who interned with Steve Albini (Pixies, Nirvana)—and obviously used her time wisely. Though her lyrics are a big part of the appeal here, Bully is not a one-woman show: it’s a solid band, with a drummer whose name is actually Stewart Copeland (talk about a birthright). Much like their contemporary Courtney Barnett, of whom they’re big fans, Bully manage to revivify a genre long—and often justifiably—left for dead. (July 30)
Bully play The Garrison in Toronto on Sept. 21.
Download: “I Remember,” “Trying,” “Six”
Nick Craine – Songs Like Tattoos (independent)
Nick Craine is 43 years old—the definition of middle age. The acclaimed illustrator and 25-year veteran of Guelph’s music scene (full disclosure: I played with him in Black Cabbage, 1993-99, and he remains a good friend) has not released an album since his 2001 solo debut, November Moon. Time passes. His son is almost a teenager. Friends have died. Carpe diem. Time for a portrait of the artist as a not-so-young man.
Songs Like Tattoos, a collection of covers, is drawn from deep personal memories and associations—from his mother’s favourite album to songs he sang at open stages for years to lullabies he sang to his son. Many of the musicians employed here are personal heroes of Craine’s, which speaks to both his belief in his local community and the fact that in a town like Guelph there’s often only one degree of separation between those people and the likes of Bob Dylan.
With producer Scott Merritt, Craine pulled in Margo Timmins (Cowboy Junkies), guitarist Kevin Breit (Norah Jones), guitarist Colin Linden (Bob Dylan, Bruce Cockburn, Blackie and the Rodeo Kings), Hawksley Workman, Jim Guthrie, Jenny Omnichord, Rebecca Jenkins, Carlos del Junco, and many more to cover the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Van Morrison, Stevie Wonder, Joni Mitchell and Dolly Parton.
Craine and Merritt know what each of these musicians is capable of, the colours of their palettes, and what nuances lie deep within these songs that Craine’s vocals can bring to the surface. There are no drums here, leaving all the more space for Craine’s croon to inhabit the sonic atmosphere.
Many people cover Joni Mitchell songs—usually badly. Craine finds something new in the title track of Mitchell’s most beloved album, Blue, rather than just aping the original arrangement. And it takes serious cojones to cover a k.d. ballad (“Save Me”), but Craine pulls it off with apparent ease, giving lang herself a run for her money—and that’s not a compliment I’ll dish out casually. Anyone who’s ever seen him play a solo set has heard his take on the 1987 Oscar nominee “Calling You” (from Baghdad Café)—a song once covered by, yes, k.d. lang. He loves every lilt in this melody, and honours it here with the vocal performance of a lifetime.
Craine is not some, ahem, ingénue with some serious connections; he’s the equal of everyone he corralled into this project. In a move that will speak to the hearts of geeks for whom music has always meant (almost) everything, Craine closes the album with Stevie Wonder’s “I Believe”—the same song heard over the closing credits of the 2000 film High Fidelity. A classy move from a classy man.
Desaparecidos – Payola (Epitaph)
Neil Young – The Monsanto Years (Warner)
How do you maintain a career as a hyper-political artist, bottling the fury and righteousness of your youth well into your 30s and beyond? One of these artists has the answer. And it’s not Neil Young.
Desaparecidos is the Nebraska punk band fronted by one Conor Oberst, the prolific songwriter best known for his Bright Eyes project (1995-2011), who now performs under his own name. This band was, until now, just a footnote in Oberst’s discography, 10 times louder and more raucous than anything else he’s ever done. Here, however, they show that they bring out the best in him.
Oberst’s pained yelp can be hard to take in quieter scenarios, but it’s perfectly suited to outrage and the impassioned sloganeering heard in Desaparecidos. Oberst, 35, is not a subtle guy, and a line like, “If one must die to save the 99, maybe it’s justified” sounds a lot better at full volume than it does over an acoustic guitar.
There are, of course, even more hardcore lefty political punk bands out there—let’s start with Winnipeg’s Propagandhi, for one—but few as melodic and indicative of a direct lineage from The Clash as this one. Not surprisingly, the singer of the most high-profile such band, Against Me!’s Laura Jane Grace, guests here. Now that pop-punk is used to soundtrack children’s cartoons, it’s rare to hear it roar with cries of social justice.
It’s not at all rare to hear Neil Young sing—or rant—about social justice. He’s become more and more preachy as he gets older. On The Monsanto Years, however, he’s downright insufferable—even if you happen to agree with every political sentiment contained within. He’s angry about the corporate takeover of democracy in America, about GMOs taking over the food supply, about short-term interests trumping long-term sustainability. Sure, who isn’t? No argument here. But he does so with the subtlety of a ninth-grader who’s just discovered that the forces of good don’t triumph in our modern world. He’s more interested in naming names—Monsanto, Monsanto, Monsanto, over and over again—than even bothering to write a chorus with a slogan worth remembering.
The only good news here is that his new backing band, Promise of the Real, featuring two of Willie Nelson’s sons, prove themselves worthy of the Crazy Horse legacy, with rich backing vocals and some of the better guitar solos heard in Young’s recent discography. Not that they can save this material, but they certainly get points for trying.
To be fair, Young puts out at least one album a year. Payola, on the other hand, is only the second Desaparecidos release in 13 years. But they still made the better record in 2015. (July 2)
Desaparecidos play TURF in Toronto at Fort York on Sept. 18 and 19.
Download Desaparecidos: “The Left is Right,” “Radicalized,” “Anonymous”
Download Neil Young: “People Want to Hear About Love,” “Rock Star Bucks a Coffee Shop,” “New Day for Love”
The Henrys – Quiet Industry (independent)
The Henrys are cursed with one of the most forgettable names in the history of music (although, hey, that did work for the Smiths). It doesn’t help that they only put out an album every six years or so. But when they do, Canadian musicians of a certain vintage perk up right away, because the Henrys is led by guitarist Don Rooke, best known for his work with Mary Margaret O’Hara and his Hawaiian kora guitar, and each time Rooke pulls in other ace collaborators from Toronto jazz circles (and Bruce Cockburn sidemen) like Hugh Marsh, John Sheard, Jon Goldsmith, Andrew Downing, and Guelph’s Davide DiRenzo.
Until now, if you’d heard one Henrys album you’d pretty much heard them all. This one, however, features Gregory Hoskins on plenty of lead vocals, and the arrangements are no longer focused just on Rooke’s kora. There’s still the delicate, dreamy, rainy-day vibe that is the mainstay of everything the Henrys do—and do so exceptionally well. (July 23)
Download: “Was Is,” “I Kneed You,” “When That Far Shore Disappears”
Joyfultalk – Muuixx (Drip Audio)
Calgary is a lot weirder than you think. It’s home to Chad Van Gaalen, the man who writes grungy electronic folk songs in ways we all wish Neil Young did, and does so in his home studio of modified instruments and damaged drum machines. But Calgary was also, until recently, the home of Jay Crocker, a man whose experiments with folk music and noise and jazz and just about everything else left behind an eclectic discography.
Now Crocker has left the oil capital and moved to rural Nova Scotia to live, in his words, a more sustainable lifestyle. He’s built a studio in a barn and packed it with all kinds of synths and homemade drum machines and other toys, and has reinvented himself as Joyfultalk, an instrumental electronic project that draws from early 2000s Berlin and the history of Krautrock in general, but also found-sound collage artists like the Books. Many of Crocker’s sounds appear to be acoustic instruments digitally manipulated into otherworldly sounds. Is that a gamelan? A cello? A hammered dulcimer? Don’t know, and it doesn’t matter.
This is fantastic sci-fi soundtrack music from a man who fled Canada’s economic engine and its most sprawling city to pursue a more meditative existence in the middle of nowhere, released on a record label run by the violinist in Tanya Tagaq’s band. There’s a track here called “Possible Futures.” Jay Crocker has many. (July 30)
Download: “Buschbabies,” “Possible Futures,” “Pommel Horse”
Mbongwana Star – From Kinshasa (World Circuit)
Two musicians from this new Congolese band started out in one of the strangest musical stories of the last 10 years: Staff Binda Bilili, a group of homeless, polio-afflicted musicians in wheelchairs playing homemade instruments assembled from garbage who made two records, toured the world and were the subject of an acclaimed documentary. Like any band, that unexpected spotlight strained internal relations and Staff Binda Bilili split up.
Now two of its elder members are back with younger musicians, including a psychedelic guitar wizard, and an Irish producer. Together, they recorded in a backyard in Kinshasa with a power generator, invited some friends over—including the electronic kalimba group Konono No. 1—and then the tracks were remixed and reassembled in Paris. The result is astounding blend of propulsive Congolese rumba beats, heavily distorted sounds, spirited vocals, Western funk and dub, blues—and more than a few shades of Toronto’s circuit-bending rock band Holy F--k. It’s joyful, it’s heavy, it’s haunting, it’s fascinating, it’s diverse—and it’s always infinitely danceable.
If there’s one record I want to hear on repeat at full volume for the rest of the summer—nay, the rest of the year—it’s this one. Saying merely that it’s the best African record you’ll hear this year is selling it short. (July 30)
Download: Nganshé, Malukayi (feat. Konono No. 1), Kimpala
Miguel – Wildheart (Sony)
Of all the genres that comprise pop music, it’s R&B and hip hop where the weirdoes have been winning lately. Kanye West, Drake, Kendrick Lamar, Frank Ocean, The Weeknd and D’Angelo have all mined the drugged-out, psychedelic and sometimes even goth underbelly of soul music. And then there’s Miguel, who betters them all by combining the above with pop hooks and rock guitars, making him the sort of fascinating amalgam that hasn’t existed since Prince.
Miguel is not a Prince pastiche, or any kind of pastiche: He’s his own man. But, like Prince, his ability to pull from every remote corner of the pop spectrum into a seductive stew is remarkable. Opening track “A Beautiful Exit” sounds like Beach House backing John Legend; “Leaves” rides a guitar riff that could be from an early R.E.M. album, while “Face the Sun” starts out like Billy Bragg before turning into a U2-size ballad with a guitar solo by Lenny Kravitz—and it’s a lot better than that combo might suggest. The song “NWA,” featuring the MC Kurupt, could be Outkast trying on a one-chord blues. (It’s also guaranteed to be the only R&B song in 2015 to make a Lee Iacocca reference.) Most of all, of course, Miguel in 2015 sounds a lot like the Miguel whose 2012 breakout Kaleidoscope Dream was the rare record that was as weird as it was wildly commercially successful.
“I’m in a crowd and I feel alone / I look around and I feel alone / I never feel like I belong,” sings the half-black, half-Mexican crooner on “What’s Normal Anyway.” The native of L.A. knows what it’s like to live in a libidinous culture of hopes and “lost Hollywood dreams,” and he’s crafted an ode to his hometown and all its futuristic, hypersexualized, sunbaked and emotionally needy characters. As he told VH1, “This album is Los Angeles, its attitude, its aggression, its sex, its psychedelia, its lust, its loneliness.”
The one misstep is “The Valley,” featuring a pulsing electronic drone that sounds like it’s manually being bent out of tune—it’s appropriately discombobulating for a pseudo-erotic escapade with the chorus, “I want to f--k like we’re filming in the Valley” (the San Fernando Valley, home to America’s porn industry). It’s one of the rare times here where Miguel tries to come on hard, and ends up sounding icky and gross—not just lyrically, but musically as well. Back to Prince: “The Valley” here stands out in the same way “Darling Nikki” did on Purple Rain—except that equally cartoonish song managed to convey pent-up sexual frustration in ways rarely ever expressed before. “The Valley,” on the other hand, sounds like a parody of The Weeknd (who is pretty good as self-parody himself).
What’s weird about that song is that Miguel usually has no trouble whatsoever making anything sexy. Sweet Jesus, just look at him—but then listen closely, because it’s hard to imagine a better male singer working in pop music today, from both a technical standpoint and for pure style. And this guy has style for miles. (July 9)
Download: “Coffee,” “What’s Normal Anyway,” “Leaves”
Vince Staples – Summertime ’06 (Def Jam/Universal)
This is the year when all rappers live in the shadow of Kendrick Lamar, mostly because his 2015 release To Pimp a Butterfly is one of the most artistically audacious albums of recent times to also be wildly commercially successful, not just in hip-hop but any genre.
Now here comes Vince Staples, whose debut album—like Lamar’s 2012 major-label debut, Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City—is a look back at the misadventures of his youth (hence the title). Lamar wrote about the L.A. neighbourhood of Compton, while Staples is from adjacent Long Beach. Lamar’s lyrical goals are James Baldwin-level loftier; his music draws from deep traditions of jazz and funk and hip-hop. Staples, on the other hand, sticks here to cautionary tales of gangs and gunplay, but his music is decidedly forward-looking and puts him in on a whole other level.
Staples has a captivating flow that elevates even his more pedestrian rhymes—for all his talk in interviews about not glamourizing the poor decisions and circumstance of his youth, he offers little here beyond straight-up narrative. It’s the music, largely overseen by Kanye West protégé No ID, that’s truly exceptional. The Latino influence is subtle but profound, which is why the electro downtempo descarga behind “3230” is so striking. “Loca” sounds like Drake lounging in Havana. The acoustic New Orleans percussion behind “Jump Off the Roof”—with a choir sampled from a Polish jazz musician on top—sounds like nothing else you’ll hear this year. Several tracks appear to be inspired by John Carpenter’s horror movie soundtracks set to dub reggae rhythms with Trent Reznor at the controls.
None of this sounds out of place. It all fits perfectly into Staples’s vision. And if it didn’t come out on the heels of To Pimp a Butterfly, there’s no doubt this would be the hip-hop record of the year. (July 16)
Download: “Norf Norf,” “Get Paid,” “Jump off the Roof”
The Straggler – Residual (Static Clang)
A straggler: someone who takes his time or lingers behind while the world moves on. On the surface, it might be an apt term for King Cobb Steelie bassist Kevin Lynn: one of the best bassists I’ve ever heard in my life, we don’t hear much from him ever since his main band slowly receded from view over the course of more than 20 years (they announced their definitive end last year). This is only the second release by his solo project, and it’s the first one in 11 years. By his own admission—and as you can infer from the title—these are tracks he had lying around his computer for years and decided to finally release (albeit quietly, on Bandcamp).
So yes: the man straggles. And yet, even Lynn’s decade-old dabbling sounds up-to-the-minute modern, in both its sonic approach and exploratory spirit, his tools and his methods completely au courant and sympatico with next-level producers like Haxan Cloak. Fans of King Cobb Steelie’s underrated, (largely) instrumental 2004 album Destroy All Codes can see how much of that was likely Lynn’s doing.
Lynn’s long-time love of dub reggae, post-punk and experimental music resonate through this material; the sound is monstrous—in particular the rhythm section, whether it’s Lynn on electric bass with a real drummer, or synths and drum machines. There are riffs and snippets of melody here, but rhythm rules supreme. As it should. (July 9)
Download: “Gourock,” “The Creep,” “Make Your Own Microbe”
The Weather Station – Loyalty (Outside)
In the broken social scene of Toronto music, Tamara Lindeman is one of the central threads. She performs with Bruce Peninsula, she’s co-written songs with the Constantines’ Steve Lambke (who put out her earlier albums on his You’ve Changed label), has worked with Daniel Romano and now here, on her third and finest album—long-listed for the Polaris Prize—she collaborates with Bahamas’ Afie Jurvanen, who produces and plays on this album recorded in a mansion in France. (Which, for the record, neither one of them owns—yet.)
Lindeman rarely sings above a whisper, yet consistently conveys a quiet strength. It’s a joy to hear her and Jurvanen play guitar together, and he employs only the most judicious of extra instrumentation, allowing her songs to speak for themselves. It’s a lovely, intimate record, though perhaps better suited to late-night campfires than rowdy tents at festivals. (July 16)
The Weather Station plays the Arboretum Festival in Ottawa on Aug. 22, Camp Wavelength in Toronto on Aug. 29, and opens for Bahamas at Massey Hall on Nov. 27.
Download: “Way It Is Way It Could Be,” “Loyalty,” “I Mined”