Friday, August 21, 2015

August 2015 reviews

The following reviews ran in the Waterloo Record.

Highly recommended this month: Destroyer
Highly recommended, reviewed earlier: Torres
Well worth your while: Gypsophilia, Kalle Mattson, Lindi Ortega, Tony Wilson 6tet

Mac DeMarco – Another One (Captured Tracks)

If Tom Waits’s piano has been drinking, Mac DeMarco’s guitar is totally wasted, dude. Of course, Waits is actually a fantastic piano player, and DeMarco, behind his goofball image, is an accomplished guitar player. It takes skill to sound that bad. No, just kidding—the guy can play, it’s just that he chooses to play in a way that sounds like his guitar is being detuned on every note, and play through guitar pedals unearthed in a closet that’s been sealed shut since 1988. This eight-song album is DeMarco’s 10th release in the last six years, and as the title suggests, sounds like it was written and recorded in a week—which it was. There’s something to be said for immediacy and consistency, but one can’t help but wonder what delights DeMarco will conjure if and when he branches out and hunkers down. (Aug. 13)

Download: “The Way You’d Love Her,” “A Heart Like Hers,” “No Other Heart”

Destroyer – Poison Season (Merge)

Vancouver’s Dan Bejar has now put out 10 albums as Destroyer. The last one, Kaputt, was a commercial breakthrough of sorts, which led to bigger venues and audiences for the often-reluctant performer. But that came out four years ago—an entire “indie rock generation,” in Bejar’s words. "I assume people who listened to Kaputt have completely stopped listening to music, if I'm familiar with how things work,” he told Canadian Press. "So I've almost arranged it so I cannot bank on any previous success."

Poison Season, then, sounds like Destroyer’s Greatest Hits—though surely unconsciously for such a contrarian. Every stage of his ever-evolving sound is here: the glam rock of 2001’s classic Streethawk or his work with New Pornographers (“Midnight Meet the Rain”), the smooth, saxophone-inflected new wave of Kaputt (“Archer on the Beach”), the loose, rambling folk rock of Rubies (“Solace’s Bride,” “Times Square”). The band Bejar assembled for Kaputt and took on the road for two years is on fire here: trumpeter JP Carter (Dan Mangan), saxophonist Joseph Shabason (Diana), Black Mountain drummer Josh Wells and long-time collaborators Nick Bragg (guitar), David Carswell (guitar), Ted Bois (keys) and John Collins (bass). This band got booked into jazz festivals for a reason: each is a remarkably expressive player, and Bejar’s songs give them plenty of room to provide delicate splashes of colour—or a full-on assault, as on the three-chord stomper “Dream Lover.”

Primarily, however, Bejar revisits the lush orchestrations of 2004’s Your Blues—only that time he was utilizing only MIDI synths. Now he employs live orchestration, and it works beautifully, particularly when paired with just piano and percussion, as on “Forces From Above,” proving that Poison Season is hardly just a journey to the past: it’s about Bejar—an artist who muses openly, on and off his records, about the frivolity of the music business and insecurity about his own muse—being completely comfortable in his own skin, finessing the finest points from his discography and pushing toward the future without changing the core of what has made him so compelling for the last 15 years. (Aug. 27)

Download: “Dream Lover,” “Archer on the Beach,” “Girl in a Sling”

Gypsophilia – Night Swimming (Forward)

As the name would suggest, this Halifax seven-piece has a thing for Django Reinhardt and Roma melodies in a jazz context. But there’s a lot more than that going on here than some of the finest players on the East Coast engaging in a genre exercise: there are Latin rhythms, distorted electric guitar and violin leads, torchy blues that would impress Timber Timbre, cinematic textures and other elements that make this a thoroughly modern recording. Made at Joel Plaskett’s studio by producer Joshua Van Tassel (Great Lake Swimmers, Amelia Curran), this is their fourth and most accomplished. They have four ECMAs under their belt, but it’s time the rest of the country caught on. (Aug. 20)

Download: Boo Doo Down, Insomniac’s Dream, Night Falls and You Need Company

Hudson Mohawke – Lantern (Warp/Maple)
Ratatat – Magnifique (XL/Beggars)

Subjectivity is everything, but especially in music. We all have singers whose talent we can recognize but whose actual voice drives us crazy, whether it’s Joni Mitchell or Tom Waits or Drake or anyone in between. We don’t talk as often about the timbre of instrumentation as being our breaking point—except when I run screaming from the sound of Elliott Randall’s guitar on Steely Dan’s “Reelin’ in the Years.”

That sound in particular comes to mind on Ratatat’s fifth album, one that doesn’t stray from their modus operandi of melding ’70s classic rock guitar with modern electronics to make zippy, danceable, instrumental pop songs. But that tone, that one guitar tone, the automatically harmonized guitar lead, threatens to distract an otherwise decent collection, one almost as strong as their third and best album, LP3. They bounce from slamming electro a la early Daft Punk to dreamy Hawaiian interludes and a lot of it works. But as soon as they hit autopilot and turn on that guitar harmonizer, it’s game over.

I have a similar reaction to the frequency of the synths on this second album by Scottish producer Hudson Mohawke, which appear to be all treble, no mids, and minimal bass. (Yes, I checked my stereo and tried different headphones.) Think of the most garish sounds employed by Eurotrash EDM—and then turn up the treble some more. Surely this cannot be the future of electronic music, or of Warp Records. Which is too bad, because Mr. Mohawke (real name Ross Birchard) is full of intriguing ideas that even his terrible equipment can’t hide, which is why he’s been tapped by Kanye West, Drake, Pusha T and Azealia Banks for beats in the five years since his debut album. None of those artists return favours here, but he does land Miguel, Antony Hegarty and Jhen√© Aiko—even though those are among the least interesting tracks here. (Aug. 6)

Download Ratatat: “Cream on Chrome,” “Drift,” “Nightclub Amnesia”
Download Hudson Mohawke: “Lil Djembe,” “Indian Steps (feat. Antony),” “Scud Books”

Rochelle Jordan – 1021 (Protostar)

Now that even Tom Cruise is excited about the new Weekend album, here’s a Toronto R&B artist who’s been overlooked in the past year, when Drake and his crew continue to define the city to the rest of North America. Rochelle Jordan relocated to L.A. with her long-time collaborator KLSH, but she still sings about cruising down the 401, and has a faithful cadre of critics from her hometown hyping her every release. She has a stronger voice than this downtempo material would suggest; one senses that she’s dialling back her powerhouse capabilities to focus on a hushed, late-night, chilled-out vibe, even when hip-hop producer Rich Kidd enters the equation. The production owes a debt to ’90s R&B but also today’s next wave; Jordan has as much in common with FKA Twigs as she does Aaliyah (the most common comparison point). The next time someone talks up “the 6ix” without mentioning anyone outside the OVO crew—especially ladies like Jordan and the equally underrated Merna—they’re only telling half the story. (Aug. 6)

Download: “What the Fuss,” “Day Ones,” “Ease Your Mind”

Kalle Mattson – Avalanche (Home Music Co. Records)

Earlier this summer, beloved Winnipeg veterans the Weakerthans announced that they had formally split (no surprise, really—it had been eight years since the release of their last album). Soon enough, the new EP by 25-year-old Ottawa-via-Sault Ste. Marie songwriter Kalle Mattson arrived, and the vocal, lyrical and melodic resemblance between him and the Weakerthans’ John K. Samson is uncanny—so strong that the last time I reviewed a Mattson record I spent most of the review talking about it. And yet here I am again, writing a review that Mattson will most likely want to crumple up and throw across the room. But I mean it only as a compliment, especially when the arrangements surrounding his songs here occasionally aim for synth-driven, anthemic bombast and Coldplay choruses. (There’s even a song called New Romantics. It does not, thankfully, nod to Spandau Ballet or Duran Duran). When he dials it down for an acoustic ballad with harmonicas and pianos, Mattson and his backing band—which includes Drake collaborator Colin Munroe and Kathleen Edwards sideman Jim Bryson (who once made an album with, um, the Weakerthans) conjure tasteful atmospherics and percussion that pull his folk-pop into the 21st century. With only six songs on this EP, Mattson doesn’t waste any time: every one’s a winner, every one should be on the radio, and it buys him a lot of time. With an EP this good, he can take as long as he wants to put out a full-length. And I swear that next time I’ll no longer be talking about that band from Winnipeg. (Aug. 20)

Download: “Avalanche,” “Lost Love,” “Baby Blue”

Lindi Ortega – Faded Gloryville (Last Gang)

Lindi Ortega is all of 35 years old, And yet, in the liner notes to this, her fourth album, she admits to having a mid-life crisis and wondering whether she should soldier on.

Ortega has faced tough times before: she struggled for 10 years on the Toronto scene, playing traditional country music and singing her guts out—Ortega possesses one of the most remarkable voices, in country music or otherwise, to come out of this country in a long time. She started getting some lucky breaks about five years ago, is now living in Nashville, and Faded Gloryville was recorded with some of the finest producers that friendships can buy: fellow Torontonian Colin Linden (Bruce Cockburn, the TV show Nashville), the Alabama duo of Ben Tanner (Alabama Shakes) and John Paul White (the Civil Wars), and Dave Cobb (Sturgill Simpson, the upcoming Corb Lund record).

For a woman who burst on the scene with rockabilly drive and a helluva holler, Faded Gloryville is unusually subdued and downtempo. “I will not forget the good old days when I was driven by my will / and I won’t get back all the dues I paid here in Faded Gloryville,” she sings on the title track, the sound of an older, wiser woman taking stock. She still has swagger, of course, and the last third of the album, the songs recorded with Cobb, revisits the hard-living, bad-ass characters in which Ortega specializes. A cover of the oft-covered Bee Gees song “To Love Somebody,” recorded in Muscle Shoals with Tanner and White, brings some R&B to the table, but hardly seems necessary when the rest of the record enhances everything Ortega already does so well. (Aug. 27)

Download: “I Ain’t the Girl,” “Faded Gloryville,” “Run-Down Neighbourhood”

Slime – Company (Weird World/Domino)

Will Archer started playing music as a teenager as a drummer in a Rage Against the Machine cover band; he thought all electronic music was bogus and fake. He’s obviously come around; his work as Slime fits easily alongside the likes of Jaime XX or Caribou or James Blake or FourTet, with whom he shares a love of live instrumentation and found-sound samples. The word “organic” is one of the most overused terms of the last 10 years, rendering it virtually meaningless, and yet Slime’s intersection of traditional instrumentation and electronic manipulation, though hardly novel—Nicolas Jaar’s 2013 album as Darkside is another kindred spirit—still sounds fresh in Archer’s hands. (Aug. 13)

Download: “Striding Edge,” “My Company,” “Liquorish”

Tony Wilson 6tet – A Day’s Life (Drip Audio)

It seems odd that Vancouver, the most expensive city in Canada, one which most aspiring rock musicians have fled, boasts such an impressive jazz and improv scene—and most of the key players can be found in this band. Guitarist Tony Wilson has been a bandleader for more than 25 years, and here he rounds up trumpeter JP Carter (Fond of Tigers), violinist Jesse Zubot (Tanya Tagaq), jazz superstar cellist Peggy Lee, Russell Sholberg on bass and drummer Skye Brooks for a walk through the wild side—or more specifically, Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, a troubled neighbourhood of beauty and despair and lost dreams, where Wilson once lived; the (non-autobiograhpical) album is meant to be the tale of a crack-addicted musician busking on East Hastings, based on a 2012 Wilson novella. Not that you’d infer that by just listening, necessarily, but no matter. The songs here boast strong melodic leads, delicate textures, occasional bursts of noise and strong composition to which these sensitive players bring their top game. Zubot and Lee in particular shine, partly because it’s unusual to hear both violin and cello together in a jazz band where they’re lead players, not texture, but also partly because those two are capable of anything. Carter, too, stands out by not only being the sole wind player, but by running his trumpet through distortion and effects, as he does with Destroyer and Dan Mangan and myriad other projects. Wilson himself is the consummate bandleader, setting the stage and letting everyone shine equally. The guitarist is incredibly prolific, and this humble reviewer can’t lay claim to knowing even a fraction of his oeuvre. But it’s hard to imagine a better introduction than this. (Aug. 6)

Download: “A Day’s Life,” “The Morn’ in Blues,” “The Long Walk”

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