Highly recommended this month: Deradoorian
Well worth your while: Blackalicious, Alessia Cara, Car Seat Headrest, Grimes
The following reviews originally ran in the Waterloo Record.
!!! – As If (Warp/Maple)
It’s been 15 years since underground rock audiences decided to learn how to dance, which led to LCD Soundsytem, Peaches, and a handful of lesser acts who were great in the moment but seemed destined to be merely of a time and place. The bi-coastal band !!! (pronounced Chk Chk Chk) were one of those, known primarily for their slinky-bassline-single “Me and Guiliani Down by the Schoolyard.” Honestly, I have not followed their career since, ever since one show I witnessed veered too much toward Red Hot Chili Pepper territory. But here they are 10 years later, still forging their own take on disco with bassist Tyler Pope at the helm and singer Nic Offer hitting Bee Gee highs and octave-pedal-assisted depths. There are moments here where they aim for Modest Mouse-style pop or George Clinton’s P-funk, but when they decide to simply ride a groove and pile on all sorts of effects, the result can be gigantic and even magical. (Nov. 27)
Download: “All U Writers,” “Sick Ass Moon,” “I Feel So Free (Citation Needed)”
Justin Bieber – Purpose (Universal)
“Is it too late now to say I’m sorry?” It seems like the world can’t get enough of Justin Bieber’s contrition tour. The good-boy-gone-bad wants to win your heart back—or perhaps win it for the very first time. (Full disclosure: this is the first Bieber record I’ve been able to listen to from top to bottom. More than once, even!) Sure, there are ballads that feature just jazzy electric guitar and trumpets, but there’s also plenty of pop songs and slow jams and club tracks and production by Diplo and Skrillex. This is Bieber’s big-tent record: aiming to please his original fanbase but also anyone who ever dismissed him in the past. It’s his Michael Jackson moment. Except it’s like Bieber skipped over Thriller, Bad and Dangerous and went right to the denouement of Jackson’s career, when his earnestness became insufferable and his attempts to chase current trends were just plain sad. “People are not perfect,” intones Bieber on a plaintive piano ballad, “and by not being perfect you can sometimes disappoint people.” But the best thing about Purpose is that Justin Bieber suddenly got a lot more interesting. And once he breaks out of this “sorry” stage, we might even see some truly great things. (Nov. 20)
Download: “What Do You Mean,” “Where Are U Now,” “Love Yourself”
Blackalicious – Imani Vol. 1 (OGM)
This California hip-hop duo disappeared for 10 years, a time during which their entire Quannum crew (DJ Shadow, Latryx, Lyrics Born) also receded. That’s a shame. With old-school MC skills and beats steeped in ’70s funk, the Quannum crew stood out in a rapidly changing hip-hop universe; they were to hip-hop what the Daptone crew were to R&B.
This comeback record is full of titles like “We Did It Again,” “Twist of Time,” “On Fire Tonight” and “Love’s Gonna Save the Day”: there’s clearly a revitalized energy and sense of purpose at play here, with MC Gift of Gab—he of “Alphabet Aerobics” fame—reminding us that he’s one of the most head-spinning, rapidfire lyricists in the business. Meanwhile, DJ Xcel is still the deep-soul cratedigger he always was; there are few, if any, nods to modern trends, and yet there’s nothing fusty to be found—other than the fact that Gift of Gab doesn’t pretend to be anything but a middle-aged dude, at one point rapping about his niece and her kids. There’s a full-on Quannum reunion on “Alpha and Omega,” but guest spots are few and far between; apparently more friends stop by on Vol. 2, which we’re told is already finished. Bring it on. (Nov. 13)
Download: “Blacka,” “Escape,” “That Night”
Alessia Cara – Know-it-All (Universal)
The debut album by this 19-year-old Brampton singer may be brand new, but her first single, “Here,” already has 42 million plays on Spotify and 20 million views on YouTube. So when she sings a piano ballad with the lyric “we could be stars,” she’s not being aspirational. She’s already there.
As she should be. Cara is a walking We Day rally, with inspirational messages for the misfits and the wallflowers: “You should know you’re beautiful just the way you are / you don’t have to change a thing / the world can change its heart.” Her hit, “Here,” has her hanging back from the action at a lame party full of vomiting potheads, realizing she has better things to do with her time—like hanging with friends she actually likes, kicking back and listening to “music with a message.”
There’s more than a little bit of Lorde here: the nerdy outcast who embraces big pop music to make a point about the vapidity of pop culture. Opening track “Seventeen” has a huge hook and beat worthy of Katy Perry; if it’s not a tailor-made hit, I don’t know what is. “Here” rides the same Isaac Hayes sample that underscored Portishead’s “Glory Box,” which is a much less obvious pop bid, but one that’s clearly worked. She channels Amy Winehouse on “Outlaws,” the torchy timbre of her voice belying her actual age.
Justin Bieber might get more headlines this month, but this teenager is more likely to go the distance. (Nov. 20)
Alessia Cara plays the Danforth Music Hall in Toronto on Jan. 16-17.
Download: “Seventeen,” “Here,” “Outlaws”
Car Seat Headrest – Teens of Style (Matador)
In the days of Bandcamp, your debut album could be considered a greatest hits. Here comes Will Toledo, who’s made five full-length records and a whole lot more music in the last five years, all posted exclusively to Bandcamp. Indie heavyweight Matador came calling, and an all-new collection is due in early 2016; in the meantime, this is a fantastic look back at what this lo-fi melodicist has been up to, while he cut back the fat and re-recorded and rewrote some early tracks.
Matador is a natural home for Toledo: much of what he does recalls the label’s “heritage acts” like Guided By Voices, Pavement and Liz Phair, along with other ’90s indie pillars like Sebadoh and Beck. Toledo is young and green—barely able to shave, by the looks of it—and recently relocated from his Seattle home to a Virginia college town. He’s full of twentysomething angst, in true ’90s slacker style: “All of my friends are getting married / all my friends are right with God / all my friends are making money / but I… (mumble mumble mumble)”. His lyrics occasionally get lost in the fuzz and hiss, but for all its rough and ragged sonics, Teens of Style makes the most out of very little at all. It’s the kind of inventiveness by necessity that might get lost once he has the means to make a “real record.” We’ll see how that shakes down next year. But if the songs are as good as they are here, that will hardly matter. (Nov. 5)
Car Seat Headrest plays the Silver Dollar in Toronto on Dec. 1.
Download: “Something Soon,” “Sunburned Shirts,” “Times to Die”
Deradoorian – The Expanding Flower Planet (Anticon)
If that doozy of a title doesn’t suggest some psychedelic influences, I don’t know what would. Angel Deradoorian, former bassist and backing vocalist with the Dirty Projectors, weaves hypnotic musical spells with throbbing percussion, Eastern melodies and Balkan harmonies. The closet thing to a primary pop influence here, other than her former band, is the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows,” an eastern European version of Stereolab or a slower, trippier take on Deerhoof. Tom drums, droning organs, ancient strings and subtle electronics all underscore Deradoorian’s fascinating vocals, which deliver complex melodies and harmonies seemingly effortlessly. “In your inner gaze, you will find the sage and build a circle of creation,” she sings, with the poise and power of a woman at the centre of a unique musical vision. (Nov. 27)
Download: “A Beautiful Woman,” “Expanding Flower Planet,” “Komodo”
Grimes – Art Angels (4AD)
Art Angels is the most-anticipated Canadian release of 2015. Which is a bit weird.
Yes, Claire Boucher, a.k.a. Grimes, is in every magazine—from Pitchfork to the New Yorker to Vogue—and she’s managed by Jay Z’s company. But until now, she’s been a musical outlier: her early, experimental records would be considered unlistenable to 99 per cent of her current audience; 2012’s Visions—my personal favourite album of that year—was a huge leap forward in terms of production and melody, but was still far left of Lorde in terms of mainstream appeal. In between then and now, Grimes recorded a full album and scrapped it, leaked one track that was apparently intended for Rihanna, and played coy about the arrival of Art Angels.
Even though she denies it, Art Angels is Grimes’s big bid, her grab for the gold, her moonshot. There are giant pop anthems with chugging electric guitars. There are EDM disco rave-ups. There’s an acoustic ballad. There’s a song with just voice, a string section, and electronics. It all puts her in the company of Katy Perry and Tegan and Sara and Haim. Not, as we expected, Bjork or FKA Twigs or M.I.A.—even if there is a track with a spaghetti Western guitar riff, a Taiwanese rapper, an avalanche of electronic percussion and plenty of screaming. It’s called “SCREAM” (emphasis is hers).
Because it’s only the singles that matter, she’s completely succeeded. “California,” “Flesh Without Blood,” “Belly of the Beat” and the peppy (and insipid) title track all sound huge and radio-ready. Aggressive club tracks like “SCREAM,” “Kill vs. Maim” and “Venus Fly”—featuring Janelle Monae, one of only two guest spots on this one-woman show—display a much more butch side of Boucher, whose girlish upper range led many to infantilize her in the past.
And yet for every pop triumph found here, the rest sounds like Boucher dulling her edges and shoehorning herself into someone else’s perception of herself, and ending up sounding like rejects from an ’80s teen movie soundtrack. She’s much better than that, as she proves on the other half of this album—and on every track on Visions, for that matter.
Of course, assigning intent to any artist in any review is ridiculous, and every Grimes album has been so drastically different from the last that there’s no reason to expect anything in her future to be based on what we already think we know about her. Grimes will always keep us guessing—and second-guessing. In the meantime, she’s scored enough hits here to make the rest of the world pay attention. (Nov. 13)
Download: “California,” “Flesh Without Blood,” “Kill Vs. Maim”
Billy Gibbons and the BFGs – Perfectamundo (Universal)
Even the biggest ZZ Top fans probably didn’t know that guitarist Billy Gibbons once trained with the Latin percussion giant Tito Puente, way back in the mid-1960s, long before ZZ Top, before even his psychedelic garage band the Moving Sidewalks. Gibbons has always been a bluesman, a rocker, and, during ZZ Top’s most commercial period in the 1980s, perhaps the only blues guitarist in history to successfully incorporate synths into his template.
Shockingly, this is the 66-year-old’s first solo album. Though his voice and guitar style is instantly recognizable, that’s about all that will be familiar to ZZ Top fans. Gibbons surrounds himself with Cuban-American musicians, including a rapper, and Perfectamundo features almost as many piano and organ solos as it does guitar; Gibbons himself plays some B-3, as well as bass and percussion.
The Puente connection means these aren’t exactly new tricks for this old dog, but they’re certainly new to anyone who’s worn out their copy of ZZ Top’s Greatest Hits. (Nov. 13)
Download: “Sal Y Pimiento,” “Treat Her Right,” “Q-Vo”
Jeff Lynne’s ELO – Alone in the Universe (Sony)
Remember how Noel Gallagher somehow convinced the world that Oasis was the world’s best Beatles ripoff band? Fact: Oasis don’t actually sound anything like the Beatles. Jeff Lynne, on the other hand, sounds so much like the Beatles that the surviving members called him to put the band back together, as it were, to piece together the song “Free as a Bird” for the Anthology compilation in 1995. In the years since that obvious career high, he’s mostly been quiet, outside projects with Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Tom Petty; the fact that he surfaced to produce the new Bryan Adams this year was a bit of a surprise.
Lynne’s first album of new material in 14 years, Alone in the Universe, uses the ELO name, but he plays everything on it; there are no favours from high-profile friends. This isn’t the Traveling Wilburys—but it sure sounds like it. If Lynne’s inclusion in that ’80s supergroup was a bit of a mystery at the time, he shows here that he’s much more than a producer with a distinct sound. The 10 songs here are tiny, perfect pop songs that, yes, sound a lot like McCartney and Petty and Roy Orbison, but will also have modern groups like the Tame Impala and the Flaming Lips taking notes. Lynne’s lyrics aren’t his strength (“She’s dirty to the bone / she’ll deceive you until the cows come home”), but they’re swept away by his melodies. (Nov. 20)
Download: “When the Night Comes,” “When I Was a Boy,” “One Step At a Time”
Wainwright Sisters – Songs in the Dark (Maple)
Will those damn McGarrigles and Wainwrights ever stop making family records? No, no they won’t. And nor should they, especially when they sound like this. Martha Wainwright and her half-sister, Lucy Wainwright Roche, unite on this collection of lullabies. Naturally, aunts Anna and Jane McGarrigle show up, as do Martha’s cousins, the Lanken siblings. There are a couple of originals, as well as covers of classic country songs, songs by relatives and family friends (Terre Roche, Richard Thompson), and classics by Irving Berlin and Townes Van Zandt. A haunting cover of the Peruvian song El Condor Pasa, best known for Simon and Garfunkel’s cover, is the only modern pop standard; “All the Pretty Horses” the only song found in most baby books. The track list balances suitably soothing songs with irreverent takes on the genre, like father Loudon Wainwright III imploring a baby to “do me a favour, don’t bitch in your sleep,” or “Baby Rocking,” about children that grow on trees and ladies who give away babies with half a pound of tea (“If you know any ladies who want any babies, just send them round to me”). Have a new parent on your gift list? This a musical treat with infinitely more to offer than the usual parade of dancing dinosaurs and cartoon characters. (Nov. 27)
Download: “Long Lankin,” “Runs in the Family,” “Hobo’s Lullaby”
Young Galaxy – Falsework (Paper Bag)
Objectively speaking, Falsework is flawless: the production is bright, there is nary a note out of place, the songs are catchy, Catherine McCandless is a decent singer, the synths sound impeccably clean and well-programmed. But wait—is the best thing I can say about this record really that the synths are impeccably clean and well-programmed? That means Montreal’s Young Galaxy makes Metric sound like the most violent punk rock band on the planet. Swedish producer and collaborator Dan Lissvik helps create beats that occasionally stand up fine on their own as minimalist EDM, like on “Body”; it’s the Nile Rodgers-meets-New-Order peppy beach-party vibe that suffocates most of this record with an ’80s hangover that actually makes you long for the upcoming A-ha reunion. This is a great record—to test-drive your new hi-fi system, but not much more. (Nov. 5)
Download: “The Night Wants Us to Be Free,” “Body,” “We’re No Good”