These reviews ran in December and January in the Waterloo Record and the now-defunct Guelph Mercury.
Highly recommended: Erykah Badu, Colleen, Scott Merritt
Well worth your while: Eskimeaux, Meridian Brothers
Arca – Mutant (Mute)
This Venezuelan producer was plucked from obscurity in 2013 to helm several tracks on Kanye West’s Yeezus, followed by a full-length collaboration with Bjork (Vulnicura)—both of which rank among the most experimental and audacious work either artist has done. He also worked with breakout artist FKA Twigs, whose featherweight voice softened some of his rougher sonic edges.
Here, on his second full-length, the producer flexes all his muscles and makes a brilliant—although never remotely pleasant or even welcoming—album best absorbed in isolation (or perhaps at an art gallery). He offers snippets of melody that get swept up in thunderstorms of distorted bass and sound design worthy of the freakiest avant-garde horror film you’ve never seen. These are not beats, they’re beasts. Disoriented beasts, at that. “I try not to let anything repeat for long enough that you can get used to it,” he told Pitchfork recently. That applies not just to musical phrases, but to notes themselves: nothing is allowed to sustain in the least without mutating. Wait a minute, what’s this ADD-addled album called again? Oh right… (Dec. 3)
Stream: “Sever,” “Snakes,” “Umbilical”
Ruth B – The Intro (Sony)
We can all cite people who’ve been signed to big record deals based on YouTube videos—but Vine videos? Where you only have six seconds to get anyone’s attention? Yet that’s the story of Edmonton’s Ruth B, who, based on her popularity on Vine, landed her song “Lost Boy” in the iTunes top 100 in 2015, which led to a deal with Sony. Now we have a four-song EP featuring—well, three more piano ballads that sound a lot like “Lost Boy.” The 20-year-old’s lyrics are, um, age-appropriate. But if Ruth B isn’t in a rush to show us what else she has up her sleeve, it’s because she doesn’t have to: a piano and that voice is all she really needs, especially in the age of Adele. (Jan. 28)
Stream: “2 Poor Kids,” “Lost Boy,” “Superficial Love”
Erykah Badu – But You Caint Use My Phone (Universal)
Drake’s “Hotline Bling” inspired more parodies and tributes than any other hit song in recent memory, which means which should all be sick of it by now. When Erykah Badu broke a five-year silence with this mixtape, released at the tail end of November, it could well have been just another meme in the ether. But Badu, of course, came up with something much more than that. The eccentric soul queen of the modern era shows clearly that it’s not perfectionism that’s responsible for her limited discography, because this was clearly whipped together quickly—made spontaneously in 11 days, with all her vocals done in one take—and it’s just as strong as anything else she’s ever done.
Yes, there’s an interpolation of “Hotline Bling,” retitled “Cell U Lar Device,” another track that borrows from Drake’s original sample, Timmy Thomas’s “Why Can’t We Live Together,” and there’s a rapper doing a dead-on Drake impersonation on several tracks. The rest of the mixtape continues with the phone theme—this is not Badu at her lyrical height. But musically, it’s as lush, trippy and weird as her finest work, and it’s refreshing to hear her come back and take ownership of R&B’s freak flag. (Jan. 7)
Stream: “Cell U Lar Device,” “Phone Down,” “Mr. Telephone Man”
Colleen – Captain of None (Thrill Jockey)
Cecile Schott, a.k.a. Colleen, is a French woman living in San Sebastian, Spain, with a bunch of ancient instruments she utilizes in entirely modern and mesmerizing ways. Primarily a viola player, here she picks up a treble viola da gamba, a baroque instrument normally played with a bow; she plucks it like a harp or a kora. There is also a melodica, which she uses to illustrate her latent-until-now dub reggae influence, and many instruments are run through something called a Moogerfooger delay pedal—you can’t go wrong with a tool named like that. An avalanche of distorted percussion drives “This Hammer Breaks,” which owes more to Congolese electronic kalimba band Konono No. 1 than the almost ambient, new-age aspects of her earlier work. There are many elements here that will appeal to fans of Owen Pallett or Joanna Newsom, but Colleen’s songwriting and aesthetic are entirely different—and, for that matter, fairly far removed from what even fans might expect from her. Captain of None came out in April 2015, but I didn’t even see it on any “missed it” lists at the end of the year—which is a crime, as it’s entirely enchanting and unique. (Jan. 14)
Stream: “Holding Horses,” “This Hammer Breaks,” “Soul Alphabet”
Liam Corcoran – ROM-DROM (independent)
During a decade when Canadian indie rock boasted dozens of bands releasing one classic album after another, P.E.I.’s Two Hours Traffic got slightly lost in the shuffle. By the time they split up in 2013—after releasing their masterpiece, the pure pop perfection of Foolish Blood, which boasted one killer melody after another and production worthy of a Spoon recording—great reviews and a decent cross-country fanbase didn’t pay the bills. They split amicably; guitarist Alex O’Hanlon had already started making waves in Toronto with his new project, Alvvays. Corcoran stayed close to home and started writing new material, with low expectations. This seven-song EP came out last fall; other than a diminished production aesthetic, nothing has changed in Corcoran’s world, other than a slight country tinge that suggests he might well turn into a Nick Lowe of the next generation. Corcoran calls in favours here from ex-bandmates, members of Hey Rosetta and Cuff the Duke and others to flesh out the sound. He never wrote pop songs to please other people or to carve a career out of it; as we can see here, that’s just what he does naturally, even when no one’s looking. Hopefully, however, this music made it off the Island. (Jan. 21)
Stream: “July-eh, July-oh,” “Let It Be Now,” “Catching the Stars”
Eskimeaux – O.K. (Double Double Whammy)
Two American acts in 2015 helped revive the lo-fi fuzziness of ’90s indie rock, augmenting their bedroom recordings for official coming-out parties. One was Car Seat Headrest, whose debut for Matador gathered various scrappy-sounding tracks from roughly a dozen earlier online releases; his first album with a recording budget comes out next month. The other artist was Brooklyn’s Eskimeaux, whose home demos were fleshed out for this charming debut album, one that maintains all the intimacy of a private project, but with complementary arrangements and instrumentation that no bigger budget would ever improve. Eskimeaux is Gabrielle Smith (whose bloodline includes native Alaskans, thanks for asking), who doesn’t let the soft timbre of her voice stop her from conveying strength and power, whether over ambient synths or a full rock band. On first impression, she comes off as a twee carbon copy of Julie Doiron or early Belle and Sebastian; upon close listen, however, her melodic gifts become more apparent, and she has no shortage of startling lyrics, such as, “Everything I said spewed like sparklers from my mouth.” Indeed, they do. And this debut is much more than just O.K. (Jan. 7)
Stream: “Broken Necks,” “I Admit I’m Scared,” “Pocket Full of Posies”
Meridian Brothers – Los Suicidas (Soundway)
Collectors of electronic exotica will know Jean-Jacques Perry and Gershon Kingsley, whose landmark record The In Sound From the Way Out, released in 1966, was one of the first Moog synth pop albums (predating Switched on Bach by two years). The anything-goes, screwball mood of that record influenced plenty of TV themes and radio interstitials over the years, not to mention bands like the Beastie Boys (who gave one of their EPs the same title) and Stereolab. But few artists have managed to sound as delirious and wigged-out as Perry-Kingsley at their prime, until an eccentric genius from Bogota, Colombia, named Elbis Àlvarez came along with the Meridian Brothers.
Àlvarez is a conservatory-trained rebel who loves reggaeton as much as he does György Ligeti, and whose music as the Meridian Brothers sounds like Perry-Kingsley partying to Peruvian chica and Colombian cumbia. Àlvarez pitch-bends his keyboards all around the circus-like melodies while traditional percussion rides underneath synth bass lines, creating what Àlvarez says is not surrealist pop music, but, in true South American tradition, “magical realism.” Whatever he wants to call it, it’s exactly what you want to hear in the middle of a Canadian winter that tests your sanity. Because sometimes a musical madman from the tropics is the only thing that makes sense. (Jan. 7)
Stream: “Dinamita,” “Amargura,” “Lagrima”
Scott Merritt – Of (independent)
When Scott Merritt was last in the public eye—back in the mid- to late 1980s when videos for his unique brand of art rock were played on MuchMusic—his records were crammed full of the latest technology, sometimes to a fault, distracting from his songcraft.
Scott Merritt is no longer in the public eye. The Brantford-born songwriter has been hiding out in Guelph for the last two decades, quietly raising his family, recording albums for Fred Eaglesmith and others, releasing only one album of his own in the last 26 years (2002’s The Detour Home).
So it’s a joy to suddenly discover this quiet gem, which snuck out into the world in April, on which Merritt employs little more than ukulele—and easily and instantly buries any hang-up you might have about an instrument that every hipster and cutesy pop act seems to be slinging around these days. Merritt’s magical hands extract delicacy and intricacy out of those four strings. To flesh out the sound, he relies largely on droning accordions (perhaps harmoniums?), trombone sections, clarinets alternating between only two notes, and upright bass by the incomparable Jeff Bird. For a record with no percussion and comprised largely of languid tempos, the rhythms are pulsing and surprisingly strong on a such a quiet record.
If this was merely a perfectly arranged and produced album, that would be one thing. But when a songwriter of Merritt’s calibre saves up more than a decade of sketches and brings them to fruition, we’re obviously witness to the best the man has to offer. There’s a song on here, “Meteor,” that I first heard Merritt play live more than 10 years ago—and I instantly remembered the melody and lyric vividly. Surely, I thought, I know this song from a previous album? Nope. That song stuck with me, with only one impression, for more than a decade. Always a good sign. (Dec. 3)
Stream: “Meteor,” “Bragging Rights,” “Willing Night”
Gregory Pepper and his Problems – Crush Crush Crush (Fake Four Inc.)
You can only handle being called “underrated” or “unsung” so long. Which is probably why Guelph treasure Gregory Pepper pours everything he has into 10 songs on a 7” single he released last fall, in particular a 51-second screed about overhyped peers—a song titled, ahem, “I Wonder Whose Dick You Had to Suck.” Got your attention yet? Pepper’s concision and immediacy—and irreverence—serves him well here, with maximum melody, dual guitar leads, and lean arrangements that make Weezer’s first album sound like Smashing Pumpkins. Every song here is under two minutes. Surely you can spare two minutes to—in the immortal words of Jean Chrétien—put some Pepper on your plate. (Jan. 21)
Stream: “Welcome to the Dullhouse,” “I Wonder Whose Dick You Had to Suck,” “There in the Meadow”
Savages - Adore Life (Matador)
“If you don’t love me, don’t love anybody,” is the opening line on the second album by this British band beloved by fans of early ’80s post-punk. It’s a bold claim, and interesting in the context of a new act many consider to be some kind of rock’n’roll saviour, an honour usually bestowed on a band that hearkens back to the past, something that’s been true of everyone from Bruce Springsteen in the ’70s to the White Stripes in the 2000s. Savages owe an enormous debt to Joy Division, Siouxie Sioux, early Cure and other bands of that era; they are, for better or worse, ideal to recommend to an old friend whose musical taste has been static since they first discovered those artists. Once you step outside that large shadow, however, do Savages bring anything new to the game? Do they have to? Singer Jehnny Beth possesses a powerful instrument: chilling, commanding, compelling. The band behind her has evolved into a more muscular unit since the promising debut album in 2013—not surprising, as Beth once wrote that “the music of Savages was imagined to function like armor. Four women facing the world, facing the industry, protected by their sound, indestructible.” No doubt they’re a killer live band, and none of this trivial discourse has anything to do with the band as musicians or songwriter or performers. But if they are, in fact, the most exciting new rock band of recent years, then maybe rock music doesn’t have anything new to offer at all. Maybe the most exciting band of 2026 will sound just like Beat Happening or Sebadoh. The most exciting band of 2036 will sound like Arcade Fire or the Strokes. And the most exciting band of 2046 will sound like Savages. (Jan. 21)
Stream: “Sad Person,” “Adore Life,” “T.I.W.Y.G.”
Boubacar Traore – Mbalimaou (Lusafrica)
This Malian bluesman has been making music for about 60 years; this latest release came out last January, but it’s certainly not trendy or timely and there’s never a bad time to rediscover this man’s immense talent. Produced by kora player Ballaké Sissoko and featuring Traore’s favourite harmonica player, Frenchman Vincent Bucher, Mbalimaou features more instrumentation than the hypnotic, sparse solo recordings of Traore that first caught my attention many years ago. It’s hard to imagine more sympathetic players, however; backing up a man who doesn’t need any help, they provide perfect, tiny touches. (Jan. 7)
Stream: “Hona,” “Mariama,” “Kolo Tigi”