Monday, May 30, 2016

May 2016 reviews

Kaytranada's 99.9%
Highly recommended this month: Kaytranada, Jessy Lanza, Sturgill Simpson

Highly recommended earlier this month: Veda Hille, Operators, Anohni

Well worth your while: The Burning Hell, Tanika Charles

As always, these reviews ran in the Waterloo Record.

Streaming is great for sample purposes, but please support your favourite artists financially.

The Burning Hell – Public Library (independent)

The Burning Hell’s Mathias Kom is not as a singer/songwriter as much as he is a comedic storyteller who happens to front a band—an electric rock band led by ukulele and clarinet that owes debts to Jonathan Richman, Pavement and Men Without Hats (hence the song here titled, um, “Men Without Hats”). Kom largely abandoned melody a while back to become an absurdist raconteur, and a highly entertaining one at that. Based on St. John’s, N.L., but spending most of their time on the road in Europe, The Burning Hell are a polished live band that underscores Kom’s rap cadence, filled as it is with dorky punchlines and meandering observations (just listen to him try to cram a reference to the International House of Pancakes into the meter of a rhyme). Kom is not just a joker; he has a fine sense of detail that bestows deeper meaning to mundane details (“The band was as blue as the melted Joni Mitchell cassette on the dash of the van they had named ‘Regret.’ ”)

The Burning Hell don’t make it to these parts often these days; be sure to catch them June 14 at the E-Bar in Guelph, with Partner; June 15 at the Monarch in Toronto, with Dave Bidini. (May 26)

Stream: “The Road,” “Men Without Hats,” “F--k the Government, I Love You”

Tanika Charles – Soul Run (independent)

This Toronto-via-Edmonton moonlights in a Motown cover band featuring some of the city’s best session players, and she used to be a backing vocalist with sci-fi soul singer Zaki Ibrahim. It’s fitting, then, that her debut is a blend of vintage grooves and songwriting with modern pop production, brought to life by some of the city’s best R&B, rock and hip-hop producers, and musicians with jazz skills. Charles is the star of the show, of course, and a classy lady, a trait that’s evident in every vocal phrase here. The Weeknd notwithstanding, this country has a terrible history of recognizing its R&B scene, but Charles has the kind of starpower—and now a debut album that fully captures her talents—to overcome any obstacles. (May 5)

Stream: “Soul Run,” “Two Steps,” “Money”

Drake – Views (Universal)

It’s become impossible to separate Drake the icon— Drake the civic booster, the Raptors ambassador, the brand master who announced that the city will now be known as “the Six” and thus it was instantly so—and Drake the musician. To be critical of Drake’s music seems downright traitorous, his every commercial and critical triumph negating all the haters.

This is an album he announced two years ago, teasing out details slowly, releasing red-herring singles—and two wildly successful so-called “mixtapes,” one solo, one with Future—in the interim. Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar might rack up the acclaim and the awards, but Drake is hands-down the most successful rapper in his prime on the planet right now. Expectations could not have been higher.

Yet even diehards seem mystified by Views. One writer on a panel from MTV News—who defined himself as a die-hard Drake fan—lamented that “there’s no possible way I could be this bored by a Drake album.” Or, as Drake himself says about a woman on opening track “Keep the Family Close,” on a lyric that sums up his awkward flow and limp analogies: “Like when Chrysler made that one car that looked just like a Bentley, I always saw you for what you could have been.” Is everyone realizing the emperor has no clothes?

Sure, “Hotline Bling”—a song even Drake haters (i.e. me) can love, despite its ridiculously entitled and condescending tone toward yet another ex—is tacked on to the end, almost as an afterthought. “Too Good,” featuring Rihanna, is the only other track here that remotely resembles a pop song, but it’s “Childs Play,” in part about a hilariously mundane breakup at the Cheesecake Factory, that is the only real delight here. “One Dance,” a collaboration with Nigeria’s WizKid, features perhaps the strongest production on the album, but Drake is the weakest link in the whole track—can we get an instrumental?

Most telling is that much of the album sounds like Drake and producer Noah “40” Shebib on autopilot: they broke through by taking Kanye’s 808 and Heartbreak and expanding that nocturnal melancholy into pop hits, but now that sound has proven so influential that dozens of imitators are now doing it better. As a writer, Drake was at his most fascinating and/or infuriating when he was documenting his every trial and triviality; now he doesn’t seem to have much to say about anything. Over the course of an album that’s 20 songs long, it’s more than clear that “Hotline Bling” wasn’t the promise of more greatness to come; it was just the moment in time we reached peak Drake.

Views? More like snooze. (May 5)

Stream: “Childs Play,” “One Dance,” “Too Good”

Holy Fuck – Congrats (Innovative Leisure)

Six years between albums is not that unusual compared to the name you chose for your band. Trends come and go, but this Toronto rock band based on twisted and tampered electronics was never any marketing team’s ideal client anyway. They’re still running every sound through distortion and tape delay, the grooves are heavy and solid, and they sound more and more like a collab between a Canadian punk band and Congolese DIY electronic ecstatists Konono No. 1. Vocals are more prominent this time out, though more as tortured ghosts caught in a machine rather than pop hooks with identifiable lyrics. “Shivering” and “Neon Dad” are the closest to balladry this band will ever get. (May 26)

Holy Fuck play the Track and Field festival in Toronto on Saturday, June 4, with The National, July Talk and Santigold.

Stream: “Tom Tom,” "House of Glass," “Neon Dad”

Kaytranada – 99.9% (HW&W)

Daft Punk spent millions of dollars on vintage synths and disco legends to make Random Access Memories. Kaytranada—23-year-old Montreal DJ Louis Kevin Celestin—made this tour-de-force debut record in his parents’ basement, where he still lives, and it’s every bit as all-encompassing and forward-thinking as the French duo’s Grammy-winning classic.

Until now, Kaytranada has been known for remixes posted on Soundcloud, of Janet Jackson, Missy Elliott and others, which launched his international DJ career. He doesn’t pull that kind of starpower on the guest list here—even though he’s gone on tour with Madonna and been summoned to Rick Rubin’s ranch. But he certainly doesn’t need name-dropping when he’s made an album like this.

At a time when EDM and hip-hop both opt for maximalist excess, Kaytranada is refreshingly raw and sparse, his speaker-rattling bass lines falling behind the beat—which is fine, because the bass throughout is mixed far louder than any of the drum tracks. One can hear J Dilla’s work with Erykah Badu in here, as well as Stevie Wonder’s ’70s prime, and the Brazilian-influenced broken beat scene out of West London at the turn of the century. Detroit jazz drummer and hip-hop producer (and Dilla associate) Karriem Riggins—whose day job is behind the kit for Diana Krall—lays down some live tracks. Toronto group BadBadNotGood are natural collaborators, as is Phonte, an MC from 2000s hip-hop cult heroes Little Brother.

Along with Poirier’s Migrations, 99.9% marks a massive moment in Montreal’s beat-making scene. Don’t be surprised if the Haitian-born Kaytranada becomes his hometown’s biggest international calling card since Arcade Fire. (May 26)

Related: read this fantastic profile of the man in Fader.

Stream: “Together” (feat. AlunaGeorge and GoldLink), “Weight Off” (feat. BadBadNotGood), “Breakdance Lesson N.1”

Jessy Lanza – Oh No (Hyperdub)

This Hamilton artist seemingly came out of nowhere in 2013 to be signed to a prestigious British electronic label, and her debut, Pull My Hair Back, was shortlisted for the 2014 Polaris Music Prize (alongside Drake, Arcade Fire, Tagaq, Shad and others). It showcased Lanza’s electronic production skills, her playful, confident vocals and her love of ’90s R&B and ’80s synth pop and ’00s Daft Punk disciples. But if the debut was merely promising, Oh No delivers on every level. With co-producer Jeremy Greenspan of Junior Boys back on board, Oh No buries any sexist assumption that he was a principal architect of Lanza’s sound, seeing how this album betters his band’s entire output. There’s nothing cold or distant or arch about Lanza’s music; Oh No is joyous and even euphoric, something that too much of modern retro-tinged synth pop seems to forget. Oh No is a sunnier side of Grimes, and easily the best electronic pop record out of this country since that artist’s Visions. Oh look, and summer is right around the corner. (May 12)

Stream: “VV Violence,” “It Means I Love You,” “Oh No”

Sturgill Simpson – A Sailor's Guide to Earth (Atlantic)

The new album by this alt-country star opens with 30 seconds of droning, ominous synths before collapsing into a sparse piano-and-strings ballad—only to switch gears into a full-on Stax-style soul song halfway through its five-minute running time. Not your typical country song; not a typical country record.

Sturgill Simpson was vaulted from obscurity with 2014’s Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, on which he covered a new wave obscurity and got downright psychedelic at times, on an otherwise traditional country album that sounded like it was recorded in the ’70s (it, and this new one, are helmed by producer du jour Dave Cobb, who’s also behind Chris Stapleton and the latest from Corb Lund and Lindi Ortega).

Here, he is delightfully even more confounding, as that opening track suggests. Pedal steel guitar solos ping-pong between speakers. The horn section sounds like it could have been arranged by New Orleans legend Allen Toussaint. There’s an Otis Redding-style rave-up about American foreign policy. There’s a mournful, string-drenched cover of Nirvana’s “In Bloom”—the only moment here that sounds remotely gimmicky. In between are straight-up country songs (“Breakers Roar,” “Oh Sarah”) that are no less worthy than Simpson’s soul excursions.

Most important, Simpson’s songwriting has stepped up, his lyrics and melodies matching the ambition of his sonic vision. It’s hard to imagine a better Americana album will emerge in the rest of this calendar year. (May 26)

Stream: “Breakers Roar,” “Keep It Between the Lines,” “Welcome to Earth (Pollywog)”

Skydiggers – Here Without You: The Songs of Gene Clark  (Latent)

Who was Gene Clark? He was one of the original Byrds, writing fan favourites like “Eight Miles High” and “Feel a Whole Lot Better.” But his bandmates were apparently jealous that he landed the most songs on the group’s debut album, so they started to muscle him out. He released a series of lesser-known but beloved albums that made him a cult hero; his personal habits—including alcohol, heroin, and eventually crack—stymied any chance of success. He died at age 41 of throat cancer and heart failure.

Over the years, Clark’s songs have been covered by Tom Petty, Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, This Mortal Coil and Teenage Fanclub. Now Toronto’s Skydiggers—on this album reduced to the core duo of Andy Maize and Josh Finlayson, with Guelph’s Jessy Bell Smith—and producer Michael Timmins (Cowboy Junkies) have assembled this intimate tribute, eight songs from throughout Clark’s discography that illustrate the lasting appeal of the troubled songwriter. Sometimes it’s predictable; stripped-down versions of songs beloved by other songwriters. Then there’s “So You Say You Lost Your Baby,” where psychedelic guitar and haunting piano transform the song into something more sinister. (May 5)

Stream: “Eight Miles High,” “One in a Hundred,” “So You Say You Lost Your Baby”

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