Highly recommended this month: Nels Cline
Highly recommended, reviewed earlier: A Tribe Called Red
Well worth your while: Nick Cave, Tami Nielson
As always, these reviews ran in the Waterloo Record.
Streaming is great for sample purposes, but please find a way to support your favourite artists financially.
In case you missed it, my piece about Kaytranada winning the Polaris Music Prize ran in Maclean's.
In case you missed it, my piece about Kaytranada winning the Polaris Music Prize ran in Maclean's.
Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds – Skeleton Tree (Sony)
There is no greater anguish, no more unimaginable horror than losing a child. And so while many a man has made a career of writing about the dark side of humanity, about murder and loss and depravity in ways both chilling and cartoonish, what does it mean when that man suffers the loss of a child? Can the listener rectify reality with the artifice of art?
Nick Cave’s 15-year-old son Arthur died after falling off a 60-foot cliff while on LSD in July 2015.
The songs on Skeleton Tree had already been written, and Cave had plans to go into the studio shortly. In part because he knew he didn’t want to face the press once the album came out, he invited a filmmaking friend to document the process. The result is the new film Once More With Feeling, in which Cave and his family and his band talk about their grief, and he says, “Everything is not OK, but it’s also OK. The records go on and the work goes on.” He’s certainly not the first person to use their work ethic and/or their creativity to process grief. We should perhaps expect nothing less from an artist who, in one of his most beloved songs, penned the chorus: “This is the weeping song / A song in which to weep.” That was 26 years ago.
As with the Tragically Hip’s Man Machine Poem—written and completed before Gord Downie was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer—the songs here are not about the tragedy in question. Yet because they were recorded in the darkest of shadows, the tone is beyond sombre. It’s not unusual to hear Cave sing lyrics like, “If you want to bleed, just bleed,” or, “All the things we love, we lose.” He’s never been a cheery chap. But here he can be heard mourning, “Nothing really matters since you’ve gone / I need you / just breathe.” Or: “I used to think that when you died you kind of wandered the world in a slumber until you crumbled, absorbed into the Earth. I don’t think that anymore.” Yet the mourning is really all in the music; Skeleton Tree is not, as some reviews claim, “a document of grief.”
The music is more of one long tone poem than a collection of songs. They’re all a similar tempo, all sad synths and strings and plaintive piano. Churning drones and slowly surging bass notes underscore the soundscapes above. Longtime backing band the Bad Seeds has rarely sounded so sparse and restrained—or more effective. Opening track “Jesus Alone” finds Cave crooning, “With my voice I am calling you” while a whistling synthesizer emulates the sound of a child’s cry. Hard to separate the art and artist here.
Reviewing the film, the Montreal Gazette noted that it “never approaches voyeurism or misery porn.” Having not seen the film, this is hard to believe. Skeleton Tree is haunted, in as literal a sense as possible. It’s also a beautiful piece of music that should be judged on its merits independent of context—though that’s highly unlikely for a long, long time. In the meantime, it’s hard to listen to Nick Cave as we once did. (Sept. 15)
Stream: “Jesus Alone,” “I Need You,” “Distant Sky”
Nels Cline - Lovers (Blue Note)
Best known as the lead guitarist in Wilco, Cline has a long and storied history in punk, experimental and jazz circles. Rarely, however, has his solo work ever sounded this pretty. It is his debut for legendary jazz label Blue Note, so it shouldn’t be surprising that squalls of noise didn’t really make the cut. Instead, this double album combines Cline originals with covers of Broadway (Rodgers, Hart, Hammerstein and Kern, in their various permutations), Henry Mancini, peers like Sonic Youth and Arto Lindsay, jazz innovators like Jimmy Giuffre and Annette Peacock, and obvious influences like Gabor Szabo.
Cline’s guitar work is sublime; we would expect nothing less. What really elevates this record, however, are the arrangements by trumpet player Michael Leonhart, who not only leads a four-piece brass section, but also a six-piece woodwind section (including two people both credited with playing C, alto and bass flutes), a six-piece string section and more, mostly drawn from John Zorn’s circles in New York City’s avant-garde scene. For all that power, Lovers is deliberately an easy-listening record, albeit one that challenges as often as it caresses. (Sept. 1)
Stream: “Cry,Want,” “It Only Has to Happen Once,” “Snare, Girl”
Full disclosure: I haven’t listened to a De La Soul album in 20 years, since 1996’s Stakes is High. I’m guessing that you haven’t either. But in a genre with a paucity of “legacy artists,” De La Soul never went away: the innovators continued to explore and evolve, their only brushes with the mainstream coming through their appearances on Gorillaz records. Their early records are out of print and not available on streaming services, due to licensing issues that inevitably plague the sample-heavy recordings.
While they’re far from an “anonymous nobody,” De La Soul do face an uphill struggle to get attention: hence this crowdfunded ninth album, with a diverse guest list with some A-listers on it, almost all of them incongruous. One doesn’t associate Snoop Dogg or 2Chainz with the hip-hop lineage that descends from De La Soul, but they show up here and fit in seamlessly. Friend and collaborator Damon Albarn (Gorillaz, Blur), on the other hand, seems lost. Things get really weird when Justin Hawkins of the Darkness shows up on a song with huge, Queen-size choirs and raging guitar solos. I’d like to say that the collaboration with David Byrne makes a semblance of more sense—but it doesn’t. The one collaboration here that really clicks is with Usher, on a rarity in De La Soul’s catalogue: a straightforward narrative track.
Anonymous Nobody is sprawling and ambitious, but succeeds most when De La Soul push within (the loosely defined) boundaries of hip-hop rather than trying to prove they can be everything to everyone—a trait that can most likely be chalked up to Albarn’s bad influence. (Sept. 1)
Stream: “Pain” feat. Snoop D., “Greyhounds” feat. Usher, “Nosed Up”
DJ Shadow – The Mountain Will Fall (Universal)
Yes, it’s been 20 years since DJ Shadow’s debut and his masterpiece, Endtroducing. What better way to celebrate its longevity than to listen instead to what’s probably Shadow’s finest new album since then? (But of course, there is also yet another reissue of that album out shortly.) Being the musically curious person he is, Shadow has been confounding expectations for decades now: though he excels at experimental soundscapes rooted in sample-based, downtempo hip-hop, Shadow always wants to try a bit of everything. Why most of his albums have failed since Endtroducing—despite plenty of great tracks interspersed between them—is that he wants to do it all at the same time, and the effect can be jarring, especially when he toys unsuccessfully with rock music.
So yes, there’s still some old-school hip-hop on The Mountain Will Fall, including guest spots from Ernie Fresh and Run the Jewels, which jump out of this mix, for better and worse, respectively. But there is also plenty of evidence that Shadow is a man of his time, looking to modern electronic innovators for inspiration (shades of Arca, Haxan Cloak). At the same time, instead of sampling old David Axelrod records, he’s employing modern jazz figures like British trumpeter Matthew Halsall. He’s using drum machines not just for rigid rhythms, but as elastic, improvisatory tools (“Three Ralphs”).
If he keeps this up, maybe 20 years from now we won’t still be talking only about his debut album. (Sept. 8)
Stream: “Bergschrund” feat. Nils Frahm, “Pitter Patter” feat. G. Jones and Bleep Bloop, “Ashes to Oceans” feat. Matthew Halsall
The Frightnrs – Nothing More to Say (Daptone)
Canadians spent the summer watching a terminal cancer patient triumph on stage during a cross-country tour. The singer of this New York City roots reggae band didn’t have the option of performing with his ALS, but he was intent on finishing the album he started just before the diagnosis. He died three months before its release date this week, just after seeing a Sharon Jones show in Central Park. The album’s title is quite literal.
That knowledge informs our reading of many seize-the-day lyrics here, but the real appeal is Dan Klein’s voice itself, a falsetto that aspires to the otherworldly appeal of Horace Andy or the Congos; it’s hard to top those angelic aliens, but Klein certainly comes close. His backing band—like all other Daptone acts, whether they’re rooted in soul, gospel or Afrobeat—don’t bother with modernizing their sound in the least: this record sounds exactly like it was transferred from dusty master tapes that were rescued from a fire at Lee “Scratch” Perry’s studio. It sounds all the better for it. (Sept. 1)
Stream: “All My Tears,” “Gotta Find a Way,” “Trouble in Here”
Daniel Lanois – Goodbye to Language (Anti)
Goodbye to Language! It’s an instrumental album, get it? Yes, Daniel Lanois is now of the age where he can make punny grandpa jokes. Not that there’s anything amusing about his ninth solo release (depending on how you count them), which amounts to Lanois and recent collaborator Rocco DeLuca alone in the studio late at night, beaming themselves into space on sound waves emanating from heavily treated steel guitars. It’s haunting psychedelic ambient music, best appreciated loud and in headphones—befitting a man who is still better known as a producer (one who started under Brian Eno’s tutelage) than a solo artist. It’s impossible to discern how much of this is played live and run through effects versus what might be studio edits of jams, but Lanois and DeLuca definitely share a psychic connection of some sorts here. There’s zero sign of Lanois the songwriter here—sorry, Acadie fans. This is purely Laonis the interstellar sonic adventurer. (Sept. 8)
Stream: “Low Sudden,” “Deconstruction,” “Heavy Sun”
Tami Neilson – Don’t Be Afraid (Outside)
This Canadian is a star in her adopted nation of New Zealand, where she’s racked up plenty of country music awards and songwriting accolades. Don’t Be Afraid is only her second album to be released in her motherland, and we’d be fools to ignore this powerhouse voice any longer—a voice that could front an amplified band without the use of a microphone.
Her last album, Dynamite!, was cut from the Patsy Cline mould, very much rooted in country music from the late ’50s, early ’60s. This time out the vibe is still decidedly old school, but Neilson gets bluesier and bolder, touching on torch songs and rockabilly and soul. Informed by the death of her beloved father—with whom she was in a family band when she was a kid—Don’t Be Afraid is considerably darker in tone, which gives her vocals even more of a chance to dig in deep. On the title track, she goes for full-out gospel-style projection over a slow blues, sounding more like Aretha Franklin that one would ever expect from this country belter. (Sept. 22)
Tami Neilson plays the Starlight in Waterloo on Oct. 4, and the Rivoli in Toronto on Oct. 6.
Stream: “Holy Moses,” “Bury My Body,” “Don’t Be Afraid”
Dolly Parton – Pure and Simple (Sony)
Is it weird that a 70-year-0ld woman has written a new song called “I’m Sixteen”? It’s actually about feeling 16 again: which apparently she does, having renewed her vows this year to her husband of 50 years (who she met when she was 18, in 1964, but who’s counting?).
The country music legend has 42 albums behind her, and many of the last 20 years have been highly acclaimed. This one, on the other hand, is pleasant but hardly noteworthy. It feels rushed in order to promote her biggest tour in years, which was far more memorable than this collection. (Sept. 1)
Stream: “Pure and Simple,” “Can’t Be That Wrong”
Prophets of Rage – The Party's Over EP (Universal)
That’s a pretty funny title for a debut EP. It’s also entirely apt.
Prophets of Rage are the supergroup comprised of the former members of Rage Against the Machine fronted by Chuck D of Public Enemy and B-Real of Cypress Hill—all groundbreaking artists, revolutionary even (certainly true of PE; the others less so). For anyone who came of age in the ’90s and remembers the Public Enemy/Anthrax collaboration, or how explosive Rage Against the Machine was in 1992, expectations are considerably high.
For whatever reason, it doesn’t work at all. Like, not in the slightest. The band sounds the same, for better or worse; Chuck D is still a formidable force on the mic; B-Real, on the other hand, sounds a bit out of his depth. Nothing gels. Chuck can’t find his groove. What was once innovative about Rage has been diluted ever since Limp Bizkit hijacked the concept of rap-rock and flicked it to the frat crowd.
What’s worse is the fact that on this slight EP they’ve chosen to announce their arrival by, um, murdering their back catalogue. So we have infinitely inferior versions of the PE song from which they take their name and “Shut ’Em Down,” a completely unnecessary version of “Killing in the Name” that should stay on the stage; and a ridiculous mash-up of “Fight the Power” and the Beastie Boys’ “No Sleep Til Brooklyn”—mysteriously titled “No Sleep Til Cleveland,” apparently a reference to the recent Republican convention there, although they don’t bother changing the chorus until the final seconds. The one new song, the title track, doesn’t begin to approach the social critique that these artists once excelled at—which is downright shocking, considering the headlines of the last few years. Even worse, the track is a total dud.
The band’s merch cheekily appropriates Donald Trump’s campaign hats, with the slogan, “Make America rage again.” But the Prophets of Rage inspire rage of a different sort: rage that this is all that these giants could come up with. (Sept. 8)
Stream: Nah, don’t bother
Wilco – Schmilco (dpm/Anti)
“I always hated those normal American kids,” sings Jeff Tweedy, a man who has led Wilco through a series of left turns that confounded anyone who wanted them to be a classic rock band with an alt-country bent. So even here, on what is largely a quiet, acoustic record, Wilco doesn’t offer retreads of “California Stars” or “How to Fight Loneliness.” Instead, avant-garde guitarist Nels Cline bends notes and appears to crawl inside his instrument to extract soundscapes to colour the songs. Drummer Glenn Kotche, whose brilliance normally gets obscured when this band plays it straight, comes alive here in ways I haven’t heard him do for a while in Wilco. Everyone else takes cues from the third Velvet Underground record, where a band capable of fury and chaos distilled their energy into quiet, delicate material. Tweedy’s love of cult hero Bill Fay also shines through. As with all late-period Wilco, there are several clunkers here (“We Aren’t the World”), but this is their most satisfying record in years. (Sept. 22)
Stream: “Normal American Kids,” “Cry All Day,” “Someone to Lose”
Jenny Whiteley – The Original (Black Hen)
Jenny Whiteley was born into a family that is Ontario folk music royalty: father Chris, uncle Ken, brothers Dan and Jesse, and cousin Ben. She grew up at folk and bluegrass festivals, and her first professional gig was at age eight. Here, she revisits traditional songs she played with her elders and her peers earlier in her career, as well as three new songs and a cover of Toronto songwriter Chris Coole. That song, “$100,” is about the near-impossibility of being a working musician when “people don’t pay for music anymore.” It has all the hallmarks of a modern standard, and the more people who cover it the better—though it’s hard to imagine someone bettering Whiteley’s version. Sam Allison’s bare-bones production and arrangements are pitch perfect, particularly on the bass harmonica and whistling choir on “In the Pines.” Fans of Sarah Harmer’s acoustic recordings will find plenty to love here, as will anyone who didn’t get enough finger pickin’ on the festival circuit this year. Recorded at the home studio of Hugh Christopher Brown on Wolfe Island, outside Kingston, The Original sounds like the best front porch concert you never heard this summer. (Sept. 29)
Stream: “$100,” “Banjo Girl,” “Higher Learning”