Monday, February 22, 2016

February 2016 reviews

Highly recommended this month: Jim Bryson, Basia Bulat, Sons of Kemet

Highly recommended, reviewed earlier: Jason Collett

Well worth your while: Cris Derksen, Jordan Klassen, Mavis Staples, Rokia Traoré

As always, the following reviews originally appeared in the Waterloo Record.

Jim Bryson – Somewhere We Will Find Our Place (Fixed Hinge Records/Fontana North)

By his own admission, this Ottawa songwriter “carries the weight of the world around.” He tells his lover, “You never seem to worry about loneliness and doubt / but it seems to be all I ever think about.” To be sure, Bryson excels at the Canadiana take on “sad bastard music”—perhaps never better than he did on 2003’s “Something Else,” later covered by his frequent employer, Kathleen Edwards—but the mild-mannered, self-deprecating frontman is also fond of big sing-a-long melodies and huge guitars. He started out in the punk band Punchbuggy, and his last record—a whole five years ago now—was recorded with the Weakerthans as his bold backing band.

Here, Bryson teams up with producer Charles Spearin (Broken Social Scene), who gives his music a different kind of swagger and groove—most evident on lead single “The Depression Dance.” Bryson, who produces other artists in his home studio (Oh Susanna, Kalle Mattson), surrenders to Spearin and Grammy-nominated mixer Shawn Everett (who helmed Alabama Shakes’ stellar Sound and Color) and emerges with the most colourful album of his career, sonically speaking. I’d like to say that his songwriting has improved as well—but it hasn’t, if only because he’s always been this good; Bryson is nothing if not consistent. With the muscle of Spearin and Everett behind him, however, the songs sound better than ever. (Feb. 25)

Stream: “The Depression Dance,” “Changing Scenery,” “Breathe”

Basia Bulat – Good Advice (Secret City)

Basia Bulat’s voice can reduce a grown man to tears. That’s what happened to My Morning Jacket’s Jim James during the recording of the fourth album by this Montreal-based songwriter, which he produced. That emotional response is no small compliment, considering James’s own powerful pipes. But that’s what Bulat does nightly when on tour; to see for yourself, check out the short documentary capturing her sold-out, headlining show at Massey Hall in 2014.

Weeks before that show, she drove solo to Kentucky to start recording with James and a bunch of musicians she’d never met before. Unlike previous producers she’d worked with, James has a distinct sound: trippy modern psychedelia filtered through classic Southern rock and reggae. Thankfully, James didn’t make a record that sounds like Basia Bulat fronting My Morning Jacket—but he did grant her free reign with all his synthesizers, which makes Good Advice a sonic makeover for the woman best known for wielding an autoharp. That said, it never overwhelms That Voice or the songs she’s singing; this is not a case of a producer’s stamp overshadowing the artist’s core strengths. Perhaps the album’s title refers to him.

Instead, we’re told, it refers to female friendship, shoulders on whom Bulat relied during a recent breakup. For what is ostensibly a heartbreak record, Good Advice is remarkably upbeat: even the spacy ballads (“The Garden,” “Someday Soon”) are in major keys. 2013’s Tall Tall Shadow found Bulat bringing in more gospel and soul music to her palette, and that buoyancy remains here.

Some artists come roaring out of the gate with what turns out to be the best work of their career, to which they spend the rest of their lives measuring up. Bulat, on the other hand, keeps getting better and better, 10 years on and four albums deep. (Feb .11)

Stream: “La La Lie,” “Infamous,” “Fool”

Cris Derksen – Orchestral Powwow (Tribal Spirit)

Tanya Tagaq played with the K-W Symphony Orchestra recently, and apparently it was a smashing success. As much as I love Tagaq, I don’t really understand how an entire orchestra fits into the improvisation she and her band tap into every single night. As it turns out, she’s not the only Aboriginal musician attempting a unique collaboration with the symphonic world. Albertan Cris Derksen is a cellist who’s played with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra and Tagaq—separately—but on her solo recordings plays around with loop pedals and, on this record, samples of powwow music; live, she’s accompanied by a nine-piece symphonic ensemble and an 11-piece powwow group.

Riffing off the melodies, Derksen’s compositions and arrangements work surprisingly well, despite the somber nature of her work and the raw power of the powwow music. In the same way that A Tribe Called Red takes that same source material (recordings by Northern Voice and Black Bear, among others) and makes modern EDM with it, Dersken pulls it toward a more meditative place. There are times where the two worlds sound like their colliding rather than collaborating; instead of failing, however, that tension is just as interesting as when they emulsify.

This came out last summer, but it’s up for Best Instrumental Recording at the Junos on April 3, in a unusually strong category with Afiara Quartet and Skratch Bastid, Colin Stetson and Sarah Neufeld, Esmerine, and Jens Lindemann and Tommy Banks. (Feb. 18)

Stream: “Powwow Rhapsody,” “Intertribal Happy Feet,” “East Winging It”

Jordan Klassen – Javelin (Nevado)

This Vancouver singer-songwriter says his new album was inspired by depression and cancer. Well, helllooooo February! What perfect timing, Mr. Klassen. Everything about Javelin sounds wonderfully wintry: his soft, occasionally falsetto voice, the delicate piano and guitar, the plaintive cello, staccato rhythms fluttering like snowflakes underneath. Klassen fled his B.C. home and headed to Texas to make this record, largely by himself, and the wide-screen arrangements seem to reflect his adopted surroundings. Not that he ever sounded claustrophobic on previous records, but everything about Javelin sounds unrestrained, yet with plenty of space allowing the arrangements to breathe. There are obvious parallels to be drawn here to Sufjan Stevens, Magnetic Fields and A.C. Newman, but Klassen is quickly carving out his own niche. (Feb. 18)

Stream: “Gargoyles,” “No Salesman,” “We Got Married”

Lizzo – Big Grrrl Small World (BGSW)

Minneapolis rapper Lizzo has guested with Prince and toured with Sleater-Kinney and recorded at Bon Iver’s studio—three names that definitely stand out on a resumé. None of those people sound like the other, and Lizzo too stands apart from most hip-hop/R&B. Perhaps not since Neneh Cherry has a female MC sounded so simultaneously fierce and smooth and willing to bend her songs inside out just because she can. While her first album featured plenty of what she calls “Lizzobangers,” Big Grrrl Small World sees her coming out as a both a powerful singer and a R&B visionary with an avant-grade streak. “I think I’m in looooooooove…” she sings, drawing out a syllable before concluding: “…with myself.” As she should. (Feb .11)

Stream: “Ain’t I,” “Ride,” “En Love”

Rihanna – Anti (Universal)

Anti-climactic, more like it. After a year of teasing hints, including three singles, and collaborators ranging from Paul McCartney and Kanye West to Grimes and Kiesza talking about collaborations, none of those elements appear here, on the pop superstar’s eighth album. Why anyone expected this album to be so much different than any of her others—which, ever since 2007’s top-to-bottom classic Good Girl Gone Bad, usually yield two or three huge singles and then a lot of material that wastes her talent—is a bit of a mystery.

Expectations get lowered further with lead single “Work,” a dancehall pop song featuring Drake that’s one of the fluffiest things either has ever done. And yet it’s probably the most uptempo number here, on an album that starts out strong with the atmospheric dub-influenced slow burner “Consideration” and then proceeds to offer nothing but bummer after bummer—redeemed mostly by two very-old-school ballads, the acoustic “Never Ending,” which features a side of Rihanna we’ve never heard before, and the ’60s girl-group homage “Love on the Brain.” Along the way there’s a terrible nod to ’80s L.A. power ballads with “Kiss it Better,” and an interminable interpolation of Tame Impala’s “Same Old Mistakes.” Yes, this is the record where Rihanna reaches beyond her usual comfort zone, but she falls flat more often than she scores.

She’s always been a better singer than her super-produced singles would suggest, and she feels compelled to prove that here on the album’s final four tracks. On “Higher,” she tries way to hard and makes Sia sound subtle by comparison; on the closing piano ballad “Close to You,” she at least leaves us on a high note and wanting more. Because Rihanna does have much more to offer us, but Anti is just a mere glimpse. (Feb .11)

Stream: “Consideration” feat. SZA, “Never Ending,” “Love on the Brain”

Sia – This is Acting (Sony)

Sia writes great songs: we already know this, because that’s how she’s made her career, writing hits for Rihanna, Beyoncé, David Guetta and more. We also know she’s a powerhouse vocalist, as her 2014 smash “Chandelier” aptly demonstrated. This is Acting, therefore, is unsurprisingly full of killer melodies (“Bird Set Free”) and knockout vocal performances (“Alive,” written for and rejected by Rihanna). It’s not, however, a Carole King record: Sia doesn’t rearrange or tone down the songs she writes for multi-million-selling artists. Instead, she goes for the gusto and dresses her work up with every trick of the pop charts and EDM clubs. Which is unfortunate, because almost without exception these songs would be improved by removing the punishing, maximalist arrangements that seem designed for nothing more subtle than the Olympic closing ceremonies. “Move Your Body” takes what sounds like a Brazilian maracatu rhythm fed through EDM drum machines; the inspirational anthem “Unstoppable” also benefits from bigness, as does the peppy bubblegum of “Cheap Thrills.” But if there was ever an album that immediately made me want to seek out an unplugged version, this is it. (Feb. 4)

Stream: “Bird Set Free,” “Move Your Body,” “Cheap Thrills”

Sons of Kemet – Lest We Forget What We Came Here to Do (Naim)

Saxophone, tuba, and two drummers. What more do you need? This U.K. quartet, led by woodwind player Shabaka Hutchings, is driven by what sounds like a New Orleans backbeat, in part because it’s accented by bass lines on a tuba as per that city’s brass band tradition; the rhythms are actually Barbadian, as per Hutchings’s lineage. His melodies hint at Eastern influences (the name is a reference to an ancient name for Egypt), but his use of punchy repetitive riffs owes a large debt to James Brown and American soul music. To these ears, having two drummers in a band that’s neither African nor Latin is normally little more than a visual gimmick, but these two players complement each other perfectly; on the more frenetic numbers here, their interplay alone could carry this band without any bass or melody.

About a decade ago in Toronto, a duo of former hardcore punk musicians started a band featuring just saxophone and buckets, called Feuermusik. Anyone with fond memories that should seek out Sons of Kemet. (Feb. 25)

Stream: “In Memory of Samir Awad,” “Play Mass,” “In the Castle of My Skin”

Mavis Staples – Livin’ on a High Note (Anti)

If you were Mavis Staples’s record company, what would you do with this 77-year-old legend of American music? Staples has already revisited her roots with an album of civil rights standards; she’s made a live album with her hot new band; she’s made two albums with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy that were a mix of covers and new originals by Tweedy and a few of his friends. The last one, 2013’s One True Vine, was a masterpiece. Where does she go from here?

Anti Records decided to shake up the scenery a bit, partnering Staples up with another young(ish) producer, M. Ward, best known for being one half of She & Him with Zooey Deschanel (but who has a far superior solo discography), and 10 songwriters penning custom-made material. The roster includes Neko Case, Nick Cave, Ben Harper, Bon Iver, Aloe Blacc, and relative newcomers Tune-Yards, Benjamin Booker, The Head and the Heart, and Valerie June.

Yet as is almost always the case in star-studded match-ups like this one, the results fall short of the sky-high expectations. Just because I love Neko Case or Merrill Garbus of Tune-Yards doesn’t mean the songs they wrote for Mavis will be the best things on here. No, the real appeal is M. Ward’s production and arrangements, matching the strength of Mavis’s live band of more than a decade with Ward’s own studio atmospherics. The two songs Ward penned are also highlights: “Don’t Cry,” and “MLK Song,” which takes on the daunting task of adapting a speech by the civil rights leader—and old friend of the Staples family.

And of course, this is Mavis Staples: she could sing practically anything and bring you to tears. The talent assembled here ensures she has more than enough to work with. (Feb. 25)

Stream: “Love and Trust,” “Don’t Cry,” “History, Now”

Tindersticks – The Waiting Room (City Slang)

Worst marketing strategy ever: calling your album The Waiting Room. Images of interminable boredom in a hospital wing or a doctor’s office trapped beside the ill, the sad, the coughing, the desperate: sign me up!

For those not familiar with Tindersticks’ oeuvre of the last 25 years, the title might be all too apt, as in, waiting for something to happen. Tindersticks don’t do cathartic release: there are no big crescendos, nothing that might be mistaken for uptempo. Stuart Staples never sings in a way that doesn’t suggest he’s hugging the microphone as close as he can at 3 a.m. Tindersticks are all about tension, suspended states.

Very little changes in the Tindersticks world, other than occasional flirtations with lushly orchestrated ’70s American R&B, as framed through a group of well-dressed whisky drinkers in a subterranean European nightclub. It makes one wonder if bands like Tindersticks and Sigur Ros and Mogwai and Godspeed You Black Emperor and whoever else ever break into a Beyoncé or AC/DC jam at practice, just for kicks. Unlikely.

And yet here we have the odd appearance of a surprising Afrobeat influence on “Help Yourself”—nothing too high-voltage, of course, more like a slow-burning, mid-tempo Tony Allen groove, with a punchy horn section driving it along. Savages vocalist Jehnny Beth drops by for a duet (“We Are Dreamers!”), as does—via the vaults—Montreal’s late Lhasa de Sela, a previous Tindersticks collaborator who died in 2010. These three songs help elevate what could have been a particularly dreary affair—exemplified by the title track, which features only a droning organ and Stuart Staples’s voice—a voice that really needs a rhythm section underneath it—singing “Don’t let me suffer,” over and over again. A Tindersticks album shouldn’t be something to suffer through. (Feb. 4)

Stream: “Follow Me,” “Help Yourself,” “Hey Lucinda”

Rokia Traoré – Né So (Nonesuch)

“Strange Fruit,” a song immortalized by Billie Holliday, is one of the most harrowing ballads ever written, about a victim of racist lynching in the American South. In 2016, it’s being sung by Malian singer Rokia Traoré, whose homeland has been ravaged by Islamist jihadists, radicals who have targeted women, so-called apostates, and even music itself. A song that for decades has been associated with American racism has proven sadly universal, and not even specifically regarding race.

The last time we heard from Rokia Traoré was 2013’s Beautiful Africa, on which she teamed up with producer John Parish (PJ Harvey) and made her boldest, most buoyant and confident record to date. Parish returns here, and guests include Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones and author Toni Morrison, but the mood is considerably more subdued. Understandable. Traoré works with young musicians in Bamako and for the UN Refugee Agency; she might be the daughter of a diplomat who also has a residence in France, but she’s deeply rooted and affected by the conflict in her native country. “Spare me these words that fill me
with woe /
These acts that blacken the heart
… I hate conflict,” she sings in the Malian language of Bambara.

Traoré has a voice that could reduce the hardest of hearts to tears with its beauty. One can only hope the barbarians trying to tear apart one of the richest musical cultures in the world would stop and listen. (Feb. 18)

Stream: “Mayé,” “Ô Niélé,” “Strange Fruit”

Jason Collett - Song and Dance Man

Jason Collett – Song and Dance Man (Arts and Crafts)

This album’s title track has a veteran performer kvetching about the collapse of the music industry: “Pass the hat for pennies / kickstart some fans.” You can’t argue his point. But rather than angry cheap shots fired by an old cynic, “Song and Dance Man” is more matter-of-fact, a plainspoken portrait of the state of the nation, no different than Bruce Springsteen eulogizing the Rust Belt.

It’s also potent because here we have someone pushing 50 who’s never given up, against all odds, a performer who benefited from the patronage of both elders (Skydiggers, Andrew Cash) and upstarts (Broken Social Scene) and has now mentored a next generation who are returning favours (Zeus): this, Collett’s eighth album, is produced by his former guitarist, Afie Jurvanen of Bahamas.

Most important: It’s probably Collett’s finest record to date, a folk-rock masterpiece in which vivid vignettes are set to earworms, with everything about Jurvanen’s production bringing the songs to vivid life. Jurvanen lays down sparse but melodic bass lines, while Bougie makes her pedal steel sing and plucks her electric in ways that make it sound like a marimba. Drummer/engineer Don Kerr’s mastery of subtlety masks the complexity of the minor touches he adds throughout. Backing vocals are key here, as they are in Bahamas—there’s even an unlikely nod to Dirty Mind-era Prince in the vocal arrangements on “Provincial Blues.”

“Honey, we all get left behind by the times, sometimes,” sings Collett. He could be talking about any situation, really, anyone rendered redundant or irrelevant in their career, their art, their life, or all three. Judging by this record, that’s not going to happen to Collett any time soon, if ever. Score one for the veteran who also deserves credit for what’s likely to be the best song title of 2016: “Forever Young is Getting Old.” (Feb. 4)

Stream: “Song and Dance Man,” “Little Sparrow,” “Provincial Blues”