Friday, April 08, 2016

March 2016 reviews

Highly recommended: Black Mountain

Highly recommended, reviewed in earlier post: Eric Bachmann

Well worth your while: Selina Martin, Minotaurs, Poirier

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

The following reviews ran in the Waterloo Record in March.

Black Mountain – IV (Dine Alone)

“Our Strongest Material To Date.” That was the in-jest working title of the new album by this Vancouver band, according to keyboardist Jeremy Schmidt. A joke, perhaps, but not without truth.

When Black Mountain debuted in 2004, they were a total throwback to psychedelic hard rock of the ’70s, equal parts Black Sabbath, Pink Floyd and Lou Reed. Very little has changed, other than the increased prominence of co-lead vocalist Amber Webber, who’s a welcome disruptor to the sausage party led by songwriter and guitarist Stephen McBean. The more whimsical side of the band has also evaporated; they’re heavier and naturally more humourless—and more power to them. (Maybe that’s why they dropped the working title and went with the Zeppelinesque IV.)

Most important, however, is that Black Mountain has found the perfect balance of sludgy, head-banging riffs and the respite of intervals soundtracked primarily by Schmidt’s spacey keyboards—as well as McBean’s guitar, which is more textural here than it’s ever been, not just power chords and solos (though his wrenching lead on closer “Space to Bakersfield” is surely his finest moment, the closest he’s come to Eddie Hazel’s work on Funkadelic’s “Maggot Brain”).

The most accomplished tracks here run more than eight minutes long, showcasing all the band’s strengths simultaneously; these are songs that celebrate Black Mountain’s longevity, their unity of purpose six years after their most recent albums, their ability to mature within their imposed parameters and push themselves to their full potential. One of Canada’s greatest rock bands of all time is back—yes, with their strongest material date. (March 31)

Stream: "Mothers of the Sun," "Crucify Me," “Line Them All Up”

Jeff Buckley – You and I (Sony)

Were he alive, Jeff Buckley would turn 50 this year. He died when he was 30, having released only one full-length album, 1994’s Grace. The last 20 years have seen five live albums (one is a two-disc version of a 1993 EP) and two collections of demos: one made with guitarist Gary Lucas in the early ’90s (Songs to No One), one of recordings meant to comprise his follow-up to Grace (Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk).

Now we’re hearing the demo reel he cut shortly after signing to Columbia Records: just Buckley and his guitar, with his A&R man and a sound engineer in the room. With the exception of the song “Grace” and the sketch of a song that is the title track here, it’s Buckley running through eight eclectic covers, three of which can be heard on the extended Live at Sin-é album (Bob Dylan’s “Just Like a Woman,” “Calling You” from Baghdad Café, Led Zeppelin’s “Night Flight”). New to all Buckley fans will be his takes on the Smiths’ “The Boy With the Thorn in His Side,” Sly and the Family Stone’s “Everyday People,” the blues standard “Poor Boy Long Ways From Home,” and the oft-covered classic “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying.”

Seeing how Buckley’s most enduring recordings and performances are of him performing Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” solo, it’s shocking that this reel took so long to see the light of day. Those other releases can—and have been—accused of scraping the bottom of a barrel, but that can’t be said of You and I. Buckley was always a superior interpreter rather than a gifted songwriter; turning these songs inside out with that unbelievable voice of his.

You and I, for all its charms, also displays some of young Buckley’s flaws. Though he’s capable of elevating “Just Like a Woman” to places Dylan could never take it, his caterwauling emulation of Robert Plant is best left forgotten. And the sense of hushed dynamics he would later display on “Hallelujah” would be welcome on “Calling You,” where he sounds more like a young buck trying to impress than a singer who’s taken time to inhabit the song.

Of course, that’s exactly what he was: young and trying to get our attention. Which he certainly did—and continues to do, all these years later. (March 17)

Stream: “Everyday People,” “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying,” “Just Like a Woman”

Låpsley – Long Way Home (XL/Beggars)

This 19-year-old Brit starting writing songs late at night in her parents’ basement, when she was supposed to be studying for exams. Her academic plans quickly took a back seat. Her second-ever gig was a set at the Glastonbury Festival. Now, following an acclaimed 2015 EP, comes her debut, produced by Rodaidh McDonald, whose atmospheric work with The XX is utilized effectively here.

Holly Låpsley Fletcher is a piano-ballad kind of girl with a big, soulful voice, but she’s also in love with electronics, which means Long Way Home sounds at times like a marriage between Adele and James Blake—a happy marriage, at that. For someone with as huge as voice as hers, Låpsley uses it judiciously, never indulging in showboat moments. In fact, the cadence of her delivery owes more to the noirish ballads of Drake or Kanye West—except, of course, she can actually sing, unadorned. The only incongruous moment on this nocturnal record is the disco excursion on “Operator”; it’s a direction one could see Låpsley going in the future—perhaps collaborating with her labelmate and BFF Shamir? (March 17)

Stream: “Heartless,” “Falling Short,” “Cliff”

Loretta Lynn – Full Circle (Sony)

I simply cannot believe this woman is 83 years old. There is virtually no sign of the ravages of time in her delivery or her timbre—how do we know these aren’t vocal outtakes from 1980 set to new instrumental tracks? Has anyone fact-checked this? It seems too good to be true.

Yet here she is, on her first new album since 2004’s Jack White-produced Van Lear Rose, shacking up at the Cash Cabin Studio in Hendersonville, Tennessee, with co-producers John Carter Cash and her own daughter, Patsy Lynn Russell. As on seemingly every single album by an artist on the other side of 75, there are re-recordings here of iconic early hits (“Fist City”), songs she grew up with (“In the Pines”), and songs that directly confronts mortality (“Who’s Gonna Miss Me?”, the Willie Nelson duet “Lay Me Down”). There are no sonic tricks, no attempt to pander to young hipsters, just a straight-up, traditional country record featuring a legendary singer and a well-curated slate of songs. (March 10)

Stream: “Wine Into Water,” “Everybody Wants to Go To Heaven,” “Who’s Gonna Miss Me?”

Majid Jordan – s/t (OVO/Universal)

The Toronto duo who helmed Drake’s monster 2013 hit “Hold On We’re Going Home” finally gets a proper introduction on their debut full-length, where their take on smooth and soulful electro-R&B stakes its place in a crowded field. Seductive singer Majid Al Maskat is easily the sexiest Canadian singer since Mike Milosh of Rhye—hell, he can even make an ode to the suburb of “King City” sound alluring. Majid Jordan sound distinctly suburban, the soundtrack to driving down six-lane roads home from downtown at 3 a.m. They don’t have the audacity of The Weeknd or the swagger of Drake; because they’re signed to Drake’s OVO label, expectations were sky-high—and not remotely close to being achieved, as many chart-watching cynics were quick to point out based on the first few weeks of sales. But Majid Jordan is more about the soft sell; they have more in common with the Junior Boys than they do Miguel. Despite their Drake hit and their high profile, they’re also still finding their feet; right now, they sound like they’re one album way from greatness.
(March 17)

Stream: “King City,” “My Love” feat. Drake, “Learn From Each Other,”

Selina Martin – Caruso’s Brain (independent)

“Why is the harder road always the way to go?” sings Selina Martin on her fourth album, the music of which answers her question for her: because refusing to take the easy route makes Martin’s music that much more rewarding. She’s a female singer-songwriter who doesn’t do acoustic ballads; she’s a rocker who doesn’t hide anonymously behind a band; she’s a guitarist who loves manipulating electronic textures. 

Martin has always had an ear for pop hooks—her last album, Disaster Fantasies, was full of them—but here she and producer Chris Stringer seem just as interested in what lies underneath, both in terms of overall sonic sorcery and in particular the ways in which they can manipulate the live drums of Jesse Baird (Feist). Martin is interested in messing with rock music in ways few people have in recent years; the only recent analogue that comes to mind is EMA; the furthest precedent is Post-era Bjork (the groaning electronic sirens in “The Addicted” recall “Army of Me,” but there are other hints throughout). Always a strong lyricist, Martin scores here on several tracks, but most especially “Wish List,” the rare new Christmas song that will actually survive the (past) season, with bonus points for local references (“I’m feeling hollow / here in Toronto”). (March 3)

Stream: “Lay Down Your Arms,” “Hawaii,” “When the City Fell”

Minotaurs – Weird Waves (Static Clang)

Guelph’s Nathan Lawr has had a rich and varied career, both as sideman (Royal City, Bry Webb, King Cobb Steelie) and as a solo singer-songwriter, but it’s his third album with Minotaurs that might well be his finest hour. The band started out as a way for Lawr to explore his love of 1970s Afrobeat, an influence that still reigns supreme. On Weird Waves, however, he recorded his live band’s rehearsals and then deconstructed the tracks at home, applying a dub reggae remix sensibility to the material and applying psychedelic textures throughout. Lawr (full disclosure: an old friend) told me he took singing and dancing lessons before the writing and recording of Weird Waves, and it shows: his vocals are stronger than ever, and his grooves have never sounded so fluid, the funk never forced. By letting go, he’s never been so in control. (March 10)

Stream: “Echoes,” “Gold Rush Lady,” “Underground Age”

Nap Eyes – Thought Rock Fish Scale (You’ve Changed)

Fronted by a mumbly man who owes debts to Lou Reed and Stephen Malkmus and fronts a surprisingly subtle rock band who don’t use any distortion, Nap Eyes just might be the most refreshing thing to happen to what’s left of Canadian indie rock (’90s definition) in many years. Singer/songwriter Nigel Chapman exudes a nonchalance that’s countered by an obvious attention to detail he employs in his lyrics. That’s true of the band’s arrangements as well, which sound like what a skilled and sympathetic group of players managed to conjure on the spot (shades of mid-period Destroyer). That said, this is still a young band where the promise outweighs the results, but they’re one to watch. You can watch Nap Eyes at the e-Bar in Guelph on April 6 with Julie Doiron, as part of the can’t-miss Kazoo Festival, which runs April 6-10. Check out the festival’s full schedule at (March 31)

Stream: “Stargazer,” “Don’t Be Right,” “Lion in Chains”

Sarah Neufeld – The Ridge (Paper Bag)

Pulsing 16th notes are usually the domain of metal, punk and frenetic techno. Here, they drive the solo violin work of Arcade Fire’s Sarah Neufeld on three tracks that form the centrepiece of her third album, two of them over seven minutes long—of course, they fall into none of the aforementioned genres. The Ridge is billed as Neufeld’s “pop” album, which it surely is only in relation to the rest of her catalogue, solo or with Bell Orchestre. Unlike her debut, 2013’s Hero Brother, The Ridge features Neufeld’s voice prominently on several tracks; Arcade Fire bandmate Jeremy Gara also contributes drums, while Colin Stetson—with whom she made the Juno-winning duo album Never Were the Way She Was—plays some bass synth. “Chase the Bright and Burning” sounds like the Doctor Who theme repurposed for bass drum, voice and violin; little else here begs obvious comparisons—which of course is to Neufeld’s advantage. (March 3)

Stream: “We’ve Got a Lot,” “The Glow,” “Where the Light Comes In”

Poirier – Migration (Nice Up!)

For the last 10 years, Montreal producer Ghislain Poirier has been mutating dancehall, soca and Brazilian styles into his DJ nights and original material. He’s released various EPs and singles since his 2010 album for Ninja Tune, Running High, as well as a detour back to his roots in abstract electronics under the name Boundary (Poirier originally came from the same minimalist scene as Tim Hecker).

So for his first full-length in six years, Poirier comes out swinging, with massive tracks that build on everything he’s ever done, whether it’s straight-up reggae and soca or draping chilly electronic textures over instrumental dancehall beats. Global guests on the aptly titled Migration include New York-via-Jamaica dancehall MC Red Fox, electro-reggae Chicago-via-Panama MC Zulu, Berlin-via-North Carolina producer Machinedrum, Toronto’s Dubmatix, Montreal-via-Haiti MC Fwonte and longtime collaborator Face-T. The thread throughout is Poirier’s finely honed aesthetic: the man is a veteran, not a dabbler, and his 15 years of experience can be heard in every track. His curiosity carries him anywhere with bright sunshine and deep bass, bringing it all back to the city in Canada where you’re most likely to find a street party on any given summer night. (March 10)

Stream: “Positive Up” feat. Face T, “Jump” feat. Red Fox, “Cobra”

Iggy Pop – Post Pop Depression (Loma Vista/Universal)

Iggy Pop knows everyone wants him to be the shirtless rocker that still fronts the Stooges occasionally: much of his discography of the last 30 years bears that out, with mixed results, to say the least. But there’s the other side of Iggy Pop that he keeps insisting on, that of the poetic lounge lizard, the kind of guy who records bossa nova classics and songs by Serge Gainsbourg and Edith Piaf or recites Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. (All of which he’s done recently.)

On what he’s suggesting is likely his last album, the 68-year-old teams up with Josh Homme (Queens of the Stone Age, Eagles of Death Metal) for a dignified departure, one that captures the crunch from the best of his non-Stooges solo work—i.e. his 1977 albums produced by David Bowie, or his late ’80s, early ’90s renaissance—and sets it to material worthy of the baritone crooner he’s always deserved to be recognized as. Strings, brass and orchestral bells augment a heavy rhythm section, with Spanish and Asian influences sneaking into the mix alongside an ’80s post-punk gloom (in fact, one can just as easily hear Siouxie Sioux singing much of this material).

It’s all going so well… until the last two tracks, the second last of which has the rather befuddling chorus of, “When you get to the bottom, you’re near the top / Your shit turns into chocolate drops.” Um, well then. What’s an Iggy Pop album without a detour into the gutter? Sadly, the whole affair ends with a two-minute rant tacked onto the end of “Paraguay,” where the proto-punk rocker sounds like Clint “get off of my lawn” Eastwood, yelling at some poor sod to “take your laptop and shove it into your goddam foul mouth…” It gets even worse from there.

Oh, Iggy. (March 24)

Stream: “Break Into Your Heart,” “Gardenia,” “American Valhalla”

Santigold – 99 Cents (Warner)

Three albums in eight years leaves a lot of long gaps for a pop artist, but Santi White is always worth the wait. Modern pop and R&B fuse with reggae and ’80s bubblegum, often all at the same time. That’s why she’s collaborated with everyone from the Beastie Boys and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs to Kanye West, A$AP Rocky and M.I.A., and written songs for pop stars. When she makes her own records, she calls in plenty of heavyweights: this time out her old pals Diplo and Switch are too busy, but TV on the Radio’s Dave Sitek returns, while Rostam Batmanglij (ex-Vampire Weekend) and Hit-Boy (Beyoncé, Jay Z) also pitch in. Toronto’s ILoveMakonnen shows up for a catchy duet, produced by Doc McKinney (The Weeknd). The consistent sound here shows that it’s Santigold in charge, however. It’s hard not to compare the sound of this record to Grimes’s Art Angels—one of biggest buzz records of the last six months—and realize that Grimes and everyone else are just catching up to where Santigold has been for years. If only Rihanna’s Anti sounded this good. (March 3)

Stream: “Big Boss Big Time Business,” “Chasing Shadows,” “Who Be Lovin’ Me” (feat. ILoveMakonnen)

God Don't Never Change: The Songs of Blind Willie Johnson – Various Artists (Alligator)

Tribute records are usually the worst, a hangover from the ’90s that overstayed their welcome. These days most are online only and a curiosity at best. What, pray tell then, is this, a glossy, well-packaged tribute to the blues singer Blind Willie Johnson, a man who only recorded 30 songs in his lifetime, all cut between 1927 and 1930?

Producer Jeffery Gatskill has been working on this project slowly for eight years; his patience paid off in the lineup he assembled here: Tom Waits, Lucinda Williams, Cowboy Junkies, Sinead O’Connor and more. There’s no telling if he commissioned others and jettisoned anything that didn’t cut the mustard, but his quality control is impeccable. Unlike 95% of all tribute albums ever made, there’s no filler here.

At first glance, it’s peculiar that Gatskill commissioned all white artists—with one exception, the Blind Boys of Alabama—to cover an iconic African-American artist. On the flip side, Gatskill’s previous project, Gotta Serve Somebody, focused exclusively on African-American gospel artists covering Bob Dylan. Still, the lineup here reflects the odd fact that the only bankable stars who champion blues in 2016 are ones largely removed from the music’s history. (Still: no Ben Harper? Gary Clark Jr.? And though not “bankable names,” I’d love to hear Willis Earl Beal or Mirel Wagner here.)

Waits and Williams get two songs each here—and deservedly so. Waits has drawn closer to the blues the older he gets; Williams started out singing mostly blues covers; both inhabit these songs and turn them inside out, with equal parts reverence and reinvention—which is all anyone could ask for in a cover version. Cowboy Junkies pull the audacious trick of sampling the original artist in their performance, which shouldn’t work at all—a middle-class Canadian woman duetting with a long dead bluesman who died in poverty—and yet it does. Maria McKee, who hasn’t been heard from in at least 10 years, reappears in fine form and full voice on “Let Your Light Shine on Me.”

Of course, like any tribute album good or bad, this ultimately makes you want to revisit Blind Willie Johnson himself. But these recordings all stand tall on their own, enhancing his legacy rather than tarnishing it. (March 31)

Stream: “The Soul of a Man” – Tom Waits; “Jesus is Coming Soon” – Cowboy Junkies, “It’s Nobody’s Fault But Mine” – Lucinda Williams

Monday, April 04, 2016

Eric Bachmann - s/t

Eric Bachmann – s/t (Merge)

“I’m gonna love you like we’re all each other have,” promises Eric Bachmann, in a song (“Mercy”) about family estrangement, the politics of division, Armageddon, atheism, world suffering and other pleasant topics. Sure, that’s a lot to cram into five minutes with a “Be My Baby” beat and Beach Boys backing vocals. But it works—and then some. “Mercy” is devastating, a song that of course takes on extra resonance in yet another year of horrible headlines, especially south of the border. It’s a song I know I’ll be revisiting for the rest of my life. It’s that good.

It’s also not an anomaly. After eight masterful albums as a singer-songwriter (six of them under the name Crooked Fingers, with five more leading Archers of Loaf and two as the experimental chamber orchestra Barry Black), we’ve come to expect nothing less from Bachmann. After two years touring with Neko Case as part of her band, often playing keyboards, he wrote this album—his first in a whopping five years, the longest gap between any of his recordings—on piano.

The above paragraph, of course, means nothing, as does the fact this album is self-titled. It’s all window dressing, silly marketing bullet points for a new album by an artist who shouldn’t need any. This entire review is little more than yet another attempt, often to little or no avail, by a Bachmann believer (i.e. me) to convince you that the man is the greatest songwriter of our time. I can tell you that he’s in the company of Lou Reed, Vic Chesnutt, Bill Fay and Jason Collett and any other songwriter who eschews irony and emotional distance. I can tell you that he should be teaching songwriting classes to stadium-rock acts, that his work should be staples of open stages at pubs across the continent. Hope, loss, love, damaged psychology, grappling for faith in humanity—these are the songs of our times. Escapism it’s not, but these are subjects from which you cannot and should not escape, subjects that require a soundtrack.

I could just print out the entire lyrics to “Mercy” to prove my point. But I’d rather you go and hear it yourself. Because even if you’ve tired of me waving his flag, Bachmann keeps getting better with each record. He’s on a roll that’s lasted at least 15 years. And—Oh! Look! A self-titled record!—it’s almost like he’s good as new. (March 24)

Stream: “Mercy,” “Modern Drugs,” “Dreaming”