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”

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Veda Hille - Love Waves

Veda Hille – Love Waves (independent)

Not since David Bowie’s Blackstar have I wanted to play a new album every day, as often as possible, in the weeks after first hearing it as I have Veda Hille’s Love Waves.

There’s a direct connection there—and no, this veteran Vancouver songwriter is not on her deathbed. Far from it. She is, however, taking some stock of her musical influences, with an unrecognizable cover/interpolation of Bowie’s 1980 song “Teenage Wildlife,” and rewriting Brian Eno’s 1977 song “By the River” to make it even more gorgeous than it already was. Other artists are happy to cover their heroes; Hille has the cojones to improve on them.

If that weren’t enough, there’s also a cover of a Gilbert and Sullivan song from The Mikado (“The Sun Whose Rays”), a nod to Hille’s extensive work in musical theatre—which has included her brilliant Do You Want What I Have Got?: A Craigslist Musical and the delightfully absurdist source of her last album, something called Peter Panties.

And because she’s Veda Hille, this album also features an adaptation of a Greek myth performed in part by a pitch-shifted, gender-bending voice singing in German.

“Absence makes the heart grow fonder, so stay away for a little longer,” sings Hille on the opening track here, and Love Waves is her first non-conceptual recording in seven years. Of course, Hille is usually juggling a half-dozen projects at once, so a solo album of disconnected songs gets bumped down her priority list, seemingly a vanity project in comparison to her other work. But her wealth of experience doesn’t distract from her own songs; it enhances them immensely. She gets progressively more melodic with each album, while pulling off feats like modulating the key of a song via an a cappella phrase, like she does on “Trophy.”

Love Waves’ co-conspirator John Collins of the New Pornographers brings the same sympathy for synthesizers he developed while co-producing Destroyer’s 2004 classic Your Blues—only instead of that album’s deliberately arch digital display of an orchestral Potemkin’s village, Love Waves bathes in warm sounds reminiscent of those ’70s records by Bowie and Eno that Hille references directly. Her backing band consists of Vancouver all-stars: Collins, engineer/guitarist Dave Carswell, resident genius Ford Pier, Tagaq violinist Jesse Zubot, jazz cellist Peggy Lee, P:ano’s Nick Krgovich, and longtime rhythm section drummer Barry Mirochnick and Martin Walton.

Opening track “Lover/Hater” slowly unfolds over underwater pianos before a cavalcade of cascading e-bowed guitars carry the first chorus unaccompanied, sounding like the most beautiful swarm of insects you’ll ever hear in your life. Shortly after, 2/3 of the way through the song, an electronic bass drum start thumping, and the rest of the track bounces like a Tegan & Sara Top 40 single—albeit one in a mournful minor key.

Love Waves is a record with enough surface pleasures to draw you in immediately, but with dozens of tiny tasty tricky bits, both musical and lyrics, that reveal themselves over time.

“I will make a record just for you,” she promises. “I will make it like the old days / just as good as I can do.”

Veda Hille launches Love Waves in Vancouver this Friday, May 28, at the York Theatre. Other dates are listed here, including one at the Burdock in Toronto on June 2 with John Southworth.

Stream: “Lover/Hater,” “Trophy,” “By This River”

Brian Eno – The Ship (Warp)

On her new album, Veda Hille not only covers Brian Eno but follows it with a song about the Titanic. Lo and behold, the new Brian Eno album is about—the Titanic. Last year saw a revival of the 1997 Titanic musical. Is there something in the zeitgeist I’m missing?

Eno, of course, is a musical genius and pioneer who has earned the right to do whatever the hell he wants. Here, he follows up two collaborations with Underworld’s Karl Hyde, which found him singing for the first time in a decade, with another vocal album—albeit one that features 20-minute ambient tracks, not pop songs. The 67-year-old’s voice has deepened with age; there are times here where he bears a resemblance to Dead Can Dance’s Brendan Perry; others, he sounds like his range is aiming for the bottom of the Atlantic itself.

The outlier on this four-song album is a (naturally) gorgeous cover of the Velvet Underground’s “I’m Set Free.” Not sure how that ties into the Titanic theme, exactly—or Eno’s stated concept for the album, about man’s hubris and the failure of technology and the madness of the First World War—but I’m not complaining.

Stream: “The Ship,” “Fickle Sun (i),” “Fickle Sun (iii): I’m Set Free”

Monday, May 16, 2016

Anohni – Hopelessness

Anohni – Hopelessness (Secretly Canadian)

If the title didn’t tip you off, this is not the feel-good record of the year. Quite the opposite. Anohni—formerly known as Antony Hegarty of Antony and the Johnsons—has a few things to get off her chest, starting with the fact that we’re all going to hell in a handbasket, and it’s our own damn fault.

For an album seeped in anger and loathing, a lot of it is directed not directly at the forces of darkness, but at our own collective apathy. “4 Degrees”—about a recent report that warned that, with current carbon emission rates, global temperatures would rise by four degrees by century’s end—finds Anohni snarling that, with current carbon emission rates, “It’s only four degrees … I wanna burn the sky, I wanna burn the breeze / I wanna see animals die in the trees.”

She’s not one to mince words. Elsewhere on the album, she adopts the voice of a young girl whose family dies from American drone bombs, or mock celebrates capital punishment by exclaiming, over a beautiful melody, “Execution / it’s an American dream!” She then rattles off the not-so-esteemed company who, like the U.S., execute an unusually large number of their citizens: North Korea, China, Saudi Arabia. And in perhaps the best post-Snowden protest song, “Watch Me,” she takes a Big Brother metaphor as far as she can: “Daddy I know you love me because you’re always watching me.”

Ah, but surely the lovely, if avant-garde, torch song balladry we knew from Antony and the Johnsons lends some beauty to this madness, no? Or perhaps the disco liberation she achieved on guest spots with Hercules and Love Affair? Sorry. With her new name, Anohni also has new collaborators: abrasive electronic producers Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never, who prefer white noise and distortion to a 4/4 beat. The music here is as discomforting as the lyrics; the only pretty moments come during contrition on the last third of the album: “Why Did You Separate Me From the Earth?”, “Crisis” (about a litany of American foreign policy atrocities, with the chorus, “I’m sorry”), and the title track, which borrows from Agent Smith in The Matrix when Anohni asks, “How did I become a virus?”

Most scathing, however, is “Obama.” The current U.S. president has had an easy ride from musicians and artists during his years in power, but Anohni isn’t having it. She remembers how the world wept tears of joy when the charming man was elected, but that same man is now responsible for surveillance, executive-ordered death by drones, and punishing whistleblowers. Much of the song is Anohni incanting Obama’s name over a distorted dirge, a lament for lost hope, an indictment of betrayed promises. 

Anohni has spent her career having people fawn over her voice; mentor Lou Reed, not known to be a sappy man, called it that of “an angel.” That it is. But there were many moments on previous records when she affected gospel-tinged melisma, sometimes to distracting ends. (And then there were her duets with Bjork, which counterintuitively seemed to bring out the worst in both incredibly talented vocalists.) Here, however, Anohni is powerful and on point and has never sounded better. Small wonder: this music, these lyrics, require a certainty and conviction that leaves no room for any ornamental excess. She sets her targets; she scores direct hits. (May 12)

Stream: “4 Degrees,” “Execution,” “Obama”