Highly recommended this month: Sampha, Ryan Adams, Tinariwen
Highly recommended, reviewed earlier this month: Sam Patch
As always, these reviews first ran in the Waterloo Record.
Streaming is great for sample purposes, but please find a way to directly support your favourite artists financially.
Ryan Adams – Prisoner (Blue Note)
In a discography that seemingly stretches beyond 100 full-length albums (it’s actually 16 in the past 17 years), the most beloved work by songwriter Ryan Adams is his 2000 solo debut Heartbreaker (given a deluxe reissue treatment last year). Recorded shortly after the demise of his first band, Whiskeytown, it’s the sound of a young man putting his life back together again, reckoning with the trail of broken hearts behind him—including his own.
This time, his first record of original material in three years—not, of course, counting his full-length interpretation of Taylor Swift’s 1989, released in 2015, alternately praised as a brilliant homage or an opportunistic gimmick—is comprised of songs written after the dissolution of his seven-year marriage. The theme is crystal clear in songs like the title track, “Breakdown,” or “Haunted House,” which would have fit in perfectly on Bruce Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love record (an obvious touchstone here).
This reviewer will fully admit to not having followed Adams after 2001’s Gold, for a variety of reasons—one of which is that the excess of material didn’t seem to factor in any quality control. I’m sure I’ve missed plenty of gems along the way, and so maybe Prisoner isn’t in fact his best record in years. But it sure sounds like it could be—quite literally, as the production here is sparse and yet dense with detail: the electric guitars are graced with subtle shades of ’80s chorus pedals (like one of Adams’s many heroes, the Replacements), the acoustic guitars shimmer front and centre, and the rhythm section (including Adams on bass) is full and rich. Daniel Clarke on organ is also a key asset, particularly on the album opener, “Do You Still Love Me?”
It’s normally an insult to any artist’s creative process to suggest that personal pain and tumult necessarily results in great work, but nevertheless: this is another Heartbreaker for the ages. (Feb. 23)
Stream: “Do You Still Love Me?” “Haunted House,” “Breakdown”
Julie Byrne – Not Even Happiness (Ba Da Bing!)
It’s hard to picture Julie Byrne singing in New York City. That’s where the Buffalo-born, itinerant singer/songwriter now lives—and, presumably, performs frequently enough—but there’s nothing in her music that suggests she lives anywhere but, say, a remote cabin outside the hippie town of Asheville, North Carolina. Her gorgeous, often sombre, acoustic folk music is far removed from any kind of urban hustle and bustle; experiencing her in a Brooklyn club must feel like a rare bird sighting, of a species far out of its element. Byrne’s music is meditative, sometimes mournful, a respite. Her fingerpicked guitar-playing sets her apart for legions of other unplugged indie rockers; her style is a continuation of recent neo-folkies like Marissa Nadler, Jennifer Castle or early Iron & Wine. She’s not a strict folkie, however: closing track “I Live Now as a Singer” sets her pleasantly adrift on a sea of synths. Her husky voice is seductively somnambulant: listen to this album during the daytime at your own risk. (Feb. 23)
Stream: “Follow My Voice,” “Natural Blue,” “I Live Now as a Singer”
Ron Davis – Pocket Symphronica (Really/EOne)
This Toronto jazz pianist launched a project in 2013 called Symphronica, with the Windsor Symphony Orchestra, which he described as a “jazz trio integrated into the orchestral format.” On paper, that sounds—well, horrible. In real life, however, Davis completely pulls it off. Here, he repeats the feat with a more manageable lineup: a string octet augmenting a jazz quartet of keyboards, guitar, bass and drums. He bills it as “my take on the evolution of music.” Eesh. Best to stick to the music. Davis’s jazz skills are impeccable, of course, and he’s surrounded himself with string players like cellist Andrew Downing and violinist Aline Homzy, who deliver soaring solos as well as fit into more stringent arrangements. He tackles traditional Jewish songs, reconfigures Beethoven, and, in a bizarre twist, adapts Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face.” It all works. (Feb. 2)
Stream: “D’Hora,” “Fugue & Variations on Gaga and Poker Face,” “Presto”
Gina Horswood – Porcelain (independent)
The finest country music album I heard last year was by Canadian expat Tami Neilson, who now calls New Zealand home. Apparently we traded her for Gina Horswood, a chart-topping Australian who moved to Canada three years ago to start anew far from her Oceania home. On this, her first Canadian-bred release, she recruits producer Andre Wahl (Hawksley Workman, Luke Doucet), keyboardist Robbie Grunwald (Jill Barber) and other studio aces to round out her minimal-twang, torch-song take on vintage country. Horswood has little in common with commercial country; she’s a balladeer by trade—there are few, if any, uptempo songs here—and her deep, rich voice digs deep into the material. Canada’s gain, Australia’s loss. (Feb. 2)
Stream: “Come Hell or High Water,” “Trouble,” “Porcelain”
Terra Lightfoot – Live in Concert (Sonic Unyon)
It’s been almost two years since Hamilton songwriter Terra Lightfoot vaulted from obscurity to the forefront of Canadian roots rock, when her album Every Time My Mind Runs Wild—and, more important, her live show—was endorsed by everyone from Blue Rodeo to Daniel Lanois to Randy Bachman, all of whom fell in love with her powerhouse pipes, killer songs and winning stage presence. And it wasn’t just fellow artists: audiences kept coming back for more, which is why the Canadian Independent Music Association awarded Lightfoot with something called the “Road Gold” certification, for selling more than 25,000 tickets over a 12-month period (perhaps the true measure of success in the streaming age).
While she puts finishing touches on a new record, due this fall, Lightfoot is releasing this live album recorded at McMaster University with the National Academy Orchestra of Canada, adding bold string, brass and woodwind textures to her rollicking brand of bluesy rock’n’roll. While Lightfoot is such a radiant figure on stage—evident even with just the audio here—the strength of her band often doesn’t get enough credit, particularly keyboardist Jeff Heisholt. Here, the combined force of her brothers in arms and the added orchestra elevate nine of her last album’s 11 tracks. Of course, it’s still no substitute for seeing her in the flesh—with or without orchestra—but it’s a winning document of an artist on the verge of realizing the depth of her potential. (Feb. 16)
Stream: “NFB,” “Lily’s Fair,” “Never Will”
Luísa Maita – Fio da Memória (Cumbancha)
This Sao Paulo singer/songwriter comes from a musical family who were active during the heyday of bossa nova and samba, influences that are more than evident on her 2010 debut album and this long-awaited follow-up. But Maita is anything but a retro act; Fio da Memória is decidedly modern, and would be just as at home on a bill with ghostly post-punk revivalists Warpaint or psychedelic electronic Latino artist Helado Negro. Her confident, sometimes breathy vocals are a calming force amidst percussive rhythms and often-ominous minor chords that subvert the sweetness of traditional bossa nova. (Feb. 2)
Stream: “Na Asa,” “Around You,” “Folia”
Danny Michel – Khlebnikov (Six Shooter)
Stan Rogers merely sang about the “Northwest Passage.” Danny Michel wrote and recorded songs in the Northwest Passage: on board a Russian icebreaker, accompanied by a guitar-toting Canadian astronaut (guess which one), en route to Ellesmere Island. Michel has been on a roll in recent years; the man who has been wowing K-W audiences since he was a teenager continues to improve and mature as a songwriter. He was good before; he keeps getting better. On this concept record chock full of references to the frozen sea and breaking ice, he’s clearly musically influenced by the Slavic vibe aboard the Russian ship; the more rousing songs here no doubt go down even better with a few shots of vodka. After recording his guitar and vocals in his cabin, he took the tracks back to Ontario where his long-time confidant Rob Carli fleshed them out with tasteful orchestration. And have you ever wondered what Chris Hadfield sounds like singing in Russian? No, me either, but it sure works here—the kind of magical moment that only Michel could conjure. (Feb. 2)
Stream: "Khlebnikov," "Lifeboat," "The Dishwasher's Dream"
The Sadies – Northern Passages (Dine Alone)
For the first 10 years of the Sadies’ existence, they were easily the hardest-working band in Canada: Six albums, one soundtrack, one double live album, three full-length collaborations, and hundreds of live dates a year. The last 10 years have not been as productive—only one album every three or four years—but their writing is no longer merely a vessel to showcase their superior talent as players and as a band. Their psychedelic take on country and punk gets increasingly complex on tracks like “The Elements Song; their lyrics hit direct targets on the timely “God Bless the Infidels” and on the haunted storytelling of “The Good Years.” The production remains the same: the brothers Dallas and Travis Good love trebly guitar tones and hazy washes of sound—that’s the Sadies sound, and they’re certainly not getting any slicker in their old(er) age. Nor would their fans want them to. (Feb. 9)
Stream: “Riverview Fog,” “Through Strange Eyes,” “God Bless the Infidels”
Sampha – Process (Young Turks/XL)
He’s appeared on tracks by Beyoncé, Drake, Kanye West and Solange. He was the featured vocalist with electronic act SBTRKT. He released two solo EPs in the past seven years. But now U.K. R&B singer Sampha is ready for the limelight with his solo debut, Process, in which he stakes his own claim in the reinvention of his chosen genre. Even in an era when the likes of Frank Ocean are blowing open all preconceived notions of what modern soul music can sound like, Sampha sounds several steps apart from any of his American counterparts. That’s evident on the stuttering syncopated beat on “Blood On Me,” on the science-fiction-soundtrack textures throughout the whole album, on the clipped sound samples that echo Matthew Herbert’s work in the 2000s, on the elastic melodies that owe as much to Bjork as they do Marvin Gaye. Sampha is a stunning vocalist, enough of one to carry some of the weaker songs, but that’s not even the real appeal here: it’s his entire approach to sound. He and co-producer Rodaidh McDonald (The Xx) take an avant-garde approach: they are to R&B what Joni Mitchell is to folk, what Kate Bush is to pop. In many ways, this is a better Radiohead record than the one that band themselves put out last year. Sampha isn’t out to make pop hits, even if “Blood On Me” has a good shot and “Like the Piano” is the rare straight-up ballad in his oeuvre. Expect him to have as much influence behind the scenes as he does up front. (Feb. 23)
Stream: “Blood on Me,” “(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano,” “Kora Sings”
Strength of Materials – Inclusive Fitness (independent)
Ford Pier is one of the most creative, inventive, intuitive, brilliant musicians in this country. And sometimes I have no idea what he’s on about. Here, he ditches his usual rock format and puts himself in front of a string quartet to play music that is unlike anything you would ever expect—even if you had a faint idea of what to expect. Pier is known as a sideman for the Rheostatics, Veda Hille, DOA and dozens more, and has developed a side career as a string arranger. Like everything he does, he doesn’t sidestep into this role lightly: the arrangements are sharp, strange, dynamic, and often as rhythmically complex as they are harmonically rich. On top of it, Pier himself barks, shrieks, croons and cajoles as a vocalist; he is not the spoonful of sugar that makes the musical medicine go down. But who says string sections have to play nice? Strength of Materials is daring and defiant. (Feb. 2)
Stream: “The Purdie Shuffle,” “Ship of the Line,” “June 13”
Tinariwen – Elwan (Anti)
Nothing changes; everything changes. Tinariwen, a name that means “deserts” in their native Tamashek language, were formed in the Saharan desert in the early 1980s by Tuareg musicians who had been drafted into war. Eventually putting down their guns for guitars, they evolved into international ambassadors for the desert blues style of northern Mali, starting with their first Western release in 2001. Fifteen years later, they’ve fled their home environs due to the threat of Islamist militants who have been desecrating historical sites and banning music itself—in one of the most culturally rich areas of the world, no less. To make matters worse, one of the band’s former associates became a born-again Salafist, leading the charge against music’s “corrupting” influence and founding a movement, Ansar Dine, that invades towns and sets all musical equipment on fire. One member of Tinariwen was kidnapped by Ansar Dine, and later released.
And so Tinariwen became a band on the run. Elwan is the second Tinariwen album since their exile; like 2014’s Emmaar, it was partially recorded in a tent in the California desert, with members of Queens of the Stone Age and other kindred spirits in trippy, guitar-driven psychedelia (Mark Lanegan, Kurt Vile). Other sessions were held on the Algerian coast and in Paris, where they recorded a fine 2015 live album.
Very little ever changes from one Tinariwen release to the next; sometimes the magic is there, sometimes it’s not. With such potentially transcendent music, that’s hardly surprising. Emmaar found the band sounding out of place and uninspired; the California desert was clearly not their home, and Tinariwen’s invited guests/hosts didn’t help matters any—their presence seemed more like stunt casting to tweak interest in yet another Tinariwen album. This time out, however, something has clicked, even in California: there is a firm resilience in the languid grooves, a quiet strength that never bubbles over. There are more acoustic guitars, bass lines that bring a sparse funk feel to some tracks, and the trademark group vocals and distorted blues guitar leads.
Of course, Elwan arrives at a curious time. Tinariwen have an American label and U.S. dates on their upcoming tour (they’re scheduled to play Massey Hall in Toronto on April 12), but because of their roots in the Western Sahara countries of Libya and Algeria—two countries on Donald Trump’s “Muslim ban” list—one has to wonder if they’ll make into that country at all. (Mali is not on that list—yet.) If they do, expect those shows to be a necessarily cathartic release for both audience and band, each persecuted by despots and theological madmen, long after they believed such battles should have been long over. (Feb. 9)
Stream: “Sastanàqqàm,” “Arhegh Ad Annàgh” “Assawt,”