Wednesday, July 11, 2018

The Sorority – Pledge

The Sorority – Pledge (independent)

Strength in numbers: where are all the rap groups? Part of what has made Migos and Brockhampton so successful is the novelty of having more than two rappers in one group. In Quebec, it’s not at all unusual to have rap crews: Alaclair Ensemble, Radio Radio, Dead Obies. This year also saw the rise of the Snotty Nose Rez Kids from Vancouver. But an English-Canadian rap crew made up of four women? That’s unheard of. That they’ve made one of the best rap records of the last 12 months makes it even sweeter.

The members of the Sorority— Haviah Mighty, Lex Leosis, Phoenix Pagliacci, Keysha Freshh—met at an International Women’s Day event (of course). They quickly clicked, and small wonder: they all have great flow, they’re all equals, and they’re as skilled as R&B singers as they are rappers. Even better, for a group with such old-school skills, the music underneath is thoroughly modern yet also wholly original—they’re not chasing trends to fit in.

Every month another artist comes out of Toronto that exemplifies the diversity of the city’s hip-hop and R&B scene, each one seemingly stronger than the last. Expect to hear a lot more about the Sorority in the next year and beyond. (June 1)

Stream: “SRTY,” “West End (Yea Eh),” “East End (Dun Kno)”

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Polaris shortlist predictions, Hubert Lenoir, Lydia Képinski

There has only ever been one francophone record to win the Polaris Music Prize: Karkwa’s Les Chemins de Verre, in 2010. It’s now been seven years since a francophone record has made the Polaris Music Prize shortlist, when Galaxie’s Tigre et diesel made the cut in 2011. Not even Coeur de Pirate has managed to break through, despite increasingly solid records and a large live draw outside of Quebec. Galaxie put out a pretty solid new record last year, but it didn’t land on the Polaris long list, announced last month. However, seven other francophone records did (as well as an instrumental record by a francophone, Jean-Michel Blais). Of those, I think Hubert Lenoir’s debut album is likely to shortlist, and I would love it if Lydia Képinski would as well.

The shortlist will be announced Tuesday, July 17.

I fully expect Daniel Caesar, Jeremy Dutcher, Lenoir, U.S. Girls and Weaves to shortlist. I’d place money on it. Usually 50% of the list is a relatively easy pick; the rest is a crapshoot.

I think it’s likely that Bonjay, Zaki Ibrahim, Pierre Kwenders and Partner will also shortlist, along with one record from the acoustic/songwriter contingent that will be either the Weather Station, Donovan Woods, or Jennifer Castle.

I’m basing these predictions on general chatter among Polaris jurors, as well as demographics and past history of voting patterns; there’s nothing scientific going on here. Sometimes the silent majority surprises me and a more mainstream pick makes the list: this year that would be either Alvvays or Gord Downie. Less likely silent majority picks would be Arcade Fire, Bahamas or Sloan.

I would love to be pleasantly surprised and see Cadence Weapon, Képinski or Terra Lightfoot make the shortlist. There’s also an extremely long shot that we might be talking about Vancouver hip-hop crew the Snotty Nose Rez Kids this time next week.

Anyway, back to the francophones. Among the long listed artists, I’ve been a fan of Kwenders for a while (I prefer his debut to this new one, though I’m in the minority there), and both the rapper Loud and Mélissa Laveaux (a Haitian-Canadian now living in Paris) are impressive. But these two debut records really blew me away–eventually, mind you, as they’re both growers. Give them your time.

These reviews will appear in the Waterloo Region Record on Friday July 13.

Hubert Lenoir – Darlène (Simone)

This 23-year-old put his punk band on hold to make a genre-bending pop album, based on a new novel by his friend Noémie D. Leclerc, where the first five tracks jump from jazz piano to ’70s glam to Black Sabbath to gospel-inspired pop to Fleetwood Mac, with plenty of tenor saxophone all over the arrangements, which occasionally nod to Joe Jackson’s 1984 album Body and Soul. It’s totally bonkers in a way that only the Québecois can pull off—or maybe the Flaming Lips, on a good day. Is it a retro record? Absolutely, but it’s also audacious in its scope, and Lenoir has the songwriting chops, the production values, plenty of earworms and the pure vocal charisma to pull it all off. I listened to this record for months before I sought out any video—and it turns out this androgynous singer has major starpower as well. And yes, francophobes, there is one song in English (“Wild and Free”), so you have no excuse not to start there and then dive deeper.

Stream: “Fille de personne II,” “Ton hotel,” “J-C”

Lydia Képinski – Premier juin (independent)

This 24-year-old Montrealer won the $10,000 Francouvertes prize last year for a new Quebec artist. Listening to her debut, it’s more than obvious why: she’s a fully-formed songwriter whose melodies verve in unusual directions, while her music rarely subscribes to conventional chord progressions and her arrangements combine the sparseness of indie-rock solo performers with lush arrangements and rich electronics—both of which are used sparingly. The focus is on Képinski’s remarkably nuanced and assured vocals. All of this displays not just remarkable talent, but a self-assuredness and confidence rarely heard on a debut record. This artist arrives as a complete package, sounding like she’s already conquered the world, even if the world doesn’t quite know it yet.

Stream: “Les routes indolores,” “Premier juin,” “Maïa”

Monday, July 09, 2018

Kamasi Washington, Onyx Collective

Kamasi Washington – Heaven and Earth (Young Turks/Beggars)

This jazz saxophonist from L.A. debuted in 2015 with a triple album that was as fantastic as it was audacious. Non-jazz audiences were intrigued because of Washington’s hip-hop résumé, including his extensive work on Kendrick Lamar’s landmark album To Pimp a Butterfly. But there was nothing hip-hop in his own work: this was straight-up modern jazz that owed debts to psychedelic funk and late-period John Coltrane. Not only was that debut a triple album, it was excessive in every way: two bassists (including Thundercat), two drummers, and a large band that was occasionally augmented by a 32-piece orchestra and a 20-person choir, not including featured vocalists. It was big. It was, naturally, called The Epic.

It was also daunting.

On his follow-up album, Washington retains everything that made The Epic a rare crossover success—including the choir and the orchestra—but offers instead a relatively trim eight tracks (almost all of which clock in around eight expansive minutes). Perhaps needless to say, the soloists are all exceptional, and all get their due. Despite the orchestrations and heavy rhythm section, the arrangements sound nimble and expressive rather than suffocating.

In case there was doubt, Heaven and Earth makes it obvious that Washington’s success was and is entirely independent from that of his peers and collaborators. And it certainly isn’t a fluke. (June 22)

Stream: “Fists of Fury,” “Can You Hear Him,” “The Invincible Youth”

Onyx Collective – Lower East Side Suite Part Three (Ninja Tune)

Walk around Manhattan in 2018 and it’s hard to imagine New York City as a jazz town. It’s not the gritty jazz jungle of Charles Mingus and Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane and John Zorn. It’s now nearly pristine, a Disneyland for hedge-fund managers. There is no room for improvisation or scuffed-up saxophones in modern-day Manhattan.

Or is there?

The core members of the Onyx Collective met at New York College and then took their sound to the streets, popping up randomly on corners, at parties, in a storefront, underground. Their debut album was pressed independently and was never made available online: you had to buy it from the members themselves at a show. (Imagine!)

Their debut for renowned electronic and jazz label Ninja Tune (which follows up two EPs with the same title) sounds like it was made with one room mic: if much of modern jazz recordings sound like they were mastered for your high-end hi-fi system, this is raw and alive. It sounds like you’re standing right in front of them on a subway platform, not in a studio with padded couches and acoustic baffling. Titles are geographically specific: “Battle of the Bowery,” “Delancey Dilemma,” “2AM at Veselka.”

Saxophonist Isaiah Barr says, “New York’s role in Onyx Collective is everything. The names of people, the places, the street corners here are so legendary and historically prominent—it leaves a roadmap that we can walk through, and a story for us to follow.”

Now, how a bunch of young jazz artists can afford to live in Manhattan these days is another issue altogether. Maybe that’s why two of their songs are titled “There Goes the Neighbourhood” and “Eviction Notice.” (June 22)

Stream: “Rumble in Chatham Square,” “Don’t Get Caught Under the Manhattan Bridge,” “Battle of the Bowery”

Sunday, July 08, 2018

Jeff Bird – Felix Anima: Jeff Bird plays Hildegard of Bingen

Jeff Bird – Felix Anima: Jeff Bird plays Hildegard of Bingen (independent)

This is generally a column about modern popular music, so it won’t surprise anyone if I admit to being out of my depth talking about the 12th-century music of Hildegard von Bingen. Her name is not unfamiliar: the German is one of the only female composers of the pre-modern era, and was a scientist, philosopher and mystic as well as an abbess. Because of all this, she’s been of particular interest to feminist scholars in the last 30 years or so.

Jeff Bird first heard her music in 1985, on a recording by the group Gothic Voices. He was studying early music at the University of Guelph, while playing in renowned folk group Tamarack, and was immediately hooked. A few years later, he got a gig playing harmonica with some indie band in a church for a live recording: that band was the Cowboy Junkies, who ended up selling millions of records and with whom he’s stayed ever since. Bird has put out a smattering of worthy solo projects over the years, but the thematic consistency of this one sets it apart.

He approaches Hildegard’s music with little more than a harmonica and a shruti box, which is like a small harmonium, which he plays in his lap. He described to CBC Music the movement of air through his body and the “festival of vibration” from the two instruments as transcendent, and it’s not hard to imagine. Hildegard’s work was primarily choral; Bird’s is instrumental, but the human breath is integral to each approach. There’s a bit of lap steel, electric mandolin, ukulele, and a strange new five-pipe wind instrument called the futujara, based on a Slovakian design (look it up, if this is remotely interesting to you). Pianist Witek Grabowiecki also appears.

The album is meditative and spiritual in ways one would certainly not expect from a harmonica record—but Jeff Bird has always been about subverting expectations and blowing your musical mind. This is no different. (May 4)

Stream: “Lovingly Inclined Towards All,” “Three Wings,” “Hail Hail to You”