Friday, December 07, 2018

November 2018 reviews

These reviews ran in the Waterloo Record in November.

Art d'Ecco – Trespasser (Paper Bag)

If you had guessed that glam rock would be a trend in Canadian pop music in 2018, you’ve been proven right: first with Quebec’s Hubert Lenoir, then with the strange story of Toronto’s Ensign Broderick, and now with Art D’Ecco, who claims to have written and record his debut album on a remote island in the Gulf Islands of British Columbia, in a cabin recently vacated by his Alzheimer’s-stricken grandmother. D’Ecco appears in his press material in a wig, clothes and makeup seemingly lifted from a high school production of Rocky Horror Picture Show, and the music fits accordingly, somewhere between T. Rex, the Cure and Suede. Normally such a shtick and back story are alarm bells for style over substance, but D’Ecco has assembled a rousing rock’n’roll record that, among other things, does not at all sound like it was recorded in the wilderness surrounded by Douglas firs. Opening track “Never Tell” is one of the best pop songs to come out of this country in the last 12 months, and the rest of the record comes close to matching it. (Nov. 30)

Stream: "Never Tell," "Nobody's Home," "Mary”

Fever Feel – s/t (independent)

A lot of modern psychedelic rock bands rely on technology and effects to get trippy. This Victoria-via-Calgary band, on the other hand, has old-school jazz chops and it sounds like they’ve put in some serious time on stage in the four years since their debut single. This, their first full-length, displays an admirably stubborn streak that refuses to acknowledge any music more modern than, say, 1975. Pedal steel guitars, flutes and bongos augment this guitar-bass-organ-drum quartet, who have no qualms shifting tempos or moods mid-song. If you thought Black Mountain was retro, they’ve got nothing on Fever Feel. It works. And unlike, say, Greta van Fleet, there’s no specifically shameless homage going on. It’s just a vibe, man. (Nov. 16)

Stream: “Spitting Silver,” “Lose Your Mind,” “Already There”

Kyp Harness – s/t (independent)

Yeah, it’s weird for your 14th album to be self-titled, which is usually reserved for debut records. But 14 albums in, maybe you’ve just run out of titles. And if you’re still largely unknown enough outside of your peer group, as is the case with perennially underrated Toronto songwriter Kyp Harness, you might as well introduce yourself yet again. Harness’s earnest songs are usually about maintaining some semblance of optimism when the deck is stacked against you; he’s nothing if not consistent and persistent. His records usually oscillate between campus-radio scrappy—like the ones he made with Gord Downie’s backing band, the Dinner is Ruined—and more polished folk records aimed at a more CBC audience. This time he’s right in the middle, joining forces with pianist Tania Gill and a solid rhythm section who provide welcoming and colourful arrangements, captured in a live and spontaneous setting that showcases everyone’s strengths. It’s never too late to warm to Harness’s many gifts, and he recently branched out to become a novelist; his second in two years, The Abandoned, was released this fall. A master storyteller in any medium. (Nov. 23)

Stream: “Talkin’ to Myself,” “Jungle Out There,” “Insomniac’s Lullaby”

Harrison – Apricity (Last Gang)

Following in the footsteps of Kaytranada and Bonjay, the second album by Toronto producer Harrison is a warm amalgam of mostly instrumental R&B, house, soul and pop. While it’s unlikely he’s actually surrounded himself with 35-year-old instruments, Harrison taps warm analog sounds here to great effect. Apparently, after his debut album, he was determined up to his musicianship and started taking piano lessons. There’s certainly no Stevie Wonder wizardry here, but his musical education has paid obvious dividends: where he was once a mildly interesting beatmaker, he’s now ready to take his place among the best working today. (Nov. 2)

Stream: “Celica Supra,” “Your Girl” feat. Ralph, “Wavestation”

Doug Paisley – Starter Home (No Quarter)

Toronto’s Doug Paisley was one of the most promising new songwriters of this decade, with 2010’s Constant Companion hailed (by me, but also many others) as an instant classic, the kind of album that actually warranted comparisons to greats like Gordon Lightfoot. These were songs of neither a young man nor an old man; these were songs that sounded like they’ve always existed. Starter Home is only his second album since then, however; he spent the last four years on paternity leave, and this new collection finds him firmly rooted in midlife, questioning his surroundings, his future—and other light subjects. The arrangements are gentle and unassuming, never distracting from Paisley’s deft acoustic guitar work or his warm-sweater voice and storytelling. Blue Rodeo’s Bazil Donovan shows up on bass, as does Paisley’s go-to choice for harmonies, Jennifer Castle. Doug Paisley will never be the type to be hyped, but his records are the ones you’ll put on at the end of a long week, the songs echoing conversations with old friends. (Nov. 9)

Stream: “No Way to Know,” “Easy Money,” “Waiting”

Sandro Perri – In Another Life (Constellation)

Singing about another life is one thing; creating a sonic landscape that suggests an alternate reality, some fate of quantum physics in which you’ve held some parallel Parisian existence, in a city that attracts the lost souls of the world looking for truth and beauty by the streets beside the Seine. “In Another Life” is more of a tone poem than an album of songs; each of these four tracks burbles along at a leisurely pace, synths and jazzy elements intertwining to sound like nothing from this world. Perri sings the first two songs, including the 24-minute title track—which, oddly enough, never wears out its welcome, despite its static dynamic; it’s more meditative than music. He then turns vocals over to Andre Ethier (Deadly Snakes) and Dan Bejar (Destroyer) to riff on two versions of a song called “Everybody’s Paris.” Four tracks in 43 minutes end before you know it; a dreamier distraction you’d be hard to find. (Nov. 2)

Stream: all of it. It’s four songs.

Kurt Vile – Bottle It In (Matador)
J Mascis – Elastic Days (Sub Pop)

Kurt Vile must be excited about cannabis legalization in Canada, not to mention a recent referendum victory in Michigan. It’s the only way I can imagine his audience growing. And yet I’m clearly in the minority: Mysteriously, his fan base keeps growing, sucking in local Canucks the Sadies and Fucked Up, as well as the infinitely more talented Courtney Barnett, with whom Vile recorded a duo album, which they promoted together with a full tour.

Vile has made a career out of meandering, slack-jawed, mid-tempo guitar noodling that targets the indie rock crowd rather than Deadheads. This is a road well-travelled, of course, starting with J Mascis and Pavement and onwards. But Vile seems to luxuriate in his laconic state; his records sound like they were recorded lying down on a couch with a huge spliff in his mouth. Tempos are never likely to quicken the pulse, and nothing much of anything seems to happen in any of this songs. And there are a lot of songs: not just on this 13-track album (which includes three songs that clock in around 10 minutes each), but on Vile’s eight albums in the last 10 years. Is it a coincidence or an intensely self-aware joke that two of the best tracks here are called “One Trick Ponies” and “Rollin With the Flow”?

J Mascis is definitely in on his own joke. He has to be, if, on the opening track of his new solo record, he sings in his trademark drawl: "I don't peak too early. I don't peak at all." It’s kind of amazing that Mascis has never written that lyric until this point in his life, more than 30 years into his career. The Dinosaur Jr. guitarist and singer is known for his laid-back vocal delivery, both on stage and off, which clashes with the fretboard fireworks he unleashes under a torrent of distortion and fury. But there’s always been a softer side to Mascis as well, not unlike his hero Neil Young. While Dinosaur Jr. has been putting out surprisingly strong comeback records in the last 13 years, Mascis has been releasing softer solo albums on the side. With lowered expectations comes great freedom, and “Elastic Days” is the sound of Mascis being just casually awesome, like it’s no big deal. Like Vile, Mascis sings like he’s in a horizontal position. Unlike Vile, everything else about Mascis’s music—the guitar, obviously, but also the drumming and the overall arrangements—displays a great deal of detail and care. After more than 18 albums, Mascis’s way with a melody isn’t showing any sign of letting up; most of these songs are as good or better than the finest in his discography.

In this incarnation of old school versus new school, score one for the old man. (Nov. 23)

Stream Kurt Vile: "One Trick Ponies," "Rollin With the Flow," “Come Again”
Stream J Mascis: “See You At the Movies,” "I Went Dust," “Sky Is All We Had”

Devon Welsh – Dream Songs (You Are Accepted)

In another life, Devon Welsh would have been a preacher—or at least a cantor. Mind you, the 30-year-old still has plenty of time to into that calling, should he choose. Right now, however, he’s (thankfully) ditched his (godawful) former moniker Majical Cloudz and debuting under his own name, while the music largely remains the same: slow, brooding, intense, with Welsh’s vocals stretching out long notes in the melody, his earnest lyrics seeking connection. Welsh solo uses more acoustic instruments, including a string and woodwind sections, instead of the electronic textures of Majical Cloudz—a duo that toured the world as Lorde’s opening act, the year of her breakthrough—but the arrangements are otherwise similar.

“Things more powerful than you control the actions in your life,” he tells us in the first verse of the first song here. Throughout, he sounds like a self-help guru of sorts—not just his lyrics, but the delivery as well. If you’re not in the right mood, Welsh comes off like a morose mope. Or you could view his vocal approach in the same you would a Sufi qawwali singer, or a Jewish hazzan, or chanting monks. Modern secular spirituals best absorbed while soaking in a hot bath.  (Nov. 2)

Stream: “Dreams Have Pushed You Around,” “By the Daylight,” “Over the Ladder”

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