Wednesday, April 17, 2019

The Comet is Coming, Matmos, Korea Town Acid, JV's Boogaloo Squad

The Comet is Coming – Trust in the Lifeforce of the Deep Mystery (Impulse)

Look, with a name like this, the astronomy metaphors are going to flow easily. I’m often drawn to the psychedelic side of jazz I like to call “space music”—Sun Ra, ’70s Miles Davis, and anything remotely similar, right up to Kamasi Washington—but the Comet Is Coming seems like they’re actually trying to simulate an interstellar voyage. Their 2016 debut, Channel the Spirits, sounded like a rocket-fuelled thrill ride outside the atmosphere; this record is the sound of floating in space, with the odd asteroid belt throwing a few bumps into your path.

The Comet is Coming is led by saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings, a leading light of Britain’s fertile jazz scene; he also fronts the fiercely funky, two-drummers-and-a-tuba-driven Sons of Kemet and has a South African project called the Ancestors. He doesn’t work with half-assed drummers, and Max “Betamax Killer” Hallett is ferocious here. Keyboardist Dan Leavers unleashes waves of spacey synths that put every song into sci-fi territory, and not just the ones with titles like “Astral Flying” or “The Universe Wakes Up.” Hutchings also breaks out his bass clarinet, which I haven’t heard him do in his other projects.

“We're exploring new sound worlds and aiming to destroy all musical ideals which are unfit for our purpose,” Hutchings once said. With that in mind, the sky is not even close to being the limit here.

Stream: "Summon the Fire," "Super Zodiac," “Astral Flying”

JV’s Boogaloo Squad – Going to Market (Flat Car Records)

On the more conventional tip, this Toronto trio centres around Joel Visentin’s Hammond B3 organ, and ride grooves on the same train as obvious antecedents Jimmy McGriff or the Smiths, Jimmy and Lonnie. Visentin is a vicious player, one who’s able to unleash top-speed solos but also lay back to let guitarist Adam Beer-Colacino shine, or guest saxophonists Alison Young and Kelly Jefferson. Drummer Jeff Halischuk keeps it clean and tight and funky like he’s sitting behind JB at the Apollo, not JV at the Rex Hotel. With that calibre of playing, they could easily put their stamp on just about any material, but they wisely only throw one cover into this otherwise all-original set: it’s “Chain of Fools,” and they completely make it their own. There are times when the record slips into Saturday Night Live ’70s house-band territory, but the quality of chops here is admirably cheese-resistant. Bring us some more of that boogaloo.

Stream: “Slacktivision,” “Squadzilla,” “Chain of Fools”

Matmos – Plastic Anniversary (Thrill Jockey)

Yes, the plastic apocalypse is coming: to this planet’s oceans, to our landfills, to our own bodies. I’m not saying we should surrender to our new plastic overlords, but in the meantime at least Matmos were able to make beautiful music out of this whole mess.

Matmos, if you don’t know, are a long-running duo who take pleasure in recording tiny, unusual, often uncomfortable details of modern life (rhinoplastic surgery!) and manipulating the sounds into music—well, most of the time it’s music. Other times it’s sound art that’s hard to appreciate more than once. Matmos remain most famous for working with kindred spirit Bjork on her Vespertine album and tour.

The danger in reviewing a Matmos album is that you spend more time talking about how they made the record than the music itself. I purposely chose not to engage in the press materials before deciding whether or not I was going to celebrate Plastic Anniversary. Decision: on its own musical merits, it’s worth celebrating.

If you do want to know how they made this record, this is a very entertaining video:

Yes, there are moments when it sounds like the Blue Man Group and their plastic-pipe percussion. And sure, the song “Thermoplastic Riot Shield” is abrasively uncomfortable, sounding like the sound-effects crew on a sci-fi action movie got hopped up on meth and started making EDM—nothing the most hardcore Aphex Twin fan couldn’t handle. Much of Plastic Anniversary is surprisingly pleasant, from the ambient ocean waves of “Plastisphere” to the Brazilian rhythms of “Collapse of the Fourth Kingdom.”  

Not that a Matmos record should ever be judged on how pleasant it is. Their last album, Ultimate Care II, was made utilizing various sounds from a washing machine, and it worked. But for an act often accused of being cold-bloodedly obsessed with process and metaphor rather than the actual music, this is perhaps the most approachable these sound artists have seemed since they had an Icelandic singer in front of them.

Stream: “Collapse of the Fourth Kingdom,” “The Crying Pill,” “Fanfare for Polyethylene Waste Containers”

Korea Town Acid – Mahogani Forest (Cosmic Resonance)

Somewhere between the pure sound abstractionists and the thump of the dance floor are artists like Matmos and Toronto’s Jessica Cho, who records and performs as Korea Town Acid. Her beats rarely stick into a set pattern or go where you expect them to: they’ll suddenly start stuttering, or a hi-hat will suddenly leap out of nowhere to the front of the mix. Sometimes a smooth-jazz saxophone wanders in. Cho could hardly have picked a better name: listening to Korea Town Acid is a hallucinatory experience, walking through an improvised sound world of digital debris found on no particular continent, where your focus is constantly shifting and as various elements mutate and evolve before your ears. This is a debut record for a relatively new project; excited to hear where else it goes.

Stream: “Zoom Lab,” “Mahogani Forest,” “Virtual Reality”

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Fet.Nat - Le Mal

Fet.Nat – Le Mal (Boiled Records)

In my (limited) experience, Ottawa is a conservative music town. Lots of great music, but to this critic’s ears there’s an inherent politeness and adherence to convention that can be stifling at times. Cross the river over to Gatineau, however, and things get real weird. Fast. Like this band, who sound like the wheels falling off Deerhoof’s touring van. Their second album, Le Mal—“the sickness”—opens with a staggered, stuttering groove that recalls Mary Margaret O’Hara’s “Not Be Alright,” if it was arranged by Mike Patton and featuring Kid Koala on turntables. The rest of the record gets weirder from there. 

Vocalist JFno is muttering and snarling about something, but even if he was singing in English (he’s not) the meaning would be secondary to the way he’s integrated into the interplay between everyone else. Killer drummer Olivier Fairfield (Timber Timbre, Last Ex, Andy Shauf) is the principal driver here, his art-damaged Tony Allen licks challenging guitarist/bassist Pierre-Luc Clement to a rhythmic game of chicken, each daring each other to land on an unpredictably syncopated beat. Saxophonist Linsey Wellman skronks sporadically, popping up like a Whac-a-Mole in the rare spaces left open by Fairfield and Clement. The most traditional track here is the dark post-punk of “Soft Purse,” and it’s less than two minutes long. It’s also the only composition that doesn’t appear here twice—ostensibly, anyway. The titles of the second half of the record are variations of the first, and though there are similarities between each version of each title, they have about as much in common as Agent Dale Cooper’s doppelgangers in Twin Peaks: The Return. Which is another way of saying: this glorious mindfuck of an album makes as much sense as you let it, depending on your willingness to surrender. "Your world is my mystery gift," sings a small chorus of women here. Right on.

Stream: “Tapis,” “Patio Monday,” “Soft Purse”

Friday, March 22, 2019

Farewell, column

I just lost a job I should have lost a long time ago.

For almost 20 years, I wrote a weekly album review column for a newspaper in a mid-size Ontario town. The man who hired me, and who was one of my biggest champions, died in 2008; he’d retired a few years before that. I’d had little to no contact with anyone at the paper after that (*). I filed a column every week; they printed it. No one ever told me what to do, which meant I could write about whatever I wanted. If I wanted to ignore the new Shawn Mendes and review a soca artist from Saskatoon instead, I could do that.

Remember the film Office Space, where one character keeps showing up for work five years after he was fired, and no one notices? I felt like that, although I was still invoicing and still getting paid.

It was too good to be true—except that it only paid $80 a week. Back in the day, I could supplement that by selling dozens of promo copies to a local CD store, which would justify the time and effort I put into the column; that hustle dried up a decade ago. Since then, I’d been doing it mostly for love, to alleviate boredom from well-paying desk jobs, and to exercise my writing muscles.

I reviewed roughly three to five new records a week, 50 weeks a year (two weeks would be year-end round-ups), for almost two decades. That's between 3,000 to 5,000 records in total.

In early March, the new arts editor asked me to call him. He was shocked to learn I’d been doing the gig for so long. He then apologized before telling me that the column was being retired. The reason? Being the new guy, it wasn’t his call, he claimed, but those above him told him that the column did not perform well online.

Here’s the irony: my column rarely ever went online. I checked every few months or so, and for at least the last decade it seemed to be completely random where and when my column might pop up: sometimes a couple of weeks in a row, sometimes on websites for affiliated papers, sometimes not for months on end. The day it was canned in March—for not performing well online—my column had not been posted online since Christmas. If it had, I could find no record of it.

(That’s why I’ve been reposting my reviews on this blog since I started it 13 years ago, for my own archives and so they’d be accessible to artists. I almost always did so several weeks after they ran on my employer’s site, so that they’d get the primary traffic.)

So getting fired was hardly shocking. Instead, it was funny; the very last record I reviewed just happened to be called You Will Not Die. And it was a bit of a relief: right before March break, for the first time in 20 years, I didn’t have to file two columns in advance before going away on vacation. Phew!

There’s also the fact that, while I’m still an intensely curious listener, I’m a total dinosaur who probably shouldn’t have a music column. (**) I think Drake is downright terrible; I had to admit to myself years ago that I’ve lost that battle, and should stop yelling at the cloud. I refuse to take Taylor Swift seriously. Trap has ruined rap. EDM is one big headache. Metal and punk were never for me. What used to be called indie rock ran out of ideas a long time ago, says this old man. I’m not a poptimist who suddenly re-evaluated George Michael’s music when he died; I still think it was terrible. (***) These are all huge blind spots for a columnist to have, and my mental health is better for not having to care.

I’m now one of those insufferable jackasses who tells you he only listens to jazz and “world music.” God help me. I’ve become a Scharpling and Wurster sketch. I’ve become an LCD Soundsystem song. More likely, I was always both of those. 

In 1999, album reviews still ran in newspapers, glossy mags and alt-weeklies (there were still alt-weeklies then, too!). Back then, I would write my columns with the consumer in mind: along with your time, is this record worth your money? Even when people stopped paying for music (UGH), reviews were still a useful tool for navigating new releases. With streaming, of course, algorithmic playlists became the new “recommendation engines.” We didn’t need people for that anymore, apparently.

In 2019, having an album-review column was downright archaic. It felt like I was running the last video-rental store in the province. Hell, even music blogs have all but disappeared. Nobody wants to read about music. They just want a playlist to do the work for them.

I still buy CDs and vinyl, but I’m not a total Luddite: I’ve discovered some amazing music from algorithms. The multi-faceted world of Shabaka Hutchings (Shabaka & the Ancestors, The Comet is Coming) and the new British jazz scene (Theon Cross, Nubya Garcia) all came to me when Sons of Kemet popped up as a recommendation several years ago, long before that band was shortlisted for the Mercury Prize. But I still had to research to discover different threads and to learn more context that increased my appreciation of the scene—a scene where threads and connections are important, not random bits and bytes. (****)

I still learn about a lot of music from Pitchfork, Aquarium Drunkard, NPR Music, Said the Gramophone and others (as well as my fellow Polaris Music Prize jurors, for whom I am eternally grateful). I recently fell back in love with campus radio. But it takes work. Streaming doesn’t make active listening easier for fans of new music; it makes it overwhelming. We still need filters. I needed filters when I was a filter. There’s a reason “curation” is such a buzzword.

In my post-columnist life—which is all of a couple of weeks now—it’s been a pleasure to spend more time with recent records that I filed away as soon as I finished reviewing them. There are a bunch of new things I’m excited about without feeling that I have to be excited about them—or even be all that articulate about them (hello, Dominique Fils-Aimé!).

And, like every cliché of a 47-year-old former hipster dad, I’m suddenly listening to a lot of Wilco lately. But that’s because Jeff Tweedy’s recent memoir was so good—or maybe I’m just entering my Sky Blue Sky years after all. (*****)

The editor let me run a farewell note at the bottom of the last column I filed. I don’t know what, if any, feedback they got. I received some nice notes on social media; one person said they grew up reading my column. Several artists and publicists have expressed their gratitude. In the past, I’ve had strangers stop me on the street or at festivals in the town where the column ran, to tell me how much they enjoyed a certain record I’d recommended. (******) That’s a wonderful feeling.

I’m now writing an online Toronto city column for the West End Phoenix. I’ll still write reviews on this site. I’ll no longer feel I have to hold the hands of mainstream newspaper readers. Will that change my writing style? We’ll see. I like to think that my experience writing with those readers in mind made my book so accessible and popular.

Thank you for reading. Now. Then. Tomorrow—possibly, maybe.

* To be fair, I'd get a couple of notes a year from a copy editor. And someone would actually notice if I didn't file at my normal time.

** I'm also the only person in the world (other than Juno voters, FWIW) who thinks Everything Now is Arcade Fire's best album. In the eyes of my peers, this alone is reason enough to set me out on an ice floe. 
*** Not sure why I didn't mention this the first time, maybe because I considered it obvious, but "rock" music is also all but dead to me, especially if it's made by four white guys. 
**** This is a score for the algorithm: I'm not aware of anyone else in Canada who reviewed the first Sons of Kemet record. However, despite the fact I often stream the first Comet is Coming record, the new one that came out this month didn't show up on the weekly new release page I check every Friday. So unless I was reminded by someone else acting as a filter, I'd likely have forgotten that it was coming out. That's a score against the algorithm. 
***** I draw the line at The National, though. That's too fusty even for me. 
****** Shout out to the stranger at the Hillside Festival who thanked me for the Angelique Kidjo nod.

Wednesday, March 06, 2019

Nakhane – You Will Not Die

Nakhane – You Will Not Die (BMG)

The title sounds melodramatic. It’s not.

Nakhane is a queer 31-year-old South African actor, novelist and musician who fled his native country after starring in a film called “The Wound,” which was vilified by homophobes and led to death threats. He moved to London and started working on this album. On it, he captures the emotional depth of his personal story: growing up closeted, subjecting himself to conversion therapy, trying to find solace in the church, having a breakdown and ultimately coming through to the other side with confidence and an articulate artistic vision.

Somewhere along the way, he released a debut album as a guitar-playing folk singer, in a scene that didn’t welcome a lot of queer Xhosa men. Though You Will Not Die is rooted in piano compositions and electronic textures—sounding not unlike a gospel-tinged sibling to Perfume Genius—there are still traces of the folk singer here, as on a stellar version of New Order’s “Age of Consent” performed with just voice and electric guitar.  

This record came out in Britain last year, and has been expanded by an additional seven tracks for North America, including the New Order cover, a Bowie cover (“Sweet Thing”), a clubby collab with Anohni, and a less syncopated, radio-friendly remix of the track “Clairvoyant.”

Some of the material is much stronger than the rest, but Nakhane’s multi-octave, almost operatic voice is a sacred gift that sets him far apart from every other new male R&B singer of recent years.

That’s his physical voice I’m talking about; his voice as a lyricist, and as a public figure, is also crucial. He told GQ magazine about how he discovered James Baldwin novels when he was 15: “I was like, Oh my god, I'm not the only one. I'm not crazy, I'm not alone, my existence matters.’” 

It’s entirely possible that his music will inspire the same reaction on unsuspecting listeners around the world.

Stream: “Violent Measures,” “You Will Not Die,” “Hey, Lover”

NOTE: From the beginning of this blog until now, all the reviews here originally ran in a weekly column I wrote for the Waterloo Record. That column got canned today. I'm grateful for the man who hired me, the late Philip Bast, who gave me the extended opportunity to write about whatever I wanted in a mainstream daily. I do love the fact that my last column featured a queer South African living in Britain with an album called You Will Not Die