Showing posts with label Doug Paisley. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Doug Paisley. Show all posts

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Polaris Prize long list overview

36? - Where Do We Go From Here?

The Polaris Prize long list was released last week. I “Moneyballed” it for Maclean’s here.

I didn’t mention there that I had predicted 29/40 in my previous post.

Here are the 11 I got wrong:

36? – This is the one I’m most disappointed in. It was on my ballot. More people should hear it. But as a direct result of this discussion, one programmer at a major Canadian festival told me he put the band “at the top of the pile.” (Aside: What does that mean in 2014? He still listens to discs? He puts their MP3s at the top of his playlist?)

Braids – Slightly shocking, considering their last record was shortlisted in 2011—and this one is better.

Kevin Drew – Kind of shocking, considering Drew’s profile and the strength of this record. Yet his last solo album didn’t make a long list either. Did “Mexican Aftershow Party” kill any buzz this time?

Duck Sauce – Seeing how this album follows up a hit single three years ago, not that shocking.

Egyptrixx – Not surprising; honestly, I had it as a long shot.

Hidden Cameras – I thought this was their strongest album in many moons; clearly I was one of the only ones.

Christine Jensen Jazz Orchestra – Again, a long shot; jazz doesn’t travel far in Polaris circles—or at least, a consensus jazz pick is hard to find.

Jordan Klassen – An admitted longshot. But a lovely record.

Lindi Ortega – I didn’t hear half as much chatter about her latest record as I did the long-listed one that preceded it, so perhaps not surprising.

Doug Paisley – Many people were shocked Paisley didn’t make it, considering his increased profile. Yet, as a big fan of the guy myself, I didn’t find Strong Feelings anywhere near as compelling as Constant Companion, so this didn’t surprise me.

Slakah the Beatchild – This is an unfortunate omission; there’s never enough hip-hop and R&B on the list, and this is one of the stronger Canadian releases of either genre I’ve heard in a while. Now if Shad had beats like this, he’d be unstoppable. Can someone please put those two together?

Other albums I would have loved to see get some Polaris recognition, but didn't: Nick Buzz, Shane Abram Nelken, Adrian Raso and Fanfare Ciocarlia. But hey, my #1 pick, AroarA, made the list.

2014 long-listers that surprised me:

Chromeo – This album is rather new; I hadn’t heard it at the time I voted, and I falsely assumed most jurors didn’t take this band seriously.

Cousins – I’m allergic to most things that remind me of lo-fi ’90s indie rock; I’ll admit I didn’t pay any attention to this band after hearing the record once or twice.

Cowboy Junkies’ Kennedy Suite – This is a shocker, considering what a squandering of talent is involved. So many great people involved; maybe one or two songs worthy of them to sing.

Frog Eyes – I’m really excited to see this on the list, as Frog Eyes is a unique force in Canadian music. That said, I hadn’t heard the album at the time of voting; it was released several months ago to extremely low profile, and put out properly by Paper Bag merely a few weeks ago.

Mounties – I did not think Polaris jurors still followed the careers of Hawksley Workman and Hot Hot Heat.

Odonis Odonis – Not that surprising, as this record has had good buzz. But it is surprising when you actually listen to it. Really? I also thought it might just have Toronto appeal.

Philippe B – I wasn’t sure who else other than Jimmy Hunt and Dead Obie$ would rep franco Quebec, so this was a pleasant surprise.

Solids – I honestly had no idea who this band was.

The Darcys – I wish I honestly had no idea who this band was. 
[Aside: Why do Polaris folks alphabetize “the” bands by the letter T? Oh, iTunes, you’ve ruined us all.]

Thus Owls – The Toronto Star’s Ben Rayner firmly believes this band is the second coming. I wasn’t sure who else agreed with him. Was he allowed to fill in all five slots on his ballot with Thus Owls?

Tim Hecker – Not at all surprising, considering he’s been long-listed twice before. But I didn’t sense that this had the same momentum as either An Imaginary Country or Ravedeath 1972.

And the unexpected bonus round this year goes to Winnipeg’s Greg McPherson, who got left off the long list due to some kind of computer glitch in voting. Polaris is not removing anything from the list—for obvious reasons of optics, logistics and politics—so there is, in fact, 41 albums on this year’s long list.

The shortlist will be announced July 15.

Friday, January 31, 2014

January '14 reviews

The best new records I heard this month were ones I reviewed for The Grid: Rosanne Cash and Hidden Cameras.

 In Cash’s case, I’d always liked and respected her, but I’d certainly never fallen head over heels for anything she’s done. This record, however, is flawless: I don’t dole out 10/10 ratings lightly. I’m also greatly enjoying her 2010 memoir, Composed, which has been sitting on my desk at work for, well, three years, but I just picked it up this week (read Carl Wilson's excellent review here). Cash plays the Flato Markham Theatre in Markham, Ont., on Saturday, Feb. 1. My Grid review is here.

The Hidden Cameras are a band I wondered if I would ever love again the way I did from about 2002-05. To me, they seemed to have stalled, and I didn’t enjoy any of Joel Gibb’s newer songs as much as I did those that sprung from his initial burst of inspiration. This album makes me a believer again: both the sound and the songs signal an entirely new chapter. The Hidden Cameras play a noon-hour show at the University of Guelph on Feb. 13, a show at the Starlight Lounge in Waterloo that same night, and Lee’s Palace in Toronto on Feb. 15. My Grid review is here.

Here are the other January 2014 releases reviewed in my column for the Waterloo Record and Guelph Mercury.

Couer de Pirate – Trauma (Grosse Boite)

At the end of a TV drama there’s often a plaintive piano track, often sung by a pixieish woman, sometimes a cover version. Quebecois superstar Couer de Pirate was commissioned by just such a TV show to do 12 such covers, which comprise this, her English-language debut. It’s an odd showcase of the woman’s talents, as this is very much a one-dimensional representation of her capabilities: every song is the same tempo, features almost the exact same piano chording, and she sounds careful never to betray any actual emotion (lest it distract from the TV montage, no doubt).

And so here is a gimmicky reworking of Amy Winehouse, mopey numbers by The National, Bon Iver and Patrick Watson, not-bad takes on Nancy Sinatra, Tom Waits and the McGarrigle sisters, and a surprising reinvention of Kenny Rogers’s “Lucille.” But there are also all-too-obvious picks: does anyone need another cover of “Ain’t No Sunshine” or “Dead Flowers”? Why cover “Last Kiss” after Pearl Jam did? And for anyone whose followed Couer de Pirate’s career closely, it’s more than disappointing that her take on The Weeknd’s “Wicked Games” is nowhere to be found.

As with most covers albums, this is a mild distraction—and an odd move into the Anglosphere from a woman who has sold hundreds of thousands of records in her native tongue. (Jan. 23)

Download: “Lucille,” “Summer Wine,” “Heartbeats Accelerating”

Fred Eaglesmith – Tambourine (EOne)

Somewhere in a small town in North America tonight, Fred Eaglesmith and his band are playing a small community hall packed with fans. The next night, it will happen again in a new town. And then again. And again. In an age of blockbusters, Eaglesmith is a small-scale niche marketer par excellence, putting out 17 records in 33 years and touring endlessly. He’s had much more popular singers cover his songs and land Top 40 hits with them, but he still works with Guelph producer Scott Merritt and makes his records in a tiny hamlet in Norfolk County, with one microphone and his five-piece band—two guitarists, a mandolin player and a rhythm section—all playing together at once. It’s the kind of country and early rock’n’roll that Eaglesmith, 56, grew up with. Tambourine could be 1964, it could be 2014, and it sounds all the better for not letting us know the difference.

Although Eaglesmith’s recordings have evolved over the years, the sheer volume of them could lead you to think they’re interchangeable. He’s been working with his current band for several years now, ever since the death of long-time sidekick and mentor Willie P. Bennett, and they bring a renewed vigour—as well as three-part female harmonies—to his delivery. But Tambourine stands out as being one of Eaglesmith’s most solid collection of songs in many years; it’s not just mood, nuance and performance that he and Merritt nail perfectly this time out. And with “Nobody Gets Everything,” he’s most certainly written another hit—for someone else to eventually sing, while he continues to get in the van and do his own thing. (Jan. 30)

Download: “What It Takes,” “Nobody Gets Everything,” “Train Wreck”

Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings – Give the People What They Want! (Daptone)

There’s a track on Sharon Jones’s new album called “Long Time Wrong Time”: it’s been four years since we heard new material from this hard-working soul singer, but it’s never the wrong time to hear Sharon Jones. This album was pushed back seven months while Jones battled Stage 2 pancreatic cancer—which forced her to take the longest break of her career.

So much about Jones’s personal story is inspiring, from her hardscrabble upbringing to her decades of obscurity to her late-in-life stardom to this current medical battle; every time you hear her voice, you want to root for her. Listening to her fifth album, easily her best, you hear a woman who would never let something like a potentially life-threatening disease get in the way of a good show.

So of course Jones is fantastic, and of course her Dap-Kings are the tightest backing group this side of the E Street Band (they’ve been used by Amy Winehouse and Michael Bublé, among others). They’ve been at it full-time for more than 12 years now, and what started as a retro revival soul shtick has fully evolved into songs and a production approach that doesn’t recall glory days long past: it often exceeds them. Give the People What They Want delivers 10 tracks that most often recall the Staples Singers: not just Jones in Mavis’s role, but guitarist Binky Griptite’s evocation of Pop Staples’s guitar, and the increased role of backing vocalists Saundra Williams and Starr Duncan.  

Jones sings here about how “People Don’t Get What They Deserve”—and while she may been sidetracked lately, there’s every indication here that her upward trajectory is about to go sky high. (Jan. 16)

Download: “Stranger to My Happiness,” “You’ll Be Lonely,” “Long Time Wrong Time”

Doug Paisley - Strong Feelings (Cameron House/Warner)

Everyone loves Toronto songwriter Doug Paisley—as they should. His 2010 album Constant Companion was hailed as a classic by all who heard it; it was a slow-building word-of-mouth favourite, a collection of homespun songs that sounded like you’ve known them all your life, sung them around campfires in the summer, kept you warm in long Canadian winters. Leslie Feist sang on that album. Mary Margaret O’Hara sings on this one. The Band’s Garth Hudson plays on both. Afie Jurvanen of Bahamas has toured with him, and appears here—as does Bazil Donovan of Blue Rodeo and avant-garde sax man Colin Stetson. If his soft-spoken delivery is any indication, Doug Paisley is not an extrovert rustling up any favour he can; these people all came to him.

Paisley’s craft comes from such a well-worn tradition, from Gordon Lightfoot through to Sarah Harmer, that there is little room for surprises. And yet “Where the Light Takes You,” an otherwise straightforward Blue Rodeo-esque mid-tempo country song, is transformed in the coda into a minor-key psychedelic turn with the sudden appearance of analog synth that pushes the song into Pink Floyd territory. Likewise, “What’s Up Is Down” would be a standard folk ballad were it not for the jazz piano, Mary Margaret O’Hara on backing vocals, a sad trombone and a soloing saxophone.

Constant Companion is a hard album to top; Paisley doesn’t exactly do that here. But Strong Feelings is still a more-than-worthy introduction for most folks to Paisley’s talents—enough to illustrate the rare, intangible gift he possesses, the one that separates the merely good from the truly great. (Jan. 30)

Download: “Song My Love Can Sing,” “Radio Girl,” “Where the Light Takes You”

Bruce Springsteen – High Hopes (Columbia)

High hopes, indeed—that sums up the way every Springsteen fan has felt for the past 20 years, a period of time when the icon has both thrilled and chilled, rarely consistently. Few of his albums are true clunkers (Working on a Dream); a few can stand strong alongside earlier triumphs (Magic); some are merely successful sidetracks (We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions). Springsteen himself likely has high hopes for this record: his last album, Wrecking Ball, was his first ever to not be certified gold sales status in the U.S.

As a compilation of stray tracks and covers from the last decade, High Hopes is predictably scattershot: part well-trod cliché, part overdue (he’s been playing “American Skin” live for the past 14 years), and partly a welcome chunk of worthy new songs. It also rounds up a few strong covers: Australian punk band the Saints’ “Just Like Fire Would,” the droning “Dream Baby Dream” by Suicide, and the title track, by obscure L.A. band the Havalinas.

Despite the fact the album was made with different producers and different band members—now-deceased E-Streeters Clarence Clemons and Danny Federici are here, as is everyone else who’s been in and out of the band in the last decade—it hangs together surprisingly well, due mostly to the fact the material never sinks as low as the worst moments on (the otherwise not-bad) Wrecking Ball.

The only misstep is the prominent role afforded guitarist Tom Morello, whom Springsteen clearly adores and grants second billing on most of the tracks here (listed as “featuring Tom Morello”), even shared lead vocals. Springsteen obviously feels like he’s tapping into the youthful energy of someone merely 15 years younger than him, allowing Morello to take multiple solos employing his patented pyrotechnics from his rap-rock days in Rage Against the Machine. Ever wonder what Eddie Van Halen would have sounded like in the E-Street Band? To find out, one must suffer through the heavy-handed take on the 1995 song “Ghost of Tom Joad,” where Morello indulges in unnecessary shredding.

Holding pattern Springsteen—maybe that’s the best we can hope for while we wait for a tour announcement. And pray that Morello stays home. (Jan. 16)

Download: “American Skin (41 Shots),” “Just Like Fire Would,” “Down in the Hole”

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Polaris 2011 predictions, day four

Predictions for the Polaris Prize, to be handed out Monday, September 19.

Ron Sexsmith – Long Player Late Bloomer (Warner)

The album: Ron Sexsmith has been underestimated his entire life, and so more than 15 years after his major label debut (which was almost dumped before it came out, were it not for the intervention of Elvis Costello), few expected him to come back swinging the way he does here, his fifth truly great record. (The others would be Grand Opera Lane, the self-titled album, Whereabouts and Cobblestone Runway.)

Whether it’s just chance that his songwriting stepped up from his last several lukewarm releases, or whether it was the intervention of producer Bob Rock (who also resurrected The Tragically Hip from a lazy period), Long Player Late Bloomer displays Sexsmith as a master melodicist, a songwriting student of the greats who knows how to use more than just major and minor chords and still sound beautifully simple, and a lyricist with a knack for rhyme schemes and turns of phrase.

He also manages to poke fun at his own underdog, sad-sack status on songs like the title track, "Believe It When I See It" and "Get In Line" (“If you’re bent on bringing me down/ take a number and get in line”), and he does so without ever being maudlin or overly self-referential; any specifics in Sexsmith’s songs are easily applied to the universal, like the hard-luck narrative "Michael and His Dad."

There are plenty of reasons why Sexsmith’s songwriting heroes sing his praises, and why young artists want to work with him: he knows his craft inside out, and here he’s largely on top of his game. I only say “largely” because the last five of these 13 tracks drag the momentum down to a crawl; among this album’s many strengths, sequencing is obviously one of them.

Trivia fact: Not only is Sexsmith the oldest artist on the list, he’s also the only one on a major label.

The chances: Slim. While this is undoubtedly Sexsmith’s finest work in almost 10 years, which is why it deserves to be on this list, the final third doesn’t hold up. Also, I’d be shocked if a Polaris jury went for something this conventional, conservative, straightforward and pretty.

Colin Stetson – Judges: New History of Warfare Vol. 2 (Constellation)

The album: Here it is, the weirdo whipping boy of this year’s Polaris prize. This is the album that people point to and start talking about what a “weird” shortlist we have this year, how Polaris can’t ever possibly be a populist prize (hello, Arcade Fire?), and how critics are obviously a snobby bunch who reward technical accomplishment and artistic adventure over music that anyone would actually want to listen to. On the flip side, you have critics patting themselves on the back ad nauseum for rewarding such obviously uncommercial music in a fit of self-congratulatory frenzy.

The best quip so far about this dilemma comes from Aaron Brophy of the late Chart Attack, saying the task for jurors was to “debate whether Colin Stetson's work constitutes sonic beauty, or the equivalent of punching a goose in the chest and then recording and looping its death wheezes.”

If you don’t know by now, Colin Stetson is an in-demand sideman (Arcade Fire, Bell Orchestre, Bon Iver, Tom Waits) who not only plays solo saxophone (the bass saxophone, mostly, a behemoth of an instrument), but he plays every single part of that saxophone: the clicks, the clucks, the thucks, the what-the-fucks, often while singing through it at the same time. He accomplishes all this through circular breathing, and there are no overdubs or loops on the album at all, other than vocals from Laurie Anderson (with whom Stetson has toured) and Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond). Contrary to popular belief, his music is composed, not improvised—and therefore it is not “free jazz,” which it is often referred to as.

There’s no question that what Stetson does is unique, even though other people have used aspects of his technique before. And the production is astounding, the way the engineers (including Godspeed’s Efrim Menuck) capture every intimate sound emerging from Stetson’s body via the saxophone. (I’d argue that the reason other avant-garde records don’t reach a mass audience is not inherently the content, but because they don’t sound as fabulous as this record does.)

But is it any good? Of course it is. It’s alternately subtly evocative and overwhelming. It’s both meditative and assaultive. Its undulating arpeggios lull the listener any which way Stetson wants us to go, tiny melodies emerging from the waves and beckoning us to listen just a little closer. It’s an album that, unlike every single pop record that’s ever been on this list, doesn’t tell you what to think; your experience with it will change every single time, depending on your mood, your environment, and your sound system.

The only major drawback is that yes, it is repetitive and can sound like a one-trick pony. But what a beautiful pony! What an amazing ride!

And there, folks, is the cheesiest thing I’ve said about any record all year, perhaps any record ever.

For shits and giggles, read my in-depth interview with Stetson here, conducted before anyone thought this would be anything more than another weird Montreal record on Constellation.

The chances: Slim, for all the obvious reasons. But if for some reason he did win it, he’d be the first American artist to do so: Stetson was born and raised in Michigan, started his career in New York City and San Francisco, and moved to Montreal to live with Sarah Neufeld of Bell Orchestre and Arcade Fire.

The alternates:

Selina Martin – Disaster Fantasies (independent)

The album: (partially poached from my September 2010 review) Disaster Fantasies displays Martin as an ambitious singer/songwriter with a knockout voice and the ability to corral her artier tendencies into a commanding power pop band; it’s an album that works on an entirely visceral level, with no shortage of catchy earworms and bold rock guitars. And yet there are tonnes of tiny tasty bits in every corner, whether it’s Rheostatics guitarist Martin Tielli noodling noisily underneath “I Know Dullness,” Laura Barrett’s kalimba on “News of Her Death,” or Martin herself playing wine glasses or tapping the loose end of a plugged-in patch cord as part of a rhythm track. Producer Chris Stringer (the D’Urbervilles, Timber Timbre) helps Martin paint vivid sonic portraits and brings the entire project into clear focus, amplifying the rock elements and leaving space for acoustic intimacy (“Throw Me in the Water”).

Though she pulls of power pop with aplomb—the “Misty Mountain Hop” vibe of “No Form,” the Cheap Trick nod on “The Hottest Day,” the direct influence of the Rheostatics on “I Know Dullness” (Martin has collaborated with that band often, and this album features engineering and mixing from Michael Philip Wojewoda)—it’s the ballads where she shines the strongest: “Throw Me In the Water,” “Breathe In” and “Always On My Mind” all candidates for song of the year.

Why it didn’t make the shortlist (or long list): An independent release with mostly local publicity, it likely didn’t have enough national traction to make an impact, despite the best efforts of Robert Everett-Green of the Globe and Mail, who wrote this article and several other laudatory pieces. Or maybe writers weren’t intrigued by an album with a song called “Rape During Wartime”?

Doug Paisley – Constant Companion (No Quarter)

The album: There was no better album for taking to a Canadian cottage this year than Doug Paisley’s second release: the songs, all anchored by Paisley’s warm acoustic guitar, all sound like campfire singalongs and lullabies; Garth Hudson of The Band can be heard noodling tastefully underneath many of the tracks; the drums sound soft and gentle, like there are pillows over the snare and every tom; the harmonies between humble-voiced Paisley and Jennifer Castle sound like a veteran couple who grew up singing “Four Strong Winds” together.

So he has a late-night soft-rock vibe down to a T—so what? So do several dozen other Canucks plugging away. The difference with Paisley is all in the songwriting: every single song here sounds like a Gordon Lightfoot classic or a Townes Van Zant greatest (non-)hits package. The arrangements are impeccable: there’s never too much or too little going on; every note is just right.

When Paisley blows up large, expect thousands of people to claim they were on to him first.

Why it didn’t make the shortlist: While it’s great that Ron Sexsmith made it, it’s a shame there wasn’t room for more than one singer/songwriter, because Paisley’s album is nothing short of perfect. This came out on a tiny American label (not even one known for singer/songwriters; most of its acts are psychedelic rock) and caught traction slowly and by word of mouth. Its initial appeal was primarily a Toronto-only phenomenon; the album was re-released by Maple a few months back, and expect his next record to get a much bigger push.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

November '10 reviews

The following reviews ran in the Kitchener-Waterloo Record and Guelph Mercury in November.

Black Dub – s/t (Sony)

It’s easier to say what Black Dub is not rather than what it is: it is not a vehicle for the songs of Daniel Lanois, nor his voice; though it is texturally rich, it is not atmospheric pop; and—with the exception of single I Believe In You—it bears little relationship to Jamaican dub reggae music, as the band name might suggest.

If anything, this band—featuring master jazz drummer Brian Blade, longtime Lanois collaborator Darryl Johnson and young singer Trixie Whitley (daughter of the departed Chris Whitley, a client and friend of Lanois—is a showcase for the bluesy vocals of Whitley, a neophyte who certainly holds her own in the company of considerably more seasoned musicians. Yet that’s all it appears to be: a bunch of veterans hanging loose and letting the compelling young woman do her thing. Despite their long history of collaboration together, on Lanois’s records or with Emmylou Harris, they sound more like sidemen here than a band in their own right, and Whitley’s gospel-intensity vocals feel like they’d be better suited to music with a tougher edge.

Black Dub is the most accessible, pop-oriented album of Lanois’s solo career in years, which is no doubt in part why it rocketed to the top of the iTunes chart, and many fans will not be disappointed. And needless to say, it sounds amazing. But there’s a lot more potential in this project that has yet to be tapped. (Nov. 11)

Download: “I Believe In You,” “Ring the Alarm,” “Nomad”

Jason Collett – Pony Tricks (Arts and Crafts)

Jason Collett is currently on a solo tour; not coincidentally, he’s just released this album of stripped-down re-recordings of previously released songs. And not that his recent albums haven’t featured fine production and performances, but Collett’s songs sound much better here, in their bare essence, with little more than harmony vocals, occasional drums and maybe an accordion floating in the background. Collett’s skill as a rhythm guitarist can be drowned out on his other albums; here, his self-accompaniment shines. Likewise, when he’s not fronting a rock’n’roll band, his voice sounds much more at ease and less affected, at times downright intoxicating. Pure pop songs like "Bitter Beauty" get slowed down to a dead-stop tempo, and prove to be just as engaging. For much of his solo career, Collett has tried to resist being tagged as a folkie singer/songwriter as opposed to a pop artist—but this, his folkiest album to date, is easily one of the best things he’s ever done. (Nov. 4)

Download: “Bitch City,” “Bitter Beauty,” “Feral Republic”

Elvis Costello – National Ransom (Lost Highway)

Oh, enough already. Another year, another new album in Elvis Costello’s discography to mark a serious dent in his reputation. Just because his prolific output in his youth happened to result in albums that people still cherish 30 years later doesn’t mean he’s still capable of pulling off the album-a-year pace. What’s worse is that his Americana kick is still in full force, and no matter how much he hangs around T-Bone Burnett or Allen Toussaint, he still hasn’t learned the simplicity at the core of American folk songs; far too often he’s trying to shoehorn his dense narratives into an old-timey-sounding country shuffle, with forgettable melodies and off-the-cuff arrangements that don’t do the already weak songs any favours. An impassioned vocal delivery throughout only makes it all more mystifying, but at least he’s not phoning in that part, even if everything else sounds like he’s wearing someone else’s clothes. Tellingly, the best song here is called “I Lost You.”

Costello remains a powerful performer and a knowledgeable TV host; can we please declare a moratorium on new material, however? (Nov. 11)

Download: “I Lost You,” “You Hung the Moon,” “Stations of the Cross”

Tanya Davis – Clocks and Hearts Keep Going (independent)

Halifax’s Tanya Davis is an award-winning poet—but unlike most award-winning poets, you’ve probably heard her work. Over 1.8 million people have viewed a short film she narrated for director Andrea Dorfman, called How To Be Alone. Few of those people, however, are aware that Davis is also a singer/songwriter, but this album—her third, and produced by Jim Bryson—is likely to change that. Despite her literary background, Davis isn’t a poet adapting herself to a song format; she knows how to write an earnest and simple melody and let the music do most of the talking. Simplicity is her strength, and never more so than on “Sweep the Dust,” a gorgeous and lilting adult lullaby. (Nov. 25)

Download: “Mourn Your Losses,” “Eulogy for You and Me,” “Sweep the Dust”

Brian Eno – Small Craft on a Milk Sea (Warp)

Though Eno’s recent solo albums, including a collaboration with David Byrne, were more song-oriented, Small Craft on a Milk Sea is an instrumental affair that balances the atmospherics of his ambient work with more percussive electronic pieces that, on songs like “2 Forces of Anger,” can occasionally veer into rock territory. All of which, for such a well-known and little understood cult figure, makes this the ultimate introduction into everything Brian Eno is about as an artist and sound sculptor, one whose work and wide influence has spanned 40 years. If you’ve ever had difficulty navigating his uneven discography, which even diehard fans do, this is a welcome summation—and not one that’s about retreading past glories, but one firmly rooted in the present and just as contemporary as anything heard from the current generation of artists, a generation born around the same time Eno was composing his Music For Airports.

Download: “Dust Shuffle,” “Small Craft on a Milk Sea,” “Paleosonic”

Bryan Ferry – Olympia (EMI)

Bryan Ferry made Roxy Music’s Avalon album in 1980. Bryan Ferry has made many records since; all of them sound like Avalon. Some are almost as good—1985’s Boys and Girls, 1994’s Mamouna—but really, let’s be honest, they were no Avalon. So on that spectrum, Olympia is one of Ferry’s better solo records, populated more with his own songs (co-written with the Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart) than covers that he usually has a tendency to butcher—not that that hasn’t stopped him over the course of his 13 solo albums, especially 2007’s Dylanesque; thankfully, his take on Tim Buckley’s "Song to the Siren" here is one of his better interpretations.

As expected, Ferry is a suave, sultry leading man; the music is seductive, even if, as always with Ferry, you always feel somewhat underdressed for his cocktail party—the glamour shot of Kate Moss on the cover doesn’t help. Bryan Ferry will always be classier than you and me.

The list of his classy collaborators is outstanding: Pink Floyd’s David Gilmore, Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea, Chic’s Nile Rodgers, Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, Groove Armada and the Scissor Sisters. Roxy Music fans will note the presence of that band’s Phil Manzanera, Andy Mackay and Brian Eno; though they were also present on Mamouna, some of these tracks were meant for a new Roxy Music album dating back to 2005.

As lovely as it all is, Ferry’s music still sounds more like a lifestyle accessory than anything else; maybe that’s all it has to be. Too bad it’s coming out before Destroyer’s early 2011 release Kaputt, which takes more than a few pages from Ferry’s solo career. (Nov. 4)

Download: “Heartache By Numbers,” “Shameless,” “Alphaville”

The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger – Acoustic Sessions (Chimera)

Sean Lennon’s solo records—while pleasant enough—were never more than a curiosity for the freakiest of Beatle freaks, so it’s no surprise his new project, with girlfriend and model Charlotte Kemp Muhl, doesn’t grant him marquee status. Yet it’s very much Lennon’s show; Muhl’s cooing voice might be higher in the mix, but these are Lennon’s songs and his years of musical experience (musical director for his mother, Yoko Ono, as well as collaborating with his previous girlfriend, Cibo Matto’s Yuka Honda) overshadow Muhl’s presence. The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger is a breezy affair—mostly acoustic, as the title indicates—with nods to Brazilian bossa nova and lightweight French pop music of the ’60s. As always with Lennon, there’s little here that says much about him as an artist as opposed to a craftsman; but without his name front and centre, perhaps that’s all he aims to be. (Nov. 4)

Download: “Lavender Road,” “Jardin du Luxembourg,” “Rainbows in Gasoline”

Cee-Lo Green – The Lady Killer (Warner)

Cee-Lo Green claims he wasn’t out to turn heads with his single “Fuck You,” which became a viral video hit this past summer. But if combining a bitter kiss-off with a classic-sounding soul song seems gimmicky—which it might be, but the strength of the song more than justifies it—the rest of The Lady Killer easily matches the momentum of what could have been a fluke hit.

The template of “Fuck You” is consistent with most of the rest of the album, with Green setting heartbroken, sometimes bitter, sometimes manipulative, sometimes just plain sad lyrics to upbeat, major-key melodies—which could also sum up 90 per cent of the Motown catalogue, really. And, as he did with Gnarls Barkley, there are times when he takes darker turns (“Bodies,” “Love Gun”), part of the mentally tormented persona that is part of all his songs.

That Green is an astounding soul singer is no secret; it was his voice, after all, that was central to the Gnarls Barkley smash hit single “Crazy.” But the material here finds him at full throttle, illustrating at times an almost operatic range. The music is firmly rooted in soul music from the ’60s to the ’90s, from Motown through Philly through Michael Jackson (the bass line in “Bright Lights Bigger City” is suspiciously similar to “Billie Jean”) to more modern technology—a trajectory that stops short before the likes of R. Kelly and Usher took R&B somewhere else entirely. But Green never sounds old-fashioned; he’s more of a renaissance man with a wide template to do whatever the f--- he wants. (Nov. 18)

Download: “Fuck You,” “It’s OK,” “Bright Lights Bigger City”

Kid Cudi – Man on the Moon II: The Legend of Mr. Rager (Universal)

Kid Cudi is a Kanye West protégé—but one that has certainly surpassed his mentor with this album. He is every bit as self-indulgent, and Man on the Moon II is just as much of a downer, mood-wise, as West’s latest. But musically, it’s a diverse and fascinating journey that sets Cudi apart from anyone else in proximity of mainstream hip-hop, including West; that Cudi is as big as he is seems almost miraculous, considering how outré his beats are.

Part of the reason for that is that Cudi is an admitted stoner; marijuana is his drug of choice, although there are others mentioned here, too. And just like drugs themselves, Kid Cudi is best in small doses; Man on the Moon II is far too long and Cudi eventually wears out his welcome, as stoners are wont to do. But being the introspective navel-gazer that he is, Cudi is well aware of the pitfalls of his chosen lifestyle, and this album sounds like a reckoning, a snapshot of an artist in transition. If he can begin to emerge from his own fog, Cudi could be one of the major hip-hop artists of the new decade—if he isn’t already. (Nov. 25)

Download: “The Mood,” “Wild’n Cuz I’m Young,” “Mr. Rager”

Doug Paisley – Constant Companion (No Quarter)

Soft-spoken male singer/songwriters are a dime a dozen; precious few have the magic that elevate them above that wispy din you hear in the corner of your local coffeehouse. And then there is Doug Paisley.

Presumably no relation to Brad, it’s hard to imagine this Toronto performer ever raising his voice above a soft croon. His own guitar work is compelling enough alone as accompaniment, but he manages to rope in members of The Band (Garth Hudson), Blue Rodeo (Bazil Donovan), and Feist, who duets on “Don’t Make Me Wait.” There are more than a few stylistic similarities to Toronto’s suddenly quite popular Bahamas—with whom Paisley is currently touring—but while that band’s Afie Jurvanen is known just as much for his guitar playing as his songwriting, with Paisley it is all about the song.

Any one of the nine tracks heard here sound like a long-lost, dusty ’70s classic best suited for a Sunday morning hangover. Doug Paisley will not be a secret for much longer; this is easily one of the best singer/songwriter albums of the last year. (Nov. 25)

Download: "Always Say Goodbye," "No One But You," "Come Here My Love"

Steven Page – Page One (Warner)

If you wanted to, you could try and analyze Steven Page’s first proper solo album for insight into the tumultuous past few years of his life, which include a divorce, a drug bust, and leaving one of the most successful Canadian bands of the last 20 years (who released an album without him earlier this year).

But why would you? Page has always specialized in writing in a specific voice; many of his best songs have always been self-contained narratives and neurotic character portraits, and this album is no different. Playing guessing games with the lyrics is far less enjoyable than sitting back and appreciating a well-crafted pop album, which has only ever been Page’s aim since the early days of the Barenaked Ladies.

Now that he’s not performing under a name that most adults were embarrassed to pronounce out loud, Page hasn’t suddenly gone serious: instead, he seems ready to try anything, from big band (“Leave Hear Alone”) to Eurodisco (“Queen of America”) to string quartets (“All the Young Monogamists”) to Burt Bacharach-style sweet pop (“Clifton Springs”) to ambitiously big ballads (“The Chorus Girl”) to songs that could easily have been Barenaked Ladies songs (“Indecision,” “She’s Trying to Save Me”). Oddly enough, the only time he ever sounds derivative is on “Over Joy,” a song that sounds specifically like an outtake from Blue Rodeo’s Casino album—albeit a good one.

Throughout, Page sounds reinvigorated and ready for the next phase of his career—which, based on Page One, is unlikely to be overshadowed by earlier successes. (Nov. 4)

Download: “Over Joy,” “The Chorus Girl,” “All the Young Monogamists”

Rihanna – Loud (Universal)

On one of the vocal powerhouse showcases here, Rihanna tells her lover: “Everything with you is complicated / you’re not easy to love.”

You don’t say. The tough young Barbadian with big pop hooks who blew up large on 2007’s Good Girl Gone Bad returned with a limp pop album, 2009’s Rated R, that diluted her strengths and failed to produce even a couple of memorable songs. Loud is not only a return to form—full of catchy pop melodies that should keep its singles on the charts for another year—but it’s a more musically mature record that finds the often robotic singer letting loose a bit; on tracks like “Complicated” and lead single “Only Girl in the World,” she goes for the gusto and pulls it off.

Lyrically, however, this good girl is still trying to prove how bad she is, and that’s where Loud runs into trouble. Lead-off track “SAndM” is about exactly what you think it is, its chorus using a joke that only schoolchildren find racy: “Sticks and stones may break my bones but chains and whips excite me.” It’s set to one of the one of the more gripping club beats here, and wouldn’t be out of place on a Peaches album. But after the 2009 tabloid frenzy that made Rihanna one of the most visible victims of domestic abuse—at the hand of her then-boyfriend Chris Brown—it’s more than a bit disconcerting to hear her singing about masochism.

Mind you, that’s child’s play compared to her straight-up domestic-abuse duet with Eminim, “I Love the Way You Lie”; his version was already a hit this summer; here, she presents it more as a straight-up song without any annoying intrusion from—oh wait, there he is at the end. If the S&M of the opening track is playful, “I Love the Way You Lie” is downright disturbing, and not just because of Eminem’s detailed description of a mutually abusive relationship, but—again—hearing current pop music’s most high-profile battery victim sing: “Just going to stand there and watch me burn? / That’s all right because I like the way it hurts.” Granted, she also sings about her own murderous revenge on the dancehall-tinged “Man Down,” so maybe all is fair in love and war and pop art. But it’s sure going to be hard to explain all these complicated gender politics to all the pre-teens who love Rihanna. (Nov. 18)

Download: "SAndM," "Complicated," "Only Girl in the World"

John K. Samson – Provincial Road 222 / City Route 85 (Anti)

The first time I heard “Stop Error,” a song from John K. Samson’s Provincial Road 222 EP, I though the Weakerthans’ singer/songwriter had gone batshit crazy. The pop punk songwriter, whose voice can best be described as nasal, leads an all-choral arrangements of a madrigal that begins with the lyrics: “My monitor is broken” and goes on to speak of HTML tags, the theme music of Call of Duty 4 and assorted technological breakdowns. But once expectations had been shattered, “Stop Error” actually turns out to be brilliant—not because of the lovely choral arrangements, but in the way Samson’s befuddled narrator starts to see the patterns of flawed logic of his broken computer in the workings of the world around him.

Samson’s songwriting has always sounded worlds away from other bands who happen to sound like the Weakerthans; therefore, it’s not surprising that freed from any musical constraints, his songwriting is just as effective, affecting and poignant. Anything goes on Provincial Road 222; on the earlier EP City Route 85 (released last fall) Samson travels the more conventional solo singer/songwriter route. Both are part of a series he says will explore “the atmospheric streets and highways surrounding Winnipeg.” And if you missed Samson touring as part of the Correction Line Ensemble, with his wife Christine Fellows and four classical musicians, reliable rumour has it that it was quite a treat and a whole other beast altogether. (Nov. 11)

Download: “Stop Error,” “The Last And,” “Heart of the Continent”

Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (Universal)

Kanye West could be heard apologizing for past behaviour recently, making amends with Taylor Swift and admitting that he’s been a bit of a jerk. So now we should see a kinder, gentler Kanye West, yes? Not really. In one of the more (unintentionally?) hilarious boasts heard here, West retorts: “I don’t need your pussy, bitch, I’m on my own dick.” Whatever—he’s certainly crawled up his own ass.

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, is, as expected, remarkably indulgent, juvenile, and, well, boring. There are certainly no pop songs on the level of “Gold Digger” or “Stronger”; the most arresting tracks—“Power” and “Monster”—here are too profane for pop radio and have too many cameos to make them great Kanye West singles. And for every moment of musical brilliance, there’s a song like “Runaway,” a nine-minute epic that ends with an interminable guitar solo—which is actually West’s (or someone’s) voice run through a distortion pedal (and likely AutoTune as well).

Lyrically, West spends his sex-obsessed time drunk driving, getting slapped with restraining orders, and fantasizing about porn stars, eventually suggesting: “Let’s have a toast for the douchebags, let’s have a toast for the assholes.”

Maybe it’s too easy to take literally; maybe it’s all a massive orgy of self-parody. But who cares? The only lasting impression comes from the chorus of “So Appalled,” where West and Jay-Z point out: “You know this shit is fucking ridiculous.” But if it is, then what’s up with the gratuitous gravitas of the Gil Scott-Heron sample that closes the album, on a 90-second snippet called “Who Will Survive in America?” (Answer: the narcissists, apparently.)

Why anyone—least of all Taylor Swift or a former president of the United States—cares about Kanye West’s opinion on anything is mystifying. The man used to be a fantastic producer; now he is only so merely occasionally. He also used to be funny; now he sounds consistently mean and bitter. Every time he steps to a microphone, on stage or off stage, the man is increasingly embarrassing, a victim of his own hubris. And yet, we only seem to be rewarding him even more—look, I just wasted 400 words on the asshole. (Nov. 25)

Download: “Power,” “All of the Lights,” “Monster”