Showing posts with label Sam Roberts. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Sam Roberts. Show all posts

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

February 2014 reviews

Highly recommended this month: Adrian Raso with Fanfare Ciocarlia

Worth your while: Wet Secrets, Sam Roberts, Freedom Writers, New Mendicants

These reviews appeared in the Waterloo Record and Guelph Mercury earlier this month.

Beck – Morning Phase (Capitol)

Apparently Morning Phase involves not having yet left the bed. Beck’s first album in six years (and first good one in almost 10) finds him struggling to find his own pulse. The sluggish tempos aren’t the problem; his 2002 album Sea Change was a full-on bummer of a record, albeit beautiful, and containing some of his finest songs. Morning Phase, on the other hand, is Beck at his most marble-mouthed, surrounded by amazing studio musicians who are called upon to do—well, not much of anything. The not-terribly-originally titled "Blue Moon" conjures some pleasant Pet Sounds moments, but it stands out from the rest of this pack merely because it’s remotely interesting psychedelic folk. Sad-ass strings milk the melancholy for all its worth, but come off as the emotionally manipulative soundtrack to a 10-hanky tearjerker rather than a worthy successor to Nick Drake, which appears to be the mood Beck is after here. By the time he gets to a song called “Turn Away,” I’m ready to take his advice. Especially during the same week that new records by Neneh Cherry and St. Vincent show up. (Feb. 27)

Download: “Blue Moon,” “Say Goodbye,” “Turn Away”

Broken Bells – After the Disco (Columbia)

Broken Bells is James Mercer of the Shins and Danger Mouse of—well, of a lot of your favourite records of the last 10 years (Gnarls Barkley, Black Keys, Gorillaz). They’re talented men. Their attention to minute sonic detail is impeccable. They both know a thing or two about songwriting. But you knew that already.

What’s striking about the second Broken Bells album is how almost exactly half the album is inspired, engaging and brilliant—and then the other half sounds like they kind of gave up. When it succeeds, After the Disco marries delicate acoustic guitars with electronics, string sections, drum machines and—surprisingly—bass lines driving the instrumentation, whether it’s a disco song, a ballad, an obvious Bee Gees homage (“Holding On For Life”) or something in between. When it flops, it sounds like a lot of fancy toys and no one to play them. (Feb. 6)

Download: “After the Disco,” “Perfect World,” “Holding On For Life”

Egyptrixx – A/B Til Infinity (Night Slugs)

You can practically hear the dripping neon. Toronto producer David Psutka, aka Egyptrixx, creates industrial, ambient electronic music that reeks of ’80s futurism. It’s a few small steps from Vangelis’s Blade Runner score, ominous and eerie and existing in a suspended state: Psutka resists throwing a thumping bass drum beneath these tracks. Indeed, there’s very little bass at all, just a lot of sounds from an archaic ’80s Roland DX7 synthesizer, including the cheesy yet haunting digital choir patch. Psutka was collaborating with a visual artist in Berlin while making this record; the artist works with fluorescent lights, images of Martian landscapes and what looks like molten lava. The music here is equally amorphous, melodic yet ephemeral—and as lovely as it is downright creepy. (Feb. 20)

Download: “Disorbital,” “Water,” “Alta Civilization”

Neil Finn – Dizzy Heights (Lester)

The Crowded House bandleader keeps himself busy with plenty of projects—with his brother and Split Enz bandmate Tim in the Finn Brothers, with his wife in Pajama Club, and with a reformed Crowded House—so this is only the third solo release in his storied career. Here, he turns to modern psychedelic wizard Dave Fridmann, the sonic architect behind the Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev, Tame Impala and MGMT, to immerse the Beatlesque songwriter in rich soundscapes.

On paper, it sounds like a perfect match. But Finn’s songwriting skills haven’t aged well—nothing he’s done since Crowded House’s heyday, including the band’s two reunion discs, holds up to those first four albums. Fridmann and Finn share production credit, so hopefully not all the good ideas here are Fridmann’s, but it might sound that way to any Flaming Lips fan. Especially when Finn tries on an ill-fitting falsetto, ala the Lips’ Wayne Coyne, on "Divebomber"; he fares much better in brothers Gibb territory on "Recluse." (The Bee Gees are clearly on a comeback in the zeitgeist. See also: the new Broken Bells album.)

If you dive in not expecting the quality of songcraft on which Finn made his name, it’s a decent collection of adult pop. But it feels like Fridmann could have made this record with anyone. (Feb. 20)

Download: “Recluse,” “Flying in the Face of Love,” “White Lies and Alibis”

Freedom Writers – Now (independent)

The list of great Canadian hip-hop records is too short; the list of great Canadian political hip-hop records is minuscule, if it exists at all. The Freedom Writers may not have much competition, but even if they did, this record would be sure to come out on top.

This is a collective of Toronto MCs—Tona, Adam Bomb, Frankie Payne, Theo 3 and Progress, with occasional guest Mathematik— and producer Big Sproxx, who set pointed critiques and manifestos to music: “I make red, black and green face-mask music / I make First Nation genocide retribution music / Nat Turner, slave revolt / Rakim, Paid in Full.” Aside from the potent language and expected swipes at more lightweight hip-hop (“I see you making hella hits but you should rebel a bit”), Freedom Writers dig deeper—unlike most political posturers, you get the impression these guys *actually read newspapers*: “Water levels rise / hire more cops / Lord of the Flies / Piggy’s on top / A wolf in disguise eats from the flock / The revolution is televised / See it on Fox.”

Not to suggest they’re po-faced sourpusses. Big Sproxx packs his tracks with big, brassy samples, some serious scratching skills, and the five MCs have a winning chemistry that’s all too rare these days, when hip-hop groups are an endangered species and guest MCs phone in their cameos. They’re also not exclusively political; there’s a much broader emotional spectrum here than that, but that’s when they pack their biggest punches. (Feb. 6)

Download: “Separation,” “Never Give Up,” “Arizona Bay”

Fresh Snow – I (Reel Cod)

This instrumental Toronto quartet wanted to make an album inspired by the ’70s German experimental group Neu!, by recording a long jam session shortly after the band formed. So many ideas came out of that one session that engineer Tim Condon and guitarist Brad Davis slowly assembled the various motifs and sounds in the studio and sculpted them into actual songs, inviting string and wind players to enhance the melodic elements while allowing squalls of feedback and droning keyboards to inject chaos into the creation. And so this debut album by a noisy, experimental improv act is surprisingly polished. If they can extract this much from one six-hour jam, their future looks promising indeed. (Feb. 20)

Download: "Helix Pass," "Your Thirst For Magic Has Been Quenched By Death!," "To a Sea"

The New Mendicants – s/t (Ashmont)

Joe Pernice, Norman Blake and Mike Belitsky have formed a new group. To most people, this is not only not news, the names don’t even register. All are members of underappreciated bands of the last two decades: Pernice with the alt-country act the Scud Mountain Boys and folk-pop Pernice Brothers, Blake with the Scottish power-pop veterans Teenage Fanclub. Only drummer Belitsky, as the drummer in the venerable and ubiquitous Ontario favourites the Sadies, might look familiar.

Both Pernice, a Boston native, and Blake moved to Ontario for love. They recently became neighbours in Toronto, around the corner from Belitsky. (Until recently, Blake had been living in Kitchener.) Within minutes of their first kitchen session, the story goes, Pernice and Blake were booking recording dates. No wonder: their voices blend beautifully together. Comparisons to the Byrds are inevitable, but not made lightly; Pernice and Blake hit that sweet spot between English folk and California pop that few bands since the Byrds have pulled off. The music is consistently lovely; the lyrics, however, are not nearly as sunny. “You look so young at the ledge on the edge of December” doesn’t lend itself to sing-alongs on a summer day with a warm breeze. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Blake is on a roll, even though Teenage Fanclub’s output has slowed to a trickle. His last album, released in 2011 under the name Jonny, was another collaborative effort, with Euros Childs of Welsh pop weirdos Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci. It wasn’t that far removed from this album. Maybe Pernice and Blake should invite Childs into this fold to flesh out the live harmonies, and make him a Mendicant next time around. There can never be too much of a good thing. (Feb. 13) 

Download: “Cruel Annette,” “Shouting Match,” “Out of the Lime”

No - El Prado (Arts and Crafts)

For everyone who’s ever hated the band Yes, here comes hot new L.A. band No!

But seriously, folks, for everyone who wishes The National would release two new albums in the space of 12 months, here comes hot new L.A. band No. With a baritone singer and a flair for dark drama set to stadium-size alt-rock anthems, No seem tailor-made for the modern zeitgeist. That’s not their fault. They do it very well—arguably better than The National themselves; they’re certainly less narcoleptic. They should soak it up while they can. But stop them if you’ve heard all their songs before. (Feb. 20)

Download: “Monday,” “Leave the Door Wide Open,” “What’s Your Name”

Adrian Raso and Fanfare Ciocarlia – Devil’s Tale (Asphalt Tango)

I’ll admit: it’s been a while since I’ve lived in Guelph. When I was there, I knew Adrian Raso only as the guitar teacher at Guelph Music, whose fiery fingers were mostly put to work on wailing heavy metal leads (which he still does, with his rock band the Big Idea). Not my bag. What I didn’t know was that his career had blossomed to the point where he’s collaborated with Prince percussionist Sheila E. and members of the Stray Cats and Extreme. More important, I had no idea he had an acoustic side of him that revered Django Reinhardt’s style of gypsy jazz.

It’s that pursuit that led to this collaboration with arguably the best Balkan brass band in the world, the 12-piece Fanfare Ciocarlia, who hail from a remote region of Romania. They specialize in a blistering, relentless tempos and virtuosic display. It’s hard to imagine them taking a back seat to anyone, never mind a Guelph guitar teacher. It’s just as hard to imagine Raso carving out a space for himself amidst Fanfare Ciocarlia, who have played together for decades.

And yet: both camps meet here as complementary equals. Neither is here to upstage the other. Even though Raso’s fingerwork can match the brass players 16th note for 16th note, more importance is placed here on the actual songs and group dynamic. We know these people are all incredible; they don’t feel they have to prove it in every phrase. On the track “Spiritissimo,” Raso even makes room for another guitar hero, Rodrigo Sanchez, of Rodrigo y Gabriela, with whom he shares a similar love of metal shredding and flamenco.

Now: can someone help Raso bring Fanfare Ciocarlia to the Guelph Jazz Festival this fall? If so, that town will never be the same. (Feb. 6)

Download: “Quatro Cicci,” “Devil’s Tale,” “Spiritissimo”

Sam Roberts – Lo-Fantasy (Universal)

Sam Roberts’s breakthrough 2002 single, “Brother Down,” owed as much of its success to its stripped down, percussive arrangement as it did to its singalong hook. Roberts and his band subsequently turned toward less imaginative guitar rock, but their last release, 2011’s Collider, displayed an Afrobeat influence and more emphasis on rhythm.

Here, Roberts gets all groovy on us. Opening track “Shapeshifters” sounds like INXS on a good day; the second track, “We’re All In This Together,” recalls the Stone Roses, of all people, the 1990 sensation that hyperbolic Brits will still try and convince you redefined rock and dance music forever. (They did not.) On hand to help is British producer Youth (Killing Joke, The Verve, Paul McCartney), who told Roberts to stop clinging to ideas hashed out on his home demos; everything was ripped up and put back together in the studio, and it’s no doubt a stronger record because of it. In the midst of that creative chaos, his band never relies on lazy rock arrangements. I don’t know what they’ve all been up to in the past three years, but they’ve become versatile studio sidemen, the likes of which Daft Punk could call to take on the road with them. They’re now much more than a dime-a-dozen Canadian bar band.

Of course, Roberts is not the only Montreal rock artist to be found on the dance floor lately, and there are moments here that wouldn’t be out of place on Arcade Fire’s Reflektor. If anything, Roberts has taken the rousing anthems of Funeral and set them to a Reflektor beat in ways that even Arcade Fire themselves don’t entirely pull off. Most importantly, he’s come up with 11 tracks that comprise the best album of his career, all but guaranteed to dominate pop radio in 2014 and be road-tested in time for summer festival season. (Feb. 13) 

Download: “Metal Skin,” “Human Heat,” “Too Far”

Warpaint – s/t (Rough Trade)

It’s February. Valentine’s Day. It’s cold and miserable outside. Maybe you’re lonely. What do you need? Something that sounds like Warpaint. But not necessarily Warpaint.

Warpaint are four ladies from L.A. who were formed—on Valentine’s Day, actually—10 years ago. They’ve toured with The XX, worked with Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist John Frusciante, and this, their second album and first for a large indie, was produced by Flood (U2, Nine Inch Nails) and mixed by Nigel Godrich (Radiohead, Beck). While it’s—obviously—well-produced, Warpaint still sound embryonic. Granted, it’s abstract, delicate music, and owes more than a few debts to early Cat Power.

Warpaint are not great players, with the exception of drummer Stella Mozgawa, who anchors most of the more airy moments here. They effectively conjure atmosphere and texture, and when they gel, it’s seductive and satisfying (and reminiscent of the early ’90s Golden Palominos albums featuring Lori Carson, if that means anything to you). Over the course of the entire record, however, they sound not just lethargic—nothing wrong with that—but lazy. There’s a lot to love here, but not nearly enough to make you want to get out of bed. (Feb. 6)

Download: “Love is To Die,” “Disco // very,” “Son”

The Wet Secrets – Free Candy (Rawlco)

The Wet Secrets are a band from Edmonton who wear marching-band outfits, boast a mean horn section, and were favourites on CBC Radio 3 way back in 2007 with snotty pop-punk anthems like “Get Your Own Apartment” and “Grow Your Own F--king Moustache.” Seven years later, bandleader Lyle Bell is sober, less snarky and taking the group as seriously as you can take a band called the Wet Secrets. The outfits are still there, but the horns take a back seat to spacey keyboards, female backing vocals and fuzzed out guitars. Atypical for the genre, the lyrics are hardly flippant or flaccid: “I’ve seen the fire in the eyes of the darkest souls who own the night,” starts one song. The peppy “Sunshine” has a chorus that goes, “I want to die in the sunshine in the city.” Bell is experienced enough not to tolerate any ramshackle sloppiness: every drum fill and organ chord is carefully placed, without sacrificing any rock’n’roll energy. The result is one of the finest garage rock records to come out of this country in recent years. (Feb. 13) 

Download: “Nightlife,” “Animals in Disguise,” “Death of the Party”

Monday, May 30, 2011

May '11 reviews

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

Austra – Feel It Break (Paper Bag)

Toronto singer Katie Stelmanis has been an opera student, a feminist punk (Galaxy), a member of a folkie choir (Bruce Peninsula) and a solo artist struggling to navigate harsh electronic sounds with her songwriting vision.

Now that she’s emerged on the international stage leading the band Austra, Stelmanis delivers a fully formed, confident album wrapped up in ’80s goth and new wave. Her aesthetic doesn’t succumb to cheap irony or a fashion statement: Stelmanis is deadly serious, and except for the piano heard on closing track “The Beast,” she constructs an entirely artificial, evocative soundscape for her haunting songs. As an opera kid, she doesn’t hesitate to unleash her full vocal power; she’s a much more dynamic and less shrill singer than she was on her 2008 solo album she released under her own name.

Even though there’s no escaping the onslaught of synths, the input of percussionist Maya Postepski and bassist Dorian Wolf (formerly of Spiral Beach) animates the music beyond the icy exterior, especially on the surefire single “Beat and the Pulse,” and at times Stelmanis even sounds playful with her vocal arrangements. The lyrics are best avoided (“Sign! The! Consent forms!”; “I want your blood / I want to eat my hair”), but with a voice like Stelmanis’s and the sound world she creates around it, they’re barely noticeable. (May 26)

Download: “Lose It,” “Beat and the Pulse,” “Spellwork”

Beastie Boys – Hot Sauce Committee Part Two (EMI)

Once a hip-hop group plateaus, rarely, if ever, do they step back on their game. So after a decade that included a spinning-wheels hip-hop album, a lacklustre instrumental album, Adam Yauch’s battle with cancer, and a two-year-old scrapped release date for an album called Hot Sauce Committee Part One, there was little reason to expect that they’d come back swinging with an album that’s easily their best since the 1992 classic Check Your Head.

As on that album, the Beasties sound hungry here: they’ve got something to prove, and there’s no time to mess around. No two tracks here sound alike. When they strap on their punk rock guitars (“Lee Majors Come Again”), they sound like bratty 20-year-olds again. When they detour into Jamaican rock steady with singer Santigold (“Don’t Play No Game That I Can’t Win”), they’re confident and capable genre jumpers who feel right at home in a new suit. When they drop an instrumental track (“Multilateral Nuclear Disarmament”), their funk sounds futuristic rather than retro. When they get wiggy on “Tadlock’s Glasses,” they take their abstract psychedelic hip-hop to places that their many previous journeys into abstract psychedelic hip-hop—and there have been quite a few, making a genre they have almost entirely to themselves—had yet to go.

The Beasties aren’t revisiting past glories, nor are they trying to play catch-up with acts more than half their age. Instead, they openly cop to their grandpa status and rap about sipping Persecco, while musically they borrow from the best and invent the rest, solidifying their status as iconoclasts. (May 5)

Download: “Make Some Noise,” “Don’t Play No Game That I Can’t Win,” “Multilateral Nuclear Disarmament”

The Cars – Move Like This (Universal)

The worst thing you can say about the new album by the Cars—the first album in 23 years by the new wave pop band of the late ’70s—is that it sounds too much like the Cars. To name but one example, “Sad Song” has the same guitar sound, the same handclaps, the same drum beat, the same synthesizer, and the same laconic vocals as many of their greatest hits from the first three albums. The ballad “Soon” is as good, if not better, than their mid-’80s smash hit “Drive.”

Singer Ric Ocasek might be in his mid-60s, but he still sounds like a disaffected young punk. The songs he crafted for this comeback are a distillation of every hit he’s ever written—or even produced, for that matter, as fans of Weezer will attest (Ocasek produced that band’s “blue” and “green” self-titled albums). Getting these Cars on the road again, it’s obvious what an influence they’ve had on every kind of power pop in the last 30 years—even on artists as different as No Doubt (which Ocasek also produced) and LCD Soundsystem (which he did not), as the opening track "Blue Tip" illustrates.

Ocasek throws everything he has into 10 concise pop songs that easily rival the group’s classic 1978 debut. There are no attempts to update their sound or do something different. Why should there be? Everyone loves vintage Cars. (May 12)

Download: “Blue Tip,” “Soon,” “Sad Song”

Danger Mouse and Daniele Luppi – Rome (EMI)

Perhaps it’s fitting that for an album posing as a soundtrack to a non-existent film, appearances are everything. Here we have a superstar American producer, Danger Mouse (Broken Bells, Gnarls Barkley), teaming up with an Italian film composer, Daniele Luppi, along with A-list cameos from Jack White and Norah Jones, all setting up camp in the same studio in Rome where master composer Ennio Morricone recorded many of his greatest scores.

That all looks good on paper, and Rome sounds fantastic from a purely aesthetic standpoint: the production is impeccable, the orchestration and use of choral voices is delicate and lovely. But compared to what is trying to be achieved here, the music on Rome doesn’t really measure up to its points of inspiration or even, say, a half-decent record by Air, or Beck doing one of his homages to Serge Gainsbourg’s Ballade de Melodie Nelson.

Jones and White provide pleasant distractions, offering a few anchor moments to an album that otherwise fades easily into the background (which, arguably, a great soundtrack should do anyway). White is clearly having some fun with the role-playing—especially when his lyrics for “The Rose With the Broken Neck” contain so many non-sequitur metaphors that one wonders if he was intentionally trying to write English lyrics like an ESL Italian writer might.

Rome might make me want to go out and rent a Fellini movie or buy a Morricone record or book a plane ticket—or maybe just savour a fine espresso—but I’m not sure I need to hear it again. (May 26)

Download: “Theme of ‘Rome,’ ” “The Rose With the Broken Neck,” “Problem Queen”

Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues (Sub Pop)

If you fell in love with Fleet Foxes’ flawless debut, Helplessness Blues offers mostly diminishing returns. Bandleader Robin Pecknold has been quoted extensively talking about how laborious the writing and recording was, in part because the band’s unexpected popularity kept skyrocketing and delaying the process. As a result, the songs often sound second-guessed and overcooked, not the naturally flowing magic that was so present the first time around. The only time they sound like they’re stretching out a bit is when free jazz saxophones start skronking in “Blue-Spotted Tail”; it’s a nice touch, if not a bit bewildering. It’s a quick distraction from the fact that as lovely as those harmonies are, they can’t carry an album on their own. (May 12)

Download: “Helplessness Blues,” “Montezuma,” “Lorelei”

Gorillaz – The Fall (EMI)

Damon Albarn doesn’t do anything small—or does he?

Most Gorillaz albums involve all sorts of stunt casting of superstars, and their 2010 arena tour featured upwards of 30 people on stage, from hip-hop MCs to African musicians to two members of The Clash to a full New Orleans brass band. Yet this album, released online last Christmas and getting a physical release now, finds Albarn alone in his hotel room or in the back of the tour bus, with only his tablet computer and some synthesizers. Most tracks were made in one day, each at a different tour stop, and the album unfolds in the order of recording during the month of October 2010.

And so the most popular project among Albarn’s many tangential pursuits—Gorillaz have sold millions of albums and scored several Grammys—delivers a low-key, downtempo, 2 a.m. album that sounds like Albarn’s personal post-adrenalin dreamstate as he cruises the highways of North America. It’s a consistently weird, disembodied experience. But that consistency works in its favour, whereas the three previous Gorillaz albums suffered from too many ideas competing to make a pastiche of pop music based in the kind of borderless utopia that Albarn promotes outside the band with his impeccably curated record label, Honest Jon’s.

The Fall is content to exist in its own world, a Zooropean vision of America filtered through an entirely digital lens. The gospel-tinged trip-hop track “Revolving Doors” is the closest Albarn gets to a pop song here; everything else is a fleeting snippet of a synth squiggle, a disembodied country song, or eerily robotic Muzak. The one acoustic song, featuring just legendary soul singer Bobby Womack and an acoustic guitar, somehow fits in seamlessly, despite its apparent incongruity—the kind of trick that Gorillaz keep trying on all their other albums, yet for the first time there’s nothing here that sounds remotely self-conscious.

The Fall is what it is, and it’s a lovely, curious little thing. (May 5)

Download: “Revolving Doors,” “Little Pink Plastic Bags,” “Bobby in Phoenix”

Man Man – Life Fantastic (Anti)

“If you gotta smash some plates to relax, do it, do it, do it!”

The members of Man Man (yes, they’re all men) no doubt take their own advice, judging by the joyous delerium of their live show, which finds frontman Honus Honus leaping off his seat to pound on his piano, while his bandmates assault various percussion instruments. It’s a cathartic experience for band and audience alike, though it would be a stretch to call it relaxing.

On past albums, like the excellent 2006 release Six Demon Bag, Man Man were manic, with their more violent tendencies tempered by tango, Balkan and cabaret influences. It could get a bit cartoonish; 2008’s Rabbit Habits—their first release on a high-profile label—started to sound like a parody of themselves.

Which is why Life Fantastic sounds so glorious: it takes all the madness and kitchen-sink approach of their early albums and brings it down several notches. Producer Mike Mogis (Bright Eyes) helps them focus and find the beauty that’s always lurked on the edge of their rough and raw approach. But if some of their edges have softened somewhat, Man Man remains a unique and powerful band brimming with personality and originality. Clarinets, marimbas, banjos, string sections and the insanely inventive drumming of the man known only as Pow Pow all collide and coalesce in unexpected arrangements that, even in their occasional dissonance, never hit a wrong note. With a new Man Man album this good to behold, life is fantastic indeed. (May 12)

Download: “Shameless,” “Piranhas Club,” “Dark Arts”

Moby – Destroyed (EMI)

His mainstream success now a distant memory, Moby’s albums have become more personal and intimate; 2009’s lovely Wait For Me was a surprisingly strong return to form after years of pandering. Likewise, Destroyed is Moby’s ode to what Bruce Springsteen calls “the wee, wee hours” when the rest of the world sleeps, where those doomed to be awake find themselves witnessing a disembodied, alienating and occasionally magical vision of the world. The soundtrack to that existence, in Moby’s hands, is full of ghostly synths, vocoders and beats that sound pillowy even at accelerated tempos.

But it also sounds like Moby dusted off some tracks he found from 1993; he’s done all of this before, and better—and so have dozens of innovative new producers working similar territory who are biting at his heels (2010 albums by Pantha du Prince and Trentemoller spring immediately to mind). The vocal tracks try too hard to tie together his insomnia theme far too literally, whether it’s Moby himself singing or one of the four female vocalists here.

If he’s trying to replicate the monotonous experience of homogenous hotel rooms around the world: mission accomplished. Why he thought anyone would want to experience that in their own carefully curated home—or anywhere else but one of those hotels—is anyone’s guess. (May 26)

Download: “Be the One,” “Rockets,” “Lie Down in Darkness”

Sam Roberts Band– Collider (Secret Brain/Universal)

Sam Roberts is a mensch among Canadian musicians: all-around good guy, a good-looking guy at that, and creator of some of the breeziest CanRock singles of the last decade. And initial news of this, his fourth album, sounded promising: his band decamped to Chicago to work with producer Brian Deck, known for his inventive work with Iron & Wine, Modest Mouse and Califone. First single “The Last Crusade,” which features a punchy horn section, suggested that Roberts had been listening to some vintage West African funk that had crept into his sound in a supple and subtle way.

But there is no serious reinvention here; sadly, there’s not much inventiveness at all. Even at his weakest moments, Roberts can usually deliver decent pop songs, but over half of the tracks here fall flat. Then again, that’s about the usual ratio for Roberts—even his smash hit debut album didn’t contain more than an EP’s worth of solid material. Whenever Roberts is ripe enough for a greatest hits album, it will no doubt be his defining artistic statement, and several tracks here may well be on it; until then, minor tweaks of his sound can’t carry a full album. (May 26)

Download: “The Last Crusade,” “Without a Map,” “Streets of Heaven”

J. Rocc – Some Cold Rock Stuff (Stones Throw)

Before DJ Shadow’s 1998 classic Endtroducing, turntablist albums were mostly showboating affairs stuffed with scratch-happy pyrotechnics—like Yngwie Malmsteen albums for hip-hop heads. Endtroducing was the game-changer, a cinematic masterpiece. Since then—what? Some Kid Koala albums that are easier to respect than to love, and a grossly underrated avant-garde tour-de-force by Toronto’s Insideamind, 2008’s Scatterpopia. That’s why this debut solo album by J. Rocc sounds like such a breath of fresh air.

J. Rocc came up in the ’90s as part of the Beat Junkies, a turntablist crew who helped keep the art alive, but as a solo artist he’s less interested in showing off scratch technique or elaborate construction. Instead, Some Cold Rock Stuff is an original hip-hop blend of Bollywood funk, Brazilian tropicalia, jazz, disco, downtempo and anything else he wants to throw into the mix, all the while sounding refreshing and original. He’s neither a retro throwback nor a forward-thinking futurist; instead, he’s a craftsman, a master instrumentalist creating a well-rounded album for every mood and taste. (May 5)

Download: “Don’t Sell Your Dream (Tonight),” “Party,” “Play This (Also)”

Raphael Saddiq – Stone Rollin’ (Sony)

At this year’s Grammy Awards, a tribute to the late great soul singer Solomon Burke was led by Raphael Saddiq, a wickedly talented singer, guitarist, songwriter and producer whose career has evolved from ’80s teen idol in Tony Toni Tone to a hip-hop hybrid in Lucy Pearl to a retro soul man. Unfortunately, the Grammy organizers not only didn’t introduce Saddiq by name, they relegated him to second banana status while Mick Jagger strutted out and made it all about himself instead.

But never mind the Rolling Stone; focus instead on Stone Rollin’. Saddiq opens his latest solo album with “Heart Attack,” a garage-y rave-up that sounds like a hybrid of Sly Stone and CCR, and the rest of the album is just as raw and refreshing. Saddiq is normally a slick guy; this sounds like he’s loosened up considerably, turned up his guitar amps, and whipped a band into shape to knock out one live take after another in the studio.

Though Stax-era soul music is the prime inspiration here, Saddiq dips back deeper to ’50s rock’n’roll and Chicago blues. His voice—and what a voice it is—is laced with a tiny bit of distortion here, and he’s more than happy to grunt, snort and whoop it up everywhere he can; this a side of the usually smooth Saddiq that we haven’t heard before. Stone Rollin’ is not all rough and tumble, though; there are some string sections and softer moments that make this more than just a lost weekend in the garage.

Raphael Saddiq may be one of the last great soul men alive. And because he’s at least 20 years younger than the soul greats of the ’60s, he may hold that title for a long, long time. (May 19)

Download: “Heart Attack,” “Daydreams,” “Stone Rollin’”

Sloan – The Double Cross (Murder)

When celebrating your 20th anniversary, the last thing you want is people wondering: are they still around? Or worse: why are they still around? Sloan provide definitive answers to both by coming out swinging on their tenth album.

For a band that has always prided itself on being a four-way democracy, there have always been albums where someone isn’t pulling their weight. This is not one of them: every member brings their best game to the table, not just individually—they’ve had a tendency to retreat to their silos in the past—but together, as on the Chris Murphy/Andrew Scott song “She’s Slowing Down Again,” or the way some songs cross-pollinate, inserting a chorus of one into the coda of another. Jay Ferguson, the most consistent Sloan songwriter of the last decade, once again scores the album’s sweetest spots, and Patrick Pentland’s rockers sound much more inspired here than he has lately.

If anniversaries are a moment for self-examination, this band’s 20th proved to be a rallying point to give them a raison d’etre. There’s no point sitting around and waiting for radio royalties and festival paycheques to roll in, and so The Double Cross sounds like they’re proving something to themselves as much as their fairweather fans. There isn’t a wasted moment in any of these 12 songs: it’s the sound of a band that is still very much alive and fighting, not resting on a recorded legacy but continuing to make it. (May 12)

Download: “Shadow of Love,” “Unkind,” “Green Gardens Cold Montreal”

Socalled – Sleepover (Dare to Care)

Josh Dolgin, aka Socalled, has always been more talented than his music—a novelty mix of klezmer and hip-hop and jazz—would suggest. Which is why it’s such a joyous relief that he finally has an album that fulfills all of his potential as a songwriter, a keyboardist and, most importantly, as a producer, a conduit capable of building bridges between disparate communities. Sometimes it’s silly—which was the primary problem with previous Socalled recordings—but generally Dolgin creates an inclusive party where anything and everything happens. “Work With What You Got” is an inspirational pop song featuring hip-hop pioneer Roxanne Shante, calypso king The Mighty Sparrow, sawing cellos, Serbian brass master Boban Markovic, a children’s chorus, jazz piano and country singer Katie Moore—which is followed immediately by a straight-up Canadiana folk rendition of Peggy Seeger’s “Springhill Mine Disaster.”

Amid all the guest stars—which include James Brown’s trombone player Fred Wesley, Algerian pop star Enrico Macias, Warren Spicer of Plants and Animals, Gonzales, house music pioneer Derrick Carter, and dozens more—it’s Katie Moore whose star shines the brightest here. Though her solo material outside of Socalled situates her in folkie mode, Dolgin puts her to work on disco, funk and torch songs, where she conveys a haunting intimacy even when she’s belting it out. Her ballad showcase, the downtempo torch song “Told Me So,” is an absolute show-stopper.

If earlier Socalled albums seemed a bit forced, a bit too self-conscious, Dolgin’s playful curiosity pays off here with an album that’s as exciting and culturally diverse as his hometown of Montreal: it’s the sound of a St. Laurent street party come to life. (May 19)

Download: “UNLVD,” “Told Me So,” “Richi”

Amon Tobin – ISAM (Ninja Tune)

Amon Tobin built his reputation in electronic music on jazzy samples sliced and diced microscopically and refitted for the dance floor. But on his eighth album, there is neither dancing nor jazz to be found. Continuing to develop the sound world heard on his intriguing 2007 album Foley Room, ISAM sounds more like film composer Ennio Morricone scoring a spooky video game with field recordings of aquatic insects. There’s something creeping around every corner of this album. Tobin toys with tension and release, rarely ever falling into a metronomical meter. Sure, that means that most of ISAM sounds like your iPod is melting before your ears, but digital deconstruction rarely tastes this delicious. (May 5)

Download: “Journeyman,” “Lost & Found,” “Bedtime Stories”

Chad Van Gaalen – Diaper Island (Flemish Eye)

Sometimes you have to judge an album by its title, and this is one of the most disappointing releases of 2011. This Calgary singer/songwriter is one of the most fascinating figures to emerge from the Canadian underground in the last 10 years, and his last album, 2009’s Soft Airplane, was a perfect marriage of his fractured folk, grungy guitars, broken electronics, and fragile kitchen-sink arrangements. At his best, Van Gaalen’s work sounds like a simple three-chord song is the only thing keeping everything in his world from falling apart, that his warbling falsetto is the only light leading you through sonic and emotional wreckage.

Here, however, it just sounds like wreckage, period. There’s a fine line between making your music sound effortless and sounding like you couldn’t be bothered. On Diaper Island, Van Gaalen dumps material that sounds unfinished and half-baked. Or a little too baked, as the case may be—this sounds very much like a stoner slacker party that you’re not invited to.

Certainly there are minor moments of invention: small sonic treats and strange sounds that Van Gaalen conjures out of seemingly nothing on this characteristically lo-fi recording. He’s also more upbeat than usual, with a few tracks recalling the punk side of Eric’s Trip. But it’s largely devoid of Van Gaalen’s usual charm, and the songwriting largely just sounds lazy.

Van Gaalen is a great artist who’s not the type to bow to anyone’s expectations, and more power to him—but in a career of hits and misses, this one is definitely off target. (May 19)

Download: “Sara,” “Do Not Fear,” “Replace Me”