Tuesday, December 05, 2006

December housecleaning

No interview today, but some reviews from the last month that have appeared in various publications.

Some other thoughts first:

The Liberal party held its leadership convention on the weekend, where Stephane Dion--who was tied for third place going in--leapfrogged over the main contenders to take the prize. He made climate change and environmental sustainability the key issue of his campaign, which is remarkable, considering that during the English-language leaders debate in January 2006 (the election that brought Conservative Stephen Harper to power in a minority government, in case my American readers are already lost) the environment wasn't even one of the ten topics of discussion.

What happened? Either this is the effect of new movie star Al Gore on the mainstream, or the new Liberal party establishment rallying around Dion and kingmaker Gerard Kennedy are ready to redefine the national discourse in ways that the old boys who got behind frontrunners Ignatieff and Rae are not.

Dion's speech to the convention was prefaced by an introduction from newly-elected MP Glen Pearson, who won a by-election in London, Ontario where Green Party leader Elizabeth May came in second--the Green's largest electoral standing in Canadian history. Pearson talked about how Dion ignited people in his riding when he came to speak, but also made a strange statement to the effect of: "When I debated my opponents, I could take on the Conservatives, no problem. I could take on the NDP, no problem. But [and this part I remember verbatim] I did not lay a finger on Elizabeth May!" Before he sounded too much like a defensive Catholic priest, he went on to point out that the Green Party platform and Dion's platform were extremely compatible, and that the environment was indeed the primary issue of the 21st century, etc.

How will this play out in a real election campaign? The Liberals have enough trouble splitting the left vote with the NDP--a party Dion attacked in his acceptance speech (ironically enough, in the same sentence he was praising leadership opponent and former NDP premier of Ontario Bob Rae). But how will this election play out if Dion's Liberals "refuse to lay a finger" on the Green Party? Is there already a coalition in the works?

Overheard: After ex-PM Jean Chretien's speech to the convention (his first partisan appearance since leaving office), whoever was DJing the event played Madonna's "Hung Up": a modern disco song based on a riff from the 70s (the last time the Liberals had an inspiring leader) with the lyric "Every little thing you say or do/ I'm hung up on you." Interesting selection, to say the least, scoring a speech by a former leader. But that doesn't beat playing The Cure's "Let's Go to Bed" a few minutes later to pump up the crowd awaiting the results of the final ballot: "I don't care if you don't/ and I don't feel it if you don't/ and I don't want it if you don't/ and I won't say it if you don't say it first." Wow, inspiring words to hear at a leadership convention. At least no one played INXS's "New Sensation," played ad nauseum at the Conservative convention that nominated Harper.

Best moment of political drama: I missed Kennedy's dramatic walk over to the Dion camp. But while waiting an excruciating 40 minutes past the expected announcement of the final ballot results (intended between 5 and 5.30PM, the Liberals deliberately stalled the announcement until 6PM to make the news hour), the CTV feed spent a good ten minutes focused on Michael Ignatieff sitting with his wife, his once-estranged brother and other supporters. Everyone obviously expected an announcement within seconds, so the commentators stopped their nattering. Instead, we got to watch an extremely uncomfortable man--one who was considered a shoo-in for the win, one who uprooted his international academic life to come home to Canada for this job, one who only a few hours ago looked like he could pull it off--sit and wait, in full glare of the spotlight, trying to look sanguine and aloof, even though he must have been told the results beforehand. It was a fascinating piece of candid political theatre, and kudos to the CTV team for running it without commentary... unlike the CBC, who spent most of that 40 minutes talking inexplicably about Trudeau and the '68 leadership convention.

Final thought before we get to some boring CD reviews: The fact that Dion is yet another Liberal leader from Quebec is considered his major electoral weakness, one preyed upon by most of the letter-writers in today's Globe and Mail. Yes, his English is shaky (shakier than Harper's French?) and his acceptance speech was less than inspiring (he fared much better on CBC call-in show Cross Country Checkup the next day). He's not a man for dog-and-pony shows. But if nothing else, this former academic--the first Liberal leader since Trudeau with no ties to Bay Street--is a man of ideas (much like policy wonk Harper), and it is his ideas on which he should be judged.

Geography still plays a huge role in post-Civil War America when it comes to presidential tickets and the north-south divide. But this country seems all too quick to bury a candidate's chances based on their home province, as if someone more than 300km away couldn't possibly understand the complexities of our regional specificities. It will be interesting to see what role Kennedy takes in all of this; as has been suggested, the two of them could form a Macdonald/Cartier alliance, playing to each linguistic constituency on their own turf and building a national team, not one based on one leader's centralized concentration of power.

Yes, my degree is in Canadian history and politics.

Here's some reviews from the last month, some from Eye Weekly in Toronto, and considerably more mainstream fare from the K-W Record.

From Eye's Record Guide, November 23, 2006
Beast Moans
three stars
The ghostly groans and beastly moans emanating from the depths of Swan Lake are likely to put off any fairweather fans of father bands Destroyer, Sunset Rubdown and Frog Eyes—wait a minute, do Frog Eyes have any fairweather fans? Here, Dan Bejar, Spencer Krug and Carey Mercer retreat into a murky fog where disintegrating keyboards drape themselves over acoustic guitars, and distant percussion colours the mirage of melodies that reward the patient. Traces of their day jobs are apparent, but the focus on texture here gives them a tabula rasa to start anew. Closing track “Shooting Rockets” may be more of a séance than a song, but otherwise they remain ever so slightly on this side of the spirit world. –Michael Barclay

Tales From Rat Fink
four stars
Just in case you thought the Sadies couldn't make a record without a massive guest list or copious amounts of psychedelics, here they whip out 26 tightly wound instrumentals that take full advantage of their Morricone moments and summers of surf rock past. The Ron Mann documentary of the same name focuses on hot rod car designer Ed Roth, whose heyday was the 50s and early 60s; the Sadies' soundtrack doesn't sound a day older than '65, before the younger Good Brothers were even alive. In some ways, this sounds like a more mature update of 1998's Precious Moments. Now that they've released a career-defining live album and begun recording in the UK with Gary Louris, Rat Fink might even put a cap on that era. –Michael Barclay

(Union 2112/Warner)
Four stars
No, these venerable Toronto underdogs are not giving Joni Mitchell's masterpiece a 35th anniversary tribute. They are, however, doing the equally impossible by not only making a pop-punk album worthy of redeeming the entire tired genre, but surviving a huge major label clusterfuck in the process. On their first album of original material in five years, they're raging without any musical sign of resignation, even if singer Matt Hughes is "sick of all the loud music" and laments, "I want to feel like I did when the chaos was real." The healthy sense of self-deprecation is balanced by multiple killer hooks, making this much more than the mid-life crisis of a sardonic punk—perhaps even a totally unexpected career resurrection. –Michael

Three stars
File this next to Nouvelle Vague for cover projects that defy the novelty factor and showcase the ingenuity of reinvention. "Orchestral versions of White Stripes songs"— those five words pretty much sum up this classical rock album, and Richard Ashcroft is likely already scrounging it for sample material. Don't mistake this for muzak: arranger Joby Talbot works minor miracles with even the sketchiest of Jack White's songs, colouring the more repetitious choices ("Why Can't You Be Nicer to Me") with plenty of flourish, and wisely picking four tracks from the band's best collection De Stijl. Oh, and a gamelan and harp help "Hardest Button to Button" totally kick major ass. In case you think this is all ridiculous, wait for the accompanying ballet. I'm not even kidding. –Michael Barclay

from the K-W Record, a mainstream daily newspaper west of Toronto:

Nov 9

Charlotte Gainsbourg – 5.55 (Warner)
There's a new Sean Lennon album out that, more than anything, proves that talent is not genetic. And on the surface, this album by the daughter of Serge Gainsbourg might also prove that to be true—depending on your tolerance for cooing French romantics. Her voice is whisper thin and practically transparent; one has to wonder if she sings that way because she wants to—to suit the dreamy, weightless material—or, like Paris Hilton, if she has to.
But if nothing else, this progeny of French pop royalty has impeccable taste in collaborators. She handed over complete songwriting duties to her the band Air and Jarvis Cocker of Pulp, which turns out to be a brilliant move. Cocker shares her father's perverse sense of humour, which gives us a soothing song about a fiery plane crash, and an icy new wave song about the sexually intimate nature of surgery. Air set it all to music with their most captivating melodies since their classic debut album Moon Safari; if you lost track of them after that, you haven't missed much until now.
5.55 the album is much better than Gainsbourg herself; she's little more than a vehicle for the songs, but such is their hypnotic spell that it rarely matters.

John Legend – Once Again (Sony/BMG)
If I had a dollar for every time a new artist was touted as being the next Marvin Gaye, I'd be sharing stock tips with Jay-Z. For all the promises made by the neo-soul movement of the last ten years, much of it merely makes gestural nods to the spirit and sound while falling prey to all the usual pitfalls of modern R&B: second-rate material, showboating vocalists, and style over substance. Not here, however.
On his second album, John Legend establishes himself as much more than a Kanye West protégé, more than a sideman to Lauryn Hill and Alicia Keys, more than an upstart with beginner's luck and three Grammys under his belt. Once Again is leaps and bounds ahead of his 2004 debut Get Lifted, with snappin' soul tunes and swoony, string-drenched ballads that stave off the syrup.
With the help of all-star producers Will.I.Am (Black-Eyed Peas), West, Craig Street (Cassandra Wilson) and Rafael Saadiq, it's the songwriting here that separates Legend from the countless others who only know how to wear the suits. He's also a perfect piano accompanist, whose arrangements help conjure apparitions of 70s soul and piano pop; the cover image of Legend playing a grand piano on a New York City street also helps.
Finally, and obviously, there's the voice, which is earnest without ever being cloying, and is convincing enough to make the featherweight lovers' lyrics sound deeper than they actually are.
If he keeps this up, he'll certainly have earned his stage name.

from K-W Record, November 30
Jerry Lee Lewis – Last Man Standing: The Duets (Shangri-La/Koch)
If he's the last man standing, why does he need all these other dudes propping him up? And no mistake, they are all dudes—not many women want to be left alone in a studio with Jerry Lee.
This comeback album was five years in the making, and it pairs up Jerry Lee with 21 other rock'n'roll legends, most of whom take vocal turns with him. It's undeniably invigorating to hear him rip through Led Zeppelin's Rock and Roll (with Jimmy Page on guitar), CCR's Travelin' Band (with John Fogerty), and Springsteen's Pink Cadillac (with the Boss man himself), all featuring the piano pyrotechnics we all want to hear. Most amusing is his "duet" with Little Richard on I Saw Her Standing There, which would be one for the history books if only Jerry Lee let his archrival near the piano—or even near the microphone for more than the occasional holler.
For the most part, however, he focuses on the country music that's been the focus of his last 30 years. Robbie Robertson's Twilight is a highlight (thankfully Robertson doesn't sing), as is That Kind of Fool with Keith Richards and Kris Kristofferson's The Pilgrim. The latter, about a "walking contradiction" and famously quoted in Taxi Driver, may well have been written about Jerry Lee himself.
While his voice is drenched in Sun Studio-style reverb for the rockers, the other tracks betray the fact that his 71-year old voice just isn't what it used to be, and neither are the voices of most of his equally aged duet partners, which just makes the whole affair sound like a bunch of non-descript old guys getting together with a shit-hot piano player.

from K-W Record, October 26

The Tragically Hip – World ContainerTM (Universal)
Maybe they felt their ass getting kicked by the next generation of CanRockers. Maybe they took a long hard look at their lacklustre recent work after issuing last year's box set and hits compilation. Maybe producer Bob Rock hooked them up with Metallica's therapist and
opened new doors of communication.
Who knows? Who cares? The short of it is that World ContainerTM sounds like The Tragically Hip are willing to put up a fight and resist the irrelevance that's been nipping at their heels for most of this decade. There were some definite steps out of their slump on 2004's In Between Evolution, but now they've gone back to the drawing board.
Gord Downie is no longer relying on guitar riffs to conjure his melodies for him, and ends up writing some of his poppiest melodies ever, especially the toy-piano-driven single In View. Guitarists Bobby Baker and Paul Langlois have finally realised that The Hip have long ceased to be a decent jam band, and have quit noodling themselves into the netherworld; here they sound tight and focused and exploring different textures to their playing. Bob Rock's production errs on the side of stadium-size drum sounds, yet he also leaves enough sonic space for every guitar track to ring out loud and clear. Downie's vocal performances sound like he's hungry again—or maybe he's overwhelmed by the oceanic setting of Rock's Hawaii studio, as aquatic themes dominate several songs here.
Fortunately, the album is front-loaded with future hits, like the surprising The Lonely End of the Rink, with its reggae-tinged verses adding an extra twist to standard rock chorus. (Maybe they took notes on how to pull off this tricky feat with subtlety when the Joel Plaskett Experience opened their last tour.)
World ContainerTM dips considerably in the second half, especially when Downie sounds like a grumpy grandpa shooing the whippersnappers off his lawn on The Kids Don't Get It. But he's rescued by the rousing Family Band, a shout-out to struggling young bands on their first tour ("what's gripping the city ain't hitting the town") set to an anthemic avalanche of guitars that may well have been borrowed from Broken Social Scene.
If this country's recent rock success stories threatened to unleash a classic Canadian cultural amnesia, one of our finest bands has finally returned to remind us why we once loved them so—fully, completely.

Greg Keelor – Aphrodite Rose (Warner)
To date, Greg Keelor's solo records away from Blue Rodeo have been either hushed lullabies or hazy psychedelia. This time out, he goes back to his favourite paisley-tinged country records of the 60s, with big Byrdsian harmonies, ringing Rickenbackers, pointed political lyrics, trippy jazz-folk, and back-to-the-garden spirituality ("wild flowers are proof enough of a higher power").
Recorded on his farm, it's all captured on a gloriously warm one-inch analog tape machine, which really does make a difference when it comes to capturing what made those 60s records sound so good—including plenty of hard panning into left and right speakers. Keelor sounds
completely comfortable playing all of the instruments himself, with occasional favours called in from the Sadies and Sarah McLachlan, but this isn't just a vanity experiment: he also conjures up his best set of songs in over five years.
At a time when a new generation is turning on to the psychedelic properties of folk music, Keelor kicks back and teaches us old school style.

Jim Cuddy Band – The Light That Guides You Home (Warner)
Keelor's lifelong partner in crime doesn't fare as well on his second solo album. Once again, despite the fact that employs most of Blue Rodeo as his backing band, Cuddy proves that he does his best work when egged on by the creative tension wrought by his partnership with Keelor. Any Blue Rodeo fan will find plenty of pleasantly recognizable signposts here, but only the honkytonkin' Oh Susanna duet Married Again, the pan-Canadian love letter Countrywide Soul, and the rocking Stagger In leave any impact. When faced with a total creative carte blanche, it's still baffling why anyone would put out a solo album that sounds almost exactly like their day job.

from K-W Record, Nov 2
Los Lobos – The Town and the City (Hollywood/Universal)
For fans who have followed them for the better part of their 27-year career, Los Lobos have been locked into a pattern of blowing us away on every second record—as recently as their 25th anniversary album The Ride, which boasted plenty of guest stars, reinvented older material, and a solid set of new songs.
But as this album illustrates, the lulls are getting lower, and there's very little on The Town and the City that suggests they're doing anything but phoning this in. The fact that it's comprised primarily of plodding mid-tempo songs isn't the problem, so much as the fact that the venerable masters sound as bored as we are. The only real life to be found here is found on Cesar Rosas's Latino numbers, though even those sound like leftovers from previous albums.
The only surprise to be found here is the fact that it's taken this long for their neighbour, the famed graphic novelist Jaime Hernandez, this long to illustrate one of their albums.

from Exclaim, December 2006
directed by Davis Guggenheim
This hit film was shocking to many North Americans, and buried deep in the movie is a funny little statistic that explains why. Al Gore describes how even though every peer-reviewed science journal unequivocally believes in global warming, mainstream media coverage continuously treats it like a questionable theroy—usually by soliciting opinions of scientists on the payroll of oil companies. Gore briefly compares them to the doctors trotted out in the 60s to defend cigarettes, but doesn't push the issue. And nor should he, lest the potential converts to his cause think he's one of those wacko conspiracy theorists that actually believes that Florida 2000 was an unfair fight. But the film's producers are happy to expand on that thought—and others—during their informative commentary, which acts as an excellent supplement to the information in the film itself. Director Guggenheim is less enlightening on the issues, but provides a textbook example of someone who doesn't consider themselves an environmentalist, yet was totally swayed by the strength of Gore's presentation on global warming. He also explains how hard it was to convince Gore to include glimpses into the former vice-president's own life struggles, which explains Gore's passion for delivering this message, while also breaking up the density of information and drawing the audience closer to its subject. Guggenheim laments at how hard it was to trim down Gore's two-hour lecture into less than 90 minutes to make an effective film. If that's true, why not include more extended scenes as DVD extras? Gore does appear in a featurette with a bare minimum of this material, as well as an update on some facts and case studies cited in the original film. Rest assured, there's no wasteful plastic packaging on this DVD: not only is it made from 100 post-consumer recycled material, but apparently it was powered by Native Energy. After hearing him talk the talk, it's good to know he's walking the walk. Also: short making-of featurette, Melissa Etheridge music video. (Paramount) –Michael Barclay

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