Thursday, May 31, 2007

Review round-up May 07

Plenty of action on the review front lately, starting with this take on last Saturday's Feist show at Massey Hall. Thankfully I didn't have the same experience as Pedro from Radio 3.

I was going to write here about last Friday's Joel Plaskett show at the Opera House, but let's just say that not having seen him in five years, it's great to see him become an even better performer: very engaging, down to earth, great band, and I'm very glad I picked the all-ages night. These kids weren't fairweather fans, either: old material was welcomed just as warmly as the new stuff.

Earlier that night I saw Kids on TV at Buddies in Bad Times, which should have been amazing--and parts of it were (especially the costumes, the videos and the bungee breakdancing). But the staid cabaret seating and subdued sound system didn't match the sweaty mess that I'm used to with that band.

Some CD reviews of late:

Battles and The Rosebuds from last week's Eye.

Cinematic Orchestra from this month's Exclaim.

The Clientele from this week's Eye.

And the two absolutely spellbinding albums from Old Reliable singer/songwriter Mark Davis get the five-star treatment from me here, also from this week's Eye.

Finally, some thoughts from the Kitchener-Waterloo Record.

Bjork – Volta (Warner)

By her own admission, Bjork is “relentlessly restless.” “I have lost my origin/ and I don’t want to find it again,” she sings on Wanderlust. The rest of Volta could certainly use a compass.

Only a fool would expect Bjork to be conventional, but in the last ten years her albums have at least been consistent to themselves thematically: introverted works that steered her away from clubs and into icy isolation and art house cinemas.

Even if her most recent albums Medulla and Drawing Restraint didn’t pull your pop strings, they were easy to dismiss as intentionally opaque art projects. But because Volta soars so high on the strength of her rediscovered extroversion—exemplified by her collaborations here with Timberlake/Furtado hitmaker Timbaland—it hurts that much more when she comes crashing to earth with aimless meandering.

The punchy single Innocence is easily one of Bjork’s best singles ever, boasting squiggly synths, a Brazilian favela beat, and dislocated likembes from Congolese group Konono No. 1, all collapsing in a perfect progressive pop production by Timbaland.

She lets loose even further on Declare Independence, a distorted electro-punk anthem where the 41-year old mother of two sounds like a bratty teenager raging at a rave. As befits this career contrarian, it’s far more convincing than contrived.

But a track like The Dull Flame of Desire lives up to its name, as Bjork and her obviously enamoured duet partner Antony (of the Johnsons) over-articulate and howl their way through a short Russian poem, drawing it out for eight minutes while drummer Brian Chippendale of speed-noise band Lightning Bolt plays a plodding beat underneath, half-heartedly breaking into a gallop for the final thirty seconds.

And what could be another exciting collaboration—Malian kora player Toumani Diabate with a delicate, subdued Timbaland beat—is sabotaged by painfully awkward political lyrics about pregnant suicide bombers.

Any artist with such grand ambitions and curiosities is bound to miss occasionally, though Bjork’s success ratio here still finds her on top. There’s plenty here for fair-weather fans to dig their teeth into: one track at a time. (May 17, 2007)

Rufus Wainwright – Release the Stars (Universal)

Rufus Wainwright is not a humble man. Any young artist who decides to re-stage Judy Garland’s legendary 1961 performance at Carnegie Hall (the subject of a film and CD due later this year) and write an opera for the Met in New York (due next year) is not lacking in confidence.

Yet on his fifth album, Wainwright demands humility from both himself and others: friends, lovers, and even the United States itself, as he does on the scathing single Going to A Town. There, he matches Joe Strummer’s angry 20-year old declaration “I’m so bored with the USA” by singing a lilting, world-weary lament that simply states: “I’m so tired of you, America.”

So instead, he’s Leaving For Paris, peering through the windows of Sanssousci, walking through the Tiergarten in Berlin, and posing for fetching photographs in his new lederhosen. He’s still arch and dramatic; many of the album’s most powerful moments are punctuated with blasts of brass and fluttering woodwinds.

Lyrically, however, he’s more fragile than ever, musing on disappointment, self-worth and empathy. That newfound modesty is matched by melodies that are more direct than his past work, maintaining his knack for complexity without overreaching. The sole exceptions are the atrocious Slideshow and Tulsa, which threaten to undermine the whole album; thankfully, they’re sequenced together to facilitate easier avoidance.

Wainwright’s early work had some wondering if he was simply full of hubris or capable of greater depth. With each successive album, he proves the latter to be true. (May 17, 2007)

Stars – Do You Trust Your Friends? (Arts and Crafts/EMI)

The simple answer is yes: absolutely, you should trust your friends.

That’s because by commissioning their many musical friends and peers, Stars have accomplished the impossible. This is a remix album that’s far better than the original.

Their 2005 release Set Yourself on Fire was a massive breakthrough for Stars, giving their lush, romantic sound a beefy rock’n’roll backdrop. Yet something about it sounded a bit too cloying and overcooked.

Here, all the same material is surrendered to mostly lesser-known indie musicians who strip away most of the instrumentation and supply their own, often drastic reinterpretations. Final Fantasy renders a baroque reading of Your Ex-Lover is Dead; Junior Boys turn Sleep Tonight into a lilting electro lullaby; The Most Serene Republic transform Ageless Beauty into a folkie country shuffle.

Three satellite bands of Broken Social Scene chuck the original tracks altogether and record their own covers: The Stills recast Soft Revolution as a Pink Floyd epic; Apostle of Hustle do One More Night in a Havana nightclub, and Jason Collett affects a lecherous drawl on his slinky cover of Reunion, which completely redeems one of Fire’s weakest tracks.

If you loved the original album, this is a completely new work, doubling as a primer on the Arts and Crafts roster and other Canuck comrades. And if you were ever suspicious of Stars, this brings out all their strengths by letting their songs shine in an entirely new light. Forget any preconceptions you had of the band or even of some of these remixers, because this is a wildly diverse and rewarding listen.

Here’s hoping Stars take some of this to heart when they record their new album, due later this year. (May 24, 2007)


Anonymous said...

Do You Trust Your Friends is certainly not any better than Set Yourself on Fire, which is one of the rare perfect albums one can ever cross upon.

mmmbarclay said...

i respectfully disagree. aside from a couple of tracks, most of that album annoys me to no end. i prefer them when they're not a rock band, on the earlier EPs and most of Heart.