Thursday, May 03, 2007

Slew of Reviews, May 07

More reviews today:

El-P's I'll Sleep When You're Dead in today's Eye. He plays the Opera House in Toronto tonight. I'll admit that I might have got more out of this record if an annoying voice-over on the advance copy didn't remind me every 20 seconds that I was listening to an advance copy.

A Tribute to Joni Mitchell in last week's Eye.

Dntel's Blind Luck in last week's Eye.

The reviews below appeared in the mainstream daily K-W Record over the past three weeks. To save you scrolling, they are, in alphabetical order: Bright Eyes, Bebel Gilberto, Macy Gray/Joss Stone, Matthew Herbert, Last Town Chorus, Ted Leo and the Pharmacists (shoo-in for best-of-07 list), Matt and Kim (my favourite review to write), and Joel Plaskett Emergency.

Bright Eyes – Cassadaga (Saddle Creek/Outside)

Conor Oberst was once a boy wonder singer/songwriter, prone to criticism for his early overachievements: grandiose orchestration, dramatic vocals, and occasionally precocious poetry about the deeply political and personal.

All of that made Bright Eyes albums exciting, even if Oberst occasionally fell flat on his face. As his popularity caught up to his talent, however, edges began to get smoothed over. For a personality that always sounded too larger than life for the recorded medium, here he takes the middle ground and fades all too easily into the background. Cassadaga is a tasteful, mildly interesting and well-arranged, yet it ultimately displays little of the passion that fuelled Oberst's best work.

Recorded in a series of studios across America, there's also lyrical evidence of a restless spirit on songs like Four Winds and I Must Belong Somewhere—no doubt due to the fact that this is the first album Oberst has made outside of his Lincoln, Nebraska home base. But throughout, Oberst seems to be pulling his punches both lyrically and musically, with the gorgeous exception of No One Would Riot For Less, where he touches on everything "from the madness of the government to the vengeance of the sea."

Cassadaga is certainly Oberst's most conventionally pretty recording. The orchestration has evolved considerably from the ersatz high school band he once lugged around on tour, and Leonard Cohen-esque choirs of female backing vocals decorate his countrified folk rock.

Oberst is known for his prolific pen—this is the seventh album for the 27-year old, and preceded in 2006 by a collection of worthy rarities—which makes it all the more baffling when Cassadaga sounds too much like material he used to leave on the cutting room floor. (April 19, 2007)

Bebel Gilberto – Momento (Six Degrees/Outside)

Brazilian bossa nova music is supposed to be weightless and breezy, but Bebel Gilberto pushes our patience on her third North American album. Her voice has always been delicate and slight, but where once it was haunting—as on her superior 2000 debut Tanto Tempo—now she just sounds bored.

None of the accompanying music gives her any reason to feel otherwise, despite returning producer (and Bjork collaborator) Guy Sigsworth and help from the misnomered Brazilian Girls.

The more instruments on any given track, the more likely it is to sound like the soundtrack of shopping for furniture. Gilberto’s finest moment here, other than a decent cover of Cole Porter’s Night and Day, is the stripped down Cadê Você, with nothing but acoustic guitar and percussion backdrop. Which, when you think of it, was all her father's first wife Astrud needed on The Girl From Ipanema. All Bebel needs to do is find her own Stan Getz and hit the road as a trio. (April 26, 2007)

Macy Gray – Big (Geffen/Universal)

Joss Stone – Introducing (Virgin/EMI)

Two soul sisters, born 20 years apart, each with a smash success in their past and hoping to follow it up. The UK singer Joss Stone, barely past her teenage years, sold over seven million copies of her first two albums, so it's not clear what exactly she's Introducing this time out. Macy Gray, on the other hand, has been mostly MIA for the past four years, re-emerging here with a new label and a new lease on life.

Stone is technically the better singer, though here she sounds like an amateur going through the motions—a large step backwards from 2004's Mind Body & Soul. Producer Raphael Saadiq gives her a decent live backing band and calls in favours from Common and the reclusive Lauryn Hill, but to little avail. Now that the likes of Christina Aguilera are leaving the bubblegum behind and entering similar soul terrain, Stone needs to find some better material, because she's not going to get by on her pipes alone.

Gray, on the other hand, sounds downright hungry on her first album in four years. "Betcha thought I'd die when you went away" is the first lyric we hear, but from there on in Gray shows that hasn't let her hiatus get her down. With plenty of production help by Will.I.Am of Black Eyed Peas, Big is bursting with huge disco grooves, punchy rock riffs, saucy vocals and her playfully dark view of modern romance.

Natalie Cole shows up doing a Bee Gees impersonation on Finally Made Me Happy, and even Fergie can't derail the swinging ballad Glad You're Here. An invisible Justin Timberlake shows up in a supporting role, co-writing and co-producing a couple of the funkier tracks but staying away from the mic, knowing better than to mess with a personality like Gray's. (April 19, 2007)

Matthew Herbert – Score (!K7/Outside)

Herbert has a reputation for mixing the avant-garde and the dancefloor, constructing house music tracks out of blood samples, the sound of food, and corporate products in order to make political points about consumption and other pertinent issues.

He sounds deadly serious, but what’s always made Herbert palatable is his perverse sense of play, which often involves subverting people’s expectations. That’s what we get with this collection of soundtrack work he’s done for various short films dating back to 1997, which for the most part play it straight with lovely string pieces and brassy big band numbers, with the occasional thumping dance beat underneath. There’s even a medieval-sounding choral piece, commissioned for a dance company.

What makes this work is that Herbert isn’t merely trying on a new hat here: he’s a skilled arranger, and some of these compositions could easily take their place alongside some of the better movie themes of the 60s and 70s. Others are content to be slight mood pieces, accordion-driven Parisian pastiches or dance-y distractions.

It doesn’t always hold together thematically, but Score is as good a representation as any of the breadth of Matthew Herbert’s possibilities. (April 27, 2007)

The Last Town Chorus – Wire Waltz (Hacktone/Warner)

Everyone needs a gimmick. If you don’t have one, why are you any different from every other talented singer/songwriter/instrumentalist/producer?

Megan Hickey of The Last Town Chorus knows this all too well. For starters, she plays a traditional instrument in an untraditional way: she uses the swooping sounds of a lap steel guitar in a distorted fashion far removed from the country music that it’s most associated with. It sounds just as lonely and loping in her hands, though considerably more piercing than its lilting, cleaner counterpart.

Hickey also knows that a surefire way to get attention is to record an 80s pop hit and slow it down until it’s barely recognizable. She does this with David Bowie’s Modern Love, a move that landed her a much-discussed placement on Grey’s Anatomy. It’s a decent cover even if it’s an entirely unoriginal move; M. Ward bested her Bowie revisionism with his ragtime version of Let’s Dance a few years back.

Her own songwriting, however, is far from fruition, and her vocals bear an uncanny resemblance to The Sundays and other early 90s British pop acts. She’s established her own instrumental voice here, but everything else has yet to follow. (April 27, 2007)

Ted Leo and the Pharmacists – Living With the Living (Touch and Go)

By the time most rock'n'rollers turn 36, they're well out of things to say and ways to say them. Ted Leo, on the other hand, manages to balance a youthful enthusiasm for The Clash albums he grew up on with a literate love of language, while successfully incorporating his catholic musical influences into the power trio format.

On top of that, the man keeps getting better. Living With the Living is the first time he's written 15 songs that stand tall with all of his heroes, combining his political punk rock roots with Kinks-y pop, reggae-tinged soul ballads, Celtic melodies and even some Rage Against the Machine-style aggro agit-rock. Leo's too old to settle for predictability, but none of this sounds like self-conscious genre jumping. It's all tied together with a strong melodic pop sense and Leo's entirely convincing and impassioned vocals, which can be fiery or falsetto, tender or terrifying.

Living With the Living has all the hallmarks of a classic album, the type of work that finally elevates an underground hero to the attention he deserves, and at exactly the right time. (April 19, 2007)

Matt and Kim – s/t (I Heart Comix)

Meet Matt and Kim! They are the happiest band in America! Matt sings like his cheeks are pulled back in a permasmile! Look at their press photos! They’re always eating popsicles or sucking back a Big Gulp! No wonder they’re so happy!
They are both art students from Brooklyn! Matt plays keyboards, and Kim plays drums! Kim plays, like, really good! Matt is not bad either! But Kim does not sing!
That means we get sick of Matt’s voice really fast! This is too bad.

But wait! There’s more! They have a hilarious video! It’s called Yea Yeah and it’s a YouTube sensation! Look it up! It involves a lot of food and is very messy! Apparently it took four minutes to shoot and four hours to clean up! It’s so absurd that you barely notice how utterly inane the song is!

Word is that their live show is just as much fun! Matt and Kim are playing at Apollo Ink in Kitchener on Saturday, May 5! [they also play two shows as part of the Over the Top Festival in Toronto this weekend] (May 3, 2007)

Joel Plaskett Emergency – Ashtray Rock (Maple/Universal)

Joel Plaskett’s time in the sun is long overdue. After scoring a surprise commercial radio hit last summer (Nowhere With You) and suddenly becoming a CBC darling, this album debuted in the top 40 and his current Canadian tour is selling out large venues. (I’d recommend getting advance tickets to his Starlight show next month.) This all comes six years after his bonafide masterpiece Down at the Khyber, a collection he has yet to top.

Here, Plaskett strings together a series of songs about adolescent misadventures at his high school hangout, Ashtray Rock in Halifax. Musically, Plaskett combines his riff-heavy rock fetish, his folkier acoustic side, and his gradual move away from lo-fi garage rock into slicker textures that enhance his songs rather than smooth over his rougher edges.

Case in point is the fabulous Fashionable People, where producer Gordie Johnson (Big Sugar) takes a bouncy pop song with a stadium rock chorus, and adds some retro electro bottom end, a Blondie backbeat, and some falsetto backing vocals lifted from the Stones’ disco period. It’s the first great Canadian single of this summer.

Lyrically, however, Plaskett regresses considerably. Mythologizing the not-so-epic adventures of Drunk Teenagers wears thin quickly, largely due to some terrible rhyme schemes and not-so-clever turns of phrase. Apparently some of this material is drawn from sketches he wrote ten years ago, and it shows. (“Imagine if that lake was beer/ imagine if that rock was hash.”)

Because he’s writing about a wonderfully naïve point in his life, he takes it as a license to indulge in more clichés than he would normally. He’s obviously shooting for some Springsteenian moments of resonance, but the paper thin story line doesn’t really make for rich character studies. And it’s not like he’s an amateur who is aping the greats; Plaskett’s other work achieves this quite naturally.

Most of the missteps are easily forgiven when juxtaposed with his melodic gift and the performances by his power trio. Even though he’s a hot new artist, Plaskett is actually five albums into his solo career, and Ashtray Rock is still a better rock record than the company he’s now keeping in the rest of the top 40. (May 3, 2007)

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