Saturday, September 22, 2007

Summer re-cap, part one

Apologies, blogosphere. Moving house took a lot more out of me than I expected.

The next few days will be devoted to some catch-up, before we get to in-depth interviews with the Weakerthans, The Acorn and Bruce Peninsula. We'll start today, though, with reviews penned for the mainstream daily newspapers Kitchener-Waterloo Record and Guelph Mercury.

Here's what July had to offer for the Record. In alphabetical order: Editors, Roky Erikson, Legion of Green Men, Mother Mother, Ohbijou, Spoon, Two Hours Traffic, Various Artists - Healing the Divide, and Porter Wagoner.

EditorsAn End Has a Start (Red Ink/Sony BMG)

With their 2005 debut The Back Room, Editors proved to be one of those rare British bands who could explain the missing connections between Joy Division and U2, with a knack for stadium pop melodies, all tarted up in gothic accessories. Their dramatic flair was part of the charm: the fact that they could pull this off without sounding like self-important blowhards was a minor miracle.

Sadly, that luck has run out. An End Has a Start gives every indication that Editors’ actual ambition is to be a slightly darker version of Coldplay, complete with utterly banal platitudes passing off as poetry. There’s actually a song called "The Weight of the World," while on another singer Tom Smith tells us, “The saddest thing I’ve ever seen is smokers outside the hospital doors.” Really? He should try watching some genocide documentaries.

Anyone pleasantly surprised by the first Editors album should be switching their allegiance to The National by now. (July 7, 2007)

Roky EriksonYou’re Gonna Miss Me OST (Palm)

Even in the ridiculous world of rock’n’roll, there are still stories that stretch the limits of credulity.

Take the case of Roky Erikson, who helped pioneer 60s psychedelic rock with his Texas band 13th Floor Elevators. His unhinged howl suggested he was already on the edge, but copious amounts of LSD pushed him further along. Arrested for marijuana possession, he pled insanity and had electroshock therapy during his incarceration. When he got out, he wrote songs about “working in the Kremlin with a two-headed dog” and vampires and aliens while his personal life collapsed into increasingly bizarre twists and turns.

This is all documented brilliantly in the film You’re Gonna Miss Me, just released on DVD, which is easily the most spellbinding and incredulous bio-doc since Terry Zwigoff’s 1994 portrait of cartoonist Robert Crumb and his dysfunctional brother.

The accompanying soundtrack is not a definitive overview of Erikson’s work—there are only two songs here by the 13th Floor Elevators—but it is a thorough biographical sketch that touches on each period of his unsung career. Throughout, Erikson proves to be much more than a nutjob with a good story behind him. At times he’s an impassioned soulman like Van Morrison, others he’s a deranged rocker whose spinetingling voice inspires genuine chills that shame his more cartoonish peers.

His sensitive side is also on display, as heard on two previously unreleased acoustic songs that are featured in the film: "For You (I’d Do Anything)" and "Goodbye Sweet Dreams." Both are incredibly poignant after witnessing the trainwreck that has been his life. But, like the rest of this soundtrack, they hold up well even outside the overwhelming context provided by the film. Like the best rock’n’roll always should, they transcend the emotional anguish that spawned them—which, considering the strength of the film, says a lot. (July 19, 2007)

Legion of Green MenBaqontraq (Post Contemporary/Outside)

This Burlington electronic duo appear to have pulled a Rip Van Winkle, emerging with their first new album in eight years and sounding like time stood still. Picking up where 1999’s brilliant Floating In Shallow Water left off, Baqontraq recalls a time in the late 90s when underground producers were moving away from the colder strands of techno into the warm environs of dub reggae, with ambient textures floating above drum’n’bass undercurrents. This time out, there are more live horn sounds, more of a direct roots reggae influence, and one track that takes dub’s reductionist technique to an extreme by pulling out the drums altogether, with lapping waves of echo providing the rhythm.

Baqontraq sounds like it could easily have been made ten years ago, but that’s not a slag, as LOGM were always two of the better producers in this field. Whether they’ll still be able to capture the imagination of an electronic scene obsessed with the new is beside the point, as this marks a welcome return for a pioneering group in Canadian electronica. (July 5, 2007)

Mother MotherTouch Up (Last Gang/Universal)

The first thing you notice about Mother Mother is their vocals—every clipped and chipper note of the three-part harmony between brother and sister Ryan and Molly Guldemond and Debra-Jean Creelman. Their sound is initially a hard sell, if not downright grating. But as the 13 tracks on their debut album unfold, it’s those unusual, almost alien vocals that become the band’s calling card, employed in a variety of original ways.

The accompanying music is similarly skewered, and is impossible to describe without making it sound awful: funky acoustic pop that draws from country and punk rhythms as well as percussive folk ala Ani DiFranco. I’m cringing just writing that, and yet such are Mother Mother’s charms that their music quickly overcomes first impressions, deserving as much praise its singular sound as for surviving the myriad pitfalls that come with this territory. As a recording, however, Touch Up is a bit too, well, touched-up. (July 26, 2007)

OhbijouSwift Feet For Troubled Times (Outside)

The two sisters at the core of Ohbijou, Casey and Jenn Mecija, grew up in Brantford—a ghost of a town where everyone leaves eventually, driving through fields of farmland towards a bigger city full of social uncertainties, where the bustle of urban life clashes with the idyllic childhood that small towns provide.

Whether or not that actually sums up the Mecijas’ childhood is entirely conjecture, but the music of Toronto’s Ohbijou captures that melancholic feeling perfectly, both in lyrics and in arrangements. Raccoons sing ballads while tumbleweeds roam the small town streets. Love feels like espionage in the big city. The sisters’ harmonies are front and centre, but every player in this ensemble plays with exquisite taste and invention. Plaintive cello lines frame an acoustic arsenal of ukuleles, banjos, mandolins and pianos that rarely ever fall into folk clich├ęs. The undeniably pretty surface makes them instantly loveable, yet just underneath are extremely subtle subversions that illuminate the sadness at the core of many of these songs.

They’ve been one of Toronto’s loveliest secrets for the past two years, but that’s about to change. This is a newly remastered version of their 2006 debut album, which now has national distribution to coincide with their recent western tour. (July 26, 2007)

Ohbijou open for the Akron Family on September 26 at Barrymore's in Otttawa, and play an impossible-to-miss show at the River Run Centre in Guelph with Great Lake Swimmers and Final Fantasy. They'll also be at Pop Montreal on October 4, and headline Lee's Palace in Toronto on November 9 with Bruce Peninsula.

SpoonGa Ga Ga Ga Ga (Merge)

Don’t let the year’s goofiest album title throw you off. However stupid it may be, it actually does say something about Spoon’s skill at distilling the best rock, R&B and pop songwriting to its bare bones. There’s nary an extraneous note to be found on a Spoon album, and on this, their sixth, they may well have perfected their formula.

Spoon does this by approaching pop music the same way any expert reggae or soul band would: have the guitars play only on the accented beats, use the piano to provide most of the colour, never let the drummer play a fill, and let the bass enter the dance only at the most effective moments. In doing so, Spoon is one of the only rock bands since The Clash to truly utilise the simplicity of soul music, able to surrender all show-off rocker poses to slide into a groove—best heard on the horn-driven acoustic R&B song "The Underdog," which could easily have slipped on to London Calling.

Not that Spoon necessarily make dance music. "You Got Yr Cherry Bomb" might swing with the best of the Motown greats, but it’s preceded by the sparse and spooky "The Ghost of You Lingers," where the drums disappear and eerie synths loom over a piano pounding out eighth notes.

What makes Spoon such a magnet for music geeks is their production style, which sounds straight out of Abbey Road studios in the late 60s, with total stereo separation that appeals to headphone listeners everywhere.

It’s easy to intellectualize and analyze the studio technique, but it’s the punchy pop songs hit you straight in the gut—and, as the album title implies, the lyrics don’t get in the way. Singer Britt Daniel slaps non-sequiturs together in the best Beck fashion, but despite this and the fact that he still seems to be suffering from a massive head cold, the nasal singer sounds dead cool wrenching emotion from a song that’s actually called "My Little Japanese Cigarette Case."

More than anything, Spoon know that by leaving wide open spaces in their songs, every little nuance is illuminated. And despite the simple appearance of these disposable pop songs, there’s plenty to chew here on that continually rewards listeners of every stripe. This is one for the ages. (July 12, 2007)

Spoon play the Kool Haus in Toronto on October 15.

Two Hours TrafficLittle Jabs (Bumstead)

Two Hours Traffic’s brand of likeable guitar pop—big harmonies, chiming guitars, songs about sidewalks, summers and backseat sweethearts—never goes out of style, and the 11 songs on this debut are a promising start. They enlisted the help of Joel Plaskett as producer, and while he doesn’t take them along for the same sonic rides he does on Ashtray Rock, he does know how to dress up a bare-bones rock band with just the right touches. The songwriting is catchy, though their best days are obviously still ahead of them. (July 26, 2007)

Healing the Divide: A Concert For Peace and Reconciliation – Various Artists (Anti/Epitaph)

What better way to embark on a Buddhist reflection on peace than with a soundtrack by Tibetan monks, sitar master Anoushka Shankar, the native American flautist R. Carlos Nakai, Philip Glass with Gambian kora player Foday Musa Suso… and Tom Waits?

After opening with a speech by the Dalai Lama, this 2003 Lincoln Centre concert proceeds in a meditative mood—highlighted by Glass and Suso—until Waits comes out to break the ice by singing songs of damnation and spiritual redemption, accompanied by typically inventive arrangements by the Kronos Quartet, a first-time collaboration that makes this worthwhile for any Waits fan.

While he provides some thunderclouds to contrast the calm of the opening acts, he’s also the most cathartic act of the evening—as evidenced by the rapturous audience response. Perhaps instead of meditating for peace, what we really need is a visceral release where we confront the confusion and realise that—in Waits’ own words—"God’s Away On Business," and it’s up to us to keep the devil "Way Down In the Hole." (July 12, 2007)

Porter WagonerWagonmaster (Anti/Epitaph)

On only his second album in 25 years, Grand Ole Opry legend Porter Wagoner doesn’t opt for any modern ornamentation or novelty pop covers, and neither is this a stark recording along the lines of Johnny Cash’s comeback records. Rather, this is a very old school Nashville album, with seasoned session players fleshing out a balance of originals and covers, recorded in three days.

The 79-year old’s new material is mostly written from a widower’s perspective, but this is not a morbid album by any stretch: check out the oddly cheery song about ghostly visitations, called "Be a Little Quieter (If You Can)." Wagoner is not out to make a big deal about his reappearance; rather, this simply picks up where his golden period left off, which is as good an entry point as any for new fans. (July 7, 2007)

Also reviewed, but not reprinted here: Beastie Boys, The Besnard Lakes, Blackie and the Rodeo Kings, Los Campesinos!, The National, Xavier Rudd, Smashing Pumpkins, Socalled, T.I. If you work for any of these people in any capacity and want a clipping, drop me a line.

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