Sunday, September 23, 2007

Summer re-cap, part two

More files today from mainstream daily newspapers, the Kitchener-Waterloo Record and the Guelph Mercury.

As a side note, I'd like to also blame my month-long absence on internet woes and the horrific customer service of Sympatico, which I urge all my Canadian readers to avoid. I'll spare you the gory Kafka details.

In alphabetical order: Caribou, Common, Parkas, Payola$, Stars, Linda Thompson, Teddy Thompson, Nicole Willis.

CaribouAndorra (Merge)

The worldwide pride of Dundas, Ontario first made his name with minimal electronic music assembled with free jazz samples and minor melodies, before morphing into a psychedelic jam band with two drummers.

On his fourth album, Dan Snaith delves deep into pop territory: every track here features heavily reverbed vocals, including a guest spot from Junior Boys’ Jeremy Greenspan. Snaith eschews some of the more drawn-out drones that marked his last two albums, but his attempts at writing fully realized pop melodies don’t always pan out—which is why his kaleidoscopic musical vision is still the main reason why he holds a singular place between the worlds of electronic music and psychedelic folk rock.

Snaith is most successful when he stays away from the in betweens and pushes to either extreme, as he does on Andorra’s bookends: opening track “Melody Day” is his finest pop song to date, while closer “Niobe” brings in more electronics and considerably more abstract arrangements, making it the most intriguing moment on the album. (August 23, 2007)

Caribou plays the Starlight in Waterloo on September 28, the Rivoli in Toronto on September 29, with other central Canadian dates following. More dates found here.

CommonFinding Forever (Geffen/Universal)

Hip-hop isn’t usually an older man’s game, and at age 35, Common should most likely be washed up. And yet Finding Forever finds him continuing to improve and hone his craft, delivering his most satisfying work to date.

Finding Forever features 11 fat-free tracks that draw from the deep well of 70s soul music; it’s obvious that Common is consciously aiming to create a classic album, not just a couple of singles backing up filler. To do this, he once again employs his one-time protégé Kanye West as producer. They first worked together on 2005’s Be, where West managed to coalesce Common’s diverse influences into a cohesive hip-hop whole: R&B, gospel, jazz, Marvin Gaye-era soul and abstract pop.

Some star power guests help lift things up a bit—including Lily Allen, D’Angelo, DJ Premier and (once again doing his best work outside of Black Eyed Peas)—but this is very much the Kanye and Common show, even if West only raps on the hometown ode "Southside." Common even starts dropping West-isms at one point, like rhyming “bling-ay” with “sing-ay,” though his everyday people narratives are as engaging as always elsewhere.

West’s sample material ranges from the delightfully obscure (Ethiopian jazz records) to the painfully obvious (Nina Simone, Paul Simon), yet in each case he bends them to his own needs, providing a perfectly smooth backdrop for Common’s character sketches and social critiques. There’s also one track here by Common’s late collaborator J Dilla.

Though West’s presence certainly helps, Common has reached a stature where he doesn’t have to worry about trends or maintaining his credibility—or even pop hits. Proving that sometimes the good guys still win, this debuted in the Top Ten, and will undoubtedly be remembered as one of the hip-hop records of the year. West himself will find this hard to beat when his own album comes out later this summer. (August 16, 2007)

ParkasPut Your Head in the Lion’s Mouth (Saved by Radio)

Every band in Canada—even those from the Big Smoke—will empathize with the Parkas when they sing: “We’ve come to audition for these Queen Street politicians, but I’m not quite Toronto enough tonight.” Hailing from Thunder Bay, London and Guelph, the Parkas play a kind of rock’n’roll that isn’t cool enough for most indie kids and is too ragged for the radio crowd, which entitles them to a certain amount of underdog sardonicism that permeates their second full-length. They’re not milking sour grapes, but their experiences—sharply documented in a DVD that accompanied their last EP—give them a healthy perspective and insight that allows them to write lines like: “Honesty is the best poverty and liars already won the lottery.” The songs don’t always measure up to the lyrics or the spirited performances, but producer Dale Morningstar helps them capture their live bar band feel—much like his work on Thrush Hermit’s Clayton Park—while also helping craft some delicate textures on the tracks “Margaret Atwood” and “The Wolves Darling.” (August 2, 2007)

The Parkas play October 9 at Club Vinyl in Guelph, October 11 at the Drake in Toronto.

Payola$ - Langford (EMI)

Twenty years after their last album, the creative partnership of Bob Rock and Paul Hyde emerge with an EP that is as promising as it is frustrating. Hyde is still full of bristle and bile: each of the six songs here deals with societal and moral breakdowns, and for the most part his pointed pen manages to score political points without being overly heavy-handed. When it doesn’t work is when Rock decides to flex the cheeze rawk muscles he honed from producing Metallica and Aerosmith. When Hyde’s first-person villain snarls “Phone hell, tell them I’m coming,” Rock amps it up to Bon Jovi proportions until it’s barely listenable. Which is a shame, because much of the rest of the EP—including the native rights warning “Bomb,” the aging radical anthem of regret “Revolution,” and the grumpy grandpa punk rouser “Goodbye to Rock N Roll”—shows that this partnership still has plenty of punch, not to mention the pop hooks that made them a major force in Canadian rock in the early 80s. (August 16, 2007)

StarsIn Our Bedroom After the War (Arts and Crafts/EMI)
(a different review in this week's Eye appears here)

War? What war? The current state of conflict is an abstract notion for most North Americans, who would much rather sing silly love songs while the world burns.

Stars, on the other hand, write love songs where war is always in the background, where the characters’ inability to express the simplest emotions is confounded by the greater calamity outside their window.

Stars’ singers Torquil Campbell and Amy Millan aren’t necessarily equipped to deal with the outside war either—often it’s merely a loosely alluded backdrop to affairs of the heart. Or, in the case of the rousing first single “Take Me to the Riot,” it sounds like more a respite from boredom rather than a call for revolution, mere role-playing to battle ennui.

“Barricades” is more direct: a plea to an old lover or friend—a resigned radical—to rejoin the narrator at the riot scene, luring them with the less-than-enticing line, “The love died, but the hate can’t fade.” Set to solo piano accompaniment and Campbell’s off-Broadway vocal delivery, it will be a litmus test for those who already cringe at song titles such as “Life 2: The Unhappy Ending.”

But wartime window dressing aside, In Our Bedroom After the War is a major step up for Stars in general. Combining the new wave romanticism of their early material with the more rockist approach of their breakthrough album (Set Yourself On Fire), they’ve also absorbed some influences from the diverse list of Canadian peers who showed up on that album’s far superior remix record earlier this year.

Now the textures are more rich, they’re more likely to shift moods and time signatures in the middle of a song, drummer Pat McGee sounds more and more like Radiohead’s Phil Selway, and all of them are able to flex their rock muscles without it sounding overwrought, as it did last time out. And, as before, they know that their primary strength is having Campbell and Millan trading off lead vocals as much as possible: the surefire future single “Midnight Coward” sums up all of Stars’ best moves in less than four minutes. (August 30, 2007)

Stars play the Phoenix in Toronto November 26-28, and Le National in Montreal on November 30.

Linda ThompsonVersatile Heart (Zoe/Universal)

There’s nary a wasted moment on Versatile Heart, which is to be expected from a folk artist who has only put out three solo albums in the past 22 years. In that time, Thompson’s ex-husband Richard has put out one album after another coasting on his reputation, while their son Teddy has found prominence as a solo artist. Teddy shows up to co-write, co-produce and play guitar on this album, and he turns out to be a better writer with his mother in mind than he does on his own albums. Other guests pop by—Rufus Wainwright contributes a song, his sister Martha offers some vocals, and fellow British folk royalty Martin and Eliza Carthy also appear—but Thompson is the one steering the ship, proving herself an adept stylist with folk-pop (the title track), traditional British folk (“Katie Cruel”), American protest songs (Tom Waits’ “Day After Tomorrow”), country heartbreakers (“Give Me a Sad Song”) and string-drenched melancholia (Wainwright’s “Beauty”). A versatile heart, indeed. The song selection, the arrangements and the performances are nearly flawless. You won’t any trouble believing her when she sings: “Give me a sad song/ I’m in a class of my own.” (August 23, 2007)

Teddy ThompsonUpfront and Down Low (Verve/Universal)

Linda’s son Teddy has been seen chumming around with Rufus Wainwright for many years, and even if they didn’t have famous folk music parentage in common, their voices are remarkably similar. But instead of operatic pop, Thompson finds his own sound by diving deep into vintage country music on his third album, consisting primarily of cover material.

Upfront and Down Low extracts gems from the songbooks of Ernest Tubb, Dolly Parton and others, and dresses them up in dinner jackets: elegant strings, subtle pedal steel, backing vocals from Iris DeMent and Tift Merritt, and Thompson’s rich tenor voice. He steers away from obvious song choices and sings each line as if Patsy Cline’s producer Owen Bradley was on the other side of the studio glass.

This all suits Thompson’s talents to a T—and, combined with his stunning performance in the Leonard Cohen tribute film I’m Your Man, suggests that his real talent is as an interpreter and producer, rather than as a songwriter. (August 23, 2007)

Teddy Thompson plays the Mod Club in Toronto on Monday, September 24, opening for Nick Lowe.

Nicole Willis and the Soul InvestigatorsKeep Reachin’ Up (Light in the Attic/Outside)

Sixties soul music continues to inspire people around the world, which explains why this Brookyln-born singer ended up first in the UK—where she sang with The The and recorded for early trip-hop label Mo’Wax—before moving to Finland and enlisting an all-Scandinavian backing band.

While most soul revivalists prefer the raw sounds of Stax Records and the like, the sound of Willis and her band is more in line with slick Motown productions, with rich string and horn arrangements enriching Willis’s butter-smooth vocals. There’s nothing in the natural grooves that would suggest the players grew up on anything but classic soul music—there’s none of the clinical academic approach that one might suspect from musicians so culturally removed from the source.

There’s no question she’s the finest soul singer in Finland, but a few more records like this and she’ll be giving Sharon Jones some competition back on her home turf. (August 30, 2007)

Also reviewed in the paper, but not reprinted here for quality control reasons (my own, not because I didn't like some of these records): Hairspray OST, Immaculate Machine, Required Listening 2 (Do Right), Sum 41, The Gift: A Tribute to Ian Tyson, Suzanne Vega, Justice, Ulrich Schnauss, Corneille, Bedouin Soundclash, Talib Kweli.

If you work for any of these artists and need a clipping, let me know.

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