Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Nov/Dec 08 reviews

Final batch of 08 reviews from the Kitchener-Waterloo Record/Guelph Mercury. Year-end picks to follow shortly--and from what I've read elsewhere so far, I'm on an entirely different planet than most of the critical consensus (other than my love of Fleet Foxes--sorry, Dave Morris). Which is fine with me.

Amadou and Mariam – Welcome to Mali (Warner)

After decades of obscurity, this duo became international stars on their last album, Dimanche a Bamako, with the help of co-producer Manu Chao. He brought his own otherworldly sense of cross-cultural displacement to their already-rich Malian stew of influences. Chao isn’t around this time, but Welcome to Mali continues to bridge the traditional instruments and motifs of their homeland with a broad approach to international pop—with mixed success.

The album opens with "Sabali," a track produced by the Gorillaz’ Damon Albarn, which suggests the duo are going to leave not only ill-defined world music behind, but the world itself; Mariam sounds like she’s broadcasting from an alien space station atop oscillating synthesizers. Albarn sticks around for the next track, playing keyboards that imitate a balafon (the Malian marimba). But from there on in, Welcome to Mali plays it relatively safe. It sounds much like any other West African recording helmed by French pop producers: a slick, funky pop record that succeeds best when it lays back, and threatens to fail when it goes for the grand gestures—both musical and lyrical, as on the middling track "Africa," featuring Toronto MC K’naan.

As expected, the harmonies here, between Amadou and Mariam as well as backing vocals by the Barry Sisters, are exquisite. But it’s Amadou’s guitar work that shines through here much more than on Dimanche a Bamako; "Masiteladi" and "Sekebe" show off his fiery fretboard skills.

The latter track, a driving dance number, also features punchy horns and Daft Punk-ish synthesizers, and a rousing call-and-response vocals. It closes the album on a high point; coupled with the opening track, it’s the bookends here that reveal the world of possibilities Amadou and Mariam are capable of. (November 27, 2008)

The Bicycles – Oh No, It's Love (Fuzzy Logic/Outside)

The problem with most pop songs is that they flog a dead horse; "don't bore us, get to the chorus," goes the old refrain. But once you get to the chorus, you should really get right back out again; a weak chorus doesn't get better with repetition.

The Bicycles are all about the economy, stupid. And they know your time is precious, which is why Oh No, It's Love packs 18 songs into 40 minutes. Much like their mentors Sloan, whose 2006 album Never Hear the End of It segued a series of short songs together, the Bicycles prefer to keep things moving along; unlike Sloan, the Bicycles never seem to run out of good ideas as they traipse through 70s pop, garage rock, 60s British Invasion, shades of country and even bits of glam. Every member is a multi-instrumentalist, and lead vocals are shared between them; this is one variety show where there's no time nor talent shortage to stay in one spot for too long. (November 6, 2008)

Tracy Chapman – Our Bright Future (Warner)

The morning after Barack Obama’s presidential victory, I scanned my vinyl collection for the appropriate soundtrack to usher in a new era. For whatever reason, the first record that jumped off the shelf was Tracy Chapman’s remarkable debut album from 20 years ago; that collection of songs articulates so much of the racial, class and gender lines that still divide America, detailing aspirations of transcendence and heartbreaking realities. “Finally the tables are starting to turn,” she sang back then, “talkin’ bout a revolution.” In 1988, that was only wishful thinking.

Lo and behold, one week after Obama’s win, Tracy Chapman has an album called Our Bright Future. While obviously there’s no direct link, surely it’s a sign of something that this is not only her finest collection of songs in a very long time, but it’s also her most optimistic. She sings of days “like the first day of spring” and looks forward to a time when “our bright future is in the past.” Her character writing is in fine form, the love songs are sweet but never saccharine, and Chapman’s luxurious voice is front and centre, backed up by transparent and tasteful arrangements by a who’s-who of L.A. studio musicians.

Sign her up for the inaugural ball. (November 13, 2008)

Castanets – City of Refuge (Asthmatic Kitty/ Sonic Unyon)

Tom Petty once told us that "you don't have to live like a refugee." But listening to Castanets' City of Refuge suggests that displacement and despair can spawn sparse yet captivating creations. Raymond Raposa is the one-man band that is Castanets, and he apparently recorded these 15 songs by himself in a motel room in the middle of nowhere. That story sounds a bit too good to be true—for starters, it doesn't explain some of the drowsy turntablism that shows up as an occasional texture here—but it does paint a picture of loneliness and desolation. Coloured primarly by dusty desert electric guitar lines, City of Refuge owes more than a few debts to Ry Cooder's evocative soundtrack work, with some spacey electronics and subtle Latin influences in the mix. There's no question that Raposa is in a bleak place; he sings, "As long as I've lived, I've wanted to die." Yet the theme of refuge prevails; he does find solace and safety in the long, empty spaces between notes here. The most optimistic he gets is when he covers the gospel standard "I'll Fly Away," which is a natural thematic fit; he doesn't dwell on it, however, placing it halfway through the song cycle, and only for 90 seconds at that. For Raposa, the City of Refuge is still a mirage that threatens to evaporate before his eyes; hopefully once he finally gets to walk those gilded streets, his music will be just as evocative. (November 27, 2008)

Dungen – 4 (Kemado)

Swedish psychedelic rock with flutes, glockenspiels and jazzy piano riffs might not be your cup of tea—until you hear Dungen. And even if you’ve heard them before, 4 is a major step up for bandleader Gustav Estes’s ability to seamlessly weave pastoral pop music, fuzzed-out guitar rock and jazz together; think of a bizarre cross between Black Sabbath and Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, only sung in Swedish. Special credit goes to Dungen’s new drummer, Johan Holmegard, for channelling the spirit of the recently deceased Mitch Mitchell of the Jimi Hendrix Experience; like Mitchell, Holmegard possesses both a deft and delicate touch that morphs into the monstrous when necessary. Everyone else here is equally tasteful; the guitarists definitely love their solos, but they come more from the Santana school of sensitive noodling, rather than the all-out wankfests that too many psych bands indulge in. (November 20, 2008)

Fembots – Calling Out (weewerk/Outside)

The Fembots are two Torontonian men who reside in a studio they call the Junkshop. Their earliest recordings found them playing around with all sorts of odd noisemakers that sounded like the creation of a mad inventor. This time out, they actually do have a mad inventor in the band: Iner Souster, who makes beautiful and unique instruments from recycled and reused detritus. These creations also double as sculpture; you can preview some of them here.

Souster became an honorary member of the Fembots for this recording, which also features drummer/songwriter Nathan Lawr; both get co-writing credits here. Many of the songs were written with Souster’s creations providing the initial backdrop; more conventional guitars and keyboards were layered on later, which leave the odd textures to fade into the background. Which is too bad, because—as their last album proved—the Fembots simply aren’t as interesting when they play it straight. Although “straight” is an extremely relative term here; the Fembots still hail firmly from left field.

But there’s no point in dwelling on what Calling Out could have been; what it is is a lively collection of songs that once again draw from urban observations and religious reckoning. Opening track "Good Days" sets the bar high for the rest of the album, with a rousing chorus that declares: “All you Christian soldiers and all you Muslim martyrs/ you got it wrong/ life is good.” (November 20, 2008)

Flaming Lips – Christmas on Mars DVD (Warner)

Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne has spent the better part of a decade making this film in his basement and his backyard—which is incredible, considering the set design and his ability to evoke sci-fi films and Cold War paranoia from the ’50s and’60s. Unfortunately, ambition alone doesn’t make this film much more than a tedious hallucination, a disconnected dream sequence that doesn’t even succeed as lo-fi B-movie kitsch. A gallery of stills from this film is more exciting than enduring awkward, jargon-heavy dialogue. The accompanying soundtrack fares slightly better, if only because meandering instrumental sci-fi music is much easier to absorb than a meandering, plotless sci-fi movie. (December 11, 2008)

Kocani Orkestar – The Ravished Bride (Crammed/Fusion III)

When North Americans think of brass bands, they usually think of New Orleans. Apparently, so does this Macedonian brass ensemble, whose third album finds them funkier than ever; it sounds like their tuba player has been studying the syncopated likes of the Rebirth Brass Band and the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble. The trombones and trumpets are as fast and furious as ever, but it’s actually the clarinetist here who steals most of the solos, with the accordion player scurrying along right behind him; there’s also a couple of surf rock guitar solos that seem to come out of nowhere. But no matter who’s in the lead, this is a non-stop thrill ride—even the boozy waltzes—guaranteed to please fans of both traditional acts like Mahala Rai Banda or Taraf de Haidouks, as well as New World acts like Beirut and Balkan Beat Box who have brought these sounds to North American ears in recent years. (November 13, 2008)

Leila – Blood, Looms and Blooms (Warp/Fusion III)

Dreams are all about distortion: of time, of sight, of sound, of context. Composer/producer Leila Arab draws heavily from dream worlds in her music, where signifiers from past eras collide with decaying futurist visions. She sets up these scenarios and then lets them disintegrate before our ears. The opening track finds her running every instrument through various levels of distortion, crafting a broken beauty that complements the descending melodic lines, and preparing us for the coming audio journey.

The cover art is also telling: a man in a crescent moon overlooks a sinister-looking tree trunk that is wrapped in a strange architectural fantasy of tubes, bells and whistles; it could be the cover of a particularly dark children's book from 50 years ago, or a still from the Caro/Jeunet film City of Lost Children.

Blood, Looms and Blooms is a rich, imaginative and evocative album that justifies every minute of Leila's eight-year absence from recording. In the interim, Leila recorded and toured with Bjork, who is an obvious kindred spirit; they are both musical omnivores with a deep love for classical music, peculiar electronics and joyous dance beats. Leila doesn't venture into clubland often here, although “Little Acorns” does boast a bouncy Brazilian hip-hop beat with tinny synth horns, a comically slippery bass line, and little girls attempting some ragga toasting.

Most of Leila's grooves are dark and ominous, like the rattling bass synth underneath the track “Mettle”; dripping tap water dictates the beat, while guitarist Andy Cox (English Beat, Fine Young Cannibals) tears into spooky guitar riffs that Leila tweaks into oblivion. For all her tendencies toward noise and dissonance, she can also play it completely straight: “Young Once” is a live recording featuring her on unadorned piano, accompanied by cello and two clarinets; the result is just as affecting as the most heavily produced material here.

The most fascinating moments are when she allows everything to collide, as she does on “Daisies, Cats and Spacement”: there, a sensual jazz vocal guides pizzicato strings playing tarantella rhythms, while manipulated harpsichords skitter over snare drums that drag the beat into dungeons of reverb. At times, these tracks recall the unrealized potential of Tricky in the mid-90s; the association is bolstered by her choice of vocalists Terry Hall (the Specials) and Martina Topley-Bird, both of whom were frequent Tricky collaborators at the time.

The only misstep here is an atrocious cover of the Beatles' “Norwegian Wood,” which not only bears no melodic resemblance to the original, but the arrangement falls flat compared to the creativity heard on every other track here.

Few artists from the late 90s electronic scene continue to push themselves forward and create albums as spellbinding as their early works, but Leila is one of them. It obviously helps to hibernate for a while; just ask Portishead. (November 6, 2008)

Ohbijou/Acorn – split 12” single (Kelp)

These two Ontario bands have toured together many times; listening to this vinyl single that they share, it’s easy to see why. They both explore an adventurous take on folk rock, with a deep appreciation for classic pop songwriting that never falls into cliché; they both share a small-town melancholy made for Canadian winters and CBC playlists; they both love their cellos and banjos as much as their electric guitars. On this 12” vinyl single, they offer up one new song each, and cover each other.

The Ohbijou side is considerably stronger; not just featuring their new song "Tender Bones," but also The Acorn’s sympathetic reading of Ohbijou’s "Steep." The new Acorn song, on the other hand, doesn’t come close to the heights they scaled on 2007’s Glory Hope Mountain, and Ohbijou turn in a rather clunky rendition of a very early Acorn track that’s barely recognizable here. Being such close friends, these two bands would never try to compete; no wonder this comes to a draw. (November 20, 2008)

Roxanne Potvin – No Love For the Poisonous (Alert)

Before Roxanne Potvin's performance at the Hillside Festival last summer, one of her biggest fans turned to me and started extolling the singer/guitarist's many virtues. After a minor avalanche of glowing adjectives, he stopped suddenly and said, "But she really has to cut out all those ballads."

That sentiment sums up Potvin’s second album—especially when, ten songs into it, she finally lets loose with a visceral and soulful wail on the gospel funk of "Dig Deeper." Knowing that she’s capable of that, it’s hard to understand why she exercises such comparatively polite restraint on the rest of this album.

That said, it’s hard to fault Potvin for being such a tasteful pop crooner on material that serves well as smooth Sunday morning soul music, on tracks such as "Paralyzed," "Who’s the Enemy" and "Laws of Nature." Key to this album’s success is the earthy production by Dave Mackinnon of the Fembots, bolstered by the veteran K-W rhythm section of bassist Mark McIntyre and drummer Roger Travassos, who push Potvin along with grooves that exercise considerable muscle even on the quietest moments (The Puzzle). (November 27, 2008)

Peter Project – s/t (Fuzzy Logic/Outside)
iNSiDEaMiND – Scatterpopia (Public Transit Recordings)

These two Toronto artists are among the few who still take turntablism as a serious artform, one that owes an obvious debt to its hip-hop origins but can mean so much more than that.

The Peter Project is a playful tour-de-force that draws heavily from obtuse dialogue samples culled from TV and children’s records, matched with jazzy flute loops, walking bass lines, spy movie themes and psychedelic keyboards—as well as a few harpsichords, for good measure. “If the music got really weird, then you’d get really weird, too,” promises one of the anonymous, disembodied voices heard here, and it’s true—though the Peter Project is careful to welcome some real live human beings into his fantastical sonic playground, namely Toronto MCs such as More or Les, the Word Burglar, Zaki Ibrahim and Masia One. There’s some scratchtastic action on the turntables as well, but that takes a backseat to the beats and the oddities sandwiched in between.

iNSiDEaMiND come from more of a sound art background than the dance floor. Somewhere between the playful sonic narratives of Kid Koala and the eerie urban landscapes conjured up by the so-called “illbient” movement of the late 90s, iNSiDEaMiND are masters of mood and manipulation of sound. Although there are moments of funk and jazz here—including one collaboration with Montreal beatmaster Ghislain Poirier, and another with Toronto jazz saxophonist Colin Fisher— iNSiDEaMiND are most captivating when they set themselves adrift on a sea of crackling vinyl, to see what they will find. (November 13, 2008)

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers – Running Down a Dream DVD (Warner)

As Running Down a Dream begins, we’re introduced to Tom Petty and his Heartbreakers celebrating 30 years together, at a hometown concert in Gainsville, Florida. The performance is perfunctory and confirms suspicions that casual Petty fans might have about the man’s career: that he’s a competent and dependable songwriter, if not a bit bland and entirely predictable.

So why would you sit through a four-hour documentary about such an artist?

For starters, there’s much more to Petty than meets the eye. Anyone who only knows him from the last 20 years of his career—as the laid-back author of songs like "Free Falling" and "You Don’t Know How It Feels"—will be surprised to discover what a powerful rock band the Heartbreakers were in the early days, and how they bridged the worlds of 60s rock and 70s new wave. It was actually the UK, obsessed with punk at the time, that first embraced the all-American rocker before he ever found success at home.

Petty came of age at a time where his close circle of friends and collaborators could include members of the Beatles, the Byrds, Fleetwood Mac, Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, the Eurythmics and Pearl Jam—all of whom feature prominently in this film. Yet it’s the relationships inside the Heartbreakers that are key here, especially his two right-hand men: guitarist Mike Campbell and keyboardist Benmont Tench.

Petty has a reputation as a stubborn man of principle, one that once sued his record company in the late 70s, at a time when the music business was being collapsed into an oligopoly. Years later, he would help dig his commercial grave at radio by writing a single called "The Last DJ," about the death of independent programming in an age of media conglomeration. On a less endearing note, he refused Stevie Nicks’s offer to join the Heartbreakers because “there are no girls in the Heartbreakers.”

Petty’s private life as an adult is not on display; there’s little mention of his first wife or his children. His early years, however, are well documented through interviews and copious amounts of Super-8 footage taken by his family and his early bandmates.

Directed by Peter Bogdanovich, Running Down a Dream is far more engaging than expected—especially considering that it’s basically an extended episode of Behind the Music. But despite its length, there’s nary a rambling moment, and all of the live footage informs the narrative.

Fairweather fans will find it compelling enough; anyone with a well-worn copy of Petty’s greatest hits record will be in heaven. (December 11, 2008)

Q-Tip – The Renaissance (Motown/Universal)

Though it’s been in the works almost as long as Chinese Democracy, The Renaisssance succeeds everywhere Axl Rose fails: here’s a beloved icon who comes back swinging like his former self while sounding entirely of the moment as well, oozing with charisma the entire time.

In the nine years since his last album, this legendary MC reunited with A Tribe Called Quest for a couple of tours, and recorded two solo albums that were shelved by the record company. And yet here it sounds like he never left; he doesn’t sound desperate to prove anything to anyone.

The Renaissance is full of the laid-back charm that built his rep in the first place, set atop boom-bap grooves and jazzy bass lines. There’s some starpower help from Norah Jones, D’Angelo and Raphael Saadiq, but no other MCs to distract from Tip’s flawless flow—which is especially evident on the extended a cappella intro to "Dance on Glass," where it’s almost disappointing once the beat kicks in. Live grooves drive some of the best moments here, like the sparse, squiggly bass on the disco of "ManWomanBooogie" or the guitar-driven funk trio heard on "Good Thing."

When he rattles off the names of his hip-hop heroes on "Life Is Better," it’s a potent reminder of how few of them built sustainable careers. And maybe absence makes the heart grow fonder, but there’s every sense here that Q-Tip will still be making classic records years from now. (December 4, 2008)

Serena Ryder – Is It OK? (EMI)

For a young woman with such a confident voice, that’s a rather insecure album title. But for a woman who can stun a room into silence with an a cappella performance, Ryder decides pulls out the big production courtesy of John Alagia (Dave Matthews Band, John Mayer); thankfully, it never threatens to overshadow Ryder’s formidable presence. With the exception of one or two subdued numbers here—including the closing "Dark as the Black," which is the highlight—Ryder is ready to leave her folkie beginnings behind and go for the all-out belting here (for better or worse), assuming a role in Canadian music that’s been vacant ever since Amanda Marshall went AWOL. Ryder set her sights high on her 2006 major label debut, If Your Memory Serves You Well, where she tackled the classic Canadian songbook with aplomb; this is meant to be her coming-out party as a songwriter and ... well, she’s still an amazing singer. In that sense, this is certainly OK. Just OK, though. (November 13, 2008)

Spam All-Stars – Introducing (Introducing/Fusion III)

The sound of Miami’s Spam All-Stars can be explained by the resumés of the band and their extended family, which includes James Brown, Sly and the Family Stone, Shakira, Antibalas, Phish and many more; bandleader/songwriter/DJ Andrew Yeomanson is of British/Venezuelan heritage and was raised in Montreal, Toronto, Bogota and Miami. These are top-notch Latin funk players who were first assembled 15 years ago, and whose first five albums are compiled for this, their first international release; naturally, it’s a non-stop party that allows room for subtle shadings as well as heavy funk grooves. The production is smooth, but not entirely slick; it’s likely ten times as atomic in a live setting, and now that they’re poised to make major inroads outside of the Sunshine State, it’s more likely we’ll witness that close to home soon enough. (November 6, 2008)

Rae Spoon – Superior You Are Inferior (Scratch)

Rae Spoon sings about being “off the grid and underground,” which befits a performer who bounces between Berlin, Montreal and his hometown of Calgary. It also suits a singer/songwriter who sings high lonesome folk songs with steel guitars and cellos and then switches to subtle synths and electronic percussion without missing a beat. Rae Spoon sounds like a naturalist adrift in the modern world, trying to find a way “to get the ocean on our side” on songs such as “Come On Forest Fire Burn the Disco Down,” and “We Become Our Own Wolves.” The songwriting and arrangements are uniformly strong; Spoon’s bell-clear and androgynous voice could use more variation, instead of sounding like a formal recital, but that’s a minor complaint as this worthy artist otherwise expands his sonic palette with great success. (December 4, 2008)

Stompin' Tom – The Ballad of Stompin' Tom (EMI)

In a recent Globe and Mail profile of Stompin' Tom Connors, the writer says that Tom "no longer listens to country radio. It's too homogeneous, he says, with too many people trying to do the same kind of song again and again." The irony is rich, coming from a man who is nothing if not homogenous, writing the same kind of Canadiana again and again, with little more than three chords, an acoustic guitar and a Maritimers' drawl. This album features unnecessary re-recordings of three earlier songs (including the now-ubiquitous “Hockey Song”), a cover of his idol Wilf Carter's “Take Me Back to Old Alberta,” and ten new songs that mine similar territory, as well as the sweet “Bride & Groom Waltz.” Unlike his contemporaries, this 72-year-old isn't concerned with late-career grativas or matters of mortality; he's still writing about "workin' in the bush of Buctouche" and hamming it up on songs like “Chickie Pooh,” which would even embarrass Fred Penner. Most affecting is the title track, which is rich in detail from Connors' hard-luck childhood; it's also a helpful précis in case you don't have time to read his 2000-page autobiographical tome (which, sadly, is now out of print). (November 6, 2008)

Kanye West – 808 & Heartbreak (Roc-a-fella/Universal)

Harder? Better? Faster? Stronger? Not this time. Kanye West likes to come off as invincible, both in his music and his off-stage persona, but here—his first album since the death of his mother last year—he lets his guard down to soak in melancholy, 80s pop, and self-pity. This is not a hip-hop album at all, and not a single one of these tracks is likely to be heard in a club; thankfully the timing is such that West doesn’t have to compete with the likes of 50 Cent this time out—because even a weak 50 Cent album would probably beat out a head-scratcher of a record like this one. In the words of Q-Tip, this is like “cold grits without the hot sauce.”

808 & Heartbreak finds West singing more often than not, albeit with copious help from an auto-tuner. With the kind of artists he has on his speed dial, there must be a good reason why he didn’t ask for vocal help; instead, we’re stuck with what sounds like second-rate Akon and/or T-Pain. What could have been a serious artistic left turn—not unlike Beck’s Sea Change or Mutations albums—instead falls prey to a simple production gimmick.

It doesn’t help that his musings on fame are increasingly nauseating, on "Welcome to the Heartbreak" and a horrendous solo piano bonus track with a bizarre Pinocchio analogy—he just wants to be a real boy, you see. It makes matters worse that the track sounds like it was recorded on a cellphone at the back of a stadium. And it’s not like he hasn’t been successfully reflective before—even on the subject of his mother, as he was on Late Registration’s “Hey Mama.”

This is all a shame, because West’s increased infatuation with 20-year-old synthesizers elevates some of the sub-standard pop songs here, and the Roland 808 drum machine of the title is used to maximum effect. He has plenty of fine production scattered throughout here, but it would be much more interesting to hear him apply it to a young, impressionable artist—maybe even one who can sing—rather than his own insufferable self-absorption. (December 4, 2008)

Sunday, November 16, 2008

October 08 reviews

More autumnal housecleaning.

These reviews ran in the mainstream daily newspapers the Kitchener-Waterloo Record and the Guelph Mercury in October.

Azeda Booth – In Flesh Tones (Absolutely Kosher/Sonic Unyon)

Chad Van Gaalen isn't the only Calgarian hoarding vintage synthesizers, though it's safe to say that Azeda Booth has the bigger collection. This quintet play planetarium pop music heavily influenced by the likes of Mum, Four Tet and the more abstract corners of Radiohead's discography, with androgynous vocals that make Sigur Ros sound downright butch, especially when they whisper lines about being "face down in the middle of the parking lot"—sounding like they were actually recorded in said state. Rhythms are occasionally scattershot, while the warm synth sounds and dream-like vocals provide a comforting cushion throughout even the most discombobulated moments—of which there are a few. This being a debut album, Azeda Booth are more in love with sounds than songs, but their sonic landscapes are intriguing enough—and unique in this country—to keep an eye on. (October 30, 2008)

Laura Barrett – Victory Garden (Paper Bag/Universal)

Perhaps I’ve been too easily charmed by Laura Barrett from the beginning: anyone venturing into the world as a singer/songwriter armed with only a kalimba (African thumb piano) and somehow making it work must surely have many other hidden talents. On her first full-length album, Barrett goes for broke, decorating her songs in all sorts of oddball orchestrations. Though the instruments may sound familiar, none of it sounds remotely conventional—and her lyrics follow suit, detailing hippopotamus and marsupials that get up to souped-up shenanigans.

There many isolated moments of beauty and brilliance here, and yet Victory Garden is totally confounding at almost every turn. Barrett is either an absolute genius or she’s completely bonkers; this is not an album that anyone will feel ambivalent about. If anything, it’s her lyrics and careening melodies that are the most distracting; much of the backing music, when left to its own dense devices, is playful and fascinating. Placing it alongside surrealist lyrics chains it to folk/pop expectations that do it a disservice. If anything, Barrett should take this even further and trust her instrumentals to tell entire stories.

However, even when Barrett stumbles in her songwriting, producer and co-arranger Paul Aucoin (the Hylozoists) ensures that there’s always a fascinating background behind her to fill in all the blanks. (October 2, 2008)

Bloc Party – Intimacy (Warner)

"This is the not the time to start a new love/ this is not the time to sign a lease, " sings Kele Okereke on Bloc Party's third album. When writing that line, he couldn't have known about global financial insecurity, and nor was he anticipating the Canadian electorate's decision to stick with the devil they know. But for Okereke and his bandmates, it sounds like they're not afraid to try on as many new clothes as possible.

And more power to them; they were always an interesting band with latent greatness, but now that they’ve thrown most of their formulas out the window, anything goes. There are still more than a few hints here of what U2 would sound like in 2008 if they had any cojones, and some updated 80s influences alongside newer nods to recent Radiohead and neo-prog rock such as Deerhoof and Battles. Squealing guitars, cascading brass and even Balkan choirs compete with scattershot drum programming, icy synths and Okereke’s plaintive uber-Brit yelping. Rather than a band exploring its identity crisis, Bloc Party are well on their way to developing their own sound, and moving leaps and bounds beyond the

Though drummer Matt Tong is still the main star here, increasingly inventive guitarist Russell Lissack threatens to steal the spotlight; vocalist Okereke is still the weak link, though thankfully his lyrics don’t sink to the self-absorbed depths they did last time out. Back then, he was jaded about the rock star lifestyle; this time he’s no doubt reinvigorated enough by his bandmates’ inventions to step us his own game. (October 23, 2008)

Buena Vista Social Club – At Carnegie Hall (Nonesuch/Warner)

Most long-lost live albums now seeing the light of day are from at least 30 years ago. But with the Cuban supergroup Buena Vista Social Club, it’s been a mere 10 years since this landmark performance; many of them were in their 80s then, and many of them are no longer with us. The cynic would argue that because the members are dying off, this release is an attempt to keep a flagging franchise going.

But who’s complaining? This documents a historic occasion, a victory lap for once-forgotten musicians who were retired or shining shoes when their Social Club became an international phenomenon. And when players like pianist Ruben Gonzalez are ignited by the outpouring of emotion from the crowd, the band embarks on captivating improvisatory flights that the studio albums only hinted at. The impassioned duets between Ibrahim Ferrer and Omara Portuondo are highlights, but mostly the singers take a backseat to the electricity of the band. This live album features all eight tracks from the original album and eight more from the various solo albums, assembled in a beautiful package that makes it equally worthwhile for collectors and newcomers. (October 23, 2008)

Calexico – Carried To Dust (Quarterstick/FAB)

Calexico have always been a band willing to try anything that suits the mood of their surrounding Arizona landscape: Mexican mariachi, cinematic desert-driven soundscapes, covers of classic rock and bleak British new wave, sparse instrumentals and lush pop songs. For all their many successes, there are occasionally times when it sounds like they're trying a bit too hard—as it did on 2006's Garden Ruin, where they tackled straight-up rock songs for the first time.

Carried To Dust finds them retreating to a mellower mood, and in the process they distill many of their strengths. They've made albums as good as this one before, but years of touring with an expanded band has made them that much more confident in every move. The mariachi flourishes coalesce with sunstroked, slow-burning country torch songs and traces of dub reggae into a cohesive new direction. Singer Joey Burns sticks to his lower register—sounding more and more like his previous employer, Giant Sand's Howe Gelb—whispering mysterious melodies as just another instrument in the mix, maintaining all focus on the meticulously arranged musical backdrop.

Calexico's last three albums have often been sidetracked by detours, for better and worse; here, they've settled on a single route—albeit the most scenic one possible. (October 30, 2008)

Calexico play the Phoenix in Toronto this Tuesday, November 18, with Cuff the Duke.

The Dears – Missiles (Maple/Universal)

If destruction and rebirth are common themes on this Dears album, there are literal reasons for this. Singer Murray Lightburn and keyboardist Natalia Yanchak had a baby before recording began, and by the time the process finished they were the only remaining band members. All of this factors directly into the subdued tone of Missiles, which strips away the guitars and modern rock bombast heard on 2006's disappointing Gang of Losers; in their place are eerie organs, subtle soul licks, acoustic guitars, synthetic strings, drunk drum machines and more than a few shades of Pink Floyd—including the tenor sax on the opening track, and the David Gilmour-esque guitar solo on "Lights Off." The high gloss of recent Dears recordings has also been scaled back; Missiles is a raw and intimate document of tumultuous times, both personally and politically. Lyrically, Lightburn still sees life-and-death issues everywhere he turns, and—as always—the lines between melodramatic and maudlin are very fine indeed ("Gotta get milk for the baby!"), especially when the children's choir and funereal brass show up on the ten-minute, brooding closing track "Saviour." By that point, however, Missiles proves to be such a record of redemption that that the Dears can be forgiven the occasional indulgence. (October 30, 2008)

Final Fantasy – Spectrum 14th Century EP; Plays to Please EP (Blocks Recording Club/ Sonic Unyon)

Owen Pallett can sell you almost anything. The man won the inaugural Polaris Prize with a concept album about Dungeons and Dragons titled He Poos Clouds; he is also a darling of CBC's Vinyl Café, has been invited to curate his own European festival, and has built his reputation for a stunning live performance involving only a violin and a loop pedal.

These two EPs pose their own challenges: one is another concept piece, this time set in a 14th century village, and the other orchestrates one of Toronto's most difficult and underappreciated songwriters.

Spectrum 14th Century finds Pallett's songwriting continue to evolve and move well beyond pop music constraints without sacrificing any of his melodic gifts; his instrumentation is also getting more diverse, with steel pans, trumpets, and contributions from his occasional employers in Arcade Fire and Beirut.

Plays to Please finds him reinventing the songs of Deep Dark United's Alex Lukashevsky, whose own albums are often impenetrable—and yet Pallett finds beauty and coherence in these songs by setting them to live and lush orchestration, liberating them from the expectations that come from Lukashevsky's usual rock/folk settings.

Each EP clocks in at less than 20 minutes; each is equally satisfying and indicative of Pallett's many talents. And as stopgaps before his long-delayed new full-length, they'll help us forgive him for taking his sweet time. (October 16, 2008)

Ben Folds – Way to Normal (Sony BMG)

Smart-ass, or sensitive guy? Ben Folds has always been a balance of both, especially on the three fine albums he made with Ben Folds Five in the last half of the 90s. But his last album, Songs for Silverman, showed him mellowing into a boring balladeer with little of the personality heard on earlier works. Way to Normal, on the other hand, finds him pounding on his piano again with glee, relishing in the rock'n'roll release of it all.

Unfortunately, his lyrics are often downright juvenile and unbefitting a writer who's capable of much better. The opening track is about falling on his ass on-stage in Hiroshima; the humour doesn't develop much further from there. "Effington" is about a town where Folds fantasizes about starting "a new effing life." The four-times-wed Folds revels in the word "bitch" and profane asides that suggest a mid-life crisis and/or regression is going on—which is sad, because much of the music here is what longtime Folds fans have been waiting for since 2001's Rockin' the Suburbs. There's a fantastically furious piano solo in "Dr. Yang"; "Free Coffee" finds him mining Radiohead rhythms to an oddly wonderful effect; "Cologne" is one his finer ballads.

Most of this album finds Folds trying to figure out who he was, who he is and who he should be—searching for his own "way to normal," if you will. (October 16, 2008)

Fucked Up – The Chemistry of Common Life (Matador/Beggars Banquet)

There are easy reasons why this Toronto hardcore punk band have been making international headlines, starting with their name. There’s also the reputation of their live show, where singer Pink Eyes is known to be the most self-lacerating singer since early Iggy Pop. And they’ve gone on the record in several articles musing about their own self-destruction.

But what makes Fucked Up more than just obnoxious drama queens is the ambition of their music. They open their album with a solo flute, and include two tracks of ambient instrumentals; in the hands of a lesser band, these would be cheap signifiers of “musical maturity.” But throughout The Chemistry of Common Life, Fucked Up show that they’re just as much recording studio sticklers as they are a chaotic live act. There’s more than a few plodding punk rock numbers here, and the proceedings get infinitely more interesting when guests show up, such as vocalists Dallas Green (City and Colour, Alexisonfire) and Katie Stelmanis. But on tracks like the opening "Son The Father" show in spades, Fucked Up are far more multidimensional than their media image might portray.

While this isn’t the masterpiece it’s being made out to be, it’s obvious that this band does have such a work in them—if they stay together long enough to write and record it. (October 23, 2008)

Girl Talk – Feed the Animals (Illegal Art)

Years ago now, the mash-up was king—for about a month. Take the vocals of a bubblegum pop song and set it to a hardcore hip-hop beat, or vice versa—it wasn’t rocket science, there were hundreds of them floating around the net, and the appeal wore off quickly.

And yet Girl Talk is a mash-up DJ who is one of the hottest live acts in the States right now. He’s also getting tons of press—mostly revolving around the mystery as to why no one has sued him for every penny he’s ever made, considering the brazen copyright lawbreaking going on here. That is part of the reason he’s offering it as a pay-what-you-can download from his website.

Each track here contains dozens of samples drawn from every corner of the pop music map, mixing up Metallica with Lil Mama, Flo-Rida with the Velvet Underground, and plenty of 80s one-hit wonders with today’s gangsta rap. There’s something to be said for the “poptimism” of it all, playing to the omnivorous tastes of a new generation for whom nothing is uncool or off-limits. Girl Talk makes it work in all its ADD glory, and there’s a reason why he’s the only mash-up artist anyone’s still talking about: he’s that good.

But is Girl Talk the innovative artist he’s made out to be, or is he simply a great party DJ? There’s very little here that isn’t instantly recognizable and meant to play to a crowd, so it’s not like the guy is bringing obscurities to life. He’s also using full verses and choruses, not recontextualizing small snippets. This music only works because we know (most of) it so well already—so why should we care about who Girl Talk is as an artist? And, by extension, should he or anyone else be paid for it?

Of course, no one will be arguing about any of this when you put Feed the Animals on at a party—which you will, and which you should. Let the academics debate and leave the geeks to trainspot every sample; everyone else will revel in the exhilaration of these cheap thrills that are, ultimately, even more disposable than the one-hit wonders he pilfers at will. (October 9, 2008)

Hanggai – Introducing Hanggai (Introducing)

When it comes to “world music” fads, Chinese and East Asian music is usually at the bottom of the list. There’s never been an act from that corner of the world that’s even approached mainstream success in the west—but if anyone could, it’s Hanggai.

This is a group of Mongolian musicians living in Beijing, playing traditional Chinese string instruments and incorporating some of the throat singing technique of their native land. The frog-like vocals, minimal percussion and droning melodies of the ehru (a two-stringed violin-like instrument) are utterly entrancing on the slower numbers; the more upbeat tunes here have an unexpectedly Celtic lilt to them. This is a string band, after all, and at some point a fiddle tune is still a fiddle tune—only Hanggai don’t sound like they fit easily into either eastern or western traditions.

The surf guitar that shows up in "Five Heroes" throws the listener for a loop, as does the relentless chugging rhythm of Wuji—which could pass for an acoustic metal song, complete with guttural vocals.

Introducing Hanggai is a world unto itself—which is maybe what “world music” should be about in the first place. (October 16, 2008)

Koushik – Out My Window (Stones Throw/Koch)

Until now, Koushik was known—if he was known at all—as a sidekick to Caribou, the psychedelic electronic artist who snapped up the 2008 Polaris Prize last month. And it’s very obvious what the two have in common, other than a childhood spent in Dundas, Ontario: a love of reverb, ghostly sounds, and hints of 60s pop. But where Caribou relies of propulsive percussion and duelling drum kits, Koushik prefers much more laconic sonics.

Out My Window is a dreamy and deconstructionist pop album that, though melodic, takes a carefree and unhurried approach to its hooks. There are hints of hip-hop production in the beats and loops, and it’s easy to see why Koushik caught the ear of Stones Throw, the label that is home to the left-field jazzy grooves of Madlib.

Yet Koushik is ultimately about melody or beats, just mood and abstractions. Some may find it slight, but it’s hard not to get swept up in the sun-baked atmospherics and rumbling reverb that envelopes everything. Just don’t consume while operating heavy machinery. (October 9, 2008)

Lyrics Born – Everywhere At Once (Anti/Epitaph)

The man they call Lyrics Born has one of the finest flows in hip-hop, with a laid-back, charismatic and clever Californian drawl that suits his every move, from electro funk to pop to Barry White balladry, with plenty of live instrumentation shaking up his sample-based approach of the past. And while he has no problem adapting his flow to his expanded musical palette, many of the tracks here don’t measure up to his own mic skills. For a guy whose last record was an entirely engaging and successful remix album that mostly regurgitated his debut, it’s a bit shocking that most of this album comes off as mere filler. When he’s on point, he’s capable of some of the year’s finest party tracks ("Don’t Change," "Hott 2 Deff"); those are definitely worth a download. Lyrics Born has it in him to be an album artist; unfortunately, this is not that album. (October 9, 2008)

Monkey – Journey to the West (XL/Beggars Banquet)

Damon Albarn is never dull, even if he falls flat on his face. The one-time frontman of Britpop sensation Blur has done plenty of globetrotting in the past ten years, both with his animated supergroup of sorts, Gorillaz, and a quickly-forgotten band that brought together members of The Clash, The Verve and Fela Kuti's band.

Monkey is another project with his Gorillaz collaborator Jamie Hewlett; this time they take on Chinese opera. Not the classical kind heard in Farewell My Concubine (one of my favourite movies of all time) nor the type heard recently in Stephin Merritt's Showtunes project, which was equally as inspired by Gilbert and Sullivan.

Monkey is a mix of all of this and more, a cross-cultural carnival with nary a nod to pop convention, despite the occasional drum machine or electric guitar. With Mandarin lyrics, there's no hint here for English speakers what sort of narrative is taking place; the music is cinematic enough to make its own suggestions, with equal nods to classical traditions from both east and west, and elements of sci-fi bachelor pad music, prog rock and electronic pop.

What could be a frantic trainwreck of good intentions and bad directions is instead a captivating aural journey, aided by the ADD effect of having 22 tracks that rarely clock in at over two minutes. Surprising at every turn, the sound of Albarn and Hewlett monkey-ing around is more rewarding than anyone might have imagined. (October 30, 2008)

Krista Muir – Accidental Railway (Indica)

This Montreal chanteuse once liked to play dress-up in a character called Lederhosen Lucil, an act that took her touring around the world. This, however, is her second solo album playing it straight, and Muir proves that she has the emotional depth to outlast her cartoonish alter-ego.

She’s mostly abandoned the kitschy synths in favour of ukuleles and omnichords—thrift store instruments that could be just as campy, but in Muir’s hands they attain the perfect level of melancholy. Singing in English, French and Greek, Muir almost always hits the right emotional chords, especially on "Leave Alight" and "Concrete Lovesong," two of the most haunting songs you’ll hear this season. Muir also likes a good left turn when she finds one; a song like "Officer" moves through several moods successfully, including some minor key British folk motifs. Her attempts to rock out Jonathan Richman-style don’t work as well, but they’re by no means overstated nor distracting. (October 16, 2008)

Raphael Saadiq – The Way I See It (Sony BMG)

It must be hard for a veteran American R&B singer watch a new crew of Brits steal their sound and storm the airwaves. Raphael Saadiq plans to beat Amy, Duffy and Jamie and join them at the same time, by mining Motown and other vintage soul grooves to launch what should be a surefire comeback. Saadiq has had commercial success before—first in the late 80s with Tony! Toni! Toné!, and then in the late 90s with Lucy Pearl; he’s also been behind the boards for benchmarks of the neo-soul movement, such as D’Angelo.

With The Way I See It, Saadiq doesn’t go for an entirely retro recording ala Sharon Jones and the Daptones: this is still very modern, but it’s full of string sections, glockenspiels, guitar licks and big brass. Saadiq is a phenomenal singer, smooth like Smokey Robinson and seductive like Marvin Gaye. And most importantly, he’s got the songs to match the sound, each one delivered around the three-minute mark and leaving no room for wasted notes. Even when he calls in Joss Stone for a duet on "Just One Kiss," she only sticks around for two verses and two choruses before they fade out, deftly avoiding any soul-singer ego showdown. Inviting Jay-Z to rap over the slow jam "Oh Girl" is a significantly less successful move—thankfully that’s relegated to “bonus track” status.

When Stevie Wonder shows up to play harmonica on "Never Give You Up," it’s not just a gimmicky cameo—it’s a reminder that talents of that calibre are few and far between, and Saadiq has all the right stuff. (October 2, 2008)

Santogold – s/t (Downtown/Warner)

Genre-hopping polyglot pop is increasingly common, but few have the songcraft to pull it off effortlessly. On her debut album, Santogold jumps from MIA-influenced ragga pop to surf rock, with lo-fi electronics, nods to 80s new wave, reggae grooves and pop hooks to spare—especially when she plays it comparatively straight on the Fleetwood Mac-ish "Lights Out," or on "I'm a Lady," where the guitars sound remarkably like the Pixies' "Where is My Mind?". Santogold's solid choice of collaborators, including DJ Diplo, pull everything together, but Santogold herself—despite strong vocal performances—doesn't seem particularly invested in anything she's singing, often coming off like a robotic automaton told to try on a new set of clothes on every song. The grooves and the hooks make this easy to overlook; expect even better things when she sinks into her own skin. (October 30, 2008)

Rob Szabo – Life and Limb (robszabo.com)

One of the strangest aspects of the current financial crisis is that it comes as a surprise to anyone. Mountains of debt and high-risk mortgages are bound to come crashing down eventually—something that K-W songwriter Rob Szabo certainly knew when he wrote "That Cold Hard Sell": “There’s nothing like that cold hard sell/ they’re getting away with murder/ there’s nothing like no money down/ and don’t pay ‘til next December.” What he surely didn’t know was that he would be releasing the song within weeks of the collapse, rendering it a much more visceral listen.

He’s not as topical—or as rollicking—on the rest of Life and Limb, though it is once again a fine showcase for this underrated singer/songwriter and his well-crafted acoustic pop and country leanings. Longtime collaborator/co-producer/co-writer Steve Strongman helps Szabo keep things simple, which works well: his melodic gifts and vocal talents require very little ornamentation at all. That’s why the album’s one major misstep is when they call in a children’s choir on "He Loves You," a waltz where Szabo pleads with a friend not to leave her husband; the children merely make everything that much more mawkish. It’s a strange move for a man who exercises considerable taste and restraint on the rest of this album. (October 2, 2008)

Lucinda Williams – Little Honey (Lost Highway/Universal)

Lucinda Williams' car wheels have been spinning for the better part of the last decade, after releasing three of the finest roots rock albums of the 90s. "Come on and give me another chance," she can be heard moaning halfway through Little Honey, but there's little here to give us reason to do that.

She woke up from the crippling depression that defined much of her 2007 album West, an album that stood out from her recent work on the strength of its lyrics alone. This time out, she ups the tempo occasionally, but resorts to silly metaphors and cheap rhymes, with nary a trace of the character writing that defines her best work. Her increasingly laconic vocal stylings don't help matters any; she often sounds like she's being propped up in front of the microphone. Her delivery is most effective when she strips everything down to primal, raw blues on “Heaven Blues”—too bad the lyrical content unintentionally reinforces David Byrne's notion that "heaven is a place where nothing ever happens."

There's a new album out by a devout Lucinda disciple, Montreal's Angela Desveaux; you'd be much better off buying that record to get your Lucinda fix. (October 23, 2008)

Saturday, November 15, 2008

September 08 reviews

Long overdue reviews clearinghouse sale... we'll start with September.

These were all written for the mainstream daily newspapers the Kitchener-Waterloo Record and the Guelph Mercury.

Lindsey Buckingham – Gift of Screws (Warner)

As the principal architect of Fleetwood Mac's Rumours—one of the best-selling albums of the last 50 years—Lindsey Buckingham flies far below the commercial radar, unless he happens to reunite with his old bandmates for a cash-cow tour. Which is unfortunate, because Gift of Screws shows that his songwriting, singing and exceptional skills as a guitarist haven't diminished a bit. Yet for a man who crafted such a slick pop sound in the 70s, Buckingham is his own worst enemy when left to his own devices. Though it features many full band arrangements—including guest appearances from Mick Fleetwood and John McVie—this is largely a home recording that could easily have been elevated to more vivid heights if Buckingham was not tracking every instrument by himself. It works on the acoustic numbers, but one can't help but wish for a bit of bottom end and extra oomph on the pop tracks. As good as much of it is—and any Fleetwood Mac fan is unlikely to be disappointed—Buckingham's unwillingness to elevate it above the home demo status is puzzling. (September 25, 2008)

The Bug – London Zoo (Ninja Tune/Outside)

Dancehall reggae is usually party music, even when it’s dealing with darker themes of ghetto violence, but rarely does it sound as paranoid and creepy as it does in the hands of Kevin Martin, aka The Bug. With the help of a cabal of UK MCs from the grime, dancehall and nascent dubstep scenes (including Warrior Queen and Space Ape), Martin hits hard with deep bass and stiff rhythms that—despite his obviously deep love for the genre—would never be mistaken for Jamaican. Martin comes from an industrial music background, from projects like Techno Animal, Ice, and the ever-so-modestly monikered God. So it’s not surprising that it is the harshest and most haunting elements of dancehall that provide him with the most inspiration. Martin has a cinematic ear for mood and soundscapes, which has informed The Bug since its inception; The Bug’s 1997 debut album was conceived as an alternate soundtrack to Francis Ford Coppola’s classic surveillance film The Conversation. This isn’t club music; with its cavernous echo and dense layers of disembodied sounds, it’s better suited to parties held in an underpass or an equally alienating, decrepit urban locale. That said, there are moments of icy beauty to be found in these carefully constructed ruins, especially on "Judgement Day"—which, after an album of titles like "Too Much Pain," "Murder" and "Poison Dart"—manages to be unusually poignant. (September 4, 2008)

Glen Campbell – Meet Glen Campbell (Capitol/EMI)

The Rhinestone Cowboy is one of the latest of the baby boomer warhorses to stake a comeback claim. Once one of the most popular country/pop crossover artists in the U.S., thanks in large part to his popular TV variety show, Campbell doesn’t carry the same cool caché as someone like Johnny Cash. And while some of the song choices on this album of covers might seem gimmicky— namely U2’s "All I Want Is You" and Green Day’s "Good Riddance"—the stoic singer delivers them with dignity and confidence; like any great cover, these songs sound like they were written with this 72-year-old man in mind. Most remarkable is the transformation of The Velvet Underground’s "Jesus," which is given a gorgeous fingerpicking acoustic arrangement, with soaring strings and subtle mandolin lending a lush atmosphere that suggests the singer has already found the redemption he seeks. It’s hard to imagine a more suitable song for Campbell than Jackson Browne’s "These Days": “If I seem afraid to live the life that I have made in song/ it’s just that I’ve been healing so long.” But what really makes this album shine is not just the songs and Campbell’s strong voice—it’s the banjos, bright guitars, big string sections, pedal steel guitars and concert chimes that provide old-school sparkle and shine, elevating songs by Travis and the Foo Fighters to thrilling heights found nowhere on the originals. They don’t make albums like this anymore: matching iconic singers with the best material and the best arrangements. This is a potent reminder why they should. (September 4, 2008)

Angela Desveaux & The Mighty Ship – s/t (Sonic Unyon)

Canada has no shortage of female singer/songwriters, many of which send critics tripping themselves to find adjectives and superlatives. Montreal’s Angela Desveaux will likely never be caught up in a hype cycle, if only because she appears too gosh-darn normal to set anyone’s world on fire. Her closest comparison point in this country would be Kathleen Edwards—whose producer Dave Draves is behind the board here—but Desveaux doesn’t have the same sense of drama; in its place, she has a naturally melancholy, strong and steady voice that sings tales of characters at crossroads in their life, with worried minds and mountains of uncertainty obstructing a clear view. Even on the rockier numbers, the melodies sink their teeth in slowly, with Desveaux’s understated heartbreaker of a voice bringing them to life, with help from able band arrangements. There are no sharp left turns here, which makes it an even greater mystery why Desveaux has yet to find a more mainstream audience—or at least the same audience as Edwards, the Sadies, Blue Rodeo and the dozens of other Canucks who play this particular brand of roots rock so well. Desveaux deserves a place in their company. (September 11, 2008)

Kardinal Offishall – Not 4 Sale (Konlive/Universal)

Kardinal Offishall has never got his proper due in this country—but in typically Canadian fashion, a top 5 single in the U.S. might finally make this Toronto veteran the superstar he deserves to be. You’d be forgiven for not realizing that the smash summer single "Dangerous"—featuring a chorus sung by hitmaker Akon—is actually the product of this “rude boy from T-Dot,” though that’s only a gateway drug into an eclectic tour-de-force that propels Kardinal to the forefront of hip-hop well beyond Canadian borders.

Now that his time is clearly here, Kardinal isn’t going to waste a precious minute—and nor is he going to stray from his vision. Not 4 Sale moves effortless from heavy hip-hop to smooth reggae, from ragga to pure pop, with flashes of electro futurism yet always with a heavy Caribbean flavour; it’s hard to imagine another artist who not only weaves all those sounds together successfully, but does so consistently over the course of an entire album.

He does so with some top-notch talent pitching in—most notable Rihanna, on the new single "Numba 1 (Tide is High)," as well as T-Pain, The Clipse, Estelle and Toronto boys Glenn Lewis and Lindo P. There’s no hitmaking producers parachuted in, however; when not behind the boards himself, Kardinal employs hungry youngsters who take Neptunes and Timbaland templates and push them further.

But Kardinal is the man “who run tings,” and his towering personality looms large. On tracks like "Family Tree" and "Ill Eagle Alien," he manages to tackle gun culture and pass himself off as “the poor people’s permanent position vindicator” without preaching—he saves that for a spoken word rant that concludes the album, should the unsuspecting listener stick around long enough.

And it’s likely that they will, because Not 4 Sale is unquestionably a landmark Canadian hip-hop album. And now that he’s cracked the Billboard Top Ten and appeared on Jay Leno (!), the rest of the world has already taken notice. (September 18, 2008)

Lady Gaga – The Fame (Konlive/Universal)

After appearing on 21 chart singles in the last year, Akon is proving to be much more than a robotic soul crooner, and so far his Konlive label has shown considerable savvy by signing not only Kardinal Offishall, but Lady Gaga—who provided the label with another summer chart-topper this year with "Just Dance."

There’s plenty to mock here, starting with her name and extending into her all-too-obvious bid to become the new Material Girl with vapid titles like "Beautiful Dirty Rich," "Money Honey" and the title track. But Lady Gaga offers a bit more: starting with the fact that she’s the principal songwriter here, one who has also been hired by Britney Spears and Pussycat Dolls—though she clearly saved the better hooks for her own record. Akon himself plays a minor supporting role, co-writing "Just Dance" and otherwise staying out of the way.

Her street sass vocals lie somewhere between Gwen Stefani and Peaches, with brash electro beats backing her up; she shows a bit more range when she drops a ballsy blues waltz on "Alone Alone." This is little more than straight-up bubblegum, but just the fact that she’s capable of carrying a full album proves that she’ll likely be around for the long run. It won’t be long before Madonna comes calling for a co-write.

Ne-Yo – Year of the Gentleman (DefJam/Universal)

Ne-Yo has the hooks, the voice and the slick bedroom ballads down pat, elevating him several steps above every other run-of-the-mill modern R&B singer. The fact that he's a dapper dude is icing on the cake. A little Ne-Yo goes a long way, starting with the hit single "Closer" and its acoustic guitars, techno beat and pure pop melody; other tracks here could pass for vintage Michael Jackson. And yet his lyrics make it impossible to take Ne-Yo seriously, when he attempts to inject serious soul gravitas into lines like: "She hates that I don't do dishes/ even though I mess up the most." You don't need to write Shakespearian sonnets to make this music work, but sometimes Ne-Yo's attempts at sensitivity are hilarious. "If you're single, you don't gotta be alone tonight … I'll be your boyfriend," he promises—before adding the important qualifier "until the sun comes up." Before picking up a pen, Ne-Yo needs to listen to more Smokey Robinson and less R. Kelly. (September 25, 2008)

One Hundred Dollars – Forest of Tears (Blue Fog/ Sonic Unyon)

Simone Schmidt has the voice of a woman who’s been beaten down: by crappy jobs, by city life, by heartache, by parenthood, by perpetual disappointment. It’s the voice of a woman who has discovered that love does not, in fact, conquer all. As the liner notes state here: “It’s not the hardship that breaks you, but the small comfort of a strong shoulder that brings the tears.” A forest of tears, in fact.

Her bandmates—borrowed largely from Toronto favourites Jon Rae and the River—accentuate the ache with casual country leanings, driven by pedal steel guitar and Farfisa organ. They’re careful not to crowd Schmidt’s sadsack stories; the arrangements may well have been spontaneous, as this was recorded live in one day-long session by Rick White (Eric’s Trip, Julie Doiron).

The pathos can be overpowering over the course of 14 tracks, but Schmidt is someone you want on your side and you need a hand out of the abyss, or at the very least someone to tell you that you’re not alone. (September 18, 2008)

Roots Manuva – Slime & Reason (Big Dada/Outside)

Normally it's off-limits to discuss an album's accompanying press material or an aspect particular to the advance copies that are circulated to the press. But in the case of the fourth album by Roots Manuva, it's more than a bit amusing that an automated British female voice keeps interrupting my copy of this album, warning me not to post it online: "No copying! No copying!" (Of course, this will not happen if you purchase it through legal channels.)

In fact, no one in hip-hop today is even attempting to copy Roots Manuva, a British MC who has always maintained a singular and unique voice, whose music is just as vivid and lyrical as his rhymes. His 2000 album Run Come Save Me sounded like the future of hip-hop, foreshadowing the UK grime movement and offering a distinctly British/Caribbean take on the innovations of people like Timbaland, the Neptunes and Swizz Beatz.

Slime & Reason finds him mellowing out a bit, with more distinct reggae rhythms and re-imagined new wave textures permeating the polyglot mix, while Kraftwerk synthesizers ride atop dancehall beats with occasional live drums, horns, tabla and subtle electric guitar shadings. Almost ten years after his debut, he's sounding more world-weary than ever on tracks like "It's Me Oh Lord," "Do 4 Self" and "The Show Must Go On." He alternates his gruff growl with some broken gospel-tinged melodies not unlike TV on the Radio. This MC is aging gracefully without strItalicaying from his original innovations; he continues to be one of the fascinating figures working in hip-hop today. (September 25, 2008)

Michael Franti and Spearhead – All Rebel Rockers (Anti/Epitaph)

It's not enough to be merely one of the most articulate and entertaining performers working today—because Michael Franti most certainly is, both on stage and off. His albums with Spearhead, on the other hand, are extremely hit and miss. It's all to easy for his political insights to get really preachy really fast, and musically he's had some cheeseball moments while mashing up R&B, rap, rock and reggae.

All Rebel Rockers, on the other hand, is a slam dunk for Franti and crew, capturing all of their live energy and featuring Franti in his finest lyrical form, finding faith and hope in an age of paranoia, surveillance and torture. Like any good hippie, he "wants to write a love song for the world," and he manages to do so several times over here with both total sincerity and an acute awareness that these are difficult days for optimists.

No doubt the feel-good vibe is due in part to relocating to Jamaica for the recording session, under the watchful eyes of reggae legends Sly and Robbie. The duo not only oversees reggae grooves both retro and modern, but they provide a bright pop polish that illuminates some of Spearhead's catchiest material to date, guaranteed to get a grin out of even the most hardened cynic. Yet he's not softening his message in the least, reminding us: "I came here to rock/ to smash the empire with my boombox."

Unlike earlier albums, Spearhead here succeed at the slower songs as well as they do the reggae-fired rockers; a couple of tracks here might even land them a last-dance ballad breakthrough on radio. Franti's vocals in particular have grown exponentially; he's no longer an MC attempting to croon, but a compelling singer in his own right. The only minor dips in the flow happen when they boost the electric guitars and attempt to rock out. This band should steer clear of the moshpit.

Franti is full of good intentions, and while in the past he came across as more than a tad medicinal, All Rebel Rockers is the first Spearhead album that feels warm and fuzzy from beginning to end. Other artists get points for dropping vague political allusions into music that's rarely any fun—ahem, Ben Harper—but Spearhead provides the full package. (September 4, 2008)

Chad Van Gaalen – Soft Airplane (Flemish Eye/Sonic Unyon)

Not many artists alternate easily between banjo ballads and the world of blips and blurps. But Calgary’s Chad Van Gaalen is the type of artist who—if he had to—could make a compelling album using instruments strung together with cardboard and string.

If you don’t know Van Gaalen, it’s hard to begin cataloguing his strengths. For starters, he makes some of his own instruments and is just as compelling whether he’s crawling inside his lo-fi bedroom electronic gear or strumming a solo acoustic guitar. He also possesses a terrifyingly beautiful and quavering alto voice that delivers deathly images and non-sequiturs with equal gravity. And last but not least, he writes haunting melodies that tie everything together; what might be a total mess in the hands of a less artist is instead a complete triumph on every level.

Soft Airplane is an intimate listen; the homespun recording sounds like he made every track as an audio love letter for each individual listener. And yet he still finds time to turn up his amps, as he does on the reverb-ed rumbling rocker with typically odd title "Bare Feet on Wet Grip Tape." Within the first three songs, fans of his earlier work will hear that this is the follow-through on the promise of his first two records without altering the unique vision heard on his astounding 2004 debut Infiniheart.

Some comparison points are more obvious than others. There’s quite a bit of Neil Young’s acoustic work that casts a large shadow here—not just because of the beautiful simplicity at work, but because Van Gaalen shares a certain idiosyncratic diction and falsetto with the man to whom he owes the largest debt. On the flip side, several songs owe a debt to his friends and occasional collaborators Holy Fuck and Shout Out Out Out Out—strange bedfellows on the surface, but it’s obvious on every track here just how diverse Van Gaalen’s tastes truly are.

When his last album was nominated for the Polaris Prize in 2007, several fellow nominees who took the stage cited Van Gaalen as an inspiration; with Soft Airplane, Van Gaalen will gain the respect of more than just his immediate peers. This is easily one of the best albums of 2008. (September 11, 2008)

Brian Wilson – That Lucky Old Sun (EMI)

Given the sadness he’s seen in his time, Brian Wilson can be forgiven for wanting to look on the sunny side of life. But on this album-long suite—his first work since resuscitating and re-recording his lost opus Smile—Wilson’s concept album about the beauty of California gets extremely tiresome extremely quickly. We get it: California is gorgeous, everyone should "Live Let Live," people there have the "Good Kind of Love," and even the “homeless, hopeless, well-heeled and deranged” all get along and smile at passers-by on Venice Beach.

Wilson’s wide-eyed naivete is fine in small doses, but certainly doesn’t sustain a concept album—one where the old folk song of the title is a recurring motif throughout. There’s nothing inventive about the arrangements here, other than the expected beauty of the background vocals; at his age, Wilson is content to play it very safe. The songs constitute a shadow of his former glories; only when he gets personal and talks about the redemptive powers of the California sun—as he does on "Oxygen to the Brain" and "Going Home"—does Wilson strike a truly poignant chord.

Carolyn Mark once sang, “Is it a groove, or is it a rut?” For an artist of Brian Wilson’s stature and storied history, it can be argued that it doesn’t really matter at this point. It’s hard to argue with sunny days. “Now I’m home where I belong,” he sings, “and that’s the key to every song.” (September 18, 2008)

Hawksley Workman – Los Manlicious (Maple/Universal)

This is the second Hawksley Workman album this year. Reviewing last February’s release Between the Beautifuls, I mourned the loss of his mojo; it sounded like this compelling performer—who arrived fully formed and freaky with his 1999 debut For Him and the Girls—was now neutered and softening all his edges for the Starbucks crowd.

That notion vanishes within the opening moments of "When You Gonna Flower?", where Workman rides a crunchy guitar riff and re-establishes himself as a powerhouse vocalist who won’t be satisfied until he out-sings and out-camps Freddie Mercury. (And David Bowie too, for that matter—as attested to by anyone who saw him tackle both singers in a cover of "Under Pressure" at his Hillside performance this year.)

As its ridiculous title suggests, Los Manlicious is full of ridiculously macho swagger coupled with the dandy charm that’s been part of his stage persona since day one. The song "In My Blood" has an urgency that hasn't been heard from him in ages; elsewhere, he has crushes on "Girls With Crutches" and finds himself "Kissing Girls (You Shouldn’t Kiss)." Much of this album feels like a long overdue catharsis, fuelled by his libido and engaging all his stadium pop fantasies while maintaining the playful twists and turns of his first two albums.

The songwriting is erratic; some songs ("Oh You Delicate Heart," "Piano Blink") easily stand on their own with little trickery involved, while others are clearly propped up by the performance and the production—both of which can always be relied on to at least keep things interesting. There are more than enough cues here that Workman should be going even further out than he is here; the most ridiculous track, "Fatty Wants to Dance," also boasts the most album’s best groove, while "Is This What You Call Love?" finds Workman fuzzing out his guitar further than Jack White would ever dare, with a high school cheerleading squad egging him on.

After years in the wilderness, Workman hasn’t exactly scored an all-out comeback album, but this is a sure sign that he’s not giving up until he hits one right out of the park. (September 11, 2008)

Monday, October 27, 2008

Slobovian Army

I was a high school polka star once. Last Saturday, I was again.

Most people start out their music career playing rock, punk, folk, or rapping in the cafeteria. I was highly susceptible to the power of the polka. My friend Paul Mora was forced into accordion lessons at an early age by his German-Swiss parents. Our drummer Greg Hodowansky had an accordion-wielding uncle who once led our Grade 3 class in Ukranian dance lessons. The taunt of the two-step was calling my name.

And so it was in the fall of 1987 that the three of us—along with Glen Johnstone on bass clarinet, and later Brendan Wall on tenor saxophone—started the Slobovian Army. [The term Slobovian was a sad attempt at the time to be a euphemistically “correct” alternative to the Polish jokes of the early 80s, as perpetrated by many morning rock radio DJs.]

Polkas were not only kitschy, funny and so phenomenally uncool, but they were also a perfect outlet for a teenage boy’s musical aggression—after all, they’re best enjoyed at breakneck speed, and feature pretty much the same rhythm as speed metal, shit-kickin’ country, or ska music. Inspired by the busking antics of the Shuffle Demons and a desire to take the piss out of pop music’s sacred cows of the day—George Michael, U2, Depeche Mode, etc.—we decided to bring polka to the people.

The concept started as a Christmas project, and eventually branched out into the aforementioned covers, as well as songs we genuinely liked (the Pogues’ “Fiesta,” the Beatles’ “Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da,” the Peter Gunn theme). We busked at Cedarbrae Mall for Christmas 1988, and raised the ire of many a shopkeeper who asked us to “turn down the saxophones.” We rented ourselves out as a “birthday service” at school, where for $5 (!) we would embarrass your friend by barging into their homeroom and serenading them with a polka “Happy Birthday” and the Beatles’ “Birthday.” We actually got invited to play other schools’ Talent Nights. We played our own Talent Night, and dared to play Billy Idol’s “Mony Mony,” which at the time prompted some rather profane crowd participation—we intended that to happen; we did not intend the teacher in charge of Talent Night to almost lose his job over the incident. (Again, sorry Mr. Jansen.)

Our music teacher, John Anderson, was our biggest fan. He loved the fact that we took music outside of his classroom (which was actually a portable) and got everyone else excited by it—and the more ridiculous, the better. He was a great man and a great teacher who knew exactly when to be a hard-ass, and when to gleefully encourage the expected teenage subversion.

Mr. Anderson’s sudden death this past September shook me more than I would ever have expected it to. It reminded me of how many life lessons I learned under his baton, and how music brought me out of my shell and the single biggest reason why I have so many fond memories of high school. I knew that I had wanted to get the Slobovian Army back together for this fall’s high school reunion; now we all knew we had to. I hadn’t seen Glen in ten years; I hadn’t seen Greg since high school. Paul insists that he hadn’t played accordion in four years; I refuse to believe him, as it all came back to him within seconds.

So last Saturday, we showed up at the school with our instruments and immediately set up and started to play—this time to classmates who were extra enthusiastic, thanks to the fact that the gym was licensed for the occasion. Were we any good? As we said to each other in rehearsal, “Well, we’re as good as we ever were.” Let’s just say that there wasn’t a lot of progression in the 20 years that have passed, although we do now have the confidence to drop a waltz into the middle of a medley, for whatever that’s worth.

What follows is my high school diary entries marking our first ever gigs: busking in the school foyer, and then appearing at a school assembly the next day.

Monday, December 14, 1987

The Slobovian Army is progressing nicely. [Note: there is no mention of the band in the diary until this entry.] We had an excellent rehearsal today at lunch. We plan to perform on Wednesday. The big news is that Glen is really gung-ho about singing now. Today he was gyrating his hips while standing on the amp while singing. I haven’t laughed so hard in a while. This is a big change for him. When we first proposed the idea [of the band], with him on bass clarinet, he was wary of it. He would do it, he said, but claimed it would be really embarrassing and that we’d never live it down.

Then we tried to convince him to sing, after hearing him, and he ruled that right out. Then we asked Mr. Anderson to put pressure on him. Anderson told him that he had to sing, because he “had his name down in the program for the assembly.” After saying this, Anderson winked at me and I got the message.

Gradually, Glen got used to the idea and now I couldn’t envision him being more enthusiastic. Today he was spitting out ideas such as going around from class to class, renting ourselves out—a variation on Paul’s and my birthday idea, where for $5 we serenade your friend with “Happy Birthday” in their surprised homeroom. I really see this idea snowballing.

December 20, 1987

On Wednesday, the Slobovian Army performed. We started at around 8 and played until 8.25. It went all right, I thought. Glen didn’t sing, though. He chickened out. We didn’t get a big crowd because the buses were late and half the population arrived between 8.30 and 9. Barb said it was perfect, as the weather really sucked outside, and then she walked inside and saw these guys in loud outfits playing polkas. “It really lightened up a gloomy morning,” she said.

I wore my Hawaiian shirt with grey jeans, a Late Night shirt underneath, an Austrian red hat, and the essential shades. Paul wore a blue Hawaiian shirt with faded jeans, a cordoroy hat and shades. Glen had a not-too-offensive orange Hawaiian with a fedora and shades. Greg had a red shirt with white palm trees, a blue wool hat with beer labels saying ‘Oktoberfest’ all around it, and no shades. Derek thought we were going for “the Beach Boys image.” I was thinking more along the lines of the Shuffle Demons.

That afternoon after school, we had an encore performance. We played for around 45 minutes and garnered quite a crowd for a while, as we caught everyone leaving. I can honestly say the place was packed for a while. After about ½ hour, we had finished and Greg wanted to pack it up. But—never leave a crowd unsatisfied! We ran through a bunch of things. It was OK. Everyone got into “Peter Gunn,” etc. Brenda Campbell and company loved it. Mr. Anderson said the next day that we’d be amazed at the number of guys with sloping foreheads and dragging their feet that were saying (he mocks a stoned monotone), “Wow—this is cool stuff.” I honestly never would have guessed there was a market for polkas.

In the morning we raised $14. In the afternoon we raised $8 plus a bus ticket from Justin Lear and an unchewed piece of gum, plus numerous compliments throughout the week. Mr. Turner is a fan. Mrs. DiLeonardo thinks we should get a busking license and play in the subways. We managed to lure Mr. Donovan out of his hideout (his office) and Mary Joyce Empensando “thought you guys were good but I didn’t give you any money.”

Friday was an important day. I had to hand in a dissection and lab report in Biology, and a poetry assignment for English. The band was playing at the mass in the morning, and the Slobovian Army was having a command performance at the assembly in the afternoon. I stayed up until 12.30 Thursday night doing the former projects.

Friday morning. The mass starts at 9. The band is to be there at 8. I was planning on walking to the church (St. Thomas More) so I would have to leave around 7.15. This means I get up at 6.45. This I do. I step into the shower, and halfway through I feel like I’m going to throw up. I then get out of the shower and do exactly that. Seven minutes after I have breakfast, that decides to come up too.

I realize that I must go to school, yet I cannot walk. Mother graciously offers her driving services.

I feel extremely feeble throughout the mass, yet I was OK…

Back at school, I was under the impression that we’d have lots of time to rehearse, etc. Not the case. Everybody appearing, including a terrible rap group, wanted, needed and got a sound check. I was feeling very hungry so I had an apple, which I threw up fifteen minutes before the show began. I almost didn’t make it safely, as it came up halfway through my sprint to the bathroom. I managed to cover it and everything was safely flushed. I felt a lot better after that.

Our first set we played as everyone walked in and it included the Christmas stuff, plus “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Pigbag” (which the crowd got into, shouting “hey!”—even though we were very mediocre), “Peter Gunn,” “Stand By Me,” and that’s about it. It was OK. All this was while people were filing in, so I couldn’t tell—or care—if they were listening or not.

The middle set, when we were the center of attraction, was not so hot. Very sloppy. Fortunately, we only played around seven songs. Glen was going to sing and Paul and I were going to slow down [the tempo], but Greg was too far away from us and we weren’t able to signal him. Shame.

When we finished, I went up to the mic to make an announcement. I mentioned our cause, our total ($20), and thanked Mr. Anderson for his support. I kick myself now as I think of all the things I could have said.

“I’d like to introduce the members of the band. On the drums, Gregory ‘meet you backstage’ Hodowansky! On the bass clarinet and sometimes vocals, that sexy hunk of masculinity who is embarrassed sooooo easily, Glen Johnstone! And on the eternal squeezebox, my partner in crime, Mr. Paul ‘everyone loves a polka’ Mora! I’m Mike, and thanks again for your support and remember: disco died, rock still tries, but ladies and gentlemen, polkas never die!”

It would have been great! Would have, I suppose.