Thursday, June 05, 2008

April/May 08 reviews pt 2

More remnants of spring cleaning today... some of these seem ancient already, despite the fact they're less than two months old.

In further reading, I have a live review of Blue Peter at Lee's Palace last Friday on the Eye Weekly site here. It was my first time seeing one of my favourite Toronto bands of all time; while a fine show, I think I was foolishly expecting so much more. Similarly, Toronto music historians should take note of this show as part of this weekend's Luminato festival: Parachute Club, Mary Margaret O'Hara, Mojah, Lillian Allen, Johnny and the G-Rays and the B-Girls. Congrats to whomever curated this wonderful walk down the Queen Street of 25 years ago, and here's hoping the rain holds out.

Pas Chic Chic – Au Contraire (Semprini)

French pop gets a bad rap, and often rightfully so. Ever since the glory days of 60s yéyé, it’s been populated with chipper melodies, cooing femme fatales and dated electronics that will never come back in style anywhere else in the world. It’s always held a certain appeal for elements of the rock underground, however, either simply because of Europhilic exoticism or for the way it offers a refracted reflection of English pop music.

Montreal’s Pas Chic Chic give the entire genre a swift kick in the derriere, taking Franco pop’s Farfisa organs and song structures and stripping them of any twee leanings. Instead, they install an amplified arsenal of electric guitars that swirl around the pop melodies and threaten to drench them with droning psychedelics, while the rhythm section dallies back and forth between the dance floor and pummelling their point home. Sometimes that happens in the same song, like the album’s aptly-titled centrepiece, “Vous Comprenez Pourquoi?”, where searing, screeching guitars take over a the harrowing mid-section of a dramatic and driving pop song. Imagine Sonic Youth and Black Mountain bum-rushing the stage at a Belle and Sebastian show.

The members of Pas Chic Chic all hail from noisy backgrounds: founder/guitarist/singer Roger Tellier-Craig caused eardrums to bleed in the abrasive Fly Pan Am and was also in an early version of Godspeed You Black Emperor; guitarist Radwan Moumneh was in hardcore band Cursed. Yet they have no problem creating convincing pop, and their aggression is tempered by keyboardist/vocalist Marie-Douce St. Jacques, whose synthetic strings cast an air of romance over everything.

Even at its most punishing and sinister, Pas Chic Chic manage to convey sentiments of sweetness and hope, when they’re not delivering menace, mystery and melody in equal doses. (K-W Record, April 17)

Portishead – Third (Universal)

Portishead is not the band you thought they were, and probably never were. And because it's been 11 years since their last album, this is not the time for preconceptions in the first place.

Just because they were the first band to be labeled "trip-hop" doesn't mean that, since the release of their 1994 debut Dummy, Portishead should take the rap for unleashing over a decade of imitators dealing out unadventurous easy listening that's soundtracked every luxury lifestyle ad and lame seduction attempt you've been subjected to ever since.

Portishead was never meant to make you feel comfortable. On the surface, singer Beth Gibbons has a classically beautiful voice, saddled as it is with tragedy. No matter how acute her sense of pain, she is anything but fragile: Gibbons commands a powerful strength, even when it sounds like she's at an emotional breaking point, which is almost always.

Third delves deeper into the increasingly dark territory the band entered on their underrated second album. The soulful underpinnings remain, but much of the hip-hop influence has disappeared—including the trademark turntablism—making room for some of the folkie textures that Gibbons explored in her solo career, as well as the addition of vintage Kraftwerkian synthesizers and dirty drum machines that never fall into cheap electro clichés.

The band themselves seem so eager to kickstart this next phase of their career that they cut off the opening track in mid-phrase, sounding less like a mistake than as if they just want to get on with the rest of the new material, and show off what else they have in store.

What's most remarkable about Third is how this iconic band maintains their signature sound while not repeating themselves in the least. At one point, Gibbons strips everything down to just herself, a mandolin and some doo-wop backing vocals; at another, a Spanish-sounding folk song gives way to pulsating organ drones. Accordions and hurdy-gurdys are just as otherworldly and alien as some of the synths and Theremins; the album closes with wonky cello bends and swooping detuned guitars that sound like lowing cows.

Despite the embarrassment of riches on hand, bandleader Geoff Barrow leaves plenty of sonic space around each element. Even if Gibbons wasn't so compelling, and even if the new songs weren't as strong—if not better—than their best work, this would still be an album you'd want to buy on vinyl and listen to repeatedly with headphones; once through is never enough. (K-W Record, May 8)

Proof of Ghosts – s/t (Weewerk/Outside)

The suburbs are a lonely place. Just ask singer/songwriter Steve Heyerdahl, who sounds like he strolls endless cul-de-sacs with his banjo in hand, singing laments to lost women and odes to the joys of hanging out by the Slurpee machine on a summer Saturday night.

He does so with haunting vocals that owe a large debt to another singer who pointed out that Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, but more specifically, Heyerdahl falls under the spell of more modern kindred spirits: both his new labelmates the Great Lake Swimmers and his former Oshawa neighbours in Cuff the Duke—opening track “I’m Coming Home” in particular could be an outtake from the latter’s classic album Life Stories for the Minimum Wage.

Oshawa weighs heavy on Heyerdahl throughout this song cycle, not just because he names two songs after the town, but because his brooding country-in-the-city aesthetic suits Durham County to a T: a declining manufacturing town surrounded by a Great Lake and lush farmland. In this setting, Heyerdahl figures that there’s no greater crime than wasting time, and hence “Summer’s Wasted on the Young,” “Time is a Tyrant” and—to cap it off—“Time Takes Its Time.”

Proof of Ghosts is nothing if not consistent: it nails a feeling of torrential ennui that can be crushing and claustrophobic when the album stretches to almost an hour. This recording is mostly a one-man band; no doubt Heyerdahl will make a few more friends and broaden his horizons by the time he heads back into the studio. (K-W Record, April 24)

R.E.M. – Accelerate (Warner)

A mid-life crisis doesn’t have to be a bad thing. It’s easy to dissect this new R.E.M. album, coming it does after the 25th anniversary of their first EP, a year after they were inducted into the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame, and about ten years after they made an album worth listening to. Last year’s live album found them trying to remember what it was to be a rock band—and clearly, lessons have been learned in the time being.

Now, gone are the lush yet bland Beach Boy-wannabe ballads that they’ve been wallowing in lately. Every song here draws upon the guitar tones that Peter Buck staked his career on in the mid-80s—a signature sound that R.E.M. somehow lost along the way. Also back are the unmistakable backing vocals of bassist Mike Mills, brought to the forefront in ways not heard since 1987’s Life’s Rich Pageant. Singer Michael Stipe has finally got his balls back, both on the fiery rockers and the slower, politically charged tracks; he’s got some grit, and even the most ridiculous lyrics here—found on the apocalyptic party rocker “I’m Gonna DJ”—are considerably more palatable than the parade of shiny happy goof-offs that have snuck on to every R.E.M. album since Green.

It’s hard to say whether our lowered expectations of new R.E.M. material makes Accelerate such an ultimately satisfying listen. While their vintage guitar sound makes a big difference, it’s not necessary—there was plenty of great material dominated by drum machines and keyboards on the underrated 1998 album Up. Back then, losing founding member Bill Berry made them question their future; nowadays, it’s the shadow of irrelevance that has them running scared, in this case back to their roots rather than forging a future. Regardless, it sounds like something is actually at stake for these veterans, and it’s lit a fire behind them to make an album that won’t be littering the second hand store racks a month after its release.

Maybe that Hall of Fame ceremony reminded them that they were always first and foremost a rock band, but when a new R.E.M. record sounds as good as this one it’s best to simply reach for the volume knob and not ponder the reasons why. (K-W Record, April 3)

Sam Roberts – Love at the End of the World (Maple/Universal)

As you can discern from the title, Sam Roberts’ contribution to your long hot summer soundtrack is a feel-good record about the apocalypse. He claims he’s been “too afraid to read a newspaper,” but clearly the man has a lot on his mind. “There’s blood on these hands” and “the heat is rising,” sings Roberts, on titles like “Stripmall Religion” and “End of the Empire,” not to mention the title track. Yet he’s an optimist at heart, or at least he wants to be: “Life is for the taking,” he insists, adding later, “Just give me a reason for carrying on.”

If he’s feeling the weight of the world, Roberts doesn’t let it bring his music down. Love At the End of the World shows off what years of touring have done for his band, who are moving well beyond their pedestrian beginnings to give Roberts’ songs the colours and dynamics they deserve—to a point, as their aspirations are no more artsy than to be Canada’s finest bar band, which they may well be by now. There’s plenty of the seemingly effortless melodic rock’n’roll that Roberts perfected on his debut EP, without any of the meandering monotonous guitar jams that he sometimes slips into to pad out his lesser songs.

The first single is a bemusing barnburner about how “the kids don’t know how to dance to rock’n’roll,” which manages to be more than just a grumpy old man song; Roberts actually broadens the topic to ask larger questions about the role of artists in general, all set to a boogie-woogie backbeat. Elsewhere, he brings in some subtly psychedelic guitar textures, some stripped down country songs and plenty of rich vocal harmonies to flesh out what is already his strongest set of songs to date.

After all, if the good times are coming to an end, there’s no point settling for less. (K-W Record, May 29)

She & Him – Volume One (Merge)

Actress Zooey Deschanel is the She in question; renowned guitarist and singer/songwriter M. Ward is the Him. Yet despite his larger profile as a musician, Ward is on hand only to lend instrumental support and arrange Deschanel’s country-tinged songs into 70s pop symphonies worthy of Carly Simon or Carole King. Cast outside of his own hushed folkie material, Ward proves adept at painting with all sorts of sonic colours for these catchy songs. Who knows how long Deschanel has been secretly writing, but she has nine classics here that have a better shot a sliding onto oldies radio than any modern playlist.

The only serious fault here is her voice, which, though pretty enough, is more often than not sounds totally disinterested and devoid of personality—shocking, really, considering her day job in drama. If she’s both actress and screenwriter here, Ward proves to be a great cinematographer; maybe he should be more of a director next time. (K-W Record, April 10)

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

April/May 08 reviews

This and the next post will wrap up reviews penned for the Kitchener-Waterloo Record/Guelph Mercury in the past two months. Please take discouraging note of my increasing tendency to use song titles as a substitute for actual critical observation. Also, I wasn't really this grumpy all spring; tomorrow's post will have much more positive reviews!

The Breeders – Mountain Battles (4AD/Beggars Banquet)

Kim Deal might have gone for the cash grab when her old band the Pixies reunited, but there’s nothing on her latest album as The Breeders’ bandleader to suggest that she’s looking for easy ways out.

Deal has had a rough time, musically, since The Breeders soundtracked the summer of 1993 with their landmark single “Cannonball.” That song’s success overshadowed the fact that Deal was a wonderfully weird songwriter even when she wasn’t going for big pop hooks. Unlike her Pixie bandmate Frank Black, Deal decided to stick with the strange and unconventional, a decision that has led to spotty material in the last decade but serves her well in spades here.

Mountain Battles is that rare record where an indie icon manages to tap the anything-goes amateurish approach of their earlier career, long before patterns get codified cliché, before maturity sets in and commercial pressures mount. “I can feel it!” are the only words Deal sings in the opening track, “Overglazed,” and in her voice you can hear her shaking the shackles of addiction that plagued her (and her twin sister Kelley, who shares guitar/vocal duties) for much of her career.

In picking her Battles here, Deal delivers one or two bouncy pop songs, more than a few mournful waltzes and country-tinged diversions, one song sung in Spanish, and a rhythm section that sounds as deceptively lazy as the haunting harmonies between Deal and her twin sister Kelley, which remain as compelling here as they were 15 years ago.

Mountain Battles isn’t out to recreate past glories or do anything, really, other than amuse the Deal sisters and those who remember them fondly. While the same could be said of everything Deal has done outside the Pixies, the difference is that this time she no longer sounds stuck in a rut: her musical interests continue to expand while retaining the unrefined, almost naive quality that always made her unique in the first place. (K-W Record, April 17)

Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds – Dig, Lazarus Dig!!! (Anti)

The worst thing you could ever say about Nick Cave is to accuse him of being innocuous, and yet 14 albums deep into his discography with the Bad Seeds, Dig Lazarus Dig!!! is Cave-by-numbers. The album opens with a fiery title track about resurrection, and closes with Cave lamenting his own obsolescence on an eight-minute Velvet Underground blues riff called “More News From Nowhere.”

Coming off an artistic renaissance of late—with the expansive, gospel-fuelled 2004 double album Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus and 2007's howling garage punk Grinderman project—Cave crawls back to his old bag of tricks, which makes it somewhat ironic when he sings: "People often talk about being scared of change/ me, I'm scared of things staying the same/ because the game is never won by standing in any one place too long."

If Cave seems on autopilot, his Bad Seeds are in as fine form as always, with relatively new keyboardist James Johnston stepping to the forefront with organ flourishes that define many of the album's best moments.

At this point in their evolution, it would be far more interesting to hear the Bad Seeds backing up someone else while Cave takes some well-deserved time off from writing. (K-W Record, April 10)

Constantines – Kensington Heights (Arts and Crafts/EMI)

“Some people’s love is not strong enough,” sings Bry Webb on the opening track of the Constantines’ fourth album. His own love is not in question, however—even if it’s put to the test repeatedly over the course of these dozen songs, where he witnesses friends and family falling on hard times, leaving the harsh environs of the city, hitting the highway or raising children. The Constantines are lifers, and this is their statement of intent: “Kith and kin, when the ice gets thin.”

The last three years have been somewhat tough for this band. After passionate reactions to their first two albums, 2005’s Tournament of Hearts garnered a comparatively tepid response, and the band is now split between Montreal and Toronto. It’s no surprise, then, that resilience is the theme of this record: “Brother Run Them Down,” “Life or Death,” “Do What You Can Do,” “Time Can Be Overcome.”

It’s too bad, then, that they spend much of their stay in Kensington Heights stuck in a murky middle ground between their primary strengths: the fist-pumping rockers (“Hard Feelings,” “Credit River,” “Trans Canada”) and the slow-burning, slightly countrified songs that show a softer side (“New King,” “I Will Not Sing a Hateful Song”). The rhythm section seems to have taken a back seat this time out; keyboardist Will Kidman adds more traditional organ textures to the mix while both Webb and Steve Lambke are experimenting with their approach to guitars.

The kind of tension and release that characterizes their best work is largely absent. This should have been a major transitional record for the Constantines; as it is, it will inject some new life into their legendary live show, but the recording errs on the safe side. They’re ready for bolder moves than this. (K-W Record, May 1)

Hilotrons – Happymatic (Kelp/Outside)

Don’t pay any mind to the terrible album title, especially when you find out that Ottawa’s Hilotrons deliver herky-jerky new wave pop music. Yet thankfully, Happymatic is not a non-stop perky party, and are happy to shake up some vintage soul, some 80s pop, some science fiction and trace elements of African and Asian pop just to keep things interesting. They’re also one of the only bands who know how to use a vocoder judiciously and not just as a cheap prop (Shout Out Out Out Out, take note). For every fist-punching glory like the Ottawa anthem “Emergency Street,” the Hilotrons also know enough about dynamics that they can slow things down to a crawl and a hush, as they do on “I’m a Parade,” with its funereal brass section and Martin Tielli-esque vocals. (K-W Record, April 3)

Islands – Arm’s Way (Anti)
Hey Rosetta! – Into Your Lungs (Sonic/Warner)

Both of these Canadian bands have orchestral instruments as integral elements of the band, not a casual add-on in a bid for respect and maturity. In both cases, the thoughtful arrangements elevate them above the din, but in at least one of these two cases, it’s not enough to save the album in question.

Montreal's Islands have not only had a string section and a bass clarinetist on board since day one, but their songwriting on this, their second album, increasingly resembles a rock opera where verses and choruses take a back seat to longer, linear compositions—which would be fine if they were able to pull it off. The strings themselves boast much more colourful arrangements than heard on Islands' debut, but the similar-sounding songs themselves aren't strong enough to sustain interest.

Some of this is due to songwriter Nick Thorburn's limitations as a singer, but this also marks the first time that he's worked without a strong foil and/or editor: in his past life in The Unicorns, he had an often tumultuous relationship with that band's co-founder; in the first incarnation of Islands, he was collaborating with inventive Guelph drummer Jamie Thompson, who helped steer the ship through some of Thorburn's thornier twists and turns.

Now that Thompson is gone, the current line-up of Islands break up their more plodding numbers by embarking on extremely awkward Motown/Latin/calypso breakdowns—something that Thompson could segue together seamlessly—and seem to be building towards a dynamic release that never happens. By the time Thorburn starts singing about shitting in swimming pools, it seems like an apt metaphor for the entire album.

Real-life islanders, Hey Rosetta! are Newfoundland newcomers who fare far better on their first widely-distributed album. There are no shortage of orchestral flourish for vocalist Tim Baker to howl over, usually set to driving, propulsive rhythms that sound like more muscular version of Hidden Cameras—or, for those who remember, the 80s Irish group Hothouse Flowers.

It's not surprising at all to see that Into Your Lungs is produced by Hawksley Workman; both artists share a love of grandiose stadium-size gestures, and the emotive Baker shares more than a few Workman-like operatic vocal tics, though none of his sense of economy—Into Your Lungs wears out its warm welcome well before its 60 minutes are up.

Even though Workman gives Hey Rosetta! a larger-than-life radio sound, this is a band that undoubtedly sounds much more invigorating live, where their more bombastic side would truly come alive. (K-W Record, May 29)

Jamie Lidell – Jim (Warp/ Fusion 3)

Some artists go further out on a limb as they get older; some discover the joys of simple pleasures. Jamie Lidell started out in the abstract techno world before attempting a Timberlake-style millennial soul makeover on 2005’s Multiply. The transformation is now fully complete, with Lidell reaching even further back to mid-60s Stevie Wonder for inspiration.

Thankfully, Lidell comes to his new state of Wonder-ment with an undeniable set of pipes that don’t sound the least bit the product of studio trickery, which is even more obvious with his new stripped-down sound. Lidell is one of the few British soul singers whose whoops and hollers are convincing enough that he’d feel entirely natural leading a Southern gospel choir. With the help of some of Feist’s key collaborators—Gonzales, Mocky and Renaud Letang—Lidell is never short of finger snappin’, piano rockin’ soulful pop to wrap his voice around.

As good as he is, there are few instances here where one wouldn’t rather pull out some dusty vinyl from his source material and listen to that instead—especially when one song is a direct lift of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.”

Jim is the beginning of Lidell’s reinvention; next time he’ll likely dive in even deeper. (K-W Record, May 8)

Matmos – Supreme Balloon (Matador)

Matmos are, and always have been, scientists. Often dressed in lab coats on stage, their studio albums create music from found sounds in the unlikeliest sources: shuffling decks of cards, snails and lasers, spanking bottoms—even liposuction. Each album by these Bjork collaborators is tied to a specific concept, wherein the source material for their instrumental compositions is directly linked to the intended musical narrative.

This time out, however, Matmos are one step removed from the lab, and more like soundtrack artists for a 70s sci-fi film—or even an educational filmstrip, which children of that decade will remember fondly. Matmos boast that “no microphones were used on this album,” instead turning to a series of analog modular synthesizers to create what could be early synth pioneer Wendy Carlos romping through a Nintendo-generated fantasy world. If nothing else, Supreme Balloon will certainly conjure memories of that first school trip to the Ontario Science Centre.

Because they’re so associated with conceptual art, this is the first Matmos album that must be approached entirely on its own musical merits. Their playful spirit prevails, on the glitchy blips and bossa nova beat of “Rainbow Flag” or the non-sequitur quote from O Canada that appears in the middle of “Exciter Lamp And The Variable Band.” But they pop their own balloon and set themselves adrift on the 24-minute title track, which sounds like a plodding outtake from Kraftwerk’s more psychedelic period, where nothing develops over the course of its epic length to justify it taking up almost half the album’s running time. (K-W Record, May 15)

Ocote Soul Sounds and Adrian Quesada – The Alchemist Manifesto (ESL/Select)

Adrian Quesada and Martin Perna are the two men responsible for this chilled-out, trippy Latin groove album—which is not what you would expect considering their day jobs in two of the hottest live bands in the U.S.: the Latino powerhouse funk band Grupo Fantasma and the neo-Afrobeat Antibalas, respectively. But playing in those acts must be exhausting, which is why they probably start making music like this back at the hotel room in the wee hours of the morning. Some stronger grooves prevail, but this is definitely post-party music, the kind where renowned horn player Perna breaks out his alto flute far more often than his baritone saxophone. It’s also several steps above the usually tepid downtempo modern muzak that this will invariably get lumped in with; Quesada and Perna deserve much better than that. (K-W Record, May 29)