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)

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