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)

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