More housecleaning. These are July reviews from the K-W Record in alphabetical order; more to come tomorrow.
The Abrams Brothers – Blue On Brown (theabramsbrothers.ca)
Not many teenagers know the songbooks of Bob Dylan and Arlo Guthrie with any degree of intimacy; fewer still are capable of playing and singing them in high lonesome harmonies and with serious skills as bluegrass instrumentalists. And yet the Abrams Brothers appear to have emerged from the woods near Kingston, Ontario as freeze-dried artifacts from an earlier time; I’m guessing that they probably don't spend their spare time playing Grand Theft Auto on the tour bus. Instead, there will always be new licks to learn, old songs to soak up—and probably a bit of homework to tend to as well, seeing how the oldest of the two brothers (and one cousin) is 18.
For their debut album, the Brothers formed a fortuitous relationship with keyboardist/producer Chris Brown—whose extensive rolodex helps him call in favours from both sides of the border: Canadian icons like Bruce Cockburn, Sarah Harmer, Colin Linden and Amy Millan (Stars), as well as all-star American session musicians like Tony Scherr (Bill Frisell, Norah Jones) and Mickey Raphael (Willie Nelson).
As tasteful a tribute as Blue on Brown is, however, one has to wonder why—on their debut album—they tackle the songs of one of the most-covered songwriters of the latter 20th century; hearing “Mr. Tambourine Man” or “The Times They Are A-Changin'” for the umpteenth time doesn't do much to establish the identity of such a young act. Thankfully, the material by Guthrie—both Woody and Arlo—helps break it up, as does a version of Steve Goodman's “City of New Orleans.” But they'd be much better off steering clear of obvious iconography and casting their net much wider for source material. (K-W Record, July 24)
Note: They announced during their rousing Hillside Festival set that they are, in fact, working on a new album of original material.
Broken Social Scene Presents: Brendan Canning – Something For All of Us (Arts and Crafts/EMI)
There are about a dozen acts that comprise Broken Social Scene (Feist, Stars, Jason Collett, etc.), but only two members at the core. Kevin Drew released his underrated solo album last fall, full of fragments and anthems that encapsulated the dichotomy that has always been the band's strength. By not putting it out directly under the name Broken Social Scene, he successfully sidestepped expectations for the band to make another epic like the 2003 classic You Forgot It In People, leaving him to be as wonderfully weird as he wants to be.
Thank god for lowered expectations, because his cohort Brendan Canning’s similarly billed album offers even less immediate thrills than Drew’s creatively confounding solo effort—and arguably contains no thrills at all.
Something For All of Us ironically contains very little for anyone: the attempts at rousing rockers are mostly muted, while the quieter pieces don’t relish in the abstractions that defined the early, nebulous and ambient stage of the band’s existence. Canning is the least charismatic vocalist in the Scene, and the songs meant to showcase female compatriots Liz Powell and Lisa Lobsinger don’t give them much to play with.
Other than first single “Hit the Wall,” the only time Canning hits a clear target here is on “Love Is Now,” which owes a large debt to the Talking Heads’ mid-period, when they were at their funkiest. The track is entirely incongruous in the context of this album, which otherwise opts for different shades of grey in lieu of painting with stark colours. Canning’s talent is better served mediating the mountains and valleys of a creative mind like Drew. Now that the solo records are out of the way, it’s time to see what they can accomplish together. (K-W Record, July 24)
Note: Kevin Drew teased me mercilessly about this review all weekend at the Hillside Festival, pointing out that—among other things—it’s divisive and a cheap shot to compare the two solo albums. Which it is. But I’d argue that most people who aren’t critics for a living are going to do exactly that, much in the same way they will evaluate the Wolf Parade album (see below). Does that excuse lazy writing? No. But personal relations and a mutual extended circle of friends aside, the fact is that--sadly--this album left me cold.
The Dutchess & the Duke – s/t (Hardly Art/Outside)
Twenty-five years after punk rockers discovered the virtues of roots music, the genre of alt-country is more than played out at this stage of its history. Any sense of subversion has long since been neutered into clichéd arrangements that are indistinguishable from your average rock band. Which is why The Dutchess & the Duke sound so refreshingly raw. Male vocalist Jesse Lortz has a satisfying snarl that lies somewhere between Iggy Pop and Lee Hazlewood, while his female foil Kimberly Morrison counterbalances with haunting harmonies worthy of any psychedelic 60s chanteuse. Flutes, fuzzy electric leads, maracas and tambourines dance around big bare-bones acoustic guitar chords that all sound like they were recorded in one take in a living room. Aesthetics aren't everything, of course; the songwriting is simple, straightforward and made for profane campfire singalongs. With ten songs in half an hour, this is a lean operation that spares nary a note nor a minute. All skills, no frills. (K-W Record, July 31)
Alejandro Escovedo – Real Animal (Blue Note/EMI)
Bouncing back from a near-fatal bout with Hepatitis C, this is the sound of Escovedo's life flashing before his eyes. The renowned Texan songwriter dips deep into the varied stages of his discography for inspiration, starting with his punk years in New York and San Francisco through to his rootsier melancholy material. These two worlds sit comfortably side to side on these largely autobiographical songs, united by some of Escovedo's most soulful vocal performances to date, as well as sympathetic production by Tony Visconti—the man responsible for some of David Bowie and Lou Reed's greatest 70s albums, sonic traces of which can be heard here. Escovedo seamlessly incorporates the string section he's been working with for the past decade into the raw punk songs, which—despite the cheezy cover image—don't feel in the least like an old man trying to fit into old clothes. The size and scope of Escovedo's discography has always seemed daunting for newcomers hungry to learn more about this rock'n'roll legend; Real Animal is the ideal place to start. (K-W Record, July 31)
Fleet Foxes – s/t (Sub Pop/Outside)
When an album opens with four men singing harmony at the top of their register, a debt to the Beach Boys is obvious—and it’s not one that Fleet Foxes singer/songwriter Robin Peckingold shies away from in the liner notes of the band’s debut album. And because they hail from Seattle, it’s also easy to imagine this as a perfect soundtrack to drive through the Pacific Northwest down to California: it’s lush, spacious music drawing from 60s psychedelic pop and more modern takes on acoustic folk music, including a notable resemblance to early My Morning Jacket albums, before that band dropped their quiet intimacies for the temptations of stadium rock.
Despite these easy references, Fleet Foxes have mysteries of their own that are a delight to discover. The vocals all sound like they were recorded in an empty church, haunted by ghostly reverb; the finger-picked guitars and often orchestral percussion provide further warmth to the sound. But what really sets Fleet Foxes apart is that they’re not just about aesthetics: every song here is the work of a seasoned band who don’t feel trapped in verse/chorus structures, yet they always deliver masterful melodicism that puts them in the same league as their heroes. (K-W Record, July 10)
Feuermusik – No Contest (Standard Form/Outside)
Most jazz albums are about capturing a live performance—after all, what kind of a jazz player are you if you aren't in the moment? In the case of Toronto duo Feuermusik, the recording studio is a composition tool where elaborate harmonies are constructed to accomplish what one lone saxophone and Gus Weinkauf's set of percussive paint buckets cannot. Wind player Jeremy Strachan constructs layers of sax, flute and guitars into increasingly elaborate arrangements, compared to the more straightforward melodic compositions heard on Feuermusik's acclaimed 2006 album Goodbye, Lucille, a debut which vaulted this obscure group outside of both jazz circles and the Toronto experimental rock underground where they were born. No Contest is a more abstract work, focusing more on long tones and less frantic melody lines—though still with ample room for improvisation. How they present this material as a duo on stage will be the greatest challenge. (K-W Record, July 17)
Seun Kuti + Fela's Egypt 80 – s/t (Mr. Bongo/Fusion III)
When Fela Kuti passed away in 1997, two sons were poised to carry on his legacy. The eldest, Femi, formed his own band and updated Fela's pioneering Afrobeat sound by working with European and North American collaborators including The Roots. Femi didn't stray too far from his father's formula of politically charged and jazz-infused Afrobeat. Ironically, it's Fela's youngest son, Seun, who has debuted with a more traditional sounding album that is firmly rooted in vintage sounds, due in large part by powerful performances by the veteran players from his father's second band, Egypt 80.
Seun—who started playing with Egpyt 80 when he was 9, and is now a mere 25—is brimming with political piss and vinegar, decrying "all the shitty shit" that plagues Africa: corruption, murder, environmental exploitation and disease. Surrounded by injustice, there's little time for poetry; at times he resorts to simply shouting "bad, bad, bad, bad, bad." No matter, because his political fire feeds into the urgency of the music, especially on the malaria-themed “Mosquito Song,” where the piercing sounds of squealing trumpets soar over the most relentless rhythm on the album.
While Seun is a compelling performer and capable singer, it's Egpyt 80 that is the real star here, with their bold brass section and interlocking polyrhythmic guitar and drum patterns that never wear thin over eight-minute grooves. Time has not diluted their power in the least; these veterans still have plenty of lessons to teach, as does the relative youngster who now leads them. (K-W Record, July 31)
My Brightest Diamond – A Thousand Shark's Teeth (Asthmatic Kitty/Sonic Unyon)
Operatic ladies who mix their classical influences with rock instrumentation don't usually walk away from the clash with their dignity intact. Shara Worden is not one of those ladies. That she has the operatic chops is unquestionable; she has a degree in classical vocal performance, and it's the crystal purity of her voice that sells almost every moment on this, her second album as My Brightest Diamond. Compared to her 2006 debut, she's left much of her earlier bombast behind and brought out the bassoons, bowed percussion, harps, marimbas and carefully arranged string sections. In doing so, she shares some minor similarities with her sometimes-employer Sufjan Stevens, but Worden strays far from the straightforward and the folkie at every given opportunity. She might be channeling vintage Kate Bush at her most wonderfully whacked, or crooning atop chilled out jazzy beats, or sounding like a windswept chanteuse locked in a Scandanavian lighthouse with violins and some percussion. The songwriting takes a bit of a backseat to the overall aesthetic, but with such a compelling personality and voice as Worden's, there's little to gripe about. This diamond may well be your new best friend. (K-W Record, July 3)