Friday, August 29, 2008

August reviews 08

Reviews from the Kitchener-Waterloo Record from the past month.
Summer brain in full effect.

Divine Brown – The Love Chronicles (Warner)
Kreesha Turner – Passion (EMI)

Two new Canadian soul divas: one with years of experience, one making her debut. Both mine an old-school sound; both employ ex-members of the Philosopher Kings to produce and co-write the material. The newcomer turns heads immediately with powerful singles; the veteran shows her strength over the course of a whole album.

Kreesha Turner is a 23-year-old Edmontonian with a bold, brassy voice best suited to big beats that producer (and ex-Philosopher King) Jon Levine provides for her on tracks like the percussion-heavy title track and the boom-bap soul stomps of “Bounce With Me” and “Lady Killer.” And those are just the filler album tracks—the hit single, “Don’t Call Me Baby,” boasts a hook worthy of ABBA. Turner is obviously not above lyrical clichés, but a voice like hers renders those reservations moot—on the pop songs, anyway, where she positions herself as a reborn Shirley Bassey getting ready to rule over the likes of the comparatively timid Duffy. The ballads, on the other hand, are uniformly banal and display Turner’s youthful limitations.

Divine Brown has a voice that can do anything it damn well pleases—and on her considerably stronger sophomore album, she tackles vintage soul, straight-up disco revivalism, ’80s new wave, and even a go-go garage rock R&B number. She pulls it all off—sometimes with help from A-list guests like Nelly Furtado and Ron Sexsmith, as well as James Bryan (Prozzak, Philosopher Kings). Brown pulls it off easily on a track-by-track basis, and yet The Love Chronicles is the type of album where the nods to eclecticism sometimes feel more like gene exercises—something that served her well during her career in musical theatre.

Though both albums have their shortcomings, there’s more than enough here to extend summer for a few more months—and they’re both solid signs that Canadian R&B has room for two soul queens. (K-W Record, August 27)

Bodies of Water – A Certain Feeling (Secretly Canadian/Sonic Unyon)

At first glance, this L.A. band’s moniker seems hopelessly bland. That is, until you dive into the music heard here and find it as expansive and unpredictable as their neighbouring ocean, and not repetitive as much as it is hypnotic. The vocals are the first aspect to make themselves apparent: husband and wife David and Meredith Metcalf both sing like they’re trying to project to the back of a musical theatre; there’s more than a few whiffs of rock opera here. They also favour long, wordless vocal motifs instead of short, snappy hooks, a move reminiscent of Arcade Fire’s album Funeral, an obvious influence. Other references immediately spring to mind; David Metcalf has a few Bowie tics, while Meredith recalls Mimi Parker of Low and Toronto singer Katie Stelmanis. But Bodies of Water are very much their own band, stuffing as many ideas they can into six-minutes songs that never wear out their welcome, alternating between the anthemic and quirky twists that keep us guessing. (K-W Record, August 13)

Human Highway – Moody Motorcycle (Suicide Squeeze/Fusion III)
Adam and the Amethysts – Amethyst Amulet (Pome/Fusion III)

Jim Guthrie returns from his day job as a jingle writer with—somewhat sadly—not a new album of his on, but as one half of this new duo with Islands frontman Nick Thorburn, a sublime combination that brings out the best in both artists. And Thorburn, frankly, could use the boost after the tepid Islands album that came out earlier this year.

The funny thing about these two choosing to collaborate is that the first time I heard Thorburn sing, back when he co-fronted The Unicorns, I thought he bore a remarkable vocal resemblance to Guthrie. Hearing their voices harmonizing together, Everly-style, it’s near impossible to distinguish who is singing which part.

The low-key nature of this project allows their melodic gifts to soar; the instrumentation, while sparse, is full of bright acoustic guitars and some of Guthrie’s trademark marimbas and toy keyboards. There’s none of the pomp heard in Islands; there’s little of the quirks of Guthrie’s early work. Instead, there’s plenty of charm, a warm and welcoming bedroom recording feel, and songs that stand among the best that either artist has ever written. Though this is being billed as a side project, Human Highway is much more than a detour.

Adam and the Amethysts is another side project that deserves attention, albeit the parent projects are considerably more obscure. Adam Waito is an auxiliary player in Miracle Fortress, and also fronts a funky electro-pop band called Telefauna. As Adam and the Amethysts, Waito dons an acoustic guitar, turns up the reverb settings on his home recording equipment and unleashes thirteen lucky songs that lie somewhere between 60s folk pop and 80s new wave. Tiny synths fill in background textures, but, much like Human Highway, it’s the acoustic guitars and vocal harmonies that define the sound. Waito proves to be a deft songsmith, especially when he’s longing for his hometown of Thunder Bay on the bookend tracks, “Stupid Ocean” and “The Ocean To Me”; Kakabeka Falls features prominently in the album’s artwork, and much of the material here seems perfectly suited for a Superior road trip. (K-W Record, August 20)

John Mellencamp – Life Death Love and Freedom (Hear Music)

There's always been a folkie hiding inside John Mellencamp, starting with the agrarian subject matter of 1985's Scarecrow album and continuing with the accordions and violins that populated its follow-up, The Lonesome Jubilee—both of which remain his biggest artistic and commercial successes. He's spent two decades since exploring a mélange of R&B, pop and the rock that he built his name on, but he's now decided to strip everything down to basics with the help of noted roots producer T-Bone Burnett. The result is his most rewarding album in eons, the low-key setting highlighting his strengths as a vocalist and bringing his lyrics to the forefront. He's got mortality on his mind on titles like “If I Die Sudden” and lyrics where he warns, "This getting older ain't for cowards." As always, politics play a part with mixed results, ranging from the nuanced to the naïve to the lost opportunity; a supposedly au courant song titled “Jena” doesn't offer a deeper analysis of modern race relations other than "see how we are me and you" and a call to "take those nooses down." But unlike most of his recent output, it's the arrangements here that help gloss over Mellencamp's lesser moments as a songwriter, thanks in large part to Bennett's deft touches. These new clothes fit perfectly, and even if they're unlikely to bring Mellencamp back to stadium status, they certainly feel more comfortable than the flag-waving car commercials we heard on his last album. (K-W Record, August 7)

Jun Miyake – Stolen From Strangers (Do Right!/Outside)

What’s being stolen and who are the strangers? These aren’t the only questions posed by Jun Miyake, but they’re the only ones that he hints directly at. We’re left to guess everything else: starting with where we’re waking up this morning, be it Tokyo, New York City, Paris, Brazil or Bulgaria.

Miyake recorded this album in all those locales—except Brazil, though there’s enough of a bossa nova influence throughout this recording that he may as well have. The result conveys a dopey disembodiment combined with a sense of adventure and exploration into the unknown. Miyake isn’t out to recreate “authentic” world music, despite the presence of Bulgarian choirs and symphonies; he’s out to create a world of his own where the listener’s imagination is left to run wild—something for which his experiences writing soundtracks for Oliver Stone films and Robert Wilson theatre pieces has prepared him well.

Miyake plays a mournful flugelhorn and a lush yet delicate piano, augmented with unusual instrumental juxtapositions such as tuba, oud and alto flute. Tense string soundtracks provide ample drama, not just dressing, while vocalists such as a wistful Arto Lindsay, Air/M83 vocalist Lisa Papineau and the ragged French chanteur Arthur H welcome curious listeners in Portugese, French, English, Bulgarian and Japanese.

The journey is more mournful than madcap, though Miyake certainly has his playful side as well. There is precious little percussion here—despite what you might expect considering that is getting a Canadian release on the Do Right! label, known for its jazzy grooves, hip-hop and Afrobeat. But Stolen From Strangers is bound by neither geography nor genre; it’s instead driven by mere moods that weave an unmistakable and unique magic that finds comfort in restlessness. (K-W Record, August 27)

Randy Newman – Harps and Angels (Nonesuch/Warner)
The Awkward Stage – Slimming Mirrors, Flattering Lights (Mint/Outside)

In the nine years since his last proper album, Randy Newman has not been short of work. His Tin Pan Alley songwriting has been put to good use in countless Hollywood projects, finally landing the prolific writer an Oscar in 2002 for Monsters Inc.

But there’s no place in Disney flicks for songs like “A Few Words in Defense of Our Country,” where Newman’s narrator posits the position that, at the very least, George W. Bush doesn’t compare to the tyranny of King Leopold of Belgium and marauding Roman emperors. Over a breezy, rollicking piano number, Newman casually points out that “the end of an empire is messy at best.”

His taste for sharp satire is on full display, especially when he suggests that the title characters in “Korean Parents” are the solution for a slacker generation needing to be whipped into shape. He also takes potshots at John Mellencamp, Jackson Browne and Bono on “A Piece of the Pie,” another song with which he serenades the sinking ship that is America—an overarching theme here, which, it’s been said, is arguably a turkey shoot these days.

Newman is still a sentimentalist, however; there’s no hint of irony or unreliable narrators in straightforward songs like “Losing You” and “Feels Like Home,” which are tearjerkers worthy of Tom Waits. And for all his wry observations about societal decay, he projects a counterintuitive sincerity when he advocates blind optimism in “Laugh and Be Happy.”

Randy Newman has a rep for appealing only to lit-rock snobs, but Harps and Angels is as good a place as any to discover why his peers study his every move.

Fans of Randy Newman usually assume that his style of songwriting is the sole province of sixtysomething boomers. Vancouver’s Shane Nelken is half Newman’s age—but even though he’s only two albums deep into his own discography, Nelken shows he has an equally sharp eye for sardonic observation, rich character writing and classic pop songwriting smarts.

That was all evident on The Awkward Stage’s 2006 debut, Heaven is For Easy Girls, but everything here is ramped up: the guitars are bigger and punchier; the acoustic numbers are rich and full; the melodic hooks are meatier; the arrangements are more developed, both in terms of structure and orchestration. There are subdued songs here that rank with the best of Ron Sexsmith or Gordon Lightfoot; others, like the blistering “Anime Eyes,” take all the best parts of new wave 80s stadium rock and leave the cheese behind.

Nelken proves to be an engaging vocalist throughout, delivering his lines with equal parts empathy and biting wit. “Modern schoolgirl, your sense of innocence is cruel and naïve,” he snarls; elsewhere, he paints a vivid picture of sorrow over a major key melody when he sings, “Jennifer sits down in the shower for close to an hour/ her troubles rain down like blows to her brow.” He also turns the phrase “fear and anger, baby, that’s all I got” into a jovial singalong with acoustic guitar, piano, clarinet and a man chorus.

The Awkward Stage is the kind of artist that gets pegged with back-handed compliments like “too clever for their own good”—and yet there is nary a lyric here that is out of place or self-consciously cloying, and they manage to deliver pure pop thrills at every turn. The awkward stage is over; long live The Awkward Stage. (K-W Record, August 13)

Note: The Awkward Stage are heading east in October. Tour dates are here.

Nomo – Ghost Light (Ubiquity/Outside)

Nomo is an Afrobeat band from Chicago who, until now, was content with playing the genre fairly straight. On Ghost Light, the rhythmic template is still there but many of the sounds have moved into the realm of the magical. This is due, most likely, to the presence of producer Warn Defever, a musician from Michigan who’s played almost every genre except Afrobeat in his longstanding project His Name is Alive. Defever puts the kalimbas and the keyboards through dream-like distortion and other pedals, while giving other instrument in this octet plenty of sonic space to breathe—even something called the “electric sawblade gamelan.” The rhythm section is rooted just as much in American funk as they are Afrobeat, and each of the horn players have jazz chops to spare—otherwise they wouldn’t attempt a bass clarinet solo as classy as the one heard here. Guests include some top Chicago players Hamid Drake and Josh Abrams. In a scene where the recording studio usually sucks the life out of amazing live bands, Nomo have made an album that easily stands on its own. (K-W Record, August 20)

Conor Oberst – s/t (Merge)

"There's nothing that the road cannot heal," sings Conor Oberst on the first recorded credited solely to his name. He should know: he's been fronting and touring Bright Eyes—and other bands—since he was 12 years old. For his first so-called solo album, he decamped to Mexico with a new line-up of musicians. And though the material here is a marked improvement over the wheel-spinning we heard the last Bright Eyes album, it doesn't stray far from his other rootsy explorations. The country touches feel less self-conscious now, the quiet acoustic numbers don't act like they have a chip on their shoulder, and the new band is put to good use on the rock numbers, including the successful slapstick of “I Don't Want To Die (In the Hospital),” which sounds like it was written for a madcap comedy. The only complaint is that Oberst sounds like he's playing it a tad safe; for an artist who made his most exciting work when he pushed himself to dramatic heights, he sounds a bit neutered here—despite the fact that he sings, "I keep death at my heels like a basset hound." (K-W Record, August 7)

Xavier Rudd – Dark Shades of Blue (Universal)

Xavier Rudd is a multi-instrumentalist tree-hugger best known for his didgeridoo skills. On his new album, the Canadian/Australian decides to focus on flexing his skills on the Weissenborn slide guitar, a sound most commonly associated with Ben Harper these days—a comparison that’s hard to avoid when listening to Dark Shades of Blue. His sound is bolstered by the addition of K-W drummer Dave Tolley (Nine Mile), who lays down solid and yet sparse rock and reggae grooves for Rudd to solo over.

Rudd has billed this as a “dark” album—which it is, for a guy who goes barefoot most of the time and who can charitably be called a hippie without much argument. But it’s also his most accomplished—and, frankly, listenable—album to date. Here, he’s free of some of the more cloyingly obvious feel-good gaia-isms of his previous work, not to mention toning down the stoner surfer vibe. With Tolley’s help, he also manages a much more successful melding of rock and reggae forms than one would expect. The didgeridoos are still there, as are the aboriginal backing vocals, and Rudd’s own vocals are pitch perfect. The songs succeed more as grooves and moods, but there’s plenty here to appreciate, even for sceptics. (K-W Record, August 20)

Tagaq – Auk/Blood (Jericho Beach)

Inuit throat singing is one of the few folk traditions in the world that doesn't easily lend itself to collaboration and cross-pollination. Tanya Tagaq Gillis wants to change that. The origins of the tradition are directly social rather than musical: it's primarily an endurance game between two women, and difficult to adapt to musical structures or additional instrumentation.

Tagaq takes the call-and-response nature of throat singing and engages on true collaboration that brings the ancient tradition firmly into the modern world of the avant-garde, using its sensual beauty and raw power to play off string quartets, soundscapes and hip-hop beatboxing. Her voice is equally orgasmic, demonic and cathartic—and always captivating, especially in the juxtapositions it's placed in here.

Yet thankfully none of this comes off as an overly self-conscious Canada Council cross-cultural project. Saying that Tagaq is unique is a gross understatement; while vocalists like Meredith Monk, Paul Dutton and Mike Patton all explore the guttural depths of the human voice, nobody else sounds anything like Tagaq. Hailing from Cambridge Bay, she learned this ancient tradition second hand from cassettes she heard while at art school in Halifax; her music is married to neither modern nor traditional conventions.

Her choice of collaborators here is inspired: Kronos Quartet, perhaps the most open-minded and eclectic string quartet in the world; Mike Patton, the equally eclectic vocalist know for everything from metal to pop to morbid soundtrack music (and who is releasing this album on his own label in the U.S.); versatile Vancouver violinist Jesse Zubot; beatbox artist Shamik; and hip-hop storyteller Buck 65. Only the latter intersection stumbles somewhat; while one of their two tracks together is truly inspired, the other finds Tagaq near-inaudible and/or indistinguishable from legions of breathy, faceless new age singers reduced to window dressing status. It's all the more shocking considering how much the rest of the material is driven by the force of her formidable musical personality.

This is all a considerable contrast to Tagaq's 2006 debut, Sinaa, which was an interior, almost insular album where she was still developing her own approach to solo throat singing and toying with composition; the one collaboration there, with her former employer Bjork, sounded like neither woman was even listening to each other. Working with these new collaborators, Tagaq finds herself fitting into ever-so-slightly more conventional song structures, while sacrificing none of the majestic mystery that makes her so compelling in the first place. (K-W Record, August 7)

John Zorn’s Bar Kokhba – Book of Angels Volume Ten: Lucifer (Tzadik/Koch)

This year’s Guelph Jazz Festival boasts the same level of quality and adventure that they’ve built their reputation on, but the presence of one artist in particular provides the festival with a major coup.

John Zorn is one of the most eclectic, prolific and profoundly gifted voices in modern jazz—not to mention about a dozen other genres as well. He’s bringing his Electric Masada and Dreamers projects to Guelph, featuring some of the most creative minds working in new music today: guitarist Marc Ribot, pianist Jamie Saft, bassist Trevor Dunn, electronic manipulator Ikue Mori, and more.

Though Bar Kokhba is not one of Zorn’s projects appearing at the festival—its membership does include Marc Ribot, who will be here—it is perhaps his most accessible outlet and, by extension, his most popular. It’s certainly his most polite, considering some of the more abrasive and squawking sounds that Zorn initially built his reputation on. Bar Kokhba is perhaps the only Zorn project you’d put on as dinner music; but that doesn’t diminish its beauty, its subtlety, or its wonder.

Bar Kokhba combines the Masada String Trio—featuring violinist Mark Feldman, who wowed audiences at the 2006 festival with pianist Sylvie Courvoisier—with the core Masada band, as well as percussionist Cyro Baptista. Zorn himself puts down his saxophone, content to compose and conduct the proceedings, which as always allow for ample improvisation within a stately chamber music setting. The strings make the klezmer melodies sing; Ribot’s guitar work is lyrical and evocative at every turn. The main difference this time out is that the rhythm section engages in some Latin swing—sometimes overtly, sometimes with just a slight and deft touch.

The result is not just essential listening for anyone looking to ease their way into the Zorn oeuvre; it’s a lush and beautiful album with haunting melodies and impeccable musicianship, placing it near the top of an illustrious discography that refuses to slow down in both output and quality.

Zorn’s three Guelph Jazz Festival performances on Sunday, September 7 will mark only his third Southern Ontario appearance in at least 15 years; consider it a can’t-miss event. (K-W Record, August 27)

More info on the Guelph Jazz Festival here.

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