Saturday, November 15, 2008

September 08 reviews

Long overdue reviews clearinghouse sale... we'll start with September.

These were all written for the mainstream daily newspapers the Kitchener-Waterloo Record and the Guelph Mercury.

Lindsey Buckingham – Gift of Screws (Warner)

As the principal architect of Fleetwood Mac's Rumours—one of the best-selling albums of the last 50 years—Lindsey Buckingham flies far below the commercial radar, unless he happens to reunite with his old bandmates for a cash-cow tour. Which is unfortunate, because Gift of Screws shows that his songwriting, singing and exceptional skills as a guitarist haven't diminished a bit. Yet for a man who crafted such a slick pop sound in the 70s, Buckingham is his own worst enemy when left to his own devices. Though it features many full band arrangements—including guest appearances from Mick Fleetwood and John McVie—this is largely a home recording that could easily have been elevated to more vivid heights if Buckingham was not tracking every instrument by himself. It works on the acoustic numbers, but one can't help but wish for a bit of bottom end and extra oomph on the pop tracks. As good as much of it is—and any Fleetwood Mac fan is unlikely to be disappointed—Buckingham's unwillingness to elevate it above the home demo status is puzzling. (September 25, 2008)

The Bug – London Zoo (Ninja Tune/Outside)

Dancehall reggae is usually party music, even when it’s dealing with darker themes of ghetto violence, but rarely does it sound as paranoid and creepy as it does in the hands of Kevin Martin, aka The Bug. With the help of a cabal of UK MCs from the grime, dancehall and nascent dubstep scenes (including Warrior Queen and Space Ape), Martin hits hard with deep bass and stiff rhythms that—despite his obviously deep love for the genre—would never be mistaken for Jamaican. Martin comes from an industrial music background, from projects like Techno Animal, Ice, and the ever-so-modestly monikered God. So it’s not surprising that it is the harshest and most haunting elements of dancehall that provide him with the most inspiration. Martin has a cinematic ear for mood and soundscapes, which has informed The Bug since its inception; The Bug’s 1997 debut album was conceived as an alternate soundtrack to Francis Ford Coppola’s classic surveillance film The Conversation. This isn’t club music; with its cavernous echo and dense layers of disembodied sounds, it’s better suited to parties held in an underpass or an equally alienating, decrepit urban locale. That said, there are moments of icy beauty to be found in these carefully constructed ruins, especially on "Judgement Day"—which, after an album of titles like "Too Much Pain," "Murder" and "Poison Dart"—manages to be unusually poignant. (September 4, 2008)

Glen Campbell – Meet Glen Campbell (Capitol/EMI)

The Rhinestone Cowboy is one of the latest of the baby boomer warhorses to stake a comeback claim. Once one of the most popular country/pop crossover artists in the U.S., thanks in large part to his popular TV variety show, Campbell doesn’t carry the same cool caché as someone like Johnny Cash. And while some of the song choices on this album of covers might seem gimmicky— namely U2’s "All I Want Is You" and Green Day’s "Good Riddance"—the stoic singer delivers them with dignity and confidence; like any great cover, these songs sound like they were written with this 72-year-old man in mind. Most remarkable is the transformation of The Velvet Underground’s "Jesus," which is given a gorgeous fingerpicking acoustic arrangement, with soaring strings and subtle mandolin lending a lush atmosphere that suggests the singer has already found the redemption he seeks. It’s hard to imagine a more suitable song for Campbell than Jackson Browne’s "These Days": “If I seem afraid to live the life that I have made in song/ it’s just that I’ve been healing so long.” But what really makes this album shine is not just the songs and Campbell’s strong voice—it’s the banjos, bright guitars, big string sections, pedal steel guitars and concert chimes that provide old-school sparkle and shine, elevating songs by Travis and the Foo Fighters to thrilling heights found nowhere on the originals. They don’t make albums like this anymore: matching iconic singers with the best material and the best arrangements. This is a potent reminder why they should. (September 4, 2008)

Angela Desveaux & The Mighty Ship – s/t (Sonic Unyon)

Canada has no shortage of female singer/songwriters, many of which send critics tripping themselves to find adjectives and superlatives. Montreal’s Angela Desveaux will likely never be caught up in a hype cycle, if only because she appears too gosh-darn normal to set anyone’s world on fire. Her closest comparison point in this country would be Kathleen Edwards—whose producer Dave Draves is behind the board here—but Desveaux doesn’t have the same sense of drama; in its place, she has a naturally melancholy, strong and steady voice that sings tales of characters at crossroads in their life, with worried minds and mountains of uncertainty obstructing a clear view. Even on the rockier numbers, the melodies sink their teeth in slowly, with Desveaux’s understated heartbreaker of a voice bringing them to life, with help from able band arrangements. There are no sharp left turns here, which makes it an even greater mystery why Desveaux has yet to find a more mainstream audience—or at least the same audience as Edwards, the Sadies, Blue Rodeo and the dozens of other Canucks who play this particular brand of roots rock so well. Desveaux deserves a place in their company. (September 11, 2008)

Kardinal Offishall – Not 4 Sale (Konlive/Universal)

Kardinal Offishall has never got his proper due in this country—but in typically Canadian fashion, a top 5 single in the U.S. might finally make this Toronto veteran the superstar he deserves to be. You’d be forgiven for not realizing that the smash summer single "Dangerous"—featuring a chorus sung by hitmaker Akon—is actually the product of this “rude boy from T-Dot,” though that’s only a gateway drug into an eclectic tour-de-force that propels Kardinal to the forefront of hip-hop well beyond Canadian borders.

Now that his time is clearly here, Kardinal isn’t going to waste a precious minute—and nor is he going to stray from his vision. Not 4 Sale moves effortless from heavy hip-hop to smooth reggae, from ragga to pure pop, with flashes of electro futurism yet always with a heavy Caribbean flavour; it’s hard to imagine another artist who not only weaves all those sounds together successfully, but does so consistently over the course of an entire album.

He does so with some top-notch talent pitching in—most notable Rihanna, on the new single "Numba 1 (Tide is High)," as well as T-Pain, The Clipse, Estelle and Toronto boys Glenn Lewis and Lindo P. There’s no hitmaking producers parachuted in, however; when not behind the boards himself, Kardinal employs hungry youngsters who take Neptunes and Timbaland templates and push them further.

But Kardinal is the man “who run tings,” and his towering personality looms large. On tracks like "Family Tree" and "Ill Eagle Alien," he manages to tackle gun culture and pass himself off as “the poor people’s permanent position vindicator” without preaching—he saves that for a spoken word rant that concludes the album, should the unsuspecting listener stick around long enough.

And it’s likely that they will, because Not 4 Sale is unquestionably a landmark Canadian hip-hop album. And now that he’s cracked the Billboard Top Ten and appeared on Jay Leno (!), the rest of the world has already taken notice. (September 18, 2008)

Lady Gaga – The Fame (Konlive/Universal)

After appearing on 21 chart singles in the last year, Akon is proving to be much more than a robotic soul crooner, and so far his Konlive label has shown considerable savvy by signing not only Kardinal Offishall, but Lady Gaga—who provided the label with another summer chart-topper this year with "Just Dance."

There’s plenty to mock here, starting with her name and extending into her all-too-obvious bid to become the new Material Girl with vapid titles like "Beautiful Dirty Rich," "Money Honey" and the title track. But Lady Gaga offers a bit more: starting with the fact that she’s the principal songwriter here, one who has also been hired by Britney Spears and Pussycat Dolls—though she clearly saved the better hooks for her own record. Akon himself plays a minor supporting role, co-writing "Just Dance" and otherwise staying out of the way.

Her street sass vocals lie somewhere between Gwen Stefani and Peaches, with brash electro beats backing her up; she shows a bit more range when she drops a ballsy blues waltz on "Alone Alone." This is little more than straight-up bubblegum, but just the fact that she’s capable of carrying a full album proves that she’ll likely be around for the long run. It won’t be long before Madonna comes calling for a co-write.

Ne-Yo – Year of the Gentleman (DefJam/Universal)

Ne-Yo has the hooks, the voice and the slick bedroom ballads down pat, elevating him several steps above every other run-of-the-mill modern R&B singer. The fact that he's a dapper dude is icing on the cake. A little Ne-Yo goes a long way, starting with the hit single "Closer" and its acoustic guitars, techno beat and pure pop melody; other tracks here could pass for vintage Michael Jackson. And yet his lyrics make it impossible to take Ne-Yo seriously, when he attempts to inject serious soul gravitas into lines like: "She hates that I don't do dishes/ even though I mess up the most." You don't need to write Shakespearian sonnets to make this music work, but sometimes Ne-Yo's attempts at sensitivity are hilarious. "If you're single, you don't gotta be alone tonight … I'll be your boyfriend," he promises—before adding the important qualifier "until the sun comes up." Before picking up a pen, Ne-Yo needs to listen to more Smokey Robinson and less R. Kelly. (September 25, 2008)

One Hundred Dollars – Forest of Tears (Blue Fog/ Sonic Unyon)

Simone Schmidt has the voice of a woman who’s been beaten down: by crappy jobs, by city life, by heartache, by parenthood, by perpetual disappointment. It’s the voice of a woman who has discovered that love does not, in fact, conquer all. As the liner notes state here: “It’s not the hardship that breaks you, but the small comfort of a strong shoulder that brings the tears.” A forest of tears, in fact.

Her bandmates—borrowed largely from Toronto favourites Jon Rae and the River—accentuate the ache with casual country leanings, driven by pedal steel guitar and Farfisa organ. They’re careful not to crowd Schmidt’s sadsack stories; the arrangements may well have been spontaneous, as this was recorded live in one day-long session by Rick White (Eric’s Trip, Julie Doiron).

The pathos can be overpowering over the course of 14 tracks, but Schmidt is someone you want on your side and you need a hand out of the abyss, or at the very least someone to tell you that you’re not alone. (September 18, 2008)

Roots Manuva – Slime & Reason (Big Dada/Outside)

Normally it's off-limits to discuss an album's accompanying press material or an aspect particular to the advance copies that are circulated to the press. But in the case of the fourth album by Roots Manuva, it's more than a bit amusing that an automated British female voice keeps interrupting my copy of this album, warning me not to post it online: "No copying! No copying!" (Of course, this will not happen if you purchase it through legal channels.)

In fact, no one in hip-hop today is even attempting to copy Roots Manuva, a British MC who has always maintained a singular and unique voice, whose music is just as vivid and lyrical as his rhymes. His 2000 album Run Come Save Me sounded like the future of hip-hop, foreshadowing the UK grime movement and offering a distinctly British/Caribbean take on the innovations of people like Timbaland, the Neptunes and Swizz Beatz.

Slime & Reason finds him mellowing out a bit, with more distinct reggae rhythms and re-imagined new wave textures permeating the polyglot mix, while Kraftwerk synthesizers ride atop dancehall beats with occasional live drums, horns, tabla and subtle electric guitar shadings. Almost ten years after his debut, he's sounding more world-weary than ever on tracks like "It's Me Oh Lord," "Do 4 Self" and "The Show Must Go On." He alternates his gruff growl with some broken gospel-tinged melodies not unlike TV on the Radio. This MC is aging gracefully without strItalicaying from his original innovations; he continues to be one of the fascinating figures working in hip-hop today. (September 25, 2008)

Michael Franti and Spearhead – All Rebel Rockers (Anti/Epitaph)

It's not enough to be merely one of the most articulate and entertaining performers working today—because Michael Franti most certainly is, both on stage and off. His albums with Spearhead, on the other hand, are extremely hit and miss. It's all to easy for his political insights to get really preachy really fast, and musically he's had some cheeseball moments while mashing up R&B, rap, rock and reggae.

All Rebel Rockers, on the other hand, is a slam dunk for Franti and crew, capturing all of their live energy and featuring Franti in his finest lyrical form, finding faith and hope in an age of paranoia, surveillance and torture. Like any good hippie, he "wants to write a love song for the world," and he manages to do so several times over here with both total sincerity and an acute awareness that these are difficult days for optimists.

No doubt the feel-good vibe is due in part to relocating to Jamaica for the recording session, under the watchful eyes of reggae legends Sly and Robbie. The duo not only oversees reggae grooves both retro and modern, but they provide a bright pop polish that illuminates some of Spearhead's catchiest material to date, guaranteed to get a grin out of even the most hardened cynic. Yet he's not softening his message in the least, reminding us: "I came here to rock/ to smash the empire with my boombox."

Unlike earlier albums, Spearhead here succeed at the slower songs as well as they do the reggae-fired rockers; a couple of tracks here might even land them a last-dance ballad breakthrough on radio. Franti's vocals in particular have grown exponentially; he's no longer an MC attempting to croon, but a compelling singer in his own right. The only minor dips in the flow happen when they boost the electric guitars and attempt to rock out. This band should steer clear of the moshpit.

Franti is full of good intentions, and while in the past he came across as more than a tad medicinal, All Rebel Rockers is the first Spearhead album that feels warm and fuzzy from beginning to end. Other artists get points for dropping vague political allusions into music that's rarely any fun—ahem, Ben Harper—but Spearhead provides the full package. (September 4, 2008)

Chad Van Gaalen – Soft Airplane (Flemish Eye/Sonic Unyon)

Not many artists alternate easily between banjo ballads and the world of blips and blurps. But Calgary’s Chad Van Gaalen is the type of artist who—if he had to—could make a compelling album using instruments strung together with cardboard and string.

If you don’t know Van Gaalen, it’s hard to begin cataloguing his strengths. For starters, he makes some of his own instruments and is just as compelling whether he’s crawling inside his lo-fi bedroom electronic gear or strumming a solo acoustic guitar. He also possesses a terrifyingly beautiful and quavering alto voice that delivers deathly images and non-sequiturs with equal gravity. And last but not least, he writes haunting melodies that tie everything together; what might be a total mess in the hands of a less artist is instead a complete triumph on every level.

Soft Airplane is an intimate listen; the homespun recording sounds like he made every track as an audio love letter for each individual listener. And yet he still finds time to turn up his amps, as he does on the reverb-ed rumbling rocker with typically odd title "Bare Feet on Wet Grip Tape." Within the first three songs, fans of his earlier work will hear that this is the follow-through on the promise of his first two records without altering the unique vision heard on his astounding 2004 debut Infiniheart.

Some comparison points are more obvious than others. There’s quite a bit of Neil Young’s acoustic work that casts a large shadow here—not just because of the beautiful simplicity at work, but because Van Gaalen shares a certain idiosyncratic diction and falsetto with the man to whom he owes the largest debt. On the flip side, several songs owe a debt to his friends and occasional collaborators Holy Fuck and Shout Out Out Out Out—strange bedfellows on the surface, but it’s obvious on every track here just how diverse Van Gaalen’s tastes truly are.

When his last album was nominated for the Polaris Prize in 2007, several fellow nominees who took the stage cited Van Gaalen as an inspiration; with Soft Airplane, Van Gaalen will gain the respect of more than just his immediate peers. This is easily one of the best albums of 2008. (September 11, 2008)

Brian Wilson – That Lucky Old Sun (EMI)

Given the sadness he’s seen in his time, Brian Wilson can be forgiven for wanting to look on the sunny side of life. But on this album-long suite—his first work since resuscitating and re-recording his lost opus Smile—Wilson’s concept album about the beauty of California gets extremely tiresome extremely quickly. We get it: California is gorgeous, everyone should "Live Let Live," people there have the "Good Kind of Love," and even the “homeless, hopeless, well-heeled and deranged” all get along and smile at passers-by on Venice Beach.

Wilson’s wide-eyed naivete is fine in small doses, but certainly doesn’t sustain a concept album—one where the old folk song of the title is a recurring motif throughout. There’s nothing inventive about the arrangements here, other than the expected beauty of the background vocals; at his age, Wilson is content to play it very safe. The songs constitute a shadow of his former glories; only when he gets personal and talks about the redemptive powers of the California sun—as he does on "Oxygen to the Brain" and "Going Home"—does Wilson strike a truly poignant chord.

Carolyn Mark once sang, “Is it a groove, or is it a rut?” For an artist of Brian Wilson’s stature and storied history, it can be argued that it doesn’t really matter at this point. It’s hard to argue with sunny days. “Now I’m home where I belong,” he sings, “and that’s the key to every song.” (September 18, 2008)

Hawksley Workman – Los Manlicious (Maple/Universal)

This is the second Hawksley Workman album this year. Reviewing last February’s release Between the Beautifuls, I mourned the loss of his mojo; it sounded like this compelling performer—who arrived fully formed and freaky with his 1999 debut For Him and the Girls—was now neutered and softening all his edges for the Starbucks crowd.

That notion vanishes within the opening moments of "When You Gonna Flower?", where Workman rides a crunchy guitar riff and re-establishes himself as a powerhouse vocalist who won’t be satisfied until he out-sings and out-camps Freddie Mercury. (And David Bowie too, for that matter—as attested to by anyone who saw him tackle both singers in a cover of "Under Pressure" at his Hillside performance this year.)

As its ridiculous title suggests, Los Manlicious is full of ridiculously macho swagger coupled with the dandy charm that’s been part of his stage persona since day one. The song "In My Blood" has an urgency that hasn't been heard from him in ages; elsewhere, he has crushes on "Girls With Crutches" and finds himself "Kissing Girls (You Shouldn’t Kiss)." Much of this album feels like a long overdue catharsis, fuelled by his libido and engaging all his stadium pop fantasies while maintaining the playful twists and turns of his first two albums.

The songwriting is erratic; some songs ("Oh You Delicate Heart," "Piano Blink") easily stand on their own with little trickery involved, while others are clearly propped up by the performance and the production—both of which can always be relied on to at least keep things interesting. There are more than enough cues here that Workman should be going even further out than he is here; the most ridiculous track, "Fatty Wants to Dance," also boasts the most album’s best groove, while "Is This What You Call Love?" finds Workman fuzzing out his guitar further than Jack White would ever dare, with a high school cheerleading squad egging him on.

After years in the wilderness, Workman hasn’t exactly scored an all-out comeback album, but this is a sure sign that he’s not giving up until he hits one right out of the park. (September 11, 2008)

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