Sunday, January 04, 2009

'08 on a plate

In alphabetical order, my Top 30 of '08.

The Awkward Stage – Slimming Mirrors, Flattering Lights (Mint).
Vancouver singer/songwriter Shane Nelken writes fantastic classical pop melodies, expands his arrangement skills on this second album, and is the kind of “smart” songwriter that isn’t winking at you in every second phrase or, even worse, flexing his thesaurus for vocab brownie points. He never comes off as smug or showy—not even when writing a jazzy waltz called “True Love on Three With Feeling.” His lyrics here are, for the most part, astounding. Nearly every song either paints a complete narrative portrait or contains plenty of poetic zingers per capita; his turns of phrase and internal rhyme schemes put him up there with Randy Newman; perhaps someday soon even Leonard Cohen, circa I’m Your Man, (although obviously an entirely different tone and a slim fraction of the generational gravitas). Yet for all his wordiness, Nelken never tries to cram more words-per-minute to crowd the melody. And the arrangements are universally excellent: the acoustic songs are lush and lovely, while glammed-up guitars give songs like “Hey Modern School Girl” and the raucous “Anime Eyes” more punch than was ever heard on the band’s debut album two years back. “Mini Skirt of Xmas Lights” covers all the band’s bases in one song. (this was adapted from this earlier post)

Erykah Badu – New Amerykah Part One: 4th World War (Universal).
In a year when even the most conservative commentators had to acknowledge the decline of the American empire, Erykah Badu was documenting its dissolution and attempting to make sense from the chaos in a way that few soul artists have done ever since Sly Stone disappeared in a drug-induced fit of paranoia. This doesn't have the easy answers of retro soul or lightweight jazzy and modern R&B; in the New Amerykah, Badu's brand of soul music promises, "We take your history and make it a modern mystery."

Calexico – Carried to Dust
(Quarterstick/Touch and Go).

While there's always been a joyous element listening to a band of Calexico's caliber explore various genres and textures—notably Mexican and mariachi elements—Carried to Dust not only displays their prowess as instrumentalists and arrangers, but as songwriters. And by fully exploiting the lower end of his vocal range, Joey Burns is no longer the sideman who stumbled into fronting a band. The Latin influences are integrated here in ways that they’ve been striving for since their inception. Calexico has been searching somewhat restlessly for years; it sounds like they're finally home.

Dungen – 4 (Kemado)
I’ve heard this Swedish band’s other records in passing, and I’ve even seen them live once; nothing left much of an impression until now. I don’t know if they’ve changed or if I have, but from the first snippets I heard online, I found this completely captivating, and not just because they’re the first band with a flute that I’ve enjoyed since early Belle and Sebastian. The fuzzy psychedelic prog numbers are melodic and epic; the jazzy piano interludes are wintry and wonderful; even the two guitar-wank pieces manage to be compelling. For fans of: Black Sabbath, Van Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Vince Guaraldi.

The D'Urbervilles – We Are the Hunters
(Out of This Spark)

I've spent too many years in shitty bars listening to too many boys play the same chords the same way, but there is no other rock'n'roll band in the land that pulls me to the front of the stage, throws my hands in the air and has me screaming with reckless abandon like an adolescent girl discovering these visceral pleasures for the first time. And the album lives up to every second of the live show--engineer Chris Stringer deserves full marks for combining the sonic pleasures of both AC/DC and Martha and the Muffins. An earlier review is here; interview is here.

Kathleen Edwards – Asking For Flowers (Maple/Universal).
Canadian songwriters used to have a strong storytelling tradition of which there are only traces now: the Weakerthans' John K. Samson, Chad Van Gaalen, and Kathleen Edwards. Edwards hits her stride on this, her third album, where she balances one-liners with fully formed short stories, and is backed up by ace players, including keyboardist Benmont Tench. I’m still not sure why she’s a better singer live than she is in the studio, but the songs are the show-stealers here. More verbiage here.

Fleet Foxes – s/t (Sub Pop/Outside).
Anyone who fell in love with the gorgeous folk pop of Fleet Foxes’ 2008 debut found that it made much more sense knowing that the band is situated in the natural splendour of the Pacific Northwest. The environmental effect is obvious. Canyons of reverbs are applied to the stunning four-part harmonies that weave through every melody here; the music has the majesty of mountains, while every flourish of orchestral percussion sounds like the collapse of an ocean wave. This isn’t merely a case of critical clichés; Pecknold is a writer who explicitly references mountains, “quivering forests,” hills, and meadowlarks, as well as Seattle landmarks. (adapted from this piece in Exclaim magazine’s year-end wrap-up)

Forest City Lovers – Haunting Moon Sinking (Out of This Spark).
Kat Burns kills me. For starters, I’m a sucker for subtle ladies who sing melancholy morning melodies with lots of pianos, strings and clarinets. Burns is an unusual female vocalist: she’s certainly not a rocker, and nor is she showy or cutesy; in fact, she’s often totally deadpan, though never dull. She’s consistently strong, steady and with just a hint of a quaver that betrays a slight vulnerability underneath the calm exterior. Burns is a vivid writer with an eye for the smallest details, as heard on songs like “Orphans” and “Waiting on the Fence,” and can say so much in the offhand way she delivers a line like: “Maybe I’ll never have your baby, if our love runs out of time.” On top of that, her Lovers are fully engaged in making sure every note counts, knowing exactly when to expand and contract, and with enough ego in check to sit out most of any given song entirely, if necessary. Mika Posen’s violin provides not only the expected textures, but a wonderful melodic counterbalance; she also provides some of the slight Eastern European motifs heard here. (originally ran as part of my pre-Polaris posts in September, here)
Forest City Lovers play the Tranzac in Toronto this Saturday, January 10, and the Albion in Guelph on January 16 as part of Out Of This Spark’s anniversary celebrations. They will also be touring with Geoff Berner in February.

Fuck Buttons – Street Horrsing
(All Tomorrow's Parties).

Normally I don’t enjoy anything that would probably cite Skinny Puppy as an influence—never mind something that sounds like my refrigerator is under demonic possession—but these sons of Suicide extract great beauty from abrasive and droning electronics. It helps that the percussion is kept to a minimum and steers away from clichés—it’s more tribal than techno—and the vocals veer between unintelligible distorted screams and what sounds like either bird calls or primate mating rituals. Whatever the reason, this Horrsing around felt cathartic and cleansing.

Larkin Grimm – Parplar (Young God).
Plenty of artists like to identify as outsiders, whether they are or not. And usually it's easy to spot the ones who are putting on some kind of front, trying to out-weird each other to mask insecurities and—more often than not—inadequacies. That's certainly not the case with Larkin Grimm, who was raised in a religious cult in Georgia, studied sculpture at Yale, lived in Alaska for a while, and identifies as transgendered. You don't have to know any of that to appreciate her spellbinding third album, but it goes a long way in explaining what mysterious and miraculous worlds she uncovers on the 15 tracks here. At its heart, Grimm's music owes its largest debt to country, blues and mountain music traditions, with bits of birdsong, brass bands, sinister string sections and hand-crafted instrumentation assisting her in creating some of the freakiest folk around. Grimm's fairy tales are grounded in traditional melodies, tinged with more than a few hints of Eastern psychedelia and featuring fantastical lyrics about bodily parts and fluids, as well as the occasional unicorn. Her own backing vocals at times sounds like a hysterical Joan Baez trying to restrain herself in the middle of a drug trip, while Grimm's lead vocal remains cool, stern and steady. No matter how strange things get, however, Parplar is a beautiful record, and one that deserves to be discovered. (this review ran in the K-W Record, Dec 31)

Hanggai – Introducing Hanggai (Introducing).
My favourite part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC is (of course) the music section, tracing the evolution of various types of instruments. It’s fascinating to me that every culture has its own version of the guitar or lute, its own variety of wind instruments, and its own variation on a linear keyboard. Likewise, listening to a band like Hanggai—comprised of Mongolian singers and string players living in Beijing—it’s intriguing to hear what sound like Irish melodies or Native North American motifs, along with African blues (the latter a connection made a decade ago in the film Genghis Blues). Some indie rock reviewers even claimed to hear the Velvet Underground in the droning violin and precisely plodding percussion; a track like “Wuji” chugs along like a great metal song--complete with guttural vocals—only played on the two-stringed ehru instead of electric guitar. The production is perfect, falling into neither “world music” trap of being either too “authentically” raw nor too Westernized slick. Whatever makes your world go round, Hanggai is like everything and nothing you’ve ever heard before.

Veda Hille – This Riot Life (Ape House).
This veteran Vancouver singer/songwriter sings about how “this spring is the one other seasons aim to be,” and being blessed with “ridiculous abundance.” She may well be singing about her “Lucklucky” eleventh album, which is rich with simple hymnal melodies, raging piano prog-rock and chamber-music arrangements, with dashes of klezmer and Japanese cabaret. And though this makes the disc sounds deadly serious, Hille is full of levity and irreverence towards her spiritual subjects, like those “sacred hearts that bleed all over everywhere” and the “kid of God [who] stays up all night long.” No wonder The Weakerthans slid her some of their Echo songwriting prize money. For fans of: Rheostatics, Kate Bush, Sufjan Stevens, John Zorn's Masada. (originally appeared in Eye Weekly’s year-end wrap-up here.)

Hilotrons – Happymatic (Kelp).
Normally, the musicians of the Hilotrons’ age and experience that I find the most interesting have usually graduated beyond rock music by their mid-30s. And yet here, Ottawa’s finest live band write and perform peppy pop with the energy of a band half their age, but with the smarts and the chops that can only come from seasoned veterans. It’s hard to pick an MVP in this band: drummer Philip Shaw Bova is a strong contender, for driving the beat of “Emergency Street” alone; the push and pull between bassist Damian Sawka and rhythm guitarist Paul Hogan; the squelchy synth blasts coming from keyboardists Mikes Shultz and Dubue; and Dubue’s strangulated pitch-perfect vocals, which embody the inner geek who finally gets to dance and show up the rest of the office at the Christmas party. Are Hot Hot Heat still around? If so, why? Especially when the Hilotrons render them and the vast majority of their ilk entirely irrelevant.

iNSiDEaMiND – Scatterpopia (Public Transit Recordings).
The album by these Toronto turntablists opens with what sounds like a black box recorder, though where exactly their flight path leads is never clear—but this is clearly about the journey not the destination. Scatterpopia is not about dance floor climaxes or macho posturing; instead, iNSiDEaMiND peer into the dark corners of their vinyl collections to create captivating sound art. Abstract turntablism and what was once called “illbient” music seems almost antiquated ten years after its heyday—anyone listened to DJ Spooky lately?—yet iNSiDEaMiND manage to mine new textures and breathe new life into the genre, over successfully stuttering beats that keep the listener on edge while never veering right off the rhythmic cliff ala Autechre. They get help from bass-heavy beatmaster Ghislain Poirier on “Twilight Harvest,” though “Yopo’s Secret Recipe” shows they can bring the bounce on their own when they want to. The occasional vocalist is a pleasant distraction, but this is instrumental music that’s rich with its own narratives.

Kardinal Offishall – Not 4 Sale (Konlive/Universal).
The veteran Toronto producer/MC was hotter than ever in 2008—not just because he was on the Tonight Show and scored a Top 10 hit in America (the Akon duet "Dangerous," just in case you weren't near a radio all summer), but because that track was little more than a gateway drug to the more sublime pleasures and thrills heard on Not For Sale. Kardinal had a solid album's worth of blazing tracks to back it up, with hard rhymes about ghetto resilience, satirical skits that skewer gangsta ignorance, and bountiful bass-heavy beats that draw from ragga, reggae, '80 pop, mainstream R&B and the darker edges of hip-hop.

La India Canela – Merengue Tipico From the Dominican Republic (Smithsonian Folkways).
This Dominican woman plays a fast and furious accordion at neck-jerking tempos, matched note-for-note by her bassist and saxophonist, who are just as melodic and nimble, especially when tumbling triplets interrupt the relentless two-step rhythms. Together, they shred their way through originals and merengue classics with endless adrenaline. No wonder this music is traditionally the soundtrack for cockfighting. (This ran as part of Exclaim's year-end coverage here)

Leila – Blood Looms and Blooms (Warp).
Disappearing for much of the last decade gave Leila the chance to sit back and contextualize trends in electronic music since her first album. As a result, Blood Looms and Blooms draws from early Portishead and Tricky, borrows some of the beats she crafted for Bjork, delves into more distorted territory, moves into druggy dreamscapes ala Boards of Canada, dabbles in sound art and chamber music, reaches back to Tangerine Dream, and relaxes with some Brazilian/Baltimore bounce for good measure.

Magnetic Fields – Distortion (Nonesuch/Warner).
Since hitting the jackpot with 69 Love Songs ten years ago, Stephin Merritt has for the most part spread his best songs over various projects and albums, some more gimmicky—sorry, conceptual—than others. Sometimes he strikes gold, as he did on the underrated Gothic Archies tie-in with the Lemony Snicket series. But the songs on Distortion are united only in their aesthetic, which involves waves of icy, reverbed and tinny guitars framing consistently excellent examples of Merritt’s arch lyrics and superior melodies. 69 Love Songs singer Shirley Simms returns as guest vocalist, and Merritt is as droll as ever; their duet “Please Stop Dancing (In My Head)” underscored the fact that these songs were near-impossible to forget.

Jun Miyake – Stolen From Strangers (Do Right!).
Cultural dislocation sounds positively intoxicating in the hands of Japanese flugelhorn player Jun Miyake, who bounces between Bulgaria, Brazil, New York City, Tokyo, and his adopted hometown of Paris. Bleary-eyed bossa nova for “Le Voyageur Solitaire” predominates, with detours into fractured French chanson and Japanese crooning. I knew nothing about Miyake before the Toronto label Do Right! licensed this album for North America; now I want to dive into his entire discography during a month of Sundays.

Nomo – Ghost Rock (Ubiquity)
Ghost Rock opens with what sounds like a Morse code signal from outer space, before launching a beat that sounds like Tony Allen turned inside out and upside down. The next track kicks in with some Konono-inspired distorted kalimba, and from there on in Nomo take Afrobeat to psychedelic locales that are often promised by anxious Western scribes but rarely materialize in the still-worthy flood of ’70s compilations that continued to emerge throughout 2008. Producer Warren Defever (His Name is Alive) deserves a lot of credit for how amazing this album sounds, though the band has no problem carving out an identity of their own in the increasingly crowded Afrobeat revival.

The last installment of the Top 30 of '08. Apologies for the brevity and the occasional recycling, but as my dear friend James Rocchi likes to say, December and January give every critic a bad case of "Top Ten-donitis." Part one is here; part two is here.

James Pants – Welcome (Stones Throw).
There’s a function on most music software called “quantizing,” which ensures that every element of a track is synched-up rhythmically. It’s ensured that almost all hip-hop and electronic music of the last 20 years never misses a beat—literally. I have no idea whether the man who calls himself James Pants, a bedroom producer from Spokane, Washington, is prone to abusing his “quantizing” function, but I doubt it: his raw, synth-y take on early ’80s electro jams excels with elasticity and loose grooves that sound tangible as opposed to mechanical. Handclaps, cowbells, MPCs and 808s accentuate garage rock drumming, with bubbly bass lines that slip into punk, jazz and funk. Controversy-era Prince and the Beasties’ Check Your Head are obvious influences, but there are more than a few other ants in Mr. Pants to keep us guessing.

Pas Chic Chic – Au Contraire (Semprini).
Montreal’s Pas Chic Chic give Franco pop a swift kick in the derriere, taking the 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. 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. (adapted from a review that ran here in April)

Portishead – Third (Universal).
Loneliness never sounds lovelier than in the hands of Beth Gibbons and Geoff Barrow, who return after nine years with an album that is as dark, distorted and disorienting as it is entirely intoxicating and gorgeous. This also vindicates their legacy, which was tarnished by far too many wussy jazz singers setting half-assed torch songs to downtempo hip-hop. Even in its quietest moments, Third is a tough, tenacious and often downright creepy. If they disappear for another decade in order to craft an album as good as this one, it's worth the wait.

Q-Tip – The Renaissance (Motown/Universal).
LL Cool J put out an album this year—did anyone care? Questions about artists’ ability to age well in a hip-hop career continue to be valid, but no one told Q-Tip. Maybe a nine-year absence makes his flow grow fresher, but the Abstract MC hasn't been this on his game since the heyday of his beloved early '90s crew A Tribe Called Quest—and yet this is not a retro rehash. He’s still smooth like butta, baby, though he has yet to cheeze out entirely in his middle-age (the extraneous Norah Jones cameo notwithstanding). When he branches out into discofied funk (“ManWomanBoogie”) or guitar grooves (“Good Thang”), he pulls it off with aplomb. While many of his peers are spinning their wheels, this may well be launch Q-Tip’s own full-blown Renaissance.

The Ruby Suns – Sea Lion (Sub Pop).
Singer/songwriter Ryan McPhun has lived by the ocean all his life: first in California, now in New Zealand. It certainly sounds like he’s spent a lot of time meditating in front of vast expanses of water; not only do many of his songs evoke a lush, warm and tropical ambiance, but you can actually hear the ocean in the background of several tracks here, with either actual birdsongs or instruments that are reverb-ed beyond recognition until they sound like aquatic fauna. There are certainly moments where it sounds like Sigur Ros staging an operetta in a grotto where the piano is slipping into the sea. But this isn’t one of those soothing “sounds of nature” albums for your massage therapist. The beauty of Sea Lion is its ability to create an entirely logical, self-contained environment where Phil Spector produces New Order on a remote African island. An acoustic Brazilian rhythm might be interrupted by an interlude of ukuleles and coconuts, which is then swept away by a loping brass section and Hawaiian guitar before giving way to African guitar lines and a choir singing in Maori. Sure, sometimes it sounds like a lo-fi Fruitopia commercial. More often than not, however, the adventures of McPhun and the Suns add up to a wildly rewarding ride that’s a wonderful left-field surprise. (adapted from the original review that ran here)

Snailhouse – Lies on the Prize
(Unfamiliar/Saved by Vinyl).

Mike Feuerstack has spent his career in the trenches of Canadian indie music, and only now is finally reaching the prime of his career: everything here—his singing, his songwriting and his sense of arrangements—is far and above superior not only to his own discography, but to that of most of his peers in 2008, including his disciples such as The Acorn and Bruce Peninsula. Plenty of his extended family of collaborators chip in here, including old friend/drummer/producer Jeremy Gara (Arcade Fire), Angela Desveaux, and members of The Acorn and Bell Orchestre. Feuerstack’s previous work as Snailhouse had him pegged as a bit of a sad sack; while Lies on the Prize certainly has its melancholy moments, it's also a mature work that successfully balances his earlier prog influences with more straightforward singer/songwriter fare. Feuerstack has the age and experience to write with a mature voice where pessimism and harsh realism never surrender entirely to cynicism; he might live in a world where “they’ll only hear you when you lie,” but still believes that “all in good time you’ll wake up feeling fine.” These lucky 13 tracks comprise the most underrated Canadian album of 2008, which was released last June to little fanfare. With an album this timeless, however, it’s never too late to catch up. (adapted from a review that ran in the K-W Record on December 31)

Tagaq – Auk/Blood (Jericho Beach).
Considering that the origin of Inuit throat singing is a competition between two women, Tagaq plays very well with others on her sophomore album—though not necessarily other vocalists. Duets with Mike Patton and Buck 65 fall a bit flat, compared to the way her (literally) breathtaking vocal textures weave through string arrangements by Jesse Zubot and the Kronos Quartet. Tagaq is a force of nature whose live performances are largely improvisational, but here she inhabits just enough structure to allow others into her world. Her sexuality is visceral and demanding, and on “Hunger” she slows down for a sensual reflection that's spinetingling. There's no one else in Canada—and very few anywhere else in the world—who is taking vocal music to the extremes that Tagaq is.

Vampire Weekend – s/t (XL).
This album has had 12 months to sustain the avalanche of hype—after all, what band lands on the cover of Spin with their debut album? And yet, 10 flavours-of-the-months later, this still sounds refreshing and charming, the sound of an excitable young band throwing everything they have into three-chord pop songs: harpsichords and strings, African guitars, and a love of propulsive '60s pop, never once being more busy than they have to be. Where they go from here doesn't even matter; this is a classic debut in the vein of the Violent Femmes, Jonathan Richman or the Hidden Cameras.

Chad Van Gaalen – Soft Airplane
(Flemish Eye).

This humble Calgarian is a creative hero to many Canadian musicians, and this album provides 13 reasons why (along with the animated videos this multi-disciplinary artist made to accompany them). Van Gaalen makes 21st century folk music with acoustic guitars, harmonicas, video game technology, found objects, banjos and bleeps—all adorning songs suited for campfire ghost stories and layered with equal parts distortion, dissonance and devastating beauty. Van Gaalen's quavering falsetto sings, "Nobody knows where we go when we're dead or when we're dreaming," but judging by the spellbinding sonic landscape he's created here, he knows a thing or two about alternate realities.

John Zorn's Bar Kokhba – Lucifer (Tzadik).
Just look at the line-up here, and you know you can't go wrong: the Masada String Trio (Mark Feldman, Greg Cohen, Erik Friedlander), Cyro Baptista, Marc Ribot, and Joey Baron, playing songs from Zorn's second Masada songbook. This is chamber music jazz with Latin percussion and Jewish melodic motifs played by six of the finest musicians in New York City, who weave in and around each other as soloists, duos and trios all in the same track. It's sumptuous, intoxicating and, despite its superficially polite reserve, has much more bite to it than Zorn's other 2008 foray into easy listening territory, The Dreamers. His Book of Angels series is where he's doing his finest work these days, and this may well be the best installment.

Don Brownrigg – Wander Songs (Weewerk)
Cadence Weapon – After Party Babies (Upper Class)
Glen Campbell – Meet (EMI)
Fairmont – Coloured in Memory (Border Community)
Al Green – Lay It Down (Blue Note)
Clutchy Hopkins – Who is Clutchy Hopkins? (Ubiquity)
Human Highway – Moody Motorcycle (Secret City)
Kocani Orkestar – The Ravished Bride (Crammed)
Mt. Eerie and Julie Doiron – Lost Wisdom (K)
Rural Alberta Advantage – Hometowns (independent)

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