Friday, February 06, 2009

Jan/Feb 09 reviews

Who said January and Feburary was a slow time for new releases?

All of these ran in the mainstream daily newspapers the Kitchener-Waterloo Record and Guelph Mercury.

Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavilion (Domino)

Animal Collective haven't lived in the same city since they all grew up together in a tony neighbourhood outside of Baltimore, where as children they would frolic in the foliage and, from the sounds of it, drop a lot of acid. Now the members are spread out between Portugal, New York and Washington, D.C., and there are many times during Merriweather Post Pavilion where it sounds like they made their own isolated recordings and then mashed them together, regardless of rhythmic cohesion or any sense of unity of purpose.

The sole exception is the vocal harmonies, which are strong enough to suggest that these four men actually know each other—though now that Fleet Foxes have captured the imagination of the underground, the fact that four men can harmonize together is no longer the novelty it may have been a few short years ago. And with nary a trace of songwriting attached, one is left wallowing in a haze of psychedelic textures without any grounding. This is just a bad trip.

Animal Collective has been pulling this hipster hoax for the better part of the past decade, and it’s descended to the point where one British magazine was deluded into calling this new release "one of the landmark American albums of the century." Maybe they're just the Grateful Dead of the Net Generation, an omnivorous musical entity that cannot possibly be understood unless you're taking the same drugs they are. Even the artwork is bad—an unforgivable sin for any purportedly psychedelic act. (K-W Record, February 5)

Geoff Berner – Klezmer Mongrels (Black Hen)

The miscegenated will inherit the earth, sings Geoff Berner, and he's hoping that his Klezmer Mongrels will strike a chord in the zeitgeist now that a man who self-identifies as a "mutt" has moved into the White House. Not that this Vancouver accordionist and singer/songwriter is out to venerate anyone in positions of power; Berner has always sang about the dispossessed and the gypsies of the world, and as each successive headline illustrates, the battles of the future will be based on class rather than race.

Political writing—and especially satirical political writing—is one of the greatest challenges a lyricist can tackle, and Berner has established himself in a class all to himself in this country. Which is why it's disappointing to hear him singing about B.C. weed, settle for limp one-liners as choruses, or merely list all of his favourite bars around the globe as a way to justify alcoholism as a remedy to the horrors of the world. Many of these songs work on stage as comic relief, particularly a cover of Irving Fields' punny Yiddish classic "Fukher," but they tire quickly in their studio renditions.

When Berner does hit the mark, on the triumphant "Luck in Exile," the mournful "Play Gypsy Play," and the biting "Authentic Klezmer Wedding Band"—which skewers audience's exoticized expectations of what klezmer music is or should be—he matches his earlier standards and puts a cap on what he considers to be a trilogy of albums documenting his own journey of discovery into the raw roots of klezmer music. (K-W Record, February 5)

Note: Last Friday, Berner and his band (violinist Diona Davies, percussionist Wayne Adams) put on the best show I've seen the three of them do; they even convinced the Toronto crowd to form a conga line, which is no small feat. Don't miss them on their current excursion; dates can be found here; central Canadian dates are with Forest City Lovers.

Bruce Peninsula – A Mountain is a Mouth (Bruce Trail)

Most rock bands, when they add a choir in the studio, do so when they want to get their gospel on, or convey a sense of something much larger than themselves. But when the rock band incorporates the choir into everything they do—on stage and off, and to the maximal effect heard here—the result feels less like some kind of spiritual graft than it does genuine uplift and magic.

Bruce Peninsula are a Toronto group whose membership swells to 12 whenever possible: a core rock quartet plus two percussionists and five choir members, with each element put to full use in each song atop often thundering percussion. There's a large debt to call-and-response traditional music from Aboriginal and African-American sources, far removed from polite Christian folk songs. Bruce Peninsula dig deep in the earth to craft something that sounds remarkably raw, fresh and new—not an easy task in a crowded field of modern folk artists aiming to juxtapose traditional and modern approaches.

Since their inception a few short years ago, Bruce Peninsula quickly built a reputation as one of Toronto's best live bands—a mixed blessing, as the studio is an entirely different setting. And yet they easily rise to the challenge, with the help of engineer Leon Taheny (Final Fantasy), managing to both capture their live energy and craft a recording with subtleties and intricacies that creates its own environment entirely. A Mountain is a Mouth may well be a Torontonian time capsule album, riding that city's continuing creative renaissance with a collective spirit that is at once triumphant, humble and joyful. (K-W Record, January 29)

Note: The official Toronto release show is February 22; details on that and other shows are here.

David Byrne and Brian Eno – Everything That Happens Will Happen Today (Todomundo/Opal)

After 30 years as an instrumentalist, Eno's solo work returned to pop music in 2005 with Another Day on Earth, which provides the template here. Eno admits that he's terrible at writing lyrics—as proven on that otherwise delightful album—and so this time he invited Byrne to write lyrics, melodies and sing to a collection of instrumental tracks he'd assembled. This is a departure from the duo's more abstract artistic projects, and focuses on folk songs set to textural guitars and electronics, with translucent, integrated influences from the kinds of African, country and gospel music that both of them have always flirted with. “Poor Boy” could easily have appeared on their 1980 album Remain in Light; opening track “Home” bears a melodic resemblance to the Talking Heads hit “Road to Nowhere.” In many senses, it sounds like one of Byrne's better solo albums, with Eno's presence evident at every turn.

Considering that the prolific career of both men can be hard to keep up with, even casual fans will be delighted to hear both of them at the top of their game here. (K-W Record, January 15)

Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan – Sunday at Devil Dirt (Fontana)

On a song called “Salvation,” Mark Lanegan's deep baritone intones a chorus of "Gotta get up and moan." It's a line that only a voice like his could deliver; were it to come from wispy Scottish singer/songwriter Isobel Campbell, it would sound utterly ridiculous. Campbell, best known as an early member of Belle and Sebastian, writes most of the songs on this second album of mourning music she's made with Lanegan. Though there are a few duets, she uses him as a vehicle more than she does a sparring partner; she's also credited with the arrangements, and plays guitar, piano, cello and tubular bells, leaving Lanegan to cradle the microphone and sink deep into character as a heartbroken wanderer sharing his intimate secrets at 4 a.m., with Campbell as either the sympathetic guardian angel, or the haunting ghost—as she is on the chilling “Back Burner.” When Campbell does take the lead, on the raw acoustic “Shotgun Blues,” she learns Lanegan's lessons well, managing to be even creepier. Aesthetically, this is a languid and lovely release, although one is left with only half the story; one wonders what exactly happened on Saturday night to make Sunday morning coming down sound like this. (K-W Record, January 8)

Delta Spirit – Ode to Sunshine (Rounder)

Delta Spirit hail from San Diego, which sits in the southwest corner of the U.S., a mere 20 minute drive from the Mexican border. Yet they may as well be from Alaska, considering what shockingly little impact this fine debut album made when it was released last autumn. Delta Spirit are a raw and rollicking Americana band that draws from Springsteen and Spoon, from Wilco and the Waterboys, with powerful vocalist Matt Vasquez pulling off near-perfect pitch while still sounding like he just got back from a boozecan. The rest of the band rocks like the Rolling Stones with a honky-tonk hangover, with some tasty guitar textures, piano licks and waltz-time manoeuvres that put them several steps above the scraggly bar band they once were. Ode to Sunshine seems to be hidden in the shadows for now, but it's too illuminating to be ignored. (K-W Record, January 15)

High Places – s/t (Thrill Jockey)

The name is geographically non-descript for a reason—this music really does sound disorienting and completely out of place, which only makes it that much more fascinating. Mary Pearson’s vocals are the only element that grounds this in the familiar; otherwise, High Places is an intoxicating melange of what could be Japanese kotos, African lutes, Caribbean steel drums, synthesizers from Kate Bush’s attic, bird calls, and/or household objects as filtered through various electronic devices. There is a slight tinge of ’80s avant-pop in the naïvete of the electronics, coupled with the fact that Pearson’s girlish voice at time recalls new wave chanteuses such as Anna Domino or Lori Carson from the Golden Palominos. Yet High Places exist in a unique stratosphere of their own, and so if much of this all-too-brief debut album is of a singular sound and mood, it’s hard to complain. (K-W Record, February 12)

Note: High Places are in Toronto this Monday night, February 9. More dates are here.

Tom Jones – 24 Hours (EMI)

Tom Jones leads off his new album with an old Tommy James song called “I'm Alive,” but there's no reason for him to be so obvious—Jones easily retains his status as one of the great male pop vocalists of the last 50 years within seconds of opening his mouth. He built his reputation primarily as an interpreter, but on this album he co-writes over half of the tracks. As a result it's more personal and less gimmicky than some of his albums of the last 15 years, which featured well-known covers and duet partners. It's no less swinging, however: Jones is still a swaggering presence even when he tones down the kitsch. However, no one told that to U2's Bono and The Edge, who wrote a self-parody mess called “Sugar Daddy” that Jones should be embarrassed to sing; he gives it his all nonetheless. He also goes for the gravitas by covering Springsteen's “The Hitter,” a song that functions better as a short story than a melody; not even Jones can elevate it. It's telling that most of the covers are the weak points here, because everything else—with young production team Future Cut (Lily Allen) at the helm—proves that nobody knows what's best suited for this 68-year-old singer better than Tom Jones himself. (K-W Record, January 8)

A.C. Newman – Get Guilty (Last Gang/Universal)

Get Guilty is notable mostly for what it's not. Don't expect any greater insight into Newman's private life; despite being a solo project, it's not any less obtuse or more personal, with one typically opaque chorus singing about how "our submarine pulls into Stockholm." And if the first A.C. Newman album, 2004's The Slow Wonder, sounded like the New Pornographers unplugged, Get Guilty is much more electric and features a knockout drummer (Jon Wurster of Superchunk) and two female vocalists (Kori Gardner Hammel, of Mates of State, and Nicole Atkins), both of whom are dead ringers for the Pornographers' powerhouses Neko Case and Kathryn Calder, right down to their choice of harmonies; the only difference is that neither of them take the lead here.

Get Guilty is a reliable entry in Newman's discography, but not nearly enough of a departure to understand why he put these songs in reserve for a solo project. (K-W Record, January 22)

Note: A.C. Newman's tour kicks off on February 20 in Vancouver. More dates here.

Jenny Omnichord – Charlotte or Otis: Duets For Children, Their Parents and Other People Too (Out of This Spark)

No one ever told Jenny Mitchell to slow down. After the Guelph singer/songwriter finally put her first band, the Barmitzvah Brothers, on hold—they started when they were 15—she recorded a solo album as Jenny Omnichord that saw her collaborating with many of the finest Canadian musicians, having easily endeared herself to them in her many travels. She also joined hot Peterborough band The Burning Hell—with whom she was traveling when she found out that she was with child.

She and her baby papa Andy Magoffin (Two-Minute Miracles) document the drama of their life-changing news on the title track of Charlotte or Otis, and album she made with a built-in deadline. The album was recorded during Mitchell's pregnancy, and released the weekend she gave birth. And yes, she played a show a few days after that, with young baby Otis working his charm at the merch table.

Mitchell has once again tapped her extensive social network for a duets album, featuring hip-hop MC Shad, the Great Lake Swimmers' Tony Dekker, Jim Guthrie, and 15 others. Some songs are playfully ridiculous—like David Celia's “Dinky,” or a hockey song that Jenny sings with her father—while others are heartbreakingly gorgeous, such as Scott Merritt's “Meteor.” Most are somewhere in between, all displaying the creative leaps and bounds that Mitchell has made over the years. And naturally, the childlike wonder that has been a staple of her work since the beginning is ideally suited for a project such as this.

At 18 songs, it's far too long, but it's near-impossible to fault such an ambitious project made by such an impressive roster of performers—especially when she gets the normally deadly serious Tony Dekker to rhyme "mojo" with "dojo" on “Do You Know Karate?”
(K-W Record, January 15)

Charles Spearin – The Happiness Project (Arts and Crafts)

Charles Spearin can’t sing, but he doesn’t have to. The multi-instrumentalist from Broken Social Scene and Do Make Say Think knows that there is music in everyday speech, and it’s too often taken for granted. Pitch and tone can convey completely different meanings of the same phrase; anyone who speaks more than one language will know this. And yet we only associate music with the singing voice and instrumentation, when in fact everyday conversations are incredibly musical.

This is part of the premise behind The Happiness Project, where Spearin invited his neighbours over to ruminate on various meanings of life. He then took their voice, occasionally clipped their cadence to make it fit a more musical phrase, and accompanied them with full band arrangements that veer between jazz excursions and what could be scores for animated NFB films.

The stories themselves are fascinating, as Spearin’s neighbours describe working with mentally handicapped children, what it’s like to grow up in poverty as one of 14 children, and how a deaf person only experiences sound through electricity. That alone would make it an interesting art project, but the musical constructions around the stories are equally rewarding, as saxophones and violins imitate the vocal intonations, while either a joyous jazz band dances around in the background, or a meditative sonic painting unfolds alongside the narrative. Delightful, daring, and wonderfully playful. (K-W Record, February 12)

Bruce Springsteen – Working on a Dream (Sony)

Bruce Springsteen has been working on much more than a dream in the last five years, averaging an album every year and riding a second creative peak to rival his period in the late 70s and early 80s. But if 2007's Magic was on par with his finest work ever, the hastily assembled Working on a Dream sounds like a companion piece of b-sides that maintain the momentum, only with a considerably looser grip on quality control. This dream could have used a little more work.

Nowhere is this more evident than on the eight-minute opening track "Outlaw Pete," an epic in the style of "Backstreets" or "Jungleland," only saddled with a clunky chorus ("Outlaw Pete, can you hear me?") that sounds like a refrain from a Disney movie about the Wild West; furthermore, part of the refrain quotes heavily from the KISS disco classic “I Was Made For Loving You.” And yet, despite these distractions, "Outlaw Pete" is nowhere the trainwreck that it might be in someone else's hands; Springsteen and the E-Street Band give their all, and manage to sidestep outright embarrassment.

They can't always pull it off, however; very little can save “Queen of the Supermarket,” where Springsteen has never sounded as awkward in his romanticizing of working class heroes as he does when he sings about how "a dream awaits in aisle two," with unintentionally campy backing vocals that only make matters worse.

If the clunkers stand out on Working on a Dream, it's because the rest of the album is dependably solid, if not unremarkable by Springsteen standards. “This Life” features the biggest backing vocal arrangement he's attempted since “Hungry Heart”; the result is lush and lovely. In a pleasant twist that suits his middle age, he adds a countrypolitan string section to “Tomorrow Never Knows” (not the Beatles song). The subdued acoustic song he wrote for the Mickey Rourke movie The Wrestler is a note-perfect portrait of a man who is both a one-trick pony and a three-legged dog.

Much like on Magic, Springsteen's melodicism is the focus here, not the rock'n'roll machine that is the E-Street Band. Their arrangements are neither cluttered nor clever, not the fiery unit they once were but consummate and colourful professionals—including the late, great organist Danny Federici, whose final contributions appear here. (K-W Record, January 29)

Mavis Staples – Hope at the Hideout (Anti/Epitaph)

Mavis Staples may well be the most powerful and potent soul survivor of the '60s. Her 2007 comeback album We'll Never Turn Back was a collection of civil rights songs that she recorded out of frustration with the federal response to Hurricane Katrina; this live album, recorded at an intimate club in her hometown of Chicago, features many of the same aspirational anthems in the context of America's first black presidential campaign, and the tone is considerably more jubilant. With a stripped down, ace blues band and backing vocalists, Staples tears up the stage, howls and growls and surrenders to the spirit of songs like “Eyes on the Prize” and “Freedom Highway”; she also reinvents Buffalo Springfield's “For What It's Worth,” and revisits her family's biggest hit, “I'll Take You There”—backed with just guitar and audience backing vocals. Staples' voice is a force of nature, and one can only imagine what it's like to hear her in what sounds like a raucous basement party, singing some of the most rousing songs of the 20th century in the middle of a politically charged campaign in the candidate's adopted hometown. We weren't lucky enough to be there; this one is for the history books. (K-W Record, January 8)

Note: Mavis Staples is at Massey Hall in Toronto on March 21.

Timber Timbre – s/t (Out of This Spark)

Timber Timbre is Toronto artist Taylor Kirk, who seeks out the spookiest side of blues music by recording in remote barns and filming Blair Witch-style videos. For his second album, Timber Timbre steps several steps closer to the sunshine and into a proper recording studio. Although by bringing everything into a clearer focus, Kirk has only become even creepier. "I was a spook for you/ another ghoul," he sings. The organs, autoharps, plunky quarter-note pianos and minimal percussion only enhance the hushed yet tense electric guitars. One isn't sure whether or not to take comfort in his swoony vocals, which are drenched in reverb and could easily soundtrack a David Lynch film—specifically Blue Velvet, where one can picture Dean Stockwell singing along. Lonely violins and occasional angelic backing vocals make this a perfect accompaniment to the "late night basement séance" he sings of. (K-W Record, January 15)

Note: Timber Timbre's official CD release show is February 12 at the Music Gallery in Toronto. Many more dates here.

Tom Fun Orchestra – You Will Land With a Thud (Company House)

For starters, ignore this band's name. They prefer the gutter to the goofy, from the bottom-of-the-bottle vocals that propel every song, to the fact that the album ends with a chorus of subaquatic dwellers singing from the bottom of the river, and opens with singer Ian MacDougall telling us, "I loved you all like you were mine/ Like I birthed you from some greasy crevice on my underside."

They're less of an orchestra than a three-ring circus, with banjo, accordion, trumpet and a Cape Breton fiddler all sharing space with a fiery rock trio, successfully steering away from tired Celtic rock clichés and instead inserting last-call intensity to songs that aim for Springsteen-ian heights with dashes of New Orleans jazz for good measure.

If it sounds exhausting, it is—but it's also invigorating and exciting. What is obviously an amazing East Coast bar band has also made a great record. They got some help from producer Gordon Gano, the singer/songwriter who fronted the Violent Femmes, and is here given the task of reining in the chaos. It's one part Cape Breton barroom brawl, one part New Orleans bordello, one part Parisian café, and one part working class Irish bar in Brooklyn. If that doesn't sound like a party you want to be at, then MacDougall is happy to offer you "first-class tickets to a dead-end job/ teach you how to be a middle-class slob." (K-W Record, January 29)

Note: Tom Fun Orchestra are currently on tour across Canada. In February. God bless them. Dates are here.

Andrew Vincent – Rotten Pear (Kelp)

Andrew Vincent began as a basement tape artist, before developing a rollicking rock'n'roll band called the Pirates that specialized in three-chord Modern Lover wonders fuelled by plenty of booze and wry observations.

Now living in Toronto, Vincent goes back to the basement with a lo-fi collection of songs that are older, wiser and just as charming as anything he's ever written, even if many of his characters here are consumed by heartbreak, ennui, lost battles—both emotional and physical—and the emptiness of barfly culture.

Any of these songs could easily be adapted for a rock'n'roll trio, but as they stand, they are sparse, often acoustic and sprinkled with the odd synthesizer; with few exceptions, no drums are allowed. While his own writing is in peak form, he also offers an audacious cover of Kate Bush's “Hounds of Love,” with the jubilant sound of the original jettisoned for the loneliness and desolation inherent in the lyric, about recoiling and running from an overwhelming love—which is often the fate of the pack of slacker songwriters that Vincent has always risen far above. (K-W Record, January 22)

Vivian Girls – s/t (In the Red)

The first great album released in 2008 was the Magnetic Fields' Distortion, where one of this decade's greatest songwriters decided to bathe his songs in tinny, reverb-heavy electric guitars, as a nod to some of his favourite underground pop records of the '80s—namely the Jesus and Mary Chain.

And 2008 ended with ten songs by new Brooklyn band the Vivian Girls, who take a similarly dirty and distorted approach to their guitars, and apply it to classic-sounding pop songs—in their case, recalling the great girl-groups of the '60s.

Their extremely lo-fi approach sounds amateurish on the surface, but these women can really sing harmony, and drummer Frankie Rose provides some rhythmic muscle not usually heard in the so-called "cuddlecore" punk bands of the '90s that this also closely resembles. But it's songs like “Where Do You Run To” that elevate the Vivian Girls from just another aesthetically referential rock band. Part of the appeal of this young band is predicting how great they will be once they grow up a bit; and yet simultaneously, one hopes that they never grow up at all, lest they lose the beautiful innocence conveyed here. (K-W Record, January 8)

Woodpigeon – Treasury Library Canada/ Houndstooth Europa (Boompa)

Treasury Library Canada is a low-key collection of hushed pop songs, with members of this delicate octet offering light orchestrations, piano, banjo and lovely harmonies that draw on 60s pop, country, slight traces of bossa nova, and obvious nods to Neil Young and Simon and Garfunkel. For all its charms, Treasury Library Canada is at times too subtle to be compelling, though there's no question that singer/songwriter Mark Andrew Hamilton has learned well from listening to pop masters of the last fifty years.

That's even more evident on the accompanying nine-song EP Houndstooth Europa, which appears as a bonus here for anyone who hunted out Treasury Library Canada upon its domestic release last summer. This newer material, which sounds like it could have been recorded in a living room, shows Hamilton already improving considerably as a songwriter; some the stripped-down, even quieter songs here are easily worthy of the late great Elliot Smith. Woodpigeon are well on their way to making a classic album. (K-W Record, February 5)