Monday, March 23, 2009

March 08 reviews

Reviews from the last 90 days that ran in the mainstream daily newspapers the Kitchener-Waterloo Record and the Guelph Mercury.

Bibio – Vignetting the Compost (Mush)

In an alternate universe, Bibio is a nice little acoustic folk band, the kind you stumble across at a local café or a tree-laden side stage at a folk festival. As it is, the music of this one-man project sounds like the British folk music that Bibio’s Stephen Wilkinson grew up with—if it were being played on old tape machines that were deteriorating during the recording process (much like the compost of the title, perhaps). Everything sounds off-kilter, broken and a wee bit wobbly, which only adds to the mystique and charm of this oddball album, which is firmly rooted in folk traditions but treated with enough psychedelic discombobulation to take it to a whole other level. Bibio was discovered by the equally entrancing Boards of Canada; if that duo ditched their synths and drum machines to go unplugged, it might sound something like this. (K-W Record, February 26)

Neko Case – Middle Cyclone (Anti)

That Neko Case is a powerful singer is a given. That she’s meticulous in the studio is also clear from her increasingly abstract output of minor-key and moody waltzes. But while she’s always been a fine lyricist, the key step forward on Middle Cyclone is her way with imagistic wordplay, coupled with some of the more personal lyrics she’s written in years.

It’s suitable, then, that these dreamlike images are accompanied by dusty music boxes, detuned guitars, a barn full of deteriorating pianos (literally—as she explains in every recent interview), saxophones, and analog synthesizers, which all take full advantage of the tabula rasa that her open-ended songs provide.

Her 2006 album Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, which was years in the making, suffered from the sound of being overcooked: every tiny moment sounded like the belaboured work of a perfectionist, diminishing Case’s raw talents. “I hear the tiniest sparks in the tenderest sounds,” she sings here, only now she’s learned to loosen her grips again and allow small surprises to happen throughout Middle Cyclones.

That said, there are still moments that are unnecessarily stiff. It’s entirely in character for Case to write a cheeky line like “I’m a maneater/ and still you’re surprised when I eat ya”—and yet her delivery of it is far too formal and mannered for such a campy sentiment, which would be much suited to a raw garage rocker co-written with the Sadies. (Although it should be noted that Case is likely being quite literal with that song, sung from the POV of a wild carnivore.)

Yet if this is Case’s finest hour as a lyricist and a producer, her songs themselves still sound like they’re written as afterthought—random snippets colliding and grafted together, depending on the strength of her voice to tie everything together. Which it inevitably does, but when she covers pop oddballs like Sparks and Harry Nilsson here, it’s a breath of fresh air to hear her wrap her lungs around a melody with a sense of direction.

But then, Neko Case is never one to settle for easy answers, and Middle Cyclone is as intriguing, beautifully flawed, evocative and powerful as any of her best work. (K-W Record, March 5)

Amelia Curran – War Brides (Six Shooter)

This Newfoundland/Halifax songwriter claims, “I am just a Tuesday in a world of Friday nights.” But if Friday nights are for rowdy carousing, Tuesdays are for the simplest of pleasures and routines. That’s not to say they’re dull—despite her demure coffee-house exterior, Amelia Curran is a far cry from the milquetoast mistresses of easy Sunday mornings. She sings like she understands both heartbreak and the trials of integrity: “I gave away my heart but I’m gonna keep my soul.” Her engaging performance is one thing; her songs themselves would survive even the worst singer, being the kind of timeless Maritime-tinged folk songs that already sound like they’ve been sung a thousand times. Curran only needs a single guitar to convey her songwriting strength, but her engineer Phil Sedore knows exactly when to add the smallest touches of mandolin, cello, accordion or trombone that make all the difference.

In creativity and commerce, Curran shares similarities with her fellow Newfoundland expat Don Brownrigg, who put out an astounding 2008 album called Wander Songs; they both released their albums locally before being re-released by prominent Toronto independent labels in the past 12 months. War Brides first came out in 2006 and garnered her a couple of East Coast Music Award nominations; now is the time for the rest of the nation to take notice. (K-W Record, February 19)

Julie Doiron – I Can Wonder What You Did With Your Day (Endearing)

For a songwriter who has built a career on writing sad songs that are also intensely personal, Doiron defies expectations by bookending her new album with songs titled “The Life of Dreams” and “Glad To Be Alive.” In between, that change of attitude is marked by her ever-increasing confidence as a performer—as opposed to the often painfully meek amateurish performances that belied her strength as a writer—as well as a willingness to explore approaches and textures that break her out of the grunge/folk ghetto she’s been in for almost two decades now. As on her last proper album, the 2006 Polaris-nominated Woke Myself Up, her midwife is her ex-Eric’s Trip bandmate Rick White, who knows how to push her into her best performances.

While this all bodes well for Doiron’s evolution as an artist, the material here doesn’t measure up to either Woke Myself Up or her 2008 collaboration with Mt. Eerie, Lost Wisdom—both of which were career highlights. Doiron still sounds best at her saddest and spookiest—which she does in a few instances here, but not so much when she’s singing songs like “Nice To Come Home.”

When an artist has made a career out of vulnerability and detailed diary entries, it’s difficult to knock them for suddenly being happy; if anything, this prompts a larger discussion about whether misery, not mirth, always makes better music. (K-W Record, March 26)

Faunts – Feel. Love. Thinking. Of. (Friendly Fire)

There are bands that try to sound like ’80s new wave and miss the mark; there are bands who nail the sound but bring nothing new to the table, especially songs. Faunts are a band who use plenty of tools that date back more than 20 years, but sound entirely modern—making the ’80s sound better than you remember them. There are elements of recent Radiohead, Junior Boys and the Notwist in Faunts’ nod to chilly soundscapes, melancholy moods and New Order fixations, where intricate guitar interplay underscores the synth lines and crooning vocals. The production is also top notch, putting the album in the same league as any number of inifinitely higher profile British bands. After debuting with a couple of earlier sleepy releases, this could be the one to put this Edmonton band on the map. (K-W Record, February 26)

Robyn Hitchcock – Goodnight Oslo (Yep Roc)

In 2008, Robyn Hitchcock had another one of his many close calls with the mainstream, when his longtime friend and fan Jonathan Demme cast him as a rather unorthodox wedding singer in the Oscar-nominated Rachel Getting Married. Hitchcock doesn't have a lot of straightforward love songs in his long discography, but “Up To Our Nex” is actually one of them, and suited the film perfectly.

That song appears here, the 20th album in his prolific career, and the second with a backing band called The Venus 3, featuring R.E.M.'s Peter Buck on guitar (as well as two R.E.M. sidemen, who are enjoying their own creative renaissance these days). Hitchcock must always be approached with caution: though he's a lovably enigmatic pop songwriter with occasionally absurdist phrasing, it's rare that his charm lasts the length of an entire album. When the first song on Goodnight Oslo finds him singing, "Ring my chimes I'm a ding-dong daddy," you have every reason to be trepidatious—especially when he punctuates it with a "yes, siree!"

And yet Goodnight Oslo is a surprisingly solid and rewarding album, the first Robyn Hitchcock release in years—if not more than a decade—that could actually appeal to someone other than Robyn Hitchcock fans. His trademark British drawl is still an acquired taste, but it's bolstered by lovely backing vocals throughout—including some by devout acolyte Colin Meloy of the Decemberists. Buck's presence is obvious, especially on the jangly “Your Head Here,” which sounds like a riff borrowed from any of the first three R.E.M. records.

Ultimately, however, it's best to approach this without any baggage. As the man himself says, "It doesn't matter what you was, it's what you is/ and what you is, is what you are." (K-W Record, February 26)

Lucie Idlout – Swagger (Sun Rev)

Lucie Idlout is a rare type of female rocker, who doesn’t sound like she’s either auditioning for Canadian Idol or trying to be anything but the mainstream rocker she is—existing somewhere in the netherworld between PJ Harvey and Alannah Myles. Idlout possesses a rich, complex voice that can be compelling over acoustic guitars, minor key keyboards or a raging rock rhythm section. And she’s got a few chips on her shoulder: most of her characters deal with domestic abuse, alcoholism, or both; some are small town girls lost to big city prostitution, walking the line with “high heels on a gravel road” (a much more compelling image than Lucinda Williams’ comparatively drab car wheels). While Idlout expresses obvious concern for her characters, she’s not a sympathetic softie who’s willing to wallow—she closes the album singing, “When you’re tired and feeling down … I won’t be there for you.” The title is not an idle boast; she’s got swagger, and it’s evident on every track here. (K-W Record, February 19)

Handsome Furs – Face Control (Sub Pop)

With “Talking Hotel Arbat Blues,” Handsome Furs tip their collective hat to both the talking blues—the classic American songwriting style popularized by Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan—and to Cold War culture, that provides plenty of inspiration here. It’s indicative of their ability to merge melodies that may well be old folk or blues standards, and marry them to Cold War-era machinery. The latter is underscored by an obsession with Russian culture: Vladimir Putin’s mug adorns the back cover, song titles include “Nyet Spasiba” and “Radio Kaliningrad,” and the album title refers to a bizarre elitist entry requirement at Moscow nightclubs.

Their electronics aren’t the only throwback to 30 years ago; like acts of that era, Handsome Furs also share a love of early rock’n’roll and, by extension, the blues: howling vocals drenched in reverb, bent guitar notes and a primitive, raw approach to music-making—all elements that were lost in the ’80s with the intoxicating acceleration of technology and the smooth edges demanded when synth pop went mainstream. While crisp and pristine, Perry’s electronics are rich in speaker-rattling bottom end, providing a perfectly tinny tension with Dan Boeckner’s ghetto guitar sounds, which come alive brushing against the constraints of his mechanized rhythm section—a combination which is much more danceable here than on their comparatively dour debut album Plague Park.

Even better, however, are Boeckner’s vocals, which are much more compelling against a sparse backdrop than they are amidst the cluttered mess that was the last Wolf Parade album. It’s still thrilling when he reaches down the back of his throat for a raspy punk rock howl, but just as often he slips into an uncharacteristic croon that suits him well—he’s a classier guy than he lets on.

Handsome Furs sound very much like a mash-up of the most visceral elements of developing rock’n’roll culture from the last 50 years, but not in any pompously self-conscious or campy way. Like all great rock’n’roll, the best thing about it is that it sounds effortless. (K-W Record, March 12)

K’naan – Troubadour (Universal)

K’naan’s story sells itself: born in Mogadishu, Somalia, to a family of poets and singers, he escaped to Harlem during the civil war and settled in Toronto, where he taught himself English by listening to hip-hop. His first album got international attention, won a Juno, and led him to working in Jamaica with Bob Marley’s children on a highly anticipated second album.

This makes for a great story on the CBC, but Troubadour is a thrilling pop album from beginning to end, starting with the swaggering hip-hop of “T.I.A.” (This is Africa) and the big horn riff and children’s chorus of “ABC’s,” and from there to the boisterous pop of “Bang Bang” (which survives a Maroon 5 cameo) to the Ethiopian jazz samples of “America” and even the cheesy ballads like “Fatima” or the strident optimism of “Waving Flag.” The sole misstep is the re-recording of “If Rap Gets Jealous,” which appeared on his first album, done here to diminished effect with Metallica’s Kirk Hammett on guitar.

Troubadour kicks off with K’naan promising to take “rappers on a field trip to Africa.” Tales of his youth and the ongoing tribulations of his relatives in Somalia inform most of his narratives, whether he’s discussing war-torn streets or waiting for Western Union transfers. “We’re from the only place worse than Kandahar, and that’s kind hard,” he says, but later adds: “I take inspiration from the most heinous situations/ creating medication out of my own tribulations.” Indeed, his love for life is evident in every groove heard here; preaching is kept to a minimum, though there’s no denying his message.

Troubadour is a triumph, not just for Canadian music but for international hip-hop, with the kind of uniting appeal along the lines of Lauryn Hill’s debut album: a genre-defying, cross-generational and inspirational confluence of charisma and choice material. (K-W Record, March 12)

Loney Dear – Dear John (Polyvinyl)

If Emil Svanängen wasn’t a home-recording enthusiast, it’s almost conceivable that this Swedish songwriter might have a career as a hitmaker for teeny techno-pop sensations. On this, his fourth album, his melodies are set to increasingly energetic, thumping beats with insanely catchy la-la-la choruses that are just the kind of earworms that radio hits are made of. Of course, because he writes primarily in minor keys, it’s unlikely that Svanängen’s would translate to a pop crowd looking for mirth over melancholy.

Loney Dear imagines an improbable world where Moby and Elliot Smith made an album together—and it didn’t suck. Early ’90s synths make Dear John sound oddly dated, but they’re hardly enough to distract from the songcraft. Svanängen likes to layer his songs slowly: they often start with next to nothing except a melody and guitar, before a glistening glockenspiel slowly introduces a chorus melody, the drum programming builds insistently, and then the string section or Scandinavian choir comes in like a vision of northern lights before Svanängen steps back into his bedroom and unplugs everything one instrument at a time. Loney Dear is a class act and Dear John is Svanängen’s finest album to date; hopefully his move to a smaller indie label won’t let it get lost in the shuffle. (K-W Record, March 19)

Buddy & Julie Miller – Written in Chalk (New West)

Buddy Miller is one of the most in-demand sidemen in Nashville, recording and touring with Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, Solomon Burke, and most recently Robert Plant and Alison Krauss. His wife Julie is a respected songwriter, covered by Dixie Chicks, Brooks and Dunn, and dozens more. “You and me are gasoline and matches,” they sing together, and they light plenty of sparks when they bring their own material to life.

Buddy’s guitar playing is never flamboyant—he’s a great guitarist and doesn’t need to prove it, least of all on his solo album. Instead, he digs his teeth in vocally on fiddle-driven laments for bygone days, raw bluesy rockers, and gritty country songs. Both he and Julie have a nasal Nashville twang, though hers is better suited to harmony than taking the lead on trumpet-laden torch songs (“A Long Long Time”). When she’s singing songs as good as “Everytime We Say Goodbye,” however, it’s hard to complain.

Written in Chalk will no doubt be beloved by musicians and songwriters first and foremost, but don’t be surprised to hear songs like “Hush Sorrow,” “One Part Two Part” and “Ellis County” make their way into other people’s repertoire sooner than later—though chances are nothing will beat these originals. It’s Miller time for all serious Americana fans. (K-W Record, March 19)

Olenka and the Autumn Lovers – s/t (independent)

Listening to Olenka and the Autumn Lovers, it easy enough to imagine that it’s 1988 at a 3 a.m. basement speakeasy in Krakow. It’s late enough to still raise a glass, but the hour is sobering enough to be contemplating the chances that glimmers of hope might actually conquer decades of fear, never mind the uncertain future that lies ahead either way.

Olenka Krakus opens her debut album with the ominous line: “It was a dark and stormy night when we were headed out of town,” which is a perfect introduction to both her music and its history. She grew up in Communist Poland before her family moved to Vancouver; she assembled her Autumn Lovers in London, Ontario and recorded this remarkable debut largely live off the floor in Kingston and Vancouver. Accordion, violin, cello, clarinet and upright bass colour her own classical guitar accompaniment, playing minor key melancholy that’s perfectly suited to her slightly androgynous voice. Klezmer scales and haunting five-part harmonies will have you weeping in your wine glass and waltzing your troubles away.

For a band that’s less than a year old—and with two other EPs already to their credit—Olenka and the Autumn Lovers have made a remarkably accomplished debut that sounds like the career pinnacle of a long-lost East European treasure only now getting reissued by a North American enthusiast. Instead, she’s alive and well and just getting started. (K-W Record, March 12)

Joel Plaskett – Three (New Scotland/Maple)

Joel Plaskett loves vinyl records, old-time country music, ’70s classic rock, ’60s soul, making music with your parents, and songwriter circles on the CBC. He’s not the kind of guy who worries about current trends—nor the collapse of the music industry. This might explain why, in 2009, he’s putting out a three-CD set, with nine songs per disc, the vast majority of them clocking in right around the three-minute mark. No matter what he’s up to with this numerology, Plaskett has been one of Canada’s most consistently reliable songwriters for a decade now—and this album is a prime example—so he can be afforded plenty of slack.

Most artists have trouble filling a single disc with worthy tracks; Plaskett defies all expectations by not only refusing to let any clunkers through, but also avoiding any indulgent experimentation that usually accompanies such a large endeavour. Three touches on all of Plaskett’s strengths, ranging from quiet intimacy to what sound like lo-fi drum machine demos to high gloss. Remarkably, however, Three maintains a consistent tone throughout: there’s little of the power pop that he performs with the Joel Plaskett Emergency (last heard on 2006’s Ashtray Rock), but plenty of female vocals, horn sections, country touches, and more of a Maritime/Celtic influence than ever heard in his music before—all are decorative rather than distracting.

As he embarks on his first headlining theatre tour Plaskett leaves no doubt that he’s a lifer who’s building a songbook that’s going to help define his generation of Canadian songwriters. At this rate, he’ll be booking a full week at Massey Hall next year—with enough quality songs for different set lists every night. (K-W Record, March 26)

United Steel Workers of Montreal – Three on the Tree (Weewerk)

After a long day at the steel plant, who wouldn’t want to kick back with an old-timey string band singing songs about local legends of axe-wielding murdering jealous whores of Griffintown, finding dead women in the river, or confronting your father’s killer? The United Steelworkers of Montreal have a few slightly more lighthearted songs about busted picket lines and class warfare and the nihilism of hockey riots—just to mix it up a bit. These three songwriters and four singers (and two silent instrumentalists) tap into Montreal’s rich roots and bluegrass communities and lots of local lore. Help them raise a glass to working-class woes when they hit the Trans-Canada this month. (K-W Record, March 12)

U2 – No Line on the Horizon (Universal)

No Line on the Horizon—the image suggests a big blank space. Which is the feeling one is left with after U2’s twelfth album, where they face down a midlife crisis by trying to recreate every single stage of their career—starting with the decision to employ not only longtime collaborators Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois as producers once again, but also Steve Lillywhite, who was at the helm of their first three albums in the early ’80s, when they first defined their expansive, stadium sound.

It doesn’t begin well. The opening title track borrows a riff directly from 1991’s “Zoo Station” and slows it down to a sludgy, uninspired crawl toward long-lost glories. That’s followed immediately by “Magnificent,” which could be lifted directly from 1984’s The Unforgettable Fire (albeit a good sign). However, by the time they reach the new single “Get On Your Boots”—which pops up halfway through the track listing—they’ve resorted to ripping off Elvis Costello’s “Pump It Up” with a bizarre drum break from Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks” thrown in the middle, while Bono wails: “let me in the sound!”

“Moment of Surrender” has the potential to be a big beautiful ballad on par with “One,” until Bono’s supposedly soaring chorus instead sinks with lyrics about seeing a “vision of invisibility” while “punching in the numbers at an ATM machine” and being ignored by passers-by. What this is about is anyone’s guess—maybe he had all his money in Icelandic bank accounts. Lyrics aside, this is the finest performance here by the rest of the band, including a supple and seductive rhythm section and The Edge’s textural guitar and backing vocals.

There are more than enough signs here that U2 want to be a viable artistic entity again, and not just The Biggest Band in the World. If they don’t exactly succeed, there are only a few outright clunkers (something called “Stand Up Comedy” being one of them); many of the highlights betray the heavy influence of Eno and Lanois, who are granted co-writing credits for the first time in their 25-year association with the band. (And Eno fans would be well-advised to check out his other recent collaboration with an ’80s pop icon, Talking Heads’ David Byrne—who ages gracefully seemingly without effort.)

There are enough signifiers here to please fans of any stage of U2’s career, but none of it either holds a candle to past achievement. Now that they’re approaching their third decade together, U2 today is what the Rolling Stones were in the 80s: possessive of a singular sound and a huge personality, but without any idea what to do with either. Hopefully U2 take the promise heard here and heed their own advice: “restart and reboot yourself; you’re free to go.” (K-W Record, March 5)

M. Ward – Hold Time (Merge)

M. Ward is a man of the subtlest charms. He’s an astounding guitarist, although he rarely lets on by showboating. He’s a seductive vocalist who never raises his voice, forcing you to lean in closer. He can write songs that sound like dusty, long-lost folk or country classics, yet somehow you barely notice the fleeting melodies. If anything, M. Ward’s principal strength is his production skill, which was fully unleashed on his 2008 album She & Him, a collaboration with actress/singer Zooey Deschanel that served as an ode to early 70s AM radio pop.

On Hold Time, M. Ward pushes himself with new textures that find him bathing in reverb, Brian Eno-esque sepia-toned synthesizers, and languid loveliness throughout. It’s the first time in his solo work that Ward has fully embraced the studio and relished in every minor detail, to the point where the sound of this record is as important as any of the actual songs on it. The least successful—and most distracting—tracks are the ones that draw attention to themselves, such as a painful and tortuous Lucinda Williams duet, or a cover of Buddy Holly’s “Rave On” that manages to be worse than John Mellencamp’s. Otherwise, this is the most satisfying M. Ward recording since his breakthrough 2003 album The Tranfiguration of Vincent. (K-W Record, February 19)

William Elliot Whitmore – Animals in the Dark (Anti)

Spoiler alert: William Elliot Whitmore is only 30 years old. You’d never know it, listening to this—his fourth album and first for the Anti label—and maybe you’ll even enjoy it more if you believe that he’s a Southern gospel preacher twice his age, one with a lifetime of betrayal, suspicion and disappointment behind him. Right from the opening track, “Mutiny,” he calls for mass insurrection on a stirring call-and-response field holler that’s as profane as it is profound. He spends the next 47 minutes railing against wars without end, old devils, running from Johnny Law, and a lifetime underground; he closes with a song titled “A Good Day To Die.” Not once does he sound like he’s a youngster putting on ancient airs, which even icons like Bob Dylan and Tom Waits did in their overly self-conscious youth. Instead, you believe every word out of Whitmore’s mouth; he sounds like Solomon Burke singing Springsteen’s Nebraska, only with an apocalyptic bent. This album is astounding enough on its own merits; accompanied by the headlines of 2009, it hits that much harder. (K-W Record, February 19)

Yeah Yeah Yeahs – It’s Blitz! (Universal)

Once one of the most exciting rock bands of the decade, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs rushed headlong into irrelevancy with 2005’s stillborn and toothless Show Your Bones, an album devoid of danger or any inclination that the Yeah Yeah Yeahs might be able to age gracefully. Their reinvention and resurrection heard here means that the exclamation point in It’s Blitz! isn’t just a cheap signifier.

Shedding their garage rock roots entirely, It’s Blitz! finds guitarist Nick Zinner bringing synths to the forefront, enhancing the post-punk disco that was always an undercurrent in the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ sound. While his blasts of white noise and rockabilly abandon are missed, his new approach avoids many of the clichés of the neo-new wave revival. Karen O is nowhere near the banshee she once was, and it’s obvious that she sinks her teeth into the slower, more atmospheric tracks here—none of which have the pop potential of their 2004 hit "Maps," but are no less affecting.

It’s Blitz! is obviously the work of a group who are all now on the other side of 30—they’re less convincing when they try to act tough. Despite its title, “Heads Will Roll” doesn’t suggest than any such thing will happen. Yet even the weakest moments here still sound inspired; she may not be the firebrand she used to be, but Karen O still has charisma to burn, and her backing boys are the perfect match. (K-W Record, March 26)

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