Thursday, June 04, 2009

May reviews 09

Reviews from my weekly column in the Kitchener-Waterloo Record and Guelph Mercury.

Mulatu Astatke and the Heliocentrics – Inspiration Information (Strut)

Mulatu Astatke is considered the godfather of Ethiopian jazz, with a history that includes a Western musical education—he was the first African student at the Berklee College of Music—and playing with Duke Ellington in the ’70s. Here, he teams up with young British group the Heliocentrics, whose brand of psychedelic and cinematic jazz mixes perfectly with Astatke’s compositions; their last high-profile gig was as DJ Shadow’s backing band, and their versatility was audible on their debut album, 2007’s Out There. Ethiopiques fans will find much to love here, although this doesn’t aim to recreate Astatke’s vintage recordings and it’s not a one-way cultural exchange; this sounds as much like the Heliocentrics as it does the 66-year-old jazzman, and he’s happy to hop on board whatever futuristic, cosmic journey they want to take him on. Considering that he built his career on cross-cultural hybrids, this simply sounds like Astatke taking the logical next step. Unlike most long-lost stars with a new lease on life through vintage reissues, he’s definitely not a museum act. (K-W Record, May 21)

Booker T. – Potato Hole (Anti)

Sometimes an old friend will re-appear in your life, a friend with whom you once shared plenty of good times, who imparted great wisdom along the way. He shows up at your door looking great, just as nimble as he was in his prime. And while it’s great to see him again, you quickly realize that he has nothing to say; conversation evaporates almost instantly.

So it is with Booker T. Jones, the legendary keyboardist who led the MGs and was part of the house band at soul music powerhouse Stax Records. After years as part of one of Neil Young’s rotating backing bands, he surfaces here with Southern rock group the Drive-by Truckers—with Young dropping by as well—for his first solo album in 31 years. Soul fans might be shocked to hear him with such a meat-and-potatoes rock band behind him—incidentally, the same one who failed to ignite any sparks with soul singer Bettye Lavette on one of her recent comeback albums—but more importantly, they’re likely to be disappointed by just how little happens over the course of these 10 tracks, regardless of genre.

There’s nothing terrible here—Booker T. is far too tasteful to make any serious missteps, although covering Outkast’s “Hey Ya” goes nowhere fast. Instead, Potato Hole amounts to little more than a shrug. Nice to see you old friend—now what were we talking about again? (K-W Record, May 7)

Jim Bryson – Live at the First Baptist Church (Kelp)

Everybody, including his new employers the Tragically Hip, loves Jim Bryson. Yet no one seems to love his records. Fans seem to have quibbles with every one of his three studio albums: they’re overproduced; they’re underproduced; they don’t sound like his live shows. None of those concerns could be raised with this live album, which of course not only features Bryson’s finest songs, but boasts an all-star Ottawa band that can be sweet when they want to be, with keyboard textures and rich backing vocals, or as raucous and raw as Bryson’s punk rock roots. Bryson, who is best known as a sideman for Kathleen Edwards, the Weakerthans, and now the Hip, shines as a singer and storyteller in ways that—for whatever reason—he never has on his studio albums. And while there are occasional moments heard here that could have easily been edited out and left in the moment, they don’t diminish the impact of hearing one of our finest songwriters giving one of his finest performances. (K-W Record, May 28)

Camera Obscura – My Maudlin Career (4AD/Beggars Banquet)

Strings can do so many things—like pour the syrup on a sappy, melancholy melody so that even the harshest heartbreak sings a beautiful song. Glaswegian quintet Camera Obscura brought a Swedish string section into their sound on their breakthrough 2006 album Let’s Get Out of This Country, where they moved their twee take on the ’60s into the more amped-up AM radio rock of the ’70s. They use the same team this time out, only now the strings sound like “Snowbird” and other countrypolitan hits of the period. There’s no twang or roots-rock revisionism here, but the ever-so-slightly country-ish backdrop serves the sad longing of Traceyanne Campbell’s lyrics perfectly.

She starts the album with the buoyant single “French Navy,” by spending “a week in a dusty library/ waiting for some words to jump at me”; she spends the rest of the album travelling the world (including a reference to a frozen river in Toronto) trying to navigate a toxic and tortured love affair with someone of whom the best she can say is, “When you’re lucid, you’re the sweetest thing.” Like any fine country music songwriter, Campbell has a keen eye for the smallest self-aware details; she details an early infatuation by asking, “Were my pupils dilated? Could you tell that I liked you?”

Despite the album title, Camera Obscura are much less maudlin as they mature as a band; though Campbell still thinks the saddest songs say so much, her love of big pop music never steers her into a sad-sack rut. These lovable, bookish softies have been hardened by years as a touring band, and can now flex their muscles even in their quietest moments. Though earlier releases all boasted crushworthy mixtape favourites, My Maudlin Career is their finest album, beginning to end—no wonder the title sounds like a greatest hits package. (K-W Record, May 7)

Leonard Cohen – Live in London (Sony)

“What a great honour to play for you,” intones the immortal baritone of Leonard Cohen at the beginning of this two-disc, 150-minute document of his 2008 world tour. Here is a 73-year-old man who, despite decades of success and reverential acclaim, remains remarkably modest, deferential to every one of his bandmates, and grateful for every moment on stage. And yet the honour is all ours.

I’ll be frank: I wept continuously when I saw this tour’s Toronto stop. I wept with tears of joy to hear the author of such magnificent prose sound so alive and appreciated, wept with tears of sadness knowing that he won’t be doing this for much longer and it’s hard to imagine anyone taking his place. Live in London is a perfect souvenir, and a helpful reminder that no, I wasn’t just drunk on the emotion of the moment.

Cohen is crooning with conviction and strength; even his detractors will have to admit that he’s singing in tune. The band is impeccable and tasteful; anyone put off by Cohen’s questionable studio choices discover that these songs sound better than they ever have, even schmaltz like “Ain’t No Cure For Love.” Perhaps most importantly, he finally reclaims “Hallelujah” for himself, after 25 years of his original version perplexing even the most rapturous fans of the song’s many cover versions.

It’s impossible to express just how cathartic it was, in the summer of 2008, to hear Cohen sing about how “democracy is coming to the U.S.A.” It’s a song that sounded quaint and funny when it was first released in 1992, but such a song can only achieve true resonance after one’s spirit has been bruised and battered and been forced to seek light through the smallest of cracks; suddenly, when given a glimpse of sunshine and the possibility of freedom, Cohen sounds like the first man to tell you the truth after (eight) years of lies.

He’s not always that heavy, of course—in fact, he’s often hilarious. All his best banter—which was routine at every tour stop—is included here, which hardly seems fair to those who have yet to witness the ongoing tour. Live in London is more than a document of Cohen’s comeback; it may well be—objectively speaking, outside the context and time when his earlier classics were released—the finest recording of his 40-year career. (K-W Record, May 14)

Steve Earle – Townes (New West)

Steve Earle named his son after Townes Van Zant, a Texan singer/songwriter who was an unheralded and haunting songwriter in the ’70s, one who was as troubled and as gifted as Hank Williams—and just as tragic, passing on well before his time came. Van Zant has had many champions, both before and after his death—Willie Nelson and Cowboy Junkies among the most vocal—but Steve Earle has never wasted a chance to wax poetic on what an inspiration Van Zant was to him, both as a songwriter and as a peer. So here Earle tackles 15 Townes Van Zant songs, as the ultimate tribute to the man.

And yet most Steve Earle fans will at least have heard of Townes Van Zant before, and unfortunately Earle doesn’t do these songs many favours. The arrangements here—ranging from straight-up bluegrass to string-adorned balladry to the more modern drum-machine-and-acoustic-guitar aesthetic of Earle’s last album, Washington Square Serenade—don’t compare to the moonlit, ghostly and unforgettable sound of Van Zant’s originals. Which is not a crime, and it might work with a different vocalist; but at this stage in his career, Steve Earle’s voice is suited only to singing Steve Earle songs—an interpreter he’s not.

A great performer singing the songs of a great writer—what could go wrong? Surely that’s not the question Earle was hoping to answer. (K-W Record, May 21)

Grand Duchy – Petits Four (Cooking Vinyl)

Whether or not the Pixies ever make a new record, fans of Frank Black were wondering if would ever return to the wonderfully weird vibe of his early solo recordings, after over a decade of a shift to respectable roots rock. The answer lies with his new project Grand Duchy, a duo with Violet Clark. When asked what appealed to him about working with Clark, Black says: “She was innocent. I hadn’t felt innocent in years. She digs the ’80s. I had spent the latter part of the ’80s doing my part to destroy the ’80s.”

And so here, Black can be heard over drum machines and synths, adding his proto-grunge guitar and acoustic textures, as well as unleashing his long-lost screaming technique as a counter-balance to Clark’s soft and subtle vocals. “Break the Angels” has a bass line with a striking resemblance to the Pixies’ “Debaser,” and much of the material here sounds as gleefully unconventional as Black’s earliest work—not that fans should be looking for a Pixies substitute, because they won’t find it. But anyone who was getting bored with Black would be advised to visit Grand Duchy. (K-W Record, May 21)

Green Day – 21st Century Breakdown (Warner)

21st Century Breakdown returns to the American Idiot formula: an extremely loose (arguably non-existent) narrative set in a politically polarized U.S. and loaded with signpost symbolism and rhetoric. One of the characters is actually born on the fourth of July, another is “the last of the American girls” who “puts her makeup on like graffiti on the walls of the heartland.”

The lyrics are ridiculous, aimed squarely at that moment of teenage life when you realize that life is going to suck and there are powers beyond your control: not surprisingly, Armstrong talks about the “class of ’13”—in other words, 14-year-olds about to enter high school, because they’re likely the only ones who will find any semblance of depth in his lyrics.

But who cares? The guitars are engineered to sound like a white-knuckle roller coaster ride. Drummer Tre Cool is probably the best punk drummer since Dave Grohl picked up a guitar. Armstrong manages to string suites of songs together effortlessly, and his melodic skills set him far apart from the pack.

And yet 21st Century Breakdown doesn’t hold a candle to the highs of American Idiot—an album where even the power ballads were exciting—and it doesn’t help matters that Armstrong saves all his best songs for the “third act,” as it’s notated. “Horseshoes and Handgrenades” arrives 14 songs in, with Armstrong bellowing, “I’m not f---ing around!” Good thing, because we were beginning to wonder. He rides out that rejuvenation through to the album’s conclusion, even managing pull a decent pop song out of a piece of bloated balladry called “21 Guns.”

Green Day may still be miles ahead of their mall-punk peers, but they can do better than this. It will be more interesting to see where they go once they get tired of rock operas. (K-W Record, May 28)

Gypsophilia – Sa-ba-da-ow! (

Neither the band name nor the album title inspire much confidence, yet this Haligonian septet quickly silence any skeptics with a rousing take on gypsy jazz of the Django Reinhardt era. It’s not aiming to be some kind of historical re-enactment, and nor is it full of obvious nods to modernity. There’s an all-too-rare tastefully played wah pedal on some of the guitar solos, and pianist Sageev Oore breaks out his synthesizer in the most subtle of ways—that is, when he’s not sprinting around his piano like a silent film soundtracker. Leads are shared between trumpet, violin and the three guitarists, each of whom could be leading a band of their own. Recorded live off the floor, Sa-ba-da-ow! is inventive and melodic and guaranteed to be a sensation on the summer jazz festival circuit. (K-W Record, May 28)

Ben Harper and Relentless7 – White Lies for Dark Times (EMI)

It’s not like Ben Harper has been in a slump lately; his 2006 album Both Sides of the Gun may well be the best thing he’s ever done. But by putting his Innocent Criminals on hold and hooking up with an all-new backing band, a Texas trio incongruously called Relentless7, he’s being pushed to play some the most electrifying guitar work of his career. Drummer Jordan Robinson in particular lights a fire underneath him, and there’s no mistaking the live energy generated in these sessions of fuzzed-out, slightly psychedelic Texas boogie rock. Harper must have been having so much fun that he didn’t bother to edit some of his lyrics, such as: “I feel like an underpaid concubine who’s overstayed her welcome.” That’s a minor slip on an otherwise worthy rock’n’roll rebirth. (K-W Record, May 28)

Hotcha! – Dust Bowl Roots: Songs for the New Depression (

Hotcha are a Toronto duo that dress up in Depression-era garb for the artwork of their debut CD. But unlike hundreds of old-timey acoustic acts who are little more than a costume party, Hotcha bring something new to the table—namely, original songs that actually stand up to the likes of Irving Berlin and Louis Armstrong, both of whom they cover here, along with classics like “Walkin’ After Midnight” and “Jesus on the Mainline.” Beverly Kreller and Howard Druckman jump between hot jazz and bluegrass with help from producer/percussionist Don Kerr and banjo whiz Chris Quinn, and while the arrangements rarely stray from the traditional, they sound vivid and fresh—thanks in part to Kerr’s production. Music got us through the last Depression, and maybe a return to informal living room music like the kind Toronto duo Hotcha! makes will get us through the next one. (K-W Record, May 28)

Pink Mountaintops – Outside Love (Jagjaguwar/Sonic Unyon)

For better or worse, the Stephen McBean always makes it easy to describe his music with easy reference points. His brand of record collector rock is splintered into two projects: the Black Sabbath/Pink Floyd amalgam of Black Mountain, and his somewhat more subdued personal project, Pink Mountaintops, which on this—their third album—sounds like Phil Spector and the Jesus and Mary Chain taking turns producing one of Neil Young’s folk albums. And in ways he hasn’t done since the first Black Mountain album, McBean manages to transcend the obvious reference points and helps us forget that we may have heard this a thousand times before—because we haven’t often heard it done this well.

Sunbaked, fuzzed-out guitars blend with distorted violin and tinny organs colour simple three-chord anthems designed for massive group singalongs on joyous but admittedly cliché lyrics such as “how deep is your love” and “everyone I love deserves a holiday in the sun.” McBean isn’t always “in love with all the lovers” and singing about “The Gayest of Sunbeams,” however; there are darker skies that also loom over several spooky songs here, most effectively on “While We Were Dreaming,” which McBean hands over to vocalist Ashley Webber (twin sister of Black Mountain’s Amber).

Pink Mountaintops used to be an excuse for McBean to be lazy and fool around on his four-track. Outside Love marks the moment when the project blossoms into a full band, starring members of Destroyer, Carolyn Mark’s Roommates, Superconductor, The Organ and Godspeed You Black Emperor. But more importantly, by regaining the control and focus that he surrendered on the last Black Mountain album—which got lost in a swamp of riffs, repetition, atmospheres and apocalypse—McBean also conjures his best collection of songs in years. It helps that he lets the sunlight peek through the storm clouds and allows himself to have some fun. It sounds like he invited half of Vancouver along to the party; you might as well join them. (K-W Record, May 14)

Ghislain Poirier – Soca Sound System EP (Ninja Tune/Outside)

Montreal’s Ghislain Poirier has helped bring Brazilian, dancehall and other equatorial rhythms into electronic dance music, invigorating a tired techno scene with genuine energy. But here, Poirier sets his own course with soca music, which is a natural fit for his club nights: the galloping, stuttering staccato beats are relentless, and Poirier’s futurist flavour sounds fantastically askew. MC Zulu shines on the track “Immigrant Visa”; no surprise there, as he was also the stand-out guest on Poirier’s 2007 dancehall-infused album No Ground Under, to which this is a worthy companion. (K-W Record, May 7)

Slim Twig – Contempt! (Paper Bag)

Listening to Contempt!, one would expect to find Slim Twig in dark corner of Coney Island, long after the rest of the freaks and carnies have vacated for the season. He would be sitting in a corner of the haunted house, with a decrepit organ at his command, and a series of wires hooked into dubious amplification systems and god-knows-what. He would be oblivious to any gathering audience, twiddling knobs and occasionally slicking back his pompadour, while he recounted hallucinations and delirious tales of infatuation in his best Elvis impersonation, bathed in heavy reverb for maximum spook effect.

In reality, Slim Twig is an artist from Toronto’s east end, who records various odd sounds in his basement before taking a ferry to Toronto Island to have them doctored by kindred spirit Dale Morningstar, who made similar mad scientist sounds as Dinner Is Ruined in the ’90s.

That Slim Twig is unique and compelling, there’s no question. Whether Contempt! succeeds as an album you’d want to hear any earlier in the day than 2 a.m. or outside of a Guy Maddin soundtrack is another question. (K-W Record, May 7)

The Western States – Bye and Bye (Dollartone)

Winnipeg roots band the Western States claim that they recorded this, their second album, live to tape. I don’t believe them. Either they’re as smooth and professional as a band with five albums and a decade of touring under their belt, or they somehow lucked into note-perfect vocal performances, piano and guitar solos. Or maybe they jammed and sang all the way down the interstate on their way to Texas, where they recorded the album. Bye and Bye doesn’t sound at all like a live album—arguably to its benefit, although it would be nice to hear this band loosen up a bit.

No point griping about what it isn’t, however, because Bye and Bye has lots to love. Trumpet, plenty of keyboards and stellar five-part harmony enhance Sean Buchanan’s solid songwriting, which has more than a few traces of early Wilco. Closing track “I’ll Be Free” is a candidate for a campfire classic, and many other tracks here hint that this band is one small step away from greatness. Added bonus: it all sounds spectacular, with an audiophile’s dedication to detail that’s extremely rare in an under-the-radar indie release. (K-W Record, May 21)

Score!: 20 Years of Merge Records – Various Artists (Merge)

One of the most reliable indie labels in the U.S. celebrates its 20th anniversary by inviting friends and fans of the label to cover their favourite tracks in the Merge catalogue, and the results are mixed. Perhaps it says something about the quality of Merge releases that even the likes of Death Cab For Cutie, Ryan Adams and Broken Social Scene have trouble improving on the originals. Highlights include two stellar covers of underrated songwriter Chris Lopez, of Tenement Halls and the Rock*A*Teens, who gets star treatment here from the Shins and the New Pornographers. Another grossly underrated songwriter, Eric Bachmann of Crooked Fingers, is served well by a duet from The National and St. Vincent, and the reclusive East River Pipe is resuscitated by both Okkervil River and the Mountain Goats. Those tracks are all worth downloading individually; otherwise, you’re better off tracking down the originals or waiting for this compilation’s companion piece, featuring remixes of Merge material by an all-star line-up. (K-W Record, May 7)

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