Monday, October 26, 2009

Oct 09 reviews

The following reviews ran in the K-W Record and Guelph Mercury.

Air – Love 2 (EMI)

Love 2 is not actually a sequel to anything, but it’s certainly the strongest album by French band Air since their 1998 classic Moon Safari, which almost single-handedly ushered in a new era of Moog synthesizers playing a parade of planetarium pop and easy-listening sci-fi lounge music. They’ve found some muscle and backbone, making this a rare Air album that actually makes you want to get off the couch. The album opens with fuzzy, distorted guitar playing a serpentine riff, and from their Air moves through spy movie soundtracks, reggae rhythms, sunbaked latter-day Sly Stone soul music, bossa nova, and psychedelic pop, all filtered through a French sensibility that makes everything that much more lush and lascivious. A breath of fresh Air, indeed. (Oct. 15)

Michael Bublé – Crazy Love (Warner)

I don’t remember "Cry Me A River" sounding like a James Bond theme, but that’s what Michael Bublé does to it here to open his new album—and it totally works. As he gets older, Bublé is getting better at being an interpreter rather than just singing old songs in a new suit; it doesn’t take much to pull off a widely covered standard like "All of Me," but it does take serious cojones to pull off "Georgia on My Mind" and battle the ghost of Ray Charles. His jokey side is still present, of course: a big band arrangement of the Eagles’ "Heartache Tonight" is nothing if not campy.

Bublé would also like to be known as a songwriter; he only ever offers a couple per album, but they have been his biggest hits ("Home," "Everything"). That’s unlikely to happen here; neither "All I Do Is Dream of You" nor "Hold On" hold a candle to his earlier hits—and juxtaposed next to some of the strongest songs of the last century, they sound even weaker.

What’s most revealing is to hear Bublé and producer Bob Rock visit the eight-track studio of Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings in Brooklyn; there, they leave the album’s co-producer David Foster home in Vancouver and let their hair down with some gritty Southern soul. Bublé and Jones sing a playful duet on "Baby You’ve Got What It Takes," and for three short minutes, we hear what it would sound like if Bublé were to follow in Amy Winehouse’s musical footsteps. (Oct. 22)

Champion – Resistance (Saboteur/Maple)

DJ Champion struck gold with his 2005 single “No Heaven,” driven by a soaring vocal from Betty Bonifassi (Beast) and grinding bluesy guitars over a techno beat. He returns with a male vocalist replacing Bonifassi, less intense beats, and plenty of guitars that owe as much of a debt to metal as they do blues—all of which often ends up sounding like late-’80s period ZZ Top (remember "Sleeping Bag"?) with a gothier edge.

Singer Pierre-Philippe Côté tackles most of the lead vocals, and he doesn’t have half the personality of Bonifassi; though it’s not entirely his fault that every song here with vocals is incredibly annoying. No matter who’s singing it’s impossible to spin a gold chorus out of the lyrics: “I like it so much! Yes, I like it so much!”

Champion may have made his mark with a huge anthem, but he’s much more successful with the moodier, instrumental pieces here ("Plastiques et Metaux," "L6"), which could give Moby a run for his money. (Oct. 1)

The Clientele – Bonfires on the Heath (Merge)

How much you like The Clientele depends entirely on how much you can stand wispy British men singing autumnal odes over languid dream-pop with sparkling guitars, tinkly keyboards, brushed drums, and a melodic bass player who ties it all together. If that works for you, then Bonfires on the Heath will sweep the clouds away from your rainiest days.

Most of the references here date back to ’60s British folk-pop; at times it sounds like Nick Drake fronting The Velvet Underground; there are shades of the Zombies and hints of Pink Floyd (especially the Dark Side-ish pedal steel on the title track). The sunny optimism of their game-changing 2006 album God Save the Clientele surfaces only on a couple of tracks; here, they’re back to being their mopey selves, only now they sound a lot more muscular doing it, and relatively recent fourth member Mel Draisey fleshes out the arrangements beautifully with violin and a variety of keyboards.

Singer/guitarist Alisdair MacLean has threatened that this will be The Clientele’s final album. And after the excellence of both this and the previous album, he might just be spinning his wheels from now on anyway—it’s hard to imagine The Clientele capturing their essence any better than this. (Oct. 8)

Hugh Dillon – Works Well With Others (Warner)

One of the most tired clichés of criticism is complaining about actors who embark on a new career as a musician—as if artists are somehow supposed to be locked into one discipline for the rest of their lives. Hugh Dillon started out as a rock’n’roll frontman, slowly built a respectable acting career that now finds him with two leading roles on acclaimed TV series, Flashpoint and Durham County. He now returns with a solo album that is much more sombre and reflective than his days fronting the Headstones in the ’90s.

Dillon always had an eye for lyrical detail, even if it was all too often wrapped up in his own taste for self-mythologizing rock’n’roll. Now that he’s escaped most of the demons that accompanied his days of excess, he’s taking stock of life and translating the personal into the universal. “I’ve not the strength to fade away,” he sings—these are obviously tales he felt he had to tell, and there’s no questioning his conviction on tracks like "Friends of Mine," "Well on Your Way" and "Lucky."

He doesn’t surrender to rock’n’roll abandon often—Reel to Reel being the rollicking exception—and he’s more likely to slip into a Leonard Cohen croon on these largely mid-tempo pop songs, produced by longtime friend Paul Langlois of The Tragically Hip. It all suits his voice-of-authority persona well—he may have mellowed, but still sounds like a man you don’t want to mess with. (Oct. 29)

The Flaming Lips – Embryonic (Warner)

Less bubblegum, more brown acid.

The Flaming Lips have never been anyone’s idea of normality, but this is easily the freakiest and flipped out they’ve been in more than 15 years. And back then they were grungy novices still recovering from their first acid trip: now they’re serious about it, and capable of concocting chilling soundscapes, truly psychedelic sensory overload, and ways to melt your mind that music alone shouldn’t be able to do.

Gone are the sunny, uplifting pop songs that buoyed their fantastical live show of the past 10 years, and made fans out of everyone from Beck to Justin Timberlake—and scored the occasional TV ad. Now they’re diving deep into the heaviest Black Sabbath grooves, the trippiest side of early Pink Floyd, and the wide-open experimentation of Germany’s Can. And yet the melodic sense they honed on recent albums still lurks in the background, which means more recent converts have some kind of road map for this strange journey.

Even the biggest Lips fans had their patience tested by the patently ridiculous and long-delayed film Christmas on Mars, which was finally released last year to a collective shrug after nearly a decade of anticipation. Yet if anything good came of that, it was the eerie and sparse sci-fi soundtrack; Embryonic takes all the lessons learned there and reins them into to only a somewhat more conventional rock band format. Lyrically, there’s some sort of astrology motif going on ("Virgo Self-Esteem Broadcast," "Aquarius Sabotage," "Scorpio Sword")—but it’s best not to ask, really.

Just when the Flaming Lips risked becoming a parody of themselves, Embryonic is a sign of a whole new life. (Oct. 15)

Flight of the Conchords – I Told You I Was Freaky (Sub Pop)

Being freaky is one thing—being freakin’ hilarious is another. And being both fearless and peerless musical mimics is yet another thing altogether, which makes this deadpan duo all the more impressive for creating a comedy album of songs you’ll want to hear much more than once.

On this, the soundtrack to the second season of their HBO series, they’ve stepped up the songwriting to exist separately from their scripts (in fact, the second season’s scripts were arguably weaker than the debut). At times they’re certainly shooting fish in a barrel by satirizing R. Kelly/Usher duets ("We’re Both In Love With a Sexy Lady"), pointless folkie ’70s singer/songwriters ("Rambling Through the Avenues of Time") and Vocoderized techno pop (potential lesbian club anthem "Too Many Dicks on the Dance Floor"). But they do so with such precision (the Prince/Beck backbeat of the title track), lyrical zingers (the boast in "Sugalumps" about how “the ladies they hustle to ruffle my truffles”) and actual pop hooks, that they transcend the novelty genre entirely. Especially when some of their main targets are almost as unintentionally hilarious in their own right.

Best of all—and rare among both musicians and comedians—they know when to stop milking the joke; nearly every song here is under three minutes. All killer, no filler. (Oct. 29)

Gossip – Music for Men (Sony)

Most people who know of Beth Ditto don’t even know she has a band—never mind know that she’s one of the most powerful singers of her generation.

In the three years since The Gossip’s last album, Standing in the Way of Control, Ditto has become a celebrity—primarily in the U.K.—for her fashion sense and her brash, articulate views on feminism, queer rights, and the fallacy of a fashion industry focused on impossible beauty standards—and ironically, she’s been widely embraced and courted by that same fashion industry. That this has happened with minimal discussion of her music is a shame, and something that this major label debut might rectify.

Beth Ditto grew up in a small town in Arkansas full of rednecks; she and her band moved to Olympia, Washington, a small town of artsy punk rockers. Her vocal style is steeped in blues and country music, and until now was delivered with the screaming and exhilarating abandon of riot grrrl punk rock—all unmistakably the sound of a small-town girl dreaming of escape.

Here, under the eye of producer Rick Rubin, those blues and country debts have been erased, and many—some would argue all—of The Gossip’s rough edges have been smoothed over in favour of a slick combination of modern pop, electro R&B, and trace elements of post-punk disco, all of which are the soundtrack for that small-town girl’s new life under bright lights in the big city. “Pop goes the world,” sings Ditto here, echoing Men Without Hats. “New salvation … new translation … new relation … new sensation.”

For those with pre-existing expectations of The Gossip, Music for Men is at times a radically different record—although no more unusual a transformation than Ditto’s peer Karen O, whose celebrity outshone her band, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, as she led them from noisy punks to pop stars. While previous Gossip albums didn’t stray from their live line-up—voice, guitar, drums—Rick Rubin encourages the band to throw everything into the mix, starting with bass guitar to drive the dance floor, followed by every kind of keyboard and even a few timbales for that extra Studio 54 touch.

But if this is a pop sell-out, it’s one that works. As a vocalist, Ditto can sell you anything; previously, her appeal was the raw power of her voice and the liberation she shared with the audience about shaking off shackles of expectation. Now that she’s grown and evolved in the spotlight, she dials it down a bit and focuses on the pop hooks, with the inspiration and optimism she’s always espoused finding an easy home amidst the synths and electronic percussion of disco deliverance.

Her bandmates Brace Paine and Hannah Blilie are by no means lost in the shuffle, however; they’ve also stepped up their game while still keeping things raw and raucous—although there are more than a few tracks here where they’re all but invisible ("Love and Let Love," "Four Letter Word") on what could be Ditto solo tracks.

Beth Ditto is already the star she deserves to be, but Music for Men proves that she’s much more than just a celebrity of the week. She was an artist first, and here she embraces the oldest adage of American show biz: go big or go home. (Oct. 22)

Hidden Cameras – Origin: Orphan (Arts and Crafts)

The Hidden Cameras have always aspired to make epic music with mostly amateur musicians, with leader Joel Gibb writing deceptively simple four-chord pop songs that were a canvas for as much or as little ornamentation for the revolving door of musicians to provide. On his fourth album, Gibb aims much higher: the orchestrations are more grandiose and bombastic, and three songs here—including the Arabic-influenced opening track "Ratify the New" and the anguished pseudo-industrial angst of the title track—are the most dark and brooding Gibb has ever been, with low brass adding considerable gravitas. He’s always excelled at melancholy, but on these songs he sounds downright ominous.

The sunny side of the Cameras is still present; songs like "He Falls to Me" and "The Little Bit" could easily have been culled from any Cameras release; the characteristically provocative "Underage" (“Let’s do it like we’re underage”) sets African backing vocals to cheezeball ’80s programming that conjures memories of the Culture Club, of all people. (Oct. 22)

Islands – Vapours (Anti)

Nick Thorburn just created one of the biggest bands to ever come out of Guelph, by reshuffling the Islands line-up. Thorburn himself is from Vancouver Island, started the band in Montreal, and has lived in New York and L.A. But for the third Islands album, he brought back founding drummer and Guelph native Jamie Thompson, as well as the Gordon brothers, Evan and Geordie, who have been a huge part of Guelph’s music scene in the last ten years with The Magic, the Barmitzvah Brothers, the Sad Clowns, the Salt Lick Kids, and backing up their father James. And all this Guelphness comes on the heels of Thorburn’s 2008 collaboration with Jim Guthrie, Human Highway.

This new line-up creates the most cohesive Islands line-up to date; gone is the breezy orch-pop of the debut, and the overwrought prog rock of Arm’s Way. The Gordon brothers bring their army of synthesizers, and Thompson sounds like he spent most of his time programming his drum machine (to great effect—these are largely atypical and surprising beats), yet Vapours is for the most part very much a rock album, informed as it is by pop music of the ’80s and the ’50s, hints of reggae, disco, and plenty of the post-9/11 dichotomy of wartime dread and stubborn optimism. Thorburn has always been good at forging his own musical vision, but not until now has it sounded so natural and rewarding.

Too bad that Thorburn’s gain is our loss; hopefully Islands’ extensive international touring schedule won’t put off that long-delayed Magic album any longer. (Oct. 8)

Corb Lund – Losin’ Lately Gambler (New West)

Corb Lund calls his band the Hurtin’ Albertans and this album title alludes to a string of bad luck. But there’s no self-deprecating flagellation necessary, because not only does this prairie poet continue to improve, but his popularity continues to rise around the world, and this is his first album with a new American record deal (with one track recorded in front of hundreds of rowdy Australians). And so if you’re not already familiar with Lund’s mix of powerful prose and traditional country music—there’s nothing urban about this cowboy—this album is as good a place to start as any.

Part of Lund’s charm is the specificity and regionalism of his writing: he’s an Albertan cowboy, and most of his songs are about horses, prairie life, horses, gambling, and a few more about horses. Although he’s most intriguing when writing unconventional narratives about veterinarians’ pharmaceuticals or bull riding, he’s also charming and entertaining on mundane topics like keeping a white shirt clean, or when he’s tugging heartstrings of even the most hardened easterner with a ballad like "Alberta Says Hello." If the tales of military history that peppered his 2008 release (and arguably his masterpiece) Horse Soldier! Horse Soldier! were too ambitious for mainstream listeners, the tales here strike much closer to home—especially the rollicking anthem "Long Gone to Saskatchewan."

If Lund’s lexicon sets him apart from almost everyone else in country music, his ace band would fit in anywhere that appreciates a twangy guitar picker, an upright bass with jazz chops, and a rock’n’roll drummer. Simply put, country music doesn’t get any better than this, in Canada or anywhere else—America is now his for the taking, and this Losin’ Lately Gambler is about to land Lund a big score. (Oct. 8)

Carolyn Mark and NQ Arbuckle – Let’s Just Stay Here (Mint)

This is supposed to be Carolyn Mark’s rock album, so you’ll forgive an old fan for being disappointed in the fact that it clearly does not rock. It does have electric guitars, making it in some ways the opposite of her last album, the all-acoustic Nothing is Free. But there is none of the blood or the sweat and only a few of the tears that one would expect from such a normally gutsy songwriter and performer to shed on a self-professed rock’n’roll album.

By any other standard—say, that of her collaborators here NQ Arbuckle—this wouldn’t matter, and Let’s Just Stay Here would be a pleasant enough slab of mid-tempo CanRock that goes down well with a few pints at the local watering hole. Much of it is mid-tempo and mournful, with little of the larger-than-life personality that Ms. Mark brings to all her other recordings. The one song with any fire in it, "Canada Day Off," is one of her weakest; and the one song that deserves a raucous run-through, a cover of Edmonton cowpunk legends Jr. Gone Wild, could use a serious sense of urgency.

Mark’s finest moments here are on the haunting opening "All Time Low" and the lonely lilt of "Sunday Morning" (not a Velvet Underground cover). The album closes with the title track, one of her loveliest tunes, where Mark—who titled her 2004 album The Pros and Cons of Collaboration—asks the ironic question: “Do compromises all feel one-sided?” In sharing the billing on this album, Mark sounds like she’s been submersed into the NQ Arbuckle band rather than taking charge.

The always-productive Mark already has a new album in the can, a tour-only release with her longtime guitarist Tolan McNeil made at home in Victoria; maybe that contains the magic we’re missing here. (Oct. 29)

Amy Millan – Masters of the Burial (Arts and Crafts)

Perhaps the true strength of a duo is how much their solo work pales in comparison (see: Blue Rodeo). Amy Millan charismatically co-fronts the band Stars with Torquil Campbell; Campbell’s two albums with side project Memphis sounds flaccid in comparison, and now Millan’s second solo album suggests she’s no better on her own.

But at least she carves out a different sound than her main project; in her solo work, she’s much more sombre and dips her toes into traditional sounds, albeit mixed with her decidedly modern sensibilities. And so banjos and mandolins take solos over treated guitars and various electronics, with her femme fatale voice front and centre. The best song here, in fact, is "Day To Day," featuring just Millan’s lullaby voice and a drum beat.

But aesthetics only take her so far; the songs are forgettable, and even the covers of Sarah Harmer and Death Cab For Cutie—though they boast considerably more memorable melodies—fail to leave any impression.

Millan sounds like she’s in bad need of some creative friction to get her juices flowing. (Oct. 1)

Karen O and the Kids – Where the Wild Things Are OST (Universal)

Are you sure Karen’s O doesn’t stand for Orff? In taking on the daunting task of scoring a highly anticipated film version of one of the most beloved children’s books of all time, the singer of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs—whose surname is actually Orzolek—sounds like she enlisted a public school music class to help her out, one where Carl Orff’s approach to music-making is encouraged by empowering every child with a glockenspiel.

There are children involved—how could there not be?—and their role is restricted to helium choirs, with Karen O getting adult help from the rest of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs as well as members of the Dead Weather and Deerhunter. The resultant music evokes the childlike sense of wonder you would expect, one that at once aspires to the epic while being anchored in folkie chords and primitive rock’n’roll. Karen O’s voice is perfectly cast; behind the bravado of her gusto-grabbing role as glammed-up, shrieking punk rock frontwoman has always been a strong singer just as capable of tender acoustic ballads, the likes of which comprise almost half of this album. In its more stirring moments, the album shares similarities with Arcade Fire (whose “Wake Up” was used to great effect in the film’s trailer, although does not appear here) and a more even-keeled version of Danielson’s Broadway-meets-marching-band-meets-art-rock weirdness.

It’s a perfect match for Spike Jonze’s vision of Maurice Sendak’s novel, but what’s even more intriguing is to see what else she’s capable of outside of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. (Oct. 15)

Ohbijou – Beacons (Last Gang)

Forlorn cellos, melancholy moods and autumnal atmospheres combine to create Canadiana folkie art-pop—sound familiar? There is no shortage of great bands mining this territory lately, including Ohbijou’s comrades and collaborators The Acorn, Forest City Lovers, and seemingly dozens of others, compiled on two excellent compilations called Friends in Bellwoods—the bulk of material on which was recorded at Ohbijou’s live/work space. So as hubs of the scene, expectations are high for this, their second album and first to get international distribution.

And they stick to their formula: tasteful and stately string sections, melodic bass, subtle shadings from keyboards, mandolins and drums that all add up to what could be a soundtrack to a wintry NFB documentary. Singer Casey Mecija attempts to stray outside her comfort zone on a couple of tracks, straining to reach for a big emotional moment while the band almost rocks out—but she’s much better off cooing softly with her sister Jenny on harmonies; a belter she’s not. Mecija’s real strength here is her imagistic lyrics; they capture tiny details of gothic Canadiana: thunder and lightning and very, very frightening things like cities and maps aflame, wicked mysteries, black ice, and dying underneath heavy snow.

But although she sings “Bring back wickedness/ bring back temperaments,” the music never really breaks a sweat or suggests anything remotely sinister. Not that it has to, though a few cracks in the ice would go a long way to inject some life into an album that could use some wickedness in its polite, reserved temperament.

Ohbijou and The Acorn play Dublin St. United Church in Guelph this Saturday, October 17. (Oct. 15)

Hope Sandoval & the Warm Inventions – Through the Devil Softly (Nettwerk)

It’s been eight years since Hope Sandoval’s last album, her first solo project. Before that it was another five years since the last album by the lazy, hazy duo Mazzy Starr. The reason for all the long delays? By the sound of this record, it’s because Sandoval has trouble getting out of bed.

No one expects Sandoval to transform into a rip-roarin’ rocker, but Through the Devil Softly not only trudges along at a snail’s pace, but Sandoval sounds as bored as we are. The songs aren’t very strong and the arrangements are drab—with the lone exception of "For the Rest of Your Life," with its sliding bass line, 6/4 time and luminous vibraphone; here, Sandoval bends her notes in bewitching ways, the one and only time she sounds invested in the material.

Otherwise, no matter how lovely and opiated her voice may be, there are plenty of other acts who do this far better (Brightblack Morning Light being the most recent example), often by tapping into the psychedelic mystery that was Mazzy Starr’s specialty. Whoever these Warm Inventions are, they leave Sandoval shivering cold. (Oct. 1)

Spirits – s/t (Sonic Unyon)

Singer/songwriter/guitarist Ian Smith and drummer Nick Skalkos of the Miniatures and new friend Brad Germain of The Marble Index on vocals to indulge in some mid-’80s British new wave circa The Cure or Echo and the Bunnymen, with plenty of acoustic guitars, subtle synths that never steal the spotlight, and soaring vocals courtesy of Germain, who puts his guitar down to focus on full-on singing. Such is the strength of the latter that Germain successfully reaches Bono’s heights on several tracks; early U2 is an admitted influence. The Anglophilia gets a bit much at times, however, especially when Germain adopts a drab Brit accent that becomes downright comical on the track "Cold War." When he plays it straight, as on the surefire pop songs like "When the Sun Gets in My Eyes" or "Heart Pump," Spirits start to forge their own sound, independent of their formidable influences. (Oct. 1)

Two Hours Traffic – Territory (Bumstead)

This Charlottetown power-pop band is known to traffic in summertime singalongs, but Territory is a much more mature and autumnal album, one that exchanges teenage exuberance for more measured reflection. This doesn’t mean a turn down darker corners, necessarily, but their jubilance is now balanced with gravitas, making Territory the most rewarding album of their brief career.

Once again produced by Joel Plaskett, this time out instrumentalist Alec O’Hanley puts down his guitar to focus on keyboards, while singer Liam Corcoran sharpens his songwriting skills and pushes himself vocally, especially when the intensity relents. Which is often—of these 11 tracks, there are really only three that move along at any kind of clip. Much of Territory rides a mid-tempo groove, focuses on melody, and chooses instrumentation carefully; in some respects, Two Hours Traffic are where Spoon where around the time of their early masterpiece Girls Can Tell, when they stopped being the kind of rock band they thought people wanted them to be and just focused on being themselves.

Territory is the kind of album that elevates a promising band to a strong one, with signs of true greatness within easy reach. (Oct. 1)

You Say Party! We Say Die! – XXXX (Paper Bag)

This Vancouver band sing of a love that dare not speak its name. Or print its name, anyway; the track listing and lyric sheet—and the album title itself—routinely replace the word love with XXXX. For a band that started out shouting and shrieking and filled with childish punk naïvete, perhaps speaking the word “love” without irony is still too emotionally raw. And when singer Becky Ninkovic writes lines like “I love your love light,” you might wish she still had her earlier reservations.

But largely, XXXX finds YSPWSD continuing to mature and move beyond their obvious influences—early ’80s post-punk pop, and more recent progenitors like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs or Metric—and develop their own voice, one that is just as comfortable with mid-tempo brooding rock as it is upbeat herky-jerky new wave. The rhythm section is a big part of this, but Ninkovic has also developed considerably as a singer, not just a shouter.

Unlike their early contemporaries The Organ or Controller Controller or Hot Hot Heat, this is a band that, though spawned by a trend at the time, will continue to grow and evolve—partying and death are no longer their only options. (Oct. 8)

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