Friday, October 09, 2009

Sept 09 reviews

The following reviews appeared in the Kitchener-Waterloo Record and the Guelph Mercury.

Scott H. Biram – Something’s Wrong/ Lost Forever (Bloodshot)

Scott H. Biram calls himself a “dirty old one-man band,” and here he’s credited in the liner notes with, among other things, “footstomp, knockin’, holler, bitch, moan, heart, liver, drive.” Such is the enormity of his presence that you barely notice that precious few of his friends show up in the studio to lend a hand.

Biram growls, grunts, hollers and has his way with blues, country and primal punk rock, less interested in any kind of tradition as he is in squeezing blood from every genre he touches. As the dual album title suggests, he sounds like a desperate and at times despondent man; on the song “Judgment Day” he’s running out of time in a world about to explode, and he’s got a few scores to settle before that happens. When he slows down for a ballad, he’s “Still Drunk, Still Crazy, Still Blue.”

Biram closes the album with a ferocious a cappella take on Leadbelly’s “Go Down Ol’ Hannah,” making it entirely his own. (Sept. 24)

Cuff the Duke – Way Out Here (Noble)

One of Canada’s best-loved roots rock bands heads to Greg Keelor’s farm to make a largely acoustic album, marking a new maturity and laid-back vibe. Sound familiar? Comparisons to Blue Rodeo’s Five Days in July, the 1993 album that guaranteed that band’s longevity and gave their career a new lease on life, might be inevitable, even if the parallels to Cuff the Duke don’t entirely line up; for starters, Way Out Here doesn’t shy away from loud electric guitars when necessary.

But seven years after their arrival on the scene, and with the first album to take full advantage of their current line-up (witness the glorious four-part harmony on opening track “You Were Right”), Cuff the Duke are sounding less like a band who have something to prove, and more like the cozy and consistent CanRock stalwarts they were born to be, singing lyrics like “growing old with you my love is something I don’t fear.”

Not that they’re entirely in Lightfoot territory, although their songwriting continues to improve along more conventional lines. Keelor—no stranger to elongated psychedelic jams—knows well enough to let them stretch their wings and milk the mood of his idyllic rural retreat, allowing the band’s new in-house guitar wizard Dale Murray a chance to shine.

The greatest revelation here, however, is vocalist Wayne Petti, who has outgrown the nasal voice of his youth and is stretching his range in both directions, to its depths on broken and hushed lullabies, and to soaring heights everywhere else.

There are no new directions here—it’s hard to imagine this band getting more diverse than they did their classic debut album—just a sign of a great band growing old. And if the Keelor connection puts them in touch with Blue Rodeo fans wondering why their heroes don’t make albums as good as this one anymore, all the better. (Sept. 17)

Amelia Curran – Hunter Hunter (Six Shooter)

Amelia Curran sings with the voice of a perpetual heartbreak victim—but not the kind who is willing to wallow. Instead, this Maritime songwriter sounds resilient and comforting. No matter what your pain may be, she’s felt that and more and lived to sing about it. While her Sunday morning hangover songs are her forte, her bare bones arrangements are more diverse than surface impressions. “The Mistress” has almost a hip-hop cadence to it; there’s nothing at all missing from Curran’s solo acoustic guitar accompaniment, but there’s a barnburning cover version of this song waiting to happen at festival workshop sometime next summer. The songwriting here is a step beneath her stellar 2008 album War Brides, but even when she’s not at the top of her game, Amelia Curran makes a formidable impression. (Sept. 3)

John Fogerty – Blue Ridge Rangers Rides Again (Verve)

John Fogerty may have helped invent country rock with Creedence Clearwater Revival, but he hasn’t often dressed himself entirely in fiddles, pedal steel guitars and honky-tonk rhythms. Of course, it’s a natural fit for his voice—which hasn’t aged a bit—and it’s a safe bet that many of his original fans won’t consider this album a left turn in the least.

In fact, it’s the follow-up to his very first post-CCR solo album in 1973, which was also a collection of covers. Here, Fogerty borrows from John Prine, John Denver, Buck Owens and others—yet he never goes for obvious choices, and any one of these songs could just have easily come from the pen of Fogerty himself, who is undeniably one of the great American songwriters of the last 50 years.

He gets some help from famous friends and fans: two of the Eagles sing on Rick Nelson’s “Garden Party,” and Bruce Springsteen chimes in on an Everly Brothers song. But this is John Fogerty we’re talking about—those guys are mere window dressing. This is Fogerty’s back porch party, and we’re all lucky enough to be able to eavesdrop. (Sept. 17)

Joe Henry – Blood From Stars (Anti)

If you had happened to read Joe Henry’s self-penned liner notes before listening to his latest album, you might have serious hesitations about even removing the CD from its case. Being the hyperliterate sound geek that he is (and producer for hire), Henry attempts to wax eloquent about the snare drum used on this recording, describing it as sounding like “Fats Waller taking a fall down a flight of stairs into a damp alley, bottle caps stuck to his heels, cape flapping and late to a beginner’s flamenco lesson already in progress.” If you ever thought music critics were overwrought blowhards, musicians aren’t much better.

Needless to say, Joe Henry takes himself very seriously. And why wouldn’t he? He’s a historian and scholar of classic American music: jazz, country, blues, gospel, rock’n’roll and the folk tradition. And on too many of his recent albums, he has seemed a bit too impressed with himself: the music was overly mannered, the lyrics dense, the vocals overly affected.

On Blood From Stars, Henry learns to let go and appreciate the simpler things. After spending much of the last several years coaching comebacks from soul great Solomon Burke and New Orleans legend Allen Toussaint (see 2009’s fabulous The Bright Mississippi), Henry strips his songs down to the bare essentials. He’s still using plenty of chords lifted from early 20th-century standards, but he makes them sound as natural as a three-chord blues or gospel standard, with the help of an all-star band that includes guitarist Marc Ribot, bassist David Piltch, and drummer Jay Bellerose. Henry’s saxophonist son Levon also proves himself worthy alongside such storied session greats. Henry Sr.’s singing is more powerful than ever, perhaps because this is the first batch of songs he’s written in a long time that one could actually envision other people interpreting. (Sept. 10)

Inglourious Basterds OST – Various Artists (Warner)

Quentin Tarantino is getting a lot of slack over his latest film, for the fact that 15 years into his career, he’s still recycling old movie motifs and paying obvious homages instead of creating his own vision. That’s certainly true of his approach to soundtracks as well: it’s one thing to repurpose old pop songs for a new film, but it’s a whole other level of graverobbing to take pieces of music from other soundtracks and use them in your own movie.

Surely Tarantino can afford to hire the renowned and prolific Ennio Morricone (The Mission, Clint Eastwood’s westerns), but instead he uses four of his pieces from different films here. Throw in a couple of wildly inappropriate funk and pop songs that are out of time for this World War Two film (both of which—David Bowie’s "Cat People" and Billy Preston’s "Slaughter"—are the theme songs to other films, of course), and it’s obvious that, on top of being lazy and cheap, Tarantino is doing this just to anger purists.

Intentions aside, there is some great music here—much of it unknown to most music fans, and Tarantino deserves credit for his taste. But, like his recent films, having good taste doesn’t mean he knows how to glue everything together without it sounding/looking like a tossed-off found-object art project. Maybe that’s the point of his basterd-ization. (Sept. 3)

Os Mutantes – Haih Or Amortecedor (Anti)

Brazil’s Tropicalia movement of the late ’60s is associated with bossa nova, psychedelic pop and folk music—but the scene’s legendary freaks Os Mutantes are first and foremost a rock band, even though they draw influences from all over the musical map. After over a decade of renewed interest in their original recordings, they reformed in 2006 and this marks their first album of original material in 35 years.

And like nearly every similar comeback album, it can’t possibly live up to expectations or retain the magic of their early records. Yet it does show that bandleader Sergio Dias Baptista is still restless and unwilling to take his music in any predictable direction. He is just as playful as ever—at times downright goofy—and working with old peers Tom Ze and Jorge Ben, who provide him with some of the stronger numbers here. Normally, comeback records with star-studded cameos are a bad idea, but there are more than a few occasions when one wishes Baptista had called on some of his many famous fans in younger generations to lend a hand.

No matter—Os Mutantes are back on the road again, and this may well be the beginning of an entirely new chapter in their storied career. (Sept. 10)

RickWhiteAlbum – 137 (Blue Fog)

Rick White’s discography is so vast that only the certifiably insane would bother to collect from every last corner of his prolific output, which began with Eric’s Tip in the early ’90s, though to his work as Elevator, and now various solo recordings. At his best, White is a master of hazy psychedelic rock and lazy lo-fi folk, with a consistent aesthetic that’s attracted Greg Keelor and the Sadies. That association led to the collaborative project The Unintended, a band that proved how White is at his best when working with others and not left to his own devices in the studio.

That said, 137 is the most focused that his solo work has been in years. In many ways the haze has lifted, due in part to digital recording and the absence of tape hiss, but White also appears to be in a headspace where the curtains have been allowed to part, sunlight is shining into his studio, and the fog has lifted. Certainly, the spookiness is still there, but it sounds like White has crawled out of a rut—even if, at 21 songs, it’s obvious that White still hasn’t acquired editing skills. Both his acoustic and electric guitar playing—and his trippy production aesthetic—have stepped up considerably here; they survive even the more superfluous songs. (Sept. 24)

Tinariwen – Imidiwan: Companions (Outside)

Like the Arctic Monkeys, Tinariwen also recorded their latest album in the desert. Except for Tinariwen, that’s where they actually live: in the southern Sahara, bordering Mali, Niger, and Algeria. And this, their fourth album, was recorded by setting up a generator and recording equipment outdoors in the desert and in the bush and around campfires; this is how they played all of their earliest gigs 20 years ago, and is still the way they perform for the Touareg communities that spawned them.

Their 2007 North American breakthrough Water is Life sounded, however subtly, more Western, with the connections between African guitar music, American blues, and hard rock clearly on display. Imidiwan is just as electric as its predecessor, but it is languid and with more emphasis on vocals than on guitar solos. This is desert blues for dark nights, sung by men who’ve endured 30 years of displacement and only now sound like they’ve found their home. (Sept. 3)

Rachelle Van Zanten – Where Your Garden Grows (

Rachelle Van Zanten doesn’t have much of a profile in this part of the country, but that doesn’t make her a newcomer. The B.C. native grew up playing bluegrass, fell into ’90s rock in her university years, and was seduced by the blues after moving to Edmonton. Her first serious band, Painting Daisies, was named Entertainer of the Year at the 2001 Prairie Music Awards—they beat out Nickelback and Jann Arden.

The depth of that experience all comes through on this, her second solo album, which opens with a chorus of “do you want to go steady?/ do you want to get heavy?” There’s no question that Van Zanten has slide guitar chops—which landed her an opening slot on a Derek Trucks tour—but most of Where Your Garden Grows is about her development as a songwriter and arranger. While the blues influence is strong, her melodies draw from a variety of non-Western sources, as well as some of the artier alternative songwriters of the ’90s such as Mary Timony.

Van Zanten’s talents are enough to set this album apart from much else going on in Canada right now; she also got some nice finishing touches courtesy of mixing engineer Tchad Blake (Tom Waits, Los Lobos) that make everything that much tastier. (Sept. 3)

Rufus Wainwright – Milwaulkee At Last (Universal)

While he’s been busy working on his first opera—which gets its North American debut in Toronto at next spring’s Luminato festival—Rufus Wainwright releases this, his first official live album. Of his own material, that is; his last release was his re-creation of Judy Garland’s Live at Carnegie Hall album. And it’s not like there’s a shortage of live Wainwright material floating around; between bonus discs and iTunes EPs and DVDs and documentaries.

That said, Milwaulkee at Last starts off strong and swinging with the title track from 2007’s Release the Stars—the album that forms the bulk of this set—but after four songs, Wainwright dips into the more maudlin and plodding part of his repertoire, never to return for air. Considering what a joyous live show he usually gives, this set does a disservice to his overall body of work, failing as a stand-alone live album and looking more like a stopgap than anything else.

But that’s just the stand-alone 10-song CD version, of course. This being Rufus, you could also opt for the deluxe version with full-length concert DVD and bonus EP, or the stand-alone DVD version, or—surely there must be a picture book or documentary coming soon, no? (Sept. 17)

The XX – s/t (Young Turks)

For a band that makes such wonderfully ghostly pop music, it’s entirely apt that The XX (not to be confused with Dutch punk band The Ex) sound like zombies struck them on the way to the studio: it’s hard to imagine a more deadpan duo than this.

Yet that’s part of their charm, and rather than detached ennui, singer/guitarist Romy Madley Croft—who bears a slight vocal resemblance to Amy Millan of Stars—sounds like she’s a recovering misanthrope who’s only just begun to seek sunlight and redemption, suddenly alive to the wonder of the world. This makes her a perfect foil for the low moans emanating from her bassist, Oliver Sim, who sounds like he recorded his vocal parts face down in a pillow.

All four members of The XX are 20 years old, which means they likely didn’t grow up with the influence of New Order (whose bass lines are echoed in Croft’s guitar lines, which are bathed in enough reverb to satisfy Daniel Lanois) or—on a more obscure note, but a reference that comes up often—the cult band Young Marble Giants (who were equally sparse and spooky). It also makes it remarkable how complete and satisfying this is, for a debut album; they’ve arrived with their own sound and 11 songs that leave you insatiable for more—especially when Croft sings: “I want to drown whenever you leave/ teach me gently/ how to breathe.” (Sept. 17)

Yo La Tengo – Popular Songs (Matador)
The Clean – Mister Pop (Merge)

Talk about—pop music? Any artist coy enough to use Popular Songs or Mister Pop in their album title is likely too coy and knowing to actually make popular music in the literal definition of the term. Note: U2’s 1997 album Pop is widely regarded as the stinker—artistically and commercially—of their entire career.

But Yo La Tengo and The Clean—both of whom love droning organs, fuzzy guitars and deadpan vocals—aren’t under any illusions about commercial breakthroughs, even though both are writing some of the catchiest melodies of their storied careers. Yo La Tengo have been a band for 25 years; The Clean for 30. The new albums by each will be pleasant comforts to longtime fans—no radical reinventions here—and likely to each other as well, as the two acts have often collaborated and toured together.

In many respects, New Zealand’s The Clean haven’t aged a bit; Mister Pop sounds like the kind of ’80s college rock album that they never made, as they sat out most of the ’80s while their influence seeped into younger bands, including Yo La Tengo. Mister Pop recalls the heyday of Robyn Hitchcock, Lou Reed, and early R.E.M. Psychedelic excursions on tracks like “Simple Fix” and “Tensile,” or the long, slow reveal of the violin-driven “Moonjumper,” all sound perfectly at ease beside the paisley pop of “Are You Really On Drugs” and the surprisingly catchy chorus spun from the title “In the Dreamlife U Need a Rubber Soul.”

Yo La Tengo cover much of the same ground on this, their twelfth album, though they stretch further back to delve into ’60s pop more than they ever have before, either by lifting a string-section intro directly from the Four Tops, or riding a Booker T groove with some Zombies pop on top in the obtusely titled “Periodically Double or Triple.” It’s these pop songs, aptly enough, where Popular Songs succeeds the most; attempts at epic jams, of both the noisy and somnambulant varieties, are belaboured and tiresome. Thankfully, those three tracks—comprising half an hour of this 72-minute album—are tacked on to the back; if you consider them extraneous bonus material, you still have a regular album’s worth of material that stands with Yo La Tengo’s finest hours. (Sept. 10)

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