Friday, February 19, 2010

February '10 reviews

These reviews ran in the Kitchener-Waterloo Record and Guelph Mercury this month.

Briga – Diaspora (Festival)

Balkan music is not only powerful and passionate, but it can also be lightning quick—usually for brass players. Briga is Montreal’s Brigitte Dajczer (Les Gitans de Sarajevo, Geoff Berner), who tackles impossible tempos on her violin with the help of an equally awesome, jazzy band behind her. The production is a bit too pristine for those who like their worldly sounds raw, but the power of the playing is undeniable. And because she needs to take a breather, the second disc here finds her crooning in a French chanson style—it’s somewhat less successful than the instrumentals, but proves that she’s got the whole package. Expect her to be the talk of the folk festival circuit this summer. (Feb. 11)

Briga plays Hugh's Room in Toronto on Feb. 23, with more central Canadian dates in the ensuing weeks.

Download: “Couscousescu,” “Hora Martisorului,” “Qalbi”

Bruno Capinan – Gozo (independent)

There is no doubting Bruno Capinan’s Brazilian roots, even if he made this, his debut album, in Toronto with many of the city’s finest players. But while he sings in Portugese and there’s a very clear influence from bossa nova and tropicalia, Capinan is by no means a traditionalist. And nor is he the kind of artist to simply slap coffeehouse electronic beats onto his indigenous music.

Instead, Capinan charts his own course, with his smooth crooning leading the way through string arrangements, jazz leanings, electronic shadings, and occasional art-rock leanings. The track Astral features a dubby Massive Attack groove, a melancholy violin evoking European cabaret, and a sci-fi theremin thrown in for good measure. Capinan’s anything-goes approach is put to the ultimate test when he transforms Hank Williams’ “Your Cheating Heart” into a whispered rumba—a daring move that doesn’t sound the least bit unnatural in Capinan’s hands.

Apparently just after this album’s release, Capinan headed back to Brazil after seven years in Toronto; that’s our loss, because Gozo is sure to be one of the most inventive and rewarding albums of 2010 to be released in this rock’n’roll country. (Feb. 11)

Download: “Astral,” “Tantas Horas,” “Your Cheating Heart”

Chicago Underground Duo – Boca Negra (Thrill Jockey)

The “Chicago Underground” is much more than a duo; in the past 12 years there have been 11 releases involving the core duo of cornet player Rob Mazurek and percussionist Chad Taylor, along with various players from the infinitely fertile Chicago experimental scene. But it is as a duo that these two flourish and explore the seemingly endless limits of their creativity.

Boca Negra starts subtly, with Mazurek playing little more than glissando scales, and Taylor riding rolling waves on his toms. But by the second track, we’re immersed in what sounds like birdsong and gamelan, and on the hypnotic “Hermeto,” there is neither percussion nor trumpet. The dynamic duo are entirely devoid of any predictability; one minute they’re seemingly entirely esoteric and arrhythmical, the next they’re in a hard funk groove.

Mazurek’s cornet paints with colour more than melody, and much of this album really belongs to Taylor, who has been moonlighting in pop music recently with Iron and Wine and sounds excited to be let loose again here. (Feb. 25)

Download: “Spy on the Floor,” “Confliction,” “Left Hand of Darkness”

Matt Epp – Safe or Free (independent)

This overlooked gem from late 2009 is a lovely introduction to this Christian troubadour from Winnipeg. These songs were written on the road from Newfoundland to Toronto to Mexico to the West Coast, with a lot of time to stare out the window of a passing vehicle and ponder philosophy. Epp’s husky voice works in every setting here, whether it’s just him and his acoustic guitar, fronting a raucous rootsy rock’n’roll band, or harmonizing with guest vocalists Amelia Curran and Eliza Gilkyson (both underrated songwriters in their own right). His songs don’t need much help to shine, but there’s a stellar cast of players here that flesh things out in every direction, including the Waking Eyes’ Rusty Matyas on various duties, including “alienesque spacezoid ambience.” Being the restless soul he is, this promising album suggests Epp is ready to go anywhere and everywhere—both literally and artistically. (Feb. 4)

Download: “This Old House,” “Working Holiday,” “They Won’t Find the Bodies”

Fire in My Bones: Raw, Rare and Otherworldly African-American Gospel 1944-2007 (Tompkins Square)

There are those that think that the path to spiritual enlightenment can only be reached by competing with pop hits to reach the heathens. This album is not for those people.

The subtitle is perfect: this is as raw as gritty gospel gets, made by true believers in tiny congregations, by lonely bluesmen with electric guitars, by full choirs and small vocal groups. Both the vocals and instruments are often too loud or large for the microphones: the organs and guitars are distorted at volumes meant to reach the heavens, and the voices cannot communicate the power and glory of God into the technology of mere mortals.

Compiler Mike McGonigal has gathered 80 tracks, representing various African-American gospel traditions, and spread them out over three discs, purposely avoiding any thematic, geographical or chronological threads. The material from the ’70s isn’t any higher fidelity than that from the ’40s; there are proto-rock’n’roll tracks from the ’50s, and solo blues recordings from the ’80s that sound like they could be 60 years older. Boogie-woogie piano, soul music, fife and drum, blues, country and straight-up preaching all appear here; it’s the diversity, and the mix of the amateurish and the awesome, that make this compilation work.

It’s an embarrassment of riches, of course: this is four hours of music, and it’s way more gospel than even hardcore collectors can digest easily. But once you stray from the canon of the great gospel recordings, Fire in My Bones can fill in all the rest of the blanks. (Feb. 4)

Download: only available on CD

F---ed Up – Couple Tracks: Singles 2002-2009 (Matador/Beggars Banquet)

When this Toronto hardcore punk band snatched the 2008 Polaris Prize for their album Chemistry of Common Life, it shocked mainstream observers. But it was the culmination of almost a decade of work and a prolific recording output.

Most of that output has been captured on seven-inch singles, and it says a lot about F---ed Up’s dedication to the form that this double CD is their second collection of singles.

That makes it an obvious must-have for fans. But more importantly, it presents a side of the band that’s much more exciting than the over-cooked, too-ambitious epic that was Chemistry of Common Life—an album that, despite its acclaim for breaking out of the hardcore genre, seemed to bleed the band dry and neuter their raw power. Here, on the other hand, they’re consistent, concise and leaping out of the speakers like it’s the last three minutes of their life—exactly what punk rock should ideally sound like.

The attempts to diversify beyond punk go no further than a Christmas song (“David Christmas”), incongruous hardcore versions of twee U.K. indie pop songs (“Anorak City”), and incorporating samples of Spanish Civil War movies and Palestinian prisoners—but it all works.

The only fault here is the volume of material. As a vocalist, Damian “Pink Eyes” Abraham doesn’t have the off-stage charisma to carry two CDs worth of material; thankfully, the rest of the band make up for it in ways that isn’t evident on the full-length albums—and it’s easy to compare, as some album tracks appear here in different and drastically improved versions (“No Epiphany”).

Thirty-five years after punk was born by declaring war on bloated album rock one single at a time, F---ed Up aims to balance both worlds—and it’s obvious here that the singles win. (Feb. 18)

Download: “Generation,” “Toronto FC,” “I Don’t Wanna Be Friends With You”

Peter Gabriel – Scratch My Back (Universal)

Peter Gabriel has always seemed to exist in another world: his recordings are always mysterious, high-tech tours-de-force; his stage shows are elaborate and theatrical; his tastes tend to be global and more esoteric than most.

And yet here we find him sitting at a piano with nothing more than a string section behind him, singing stripped-down versions of some of his favourite pop songs. His source material includes some of his contemporaries (Paul Simon, David Bowie, Lou Reed, David Byrne), but also a younger generation of writers (Regina Spektor, Elbow), some of them on small-scale indie labels (Arcade Fire, Bon Iver).

The good news is that Gabriel is in fine voice, and the string arrangements sidestep cliché and revel in the possibilities of pulling the original song apart, as on Radiohead’s “Street Spirit” and the Talking Heads’ “Listening Wind.” The songs that are the least recognizable—like David Bowie’s Heroes—are often the best, and certainly the most revelatory.

The bad news is that every song is dragged to a dead-slow tempo, and Gabriel’s ponderous vocals render some of the lyrics ridiculous—Paul Simon’s “Boy in the Bubble” and the Magnetic Fields’ “Book of Love” in particular. Even though the latter is supposed to be satirical, by making it morbid Gabriel slips into the downright silly. Arcade Fire’s “My Body is a Cage,” despite the stripped down arrangement, manages to be unnecessarily even more bombastic than the original (and that’s saying something).

It doesn’t help that Gabriel pronounces the latter title like “my buddy is a cage.” Some of the songwriters here might say the same about him. (Feb. 25)

Download: "Heroes," "Listening Wind," "Apres Moi"

k.d. lang – Recollection (Universal)
k.d. lang – A Truly Western Experience (Bumstead)

There’s no dispute that k.d. lang was the musical highlight of the Olympic opening ceremonies this year: one of the greatest singers in the world singing one of the greatest songs in the world. And no doubt it helps her career even more that her appearance coincided with a new compilation of her adult-contemporary pop years, one that features not one, but two versions of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” (a song that she herself has called for a moratorium on).

But dial back 22 years and recall, if you will, the opening ceremonies of the 1988 Calgary Winter Games, where a then fairly obscure country singer tore it up with a two-step fiddle tune. It’s easy to forget that, before she had “Constant Craving,” she made her mark on country music by being one of the most bold and brash singers in any genre.

That side of lang—and many more—is heard on the 25th anniversary reissue of her debut album, A Truly Western Experience. Here we hear the rowdy cowpunk (“Bopalena,” “Hanky Panky”), the balladeer (“Busy Being Blue,” “Pine and Stew”), the traditionalist (“Stop Look and Listen”), and even the performance artist (“Hooked on Junk,” “Johnny Get Angry”). Not only is lang on fire throughout, but the first incarnation of her band the Reclines—especially keyboardist Stewart Macdougall—rise to her occasion.

This reissue is enhanced by the two tracks from her debut seven-inch single in 1983 (featuring Amos Garrett on guitar), three live tracks of unreleased cover songs, an early demo, and a bonus DVD with three videos. The 2006 compilation Reintarnation offered a full retrospective of k.d.’s country years, but A Truly Western Experience easily stands apart from everything else lang has ever done.

Recollection is a badly needed compilation of the last 20 years, where lang’s albums have been spotty, and some of her best work has been scattered on soundtracks or charity compilations. So along with the obvious hits, here we get duets with Tony Bennett and Jane Siberry, and covers of the Beatles, Joni Mitchell, and Cole Porter. Most importantly for any serious fan are two long-orphaned soundtrack songs: her stunning duet with the incomparable Roy Orbison on his classic “Crying,” and her own “Barefoot,” the haunting song from her lone starring film role, Salmonberries.

k.d. lang is at a point in her career when she can afford to coast on her reputation alone—a reputation that boasts such frequent accolades as “one of the greatest singers alive today”—and these two releases are welcome peeks at how she earned that reputation, note by note, song by song. (Feb. 25)

Download: “Barefoot,” “Crying,” “Help Me”
Download: “Bopalena,” “Pine and Stew,” Mercy”

Le Loup – Family (Hardly Art)

The most acclaimed album of 2008 was the Fleet Foxes’ self-titled debut, full of folkie vocal harmonies singing gorgeous melodies over unconventional song structures that were still undeniably pop, despite all the banjos involved. In 2009, the most acclaimed album was by freak-folk/electronic-manipulator hippies Animal Collective. Along with sharing a fondness for wildlife monikers, Le Loup takes the best of both acts and spins their own brand of magic. They write stronger melodies than Animal Collective, and are more willing to strip down their songs to one chord than Fleet Foxes, floating on trance-like rhythms from acoustic percussion, and bathing the banjos and tambourines in reverb for full psychedelic effect. And yet for all its adventurism, it’s not as off-kilter as one might expect: there are rousing anthems and many moments of sublime and subtle beauty. Le Loup might be behind the pack when it comes to mass attention now, but they’re already artistically ahead of their peers. (Feb. 4)

Download: “Beach Town,” “Sherpa,” “Forgive Me”

Massive Attack – Heligoland (EMI)

As important and influential as Massive Attack was to the ’90s, there was always something inescapably icy and distant about them—and it wasn’t just the terrible lyrics that tried to be as profound and ominous as the music.

But for whatever reason, they return from a seven-year hiatus—and by saying “they,” that includes returning member Daddy G, who was absent from 2003’s 100th Window—sounding refreshed, relaxed and even warm.

For a band that attempted to fuse British goth mystery with American R&B to create a spooky stoner vibe for the digital age, Heligoland—inexplicably named after the first British-German naval battle of WWI—is looser and has less clinical digital precision, evident in something as simple as the handclaps that punctuate “Paradise Circus,” where guest vocalist Hope Sandoval sounds considerably more earthy (and American?) than most of their other fabled star turns of the past (Sinead O’Connor, the Cocteau Twins’ Elizabeth Fraser).

This time out the guest list includes Tunde Adebimpe of TV on the Radio (a band that owes a small debt to Massive Attack), who does a passable job on the opening “Pray for Rain.” But it’s safe to say that Damon Albarn (Blur, Gorillaz) delivers the worst vocal of his career on the turgid “Saturday Come Slow,” where he warbles a question that he’d really rather we not answer: “do you love me?”

Guy Garvey of Elbow turns in a surprising vocal performance on the skitterish, abstract Bjork-like beats of “Flat of the Blade,” a track that takes everyone involved admirably outside their comfort zone.

It’s consistent collaborator and reggae great Horace Andy who really steps up, as always, on “Girl I Love You,” a song that’s much more inspiring than its title, and is in fact one of the strongest tracks in Massive Attack’s entire discography—as is the funky fantasia of “Atlas Air,” where vintage organs replace the synth sheen that’s been a staple of the group’s sound.

Apparently plenty of tracks and high-profile collaborations were left on the cutting room floor during Heligoland’s long gestation period; with the exception of the Albarn track, it’s obvious that the meticulous editing process paid off for these veteran innovators. (Feb. 11)

Download: “Atlas Air,” “Girl I Love You,” “Splitting the Atom”

Pit er Pat – The Flexible Entertainer (Thrill Jockey)

Despite their delicate name, Pit er Pat make a lot of noise for a duo. Not loud, obnoxious, dense noise—but heavy grooves created with both live drums and an MPC drum machine, disorienting electronics, and simple guitar lines. Much of the aptly titled The Flexible Entertainer continues to draw from dub, industrial music, surf guitar, experimental rock and psychedelic electronics, with plenty of space left for two people to pull it off live—this album was written for a specific tour after they lost their third member, and they’ve lost none of their complexity or sense of adventure in the process.

Some listeners hear more hip-hop influences on this album, part of a prolific discography that has largely existed outside of any musical genre. And that’s true on a track like “Water,” which would work perfectly as the backdrop to one of The Clipse’s more ominous narratives. But no matter what influences are absorbed by remaining members Butchy Fuego and Fay Davis-Jeffers, their unique sound remains rock solid. (Feb. 4)

Download: “Water,” “Chavez Ravine,” “Specimen”

Sade – Soldier of Love (Sony)

Listening to the title track and first single off Sade’s first album in 10 years, she sounds tougher than she has since her debut album—not that she was ever particularly tough, but most of her material doesn’t cut the mustard outside the cozy confines of the bedroom. “Soldier of Love” boasts a bigger beat than we’re used to hearing from Sade, with chunky electric guitar accents and a cinematic quality that could almost pass it off as a James Bond theme.

Too bad it’s a red herring: much of this album is far too pacifist and passive, more sedative than seductive. And not just the grooves, as her lyrics are often equally lazy: “My heart is a lonely warrior/ it’s been to war.” The less said about the wretched “Babyfather” the better, but it is worth quoting once: “Child don’t you know/ your daddy’s love comes with a lifetime guarantee?” Too bad the album doesn’t come with a money-back guarantee. (Feb. 11)

Download: “Soldier of Love,” “Bring Me Home,” “The Moon and the Sky”

Gil Scott-Heron – I’m New Here (XL)

Everyone loves a comeback story—especially when it’s as potent as this one, in which a once vibrant and powerful political poet survives horrific addiction issues and federal incarceration, resurfacing as a weathered shell of a man reflecting on the losses and loves of his life. And intriguingly, he does so against a sonic backdrop that pulls him both back to acoustic blues and forward to dark electronic beats and textures that make his death’s-door delivery that much more compelling.

In 1971, after publishing two novels, the 21-year old Gil Scott-Heron debuted his combination of jazz, funk, poetry and social justice with the iconic song “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” and later landmarks like “Winter in America” and “B-Movie.” The last 30 years have not been as kind to him, to say the least, and hearing him croak through “New York Is Killing Me”—with its line “eight million people and I didn’t have a single friend”—is heartbreaking.

As is the rest of I’m New Here. Unlike Rick Rubin’s recordings with Johnny Cash in the twilight of that great artist’s life, this sounds more like resignation than resilience. Heron talks of being circled by vultures (“Your Soul and Mine”), of dealing with the devil (a cover of Robert Johnson’s “Me and the Devil”), and a “savage beast that once soothed his brain” (“The Crutch”). The lone line of solace on the album comes in the title track (a Bill Callahan cover), where he insists: “No matter how far wrong you’ve gone/ you can always turn around.”

Of the 15 tracks, only eight are actual songs as opposed to short spoken interludes, and three of those are covers—albeit well chosen by producer (and XL label head) Richard Russell, who coaxed the album into existence.

Russell gives Heron the bare minimum of instrumental backing, in either acoustic or electronic settings—allowing all the focus to sit solely on Heron’s cracked vocals. This is both for better and worse, as Heron’s profundity has waned considerably, with the lone exception of “Running”: “It’s easier to run/ easier than staying and finding out you’re the only one who didn’t run.”

It’s a welcome sign of life for this once towering figure, who had become a ghost of a man. And yet it’s as uncomfortable as it is curious; the only real reward is hearing him once again stand tall and proud and back from the dead. (Feb. 18)

Download: “Me and the Devil,” “New York is Killing Me,” “Running”

Yukon Blonde – s/t (Nevado)

The appeal of this Kelowna band is entirely Fleeting—not in the ephemeral sense, but in the breezy West Coast pop sound whose 35-year lineage extends from Fleetwood Mac to Fleet Foxes. Vocals are at the forefront, shimmering guitars colour every corner, and classic rock chops put some muscle behind the arrangements. More importantly, every song features hook-heavy earworms. And even though Yukon Blonde never stray from their sunshiny sound, the songs themselves don’t stick to three chords and standard verse-chorus-verse structure. There is much to love here for fans of Sloan or My Morning Jacket, and don’t be one bit surprised if, by the end of 2010, Yukon Blonde become the biggest indie pop band from B.C. since the New Pornographers. (Feb. 18)

Download: “Blood Cops,” “Kumiko Song,” “Wind Blows”

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