Tuesday, March 23, 2010

March '10 reviews

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

Beach House – Teen Dream (Sub Pop)

Besnard Lakes – Are the Roaring Night (Outside)
jj – No. 3 (Jagjaguwar)

Dream states know no borders, and in another plane of consciousness, these three acts could well be neighbours, instead of solitary silos residing in Baltimore, Montreal and Gothenburg, Sweden, respectively. The Besnard Lakes try to aim for transcendence through swirling layers of guitars; jj eschew guitars almost entirely; Beach House use whatever combination gets them to their hazy destination the quickest.

“Quick” is not a word associated with anything Beach House has ever done. But for this, their first album for a larger indie label and consequently their first conscious bid for a larger audience, they’ve stepped out of the somnambulant shadows and into the sunlight. In doing so, they sound suspiciously like their new Sub Pop peers Fleet Foxes, Low and Band of Horses—and yet even though you’ve heard this sound plenty in recent years, Teen Dream captures it beautifully with a Brian Wilson touch that utilizes vocal harmony textures and elevates lo-fi innovation to illusions of high-tech gloss.

It also underscores how apt their band name is: every cymbal here sounds like a crashing wave, and there’s a woozy, almost seasick element in the way the guitars and organs bend in and out of tune on a track like “Norway.” It all adds up to a lovely spring thaw album.

The Besnard Lakes also make dreamy, languid music—though they like to do so with their amps cranked to punishing levels. Soaring harmonies, big guitar riffs and a lurching rhythm section are obviously reaching for a Big Statement—and occasionally they succeed, at least more than they have on earlier albums; Roaring Night is easily their catchiest, most accessible work to date, made with the help of their equally epic Montreal neighbours in Stars and the Dears.

And yet much of it sounds stuck in a similar groove, one where everyone in the band chugs along on plodding eighth-note rhythms that stubbornly refuse to build any tension: everything, no matter how lovely, just sits there, waiting for something to happen. When it breaks out of the lethargy—as on the appropriately titled “And This is What We Call Progress”—the Besnard Lakes finally begin to roar. There are delicate moments as well—like “Chicago Train” with its shades of Sigur Ros, but that’s when Jace Lacek’s falsetto stretches toward the ridiculous rather than the rapturous.

Swedish duo jj are as light as the Besnard Lakes are heavy; there are many moments here where pillowy synths and featherweight vocals veer too close to new age pop, or where the lead female vocalist sounds like she’s taken her own metaphor seriously: “Take me away like I’ve overdosed on heroin.”

The ESL lyrics are by far the biggest distraction on this otherwise perfectly pleasant new wave desert island fantasy; thankfully, that’s not true on the powerful, sombre opening track “My Life,” where the narrator is a survivor—not of her own struggles, but of the death that surrounds her. Maybe it’s drugs, maybe it’s a plague, maybe it’s a natural disaster—whatever it is, she’s still standing, alone, and bewildered by her fortune, if in fact surviving is good fortune at all. No wonder the rest of the album sounds like twee escapism; there’s a serious sadness at the core of every song here, no matter how sweet it may sound. (K-W Record, March 25)

For Beach House, download (iTunes, amazon.com): “Zebra,” “Norway,” “Lover of Mine”

For Besnard Lakes, download (iTunes, eMusic, amazon.com): “Like the Ocean Like the Innocent Pt. 2,” “And This is What We Call Progress,” “Albatross”

For jj, download (iTunes, eMusic): “My Life,” “Let Go,” “Into the Light”

Jully Black – The Black Book (Universal)

Canada’s ballsy, brash soul diva is back bursting with inspiration—or at least inspirational slogans, which are peppered throughout the CD booklet (i.e. “What you project is what you’ll reflect”). That confidence bursts through every track here, where Black once again proves her mettle: part Tina Turner, part Mary J. Blige, and ready to straddle the worlds of pop, rock and R&B by putting her own stamp on each. When she promises “I’ll Rock It,” she certainly does, with heavy ’80s electric guitar riffs that recall vintage Michael Jackson; on “Recalculate,” she takes aim at the Killers’ anthemic rock territory. There are times when her motivational-speaker tendencies get distracting (“The Time of Your Life,” “Glass Ceiling”), but perhaps we shouldn’t expect anything less from such a larger-than-life personality. (K-W Record, March 4)

Download (iTunes, puretracks.com, amazon.com): “Running,” “Share My World,” “She’s Out There”

Johnny Cash – American VI: Ain’t No Grave (Universal)

Johnny Cash has been dead for seven years now. What we thought was the final installment of his pivotal American Recordings series came out four years ago. Here, of course, we hear him teamed up once again—at this point, one would hesitate to say for the last time—with producer Rick Rubin and a small cast of sympathetic players. The first words we hear him sing are “there ain’t no grave can hold my body down.”

Even the biggest Johnny Cash fan has to ask themselves: dear God, isn’t this enough already? Haven’t we been put through the emotional ringer over the past 15 years listening to Cash sing songs of mortality with what has sounded like his final breaths, to only now be subjected to him haunting us from the grave?

Yes, of course. And you’ll be forgiven if you abstain from this Cash-in. Yet Ain’t No Grave is actually one of the strongest albums of the series, primarily because of the consistency of its vision. The other albums were too often buoyed by covers of either seemingly incongruous songwriters (Trent Reznor, Depeche Mode) or tired and hokey chestnuts from both the country and pop worlds (“Danny Boy,” “Bridge Over Trouble Water”); comparatively, this one plays it straight.

Ain’t No Grave was recorded in the few months before his own passing and after the death of his beloved wife, June Carter, who pulled him out of addiction and gave him a reason to live for the last 40 years of his life.

And so there’s no room for fooling around or gimmicky stunts: the song choice is impeccable, even if it is ridden with clichés about how “I know it’s over/ but life goes on/ and this whole world will keep on turning.” Though the man was dying and his voice is weary, there isn’t a hit of resignation anywhere in these 10 songs and half-hour of music.

Johnny Cash has been gone long enough that we don’t feel obligated to champion each final album as a summation of his legacy; and God knows (even if Rick Rubin doesn’t) that there was more than a few filler tracks on those final albums. That makes Ain’t No Grave all the more powerful: what could easily (and literally) have been squeezing the last breaths out of a dead man is instead a fitting epitaph that stands alone, independent of its backstory. Johnny Cash died more than a legend; he was still an artist until the end. (K-W Record, March 4)

Download (iTunes, amazon.com, puretracks.com): “Can’t Help But Wonder Where I’m Bound,” “Cool Water,” “I Don’t Hurt Anymore”

Jason Collett – Rat a Tat Tat (Arts and Crafts)
Zeus – Say Us (Arts and Crafts)

It didn’t take long for the students to overtake the master—if in fact any such role-playing ever existed in the relationship between veteran Toronto songwriter Jason Collett and his young backing band, Zeus. They recorded Collett’s fourth album together, the primary strength of which is the arrangements and performances. And on their debut album, Zeus boldly announce themselves as classic rockers of the highest order, seasoned songwriters and players who exude enthusiasm for their favourite artists of decades past, audaciously managing to scale many of the same heights themselves.

Neither act would ever be accused of doing anything original; both are decidedly comfort food. Yet oddly enough, it’s Collett who reaches for lyrical clichés and musical metaphors that are usually the crutch of wide-eyed rookies; Zeus’s lyrics are inconsequential, but never distracting—their music does all the talking. Such are the band’s strengths that they overshadow Collett on his own record; even though the songs are a step up from his somewhat disappointing 2008 album Here’s to Being Here, he’s still adopting an affected drawl that’s ultimately distracting from his other charms as a performer.

Say Us, on the other hand, oozes charm—as well as almost every classic rock signifier imaginable: harmonized guitar leads, reggae drops, honky-tonk pianos, full-throated four-part harmonies, over-driven organs, sugary sweet pop songs and raging rockers. Three songwriters help ensure there’s no monotony from track to track, or even within each track itself; it’s obvious that their performing and production work outside Zeus itself has made them acute listeners and keen observers of minute detail. Say Us sounds like every one of your favourite records made between 1967 and 1977, without ever sounding like any one in particular—the one exception being the closing guitar solo on “At the Risk of Repeating,” which is far too close to The Band’s “It Makes No Difference.”

Zeus will be performing with and without Jason Collett (along with peers Bahamas) on tour across North America this month. (K-W Record, March 11)

For Jason Collett, download (iTunes, eMusic, zunior.com, puretracks.com, amazon.com): “Lake Superior,” “Love is a Chain,” “Rave On Sad Songs”

For Zeus, download (iTunes, eMusic, zunior.com, puretracks.com, amazon.com): “How Does it Feel,” “The Renegade,” “I Know”

Four Tet – There is Love in You (Domino)
Pantha du Prince – Black Noise (Rough Trade)

There’s a track on the new Four Tet album called “Circling,” and unfortunately that’s all that Kieran Hebden seems to be doing on every track here: adrift and hesitant to lay anchor.

Admittedly, a degree of repetition is to be expected from an electronic music artist who is clearly moving toward techno forms, no matter how abstract. Except that Four Tet’s discography has always set itself apart from his peers who are content to let the beats do all the work, with any additional textures mere window dressing. Hebden, on the other hand, drew heavily on jazzy beats, found sounds, sampled folk instrumentation and delicate sonic layering that was at once experimental yet entrancing and welcoming. So while there are elements of Four Tet’s finest work here, Hebden mostly manages to sound like he’s stuck in a locked groove, his once eclectic pallet somewhat stifled.

That’s not the case for German electronic artist Pantha du Prince, aka Hendrick Weber, who definitely owes a debt to Four Tet for taking exotic acoustic sounds and rendering them unrecognizable while setting them to a chilled-out beat. Pantha du Prince comes from more of a German minimalist techno bent than Four Tet’s downtempo funk, but either way there is much breadth to be discovered on this, his third album.

Titled Black Noise, there’s nothing particularly dark nor noisy about it; Weber works with vivid colours conjured from electric guitars, subtle synth sounds, gamelans and bells that coalesce in an evocative, cinematic landscape—even on the tracks that are more obviously designed for a dance floor. The one time he stumbles is when Noah Lennox of Animal Collective shows up to sing on “Stick to My Side”; in the middle of an exotic sound world devoid of signposts, Lennox is incongruously conventional and utterly disposable—which can’t be said about any other aspect of Black Noise. (K-W Record, March 11)

For Four Tet, download (iTunes, eMusic, amazon.com): “Sing,” “Plastic People,” “She Just Likes to Fight”

For Pantha du Prince, download (iTunes, eMusic, amazon.com): “Bohemian Forest,” “Im Bann,” “Satellite Snyper”

Gigi – Maintenant (Tomlab/Sonic Unyon)
Fanshaw – Dark Eyes (Mint)
Abramson Singers – s/t (White Whale)

Gigi, Fanshaw and the Abramson Singers all make Sunday morning hangover music—which couldn’t be timelier, now that the world’s eyes have turned away from their shared hometown of Vancouver after two weeks of non-stop partying. Life goes on with small everyday pleasures—like each of these low-key debut albums, each of which rallies Vancouver artists together to sing in perfect harmony.

Gigi is not a band as much as it is a studio project, one steered by producer Colin Stewart (Black Mountain, Veda Hille) after he acquired some plate reverb units that inspired him to make ’60s-style Phil Spector-ish recordings, featuring group harmonies and large bands playing live in the studio. He enlisted songwriter Nick Krgovich (P:ano, No Kids) to pen the songs, and various guest singers to both take lead turns and join the choir.

As a genre experiment and period piece, the songs are successfully charming, and even at their saddest, there’s still sunshine thanks to the ebullience of the performances. The lead vocals tend toward the fey, but everyone else in the room gives it their all. The arrangements are rich, and there’s a clearly audible difference in hearing the band play live; the room ambience is extremely effective and the reverb plates are put to good use; Stewart ensured he got his money’s worth. Fans of vintage pop revivalists like Jens Lekman and Camera Obscura—or even Amy Winehouse—will be tickled pink; there are also perhaps-not-unintended parallels to the Langley Schools Music Project, the ’70s recording of a Vancouver-area children’s choir singing the pop songs of the day, which became a cult favourite several years back.

Vancouver seems to love choirs; Olivia Fetherstonhaugh is part of an indie collective called the Choir Practice, and records solo under the name Fanshaw, which is a more solitary, insular project. There are times when she sounds dark and gothic like her Vancouver neighbours Lightning Dust; at others she recalls PJ Harvey’s more spooky and sublime moments; sometimes she crafts drowsy, languorous country music; other tracks are dead ringers for U.K. newcomer Bat for Lashes. Fetherstonhaugh has a compelling voice that could work in just about any setting, but it’s her haunting songwriting that make Dark Eyes much more than just a promising debut.

Leah Abramson decided to start a female choir after developing tendonitis and being unable to play guitar, and though her eponymous band does feature sparse and almost ghostly instrumentation, the angelic four-to-eight-part harmonies are front and centre. This is definitely a 3-a.m. album, rich with shadows and suggestion. Its all-too-brief running time, at less than half an hour, is hardly enough to sustain us until daybreak; hopefully this visitation from the Abramson Singers is more than a fleeting dream. (K-W Record, March 4)

For Gigi, download (iTunes, eMusic, amazon.com): “Alone at the Pier,” “Won’t Someone Tell Me,” “Strolling Past the Old Graveyard”

For Fanshaw, download (iTunes): “Nobody,” “Strong Hips,” “Diana”

For Abramson Singers, download (zunior.com, iTunes, eMusic, amazon.com): “Take a Camera,” “Fool’s Gold,” “Trucker’s Prayer”

Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba – I Speak Fula (Next Ambiance/Sub Pop)

Music from Mali has been one of the biggest African cultural exports of late, led by the hotshot guitarists in Tinariwen and Amadou Bagayoko (of Amadou and Mariam); both owe a large debt to the late Ali Farka Toure, who just released the last album recorded before his death.

Bassekou Kouyate doesn’t play guitar; he plays a hand-held lute called the ngoni, which he attacks with the virtuosity of any great guitar god, not necessarily with the delicacy associated with the ngoni’s closest cousin, the kora. Unlike most ngoni players, Kouyate plays it standing up and even occasionally through effects like a wah-pedal; he’s also designed different models for members of his group, resulting in a new string band set-up that contributes to his original sound.

Kouyate is a relentless noodler, and yet paradoxically the music is never unnecessarily busy or frenetic—even though his tempos are quicker than most of the languorous Mali music we’ve heard. Percussion is minimal but effective; the group’s harmony vocals are lovely. Guests like Vieux Farka Toure (son of Ali) and kora master Toumani Diabate are on board mainly for marquee value; Kouyate is the undisputed star of this show. (K-W Record, March 18)

Download (iTunes, amazon.com): “Musow (For Our Women),” “Torin Torin,” “Ladon”

Mumford and Sons – Sigh No More (Universal)
Schomberg Fair – Gospel (Hi-Hat)

The U.K. is witnessing something it hasn’t seen in at least 40 years: a group of good-looking young men playing all-acoustic instruments at foot-stomping speed and singing with sunny four-part harmonies, all of which has mysteriously attracted many screaming young women (including on these shores, even before the debut album was released here). This, of course, has led Mumford and Songs to be called “the bluegrass Beatles” by the hyperbole-hungry British press.

Here in Canada, the sounds of Mumford and Sons’ debut album, Sigh No More, are far less impressive. We have Great Big Sea on our pop charts; we have Elliott Brood tearing up nightclub stages across the country. What’s the big deal? Mumford and Sons do, to their credit, write catchy songs—some of which could be very traditional, some of which aspire to rock epics without really having the weight behind them. And when they try to delve into darker material, as on “Dust Bowl Dance,” they simply sound lost.

Much more exciting is young Toronto band Schomberg Fair, who, it’s very safe to say, could kick the asses of Mumford and Sons. The opening track on Gospel, their second album, is a slow ominous build of banjos and tumbling percussion, a small breather before the next four tracks burst forth at breakneck speed.

If you thought the Sadies were shitkickers, Schomberg Fair delivers double the intensity, without getting cartoonish or losing sight of solid songs and performances that would be as powerful even at half their current tempos. Schomberg Fair do for electric Canadian folk music what the Pogues did to Celtic music in the ’80s: write booze-soaked songs plumbing spiritual angst and delivered soulfully with more energy than punk bands who use electric guitars as a cheap crutch.

They’re more than a one-trick pony, too. The album stops cold in the middle for a curiosity called “Motown Break,” which could be a Beastie Boys’ b-side. And from there, both lead vocalist Matt Bahen and the sub-baritone growl of bassist Nathan Sidon deliver emotional performances on slower but equally intense tracks like “Strange Kind of Grace” and “Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down.”

Playing punk arrangements with folk instruments is old hat by now, a schtick that’s far too easy to succumb to cliché. And yet when Schomberg Fair preach their Gospel, you’ll be a believer in no time. (K-W Record, March 18)

For Mumford and Sons, download (iTunes, eMusic): “Little Lion Man,” “The Cave,” “Roll Away Your Stone”

For Schomberg Fair, download (iTunes, zunior.com): “Drunkard’s Prayer,” “Pretty Bird,” “Wayfaring Stranger”

Shearwater – The Golden Archipelago (Matador)
Dead Letter Chorus – The August Magnificent (Bumstead)

Last month, Peter Gabriel came crawling out of semi-retirement, only to underwhelm his fans with an all-covers album set to mostly solo piano accompaniment. But what if someone had kidnapped the legendary innovator from his comfortable British home, stranded him in the middle of Texas, and told him to write a concept album about threatened civilizations on remote island communities around the world? It still probably wouldn’t sound as glorious as The Golden Archipelago by Shearwater, a band that’s hitting its stride.

This Austin band has always created delicate epics worthy of early Gabriel or rainy-day favourites Talk Talk (or, at times, Elton John’s now-long-forgotten prog rock moments of the ’70s), with the confident, clear voice of Jonathan Meiburg leading a sympathetic backing band that would be as comfortable playing a Steve Reich composition as they would accompanying an adventurous singer/songwriter. Though they’ve always been a formidable live act, this is the first time they’ve fully gelled in the studio, reining in the bombast and spinning a beginning-to-end masterpiece. And to exemplify their economy, they do so in 11 songs and less than 40 minutes, making a journey to The Golden Archipelago much less daunting yet entirely immersive.

Shearwater play Lee’s Palace in Toronto with the equally excellent Wye Oak on April 1.

Dead Letter Chorus also aim for the epic, although with shared male-female lead vocals. If you took British art rock, dragged it through Chicago’s alt-country scene, and eventually wound up half a world away in Australia, you’d have Dead Letter Chorus. Opening track “The Peaceful Sleep of Death” sounds suspiciously like The Tragically Hip’s “Nautical Disaster,” which is surely unintentional. Sadly, the same can’t be said for the ’50s-style waltz “The Long Goodnight,” where the chorus is shamelessly stolen (uncredited) directly from Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You”—the lyrics are “I will hold on to you.” Outside of their obvious influences, Dead Letter Chorus is a promising band in their own right. (K-W Record, March 25)

For Shearwater, download (iTunes, eMusic, amazon.com): “Black Eyes,” “Corridors,” “Landscape at Speed”

For Dead Letter Chorus, download (iTunes, eMusic): “The Peaceful Sleep of Death,” “Fight the Morning,” “11th Dream About Aeroplanes”

Monday, March 08, 2010

Vinicio Capossela

Vinicio Capossela – The Story-Faced Man (Nonesuch/Warner)

Outside of opera stars and the tackiest strains of disco imaginable, the world’s impression of Italian pop music has been negligible. Vinicio Capossela is just the man to change that.

He may claim to be heavily influenced by American outsiders like Jack Kerouac and Tom Waits (Waits associate Marc Ribot plays guitar on several tracks here), but there is no mistaking Capossela’s European roots: he sounds like he could easily be found playing the tarantella in a German bordello in the middle of a spaghetti Western.

Capossela has been recording for 20 years, has platinum records and has won the Italian equivalent of the Polaris or Mercury prizes several times.
The Story-Faced Man, a rich 16-track compilation of his recent work, is his first proper North American album, and even then it’s a digital-only release—even an adventurous, globetrotting label like Nonesuch is tentative about marketing a weirdo Italian artist in North America. But though he has his seductively strange and theatrical moments, Capossela is ultimately out to charm you, and he has more than enough charisma and melodic gifts to do so.

He has collaborated with Balkan brass bands, Greek rebetiko groups, and the Arizonan eclecticists Calexico. His music ranges from tangos, torch songs, blues, Broadway, surrealist soundtracks, and straightforward tear-jerking ballads. With a novel and a screenplay also on his resumé—along with a reputation for theatrical stage shows—he’s a true renaissance man, and The Story-Faced Man is surely just scratching the surface of this enigmatic and fascinating character.

It’s time we all got to know him better, preferably over some red wine.
You can do so this week, though you wouldn't know it from the lack of press surrounding these gigs:

Monday, March 8 at L'Astral in Montreal

Tuesday, March 9 at the Mod Club in Toronto

Wednesday, March 10 at Lakeshore Theatre in Chicago

Friday, March 12 at Bimbo's 365 in San Francisco

Saturday, March 13 at El Rey Theatre in L.A.

The Story-Faced Man
is not available physically; it can be downloaded directly from Nonesuch or individual tracks from amazon.com. Earlier albums are available on iTunes.

Recommended tracks: "Maraja," "Il Ballo Di San Vito," "Con Una Rosa"