Thursday, October 14, 2010

Sept '10 reviews

September reviews that appeared in the Kitchener-Waterloo Record and Guelph Mercury.

The Black Angels – Phosphene Dream (Blue Horizon)

The Black Angels are in love with sound. It’s a very specific sound: psychedelic guitar rock circa 1968. And you know that the dudes in this band (not so much drummer Jennifer Bailey) are the kind of guys who probably work at vintage guitar stores in their hometown of Austin when they’re not on the road, ready to peddle you old tube amps and Echoplex tape delays and tell you stories about working with Roky Erikson of the 13th Floor Elevators (which they’ve done, of course).

As much as they made indulge in fetishistic retro fantasies, none of this is a mere fashion statement: you can hear in every note of this, their third and best album, that the Black Angels are deadly serious. These are not posers relying on their equipment—or, for that matter, their stunning album artwork—to provide them with credibility. This is about the music, and they’re quick to get to the point; unlike most psychedelic wankers, the Black Angels get down to business in three-minute bursts—Phosphene Dream packs 10 tracks into just over 30 minutes. That’s still plenty of time to take a nice trip, without any squares even suspecting what you’ve been up to. (Sept. 16)

Download: “Yellow Elevator #2,” “Telephone,” “Haunting at 1300 McKinley”

Black Mountain – Wilderness Heart (Outside)

Vancouver’s ’70s-style retro rockers Black Mountain didn’t need any help crafting a massive, vintage classic rock sound on their first two albums, which they made in their hometown with engineer Colin Stewart, an old and trusted friend. But there’s something to be said for leaving your comfort zone, and so here they trek to London and Seattle to work with modern psychedelic producer Randall Dunn, and to Sunset Sound in Hollywood, the studio responsible for dozens of classic records by everyone from the Beach Boys to Led Zeppelin.

The result is that the marvelous mud of their early records has been washed away—thankfully, the resulting clarity only enhances their heaviness, while also allowing more windows for Jeremy Schmidt’s ancient keyboards to paint with vivid colours in the background; on lead single “Old Fangs,” his mix of analog synths and Deep Purple-style Hammond organ washes works wonders. Acoustic textures also shine through on tracks like “Radiant Hearts” and “Buried by the Blues,” bringing more diversity here than the band has ever displayed before.

The most significant shift, however, is the increased prominence of vocalist Amber Webber. Though one of the band’s defining factors from the beginning, she’s always been relegated to a supporting female role in a band full of bearded dudes who seemed happy to rock on without her, granting her only the occasional moody solo piece. Here, however, she’s integrated into every track; the best ones are when she and songwriter and bandleader Stephen McBean trade lines or verses. She more than rises to the challenge; while she used to rely too heavily on her signature vibrato, she’s developed into a rich and dynamic vocalist, and it’s gloriously visceral to hear her let loose on raging rockers like “Let Spirits Ride.”

The performances and production are top notch; the songs themselves somewhat less so. The lyrics are still stoner-quality ridiculousness (“Electric tides cast upon your shores/ the rudimentary force of life is shining at the gates of heaven’s door”), but when your head is banging this hard, it’s unlikely you’ll notice. (Sept. 9)

Download: “Old Fangs,” “Let Spirits Ride,” “Buried by the Blues”

Flying Lotus – Cosmogramma (Warp)

The intersections between hip-hop, jazz and the Aphex Twin school of electronic music very rarely pay dividends: often the beats are weak, the nods to jazz are token, and the electronics are mere window dressing. Flying Lotus, on the other hand, is a musical sponge and an electrifying eclectician who defies any attempt to pigeonhole the hybrid he’s working on. Many of his tracks seem like mere sketches, clocking in at under three minutes, but they’re each equally dense and effortless-sounding mini-movies that are deliciously satisfying.

Radiohead’s Thom Yorke stops by on a few tracks—but whatever, he’s barely noticeable, hardly a highlight, and if his star power draws unsuspecting listeners into this record, more power to him. More interesting is harpist Rebekah Raff and saxophonist Ravi Coltrane; the latter is Flying Lotus’s cousin, as he is the nephew of Alice Coltrane, an obvious influence here.

There are times, however, when it sounds like he’s just playing with you—literally, in the case of a track called “Table Tennis,” in which the sound of a bouncing ping-pong ball dribbles intermittently and arrhythmically throughout the track, practically mocking the poor listener. But that’s a rare move on what is otherwise an entrancing and engaging sonic journey. (Sept. 23)

Download: “Do the Astral Plane,” “Nose Art,” “Arkestry”

Mary Gauthier – The Foundling (Latent)

Mary Gauthier has had the kind of life that most songwriters write about; she’s lived it and survived to tell the tales herself. Past songs dealt with her alcohol and substance abuse, her troubled youth in Baton Rouge, turning her life around by studying philosophy and opening her own restaurant in Boston, and launching her music career late in life.

But on The Foundling, an album it took her two years to write and record—with the help of Michael Timmins of Cowboy Junkies—she tackles her most personal material yet: the story of how she was born to an unwed mother and left on the steps of a “women and infants asylum” in New Orleans, and how she spent the rest of her life asking herself questions about her past; when she finally got an answer and located her birth mother, at age 45, her request for reconnection was denied.

Such material can be morose—and some of it here certainly is, especially the straight-up autobiography of the song “March 11, 1962”—but Gauthier also finds time for some swinging country and rollicking New Orleans rhythms. And while the lyrics are intense, they tap into universal themes of abandonment, searching and self-identity, and the fact that “blood is blood/ blood don’t wash away.” Timmins knows how to cast each song perfectly, always leaving plenty of space in order to enhance the narrative, as he does in his own band’s best work. (Sept. 16)

Download: “Goodbye,” “Sideshow,” “Walk in the Water”

Chilly Gonzales – Ivory Tower (Arts and Crafts)

Chilly Gonzales claims he needs an arch-nemesis in order to thrive. Maybe he should look at the man in the mirror—he is often his own worst enemy.

That the man born Jason Beck is brilliant is beyond question: his skills as a composer and pianist are crystal clear on his unlikely 2004 breakthrough Solo Piano album, and as a performer his egocentrism is oddly engaging. But really, it’s his baiting public persona and media manipulation that are the main reason he gets any press at all; Gonzales loves to be hated, even more than he hates his need to be loved. And so his career is a cacophony of confounding moves, from self-consciously terrible electro-rap to the easy listening disco of 2008’s Soft Power to his mainstream success with Feist and Jane Birkin to his own TV show on French television.

Which brings us to Ivory Tower, which is shocking only in the fact that it’s so boring. It’s the soundtrack to a film about two brothers who are chess rivals, starring Gonzales, Peaches and Tiga. Hopefully the movie is far more entertaining than the music, which is but a trifle, missing most of the melodic gifts Gonzales showed on even the weakest moments of Soft Power. Instead, the self-proclaimed musical genius surrenders to producers Boyz Noize, who surgically remove the personality in his music, and don’t even give him enough beats to cut it on the dance floor. It’s not disco, it’s not piano pop, it’s certainly not hip-hop, and it’s cinematic only in that it sounds like a perfume commercial.

The expat Canadian, who both rails against and relishes in his obscurity at home, has been living in Europe for 10 years now—long enough to serve up a hilarious skewering of continental stereotypes on “I Am Europe”: “I’m socialist lingerie/ I’m diplomatic techno/ I’m gay pastry and racist cappuccino.” That song is worth a few chuckles more than “The Grudge,” in which Gonzales manages to sound like a parody of his satirical self—which is probably the point, but who cares? (Sept. 16)

Download: “I Am Europe,” “Smothered Mate,” “Rococo Chanel”

Grinderman – Grinderman 2 (Anti)

As the unoriginal title of this album suggests, the sequel never lives up to the original. Grinderman is the side project for Nick Cave and some of his Bad Seeds, where he gets down and dirtier than he does by day—although he’s just as libidinous as he is literary both inside and outside Grinderman, so the difference seems somewhat arbitrary.

While the first Grinderman album did sound liberating for Cave—largely because he kicked out his piano stool and strapped on a guitar—there’s not much here that lives up to the promise of that debut. Most tracks merely lurch when they should be letting loose, and—shockingly, for such a dramatic band—tension is, for the most part, kept to a minimum. Cave exploits his sexually frustrated old-man persona on tracks like “Worm Tamer” and “Kitchenette,” though it’s a joke that’s not really funny more than once. (Sept. 16)

Download: “Mickey Mouse and the Goodbye Man,” “Kitchenette,” “Worm Tamer”

It Kills – s/t (independent)

Halifax band It Kills may only be a tiny trio, but they sound positively symphonic on their remarkable debut album. A track might begin with a string quartet, then transform into a choral piece before guitars and drums come crashing through and tie it all together into triumphant territory. Many others who mine similar territory are often morose—Mogwai, Godspeed You Black Emperor, Explosions in the Sky, to name the three most obvious cinematic “post-rock” instrumental bands—and yet, ironically enough, the band called It Kills makes the most joyous music of them all, while maintaining the mystery and the majesty that make those other bands so intriguing.

Opening track “Dragons” offers some red herrings: with only two guitars and drums, it doesn’t hint at the diversity of the rest of the record, and it’s also one of the only songs to feature lyrics—which are a distraction for a band that communicates so much more without them.

It Kills are a brand new band with no pedigree that anyone outside of Halifax would know of; there are no immediate plans for them to head westward anytime soon, either. No matter: this music speaks volumes on its own, and is easily the most pleasant surprise in Canadian music this year. (Sept. 9)

Download: “Dragons,” “Le Coup,” “Sailors”

Selina Martin – Disaster Fantasies (

A cover version can either be a cheap attempt to get attention or reveal plenty about an artist’s intent. In the case of Toronto’s Selina Martin, her acoustic interpretation of “The Spirit of Radio” by Rush manages to be both. One the one hand, it’s an easy gimmick to get CBC Radio play, by tackling a hard-rock CanCon classic and giving it a coffeehouse-friendly makeover. On the other, because it’s actually one of the weaker tracks on her stellar third album, it speaks volumes about Martin’s own artistry and what she shares with the intent of Neil Peart’s lyrics: the belief in the “freedom of music” free from “glittering prizes and endless compromises.”

Disaster Fantasies displays Martin as an ambitious singer/songwriter with a knockout voice and the ability to corral her artier tendencies into a commanding power pop band; it’s an album that works on an entirely visceral level, with no shortage of catchy earworms and bold rock guitars. And yet there are tonnes of tiny tasty bits in every corner, whether it’s Rheostatics guitarist Martin Tielli noodling noisily underneath “I Know Dullness,” Laura Barrett’s kalimba on “News of Her Death,” or Martin herself playing wine glasses or tapping the loose end of a plugged-in patch cord as part of a rhythm track. Producer Chris Stringer (the D’Urbervilles, Timber Timbre) helps Martin paint vivid sonic portraits and brings the entire project into clear focus, amplifying the rock elements and leaving space for acoustic intimacy (“Throw Me in the Water”).

Martin has been on the periphery of CanRock royalty for years now, contributing to other projects (Rheostatics, Bob Wiseman) and having her praises sung by others (Gord Downie)—Disaster Fantasies deserves a place with the best work by any of those artists. (Sept. 9)

Download: “Public Safety Management,” “Always on My Mind,” “Throw Me in the Water”

Rae Spoon – Love is a Hunter (Saved by Radio)

Spoon opens this album lamenting: “death by elektro, baby you’re killing me,” sung in a pure, unwavering alto voice over fingerpicked acoustic guitar. He could easily be singing about the musical milieu of his adopted Berlin (he’s originally from Calgary), where all things techno dominate. And yet he fesses up to mixed feelings as he simultaneously wants to immerse himself in something hedonistic and meaningless: “Take me out tonight some place I can’t hear myself think/ take me out tonight, I don’t want to know what it means.”

Much of Love is a Hunter splits the difference between Canadian country-folk songs, indie rock and synthesized electro; Spoon bends each genre to his will, and the chugging pulse of several songs could work easily in either format, like the verbosely titled “We Can’t Be Lovers With These Guns On Each Other” (yes, that’s the chorus), where he sings: “nothing’s clear under the disco lights.”

Berlin has obviously invigorated Spoon, as both this and its predecessor, Superioryouareinferior, represented several leaps forward in his songwriting. He still has a tendency to beat a chorus to death, as he does on the title track, but that tack works best when he surrenders to the electronics, as on “You Can Dance.” As strong as much of Love is a Hunter is, one senses that a remix album would be even better. (Sept. 2)

Download: “Death by Elektro,” “You Can Dance,” “Dangerdangerdanger”

Superchunk – Majesty Shredding (Merge)

For a band whose sound is so frenetic and furious, Superchunk are just so… normal. Miraculously, they’ve been around for 21 years. There were no drug-fuelled flame-outs. They have kids. They never broke up, they just shifted priorities for a while. There’s no compelling reason to put out a new album, other than to prove something to themselves.

Which they do on Majesty Shredding. Their first 12 years saw them slowly maturing and changing, to the point where 2001’s Here’s to Shutting Up sounded like almost an entirely different (and, I alone would argue, better) band than the caffeinated hyperactivity of the early singles, which were at the height of grunge.

Here, however, they ditch the string sections, acoustic guitars and keyboards—or at least relegate them to the background—and return to the all-out pogo-friendly rock’n’roll band they always were. Underneath the squeals of feedback, the guitar interplay is often egghead-ish, and Mac McCaughan still revels in singing out of his range, but there’s nothing boyish about it anymore. Superchunk are adults who write songs titled “My Gap Feels Weird,” but there’s nothing self-conscious about the music.

For fans who follow McCaughan closely in both Superchunk and his solo project, Portastatic, they’ll note that while the lines between those two were often blurred, Majesty Shredding is unmistakably vintage Superchunk, the sound that fans first fell in love with in the mid-’90s. Only now there’s nary a wasted note; they know that what they have together is special and worth hanging on to. (Sept. 30)

Download: “Digging for Something,” “Crossed Wires,” “My Gap Feels Weird”

Richard Thompson – Dream Attic (Shout Factory/Warner)

It’s been said that Richard Thompson is one of the greatest British songwriters of the last 40 years. It’s been said that Richard Thompson is one of the greatest guitarists anywhere. And it’s been also said that his studio work doesn’t do justice to his great talent. So by recording 13 new songs in front of a live audience, Dream Attic should be the album to convince any non-believers, right?

Wrong. As someone who has repeatedly tried and failed to understand Thompson’s appeal—including 1982’s much-venerated Shoot Out the LightsDream Attic does little to change my mind. He does assemble a worthy band, featuring Joel Zifkin on violin, best known for his work with Kate and Anna McGarrigle. And the live approach does serve him better than his tepid studio work to date.

But his songs are still caught in an awkward spot between British folk and Americana singer-songwriters, and far too polite to ignite any fireworks either way. For such a renowned sultan of the strings, he writes dense songs that leave little room for him to stretch out—and when he does, perhaps his modesty prevents him from sounding anything but reserved at best. Only on the syncopated 6/8 Celtic rocker “Sidney Wells” does he really let loose. Which is a real shame, because I’d much rather hear him play guitar like that than spend 80 minutes listening to him sing flat. (Sept. 30)

Download: “Haul Me Up,” “Burning Man,” “Sidney Wells”

Neil Young – Le Noise (Warner)

Ever since CD technology was born, Neil Young has been taking the advice of his now-deceased producer, David Briggs, who told him: “All you have to do now is get closer to the source. Keep getting purer and purer.” In doing so, he’s been faithful to analog technology and capturing the essence of live performance, and how it sounds in real time, with a rock’n’roll purist’s approach to guitars-bass-drums that’s been his template since a few ill-regarded experiments in the ’80s.

Yet here he is, in what is a CanRock wet dream come true for many, teaming up with fellow expat Canadian Daniel Lanois, one of the most influential sound sculptors and studio hounds of the last 30 years. Lanois is known to have a deep respect for both raw live performances and carefully arranged, densely layered studio arrangements filled with haunting atmospherics.

The two men meet in the middle here, and part of the joy of Le Noise is hearing them learn from each other. Other than a few obvious studio tweaks, Le Noise sounds like Neil Young playing by himself in a room full of guitars and amps—there are no drums, and very little bass—with Lanois nearby twiddling knobs and manipulating his live performance, adding textures, distortion and tape-loop effects to enhance the trademark off-the-cuff nature of Young’s signature sound. And, of course, there’s plenty of reverb—which Lanois always lays on thick when he’s working with elder statesmen (Bob Dylan, Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson, Neville Brothers).

Young has always loved dirty electric guitars, but he’s never sounded fuzzier and cracklier than he does on Le Noise; Lanois knows better than to make Neil Young sound pretty, and so instead he helps him amplify his grittiest tendencies with a raw, bleeding sound—while simultaneously reining it in so that the effect is focused, not sloppy, a painting where the artists’ bold use of colour is still kept between the lines.

For all the glorious sound, however, Young himself comes slightly unprepared for the occasion. In what could have been a defining career album—the likes of which he hasn’t had since the early ’90s, with Ragged Glory, Harvest Moon and Sleeps With Angels—Young, in typical fashion, sounds like he showed up to the session with nine songs he happened to have coughed up the month beforehand, the crushing naivete of “Angry World” being the most glaring example.

Perhaps knowing the importance of his date with Daniel Lanois, however, Young does offer two autobiographical songs. One, “Hitchhiker,” is far too literal: “And then I did this. And then I did that” (note: not actual lyric, but close). The other, the slightly Spanish-tinged acoustic song “Love and War,” sums up themes he’s dealt with “since the back streets of Toronto”: “I sang about justice and I hit a bad chord/ but I still sing about love and war.”

Despite its magnificence, Le Noise is largely a missed opportunity. If we’re lucky, it’s much more than a one-night stand; should these two giants continue their relationship, they’ll find they have plenty more to discover. And just remember, the relationship between Lanois and Dylan started with Oh Mercy before they went on to make Time Out of Mind. (Sept. 23)

Download: “Love and War,” “Peaceful Valley Boulevard,” “Walk With Me”

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