Tuesday, December 20, 2011

2011 Year in Review

1. tUnE-yArDs – Whokill (4AD). This is the one. No other record in 2011 was this inventive, this exuberance, this powerful, this stimulating, this much fun—and sounded so current, so unlike anything else either in her current peer group or comparison points. Merrill Garbus plays ukulele, percussion and sings her ass off, doing each in various layers that she loops together live. On Whokill, she fully embraces the studio and paints vivid moving pictures with the help of bassist Nate Brenner, a horn section and every conceivable percussion instrument she can find. In a year when everyone seemed excited about sexless wonders like Bon Iver and M83, Garbus reached out to all the mopey wallflowers of indie rock and dragged them by the hand onto the dancefloor. Garbus is nothing if not gutsy; she doesn’t half-step anything here, even the quieter lullabies, but she also knows when to tone down the bluster. For all the bells and whistles on Whokill, however, these songs would work just as well with only drums and voice. Elemental, in more ways than one.

2. Mark Davis – Eliminate the Toxins (Saved By Radio). This Edmonton songwriter successfully combines the comfort food of Canadiana roots rock with spooky sonic spellcasting in ways that few artists other than Daniel Lanois even attempt. (Plenty of credit should also go to producer/instrumentalist Lorrie Matheson.) Davis manages to pull off pop melodies worthy of Fleetwood Mac, folk songs that could come from Lightfoot, overtones of doom ala Nick Cave, Eno-esque production, and some twang mixed into to the chunky rock songs and pop hooks. Lyrically, Eliminate the Toxins may be full of ghosts, but you’ll want these songs to haunt you for a long, long time. The most underrated Canadian album this year is also the best.

3. Gillian Welch – The Harrow & the Harvest (Acony). “Hard times ain’t gonna rule my mind”—if that’s not an anthemic line for 2011, what is? Like Tom Waits, Welch and her partner David Rawlings took a long break from recording until she felt she had something to say, and it was worth the eight-year wait: 10 songs that are pure, perfect portraits and directly to the point, performed on little more than acoustic guitar and banjo that sounds like the duo is in your living room. It’s haunting, powerful, and impossible not to sing harmonies to. The simplest pleasure was also the strongest.

4. Feist – Metals (Arts and Crafts). Leslie Feist always had too much talent to be reduced to a one-hit wonder, and Metals is the record she’s been building toward for the past decade. This album is note-perfect without being slick; it’s deceptively heavy for such a featherweight sound; and it’s far more musically inventive than Feist gets credit for, being as she is an easily digestible artist commonly associated with coffee shops. The songwriting, arrangements, performance and production are all vivid and top-notch on every track, making Metals one of the most satisfying albums of the year, not merely one of the best.

5. Destroyer – Kaputt (Merge). A lot of people have trouble getting past the unabashedly ’80s lounge-lizard production here—apparently, this kind of homage is the last retro crime worth committing. Thankfully, there are a lot more people who made this Destroyer’s most commercially successful record to date, who cottoned on to the fact that bandleader Dan Bejar was writing his strongest melodies in years, and doesn’t seem like he’s in a hurry to get each verse over with (unusual for him). The lovely, lush arrangements were too intricate and inventive to be some kind of ironic joke—full credit is due to guitarist Nicolas Bragg and trumpeter JP Carter, who weave stunning textures—and it’s also the first Destroyer album one could imagine dancing to.

6. The Weeknd – House of Balloons (independent). 2011 was full of creeps: Tyler the Creator, Kanye West sinking to new lows, and, arguably Drake. But none of them sounded creepy like The Weeknd does, and none of them were able to express the complex combo of self-lacerating doubt mixed with aggression the way that Abel Tesfaye can; a gifted singer, he successfully navigates the ambiguity of drugged-out moral relativism without getting too uncomfortably literal (or, um, stupid: see above examples). Everything that Drake gets credit for, Tesfaye does far, far better. House of Balloons was also a musical game-changer for the way it approached the dark side of R&B. The fact that it’s still only available as a free download, and that Tesfaye spurned all media at every turn, was a zeitgeist story that helped define the year.

7. Wye Oak – Civilian (Merge). The Baltimore duo Wye Oak don’t sound like a rock band. They sound like a force of nature: a rushing river, a towering mountain range, an expansive Montana plain. Not that they sound natural: there’s nothing acoustic about Civilian, their third album, which is full of raging electric guitars and distorted sounds. But the way this duo conjure the elements at their disposal is magical, the way a sonic gust suddenly slaps you like a gale-force wind, the way dub textures stratify the sonic layers, the way Andy Stack’s drums gallop and lurch, following the push and pull of Jenn Wasner’s guitars, the way Wasner’s calm and understated vocals anchor everything like the eye of a hurricane.

8. Lykke Li – Wounded Rhymes (Warner). This is the sound of an awakening, of this Swedish singer getting her heart broken, getting her hands dirty and embracing the big sounds of ’60s Phil Spector pop (quite directly: she sounds like Ronnie Spector on much of this record) with extra amplification given to huge backing vocals and thundering percussion—every other instrument, other than her lead vocal, is secondary. Recorded in California, it’s not a sunny sound—there’s a goth melancholy barely beneath the surface throughout—but it’s joyous, cathartic, and incredibly catchy. It’s also 10 times better than her wisp of a debut record.

9. Nick Lowe – The Old Magic (Yep Roc). This 61-year-old performer reminds you what magical songwriting spells an old coot like him can still cast. Sure, the entire album has a ’50s supper-club vibe that sounds like rock’n’roll never happened, but that's just Lowe acting his age. He often croons with a gentle wink, but there's nothing ironic about anything here. Clever, yes, but Lowe never sounds anything less than completely sincere. This old magician is a guy you can trust to never let you down.

10. Kathryn Calder – Bright and Vivid (File Under: Music). The second solo album by this New Pornographer finds her embracing a wider sonic palette (with help of new husband Colin Stewart, one of the finest sonic architects on the West Coast) and writing more complex prog-pop songs that owe more to the Rheostatics or early Peter Gabriel than they do the bubblegum rush of her regular gig, or the type of safe music that most women with a voice as gorgeous as hers end up making. Calder is in a class of her own.

11. Grace Jones – Hurricane (Pias). This is not technically a 2011 album; it came out in the U.K. in 2008, and was inexplicably unavailable in North America until this past September, where it was packaged with a dub remix record. Jones reunites with the musicians who made her classic early ’80s recordings, filters that sound through late ’90s trip-hop and writes her most personal and powerful songs to date. Jones was always much more than a fashion freak and a b-movie actress, traits that unfortunately comprise her caricature today. This is a potent reminder of a powerful artist.

12. Geoff Berner – Victory Party (Mint). Berner has long been one of the finest entertainers and songwriters in Canada, but the aptly named Victory Party is a quantum leap forward in his discography. With the help of Montreal producer Socalled, Berner calls in a full band and pumps up the volume on his accordion-driven neo-klezmer arrangements, moving from rousing drinking songs to hipster smackdowns to anti-authoritarian anthems to plaintive political ballads—and then there’s the deranged electro retelling of the Golem legend, which only someone with Berner’s sharp sense of humour (and dread) could pull off.

13. Booker T. Jones – The Road From Memphis (Anti). The 57-year-old keyboardist and soul legend delivered one of his career highs with the help of the Roots’ ?uestlove, Daptones engineer Gabe Roth, Motown guitarist Dennis Coffey and vocalists including Sharon Jones, My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, and The National’s Matt Berninger. The Road From Memphis must lead to New Orleans, because this sounds like a dream collaboration between Booker T.’s MGs and the funkiest band of all time, the Meters.

14. Shabazz Palaces – Black Up (Sub Pop). Anyone who still thinks Kanye West is a hip-hop innovator needs to spend time in Shabazz Palaces. On Black Up, grooves pulse on distorted bass with nary a snare drum in sight, tempos are pushed and pulled apart, old-school soul meets 21st century clicks and cuts, and wiggy synths set everything just off-centre. Main man Ishmael Butler made a splash in the ’90s with Digable Planets, but this trippy project, where anything and everything seems possible, doesn’t seem to belong to any particular trajectory—unless early George Clinton and Black Album-era Prince dropped acid with Trent Reznor and Burial.

15. Seun Kuti – From Africa With Fury: Rise (Knitting Factory). In the year when a Fela Kuti musical was the toast of Broadway, the Nigerian legend’s youngest son released a firecracker of a record with his father’s old band and Brian Eno behind the boards. Modern African dance music rarely sounds this good—it’s usually either stuck in a retro groove or is full of unwelcome cheeseball synths. This sounds entirely modern while capturing the frenetic energy of a seasoned band, and perhaps needless to say, Kuti himself is more than a commanding frontman—one who’s nonetheless happy to take a backseat to the beat.

16. Sloan – The Double Cross (Outside). The best rock albums are always front-loaded with a group’s best songs. But after the strong “Follow the Leader” opens Sloan’s tenth album, they take their own advice and deliver gem after gem, making this milestone of an album sound more like a greatest hits compilation. All four members are writing at the top of their game, and one has to wonder if they have been purposely been saving their best songs for 2011 to celebrate their 20th anniversary.

17. Tom Waits – Bad As Me (Anti). What’s the definition of timeless? A 62-year-old who is weirder and more wonderful than he was when he was 20, writing songs that could be from the 1950s filtered through various distortions of the past five decades and with lyrics that, when they’re not about satisfaction and lives lived and eternal love, could just as easily be about the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street: “It’s hard times for some, but for others it’s sweet / someone makes money when there’s blood in the street.” And while it’s true that Waits’s eccentricities have become encoded and somewhat predictable, he convincingly begs you to “kiss me like a stranger once again.” Yeah, okay, why not? This may be his best album since 1992’s Bone Machine.

18. Rich Aucoin – We’re All Dying To Live (Sonic). Every other album that made this list is fairly consistent and easy to peg. Halifax multimedia adventurer Rich Aucoin, on the other hand, does it all: disco, psychedelia, rock numbers, rousing pop songs, piano concertos and contemplative neo-classical pieces. For such an epic record, Aucoin makes it all flow seamlessly, with interstitial segues that ease the incongruity with the skill of a pro DJ. It’s not slick, however; Aucoin maintains an earthy feel throughout, and engages 500 musicians (not an exaggeration) to help him out. One song is titled “We Must Imagine Sisyphus,” a nod perhaps to the enormity of Aucoin’s ambition, but there’s nothing world-weary about the joyous celebration in these grooves.

19. Colin Stetson – New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges (Constellation). When discussing what is by far the strangest album to get major attention in 2011 (including a Polaris Prize shortlist position), it’s easy to talk only of Stetson’s methodology: solo saxophone performed with circular breathing and incorporating every possible element of the instrument for both melodic and rhythmic ends, all recorded in one take. But Stetson’s mood and melodic sense—along with lovely cameos from Laurie Anderson and Shara Worden—are the main reasons Judges broke through the usual avant-garde circles in which albums like this are usually ghettoized.

20. Beastie Boys – Hot Sauce Committee Part 2 (EMI). Yes, “grandpa’s been rapping since ’83,” as the Beastie Boys admit here, but no one who’s been in hip-hop that long has ever released an album this good this far into their career. The last 10 years have been rather creatively fallow for the Beasties, which is why it’s so rewarding to hear them come back swinging as they do here, to say nothing of Adam Yauch’s recovery from cancer. The videos were hilarious as always, the ska single “Don’t Play No Game” (featuring Santigold) was their finest pop song ever, and the entire record was full of life.


A Hawk and a Hacksaw – Cervantine (LM Dupli-cation)

Dennis Coffey – s/t (Strut)

Couer de Pirate – Blonde (Gross Boite)

Crooked Fingers – Breaks in the Armor (Merge)

The Dirtbombs – Party Store (In the Red)

Tim Hecker – Ravedeath 1972 (Kranky)

Iron and Wine – Kiss Each Other Clean (Warner)

J Rocc – Some Cold Rock Stuff (Stones Throw)

My Morning Jacket – Circuital (ATO)

Rural Alberta Advantage – Departing (Paper Bag)

Monday, December 19, 2011

December '11 reviews

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

Kate Bush - 50 Words for Snow (Fish People/EMI)

Compared to her last album, the disappointingly conventional 2005 album Aerial, 50 Words of Snow sounds much like the Kate Bush that her fans cherish, the iconoclast who has influenced several generations of boundary-pushing performers.

Opening track “Snowflake” is instantly familiar, in part because it sounds like it could have appeared on 1985’s masterpiece Hounds of Love, but also because it consists of little more than a relentless piano riff that—while beautiful—doesn’t change over the course of nine minutes (making it one of the shorter tracks on this seven-song album). As the rest of the album unfolds, it becomes apparent that even though Bush is still in magnificent voice, still writing outside of any pop music convention, still sounding gorgeous, her songs simply don’t match the rest of her talents.

In many cases, they’re unintentionally funny. Granted, intention is difficult to gauge, but 50 Words for Snow is such a sombre, po-faced album that one can only assume it’s deadly serious. There’s a song written in the first person as a snowflake, a song about Yeti, and a song about dreaming a sexual encounter with a snowman (and his “ice-cream lips”) who, of course, ends up melting in her bed.

Then there’s the extremely literal title song: Bush strings together 50 poetic synonyms for snow—i.e., “swans-a-melting,” “vanilla swarm,” “icyskidski” and “whippoccino”—while she intermittently urges on the male narrator (played by actor Stephen Fry) with lines like, “Come on, Joe, just 22 to go … just like the Eskimos … let me hear your 50 words for snow.” Bush has always had a playful side that’s helped her realize her best work; this song, however, is asinine.

That leaves Elton John, of all people, to save the day. He shows up as a duet partner on "Snowed in at Wheeler Street," a story about star-crossed lovers throughout history. It sounds like an odd pairing—although Bush scored a hit in the early ’90s covering “Rocket Man”—but John relishes the role and sings his ass off, giving the song his all and emoting in ways he hasn’t really done in over 30 years. It’s an inspired moment in both of their recent discographies (which might not be saying much), and that track alone is enough to suggest that Bush’s best days might not be so far behind her after all. (Dec. 1)

Download: “Snowed in at Wheeler Street,” “Snowflake,” “Wild Man”

Couer de Pirate – Blonde (Grosse Boite)

Montreal’s Béatrice Martin was kittenish and coy on her fey debut album in 2008, but now this cat has grown claws. The young francophone pop singer has gained considerable swagger on this, her second album, as she struts through swinging-’60s throwbacks that owe as much to British pop of the period (think Petula Clark) as well as Parisian yé-yé and Lee Hazlewood productions. Her voice, while still girlish, is rarely if ever cutesy—Duffy, please take note. Engineer Howard Bilerman (Arcade Fire, Godspeed You Black Emperor) and arranger Michael Rault (a young Edmontonian who records raw retro rock under his own name) help Martin expertly dress up her songs in lovely colours without ever sounding ostentatious. Sam Roberts drops by to sing a duet—in French, of course, as Martin sticks to her native tongue throughout. Anyone who’s ever fallen in love in or with Montreal will find plenty to love here, but the real success of Blonde is that it is much more universal than that. She’s already got a Top 10 album in France, but there’s no reason a language barrier should stop her from conquering the rest of the world. (Dec. 1)

Download: “Adieu,” “Danser et danse,” “Les amours dévouées”

Pink Floyd – Discovery (EMI)

Pink Floyd’s back catalogue has been a cash cow for at least the last 35 years; most famously, 1973’s Dark Side of the Moon holds the record for having the longest run on the Billboard charts (25 years), and has already been remastered and re-released twice before. It appears again, of course, in this deluxe box set—merely a small component of extensive Pink Floyd reissues this autumn—which coincidentally came out around the same time that legendary major label EMI announced that it was being broken up and its parts sold to Universal and Sony. On the heels of endless Beatles repackaging and a new blockbuster from Coldplay, Discovery is EMI’s swan song.

No one really needs to own yet another copy of Dark Side, Wish You Were Here or The Wall, each of which are also being re-released individually in ridiculously expanded packages meant only for the fan who thinks he has everything. And certainly no one needs the three albums that followed The Wall (or, I would argue, even The Wall itself, one of the most wretched albums in the rock canon), though of course they are included here.

The real appeal—other than a lovely 60-page booklet detailing the band’s artwork and imagery through the years—is having all the pre-Dark Side material assembled together; it comprises half of this 14-album, $200 set (less than $15 an album, including doubles, in case you want to break it down). Some of it holds up better than the rest—Atom Heart Mother in particular is revelatory, Meddle is merely muddling, the Barbet Schroeder soundtracks are trifles—but it’s gratifying to hear Floyd in such a playful, exploratory mode, making music that can conceivably be executed by four creative people in a room.

Naturally, it all sounds fantastic; Pink Floyd is nothing if not an audiophile’s band, and this doesn’t disappoint. And albums like Ummagumma still manage to sound remarkably fresh and devoid of cliché; it’s somewhat mindblowing, in today’s culture, to imagine an album this far out there could ever sell platinum (which it eventually did). It’s a welcome contrast to the often-bloated, super-serious, rock-operatic blowhards they became.

Come for the acid, leave for the cocaine. (Dec. 8)

Rihanna – Talk That Talk (Universal)

Rihanna wants to be all things to all people: pop star, dancehall queen, raunchy electro diva, arena-rock power balladeer. She’s a perfect chameleon, and with her cool, collected and compelling voice she soars above the armies of fembots and divas she shares space with in the Top 40. Yet on Talk That Talk, she merely alternates between feel-good, inspirational pop music for the whole family—“we all want love!” goes one track suitable for a Disney movie—and then lurid, hypersexual strip-club soundtrack material that’s about as artful and seductive as a 30-second clip on a free porn site.

Rihanna scores best when she amps up the Eurodisco techno on Lady Gaga-style club bangers like “We Found Love,” or takes a left turn by rewriting the song “Intro” by downbeat British band The XX. Though it’s entirely based around a sample of the original, Rihanna uses it as carte blanche to insert her own melody and soaring vocal. Rather than a ripoff, it sounds like an inspired collaboration—and not a terribly surprising one, as The XX, despite their minimalist moodiness, has always professed their love for modern American R&B.

The tarty tracks are also the weakest here, though they’re obviously the subject of more media scrutiny. Rihanna’s played the bad girl more than once before—last time we heard from her, she was wielding whips and chains—and now she’s into genderbending, urging you to “suck my cockiness, lick my persuasion,” or singing, “Let me grab my dick while you sit on top / do it right there while the whole world’s watching.” Somewhere, Prince is blushing—and more than a few parents of tweens are scrambling for the off button. (Dec. 1)

Download: “Where Have You Been,” “Drunk on Love,” “Roc Me Out”

The Roots – Undun (Universal)

This veteran hip-hop group will try to convince you that Undun is a concept album about one man’s urban struggles and the choice between an honest life and the criminal element. Don’t hold your breath for a Broadway musical, however; there’s precious little to distinguish this from the other 12 albums in the Roots’ discography, thematically or musically. That said, it comes on the tails of their late-career high, 2009’s How I Got Over, where they proved that taking a gig as a house band on a late-night talk show actually reinvigorated them creatively. And yet while that album worked on a variety of levels, Undun finds the Roots returning to well-crafted albums that are easy to respect but hard to actually like. There are more guest vocal hooks this time around, and a short four-song classical suite to close the album, but mostly the appeal remains in ?uestlove’s drumming and production aesthetic—which isn’t enough to carry an entire record on its own. (Dec. 15)

Download: “Stomp,” “The Other Side,” “Make My”

Sigur Ros – Inni (XL)

If there’s a proper heir to Pink Floyd in the last decade, it’s Sigur Ros. Exploratory, fragile, bombastic, obsessed with the science of sound, and—on their best days—mind-blowing, this Icelandic band have released five albums of varying quality; every one has its high points, but mostly they each feel overwhelming and a bit overproduced. It’s odd, then, that this two-disc live album (the soundtrack to an acclaimed concert film directed by Arcade Fire collaborator Vincent Morisset) doesn’t feel bloated in the least.

Recorded in 2008, Inni features just the core four members of the band—no strings, horns or other window dressing (and barely any crowd noise). And yet the music consistently sounds massive, even at its most minimalist. This band has the ability to convey volumes with the sparsest arrangements of notes; when the tension erupts, it’s positively thunderous. What keep it grounded are the small moments of imperfection amidst the otherwise epic constructions: a feedback squall, a whimsical accordion line, singer Jonsi warbling off-mic. Even though they’re a seasoned band, nothing here sounds rote or bled to death; Inni is full of vitality, and a snapshot of a band at the height of their powers. This is the definitive document of Sigur Ros. (Dec. 8)

Rae Spoon – I Can’t Keep All of Our Secrets (Saved by Radio)

When someone close to you dies, nothing makes sense anymore. Black is white, up is down, and somewhere in the middle of it all you can hopefully find some sort of clarity and insight that leads you to a greater truth. Rae Spoon wrote this, his sixth album, in just such a state, and the result is his strongest work to date.

Spoon is often found between states. Once a solo country singer from Calgary, who identifies as a transgender man, Spoon spent time in Berlin before settling in Montreal and transforming into a full-on electro artist with a singer/songwriter’s heart. Here, his strong, boyish voice is put to work over arrangements that old-timers will think are reminiscent of New Order, and youngsters will think sound like Diamond Rings; unfortunately, they don’t have a lot of teeth to them to work as actual club songs, which leaves the material in a tentative state between reflective ruminations of loss and a desire to bust out on the dance floor.

Either way, these are the finest melodies he’s penned to date, and so the disembodied, in-between state of the material works in its favour. On “Are You Jealous of the Dead?” there is enough reverb on his voice to sound like he’s singing from the other side; the song itself starts out as a fractured bossa nova before becoming an electro anthem. “Curse on Us,” which is set to a sort of techno reggae backdrop, is improbably one of the strongest tracks here.

Nothing is predictable about Rae Spoon at this stage of his career. While it’s a shame that a tragedy is what brought this fine work out of him, it’s inevitable that it will open even more creative and commercial doors. (Dec. 15)

Download: “Curse On Us,” “Ocean Blue,” “When I Said There Was an End to Love I Was Lying”

Kreesha Turner - Tropic/Electric (EMI)

While the new Rihanna record gets attention for its potty mouth and little else, Edmonton singer Kreesha Turner hopes to sneak up from behind and capture some of the same musical terrain on pop radio. Turner is still getting mileage out of her 2008 single “Don’t Call Me Baby” (that is, based on the number of times I still hear it in grocery stores and banks), and there’s nothing here remotely as catchy. Apparently she had four albums’ worth of material before settling on these 10 tracks; one has to wonder what it would take to be rejected from this record. That said, Turner is a far better singer than most pop moppets, and half the tracks on this album—split into two short discs labelled Tropic and Electric—draw from Caribbean and South American influences, filtered through Top 40 production values. That means there’s plenty to work with for remixes, even if the songs themselves are slight. (Dec. 15)

Download: “Rock Paper Scissors,” “I Feel My Darling,” “Love Again”

U2 – Achtung Baby (Universal)

Achtung Baby, now 20 years old, carries the most mythology of any U2 album: the earnest stadium rock band reinvents themselves in Berlin, embraces new sounds, stop taking themselves so seriously, and hit the road with a revolutionary stage show that has yet to be topped by anyone. In Jonathan Franzen’s 2010 novel Freedom, the album also becomes the soundtrack to a sexual awakening for two teenagers who later embrace capitalist excess; they lose their virginity on a pile of $20 bills while listening to “Zoo Station,” and later on “Mysterious Ways” somehow alludes to self-mutilation as well as seduction. Fill in your own metaphor.

The new anniversary reissue contains plenty of distractions: there are no less than five versions, from the basic disc itself to a two-disc set with outtakes and remixes to a ridiculous package involving six CDs, four DVDs, four vinyl records and, of course, Bono’s “fly” shades. There’s also a documentary about the album by an Academy Award-winning director, which opened the Toronto International Film Festival in September.

What about the album itself? Devoid of context, it is indeed a classic: 12 nearly flawless tracks that stand the test of time, many of which are still staples of U2’s record-grossing tours. It’s the rare mainstream success that is as intriguing sonically as it is full of accessible pop songs.

It’s hard to contextualize, however, without remembering 1991. U2 was not a band you danced to. U2 was not a band that ever used much more than bass, guitar and drums. And until then, Bono was perhaps the most earnest man in rock’n’roll, one who wouldn’t be caught dead singing “baby” nine times in a row in each chorus of a song (as he does here in “Ultraviolet”).

The first 30 seconds of opening track “Zoo Station” do sound like they would have been a game-changer in 1991—not for music in general, but certainly for a stadium rock band. Otherwise, there’s nothing revolutionary about Achtung Baby. Most of Larry Mullen Jr.’s beats sound like they were lifted from the Stone Roses. The Edge does develop his signature guitar sound further, but it’s not so drastically removed from his earlier work. On the whole, it’s not as if U2 turned their back on rock’n’roll, or at least the version of it they’d already been developing.

The second disc of outtakes contains some gems: b-sides (“Salome”), experiments and embryonic versions of songs that made the album. But it’s certainly not essential: the remixes are either pointless (minor tweaks of the original) or dated (not in a good way), and the covers, excepting The Velvet Underground’s “Satellite of Love,” are otherwise terrible ideas (Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black,” CCR’s “Fortunate Son,” Cole Porter’s “Night and Day”).

Is Achtung Baby a great album? Yes. Is it an important album? Not really. But as the old American saying goes, when a legend becomes fact, print the legend. (Dec. 8)

Amy Winehouse - Lioness (Universal)

The cynic has to wonder how quickly this was assembled after Amy Winehouse’s tragic death this past summer. Indeed, it includes her final recording—a duet with Tony Bennett for his September release, Duets II—but much of this material comes from various points from the last nine years, with a lot of it reminiscent of her pre-Back to Black breakthrough. In other words, there’s little of the spark, the vitality and the sass that made that one album an instant classic.

Any time a major star passes away prematurely, everyone ponders the possibilities and what-ifs. Lioness doesn’t offer any hints, other than suggesting that maybe Back in Black was the result of a time and place—and a producer, Mark Ronson, who has little to do with the tracks here—and not necessarily Winehouse herself, her astounding voice notwithstanding. Her voice and the arrangements are often better than the material here, but even the covers are hit and miss. On Carole King’s “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” she again teams up with the Dap-Kings—Sharon Jones’s backing band who were integral to the sound of Back in Black—and achieve the impossible, breathing new life into a song that’s been covered to death in the last 40 years. However, she stumbles through “The Girl from Ipanema”—complete with awkward scat solo—and is clearly out of her league on the Bennett duet. On a newer original such as “Like Smoke,” she takes a back seat to verses by Nas, who raps circles around her lacklustre vocals.

For a lioness, this is incredibly tame. (Dec. 15)

Download: “A Song for You,” “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” “Our Day Will Come”

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Wye Oak, stadium rock

Opening a stadium show is a thankless task. It doesn’t matter who you are: ask any of the sacrificial lambs who land “plum” gigs opening for the Rolling Stones and the like. The one and only time I saw Chrissie Hynde and the Pretenders perform, they were the inconsequential soundtrack to the hot-dog lineup at a Neil Young amphitheatre show. I was a huge Los Lobos fan in high school (perhaps the only Los Lobos fan in high school, ever), but the first time I saw them, in 1987, they were being patently ignored by a full CNE Stadium waiting for U2.

And yet this week I’m headed to the Air Canada Centre only to see the opening acts. Granted, it’s the “theatre” setting of the venue, which is only half the size of the arena. And the headliner is The National, a band mysteriously popular with my demographic—i.e. 40-year-old dads who still try and keep up on new music—but I know at least the group has taste in other bands, as evidenced on the excellent Red Hot compilation they assembled, Dark Was the Night. Further proof comes in their choice of opening acts for their first arena tour.

Opening the show is Neko Case, a woman who needs no introduction. The last two times she played Toronto, if I’m not mistaken, she played Trinity St. Paul’s church and the Danforth Music Hall. There was a time when I saw Neko every time she came to town; then I decided I needed a bit of a break, after being underwhelmed by her much-awaited Fox Confessor Brings the Flood album. That was before I fell in love with 2009’s Middle Cyclone, an astounding record that still gets regular rotation in my household, and one she promoted in Toronto with merely one visit (that sold out instantly). [Ed. note, Dec 8: I forgot that she headlined Massey Hall as well, whoops.] She’s always had a voice that could fill caverns; I can’t wait to hear it fill the cavernous corners of our hockey hall. And because her commercial stature is almost that of The National—and she has many close ties to Toronto—it’s safe to say that she’ll have a rapt audience.

But almost as exciting is the presence of Wye Oak, a Baltimore duo whose excellent third album, Civilian, I gushed about here.

Jenn Wasner’s guitar playing is massive—or at least, it is when she wants it to be, as one of this band’s many strengths is its sense of jarring dynamics. Her partner Andy Stack tackles a drum set and keyboards simultaneously—and flawlessly. If for some horribly tragic reason this well-travelled band ever suffered a Def Leppard-style accident, they’d only need a new keyboardist; Stack has the one-armed beat-keeping down pat. He’s also a big fan of mallets, which draws out much more texture from his kit than most rock drummers do (at least, those who aren’t named Glenn Kotche or Jason Tait).

While Stack’s multi-tasking is impressive, it’s really Wasner’s show: she’s electrifying on stage and completely owns her instrument, each delicate note and thundering chord resonating through every bone in her body. Their music together isn’t afraid to embrace a dramatic pause before lurching forward or push and pull tempos apart in ways that only the most symbiotic musical relationship can.

On Civilian (and its predecessor, The Knot), their Neil Young/Dinosaur Jr. template is laced with dub textures, country shadings, and subtle synths, with barely a major key in sight. Wasner’s husky, androgynous, almost sleepy voice seeps with melancholy; Wye Oak doesn’t do happy. And yet there is joy and release when a tension breaks, when a song busts wide open and gallops into the distance, chased all the while by ghosts whose siren calls threaten to pull the protagonist back to the claustrophobic bedroom where their secrets are stored. But honestly, I can’t make out Wasner’s lyrics, so it’s the music that does all the talking.

So yes, it’s a big sound. One that deserves to heard in large venues. And yet Wye Oak themselves are ambivalent about big venues; for a pair of 24-year-olds, they’re as realistic as they are idealistic, and like their many esteemed labelmates on Merge Records, they know that big isn’t necessarily better. They’ve said that 2011 is the year they say “yes” to every opportunity that comes their way, so who knows—maybe this will be the only time to see them in a venue this size. Get there early and make them feel loved—and you’ll more than likely fall in love yourself.

Ed. note, Dec. 8: 'Twas an amazing show, proving their one of the only bands who actually sound better in a hockey arena: sparse but massive drums, ringing guitar, haunting voice. They have better energy in a club, but this was a sight to see. And it was much more thrilling than the two headliners that followed.

Wye Oak give good interview: check out this Venus article, this piece on The Huffington Post, and this from something called Swide.

And don’t sleep on Civilian, one of 2011’s finest rock records.

Monday, November 21, 2011

November '11 reviews

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

Rich Aucoin – We’re All Dying to Live (Sonic/Warner)

Who made the most exuberant, life-affirming, triumphant and anthemic stadium rock record to come out this year? Woah, Coldplay, take a seat—you’re not even close. The answer is a guy who has yet to play a stadium, although Rich Aucoin deserves to reach Freddie Mercury status in no time.

Like Queen, Aucoin is much more than a rock act: his exuberance works best when he goes four on the floor and builds a disco dance party one layer at a time, inevitably erupting in gang vocals and synchronized fireworks. He’s at his best when he’s being everything to everyone, like on the single “It,” with the don’t-think-do chorus, “We won’t leave it all in our heads.” The entire song sounds like the rousing, climactic conclusion of Arcade Fire’s “Rebellion” on a loop, as sung by hundreds of your closest friends.

Actually, this Halifax musician probably knows at least a few of your closest friends: this album features over 500 guests (all photographed in the liner notes, as proof) culled from every corner of Canada’s indie music scene. If you’re a musician and you’re not on here, frankly, I’d feel left out if I were you. It’s not enough that Aucoin employs several choirs (children’s and otherwise) over the course of the album; the epic journey concludes with all the album’s voices forming one massive choir (in what was surely a mixing nightmare), singing the title phrase repeatedly.

This isn’t all a buoyant disco rock party with choral accompaniment—thankfully—even though those songs are certainly the highlights. Over the course of 22 tracks (in an economical 55 minutes), Aucoin maintains dynamics and flow, at times dialling the intensity back entirely for cinematic instrumental passages driven by malletted percussion. He knows when to aim for the jugular, and when to sit back and take a breather, and this is a stronger album because of that.

Rich Aucoin is not some overachieving indie kid; he’s made a widescreen, kaleidoscopic pop record that is thoroughly satisfying and deserves to be heard by as many people as possible. And I say that as someone unbiased by his live show—which I have somehow missed, despite many opportunities—which is apparently nothing short of mindblowing. (Nov. 3)

Download: “It,” “Brian Wilson is ALIVE,” “Living to Die”

Bruce Peninsula – Open Flame (Hand Drawn Dracula)

Everyone loves a choir. Bands of every genre like to gather all their friends together to holler in harmony as a sign of solidarity, of community, of celebration or defiance. Toronto’s Bruce Peninsula is one of the only bands to fully integrate choral vocals into their sound, an aesthetic based in folk and blues but that sounds decidedly modern, drawing influences from the likes of the Rheostatics, West African guitar music, and Chicago so-called “post-rock,” jazz-influenced prog bands like Tortoise. Assembling those disparate factions together, Bruce Peninsula forge a unique sound and scene they have entirely to themselves. The material here is even more intent on incorporating the choral parts into the songwriting, as well as boosting the profile of husky lead female vocalist Micha Bower as a counterpoint to gruff guitarist Neil Haverty, who dominated earlier material.

And yet rather than sounding like the fruition of a journey, this still sounds like a band in a state of transition. Their earliest material drew heavily from Alan Lomax-era folk recordings; their excellent debut, 2009’s A Mountain is a Mouth, moved into more modern directions, while retaining the bluesy base. This band is full of impeccable musicians, and although they can make every counterintuitive rhythmic twist sound entirely natural, many of these songs could stand to surrender to simplicity. Even then, the band’s refusal to take an easy way out is more often than not rewarding than it is frustrating.

But just because Bruce Peninsula are difficult to pin down and make it hard for writers to summarize easily doesn’t mean they’re not still one of the most original and exciting bands in Canada today. (Nov. 10)

Download: “As Long As I Live,” “Pull Me Under,” “Open Flame”

Florence and the Machine – Ceremonials (Universal)

What a voice—and what a waste. Few would argue that Florence Welch has an astounding voice, the kind that could not only fill stadiums, but entire mountain ranges. She has the soul of Adele, the depth of PJ Harvey, the prettiness of Sarah McLachlan, the star power of Bono. And yet here on her second album, she fails to come up with tunes to match her talent. It’s like watching Robert DeNiro in a low-rent comedy full of fart jokes: too much of Ceremonials falls back into breast-beating histrionics more suited to Celine Dion. When she does come up with a spine-tingling, showstopping anthem, it merely casts the rest of the material into sharp relief. (Nov. 10)

Download: “Breaking Down,” “Let Me Go,” “Lover to Lover”

Gonzales – The Unspeakable Chilly Gonzales (Arts and Crafts)

Love the new Feist record? Then you should check out her longtime friend, producer and collaborator Chilly Gonzales—and quickly discover that his solo work is far removed from the world of socially acceptable singer/songwriters.

Gonzales is a high-concept prankster and “entertainist” who’s never shied away from boasting about his musical genius—which he does here on a musical concept album setting his self-obsessed raps to entirely orchestral arrangements, with nary an electronic instrument to be found. It’s as ridiculous as it sounds; it’s also amazing.

Here’s a guy who launched his current stage persona with obnoxious, unfunny rap records and then released a straight-up Satie homage of solo piano music that made him a star in France. On Unspeakable, he marries his high- and low-brow loves brilliantly. The orchestrations are bold, majestic, and often lovely, making those once-ballyhooed collaborations between Jon Brion and Kanye West sound like child’s play. Meanwhile, the rhymes and the delivery are downright hilarious, a crude tour-de-force that is alternately self-loathing (“Who Wants To Hear This?” and “Shut Up and Play the Piano”) and braggadocious, best summed up with the line, “Here’s a melody to lubricate your tearducts / you’re about to be earf---ed.” It helps to know a bit about Gonzales’ bizarre career trajectory, but even if you don’t, there’s plenty to laugh at—and with: “It’s like hearing my dad rap / abstract / like porn with a laugh track.” (Nov. 3)

Download: “Supervillain Music,” “Self-Portrait,” “Beans”

High Places – Original Colors (Thrill Jockey)

High Places vocalist Mary Pearson has a wisp of a voice, one that sounds like she’s daydreaming while singing. And for most of this duo’s brief history, High Places’ music sounded just as abstract and amorphous, with unconventional electronics and household instrumentation (bowls, bells, plastic bags, etc.) manipulated into unique beats and soundscapes by Pearson and musical partner Rob Barber. Here, the sound has toughened up considerably without changing the initial aesthetic: there’s more bottom end, more definition in the mix, and more of a pulse. In other words, what at first sounded like an uncertain, flirtatious courtship now feels like things have moved to the bedroom and started to get real serious. Original Colors is sensual and immersive, the kind of record that feels like a luxurious, aromatherapeutic hot bath. Just in time for winter. (Nov. 3)

Download: “Year Off,” “Banksia,” “Dry Lake”

Amai Kuda – Sand From the Sea (independent)

The debut album from this Toronto artist opens with just her voice and handclaps: it’s all she needs to instantly establish herself as a captivating presence. The instant the fully fleshed out instrumental arrangements appear, it’s obvious those are just gravy. Kuda herself is the whole package.

Indeed, one of the biggest strengths of Sand From the Sea is that Kuda’s voice is always front and centre; the arrangements never clutter her space, and even on the modern-day R&B tracks she often strips everything to their essence, and more than a few tracks could be blues hollers or traditional African songs. Kuda draws from diverse black diaspora traditions—central African music, blues, hip-hop, reggae and soul—immersing herself in whatever sounds are surrounding her at the moment. She also has the songwriting chops to pull it all off. For all its eclecticism, Sand From the Sea doesn’t sound like a hodgepodge; it’s a consistently strong debut that instantly marks Kuda as the brightest new Canadian talent this year.

And yet for Kuda—who is painfully modest in her blog postings on her website—it’s obvious that music is a means to an end for her: almost every track carries a message of social justice. Sometimes it’s extremely effective, sometimes it sounds like every activist musician you ever saw play a benefit show in the ’90s. Even at her preachiest, however, Kuda is still compelling, her voice recalling the best work of Tracy Chapman, Michelle Shocked, Alicia Keys and Lauryn Hill. She’s definitely her own woman, however: smart, sensual, and righteous—and with one hell of a debut behind her. (Nov. 17)

Download: “Woman,” “All My Fine Shoes,” “Dance Chaka”

David Lynch – Crazy Clown Time (Sunday Best)

If you’ve ever heard David Lynch’s oddball, nasal, Southern deadpan drawl of a speaking voice, you’d be hard pressed to imagine him as a singer. After listening to Crazy Clown Time, that’s still the case.

Lynch spends most of this album speaking or singing through various voice modulators, affectations and effects, which are suitably disorienting and set to eerie tracks that sound like, well, like David Lynch soundtracks (or a more unhinged Timber Timbre). There are times when it’s mysterious and magical, like the slide-guitar instrumental “The Night Bell With Lightning” or “Noah’s Ark,” although more often than not Lynch sounds like an outsider artist/idiot savant croaking non-sequiturs. On the confounding and appropriately titled track “Strange and Unproductive Thinking,” Lynch rambles on breathlessly in a Vocoder monotone about all sorts of pseudo-philosophy before he ends with a rant about dentistry and “negative distortion of the mouth.”

If Julee Cruise’s Floating Into the Night album—which featured the Twin Peaks theme, “Falling”—was the product of the David Lynch who made Blue Velvet, Crazy Clown Time is the work of the David Lynch who made Inland Empire. If you managed to sit through that film, then there are times when this album makes perfect sense. Mulholland Drive is a Disney movie in comparison. (Nov. 10)

Download: “The Night Bell with Lightning,” “Good Day Today,” “Noah’s Ark”

Bry Webb – Provider (Idee Fixe)

Most CanRock fans first heard Bry Webb sing on the Constantines’ 2001 debut album; he sounded hoarse, hungry, like a rock’n’roll veteran seeking redemption. He sounded a lot older than the twentysomething he was at the time. Here on his debut solo album, Webb sounds considerably softer and, well, younger. His voice has a tenderness that has never been present on record before—not even on the Constantines’ quietest moments—and Provider is a fascinating album because of it.

The entire album is low-key and subdued, consisting of little other than electric guitar and the subtlest shades of slide guitar, marimba, ukulele, a droning horn section and occasional female backing vocals—all of which is practically invisible. There’s a weightlessness to this material, a delicacy that draws you closer and demands your attention. It’s not bedtime background music; it’s meditative and focused while Webb paints vivid character portraits in his lyrics.

No matter what you think you know about Bry Webb’s music, Provider is a most pleasant surprise. (Nov. 17)

Download: “Ex-Punks,” “Zebra,” “Get You Up in Peace”