Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Feb '11 reviews

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

James Blake – s/t (Universal)

Over the course of 2010, James Blake went from being an obscure British bedroom electronic artist to appearing on dozens of year-end lists for three EPs he squeezed into that calendar year. Those EPs were fascinating fractures of the genre known as dubstep, the definition of which gets more dubious every day (especially now that teen emo metal bands are putting out dubstep remixes). Loosely put, it’s a sparse electronic subgenre reliant on subsonic bass, with elements of dub reggae and icy goth.

Blake wants to add another element to the mix: Bill Withers. Unlike his EPs—which were mostly instrumental, or used only cut-up vocal phrases rather than an actual performance—Blake’s self-titled debut portrays him as an R&B singer/songwriter trapped in some digital vortex, like D’Angelo on downers.

Occasionally, it works for him, like on the album’s key gateway drug, an acoustic piano treatment of Feist’s “Limit To Your Love” that finds Blake actually delivering a solid vocal and letting a rumbling bass sound set the whole thing delightfully off-kilter. The mysteriously titled “The Wilhelm Scream” fulfills all the promise of the entire project: a fragile, soulful vocal set to syncopated bass drum sounds, echo-drenched percussion and patiently percolating staccato synths.

But those two tracks aside, Blake sounds like he couldn’t be bothered to get out of bed. The listener gets fair warning right from the opening track: “Unluck” unfolds over no discernible time signature, with beats tripping over each other and Blake singing like he’s buried beneath blankets. The lyrics are often maudlin, and the arrangements sound like a career artist who’s already coasting on an established rep and using an old bag of tricks to do all the heavy lifting.

This is Blake’s first album—as good as 2010 was to him, he doesn’t have that much critical capital to waste. He’d better step up his game soon. (Feb. 24)

Download: “The Wilhelm Scream,” “Limit To Your Love,” “To Care (Like You)”

Buck 65 – 20 Odd Years (Warner)

The duets record is a tired cliché, usually put out by a veteran performer trying to prove to a new audience how young and hip s/he is. For Buck 65, who is only pushing 40 and yet is celebrating 20 years in the business called show, he long ago gave up on trying to prove anything to anyone. And yet 20 Odd Years find him in, well, an odd position: as iconoclastic as ever, and yet also attempting to straitjacket himself into pop music formulas.

As a hip-hop outsider—one who made his mark with a deeply personal album written partially about the death of his mother (1999’s Man Overboard), who signed to a major label and released four 15-minute collages as his debut for them (2002’s Square), who explored folk and country textures on 2003’s Talkin’ Honky Blues and paid homage to subversive art of the 1950s on 2007’s Situation—Buck 65 has always allowed audiences to find him on their own terms.

Now his mainstream day job (using his given name, Rich Terfry) is as a CBC Radio host on a show where he has little control over the programming; there are no rough edges on his Drive show, which is stuffed with mostly decent but overwhelmingly earnest and accessible folk pop.

And so 20 Odd Years finds him playing to every side, and not always successfully. When left alone, Buck 65 returns to the lyrically dextrous and playful terrain he built his career on. The four tracks without guests are among the strongest: “Superstars Don’t Love,” “Lights Out,” the reflective and romantic “She Said Yes” and the intentionally ridiculous “Zombie Delight.”

When he teams up with French pop singer Olivia Ruiz (for whom he co-wrote a chart-topper in France), The Tragically Hip’s Gord Downie (on surely one of the only hip-hop songs set to a 6/8 blues), or Maritime singer/songwriter Jenn Grant (who is an intriguing foil for him on four tracks here, including an unrecognizable Leonard Cohen cover), the results are inspired. Yet when he joins with Vancouver songwriter Hannah Georgas or Gaspé singer Marie-Pierre Arthur, Buck 65 sounds like he’s making a bad Metric album, or constructing singles just to please the major label that’s bankrolled him for the better part of a decade with no commercial payoff.

If 20 Odd Years is meant to represent the arc of his career, perhaps it’s inevitable that would include both the highs and the lows—and to be fair, the lows can only be defined as such based on Buck 65’s own high standards. (Feb. 10)

Download: “Tears of Your Heart,” “Who By Fire,” “Zombie Delight”

Cowboy Junkies ­— Demons: Nomad Series Volume 2 (Latent)

Last year the Cowboy Junkies released their finest album in over a decade, Renmin Park, based on songwriter Michael Timmins’s experiences in China, and the first of what the band is calling its “Nomad Series.” The second installment is different in almost every way: it’s a tribute album to recently departed songwriter Vic Chesnutt, and features a return to the more maximalist side of the Cowboy Junkies from which Renmin Park provided such a breath of relief.

With few exceptions, the Junkies take an often heavy-handed approach to the material, bringing out neither the best in the band or in the songs. The brink-of-suicide song “Flirting With You All My Life”—the “you” being suicide—is given an upbeat rock treatment, which despite the chorus of “Oh death, really I am not ready,” still comes off as exceedingly weird considering that Chesnutt did end up taking his own life on Christmas Day, 2009.

Chesnutt’s death looms large over this recording; though many of his songs deal with frayed personalities who run the gamut between broken and beyond broken, Timmins’s selections here seem determined to remind us of Chesnutt’s own tragedy. “Square Room” contains the line “last night I nearly killed myself,” while “See You Around” is as fitting an epitaph as any.

Not that this could never have worked; Vic Chesnutt’s music was often as sparse as the best Cowboy Junkies recordings, which one would think would make this album a perfect match. But Chesnutt was such an idiosyncratic writer that he’s a hard man to cover; his unique use of vocabulary and phrasing are not easy for any singer to interpret effectively, and though she tries her determined best, Margo Timmins isn’t entirely up to the job here. (Feb. 10)

Download: “Betty Lonely,” “See You Around,” “Supernatural”

The Dears — Degeneration Street (Maple)

Wrong title—this should be called Regeneration Street. It’s the most engaged and exciting this Montreal band has sounded in years, and is as good or better than their 2003 masterpiece, No Cities Left. Every element that has ever defined this band’s shining moments—epic rock guitars, new wave keyboards, Murray Lightburn’s impassioned vocals and large doses of dramatic flair—are front and centre here; every song is buoyed by the confidence of this latest lineup in the band (which features returning members from earlier incarnations, along with new powerhouse drummer Jeff Luciani), but the songwriting is strong enough that this material would likely be just as effective if Lightburn and keyboardist were the only Dears left standing.

But most importantly, the Dears sound, well, happy—which has never been an adjective used to describe this often-dour group of mopes. They haven’t exactly turned into shiny, happy people, but there is clearly a shot of optimism and uplift that runs through that makes all the difference in the world. The orgasmic rock crescendos no longer sound oppressive and ominous; they’re exhilarating, even the wonderfully ridiculous harmonized guitar leads from Robert Benvie and Patrick Krief. The grungier moments are not a mask or a crutch; they carry serious weight.

And while the Dears have always been credited with having a soul influence—which was dubious at best, and more likely a cheap critical cliché because Lightburn is black—this time it’s actually true, as proven by the uncharacteristic jaunty Motown influence on “Yesteryear” and the slow-burning “Tiny Man,” which sounds like an oddball mashup of Pink Floyd and Al Green.

After 10 years filled with plenty of promise, upheaval, strife and stumbles, this is a stunning comeback record. No wonder the band can be spotted smiling onstage these days. (Feb. 17)

Download: “5 Chords,” “Blood,” “Tiny Man”

Deerhoof – Deerhoof vs. Evil (Polyvinyl)

Anything can happen in a Deerhoof song, and it often does. Tempos lurch, speed up, or change on a dime. Delicate beauty smashes up against thundering drums and metallic guitars. Bassist Satomi Matzusaki’s singing voice is that of an innocent, wide-eyed naïf taking in and anchoring the sonic splendour and possibility around her. It’s equally absurdist, complex, simple—and almost always fascinating.

There are also times when Deerhoof can easily get lost in its own labyrinth (see 2005’s The Runners Four). But as its triumphant title might suggest, Deerhoof vs. Evil is one of the most joyous discs in its 10-deep discography, finding them exploring even more so than usual. As always, there are pop hooks to help guide listeners who aren’t sure what they’re in for. And Matzusaki makes it a bit easier this time out, more likely to sing a lyric asking “what is this thing called love?” than she is to invite you to “Come see the duck!” (as one older live favourite does repeatedly).

There’s a much lighter touch here: far more acoustic guitars than ever before, and touches of Brazilian tropicalia and ’60s film soundtracks. Their aggressive side can appear at any given moment—as can any other bump in the road Deerhoof decide to throw in the mix, while they all maintain a firm grip on the steering wheel. Working with even more colours on their palette plate, Deerhoof’s sense of possibility is greater than ever. (Feb. 3)

Download: “Behold a Marvel in the Darkness,” “Let’s Dance the Jet,” “I Did Crimes For You”

East River Pipe – We Live in Rented Rooms (Merge)

East River Pipe is Fred Cornog, who lives in suburban New Jersey with his family and has a day job at Home Depot. While that sounds like a half-decent existence, it’s actually palatial living compared to the depths of addiction he sunk to in the mid-’90s before his music career and his marriage managed to steer him on to a new path.

Cornog’s music tends to stick to a similar, plodding tempo, with a metronomic drum machine, dreamy electric guitars and synths padding out the remaining corners of the sound. It’s as laid-back and idyllic as suburbia is supposed to be—only it rarely is in Cornog’s songs. His characters are either conmen who make backroom deals, or they’re the type who suffer for the sins of the aforementioned while saying to themselves: “I swore I’d never live on my knees,” or “I’m living in the twilight every day / I know the deck is stacked.”

But neither Cornog’s music nor his lyrics cast stones or get riled up with indignation. Instead, East River Pipe exists in its own state of inertia, with an almost easygoing acceptance—if not exactly a resignation—about the way this world and the odd people in it function: “We know most things just don’t work / and it’s not worth the fight.” In “Tommy Makes a Movie,” Tommy doesn’t actually make a movie: he dreams one in his head, afraid that if he were to try to make a reality it would only be altered and compromised—and besides, it’s easier to sit at home and immerse yourself in empty pornography.

While the music is comforting, the lyrics most definitely are not: easy listening is rarely so uneasy. And just like suburbia itself, there’s a lot more going on underneath the placid surface of any given East River Pipe song. (Feb. 24)

Download: “Backroom Deals,” “Tommy Made a Movie,” “Three Ships”

PJ Harvey – Let England Shake (Island)

PJ Harvey was one of the most exciting new artists of the ’90s, and has spent the last decade largely in retreat, after achieving her commercial—and some would say her artistic—peak with 2000’s Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea. The two albums she’s released since then were stripped down, dark and intimate affairs, unlikely to appeal to anyone who wasn’t already a hardcore fan. Let England Shake is slightly more extroverted, but it’s ultimately no different, and no less weird.

Of course, PJ Harvey has always been weird—that’s what we loved about her. There are tracks here, however, where she sounds downright batty, and not even in the in-character way she excelled at in the past. Perhaps that’s because there’s an earnestness to Let England Shake that wasn’t even present during her grungy avenged-lover phase on 1993’s Rid of Me.

This time, she’s detailing the conflicted emotions she has for her home and native land—a country that, for no apparent reason, she insists on pronouncing “Eng-a-land.” Take this verse: “Goddam Europeans/ take me back to beautiful England/ and the gray and filthiness of ages/ and battered books/ and fog rolling down behind the mountains/ on the graveyards of dead sea captains.” On another song she asks: “What is the glorious fruit of our land?” The answer: “The fruit is deformed children.”

Themes of decay dominate. “England’s dancing days are done,” she sings on the title track, a song driven by autoharps and marimbas—and a song she somehow found herself performing in front of then-prime minister Gordon Brown last summer. “Let it burn, let it burn,” she chants on the single “Written on the Forehead,” while a sample of reggae classic “Blood and Fire” plays in the background.

While there are elements here of Kate Bush at her most flighty, maybe Harvey is deep into the Sinead O’Connor stage of her career, where the once-formidable and charismatic performer gets progressively strange and erratic, with only flashes of her previous brilliance. We’ll know when she starts ripping up photos of David Cameron on Later With Jools Holland. (Feb. 17)

Download: “Let England Shake,” “The Glorious Rose,” “On Battleship Hill”

Hooded Fang – s/t (independent)

Orchestral peppy pop music full of glockenspiels, handclaps trumpets and synth bass, topped off with deadpan boy-girl vocals: of course it’s cutesy, but Toronto’s Hooded Fang have plenty of personality and melodic hooks that rise above any schtick. The rhythm section is punchy and the trumpet is majestic, and so even if singer Daniel Lee sounds a bit bored at times, the rest of the band has no trouble keeping the energy up and the arrangements simple but never naïve. With the propulsion of early Hidden Cameras and the slight Swedish detachment of Jens Lekman or Peter, Bjorn and John, Hooded Fang sounds like a first teenage kiss on a spring afternoon. (Feb. 24)

Download: “Straight Up the Dial,” “Highway Stream,” “Promise Land”

Iron & Wine – Kiss Each Other Clean (Warner)

It’s been six years since Iron & Wine bred a new generation of neo-folkie fans, via 2004’s astounding Our Endless Numbered Days. But anyone surprised by the expansive sounds heard on Kiss Each Other Clean obviously hasn’t been paying attention—particularly to 2007’s grossly underrated The Shepherd’s Dog. That record’s sometimes disorienting psychedelia didn’t go down as easy for some as singer/songwriter Sam Beam’s acoustic beginnings did, but Kiss Each Other Clean combines the best of both worlds.

Beam unleashes his backing band (comprised mainly of experimental band Califone and the avant-garde jazz of Chicago Underground) anywhere they want to go underneath his straightforward soft-rock melodies, which can guide the listener through all sorts of unusual musical terrain. That’s why a Stevie Wonder-like clavinet burbles throughout the Tom Waits-gone-dub-reggae groove of “Monkeys Uptown,” or why African and Latin percussion, New Orleans saxophone, jazz flute, spacey synthesizers, and extensive use of textural vocal harmonies all surface intermittently without ever throwing the song in question off course.

Things get a bit swampy on “Big Burned Head,” and the climactic “Your Fake Name is Good Enough For Me” eventually falls under its own weight, but those are merely slight missteps on an album that finds Beam in an entirely bewitching mood, proving that easy listening doesn’t have to be so easy, and an artist can be calming without sacrificing creativity. (Feb. 3)

Download: “Glad Man Singing,” “Tree by the River,” “Rabbit Will Run”

Wanda Jackson – The Party Ain’t Over (Nonesuch/Warner)

At 73 years old, the party most certainly is not over for Wanda Jackson. One of the original rockabilly artists of the ’50s—old enough not only to have been a contemporary of Elvis Presley, but to have dated him—has been going strong for years as a live act (with frequent stops in Ontario and Quebec, using London, Ontario’s Rizdales as her backing band). But even though she’s a member of several halls of fame (Rock and Roll, Country, Rockabilly, Oklahoma Music) and a hero to people like Neko Case, she’s not nearly as well known as she should be.

Enter Jack White, who gave Loretta Lynn’s career a late-career high on 2004’s Van Lear Rose. Jackson’s album isn’t nearly as personal—but then again Jackson never was. Her entire discography is stacked full of sass and snarl, and that’s what she delivers here, right from the opening notes of “Shakin’ All Over” (the same song The Guess Who launched their career with), where her growling, still-girlish voice sings about “quivers down her backbone,” while White puts her voice through a freaky flange pedal on the chorus and rips off a fiery guitar solo. It’s over the top and more than a bit campy—but that’s true of most of Jackson’s discography.

White gives her a recent Dylan song to cover—“Thunder on the Mountain,” where Jackson replaces Dylan’s incongruous Alicia Keys reference with one to Jerry Lee Lewis—as well as Amy Winehouse’s “You’re No Good,” which maintains the soul shuffle but adds haunting pedal steel guitar. He also insisted she re-record one of her earliest hits, “Rip It Up,” and lightens things up with the Andrews Sisters’ calypso-tinted “Rum and Coca Cola.” Jackson’s country roots are on full display in a full-band take on Kitty Wells’s “Dust on the Bible,” and a version of Jimmie Rodgers’ “Blue Yodel #6”, accompanied only by White on acoustic guitar.

It’s all good fun, but not quite full of the fireworks one would expect from this pairing. The horn section in particular is heavy-handed, and with the exception of White and keyboardist Joe Gillis, the rest of the house band sounds a bit clunky. But as anyone who has seen Jackson in recent years will attest, the lady still has a lot of life in her, and White deserves full credit for putting her back in the spotlight again. (Feb. 3)

Download: “Shakin’ All Over,” “You’re No Good,” “Dust on the Bible”

Serena Ryder – Live (EMI)

Serena Ryder was six years old when Melissa Etheridge put out her first album; it’s hard not to believe that the young Ryder didn’t spend at least part of her childhood studying Etheridge’s full-throated, bluesy rock’n’roll wail. And so it sounds entirely natural to hear the two of them singing together on Ryder’s new song “Broken Heart Sun”—in fact, you can barely tell them apart when they let loose at full throttle. It matters not that the song is hardly Ryder at her best; the charisma of the two women carries it through. Is it over the top? Of course—if you had a voice like either of these ladies, you’d be over the top, too.

Listening to the rest of this stop-gap EP, however, it’s obvious that Ryder is actually 10 times the singer that Etheridge ever was or could hope to be. Ryder is a unique force of nature, one that’s rarely captured in full on her studio recordings, and one of the most powerful vocalists working today, in Canada or anywhere else. So hearing her captured a cappella here, on bone-chilling versions of “Melancholy Blue” and “Sing Sing,” is as revelatory as the first time you see her live.

Along with the live material and the new single, the EP is padded with two songs recycled from each of her last two studio albums (including her take on Leonard Cohen’s “Sisters of Mercy,” where she shows she’s capable of subtlety as well), making this the ideal introduction for anyone unaware of Ryder’s phenomenal talents. (Feb. 24)

Download: “Broken Heart Sun,” “Melancholy Blue,” “Little Bit of Red”

Spring Breakup — It's Not Me, It's You (Label Fantastic)

If you loved Ellen Page and Michael Cera duetting in Juno, then Spring Breakup is for you. A duo of Yukon songwriter Kim Barlow and Mathias Kom, the singer/songwriter who fronts rollicking Peterborough band The Burning Hell, Spring Breakup is more than a tad too precious. Kom’s baritone and Barlow’s deadpan alto are pleasant foils for each other, and this album works best when they're playing directly off each other, like a twisted take on old Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn duets, armed with a smart-ass vocabulary. Their self-penned description for MySpace, under the category "Sounds Like," reads: "Laughing on the inside while crying in front of your ex. The awkward end of the third date. A lonely clown crying. Lost puppies." They're not joking: those are actual song subjects.

Things peter out when one of the two of them dominate; those tracks sound like rejects from their other projects, and aren't enhanced much at all by the other player (Barlow plays banjo, Kom the ukulele). They'd be better off guesting on each other's albums than making records like this together, but no doubt the dry wit sparkles when they share a stage. (Feb. 17)

Download: “The Effect I Have On Women,” “It’s Not Me It’s You,” “You Don’t Need a Heart”

Telekinesis – 12 Desperate Straight Lines (Merge)

Michael Benjamin Lerner is one of the only, if not the only, drummers to front a power-pop band. Which probably explains why he writes such catchy melodies, because if a melody doesn’t sound good against just a drum track, it’s probably not worth keeping.

If that were all Telekinesis was, that would be fine. And in fact, it’s not much more; a distorted bass guitar is the lead instrument on most of these songs. Guitars and keyboards are barely noticeable, if in fact they’re there at all. Producer Chris Walla nonetheless creates a broad sonic spectrum to flesh everything out, but the only thing you’re ever paying attention to is Lerner’s propulsive drums and his vocals, which even on a lyric about a “car crash late in the night” is still surrounded by woah-oh-oh’s to keep everything peppy. And never nauseatingly so, either; 12 Desperate Straight Lines is much more dynamic than Telekinesis’s 2009 self-titled sugar rush of a debut, although the songs are less immediate. Lerner is not yet 25; here’s hoping he’s not peaking early. (Feb. 10)

Download: “You Turn Clear in the Sun,” “Please Ask For Help,” “Dirty Thing”

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