Monday, June 27, 2011

June '11 reviews

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

Matthew Barber – s/t (Outside)

Six albums into your career is an odd time for a self-titled album, but when you shack up at home with an eight-track and play every part on the album yourself, what else would you call it? Toronto singer/songwriter Matthew Barber breaks it down to bare bones on 10 songs that are mostly dedications to his beloved, either his family or his wife. “I sing because I’m a singer/ it’s what I do with my life,” he says. There’s nothing particularly weighty on the mind of this former philosophy student; the homespun music doesn’t demand any more. The only time his charm wears off is on the closing track, with an opening couplet that should never have left his pillow, never mind his bedroom: “Oh Lexi / you’re sexy/ your body lets me in.” Otherwise, these songs suggest that Barber is best when he’s straightforward and stripped down. (June 23)

Download: “Middle of a Dream,” “Blue Forever,” “Man in a Movie”

Bon Iver – Bon Iver, Bon Iver (Jagjaguwar)

Since For Emma Forever Ago, his breakthrough 2008 debut as Bon Iver, Justin Vernon has said that he doesn’t want to be just another guy with an acoustic guitar—which nonetheless was exactly what that album was. For its follow-up, he’s assembled a large band, including veteran pedal steel session player Greg Leisz and avant-garde saxophonist Colin Stetson, created electronic textures to intertwine with guitars and banjos, and layered his vocals extensively. It all adds up to otherworldly 22nd-century folk music, made all the more alien by Vernon’s own voices, which most of the time sound like a choir of Vocoders on helium. (Perhaps that’s why Kanye West is a big fan and sought him out as a collaborator.) While the album is certainly unique, and interesting in small doses, it gets really grating, really fast. The final test of patience is the closing track, “Beth/Rest,” which Vernon admits is an homage of sorts to ’80s singer/songwriter Bruce Hornsby—not even one of his studio albums, but perhaps a murky home demo, coloured with horribly dated electronic piano sounds. This doubly eponymous album is a bold move, but it’s bound to be a divisive one. (June 23)

Download: “Minnesota, WI,” “Hinnom, TX,” “Perth”

Booker T – The Road From Memphis (Anti)

Dennis Coffey – s/t (Strut/K7!)

Two soul legends deliver their best work in decades, if not their entire storied careers.

Booker T. Jones, the organ player best known for his classic track "Green Onions," has spent most of the last 30 years backing up people like Willie Nelson, Neil Young, and otherwise igniting few of the fireworks he did on his classic recordings with the MGs. He was last heard on an uninspiring album backed up by the Drive-By Truckers, the memory of which is entirely erased by this triumphant return.

It’s easy to credit the electrifying sound of The Road From Memphis to Jones’s collaborators: his backing band is the Roots, the producer is Gabe Roth from Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, and Dennis Coffey is on guitar (see below). Maybe it’s because of them that the 66-year-old Jones dances around the keys with the dexterity of his youth, but he sounds positively on fire, egged on in particular by drummer and co-producer ?uestlove. The material serves him well: a mix of original instrumentals, spritely versions of hits by Gnarls Barkley and Lauryn Hill, and contributing vocalists Jim James (My Morning Jacket), Sharon Jones, Matt Berninger (The National) all complement the mood perfectly. (Lou Reed, on the other hand, not so much.)

Guitarist Dennis Coffey is not as well-known as Booker T, but he’s played on dozens of hit records from his hometown of Detroit, including many Motown sessions. The opening guitar riff to the Temptations’ “Cloud 9”? That’s him. He also scored a major solo hit in 1971 with “Scorpio,” a favourite of hip-hop producers since the days of Public Enemy.

This self-titled album finds him revisiting some of his classic sessions, on tracks by Parliament, Funkadelic, Wilson Pickett and others, with help from local vocalists from Detroit’s soul and garage scene (including Mick Collins of the Dirtbombs) as well as hot R&B newcomer Mayer Hawthorne. Whereas with Booker T the material and the collaborators push the star to great height, here the same combination mostly allows Coffey to quietly do what he does best: sit in the background, write kick-ass arrangements, let the band as a whole do its thing while Coffey himself drives the beast with rhythm guitar that’s distorted, fuzzy, heavy on the wah pedal, and always extremely tasteful. There are few, if any, showboating solos here: Coffey isn’t that kind of player, although he certainly has the chops to do it. The original compositions are just as vibrant as the classics.

There’s no mistaking Booker T’s album as the work of anybody but, and it’s guaranteed to please any old soul. Coffey, on the other hand, is the surprise: that anyone still makes hard-edged soul like this with a large band, a psychedelic edge and such colourful arrangements is an unexpected delight.

The only thing better than the arrival of these two records would be news that they’re touring together. (Note: they're not, though Coffey checks into the Horseshoe in Toronto on July 8.) (June 2)

Download Booker T: “Walking Papers,” “The Road From Memphis,” “Rent Party”

Download Dennis Coffey: “I’ll Bet You,” “7th Galaxy,” “Space Traveller”

The Burning Hell – Flux Capacitor (Weewerk)

A “flux capacitor” is the key element of the time machine used in Back to the Future. The album named after it finds songwriter Mathias Kom reflecting on his odd life, his childhood obsessions and his wandering nature (he’s lived in Winnipeg, Peterborough, Whitehorse and now St. John’s). Kom has a wry wit and conversational vocals, which means much of this material is more entertaining as a friend telling you funny stories, rather than actual songs. It would all be little more than an inside joke—and arguably a lot of it is—if Kom wasn’t so engaging and charismatic, which is why the autobiographical “My Name is Mathias” is an album highlight, though “Nostalgia” is probably more fun live than it is here.

His band—a new group of St. John’s players, not the Peterborough crew from previous albums—boasts plenty of baritone saxophone, clarinets, violins and trombones to bolster Kom’s ukulele backdrop and baritone vocals, and Flux Capacitor has more orchestral arrangements than the organized chaos of Kom’s previous line-up. Though it’s not his strongest work, there’s still plenty of proof that Kom is a unique and original songwriter, capable of using an Albert Einstein quote in song that indirectly sums up Kom’s own work here: “We are all equally foolish before God, and equally wise.” (June 9)

Download: “My Name is Mathias,” “Report Card,” “Pirates”

Mark Davis – Eliminate the Toxins (Saved by Radio)

Mark Davis is kind of a morose guy. On the opening track of his third solo album—the previous two having dealt with the death of a spouse—he decries the god who robbed him of his beloved; later on he tells someone who has lost their father that there are “so many ways / to wake up dead.” And yet he insists, “Waste no tears on me, sad-eyed lady.”

And nor should you. Despite its often dour details, the album takes its titular advice to heart, finding hope and inspiration amidst the emotional wreckage. Davis is the rare artist who can channel catharsis from morbid material, whose empathetic voice offers hope and embodies survival.

It helps that he writes immediately affecting songs, with a melodic gift worthy of any of the greats; every single song here sounds like a modern classic. He draws from obvious influences—“Go to Ground” provides an aural image of Neil Young hanging out in Berlin with David Bowie and Brian Eno in 1978—and yet the album is a decidedly modern take on psychedelic roots rock, one where vocals run through a Leslie speaker sound just as alien as the drum machines and synthesizers that colour what are, at their essence, straightforward folk songs. Even all of those tools are only slight distractions; the core instrumentation wouldn’t sound out of place on any Blue Rodeo record: rich acoustic guitars, 12-string electric guitars, banjos, harmonicas and even whistling.

Davis successfully combines the comfort food of Canadiana roots rock with spooky sonic spellcasting in ways that few artists other than Daniel Lanois even attempt. That he does it by throwing chunky rock songs and pop hooks into the mix is even more impressive. Perfect production, timeless songs—what more do you want? Eliminate the Toxins may be full of ghosts, but you’ll want these songs to haunt you for a long, long time. (June 16)

Download: “Waste No Tears,” “A Good One,” “Let the World Know Where You Are”

Dengue Fever – Cannibal Courtship (Fantasy)

All cross-cultural mash-ups are cannibalistic in nature. In this case, Cambodian musicians of the ’60s produced a unique regional take on American rock and pop music of the day. Thirty years later, a group of L.A. musicians, fronted by a Cambodian expatriate from a popular musical family there, take that Cambodian hybrid and make it into modern American music with traces of east and west African influences. “You’re just another stamp in my passport,” sings vocalist Chhom Nimol, but she and her band don’t feel the same way about the musicians in their record collections.

Dengue Fever know that there are two ways to approach this material: with an absurdist sense of fun—like on “Cement Slippers,” the goofy first single and duet between guitarist Zac Holtzman and Nimol—or with serious reverence to all elements of the amalgam. Three albums into their career, Dengue Fever lean more toward the latter, though the mystery stops with a thud when modern rock guitars weigh down a chorus, as on the title track or “Family Business.” There are also some outright cringe-worthy moments, like “2012” (“There are so many predictions!”). But Nimol is captivating throughout, and Holtzman effectively wields his new instrument, a double-neck guitar—one neck is a Fender Jazzmaster, the other an electric version of the Cambodian instrument called the chapey.

Dengue Fever have this corner of cross-cultural collision all to themselves, and make cannibalism seem terribly tasty. (June 30)

Download: “Cement Slippers,” “Sister in the Radio,” “Kiss of the Bufo Alvarius”

Fucked Up – David Comes to Life (Matador)

I was one of the few unconvinced that this Toronto band’s 2008 album The Chemistry of Common Life was somehow a watershed moment for hardcore punk, despite the fact it won the Polaris Prize, got them signed to one of the most-respected American indie labels, and garnered attention from plenty of mainstream press and even public radio both here and in the U.S. To an aggressive genre born and ossified in the early ’80s, Fucked Up brought broad ambition, flutes, violins, female vocals and other distractions to counteract Damian Abraham’s visceral one-note growl. But on the album itself, somewhere underneath the 70 layers of guitar tracks, they forgot how to be a great punk band (which you can hear them be on the 2009 compilation Couple Tracks); Common Life was as bloated as the prog rock that punk was created to slay in the first place.

Now comes what the band claims is a rock opera. At 18 tracks and 70 minutes, Fucked Up prove once again that they don’t lack for ambition. And the first third of this album sounds like it’s paid off: the production is 10 times better than on Common Life, with the guitars roaring out of the speakers, Abraham comfortably placed in the mix instead of sounding like the guy who’s always belching loudly at the party, and songs that match fist-pumping punk energy with, well, the idea of a rock opera that The Who pioneered in the late ’60s.

Yet the album loses steam quickly after that, and not just because Abraham sounds monotonous on a good day, and not because no one in the world can possibly comprehend the narrative, which apparently has something to do with love lost and found while living in Thatcher’s England. After the initial burst of inspiration on the opening tracks, the music doesn’t function as punk, not as prog, not as pop, and certainly not as rock opera. The production—especially the guitar tones—is the only consistent strength here, and it’s curious how close the band comes to sounding like U2 at times, which surely was not what they were going for. But who knows? (June 16)

Download: “Queen of Hearts,” “The Other Shoe,” “Turn the Season”

Handsome Furs – Sound Kapital (Sub Pop)

Handsome Furs’ Dan Boeckner and Alexei Perry have spent the last two years touring almost every corner of the world, especially the ones that few other Canadian bands dare to tread: Montenegro? Burma? Lebanon? Check, check, and check. They’ve learned that the unifying global music is not rock’n’roll—it’s the synth pop that blares out of basement clubs, taxicabs and storefronts the world over. And so Boeckner sets his guitar aside for most of Sound Kapital, and joins Perry in programming the synths and drum machines, making the combination of equally joyous, abrasive and raucous music that the likes of Kraftwerk, Suicide, Skinny Puppy and even Depeche Mode could never have visualized.

Anyone who loved his now-disbanded group Wolf Parade knows that Boeckner writes killer songs and is a powerful howler of a rock singer. In Handsome Furs, he still highlights those strengths while he and Perry dive deep into sound sculpting. Their 2009 album Face Control featured some of the most delicious guitar sounds put to tape in recent memory, contrasted with harsh synths and deep drum machines; here the guitar is only a texture, taking a back seat to icy Europop synths that Lady Gaga would love to get her hands on. (The album was mixed in Finland and Berlin, for whatever that’s worth.)

Sound Kapital isn’t as jam-packed with hooks and riffs as Face Control was, but it’s a different, darker beast. Boeckner takes more pointedly political turns than ever before, singing in a voice of the disembodied and disenfranchised about the “damage of the Western world,” vowing to “never be repatriated,” railing about how “you don’t serve the people” and asking “what about us?”

Part of what Boeckner finds fascinating about the far-flung places he visits is the sense of renewal, of forging a new history instead of being trapped in the prism of the past: “No nostalgia on the stereo / No hits because there’s no radio / no replacement / a thousand lonely kids making noise in the basement.” Even if Handsome Furs—Boeckner and Perry grew up in Lake Cowichan, B.C., and Elora, Ont., respectively—don’t happen to come play for some of those thousands of lonely kids in their hometown, Sound Kapital itself will make the world seem a lot less lonely. (June 30)

Download: “What About Us,” “Cheap Music,” “When I Get Back”

Junior Boys – It’s All True (Domino)

There’s nothing like failure, real or perceived, to motivate the creation of greater work. Junior Boys’ bandleader Jeremy Greenspan was apparently so distraught at the muted reaction to the electronic group’s last album—which, granted, was far from their strongest work—that for two months he set up shop in Shanghai, the other side of the world from his home base in Hamilton, and started writing and recording new material as a form of therapy.

Even without that back story, it’s evident from the titles that Greenspan is undergoing some kind of mid-career crisis: “Second Chance,” “A Truly Happy Ending,” “Kick the Can,” “You’ll Improve Me.” The music suggests he’s coming out on top.

Junior Boys have always been trapped between sad-sack pop songwriting, new wave revivalism and current electronic trends; they were discovered, after all, by Steve Goodman, aka Kode 9 and the man who launched the now-ubiquitous British electronic subgenre known as dubstep. Greenspan seems willing to let the pop part of the equation slide a bit; while still melodic, he’s diving deeper into sounds and surrendering to the grooves, especially on the euphoric nine-minute closing track “Banana Ripple,” easily the most buoyant and deliberate disco move on any Junior Boys album, the sound of Greenspan dancing his blues away into the night. (June 23)

Download: “Itchy Fingers,” “Playtime,” “Banana Ripple”

Kevin Kane – The Home Version (independent)

Since the breakup of his ’80s band the Grapes of Wrath, songwriter Kevin Kane has lived largely under the radar, and not entirely by his own design. A series of fine solo records went largely unnoticed, which is reason enough for him to revisit his rich catalogue (especially now that the venerable West Coast performer has relocated to Toronto). The Home Version is just Kane and his guitar, reaching back to the first Grapes of Wrath recording (“Misunderstanding”) right up to his last album, How to Build a Lighthouse. While the lush harmonies he’s known for are sadly lacking, the intimacy of the recording—which among other things allows you to focus on his fine acoustic guitar playing—makes up for it. (June 23)

Download: “Misunderstanding,” “Days,” “Last to Know”

Thurston Moore – Demolished Thoughts (Matador)

Sonic Youth are such a prolific band, both as a unit and with umpteen side projects, that very little attention is ever paid to one member’s solo record anymore—especially because no one can remember the last time the band produced something worth getting excited about.

Yet here is guitarist Thurston Moore’s acoustic solo record, produced by Beck and laced with eerie violin and harp passages. Simply by unplugging, Moore—who helped rewrite the rules of rock guitar in the late ’80s and early ’90s—sounds refreshed and engaged. Whether he’s drawing from Nick Drake, Indian folk influences, or trademarks of his own oeuvre, Moore pulls between pop and the avant-garde just as he always has. The result is certainly not a singer/songwriter record, but an enchanting surprise from a veteran reinventing himself. (June 2)

Download: “Blood Never Lies,” “Mina Loy,” “Illuminine”

My Morning Jacket – Circuital (ATO/Maple)

My Morning Jacket are one of the great American rock bands of the last decade, a reputation largely gained through their live shows. It’s there that one can completely appreciate the full-throat projection of Jim James’s voice, the sweeping dynamics that can coax lullabies into epic Southern rock anthems, the spaciousness provided by the band’s dabbling in reggae and electronics. Expect to hear all of that on the live box set they’re planning on releasing shortly.

In the studio, My Morning Jacket is not an easy band to pin down. While that can occasionally lead them down some unusual paths—like the Prince-inspired falsetto funk of the last studio album, 2008’s Evil Urges—that experimentation provides ample rewards more often than not. (Though in the case of Evil Urges, it certainly didn’t—which makes this the first good MMJ album in five long years.)

And so in an inconsistent discography, Circuital stands as one of their best albums to date, one that combines everything they’ve ever done well with subtle rhythmic approaches that could make a case for them being the American Radiohead, only with a stronger interest in pop-song structure. (The title track even sounds a bit like Radiohead’s “Creep,” as covered by Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers with Daniel Lanois on lead guitar—just in case you’ve ever wondered what that would sound like.)

There are times when things threaten to get a bit loopy—like the female choir singing woah-oh-ohs throughout a Tom Jones-like number called “Holdin’ On to Black Metal” (yes, it’s about the genre of music)—but Circuital is both remarkably consistent and constantly surprising. Pedal steel guitar and Rhodes piano are always at the forefront, with the associated country and soul influences permeating through every track, no matter where else the rhythm section is leading the band. James’s voice ties everything together: he’s becoming a more effective singer at every end of his range, not just the high notes.

As good as Circuital is, no doubt it shines even brighter on stage. My Morning Jacket play the Kool Haus in Toronto on July 11. (June 9)

Download: “Circuital,” “Victory Dance,” “First Light”

Snailhouse – Sentimental Gentleman (White Whale)

Montreal’s Michael Feuerstack “writes the songs that make the grown men cry,” he sings in the title track of his eighth album. It’s one of several moments here of self-reflection on his role as a melancholy man, as a musician who’s always on the outside looking in, as a self-aware songwriter who cuts to the heart of every situation with a well-placed couplet like, “I want the headaches that you bring / I want the painkillers, too.”

Following up his must-own masterpiece Lies on the Prize is no small task; instead, Feuerstack focuses on bringing out the strengths in his most recent backing band, who make Snailhouse gel as a real group for perhaps the first time ever, instead of simply being a vehicle for Feuerstack’s songs. He still pulls in some favours from his all-star friend pool; including appearances from Katie Moore of Socalled and Pietro Amato of Bell Orchestre and the Luyas; Arcade Fire’s Jeremy Gara mixed the album. Yet any Snailhouse album is ultimately about Feuerstack’s lyrical ability to make you chuckle and cry simultaneously and unsuspectingly—or, in one extreme case, dance “on the ledge with your heads in your hand like some solitary conga line.”

He’s one of Canada’s finest songwriters, and sadly one of its most unsung. If you’re a fan of sentimental gentlemen in general, you’ll fall for this Sentimental Gentleman in particular. (June 23)

Download: “Daydream,” “Sentimental Gentleman,” “Great Storytellers”

Tyler the Creator – Goblin (XL)

It’s an odd coincidence that this album came out the same month that Stanley Kubrick’s film version of A Clockwork Orange celebrated its 40th anniversary. Tyler the Creator, the ringleader of a massively popular L.A. hip-hop collective Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All—who went from being an underground online sensation to the subject of 10,000-word essays in the New Yorker—makes his mainstream debut with an album drenched in nihilism, misogyny and ultraviolent imagery that makes A Clockwork Orange seem antiquated and quaint.

Tyler frames the album as a dialogue with his therapist; and so instead of an all-out shockfest, Goblin is a whiny orgy of self-loathing where the protagonist claims he doesn’t have the guts to kill himself, hates being famous, blames all his trouble on women and his absent father, and has violent sexual fantasies while masturbating and doing drugs. Occasionally he attempts to be somewhat sensitive on tracks imaginatively titled “She” or “Her”; the former promises to deliver eight bullets to the subject of his stalking affection if she dares to turn him down after hearing such a charming come-on.

So why are we supposed to care? If Tyler had an ounce of charisma, he might at the very least be amusing. But after countless disclaimers about how he’s not a role model, how no one should do what he says (i.e. “Kill people, burn s---, f--- school,” goes the chorus of “Radical”), he comes off as a poser who doesn’t even have the guts to embrace his more-loathesome-than-thou persona. Is Tyler supposed to embody our darkest thoughts? Is he a trickster kicking against all social convention? Is he just a jackass?

He claims, “I’m f---in’ radical, I’m motherf---in’ radical.” Just as anyone who walks around saying “I’m so cool” is obviously the uncoolest person in the world, Tyler the Creator is little more than a 19-year-old boy who needs some kind of therapy—preferably not the kind conducted in public and on record. (June 16)

Download: “Yonkers,” “Nightmare,” “She”

Rave On Buddy Holly – Various Artists (Fantasy)

Buddy Holly is famous for three things: a) his biggest hit was “That’ll Be the Day (That I Die)”; b) he died in a plane crash at 22 with two other pop stars in 1959; c) Don McLean had a baffling #1 hit in 1971 with a song ostensibly about Holly’s death, “American Pie.”

Holly’s discography goes much deeper than this morbid trivia, of course. Despite the brevity of his career, almost every track he ever recorded was a classic—and there’s plenty of evidence of that on this 19-track collection, where even the duds at least have a great song beneath the bizarre performance (I’m looking at you, Lou Reed’s “Peggy Sue”).

The inspired guest list includes Nick Lowe, Patti Smith, Fiona Apple, My Morning Jacket and more, most of whom play it relatively straight—sometimes too straight (Justin Townes Earle) or flat (Zooey Deschanel of She & Him being the worst offender). Cee-Lo, the Black Keys and Florence and the Machine all reinvent a ’50s production aesthetic in their own modern ways, combining elements of rockabilly, bossa nova and New Orleans jazz.

Julian Casablancas of the Strokes, on the other hand, chooses to channel mid-period Billy Idol, for better or worse. And throughout “It’s So Easy,” Paul McCartney howls almost unintelligently like a manic southern rock radio DJ, like he’s suddenly trying to convince everyone that he was the really wigged out Beatle (hey kids, remember “Helter Skelter”?!). And Kid Rock is shockingly tasteful, using only bass, gospel backing vocals, handclaps and a horn section to deliver a soulful version of “Well All Right.”

This tribute was assembled to commemorate what would have been Holly’s 75th birthday. If he left this legacy and songbook at the age of 22, one can only imagine what else he would have got up to in the past 53 years. (June 30)

Download: Cee-Lo Green – “You’re So Square (Baby I Don’t Care),” Florence and the Machine – “Not Fade Away,” Kid Rock – “Well All Right”

The Weeknd – House of Balloons (independent)

It’s rare for an album to arrive out of nowhere and turn an entire genre on its head. That’s exactly what’s happened with Toronto R&B artist The Weeknd (not to be confused with the ’90s indie rock band from London, Ontario, who spelled “weekend” properly). Little is known about the people behind The Weeknd, other than that the singer is a 20-year-old named Abel Tesfaye, with help from the occasional producer (including Martin “Doc” McKinney, who’s worked with Esthero, Santigold and many more).

The Weeknd is a strange bridge between modern R&B conventions—the smooth, Autotuned vocals, the melismatic flourishes, the R. Kelly-ish plainspoken anti-poetic take on cooing come-ons—with the dark, spooky corners of dubstep, the sinister edge of Massive Attack and the inventiveness of Prince at his strangest. For that reason, it’s likely to infuriate fans of both sides: it’s far too weird for mainstream tastes, and yet the vocals are anathema for anyone who thinks T-Pain is responsible for all the evils of modern music. Tellingly, both Drake and Adele are huge fans and supporters.

Like Drake, The Weeknd specialize in self-doubt mixed with decadence, except that Tesfaye, though juvenile, is nowhere near as loathsome a lyricist as Drake (though he’s occasionally just as juvenile). He’s also a much better singer and the music is far superior—spacious and haunting where Drake just sounds empty.

The inventiveness heard here has justly fascinated critics around the world, making The Weeknd one of the biggest buzz bands of the last few months—and two more albums are expected by years’ end, as well as a collaboration with Drake. Whether they prove to be a one-off fluke or the beginning of a new wave of R&B remains to be seen, but House of Balloons—even with all its flaws—is daring enough to be considered a game-changer. (June 2)

Download: The entire album is available for free at the band’s website,

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