Thursday, September 29, 2011

September '11 reviews

The following reviews ran in the Kitchener-Waterloo Record and Guelph Mercury during the month of September.

Active Child – You Are All I See (Vagrant)

What happens when a Philadelphia choir boy who plays the harp makes music that sounds a lost ’80s new wave classic mixed with modern dubstep like The Weeknd and James Blake?

That’s not a question anyone would ever have thought to ask, but Pat Grossi of Active Child is happy to provide the answer. In one of the most inventive debut albums of the year, Grossi drapes his Sigur Ros-esque falsetto over fluttering harp, pillowy synths, and carefully conducted electronic beats, creating songs that—were they not primarily about heartbreak—sound spiritual and devotional, despite, or perhaps because of, the otherworldly artifice of the instrumentation. Like Bon Iver’s new album, there are some decidedly unfashionable ’80s production touches, but there’s nothing in Grossi’s self-contained sonic atmosphere to suggest that he’s trying to follow any trend at all. (Sept. 1)

Download: “Hanging On,” “You Are All I See,” “High Priestess”

Atropolis – s/t (Dutty Artz)

Adam Partridge grew up in the New York City borough of Queens, but he’s been spending a lot of time in South America in the past few years, journeys that pay off on his debut as Atropolis, on the record label run by DJ Rupture, one of the leading cross-cultural curators in the U.S. Partridge recorded in Colombia with several vocalists, cumbia musicians, and local accordion legend Hugo Carlos Granados. Other tracks draw from modern Brazilian digital rhythms, not unlike Portugese/Angolan group Buraka Som Sistema, and there are trace elements of Argentinean tango as well. Though traditional elements are always in the mix, Partridge plays with them all in a decidedly 21st-century context. (Sept. 29)

Download: “Che Bo,” “Som Sista,” “NY Chero”

Blitzen Trapper - American Goldwing (Sub Pop)

The cover art looks like an 8-track tape you’d find in a truck stop in Montana. And it’s not a joke, nor is the inside photo showing the band in tattered jean jackets, trucker hats, plaid shirts and clutching cans of beer. Blitzen Trapper don’t sound a day older than 1975, playing boogie rock somewhere in that not-so-vast distance between Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Doobie Brothers. Harmonized guitar leads, slide guitars, roadhouse piano, touches of mandolin, the occasional conga: these guys have probably played more than a few cabin keg parties in their time. By their own admission, it’s music that will “make you want to shotgun a beer in the shower while listening to the Stones or Joe Walsh,” according to the self-penned bio by frontman Eric Earley.

There’s no shortage of retro ’70s bands, and excellent ones at that, such as Toronto’s Zeus, but few feel as fossilized as Blitzen Trapper. You could easily knock them for that, or you could respect how incredibly good they are at it. This is not a fashion for these guys; they wouldn’t have nailed every minor detail and vocal harmony if they were merely auditioning for a sequel to Almost Famous (a part they would get in a Hollywood minute). (Sept. 22)

Download: “Might Find It Cheap,” “The Way You Walk Away,” “Your Crying Eyes”

Ry Cooder – Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down (Nonesuch)

It’s hard not to respect Ry Cooder as a guitarist, especially the albums where he’s acted as a Western conduit to Cuban music (Buena Vista Social Club), Mali desert blues (Ali Farka Toure) and Mexican-American culture (Chavez Ravine). Considering that he’s a vocalist of limited means, however, you have to be a big fan to sit through one of his singer/songwriter albums. Except this one.

Like many Americans, Cooder is angry. This is his State of the Union address, written as Woody Guthrie might have done and set to a backdrop of blues, reggae, gospel, TexMex, Cajun and country songs. Bankers, warmongers, racists, environmental pillagers, politicians of all stripes, religious fundamentalists—they all get an earful from Cooder, who delivers his tirades in folksy songs that are welcoming rather than alienating.

The only odd thing about this album is that it seemingly stands alone: considering the populist anger from every corner of the political spectrum in the last five years, and now that the “Occupy Wall Street” movement is gaining momentum, why isn’t more music as direct and fiery as this? It’s not like Cooder is writing from the headlines, either; a song like “No Banker Left Behind” has nothing at all to do with the 2008 crash and bailout, although it certainly carries plenty of resonance.

It’s easy to be cynical about the decline of America; it’s a skill to channel that and turn it into art filled with joy and beauty along with the bile. (Sept. 8)

Download: “No Banker Left Behind,” “Christmas Time This Year,” “Lord Tell Me Why”

Grace Jones - Hurricane (Pias)

“Who can define infinity?” Grace Jones asks on “Love You to Life.”

The answer is easy: her North American fans, who are only getting to hear Hurricane now, an interminable three years after its U.K. release. That’s an entirely inexplicable and inexcusable delay in this digital age, especially considering renewed interest in not only her legacy as a style icon (her image suddenly started appearing on t-shirts and buttons again), but also her classic early ’80s albums, which fused reggae, new wave and R&B in progressive ways rarely heard since.

Not only is Hurricane Jones’s first album of original material in 19 years (well, 22, for this continent), but it’s also one of her best. She’s once again working with the Compass Point All-Stars, the ace studio musicians assembled in Nassau, Bahamas, for her early records (as well as for Black Uhuru, Robert Palmer, and Tom Tom Club), a group that includes the legendary rhythm section of Sly & Robbie, keyboardist Wally Badarou and guitarist Barry Reynolds.

As one can imagine, Grace Jones has a lot to say now that she’s back. The first words you hear are: “This is my voice, my weapon of choice.” On the title track, co-written with and featuring Tricky, she boasts, “I can be cool, soft as a breeze / and I’ll be a hurricane, ripping up trees.” This album originally came out a mere month after the financial collapse, but she has a piercing song called “Corporate Cannibal” (“legalized criminal!”), where she snarls, “I’ll consume my consumers with no sense of humour” (there’s also an amazing video for this song, naturally).

Hurricane is also one of her most personal statements. There are several songs here with autobiographical overtones, but none more so than “Williams’ Blood,” co-written with Wendy & Lisa (of Prince and the Revolution), which tells the tale of her mother, a Jamaican girl who married a preacher at age 17, and moved the family to Syracuse, New York, when Jones was a teenager.

Musically and lyrically, this is everything Jones has ever done well. She no longer sounds cutting edge—the most modern tracks here sound like ’90s trip-hop, which is not surprising considering that Massive Attack invited her to play a festival of theirs right before she made this record, and Tricky is a guest—but she’s embraced gospel choirs and large string sections that enhance her already rich sound, making this perhaps the most lush album in her discography. Her powerful voice hasn’t diminished a bit, and for every darker trip-hop turn such as the title track or “Corporate Cannibal,” there’s a gospel-tinged pop-reggae song like “Love You to Life” or “Well Well Well.”

It only makes sense that when such an icon has been silent for so long, she should come roaring back with a comeback as successful as this one. This is one Hurricane that North Americans should welcome ashore. (Sept. 22)

Download: “Williams’ Blood,” “Love You to Life,” “This Is”

Nick Lowe - The Old Magic (Yep Roc)

When a beloved 62-year-old songwriter puts out an album called The Old Magic, fans of his early work might anticipate a return to his late ’70s power pop sound.

Instead, however, the title is more literal: it’s a magical record by an old guy who’s acting his age. Whether he’s musing about his “Checkout Time,” boasting about how well-read he is (“I read a lot / and not just magazines”), getting a new start on life (“House for Sale,” “Restless Feeling”), or reading too much into flowers (“Stoplight Roses,” “The Poisoned Rose”), Nick Lowe does it over classy, ’50s-tinged lounge arrangements that allow his well-matured voice to luxuriate over every note. Sometimes he dips into a country shuffle, sometimes a reggae backbeat, but mostly The Old Magic is rich with lush balladry that calls out for candles, a fine red wine and dark chocolate.

Every track here makes a case for Lowe getting even better with age. Score another one for the geezer. (Sept. 15)

Download: “Checkout Time,” “Shame on the Rain,” “You Don’t Know Me At All”

Mister Heavenly - Out of Love (Sub Pop)

Mister Heavenly owes a debt to ’50s pop music, filtered as it is through three guys—Nick Thorburn of Islands, Ryan Kattner of Man Man, and Modest Mouse drummer Joe Plummer—who built their careers on herky-jerky, off-kilter indie rock. It’s inventive, catchy and occasionally cartoonishly creepy; they call it “doom wop.” Mostly, it’s just a lot of fun.

Thorburn knows how to bring out the best in people with slower creative processes than himself; likewise, they’re responsible for his best albums with the Unicorns (with Alden Penner), Human Highway (with Jim Guthrie) and now this. In each of these projects there’s a tossed-off, carefree air to the recordings that keeps the songs simple, the harmonies clear, the arrangements uncluttered. There’s nothing lazy about it, however: Mister Heavenly doesn’t sound like a half-baked side project, but a fully realized unit unto itself, one that can even get away with ridiculous songs that have choruses like “cut me off a slice of reggae pie.”

The album ends on a suspended note; hopefully this is not the last we hear of Mister Heavenly. (Sept. 8)

Download: “I Am a Hologram,” “Mister Heavenly,” “Charlyne”

The Pack A.D. - Unpersons (Mint)

When you’re a young, two-piece garage band who put out four albums in four years and tour your asses off around the world, it’s a matter of time before you either a) burn out or b) make your masterpiece. And so if previous albums by this Vancouver group have been somewhat underwhelming, Unpersons finds them firing on all cylinders, crafting one of the most exciting rock records of the year.

They play with the intensity of a band determined to make the most out of every second on stage, no matter the venue, no matter the audience. And with the help of Detroit’s finest garage rock producer Jim Diamond (Dirtbombs, White Stripes), and recorded in Vancouver’s finest studio, The Hive (Black Mountain, Destroyer), The Pack A.D. are snarling, spitting and ready to knock you on your feet. Guitarist/vocalist Becky Black sings like a woman done wrong, who’s ready to exorcise any and all demons in song.

The sound is heavy, the performances are raw, and they’ve honed their songwriting for maximum riffs, hooks, and melody. What more do you want in a rock’n’roll record? (Sept. 15)

Download: “Sirens,” “Seasick,” “8”

Red Hot + Rio 2 – Various Artists (E1)

When the first Red Hot + Rio compilation came out 15 years ago, Brazilian music’s proximity to the mainstream seemed distant, notwithstanding flirtations from David Byrne and Paul Simon (the albums Rei Momo and Rhythm of the Saints, respectively). That first album, which featured Everything But the Girl, Stereolab, Maxwell, Sting, and PM Dawn, focused mainly on the bossa nova era of Brazilian music, playing into the easy listening revival of the time.

Today, Brazilian music of every stripe has taken off, whether it’s the smooth stylings of Bebel Gilberto or the aggressive favela booty bass that drives bands like Bondo do Role, and Brazilian rhythms can be heard on any number of mainstream pop singles. And so Red Hot + Rio 2 boasts 33 tracks, over two hours of music, and a lineup that includes Beirut, Devendra Banhart, Eugene Hutz of Gogol Bordello, John Legend, Madlib, and dozens more. Money Mark (best known as the Beastie Boys’ keyboardist) and Marisa Monte are the only repeat performers.

Many tracks are covers of songs from the tropicalia era of late ’60s and early ’70s Brazilian music, a psychedelic pop movement that was considered politically subversive by the country’s military regime at the time. Therefore tropicalia pioneers Os Mutantes are paired up with like-minded contemporaries Of Montreal for an inspired romp through their original “Bat Macumba,” while soul singers Alice Smith and Aloe Blacc breathe new life into “Baby,” a Caetano Veloso song of which Os Mutantes did the most recognizable cover. Brooklyn weirdo dance-pop duo Javelin team up with tropicalia’s most delightful and inventive oddball, Tom Zé, on “Ogodô Ano 2000.” And new-school Brazilian singer Seu Jorge duets with Beck on a cover of the latter’s song “Tropicalia,” which helped rekindle interest in the movement when it came out 13 years ago on Beck’s Mutations.

This is not all tropicalia all the time, however. Marina Gasolina and Secousse bring some modern favela funk to “Freak le Boom Boom,” while Los Van Van and Carlinhos Brown bring a big brass sound to more traditional rhythms. And it makes perfect sense that the group Brazilian Girls show up here, with Angelique Kidjo and Forro in the Dark in tow. Indeed, the only downfall of this compilation is that it’s exhausting: there’s too much of a good thing.

As always, this Red Hot album is a benefit for AIDS charities; the Red Hot organization was founded 22 years ago and has been responsible for 15 compilations in various genres, although there have only been three in the last decade (all of them are wonderful: the other two are 2003’s Red Hot and Riot, a tribute to Fela Kuti, and 2009’s Dark Was the Night, which was curated by The National). With the 30th anniversary of AIDS being marked this year (note the excellent cover story in the September issue of The Walrus), the disease is still the subject of misunderstandings and problematic solutions, despite the fact that being HIV-positive is no longer a death sentence. Cheers to the Red Hot folks for effectively enhancing their activism with excellent music. (Sept. 1)

Download: “Tropical Affair” – Money Mark, Thalma De Freitas & João Parahyba; “Um Girassol Da Cor Do Seu Cabelo” – Mia Doi Todd and José González; “Boa Reza” – Vanessa Da Mata, Seu Jorge & Almaz

Tasseomancy - Ulalume (Out of This Spark)

Something wicca this way comes.

Formerly known as Ghost Bees, Tasseomancy—the name refers to the art of reading tea leaves—are twin sisters from Halifax who currently tour the world as backup singers with Austra, though they sound like they ran away from a Renaissance Fair and wrote a few songs while boiling bats and casting spells. Sample chorus: “Who’s at my altar? For these beasts are not lambs for the slaughter…” You get the idea.

How out there is this duo? Their official bio compares them to Comus, a psychedelic British folk group from the ’60s—who are kind of an obscurists’ trump card, really—that sounded like your most terrifying hippie nightmare come true, chanting in the woods with hand drums, flutes and demonic lyrics. Tasseomancy do not, thankfully, sound like Comus (there can and should be only one Comus), but there is plenty of autoharp and arch vocals and an obvious influence from the darker corners of British folk.

To help them make their debut as Tasseomancy—the name Ulalume comes from an Edgar Allan Poe poem—they turned to Taylor Kirk of Timber Timbre, a guy who knows a thing or two about creeping ’round back stairs. He even takes lead vocals on a track called, of course, “The Darkness of Things.” Kirk doesn’t try to guide them into any sense of normalcy or pop tradition, like his own band. He’s happy to follow them down whatever rabbit hole they take him; his job is to make sure their dream world is as brightly lit and colourful as possible.

Hallowe’en is just around the corner, kids. Here’s your haunted house soundtrack. (Sept. 29)

Download: “Heavy Sleep,” “Diana,” “Up You Go Little Smoke”

Tinariwen – Tassili (Anti)

This band of blues musicians from the Sahara Desert formed in refugee camps 30 years ago, from which Moammar Gadhafi recruited mercenaries in exchange for promises of independence for the Tuareg tribe (needless to say, he didn’t deliver). Decades ago they put down their guns in exchange for guitars, and listening to their latest album in the wake of the overthrow of Gadhafi, it sounds like music for the morning after a revolution.

Their 2007 North American breakthrough, Aman Iman, was fiery and electric and full of call-and-response choruses and joyous ululating; it made an easy crossover to rock audiences. Its follow-up was recorded partially in the desert where the band was born, using generators to record their electric guitars around the campfire. This time out they tone things down, making a reflective and primarily acoustic album. After the gunfire—both hostile and celebratory—this sounds like a people pondering possibilities and next steps, as well as mourning the losses that brought them here.

Tassili is also the first Tinariwen album to feature Western guests, although in each case there’s no awkward culture collision; everyone fits seamlessly into the background. Wilco guitarist Nels Cline creates atmospheres behind the opening track “Imidiwan Ma Tennam,” while TV on the Radio vocalists Kyp Malone and Tunde Adebimpe weave themselves into “Tenere Taqhim Tossam” so effectively that you barely notice someone has started singing in English.

Though Tinariwen’s popularity has ushered in many other desert blues purveyors, Tassili displays plenty of intangible, magic moments that illustrate why this group was the first to make an international breakthrough. (Sept. 1)

Download: “Imidiwan Ma Tennam,” “Tenere Taqhim Tossam,” “Walla Illa”

The Weeknd - Thursday (independent)

It’s an axiom that you have your whole life to write your first album, and a few months to write your second. In the age of instant Internet availability, that time has been ostensibly been whittled down to a few weeks.

The Weeknd released their debut, House of Balloons, as a free download in March; word of mouth spread quickly, helped in part by mystique that kept any details about the dark, mysterious R&B project top secret, except for the name of the singer, 21-year-old Torontonian Abel Tesfaye. Fast forward mere months later, and that album has snuck on to the Polaris Prize shortlist and The Weeknd’s debut live show in Toronto was one of the biggest international music stories to come out of that city this year.

With good reason: House of Balloons sounded like a game-changer in modern R&B, a goth-y update on ’90s trip-hop like Tricky, filtered through production advances in hip-hop and electronic music of the last 10 years, both mainstream and underground, with Tesfaye’s smooth vocals and lurid, Lothario persona tying it all together.

Now comes Thursday, another free download album, and concerns about a sophomore slump are inevitable—and valid. The Weeknd sounds—weakened, you could say.

It’s not just that the mystique has been lifted somewhat and therefore the music sounds less opaque. Thursday is like an awkward second date with a guy that seemed so intriguing and charming, albeit a bit weird, the first time out. Now his flaws are magnified and his come-ons less alluring (especially the one—as always, delivered in a smooth, sensitive croon—about how he closes his eyes and imagines making love to someone else when he’s with you).

There is still that voice, an angelic, slippery instrument that can do almost anything—including the use of AutoTune for effect, not necessity, and bridging the natural and digital divide with uncanny ease. But, as with House of Balloons, he’s more often than not applying it to cringe-worth lyrics; in somehow keeping with the “theme” of the album title, the way he keeps rattling off the days of the week sounds like a certain SCTV soap opera parody sketch.

When Tesfaye made his live debut, he had a rock band behind him with electric guitars adding extra crunch; they appear here to pull his forward-thinking hip-hop back to forgettable rock/industrial acts of the ’90s, making much of Thursday sound dated rather than next level. He flirts with reggae on “Life of the Party” and “Heaven or Las Vegas” (not a Cocteau Twins cover—though I wouldn’t put that past him), although in each case it sounds like something Trent Reznor would do with reggae, rather than an Ethiopian-Canadian R&B singer from Toronto.

Tesfaye hasn’t entirely shit the bed, of course; high expectations shouldn’t diminish the gems that appear here. Individual tracks usually rotate around a single sound: the martial drums on “The Birds Part 1,” the acoustic guitar that provides the sole backdrop to "Rolling Stone," the rubbery dub and disembodied R&B of “The Zone.”

This is one of three Weeknd albums of 2011; the third is expected shortly. “Why you rushing me, baby? It’s only us alone,” he sings. But he’s the one who sounds in a hurry here; maybe if he slows down and takes his time, he’ll once again knock our socks off—and a few other items of clothing, by the sounds of it. (Sept. 8)

Download: the entire album is available for free at

Wilco – The Whole Love (dBpm/Anti)

If Wilco fans were wondering when relatively new guitarist Nels Cline was finally going to be allowed to shed, you get your answer five minutes into the title track that opens this album. There, the veteran guitar slinger—who joined Wilco just in time for the band to make two of their more subdued, conservative albums in years—lets loose a torrent of noodly pyrotechnics over a song that could otherwise be a Radiohead outtake.

That doesn’t mean the rest of the album follows suit, however. The only thing anyone can expect from Wilco is that they’re going to do whatever they want, and The Whole Love finds them touching on every stage of their career: concise pop songs, heartbreaking acoustic country ballads, weirdo art rock, and some glockenspiels and bird whistling just for the hell of it.

“The night’s so young,” sings Jeff Tweedy, “but I still say we’re too old for clichés.” Now that they’re finally putting out their own records, on their own label, there’s even less expectation for them to bend to anyone’s will. Listening to The Whole Love, you can almost hear them breathing sighs of relief.

Unfortunately, what you don’t hear is them breaking a sweat. While this is a good record by a great band—and better than, say, 2004’s A Ghost is Born or 2007’s Sky Blue Sky—it’s not a particularly satisfying one. Its charms are subtle—in both the uptempo rockers and the spacey, sparse ballads—but unlikely to engage anyone who isn’t already a big fan. Perhaps that’s all we should expect from such a well-oiled machine at this stage of their career.

But if the rest of the album is merely good enough, it’s the closing track, “One Sunday Morning,” that’s the most compelling track here. Tweedy starts it off singing, “This is how I tell him / oh, how it’s long,” and from there embarks on a 12-minute, intensely personal meditation about his deceased father and their torrid relationship, set to little more than three chords and a mid-tempo, subdued acoustic backing. That the band can provide ever-evolving shades and textures to sustain the minimal narrative over such a long period of time is a testament to their many strengths. (Sept. 29)

Download: “I Might,” “Open Mind,” “One Sunday Morning”

Wild Flag – s/t (Merge)

“I’m a race horse / you put your money on me,” sings Carrie Brownstein. With good reason: though Wild Flag are a new band and this their debut album, they have a pedigree that has already got the indie rock geek squad frothing at the mouth.

Brownstein and drummer Janet Weiss are reuniting for the first time since their band Sleater-Kinney—perhaps the most powerful and successful band to emerge from the riot grrrl scene of the early ’90s—announced a hiatus in 2006. (In the meantime, Brownstein became an NPR arts journalist and starred in the comedy series Portlandia; Weiss backed up Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus.) Here they’re joined by the always intriguing Mary Timony, who performed solo and fronted the band Helium, which means two of the finest guitarists of the ’90s American underground are now in the same band together. (Rebecca Cole of the Minders rounds out the lineup on bass and keyboards.)

Though they are all veterans, they play with the enthusiasm of a new band, combining huge classic rock riffs with arty twists and turns, and songs that break down to exuberant handclaps and chanted vocals. Like any young band, several songs are about the love of music itself; the joy of writing and performing is not something these ladies take for granted. “Sound is the blood between me and you,” they sing on opening track “Romance,” and that’s obvious not only in their years of experience, but in their years of friendship together. (Brownstein and Timony actually had a short-lived side project in the ’90s called the Spells, an underwhelming distraction that didn’t prepare their fans for the rock onslaught of Wild Flag.)

And yet though Brownstein and Timony clearly work well together, they don’t yet share the same intuitive and explosive chemistry Brownstein shared with Sleater-Kinney’s other singer/guitarist, Corin Tucker (who released her own low-key solo project earlier this year). And so while Wild Flag’s main selling point to Sleater-Kinney fans may be the return of Brownstein and Weiss, what this band really signals is a creative return for Timony, whose last couple of records dulled the edges off the unique sound she crafted in Helium and her first two solo albums; here, her recognizable guitar tone, particular scales and approach to melody contrast is coaxed into new territory by Brownstein.

All of that nitpicking is really only relevant to those who grew up worshipping these women; any and all newcomers are likely to wave the Wild Flag loud and proud right from the opening notes. They play Lee’s Palace in Toronto on October 11. (Sept. 15)

Download: “Romance,” “Glass Tambourine,” “Electric Band”

Monday, September 12, 2011

Polaris 2011 predictions, day five

Polaris prize prognostications, day five.

Keep in mind that the only year I’ve successfully predicted the winner was the inaugural ceremony, when it went to Final Fantasy (which everyone else thought was a dark horse). Since then, however, the closest I’ve come to betting-pool success is thinking Caribou had a good shot for Andorra (he won), though even then I thought it would go to the Weakerthans. So make of all that what you will.

I’ve said it before: this year’s shortlist is the most satisfying to me, and I’ll be happy if anyone but Hey Rosetta takes home the prize. And among the substitutions I’ve been advocating for all week, there’s really only two or three that I think should be on the shortlist in place of something that’s already there.

Hats off to Steve Jordan, Liisa Ladouceur and everyone else who puts the prize together, and I’m very sad that I’m going to have to miss this year’s gala (though I have a pretty fun, once-in-a-lifetime excuse).

With that, here’s the final installment.

Timber Timbre – Creep On Creeping On (Arts and Crafts)

The album: Oh, Taylor Kirk of Timber Timbre is creepy, all right. But when you’re going for a certain mood and trying to create genuine tension, does it help to give your album such a campy title? Worse yet, write that phrase into the chorus of the title track? For some, Kirk is moving into schtick territory with this, his fourth album of David Lynch-ian, ’50s nightmare flashbacks and backwoods weirdness. For many more, however, Kirk continues to step up his game, to inherit his Elvis-in-hell persona, and to inject more cinematic terror into his tunes.

He did most of this better on his last album, 2009’s self-titled release, but that’s not the point here. This is his first record made after touring with a band, which makes the music sound considerably more confident and gives it a certain strut; in particular, violinist Mika Posen (Forest City Lovers) provides essential textures, what David Dacks calls “Nelson Riddle meets Stravinsky” in his excellent Exclaim piece on the band.

The album is split between actual songs and cinematic interludes; the latter are often more effective at creating bonafide creepiness. That’s in part because they’re so well-constructed, but it’s also because Kirk’s lyrics and delivery are at times too self-conscious.

Take, for example, his deadpan delivery in “Lonesome Hunter”: “What did that bad man put in you? Did those wrong kids cross a line? I’m afraid I’ll never understand, baby, and I’m so sorry you had such a bad time. Well, I’ve done some truly awful things. And you must be very terrified. You have every reason to be frightened, since you’ve been reading my mind.” It’s not like those lyrics are inherently awful, the way they’re delivered here, I’m not buying them.

Musically, it’s hard to fault anything on this album, other than the moment when the title track segues into "Black Water" using the same key and same tempo and featuring the same plinky-piano eighth notes. Opener “Bad Ritual” is perhaps Kirk’s finest recorded moment, setting his ghoulish atmosphere to a groove he admits he ripped off the RZA; before now, you’d never have guessed Timber Timbre could be funky.

The chances: Fair. Could be a compromise candidate. And Polaris owes Timber Timbre something, after the 2009 album failed to make that year’s shortlist and yet won Eye Weekly’s cross-Canada critics’ poll that year—making one wonder how it could top a national poll and yet not make the top 10 in a process featuring those same journalists. One has to assume they were all Johnny-come-latelies and didn’t hear the album until its rerelease on Arts and Crafts.

More importantly, as Aaron Brophy accurately argues in Maclean’s, Timber Timbre and Austra will split the goth-y witch/warlock vote, so maybe it doesn’t really have any chance at all.

The Weeknd – House of Balloons (independent)

The album: Unlike any other album ever shortlisted for the Polaris, House of Balloons takes place after a night in clubland, when the drugs come out in a room full of glass tables, you leave those pussy-ass niggas behind and the time for subtle come-ons is long over. Those girls over there, with the Louis V. bags, tats on their arms, and high-heeld shoes makin’ them six feet tall? They’re all hos, here to help fuck away the pain lying beneath ever lurid Lothario: “Bring your love, baby, I can bring my shame.”

“Trust me girl, you want to be high for this,” goes the opening track. By the time it’s over, you’ll feel like Tom Cruise at the end of Eyes Wide Shut—not because you’ve just been on an all-night bender at a sex party, but because you just saw a film that looked fantastic, but was patently ridiculous.

Picking out the stupidest lyrics on House of Balloons is a bit of a turkey shoot. But it sure is fun: “I’m on that shit you can’t smell, baby, so put down your perfume.” “Got the walls kicking like they’re six months pregnant.” Or, the one that makes me laugh out loud, a dead-serious lyric in the middle of a so-called seduction: “What you doing in the baffroom? I hear noises in the baffroom!”

Could an album that uses the word “baffroom” really win the Polaris? Absolutely. That’s because lyrics aside—and that’s a big aside—House of Balloons is more than intoxicating from a sonic standpoint: this is a modern, post-R. Kelly R&B record, complete with AutoTune and plenty of quivering falsetto, and yet it’s often set to unnerving, abstract beats, ghostly textures, the weirdest moments of Massive Attack or Prince’s Black Album, and electronic sounds usually only favoured by reclusive post-industrial sound artists from Finland.

Abel Tesfaye, the 21-year-old University of Toronto student who’s been playing hard to get with all media ever since he posted this album as a free download (don’t expect him to show up at the gala), manages to take all those influences and create something magical, mysterious and stunning. Those lyrics? You actually don’t notice them at all unless you’re listening closely, because Tesfaye has a strong soul voice—he doesn’t need that AutoTune, it’s employed as a disembodying effect—that could make just about anything sound sweet and seductive. Which means that “The Morning” is the most beautiful, tender song you’ve ever heard about a “house full of hoes that specialize in hoe-in’.”

The chances: Strong. By bridging pop music and avant-garde production with modern soul, there’s nothing else on the list that sounds like this, and it stands alone in modern R&B—for starters, its miles ahead of other supposed game-changers like Kanye West’s 808 and Heartbreak. And if all the indie rockers in the jury room start fighting each other, this could come straight up the middle.


Rural Alberta Advantage – Departing (Paper Bag)

The album: (poached from my March 2011 review) We’re told Alberta is all about the economy: it’s the province that doesn’t run deficits (or at least, until recently); it’s the province without a sales tax; it’s the province whose oil sands are the engine of the Canadian economy; it’s the province that sends politicians to Ottawa who are all about fiscal restraint.

The Rural Alberta Advantage is by no means a political band, but they are certainly an economical one. There is no dead weight in this trio, not a note out of place in these 10 songs delivered in 32 minutes, and there is plenty of space surrounding the succinct melodies of frontman Nils Edenloff. Departing delivers considerable improvements from the band’s promising debut, with drummer Paul Banwatt (also of Woodhands) punctuating every song with propulsive, syncopated beats that set the group far apart from its influences or peers; multi-instrumentalist Amy Cole not only softens Edenloff’s nasal tenor, but her additional percussion and keyboards add subtle but extremely effective texture. Edenloff plays guitar, but never as a crutch; for an indie-rock trio, it’s to their credit that the guitar is the least important instrument here.

If there’s a flaw here, it’s that Edenloff’s voice is a bit too thin to sell the songs, and he pushes it to its limits—but then again, a more proficient belter might make this too bombastic. It would be almost too easy to transform these songs into Arcade Fire anthems, but Rural Alberta Advantage are content to carve out their own niche. And you can take that to the bank.

Why it didn’t make the shortlist: That’s a total mystery, other than that the indie-rock vote is pretty widely split. I figured it would be a shoo-in, although the nasal vocals are a stumbling block for many.

Sloan – The Double Cross (Outside)

The album:
(poached from my May 2011 review. Apologies for the plagiarism, it’s a very busy week.)

When celebrating your 20th anniversary, the last thing you want is people wondering: are they still around? Or worse: why are they still around? Sloan provide definitive answers to both by coming out swinging on their tenth album.

For a band that has always prided itself on being a four-way democracy, there have always been albums where someone isn’t pulling their weight. This is not one of them: every member brings their best game to the table, not just individually—they’ve had a tendency to retreat to their silos in the past—but together, as on the Chris Murphy/Andrew Scott song “She’s Slowing Down Again,” or the way some songs cross-pollinate, inserting a chorus of one into the coda of another. Jay Ferguson, the most consistent Sloan songwriter of the last decade, once again scores the album’s sweetest spots (notably “Green Gardens Cold Montreal,” an acoustic gem), and Patrick Pentland’s rockers sound much more inspired here than he has lately.

If anniversaries are a moment for self-examination, this band’s 20th proved to be a rallying point to give them a raison d’etre. There’s no point sitting around and waiting for radio royalties and festival paycheques to roll in, and so The Double Cross sounds like they’re proving something to themselves as much as their fairweather fans. There isn’t a wasted moment in any of these 12 songs: it’s the sound of a band that is still very much alive and fighting, not resting on a recorded legacy but continuing to make it.

Why it didn’t make the shortlist: The Double Cross came out in May, right before the June deadline, so jurors didn’t get to spend their summer beer bashes letting it soak in. But the more obvious reason is jurors taking geezers for granted (although, hello, Ron Sexsmith), and Sloan certainly played up said status by talking up their 20th anniversary in all the press for the album. (The album title is a Roman numeral joke.) No matter how much our collective youth may have been informed by the likes of Sloan, The Tragically Hip, Blue Rodeo or other CanRock icons, it’s unlikely any of their new records will ever sneak onto a shortlist.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Polaris 2011 predictions, day four

Predictions for the Polaris Prize, to be handed out Monday, September 19.

Ron Sexsmith – Long Player Late Bloomer (Warner)

The album: Ron Sexsmith has been underestimated his entire life, and so more than 15 years after his major label debut (which was almost dumped before it came out, were it not for the intervention of Elvis Costello), few expected him to come back swinging the way he does here, his fifth truly great record. (The others would be Grand Opera Lane, the self-titled album, Whereabouts and Cobblestone Runway.)

Whether it’s just chance that his songwriting stepped up from his last several lukewarm releases, or whether it was the intervention of producer Bob Rock (who also resurrected The Tragically Hip from a lazy period), Long Player Late Bloomer displays Sexsmith as a master melodicist, a songwriting student of the greats who knows how to use more than just major and minor chords and still sound beautifully simple, and a lyricist with a knack for rhyme schemes and turns of phrase.

He also manages to poke fun at his own underdog, sad-sack status on songs like the title track, "Believe It When I See It" and "Get In Line" (“If you’re bent on bringing me down/ take a number and get in line”), and he does so without ever being maudlin or overly self-referential; any specifics in Sexsmith’s songs are easily applied to the universal, like the hard-luck narrative "Michael and His Dad."

There are plenty of reasons why Sexsmith’s songwriting heroes sing his praises, and why young artists want to work with him: he knows his craft inside out, and here he’s largely on top of his game. I only say “largely” because the last five of these 13 tracks drag the momentum down to a crawl; among this album’s many strengths, sequencing is obviously one of them.

Trivia fact: Not only is Sexsmith the oldest artist on the list, he’s also the only one on a major label.

The chances: Slim. While this is undoubtedly Sexsmith’s finest work in almost 10 years, which is why it deserves to be on this list, the final third doesn’t hold up. Also, I’d be shocked if a Polaris jury went for something this conventional, conservative, straightforward and pretty.

Colin Stetson – Judges: New History of Warfare Vol. 2 (Constellation)

The album: Here it is, the weirdo whipping boy of this year’s Polaris prize. This is the album that people point to and start talking about what a “weird” shortlist we have this year, how Polaris can’t ever possibly be a populist prize (hello, Arcade Fire?), and how critics are obviously a snobby bunch who reward technical accomplishment and artistic adventure over music that anyone would actually want to listen to. On the flip side, you have critics patting themselves on the back ad nauseum for rewarding such obviously uncommercial music in a fit of self-congratulatory frenzy.

The best quip so far about this dilemma comes from Aaron Brophy of the late Chart Attack, saying the task for jurors was to “debate whether Colin Stetson's work constitutes sonic beauty, or the equivalent of punching a goose in the chest and then recording and looping its death wheezes.”

If you don’t know by now, Colin Stetson is an in-demand sideman (Arcade Fire, Bell Orchestre, Bon Iver, Tom Waits) who not only plays solo saxophone (the bass saxophone, mostly, a behemoth of an instrument), but he plays every single part of that saxophone: the clicks, the clucks, the thucks, the what-the-fucks, often while singing through it at the same time. He accomplishes all this through circular breathing, and there are no overdubs or loops on the album at all, other than vocals from Laurie Anderson (with whom Stetson has toured) and Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond). Contrary to popular belief, his music is composed, not improvised—and therefore it is not “free jazz,” which it is often referred to as.

There’s no question that what Stetson does is unique, even though other people have used aspects of his technique before. And the production is astounding, the way the engineers (including Godspeed’s Efrim Menuck) capture every intimate sound emerging from Stetson’s body via the saxophone. (I’d argue that the reason other avant-garde records don’t reach a mass audience is not inherently the content, but because they don’t sound as fabulous as this record does.)

But is it any good? Of course it is. It’s alternately subtly evocative and overwhelming. It’s both meditative and assaultive. Its undulating arpeggios lull the listener any which way Stetson wants us to go, tiny melodies emerging from the waves and beckoning us to listen just a little closer. It’s an album that, unlike every single pop record that’s ever been on this list, doesn’t tell you what to think; your experience with it will change every single time, depending on your mood, your environment, and your sound system.

The only major drawback is that yes, it is repetitive and can sound like a one-trick pony. But what a beautiful pony! What an amazing ride!

And there, folks, is the cheesiest thing I’ve said about any record all year, perhaps any record ever.

For shits and giggles, read my in-depth interview with Stetson here, conducted before anyone thought this would be anything more than another weird Montreal record on Constellation.

The chances: Slim, for all the obvious reasons. But if for some reason he did win it, he’d be the first American artist to do so: Stetson was born and raised in Michigan, started his career in New York City and San Francisco, and moved to Montreal to live with Sarah Neufeld of Bell Orchestre and Arcade Fire.

The alternates:

Selina Martin – Disaster Fantasies (independent)

The album: (partially poached from my September 2010 review) Disaster Fantasies displays Martin as an ambitious singer/songwriter with a knockout voice and the ability to corral her artier tendencies into a commanding power pop band; it’s an album that works on an entirely visceral level, with no shortage of catchy earworms and bold rock guitars. And yet there are tonnes of tiny tasty bits in every corner, whether it’s Rheostatics guitarist Martin Tielli noodling noisily underneath “I Know Dullness,” Laura Barrett’s kalimba on “News of Her Death,” or Martin herself playing wine glasses or tapping the loose end of a plugged-in patch cord as part of a rhythm track. Producer Chris Stringer (the D’Urbervilles, Timber Timbre) helps Martin paint vivid sonic portraits and brings the entire project into clear focus, amplifying the rock elements and leaving space for acoustic intimacy (“Throw Me in the Water”).

Though she pulls of power pop with aplomb—the “Misty Mountain Hop” vibe of “No Form,” the Cheap Trick nod on “The Hottest Day,” the direct influence of the Rheostatics on “I Know Dullness” (Martin has collaborated with that band often, and this album features engineering and mixing from Michael Philip Wojewoda)—it’s the ballads where she shines the strongest: “Throw Me In the Water,” “Breathe In” and “Always On My Mind” all candidates for song of the year.

Why it didn’t make the shortlist (or long list): An independent release with mostly local publicity, it likely didn’t have enough national traction to make an impact, despite the best efforts of Robert Everett-Green of the Globe and Mail, who wrote this article and several other laudatory pieces. Or maybe writers weren’t intrigued by an album with a song called “Rape During Wartime”?

Doug Paisley – Constant Companion (No Quarter)

The album: There was no better album for taking to a Canadian cottage this year than Doug Paisley’s second release: the songs, all anchored by Paisley’s warm acoustic guitar, all sound like campfire singalongs and lullabies; Garth Hudson of The Band can be heard noodling tastefully underneath many of the tracks; the drums sound soft and gentle, like there are pillows over the snare and every tom; the harmonies between humble-voiced Paisley and Jennifer Castle sound like a veteran couple who grew up singing “Four Strong Winds” together.

So he has a late-night soft-rock vibe down to a T—so what? So do several dozen other Canucks plugging away. The difference with Paisley is all in the songwriting: every single song here sounds like a Gordon Lightfoot classic or a Townes Van Zant greatest (non-)hits package. The arrangements are impeccable: there’s never too much or too little going on; every note is just right.

When Paisley blows up large, expect thousands of people to claim they were on to him first.

Why it didn’t make the shortlist: While it’s great that Ron Sexsmith made it, it’s a shame there wasn’t room for more than one singer/songwriter, because Paisley’s album is nothing short of perfect. This came out on a tiny American label (not even one known for singer/songwriters; most of its acts are psychedelic rock) and caught traction slowly and by word of mouth. Its initial appeal was primarily a Toronto-only phenomenon; the album was re-released by Maple a few months back, and expect his next record to get a much bigger push.