Monday, November 21, 2011

November '11 reviews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bruce Peninsula – Open Flame (Hand Drawn Dracula)

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

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

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

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

Florence and the Machine – Ceremonials (Universal)

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

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

Gonzales – The Unspeakable Chilly Gonzales (Arts and Crafts)

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

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

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

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

High Places – Original Colors (Thrill Jockey)

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

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

Amai Kuda – Sand From the Sea (independent)

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

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

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

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

David Lynch – Crazy Clown Time (Sunday Best)

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

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

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

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

Bry Webb – Provider (Idee Fixe)

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

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

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

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

No comments: