Wednesday, November 16, 2011

October '11 reviews

The following reviews ran in the Guelph Mercury and Kitchener-Waterloo record last month

Bjork – Biophilia (Warner)

Biophilia is not an album; it’s an iPad app—or rather, a series of them, one for each of the album’s 10 tracks. Only the most devoted Bjork fans are likely to fully immerse themselves in that intricate and involved experience. The rest of us are left with just the music, which involves unique instruments (a Tesla coil, a combination of a celeste and a gamelan, a “gravity harp”) employed as much for their theoretical relevance to the project—which has something to do with astrophysics, string theory, neurology and the nature of the universe, of course—as they are for their musical properties.

It’s more fascinating to read about than it is to experience. Bjork takes this all very seriously, and it shows. In the 10 years since her last great album, Vespertine, Bjork has become increasingly impenetrable, her musical output succeeding neither as pop music nor art project (a few standout tracks notwithstanding). Some would blame her hubby, the equally talented and obtuse filmmaker Matthew Barney. On Biophilia she doesn’t sound as adrift as she did on 2005’s Drawing Restraint 9 soundtrack (for a Barney film) or on the weaker tracks of 2007’s Volta, but her intellectual approach to this material is ultimately off-putting; it’s great that each track was designed to be an interactive iPad app, because there’s certainly no emotional engagement with the listener.

I say this as someone who thought she could do no wrong during the first 10 years of her solo career. It therefore pains me to say that while there is much to respect during many moments on Biophilia, there is precious little to love. (October 13)

Download: “Moon,” “Crystalline,” “Dark Matter”

Kathryn Calder - Bright and Vivid (File Under: Music)

At the end of 2010, I was convinced that Kathryn Calder’s album Are You My Mother? Was one of the finest Canadian albums of that year, behind only Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs, and that its obscurity was downright criminal—especially considering Calder’s role as a supporting player in the not-unpopular band New Pornographers. Her second album is every bit as rewarding as that debut, though more richly layered, not as easy to pin down and, for better or worse, without as many anthemic choruses. On her debut, Calder had mastered the art of the pop song, no doubt from hanging out with the Pornographers for so many years. Now she’s ready to take her songcraft somewhere deeper.

At the centre is Calder’s choirgirl voice, which is lovely without being precious, clear and confident without sacrificing emotion. And she has a stellar cast of session players to help her out, although seeing how she handles keyboards, guitars, vibraphone and percussion herself, she hardly needs any assistance at all. She creates the kind of music that the young Sarah McLachlan who debuted with Touch would have gone on to make if she hadn’t embraced easy listening. It sounds like what innovative 2011 Polaris shortlist nominees Braids would make if they knew how to make pop music instead of swimming in abstraction. It owes a small debt to fellow Vancouverite Veda Hille, of whose more accessible moments this album shares several traits (including guitar work by CanRock MVP Ford Pier). It could well be Canada’s answer to new European arthouse chanteuses like Bat For Lashes, Lykke Li and Fever Ray.

But Calder is definitely her own woman forging her own path, and no amount of facile comparisons does justice to her talent. Bright and Vivid is an album that more than lives up to its billing; let’s hope Calder doesn’t get slept on a second time. (October 27)

Download: “Turn a Light On,” “Walking in My Sleep,” “Who Are You?”

Cowboy Junkies – Sing in My Meadows: The Nomad Series Vol. 3 (Latent)

It’s safe to say that most people don’t associate Cowboy Junkies with raging electric guitars. And yet that’s been a big part of their sound for at least the last 15 years, co-existing with the quieter, folkie elements and dark pop songs they’ve built their career on. So if the loud electric moments were a distraction on some previous records, Sing in My Meadows consists of nothing but. If you think that side of the Junkies usually brings out the worst of them, then feel free to ignore this album entirely.

However, any longtime fan is advised to at least listen first to “Continental Drift,” with its Zeppelinesque drums and searing distorted harmonica work by Jeff Bird; it gives modern bands like Black Mountain and the Besnard Lakes a run for their money. And, like their recent high-water-mark album Renmin Park (the first in this four-part Nomad series), the material is strong: here it is biting, both musical—allowing plenty of room for improvisation between Bird and guitarist/songwriter Michael Timmins—and topical (“3rd Crusade” is the only song in the last 10 years I’m aware of that mentions Kandahar, which is odd considering how long Canada has been at war there).

For a band best known for its mellow moments, this band is not mellowing in their old age; this is heavier than they’ve ever been, in more ways than one. (October 20)

Download: “Continental Drift,” “Hunted,” “3rd Crusade”

Crooked Fingers – Breaks in the Armor (Merge)

Over 20 years and 12 albums, Crooked Fingers’ Eric Bachmann has nothing left to prove to anyone: especially after his slick 2008 masterpiece Forfeit/Fortune (a perfect album that’s easily one of the most underrated albums of the last five years) and this year’s triumphant reunion of his ’90s indie rock band Archers of Loaf, the legacy of which overshadowed his singer/songwriter work as Crooked Fingers for far too long.

So rather than return to past glories, Breaks in the Armor sounds like Bachmann starting fresh, alone in the studio (except for female vocal harmonies by longtime bandmate Liz Durrett) and feeling his way around a drum kit with a primal pounding that brings a refreshingly raw amateur feel to otherwise carefully constructed and arranged songs. Despite its solitary nature, Breaks in the Armor is not a quiet affair; Bachmann belts it out throughout, even when tempos dip. He plays with your expectations; the catchiest rock song on the album (“The Counterfeiters”) is played mostly on just bass and drums.

Bachmann has a rich and deep discography; newcomers will be surprised to learn that Breaks in the Armor is just the tip of the iceberg. (October 20)

Download: “The Counterfeiters,” “Went to the City,” “Your Apocalypse”

DJ Shadow – The Less You Know The Better (Universal)

A DJ’s primary job—whether it’s at a wedding, in a club, or as part of a band—is to make a perfect mix, to blend different elements into a seamless flow. It’s odd, then, that one of the greatest DJ artists of the last 20 years has made an album that, for all its various strengths, almost entirely lacks flow.

Ever since making arguably the first landmark DJ-as-artist album, 1996’s Endtroducing, Shadow’s output has been sporadic and spotty; this album is one of his most diverse and consistently strong, despite some ill-advised forays into clunky heavy metal/hip-hop hybrids (Shadow of all people should know better). “Sad and Lonely” is a beatless piano ballad, and “I’ve Been Trying” sounds like a languorous Pink Floyd song sung by a soul singer and featuring synth bass and a martial snare drum underneath it all. Closing track “Give Me Back the Nights” is an increasingly unhinged spoken-word rant set to little more than a Black Sabbath bass line an spacy keyboards. In between are pop songs, folk songs, and cinematic instrumentals akin to Endtroducing’s high points.

And yet while Shadow does it all well, it rarely works well together. This is a DJ album where the DJ can’t be trusted; hit shuffle instead. (October 13)

Download: “I’ve Been Trying,” “Redeemed,” “Stay the Course (feat. Posdnuos and Talib Kweli)”

Eccodek – Remixstasy (independent)

Ten years ago, Andrew McPherson probably didn’t envision that his world-music fusion project Eccodek would be an internationally acclaimed outfit and popular live act on the festival circuit, never mind exchanging remix favours with the likes of genre leaders Transglobal Underground. But listening to Remixstasy, it’s easy to see why: McPherson isn’t content to make massage-table music with easy synth washes and vaguely “exotic” elements scattered over limp beats. McPherson focuses on the funk first and foremost, and these remixes bring the tougher edges of Eccodek into the open. In some respects, these tracks are better the originals, and are an ideal way to mark the project’s anniversary. (October 13)

Download: “Calling the Rain (Eccodek Afrodisiac mix),” “From the Flames dub (Transglobal Underground mix),” “Red White and Mali (Adham Shaikh Wobble Tip mix)”

Feist – Metals (Arts and Crafts)

After taking on a full-on break from making music, Feist returns singing: “Makes me remember the things that I forgot / it’s as much what it is as what it is not.”

What Metals is not is obvious. It is not an album with a peppy hit single like “1234” or “Mushaboom.” It is not an album that gives away all its goods on first listen. Though it is rich in melody and harmony, it is not a pop album. Though there are many intimate moments featuring only Feist and her guitar, it is not a singer/songwriter album. Though it has supple grooves borrowed from the slowest, sexiest side of Al Green, it is not a soul album. And though it contains elements of The Reminder’s quieter moments and the majesty of her long-unavailable debut album Monarch, Metals marks new territory for Feist.

Many songs start from a bluesy base, something very simple and primal, built around a tension of delicate but forceful instrumentation; but from there, a song can easily move from a solitary guitar motif before erupting with a strident choir, electric guitars crashing in a loping waltz time, and punctuated by clanging chain percussion. Few songs here fall into a steady template; they wait to be pulled or pushed apart, to have their meter toyed with, suspended while a string section or the sound of scraping metal sneaks into the background scene.

Then of course there is Feist’s calm, steadying, pitch-perfect voice, one that’s almost devoid of emotion, conveying everything and nothing at the same time. What is she singing about? Who cares? It’s “true life in haiku,” she sings, but whatever you’re looking for in these songs—either love or loss, comfort or concern—you’ll find them.

That tabula rasa extends to the music. While Feist was the undisputed star of earlier Feist records, Metals is much more communal. The various accompanying ensembles are one reason: string sections, brass sections, and choirs all transform the most intimate moments into something larger and yet still tender. But even though Feist’s voice is front and centre, it’s just as important as every piano chord, bass drum kick, or subtle sonic shading; together, every carefully arranged element establishes the tenor of the album, which works remarkably well as a whole. The only odd duck is “A Commotion,” pushed along by pulsing cellos and a man choir shouting the chorus; it’s curious, joyous, sparse and somewhat unsettling, the closest Feist gets to rocking out here, and it’s one of the most captivating tracks she’s ever recorded.

Metals also sounds like the most honest album since her debut: if Let It Die was her role-playing as a pretty pop star, and The Reminder found her trying to reconcile several different sides of her musical personality, Metals is its own world entirely—a world where Feist roams freely, devoid of expectation or constraint, a world with plenty for all to explore. (October 6)

Download: “Bittersweet Melodies,” “A Commotion,” “The Circle Married the Line”

Peter Gabriel – New Blood (Universal)

When Peter Gabriel resurfaced last year with a covers album, Scratch My Back, it was disappointing on several levels: not just because there was no original material, but because the dirge-like tempos and his belaboured vocal delivery didn’t help matters. When he went out to tour the album with an orchestra, he decided to rearrange an hour’s worth of older material to suit the occasion.

Thank God he did, because if Scratch My Back made fans wonder if Gabriel still had any charisma left in him, New Blood finds him revisiting his back catalogue with an entirely fresh approach. Gabriel doesn’t just add strings to existing arrangements; he takes all rock instruments out of the equation altogether (except piano), but loses none of the force and rhythmic thrust of the originals—no small feat considering the polyrhythms going on in something like “Red Rain” or “The Rhythm of the Heat.” The result is an orchestral tour de force that finds Gabriel as creative as ever, despite the fact that he’s working with well-trod material. Not that this is just a greatest hits set list: many classic tracks don’t appear here, while lesser-known ones like “Darkness,” “Intruder,” and “Wallflower” provide some of the most intriguing moments. Guest vocalist Ane Brun shines on “Don’t Give Up” and “Mercy Street”; her quivering vibrato could easily be mistaken for Mary Margaret O’Hara.

At 61 years old, Gabriel’s heyday may well be behind him, but New Blood is a classy move—not just a classical one. (October 20)

Download: “Red Rain,” “Intruder,” “Mercy Street”

Mayer Hawthorne – How Do You Do (Universal)

Is Mayer Hawthorne really a 32-year-old guy from Michigan who stumbled into singing soul music after starting as a hip-hop instrumentalist? Or is this Daryl Hall in disguise, staging a covert comeback?

In fact, Hawthorne and the Hall & Oates singer have been seen in the same place at the same time (on Hall’s TV show), so that theory doesn’t hold water. But listening to “A Long Time,” the second track on Hawthorne’s major label debut, with its “Maneater” drums and Hawthorne’s butter-smooth blue-eyed soul voice, he stakes his claim as Hall’s heir apparent. (Not only does he sound great, he looks great, too—like a dorky, cuter version of Tobey Maguire—thereby guaranteeing him some mainstream success. Touring with Bruno Mars helps, too.)

Hawthorne first appeared with a decent though paint-by-numbers indie debut, but How Do You Do marks a major move into territory ruled over by Raphael Saddiq, Sharon Jones and the ghost of Amy Winehouse. The songwriting has taken several steps up, and though the lyrical content rarely strays from affairs of the heart, he does manage to pen a few zingers: on lead single “The Walk,” he sings one of the most biting kiss-offs since Cee-Lo Green’s F--- You, likewise set to a bouncy, major-key melody: “You heart is like a black piece of coal / and I doubt you ever had a soul.” (October 20)

Download: “Dreaming,” “The Walk,” “No Strings”

Mighty Popo – Gakondo (Borealis)

Ottawa’s Mighty Popo has been an integral part of Canada’s African music community for 15 years, as a solo artist and as one third of the acclaimed African Guitar Summit, known mostly for his approach to blues. On Gakondo, his first all-acoustic album, Popo explores his Rwandan roots, adapting traditional songs and exploring the inanga, a nine-stringed instrument. Though it’s largely a lilting, gentle album, it’s on the quietest moments of all that Popo sounds downright magical, singing haunting lullabies and odes to family tradition set to sparse solo arrangements.

This album came out in 2010 and was nominated for a Juno, but is deservedly getting a wider release now through one of Canada’s foremost folk music labels. (October 13)

Download: “Ngire Nte,” “Uw’lbuhoro,” “Rwatsinda”

William Shatner - Seeking Major Tom (Cleopatra)

In his liner notes for this, a pseudo-concept album about David Bowie’s Major Tom character (which is actually just a collection of almost every sci-fi space-themed pop song ever written), William Shatner admits to sitting with his producer and both of them asking themselves, “Is this absurd or is this awesome or is it absurdly awesome?”

For starters, it’s rarely, if ever, awesome. It’s certainly absurd, and intentionally so. Shatner has been in on his own joke for years; his classic debut album The Transformed Man, released in the ’60s at the height of his Star Trek fame, was funny only because Shatner seemed outright oblivious to the absurdity of his Shakespearian spoken-word delivery of hippie-dippie lyrics of the day. Now the 80-year-old (!) has decades of self-awareness behind him, which makes his deadpan delivery here of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” not funny at all, just sad. The same is true of at least half of the tracks here, from Deep Purple’s “Space Trucking” to to Steve Miller’s “Space Cowboy” to The Police’s “Walking on the Moon” to Pink Floyd’s “Learning to Fly.” And what is The Tea Party’s “Empty Glass” doing here? Who knows.

And yet amidst the 20 tracks on this ridiculously long double album are some real moments of beauty, albeit underscored by the perpetual strangeness that is the Shat. Elton John’s “Rocket Man,” a song Shatner has actually been performing since 1978, is oddly poignant, with Shatner sounding like a lonely, delusional raconteur at closing time in a hotel bar. U2’s latter-era ballad “In a Little While” is uncharacteristically subtle, with Lyle Lovett helping out with parts that require an actual melody (which of course the Shat is unable to sing). And when Shatner sets out to be absolutely, unabashedly ridiculous—there is no other way to describe his performance alongside Bootsy Collins on Thomas Dolby’s “She Blinded Me With Science”—it’s a giddy delight.

But most of Seeking Major Tom just sounds like bad karaoke—Shatner’s soliloquies over faithful arrangements—with one notable exception: it’s not hard to show up Simon LeBon, and so Shatner’s monotone makeover of Duran Duran’s “Planet Earth” (featuring Steve Howe of Yes) is actually an improvement on the original.

Ultimately, however, this is a 90-minute album that, at best, can hope to provide one or two Internet memes for a week or so. (October 27)

Download: “Rocket Man,” “She Blinded Me With Science,” “Planet Earth”

Yukon Blonde – Fire/Water (Nevado)

The sweetest sounding rock band from Kamloops, B.C., since the Grapes of Wrath, Yukon Blonde have been touring relentlessly since the release of their debut album—and it shows. On this four-song EP, they show how quickly they’ve progressed from one of the most promising bands in Canada to one of the best. Expertly recorded by Colin Stewart (Black Mountain), the lead track “Fire” features distant atmospheric guitars swirling around a rolling bass line, straight-up countrified acoustic guitars and rich harmonies applied to every line, including the infectious, wordless chorus. The two songs on the b-side (or last two tracks on the CD) explore their slightly more abstract side, sounding not unlike their equally luscious West Coast peers, Fleet Foxes; closing track “Choices” features an almost entirely choral opening, before the Neil Young-ish electric backing track kicks in. A full-length culled from the same recording session is expected early next year, while this tease of an EP keeps them on the road in the meantime. (October 13)

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