Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Mar '12 reviews

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

The Decemberists – We All Raise Our Voices to the Air: Live Songs 04.11-08.11 (EMI)

What do the Decemberists and Duran Duran have in common? Nothing, until now that they both have live albums that betray every vocal shortcoming of their lead singers. Hearing Simon LeBon whimpering and straining to sing his biggest hits on 1984’s Arena album sealed that band’s fate and marked the end of an era. The Decemberists’ Colin Meloy, although known for having a nasal and somewhat affected delivery, has never come off as a terrible singer on studio recordings. Here, one this pre-hiatus release, his tenuous relationship to pitch is more than distracting, even if the band behind him sounds on top of their game running through their entire discography in front of an adoring crowd.

Meloy’s voice here may be one that only a fan could love—but then again, this entire package (released as the band begins a hiatus) is aimed at fans only. That explains the inclusion of stage banter, in-jokes, and instructions for audience participation. You kind of had to be there. If you weren’t, you’ll wonder why this high-end bootleg is commercially available. (Mar. 22)

Download: “We Both Go Down Together,” “The Crane Wife 1, 2 and 3,” “I Was Meant For the Stage”

Del Bel – Oneiric (Out of Sound)

Picture yourself travelling across the country, from west to east, stunned by the natural beauty during endless daytime drives, and haunted by the neverending sky and all-consuming darkness at night. Del Bel is the the ideal soundtrack for such a journey, a balance of beauty and optimism with eerie, uncertain undertones.

This Toronto band revolves around two Western musicians, Calgary’s Tyler Belluz (Kite Hill, Bry Webb’s band), who wrote and arranged all the music, and Lisa Conway (Mandibles, Owle Bird) from remote northwestern B.C. The music they make together is either a jaunty though somewhat unsettling country shuffle, or full of ominous dread, scraping violins and twangy guitars, all of which could out-spook their friends in Timber Timbre. “How does one fight the dark alone, with no guns and no will to go on?” asks Conway, in a way that suggests she may know the answer, but certainly isn’t going to give anything away to you.

Though Del Bel tap into a Canadian gothic tradition of everyone from Cowboy Junkies to the Silver Hearts and the Sadies, they’re a step above many of their influences and their contemporaries with incredibly delicate and deliberate arrangements: this sounds less like a rock group of friends than a hired orchestra of players, with Conway singing out front and Belluz conducting everyone else behind her. The result is magical, unique, and easily one of the strongest Canadian albums of the last 12 months. (Mar. 22)

Download: “Dusk Light,” “This Unknown,” “Beltone”

Bill Fox – One Thought Revealed (Jar Note Records)

Until last year, Bill Fox was one of those reclusive geniuses with a limited discography and mysterious whereabouts—the kind of geek obsession that inspires Nick Hornby novels (see his latest, and finest, Juliet Naked). Fox was in fact the subject of a much-loved article in The Believer magazine in 2007, where the author tried in vain to find the man who made one of his favourite albums of the ’90s, Shelter From the Smoke. In 2009, that album was reissued and Fox started playing sporadic live shows (in part at the urging of Ottawa’s Jon Bartlett, of Kelp Records).

So now the mystery is just a man, just another guy with a guitar who happens to be releasing his first album in 14 years. Will anyone still care? They should. One Thought Revealed is not just an acoustic singer/songwriter record made by a guy who grew up listening to Bob Dylan and came of age with Robert Pollard of Guided by Voices. Fox makes the most of his limited recording means: the acoustic guitars sound crisp, the organs and keyboards are ghostly and psychedelic, and his own coarse howl is impassioned and intriguing—in part because of his unusual imagery and wordplay. And Fox is nothing if not economical: the 27-minute album has eight songs without a wasted moment between them, rich in both melody and atmosphere.

Welcome back, Bill Fox. Don’t hold out another 14 years. (Mar. 22)

Download: “Whithering Soul,” “Babylonia,” “Moonlight Stragglers on a Lonesome Toe”

A. David MacKinnon – The Past is a Foreign Country (independent)

MacKinnon spent most of the last 12 years co-fronting the Fembots, one of the perennially underrated bands during that transformative time in Canadian music. With that band now on hiatus, MacKinnon’s solo debut isn’t about to change his underdog status: albums full of cinematic instrumentals rarely vault anyone into the limelight. Yet it’s easily one of the best records in his discography. His melodies sing out stronger without his vocals; they’re illustrated fully and effectively in his piano playing and his horn arrangements. Those two elements are at the core of almost every song here, whether the music is a wistful romantic number, a harpsichord-driven tango, or, as in the title track, a 7/4 swing showing traces of Ethiopian jazz scoring a ’70s New York City action flick. Not only is the music evocative; MacKinnon scores some great titles as well. Thanks to him, I googled “Ambrose Small” and “the Sylvan Apartments” and found some fascinating ancient Toronto history. Lots of rock musicians turn to soundtracks after they’re done with pop music, but with an album as good as this one on his resumé, MacKinnon should be accepting Oscars in no time. (Mar. 29)

Download: “The Past is a Foreign Country,” “Clocks Against Typewriters,” “March of the Hydro Towers”

Magnetic Fields – Love at the Bottom of the Sea (Merge)

Blouse – s/t (Captured Tracks)

Songwriter Stephin Merritt has never met an artifice he doesn’t like. His biggest success was a 3CD conceptual project exploring the love song in every possible incarnation, and he’s recently been collaborating on new versions of Chinese operas. The through line in all his work has been a wicked wit and a keen insight that spoke emotional truths underneath the wordplay and winks. For a man committed to arch genre exercises, Merritt could still make grown men cry—as really, any great popsmith should.

Love at the Bottom of the Sea marks the first time in over a decade that the Magnetic Fields has returned to a synth-based approach, much to the delight of his oldest fans. And while there’s no faulting the instrumentation, Merritt’s melodic sense has faded somewhat—even though it was still in full force on the last two Magnetic Fields albums, which were less than well received by the ardent fanbase (and both of which are better than this album).

It’s the lyrics here that really sink Merritt’s ship. With one or two exceptions (including the superb single “Andrew in Drag”), Merritt’s reliance on his rhyming dictionary is no longer clever, it’s juvenile. He’s more concerned with finding out how many words rhyme with mariachi than he is in writing a lyric with any weight—or, for that matter, wit. For one of this generation’s most outstanding songwriters, one whose lesser works have been at least interesting, it’s shocking to see him stumble like this.

Unlike Magnetic Fields, the Portland, Oregon band synth pop band Blouse arrives with zero expectations—and therefore have plenty of room to surprise. They draw heavily from early New Order, mid-period Cure and other staples of John Hughes soundtracks, with nods to more modern incarnations of the same sound, like The XX or their chillwave Portland neighbours Washed Out. While the synths and the icy cooing of singer Charlie Hilton are the focus, the arrangements are far from bloodless, showing off more muscle than you’d expect from this genre of music, even when the synth sounds are bent to sound like broken cassette players. The songwriting is not yet fully realized, and though there are some awkward lyrical moments (“Time machines can be unfortunate when they’re in your hand”), these are growing pains rather than fatal flaws. (Mar. 15)

Download: “Into Black,” “They Always Fly Away,” “Firestarter”

Mike O’Neill – Wild Lines (Zunior)

Since the demise of the beloved ’90s bass-and-drums indie rock duo the Inbreds, Mike O’Neill has kept a very low profile, releasing two solo albums but mostly working in the Halifax film industry—including a recurring role on Trailer Park Boys.

Wild Lines, his first album in eight years, marks a fine return to form: O’Neill always wrote clever, catchy songs, and this is easily his finest collection since the end of the Inbreds. O’Neill is an economical writer; any time he pushes much further past the three-minute mark (which is not often—twice, in fact) he sounds like he’s treading water. He’s nowhere near as quirky a lyricist as he was in the Inbreds, for better and worse. But nor should he be—he’s an older man now, and more likely to write a song about flipping through old family photo albums or teaching children to tidy up than he is to sing about eating a bicycle. The recording is homespun but fully fleshed out, somewhere between the slick 2000 album What Happens Now? and 2004’s lo-fi The Owl; O’Neill’s tender and affecting vocals are at the forefront, layered with Beatlesque harmonies. Well worth an eight-year wait. (Mar. 15)

Download: “Henry,” “Calgary,” “She’s Good”

Joel Plaskett - Scrappy Happiness (Maple)

“A real rock record is like a wrecking ball,” sings Joel Plaskett on this, his seventh solo album. He’s not talking about the new Springsteen album (or an old Emmylou Harris one), but about the galvanizing power of a great rock record, one that changes your life, makes you reimagine your world and the possibilities within.

One wishes that this was just such a record—it’s not. Instead, it’s a record about how much Joel Plaskett loves listening to and making records. Dropping a lyrical reference to Husker Du is one thing; dropping a reference to ’80s prog band Marillion or the ’70s rock band Cactus (which featured Jeff Beck and members of Vanilla Fudge) is a whole other geekfest. At least this time out Plaskett avoids some of the dorky rhymes that threaten to derail some otherwise great songs on his last couple of albums.

Plaskett’s reverence is more than just pastiche; this could be a genuine lost ’70s rock record, recorded live in the studio with an equal mix of warm mandolins and blistering loud electric guitars. Or, for diehard Plaskett fans, it sounds like the finest moments from his two best records: Down at the Khyber and La De Da.

Plaskett is enough of a Canadian institution now that no one expects a sharp left turn, and so if Scrappy Happiness can be faulted for being entirely predictable, it also shows off a master craftsman at work: as a songwriter, as a bandleader, and even as a guitarist (he and sideman Peter Elkas trade hot licks in the closing “Lightning Bolt”).

It’s no wrecking ball, but it’s another solid storey in Plaskett’s tower of song. (Mar. 29)

Download: “Harbour Boys,” “I’m Yours,” “Somewhere Else”

Johnny Reid - Fire It Up (EMI)

Johnny Reid doesn’t sing the blues. Johnny Reid probably wonders why anyone would sing sad songs in the first place. Isn’t music supposed uplift the listener? Shouldn’t you come away from a performance—or even just a song on the radio—feeling reassured, loved, and inspired? Reid may be the last earnest man left in the music business, the kind of guy whose song titles ask rhetorical questions like “What Makes the World Go Around?” (I’ll give you one guess what the answer is. Hint: it’s love.)

Reid continues his move away from country music and into gospel-inflected inspirational rock balladry. It’s inherently cheesy territory, but don’t tell Reid that: he throws his considerable talents as a vocalist behind every line, and you better believe that he’s feeling it. As a songwriter, however, he doesn’t always hit that mark: “Let’s Have a Party” sounds suspiciously close to Bruce Springsteen’s “Mary Place” (from The Rising, an album from which Fire It Up draws obvious inspiration—no Darkness on the Edge of Town here). “Walking On Water” is a duet with Serena Ryder that should be a match made in heaven—their voices are perfectly complementary, both being natural born bluesy belters. It’s a crying shame, then, that the song itself is dismal and riddled with clichés.

Reid is a powerful presence who can milk genuine emotion from the thinnest source material; too bad he’s all too often called on to do just that. (Mar. 29)

Download: “Fire It Up,” “Till We Meet Again,” “Right Where I Belong”

Tindersticks – The Something Rain (Constellation)

Tindersticks are well-dressed men in black who make noir-ish lounge music rich in narrative and ominous atmosphere. (Which explains their appeal to Sopranos’ creator David Chase, who used their music in two key episodes.) They’re good at what they do, and they’ve been doing it fairly consistently for 20 years now—to a fault. If you’ve ever owned one Tindersticks album, you own them all. Until this one.

After a series of lineup changes that stripped the band down to its core, Tindersticks now sound like an almost entirely new outfit, even though all their signature sounds are still there. Singer Stuart Staples is a seductive, compelling crooner, who doesn’t seem bothered by the fact that The National’s Matt Berninger has sold out small stadiums with the same schtick. The soul influence Tindersticks took on in the late ’90s has simmered to a fine essence, giving the rhythm section an extra punch and making the presence of sax solos and bongos less incongruous. Every sonic texture appears to be wrapped in red velvet; every song is set after sundown. No matter the tempo, every track on The Something Rain is sensual and luxurious, lulling the listener into an opiate daze.

Come Inside sounds like Bryan Ferry fronting Pink Floyd circa Dark Side of the Moon (specifically “Us and Them”). “Show Me Everything” could be Nick Cave fronting Air. And yet The Something Rain is such a world unto itself that such comparisons—to other or the band’s own discography—only surface when trying to explain why a new Tindersticks album is worth your time. It’s the most intoxicating album you’ll hear this winter—isn’t that reason enough? (Mar. 15)

Download: “Show Me Everything,” “This Fire of Autumn,” “Medicine”

Caetano Veloso and David Byrne – Live at Carnegie Hall (Nonesuch)

The Talking Heads frontman played a large role in introducing the Brazilian tropicalia legend to North American audiences in the late ’80s. Why this 2004 recording is only coming out now is a mystery, but for fans of either artist it’s a welcome chance to hear them in an acoustic setting. Veloso’s six solo songs are dreamlike and languid; Byrne’s eight-song set is more direct, and obviously the few Talking Heads songs jump out, even if he reinvents them effectively for the setting. But Byrne also doesn’t get enough credit for his songwriting of the last 15 years, which is the real focus of his set here (“She Only Sleeps,” “Everyone’s In Love With You”). The two duet on Byrne’s “Dreamworld” and Veloso’s “Ile Aiye,” which both help make up for the atrocious version of Byrne’s “Nothing But Flowers,” where Veloso camps it up to the point of mocking Byrne’s vocal tics—it might have been funny at the time, but it’s downright painful here. Appropriately enough, the set ends with Veloso’s song “Terra”—written in 1968, about viewing photos of Earth from space—and Byrne’s “Heaven.” (Mar. 29)

Download: “Terra,” “Ile Aiye,” “Everyone’s in Love With You”

Yukon Blonde – Tiger Talk (Dine Alone)

The Shins – Port of Morrow (Sony)

It was over 20 degrees in Ontario on the day in March this album was released. In fact, everything about Yukon Blonde’s second album sounds like summer all year round. Huge four-part harmonies and songs meant to be sung at full volume barrelling down the 101: that’s what this Kamloops, B.C., band excel at, along with a strange affinity for 1982, a time when new wave power pop (think: the Go-Go’s) competed with Southern rock holdovers (think: 38 Special) on the Top 40 charts. Producer Colin Stewart (Black Mountain, Kathryn Calder) gives everything a streamlined radio sheen that sounds huge while never sacrificing warmth and still placing the acoustic guitar front and centre when necessary. The tunes are sharp and sassy, and the occasional dorky lyric is easily forgiven. What would it sound like if Fleet Foxes fronted Sloan? Yukon Blonde are taking that answer all the way to the bank.

The Shins aren’t as rooted in classic rock as the deliciously derivative Yukon Blonde, but songwriter James Mercer is likewise known for writing killer melodies and setting them to a hazy, luxurious West Coast soundscape to decorate his take on indie rock. The 2007 Shins album Wincing the Night Away was their best—and by that point the band had essentially been stripped to being a Mercer solo project. Port of Morrow similarly finds Mercer working with hired guns, including members of Sleater-Kinney and Modest Mouse. Only this time, Mercer’s surefire pop songs are in much shorter supply. He pulls off a quirky ballad or two, and “Simple Song” packs a punch that the rest of the album seriously lacks. Everything else falls through the cracks; at best, Mercer sounds like a mellower, poor man’s version of the New Pornographers’ A.C. Newman. The dreamy production, by Greg Kurstin (Lily Allen, Kylie Minogue, Foster the People) saves this from being a total snoozer, and diehard fans will at least be placated. (Mar. 22)

Download Yukon Blonde: “My Girl,” “Radio,” “Stairway”

Download the Shins: “Simple Song,” “Fall of ’82,” “It’s Only Life”

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