Friday, June 01, 2012

May '12 reviews

The following reviews appeared in the Waterloo Region Record and the Guelph Mercury this past month.

Beach House – Bloom (Sub Pop)

When you travel to a beach house, you’re there to shut off your mind, lie back and relax. You’re there to plow through a thick, thoroughly engaging novel devoid of intellectual taxation,which may or may not cause you to well up once or twice. You’re not there to compare it to previous vacations, to parse the minutiae that made one summer better than the last.

So to complain that Bloom is a pale imitation of Beach House’s 2010 breakthrough Teen Dream would be splitting hairs. For starters, it’s nearly identical: same tempos, same dreamlike, weightless atmosphere, same indistinguishable guitar and keyboard sounds, same soaring melodies, all with nary a variance in what made Teen Dream so enchanting—other than perhaps a few more hints that Disintegration is this band’s favourite album by The Cure.

It’s not ennui that cripples Bloom; this sounds just as lovely, but the songs themselves come up short. For whatever intangible reason, nothing here hits the gut in the same way it did in 2010, no individual melody pulls the heartstrings; everything here just simply is what it is. Maybe that’s all it has to be, with a fine whisky on a summer night by a moonlit lake. (May 17)

Download: “Wild,” “Other People,” “Troublemaker”

Brasstronaut – Mean Sun (Unfamiliar)

The band with one of the worst names in Canada has turned into one of our best. Or at least, the one who has made the best 2012 record for the end of a sun-stroked day, a record as refreshing as an ocean breeze, a record tailor-made for driving through the lush vistas of their native province. 

The first sounds you hear this Vancouver band’s second album resemble the noisy, buzzing insects of summer: from there, gently pulsing rhythms, spaced-out trumpet and indistinguishable textures decorate subtle, haunting melodies. Everything is drenched in an intoxicating, hazy reverb, though it’s not a cheap trick to obscure a lack of talent; these guys have jazz skills (more evident in their live show) that they underplay at every turn, offering instead fleeting glimpses of virtuosity that explain why everything gels together so well. 

I’m often guilty of conflating geography with musical inspiration (see: Sigur Ros), but there’s so much here that sounds like a lazy patio night on Commercial Drive, like a ferry ride up to Powell River, like a sunrise over Saltspring Island, like a ride through the Okanagan. Who’s behind the boards on this album? Producer Colin Stewart, who has done similarly evocative work with Kathryn Calder and Yukon Blonde in the last 12 months. B.C. tourism should have that guy on their payroll by now.

If you can’t afford a B.C. vacation this summer, Brasstronaut will be happy to take you there for 40 minutes at a time. (May 31)

Download: “Bounce,” “Francisco,” “The Grove”  

Chicha Libre - Canibalismo (Barbes)

Every couple of years, a new obscure world music trend gets its 15 minutes in the sun, while a subgenre gets maybe five minutes at best. Colombian cumbia—a hypnotic Latin mid-tempo groove with reggae overtones—became a rage about three years ago, enabled in part by some excellent compilations by the Soundway and Vampi Soul labels. Shortly after came a compilation of Peruvian “chicha” music from the ’60s, which was a more psychedelic take on cumbia, orchestrated with surf guitars, Farfisa organs and vaguely Middle Eastern melodies. It could have remained a collectors’ footnote. Chicha Libre is still around to ensure it’s not.

Chicha Libre is a modern band from Brooklyn, whose membership comprises South American, French and native New York musicians. Their 2008 debut was incredibly faithful to the original recordings of the ’60s; Canibalismo is unmistakably a modern record, even though all the vintage sounds are still there. And though chicha is still the dominant influence, it’s not the only one. American pop, African funk and other Latin rhythms all are all filtered through the lens of chicha—as well as Wagnerian opera, as their unique take on Ride of the Valkyries proves. (May 17)

Download: “La Plata,” “The Ride of the Valkyries,” “Number 17”

Cold Specks - I Predict a Graceful Explosion (Arts and Crafts)

Cold Specks is the young singer/songwrier Al Spx (also not her real name) from the Toronto suburb of Etobicoke, and her debut album—only released this week—has been building buzz ever since she leaked the song “Winter Solstice” online. Listening to that track, there is much to love: Spx’s full-throated, soulful voice, with its deep gospel and blues influences, is put to work on a slow build of a song that’s stirring and spiritual.

Listening to the rest of the album, however, there is not as much to love. Spx’s amazing voice (reminiscent of another great Toronto singer, Kate Fenner) only goes so far: her songs don’t carry the weight her voice deserves, and her accompanying musicians are often plodding and unexpressive. Too often, her voice overpowers this material: like Aretha Franklin trying to make a sombre Leonard Cohen album.

The graceful explosion promised by the album title sounds like it’s still a bit off in the future. (May 24)

Download: “Winter Solstice,” “Blank Maps,” “Hector”

Rose Cousins – We Have Made a Spark (Outside)

“You can’t keep the darkness out,” sings Rose Cousins, on the lead-off track here. Accepting this truth, the rootsy Haligonian singer/songwriter doesn’t even try to turn on many lights for the rest of her third album, which sounds like all of Kathleen Edwards’ and Neko Case’s saddest songs strung together. Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily, once you hear a heartbreaker like “The Shell,” or the way Cousins can command your complete attention with just her voice and sparse piano chords on a track like “One Way.” Cousins is a powerful though subtle singer; her songs don’t always match her haunting presence—much of this album can drag—but when all the elements align, the results are stunning. (May 3)

Download: “The Darkness,” “The Shell,” “Go First”

Demetra – Lone Migration (Head in the Sand)

Winnipeg singer/songwriter Demetra Penner is a filmmaker, painter, yoga instructor and world traveller whose official bio describes her as “an ice princess wooing you with songs about polar explorations and the perils of love born from tundra.” Naturally, her music, which recalls Jane Siberry at her best, is a bit precious. It’s also beautiful: Penner’s pure alto voice is a stunning instrument, and her chosen collaborators sound like they have plenty of experience scoring experimental films, making this more of an art rock record than the work of yet another plaintive piano balladeer. And yes, an Inuit throat singer shows up at one point. This is music inspired by Arctic travels, and Penner has made an evocative album capable of transporting the listener there themselves. (May 3)

Download: “Emergency Exit,” “Maiden of Ice,” “Lone Migration”

Dva – Hu (Indies Scope)

When reading ESL websites about European bands, the translations can often be unintentionally hilarious. But then there are the ones that you suspect are just as unusual in their native language. In the words of Czech duo Dva—or at least, a translation thereof—their previous album, 2008’s Fonok, was conceived as “folklore of non-existing nations,” and this new one is “pop for non-existing radios.” The album title, Hu, could be short for Hungary, could refer to the common Asian surname, could be the ancient Egyptian word for god—or, Hu could be a word in Dva’s own language that “means the first syllable pronounced by a human being as well as the sound of monkeys and owls.” Got that?

Yes, the two oddballs in Dva (the Czech word for “two”) sound positively bonkers, but in the best possible way. The music they make is part bossa nova, part birdsong, music that could score a spaghetti Western set in Sweden, or perhaps a fanastical video game about cute insects (they’ve actually done the latter, winning an Independent Games Award for their troubles). On the rare occasion when they throw a straightforward beat underneath them, they sound like early Lykke Li. On other occasions, they sound like an unplugged Deerhoof and Patrick Watson backing up Czech avant-garde icon Iva Bittova.

On most occasions, however, this Bohemian duo—they’re literally Bohemian, from the Czech region of Bohemia—sound like no one else in the world. Which is why Hu is the most pleasant surprise from far afield to wash up on these shores so far this year. (May 24)

Download: “Tatanc,” “Baltik,” “Valibela”

Japandroids – Celebration Rock (Polyvinyl)

Unlike Brasstronaut, Japandroids sound nothing like Vancouver’s geography. They do, however, sound like the best of Vancouver’s storied punk rock history dating back to 1976 and right up to compatriots The Pack A.D, who share the Japandroids’ approach to maximizing the amount of sound and fury that can be made by a guitar-drums duo. There are also of plenty oh-oh-oh-oh melodic choruses that could have been cribbed from the New Pornographers, and ringing, raging electric guitars and thundering drums that could be Black Mountain covering Superchunk songs. This is not lazy, laid-back Vancouver chilling out in Stanley Park; this is the sound of the street punk trying to scale the mountains.

It’s been over three years since Japandroids’ debut album made them the only rock’n’roll band out of Vancouver in the last 10 years, other than Black Mountain, to be worth crossing the Rockies for. They also nearly broke up right around that time, choosing to continue only because they became popular. They could just as easily called the whole thing off. The songs here are proof that they had a lot more life in them; this is not a band that takes itself for granted.

Lucky for us. The songwriting has improved tenfold; Japandroids are longer content to simply hide behind pure aggression, noise and energy—which is what, if anything, carried the debut album. Instead, these songs are Springsteen anthems designed for stadiums of people to sing together. The production is note-perfect: crisp and clean without ever sacrificing the raw power of the band’s live show; every guitar chord is gigantic, every drum roll a punch in the gut.

The sound of fireworks may bookend the music here as a cute play on the album title, but there are actual moments in nearly every song when you expect to hear some kind of pyrotechnics go off in time with the music.

Celebration Rock could well be to 2012 what the Constantines’ Shine A Light was back in 2002: a life-affirming, fist-pumping rock’n’roll tour de force that soundtracks a new generation. In other words, Japandroids have plenty to celebrate. (May 31)

Download: “The Nights of Wine and Roses,” “Evil’s Sway,” “The House That Heaven Built”

Norah Jones - Little Broken Hearts (EMI)

If you believe the celebrity press, Little Broken Hearts is a major departure for Norah Jones—who is now old enough to be referred to by some as “the Adele of her generation” (presumably for being a multi-million-selling traditionalist who racked up a bunch of Grammys at a young age). Gone now are the jazz standards, the delicate piano playing and the nods to country music, and in comes producer Danger Mouse (The Grey Album, Black Keys, Gnarls Barkley) to make a dark, David Lynch-ian brooder of a record with nods to psychedelia and ’60s torch-song pop music.

That may all be true—but aside from the starpower presence of Danger Mouse, all that was also true about Jones’s last album, the underrated 2009 release The Fall. And that album had much better songs than the ones Jones cowrote here with Burton; even though both are ostensibly breakup albums (“it’s not easy to stay in love unless you can tell lies,” Jones sings here), Jones seems even more bummed out here than she did three years ago.

Taken on its own merits, Little Broken Hearts is a classy, curious album, as one would expect considering the two seasoned artists at work. Danger Mouse never overplays his hand or gussies up the background; needless to say, everything sounds impeccable, and he gives Jones plenty of space to sink her teeth into every sultry syllable.

This could be the beginning of a beautiful partnership. Right now, however, it just sounds like baby steps. And Jones had already reinvented herself without any help. (May 3)

Download: “Say Goodbye,” “4 Broken Hearts,” “Travelin’ On”

Eyvind Kang – The Narrow Garden (Ipecac)

Kang is a violinist who has appeared on hundreds of recordings, from rock bands like the Decemberists to avant-garde composers like John Zorn to absolutely everything in between. Kang’s own albums tend to be highly conceptual orchestral pieces, and somewhat impenetrable. Here, however, there doesn’t appear to be a larger concept at work other than melding Middle Eastern and Asian music with Western choral music. On two tracks, Kang travels further afield into atonality and atmosphere, managing to successfully convey emotional resonance with no anchor to any traditional music at all. On the closing track, “Invisus Natalis,” Kang winds together every thematic thread on the album, injecting dissonant strings into what starts out as a seductive Arabic groove, until they eventually take over and subsume the entire piece.

Throughout, Kang is content to sit back and let others shine; his violin rarely takes the lead, unless it’s part of a full string section; most solo moments are taken by flutes or voice. That’s because this isn’t about Kang the instrumentalist; he has plenty of sideman gigs to do that. This is about the larger work—and by extension, the larger world—rather than one man’s small role in it. (May 17)

Download: “Forest Sama’i,” “Usenea,” “Invisus Natalis”

Quintron - Sucre du Sauvage (Goner)

The man known only as Quintron is a mad scientist from the 9th Ward of New Orleans, working away in the Spellcaster Lodge (aka his basement) with his wife, puppeteer and partner in crime Miss Pussycat. He builds his own drum machines, plays a Hammond organ cranked to the highest volume, hangs out with old soul singers and a guy who calls himself MC Tracheotomy, and hits the road once a year to deliver delirious dance parties across North America. He’s put out a few albums along the way, which seem but a small component in the larger art project that is his life.

This is an exception, however. Without changing his formula—chanted vocals, absurdist party lyrics (“keeping it sexy for the president!”) and big organ riffs riding over beats from his “Drum Buddy”—Sucre du Sauvage is Quintron’s best collection of actual songs to date. In somewhat of a novel twist for him, many of them feature more than one chord. He and Miss Pussycat come up with some catchy melodies as opposed to squealed exclamations. (Well, they come up with some of them. “Kicked Out of Zolar X,” about the space alien glam band of the ’70s, shamelessly borrows a melody from the ’80s hit “99 Luftballoons.”) And though there hasn’t been a huge leap in production quality—this is far from a slick studio recording—Quintron’s organ sounds louder and nastier than ever.

Perhaps to counteract the nods to more traditional rock’n’roll, Quintron spends the second half of the album—what would be the second side of a vinyl record—in a much more experimental mode. He recorded this at the New Orleans Museum of Art, where in 2011 he and Miss Pussycat were given 24-hour access as artists-in-residence to record, as well as curate their own room culled from the museum’s collection. The two halves of the album couldn’t be more different: the experimental side is made up of field recordings, organ sounds and ambient noise. It’s calm, weird, and beautiful, a lovely comedown after the revved-up debauchery of the side one. (May 10)

Download: “Ring the Alarm,” “Face Down in the Gutter,” “Kicked Out of Zolar X”

Santigold – Master of My Make-Believe (Warner)

Santigold is much smarter than the pop music game she plays. She’s been a record company executive, a songwriter for hire, a star guest vocalist, and a compelling solo performer with an eclectic debut album that, unbelievably, is now four years old. Apparently her oblivious record company wanted her to cowrite with some of today’s hottest hitmakers, who insisted she only use certain chords that would guarantee her radio play. Needless to say, she balked, turned to trusted collaborators like TV on the Radio’s Dave Sitek and DJ Diplo, and wrote songs with choruses about “a freak like me” and how “we’re all the same / we don’t want no fame.”

Master of My Make-Believe doesn’t easily fit into any pigeonhole. It boasts big pop production, but not in the bombastic sense that sucks Lady Gaga dry of any personality. It borrows heavily from modern club beats, Brazilian rhythms and dancehall reggae, but few tracks seem actually designed for a dance floor. The exceptions, oddly, are the final two tracks: “Look at These Hoes” and “Big Mouth,” each boasting strobe-light beats that makes the rest of the album sound like lullabies in comparison. “The Keepers” takes the drum beat from Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill” and makes a considerably more buoyant pop track out of it, albeit with a gloomy election-year chorus: “We’re the keepers / while we sleep in America, our house is burning down.”

It all marks her as a kindred spirit not to M.I.A., to whom she’s often compared, but to Lykke Li or Robyn, women whose strong affinity for pop hooks overrides any genre constraints or conventional instrumentation. That said, this has less hooks than her debut, but the production is much more fascinating and forward-looking. She’s looking toward the long game, not a fleeting moment of celebrity. (May 3)

Download: “The Keepers,” “This Isn’t Our Parade,” “Pirate in the Water”

Sigur Ros – Valtari (XL)

After over 12 years of singing in imaginary languages over cinematic music, one would think that Sigur Ros’s signature sound would be played out by now. To be certain, there are ebbs and flows in this Icelandic band’s discography, but last year’s live album and concert film Inni found them in peak form; if it were to be their final statement, that would have been a perfect capper to a fascinating career that’s made them the most unlikely artist of recent times to achieve a loyal mass audience.

They’re not done yet, though. If their last studio album saw them playing more with conventional pop song formats (and handclaps!), Valteri is a total retreat into abstraction. All ambience, no anthem. Micro, not macro. We don’t even hear a drum kit until halfway through the third song, “Varud”—and then we barely hear them again for the rest of the album. “Varud” is perhaps the only song here that sounds like a stereotypical Sigur Ros songs, with a stirring chorus and children’s choir; this track, however predictable for them, is still stunning. “Vardeldur” is little more than guitar swells, sparse piano and what sounds like electronically manipulated birdsong; it’s somehow the most emotionally affecting track here. Eight-minute closing track “Fjogur Piano” could be a deconstructed variation of Satie.

Who knows what this band is ever up to, or what their music means to them at any given time, but Valtari sounds like the most spiritual Sigur Ros album: reflective, humble, graceful, and leaving plenty of room for the divine between every note. (May 31)

Download: “Varud,” “Daudalogn,” “Vardeldur”

A Tribe Called Red – s/t (independent)

The synergy is so obvious, it’s shocking the merging of Aboriginal music with modern electronic beats hasn’t happened before. Well, it has—Robbie Robertson tried it in the ’90s, and there has been a healthy Aboriginal hip-hop scene for well over a decade—but no one has generated the kind of excitement that Ottawa crew A Tribe Called Red have with a series of online singles and now this, their full-length album.

ATCR don’t just throw chants over club beats—although a cursory listen might suggest just that, like their spirited remix of the Northern Cree song “Red Skin Girl.” They have in their ranks DJ Shub, a champion battle DJ with eclectic tastes beyond hip-hop or whatever today’s trend in techno happens to be. A Tribe Called Red set their Aboriginal source material to a wide palette of international influences, from Brazilian beats to goth-y German electro. The track “General Generations” takes a finger-snapping, jazzy Dave Brubeck-ish beat, throws in some nasty, dirty bass synth, and a hypnotic, looped vocal riff to create a psychedelic, trance-like effect.

This is still a crew finding its feet, however. “Moombah Wow” is a genre exercise in moombahton (a cross between house music and reggaeton, itself a mix of Jamaican dancehall and Latin salsa), and “Shottas” features rave whistles, gunshots and even the most ubiquitous and dated sound of ’90s drum’n’bass—the “Amen” break—all of which adds up to an avalanche of clich├ęs.

Those misfires stand out all the more because everything else A Tribe Called Red does is forward-thinking and truly inspired. (May 17)

Download: “Look at This,” “Red Skin Girl (ATCR remix),” “General Generations”

Mirel Wagner – s/t (Friendly Fire)

“No death can tear us apart”—it sounds like a lovely enough phrase, the type uttered by a hopeless romantic dreaming of the eternal union between two souls in love. In the hands of Mirel Wagner, however, the phrase is quite literal: her narrator in “No Death” is ready to crawl inside the grave of a dead lover to be close to them. “I’ll keep on loving her until the marrow dries from her bones”—cheery, no? Many of her Finnish countrymen might explore similar themes in various subgenres of metal, but Wagner performs bare-bones acoustic music, not unlike Leonard Cohen’s wrist-slashing phase of the early ’70s. Wagner is so gloomy that one expects a song called “No Hands” to be about dismemberment; it’s almost shocking to discover it’s about riding a bike.

The “doom folk” label that Cold Specks claimed for herself is much more apt when discussing Wagner, who sounds like she’s been stranded in a snowed-in cabin on a northern Scandinavian coastline where “shadows swallow my reflection.” What separates her from scads of sad sacks is how scarily striking she is: her voice is instantly captivating, even if most of her songs rarely stray from monotone melodies. Nothing here uses more than sparse acoustic guitar and voice, but Wagner doesn’t need anything else to draw the listener in while she whispers ghost stories in your ear. (May 24)

Download: “No Death,” “Despair,” “The Well”

Rufus Wainwright – Out of the Game (Universal)

It’s been five years since Rufus Wainwright put out a pop album. In between there has been a tribute to Judy Garland, an opera, a live album, and a sombre song cycle for his deceased mother. Is he out of the pop game? Judging by this album, yes.

Recorded with Amy Winehouse producer Mark Ronson, advance word about Out of the Game boasted that Wainwright had found his swagger again and was toning down his operatic tendencies and flirting with R&B rhythms. None of that is evident here. There is very little groove, there are fewer nods to pop music than on earlier records, and it all adds up to not much at all. Out of the Game isn’t different or ambitious enough to be terrible, but there’s scant trace of Wainwright’s skills as a writer or arranger. Rufus Wainwright is a lot of things, but he’s never been boring. Until now.

He’s written some tedious songs in his time, but few sink as low as “Rashida,” a song about actress Rashida Jones disinviting him to a Vanity Fair party. This was obviously a shocking event that he not only found humbling, but worthy enough to document quite literally: “I want to thank you Rashida for doing this and giving me a reason to write this song / I guess I’ll have to go begging for that Vanity Fair connection / it’s been a while since I have gone begging / so very very long.” That might be excused in a couple of lines from Kanye West, but it’s beneath Wainwright to spend any time developing it into an actual song.

What’s to blame? Maybe marriage, maybe fatherhood, maybe age. Or maybe it’s because the Montreal native and onetime resident of New York City, L.A. and Berlin recently relocated to Toronto, of all places. Who knows? (May 10)

Download: “Bitter Tears,” “Jericho,” “Perfect Man”

Patrick Watson - Adventures in Your Own Backyard (Secret City)

Montreal’s Patrick Watson leads perhaps the most frustrating band in Canada. (And not just because they insist that Patrick Watson is the name of the band, not just the guy singing and playing piano.) These four gentlemen are incredibly proficient, creative and adventurous, and yet, with the exception of the occasional song, their records have been shockingly forgettable.

Which is why Adventures in Your Own Backyard is such a pleasant surprise. It opens with “Lighthouse,” perhaps the loveliest song in his catalogue, its Satie-like piano line lilting alongside atmospherics coloured in by the rest of the band, with some mariachi horns thrown in for good measure. The rest of this cinematic song cycle works much the same way, with every member scaling back and content to provide minimalist texture to every track. Watson himself, blessed with a choirboy voice that he has used too often to overemote, plays it very low-key here, barely rising above a whisper.

Best of all, Patrick Watson (the band) has abandoned any pretext of being a rock band, or even something resembling a pop band. They are instead the soundtrack to a Montreal snowfall, a Prairie road trip, a European sunrise. They’re no longer in the shadow of early Pink Floyd, latter-day Radiohead or Sigur Ros. They’re in a class of their own, and this is their finest hour—and the promise of much more to come. (May 10)

Download: “Lighthouse,” “Morning Sheets,” “The Things You Do”

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