Monday, August 27, 2012

August '12 reviews

The following reviews ran in the Waterloo Record and Guelph Mercury this month.

Antibalas - s/t (Daptone)

How many bands get recruited to back up a long-running Broadway show, and then return with the best album of their career? Antibalas spent the last several years as part of the musical theatre sensation celebrating the life of Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti—which was more than apt, because it was Antibalas who almost single-handedly kickstarted the Fela revival in America 10 years ago. 

Now they’re back with a sharp, concise album that owes as much to James Brown as it does to Fela, with tight American funk grooves, organ stabs and guitar riffs intertwining with the West African polyrhythms that define their sound. Time and experience have transformed Antibalas into a band that is the equal of all their collective influences. (Aug. 23)

Download: “Dirty Money,” “Saré Kon Kon,” “The Ratcatcher”

Antony and the Johnsons – Cut the World (Secretly Canadian)

Lately Antony has become better known for appearing on tribute albums (like the new Fleetwood Mac one, reviewed below), guest roles on other people’s projects and being the most visible transgender artist within periphery of the mainstream. It’s become too easy to forget that he possesses one of the most astounding new voices of the last decade.

In part, that’s because Antony’s own material hasn’t always matched the sublime power of his voice. And yet when it does, it’s resulted in emotionally devastating performances that stop you in your tracks. Which is why this orchestral live album (recorded without applause, until the final track) is a potent reminder not only of Antony’s presence, but of his songbook. This is far from a greatest hits (“Hope There’s Someone” is absent), but it does dip back to his stunning 2000 song “Cripple and the Starfish,” and breathes new life into even a song as recent as 2010’s “Another World.” The title track is new, having been commissioned for an acclaimed documentary about the performance artist Marina Abramovic. The orchestrations are all tasteful and creative; though Antony himself can occasionally be maudlin (“You Are My Sister”), the music here isn’t in the least.

Whether he’s singing about environmental apocalypse, the Rapture, epilepsy, S&M or falling in love with dead boys, Antony maintains a state of grace throughout. Which is why his 7.5-minute spoken word interlude, “Future Feminism,” is a terrible idea—not because he’s doesn’t have interesting philosophical and spiritual ideas, but because codifying his stage banter on disc, complete with a distracting teenage uptalk, is embarrassing and distracting from the greater work being presented, even if Antony considers his philosophy and music as interdisciplinary.

One would hate to be so crass as to tell Antony to shut up and sing, but unlike the rest of this magical album, you only ever need to hear “Future Feminism” once. (Aug. 16)

Download: “Cripple and the Starfish,” “Another World,” “Epilepsy is Dancing”

Arnaldo Antunes, Edgard Scandurra and Toumani Diabaté – A Curva da Cintura (Mais un Discos)

Toumani Diabaté is a giant of Malian music, a kora player with a keen sense of collaboration that has seen him work in many genres and with everyone from Bjork to Taj Mahal. Here, he accompanies two Brazilian musicians that allow him to trade licks with guitarists in rock, bossa nova and acoustic samba settings; Diabaté’s son Sidiki adds some wah-pedal effects to his own kora playing, just for kicks. Often it’s lovely—but when it lags, it really, really drags. It’s when they try to rock that this falls flat: chugging electric guitars or American blues motifs sound clunky and grossly out of place. (Aug. 2)

Download: “A Curva da Cintura,” “Kaira,” “Que Me Continua”

Francis Bebey – African Electronic Music 1975-1982 (Born Bad)

Bebey was a Cameroonian Renaissance man who wrote novels, sculpted, wrote pop music, was a radio journalist, worked for UNESCO, played classical guitar and helped launch the career of Manu Dibango (Soul Makossa). But wait—it gets better. In the late ’70s, he dove headfirst into electronic music, mixing Moog synths and thumb pianos while programming polyrhythmic African beats into primitive drum machines, creating sounds that owed as much to German experimental Krautrock and French pop as it did West African music, retaining a warm analog feel that never dips into the sterile sounds of much African music made in Paris (Bebey’s second home) during the ’80s. Bebey’s music here sounds strange, welcoming and innocent; the fact that he narrates most of his comical, bilingual lyrics in a deep, chortling baritone also helps (“Don’t give me bananas and yam for dinner at the same time!” goes one chorus). Bebey’s music is unlike any other you’re likely to have heard from Africa, either then or now, and easily stands out from what seems like a flood of recent reissues. (Aug. 9)

Download: “Agatha,” “New Track,” “Divorce Pygmée”

Dead Can Dance – Anastasis (Pias)

“We are ancient, as ancient as the sun,” are the first words on Dead Can Dance’s first album in 16 years. Indeed, it was 31 years ago that the duo of Brendan Perry and Lisa Gerrard first began blending medieval European folk music with Arabic, African and gothy new wave influences. And now, on an album whose title is the Greek word for resurrection, they sound—well, old. It doesn’t sound like they’ve invested in any new synths in the interim, and while both are still in fine voice, the writing is content to drift along on uninspired grooves devoid of the enchantment that always seemed to come naturally to them. Too much of this sounds like bombastic soundtrack work (Gerrard co-composed the score for Gladiator) aiming for John Barry-ish drama and failing. Though Perry and Gerrard were never romantic partners, this is like having sex with a long-ago love, trying to remember your intimate tricks and faking orgasm to just save face. And considering how many ’90s bedrooms had a Dead Can Dance CD handy by the bedside, that makes this even sadder. (Aug. 16)

Download: “Children of the Sun,” “Agape,” “Opium”

Debo Band – s/t (Next Ambiance/Sub Pop)

When vintage Ethiopian jazz and R&B recordings of the ’70s began being reissued 10 years ago, European and North American audiences seemed content to revel in the seemingly never-ending material from the vaults—27 volumes and counting—while the large Ethiopian diaspora mostly played to its own communities.

That might change with Boston’s Debo Band, fronted by two Ethiopian-Americans and joined by nine other musicians who bring eclectic influences into the group, including klezmer, European brass bands, R&B and psychedelic guitar. Were they intending to be entirely faithful to tradition, they wouldn’t include sousaphone, accordion and electric violin; those elements immediately set it apart from the source material, and yet there’s not a whiff of self-conscious fusion or grafting incongruous elements together.

Everything on this debut album—released six years after the band formed—is seamless. Produced by Thomas “Tommy T” Gobena, the bassist of Gogol Bordello and himself of Ethiopian descent, the record moves from jazzy rave-ups to seductive songs with tango influences to rock songs in ¾ with nary a waltz element at all to devotional tracks that could be Sufi qawwali music. (Aug. 9)

Download: “Not Just a Song,” “Asha Gedawo,” “Habesha”

Divine Fits – A Thing Called Divine Fits (Merge)

Between them, Spoon’s Britt Daniel and Dan Boeckner of Wolf Parade and Handsome Furs have made at least four of the best rock records of the last decade. It should shock no one, then, that when they teamed up as Divine Fits that they should make one of the greatest albums of 2012. Eleven songs in under 45 minutes: these men know how to write great pop hooks, rock riffs, leave room for experimentation and get it all over with before anyone has any time to get bored.

Spoon records are beloved in part because of their minimalism, their distillation of every production trick in the book into bare necessities—that is just as true here as on any Spoon record. Which makes one of the most interesting things about Divine Fits—where the vocals are shared equally between Daniel and Boeckner—the power dynamic: Boeckner clearly loves synths more than Daniel does (the last Handsome Furs album featured barely any guitar at all), but there’s very little else that distinguishes this from a great Spoon album, a natural follow-up to that band’s 2001 breakthrough Kill the Moonlight.

Even though both men have hardly been slouching lately—the final Handsome Furs album is a posthumous contender for the Polaris Prize—Divine Fits sounds like a creative rebirth, the sound of songwriters and studio geeks rediscovering the joy in their craft. With the dissolution of Handsome Furs, Boeckner is now a free agent, and who knows what state Spoon is in, but Divine Fits is far too good to be a temporary side project. Even if you’ve read this far without having any idea who these guys are, This is Divine Fits is essential listening. (Aug. 30)

Download: “Would That Not Be Nice,” “My Love is Real,” “For Your Heart”

Freeman Dre and the Kitchen Party – Old Town (Fedora Upside Down)

Freeman Dre lives in a Toronto neighbourhood with a large immigrant population. Not immigrants from parts of the world that would be necessarily culturally hardwired to share his love of the Pogues, Johnny Cash and Townes Van Zandt, but there is a universality in Dre’s songwriting that should transcend all borders. His characters have usually picked themselves up from adversity, relocated or reinvented themselves, and are trying to get through their week by blowing off steam singing along with their neighbours once a week at either a pub or, well, a kitchen party. Dre knows how to write a classic folk song, deliver it with an empathetic, raspy growl, employ some top-notch players (including mandolinist Lonny Knapp), and employ sympathetic live-off-the-floor producers like Dale Morningstar (Gord Downie’s Country of Miracles) and John Critchley (13 Engines, Dan Mangan)—all of which adds up to a gem of a record that deserves to be on jukeboxes in every local pub in the country. (Aug. 2)

Download: “Younger Brother,” “To the Lost,” “We All Fall Down”

Gonzales – Solo Piano II (Arts and Crafts)

Give the people what they want. Gonzales seems to have had a hard time doing this during his career, despite the fact that his ego desperately wants massive success. And so after one left turn after another—the latest two involved an orchestral rap album and a film about competitive chess brothers—the Toronto-via-Berlin musician revisits his lone commercial success, his 2005 album Solo Piano.

Solo Piano II is truth in advertising: no detours into ’70s soft rock, no hip-hop, no cameos from his BFF and production client Feist, just Gonzales at the piano, displaying the kind of sentimental virtuosity that he hated indie rock for destroying in the ’90s. Once again, he reveals himself to be—if not perhaps the musical genius he always professes to be—then at the very least a dynamic, romantic pianist who specializes in silent film score motifs and nods to Satie. Yes, these 17 tracks (most under three minutes) are made to go down with candlelight and wine, and they are largely indistinguishable—other than the fact that “Nero’s Nocturne” sounds like it’s riffing on part of the chorus of Leonard Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat.” But that doesn’t make them any less lovely or enchanting, even though some of the playful innocence of the first album is, understandably, not heard here.

As an artist, Gonzales thrives on surprises and subverting expectations. This may be the first time he’s done something entirely predictable, but why shouldn’t he?

Download: “Kenaston,” “Nero’s Nocturne,” “Evolving Doors”

Isaiah Toothtaker – Sea Punk Funk (Anticon)

Back when Halifax was poised to be the centre of offbeat Canadian hip-hop, Sixtoo was one of the primary architects of the scene, along with Buck 65. Later moving to Montreal and signing with British beat label Ninja Tune, he released one of the most underrated Canadian albums of the last decade, 2007’s instrumental electro-hip-hop hybrid Jackals and Vipers in Envy of Man.

Since then, Sixtoo fell completely off the radar, outside of occasional DJ gigs as Megasoid with members of Wolf Parade. But he reappears here on the outsider hip-hop label Anticon with a free download producing this EP by Tuscon, Arizona, rapper Isaiah Toothtaker. The soundscape is meticulously assembled early ’80s funk, the likes of which hasn’t been successfully resuscitated since the heyday of the Solesides crew, featuring DJ Shadow and Lyrics Born. Toothtaker himself is neither here nor there as an MC; Sixtoo, recording under the alias Prison Garde, is the real star here. He should be landing higher-profile work than this: if Diplo can be tapped by Top 40 superstars, so can Sixtoo.

Download: “Labyrinth,” “SouthWest Testament,” “LA Nights (featuring Murs)”

Joe Jackson – The Duke (Razor and Tie)

Joe Jackson has dipped into jazz several times during his prolific career: he’s done big-band soundtracks, incorporated Latin jazz into his pop music and, early on, first veered off the rock’n’roll path in 1981 with an album of Louis Jordan covers, Jumpin’ Jive. As can be expected of someone with such catholic tastes, Jackson hits as often as he misses—which is also true of this full-length tribute to Duke Ellington.

Things get off to a bad start with “Isfahan,” where syrupy synth strings and Steve Vai’s guitar ruin what could have been a lovely arrangement. It’s also unnecessary, as Jackson later uses real strings on a hokey version of “I Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good)”—a version that’s interesting mainly because the bisexual Jackson doesn’t change the gender-specific lyrics written about a male love. And speaking of Steve Vai—the guitar hero known mostly for his work with Frank Zappa, David Lee Roth and Whitesnake—it’s unlikely anyone has ever wanted to hear him play jazz over a reggae beat, as he does here on “The Mooche/Black and Tan Fantasy.”

But elsewhere, Jackson scores with Iranian singer Sussan Deyhim singing “Caravan” in Farsi, roping in a campy Iggy Pop for “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If You Ain’t Got That Swing),” setting subsonic electronic bass to a bossa nova version of “Perdido” that dissolves into a solo piano “Satin Doll,” asking Sharon Jones to sing “I Ain’t Got Nothing But the Blues,” and inviting the Roots’ ?uestlove to provide a New Orleans backbeat to “Rockin’ in Rhythm,” which inspires some of Jackson’s finest piano playing on the album. Jackson purposely stayed away from using any horns at all here, in order to prevent these arrangements from being compared at all to the originals. Indeed, in paying tribute to such a multifaceted composer, the end result illuminates as much about Jackson as it does Ellington. (Aug. 2)

Download: “Caravan,” “Rockin’ in Rhythm,” “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If You Ain’t Got That Swing)”

Corb Lund – Cabin Fever (New West)

It’s not an accident that storyteller Corb Lund opens his new album with a post-peak-oil apocalyptical scenario where “when the oil stops, everything stops,” with talk of “a rip in the social fabric” and rural retreat as the only salvation from a world about to go to hell.

On the surface, the rest of Cabin Fever is a collection of largely light-hearted songs about how “everything is much better with cows around,” and how “you ain’t a cowboy if you ain’t been bucked off.” But the characters here are all dealing, in their own way, with societal collapse, with escape and resilience, with history catching up with them. Even “Bible on the Dash,” a duet with Hayes Carll—about travelling musicians deceiving border patrols by claiming to “play Christian music, sir!”—is set in a theocratic country where religious allegiance is used as a barometer to suss out suspicion.

It is Lund’s gift that he has always successfully shattered stereotypes of simplistic country music, or of well-read urbanites being out of touch with rural reality. His short stories set to music have always straddled both worlds—Lund was raised in rural Alberta and resides in the liberal enclave of Edmonton—which is why he can write a song like “September” so successfully, in which the narrator laments losing his love to the glamour and charm of New York City, knowing that even the splendour of his back quarter in the Rocky Mountains can’t compete with the Big Apple. There’s no us vs. them, red-state/blue-state B.S. here, just pathos and empathy and regret—and respect.

If Lund gives you plenty to read into his music, he’s also brilliant at simple surface pleasures. Every song here is a country music classic, full of twang, swing, rowdy rock’n’roll and heartbreaking balladry. Lund’s pulled this off twice before: on 2003’s Five Dollar Bill, and 2007’s Horse Soldier! Horse Soldier!, with plenty of other worthy material scattered across his other albums; Cabin Fever is undoubtedly Lund at the top of his game. He may be a poet laureate of the Canadian Prairies, but he’s simply one of the best songwriters working today, anywhere, in any genre. (Aug. 23)

Download: “Gettin’ Down on the Mountain,” “Bible on the Dash,” “September”

Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti – Mature Themes (XL)

“Farewell, American primitive,” goes the titular chorus of a new song by Ariel Pink—which sums up the appeal of this, his second album for one of the world’s largest indie labels (after years of self-released cassettes). For Pink might well be the last great American primitive left.
When indie rock and underground music went mainstream in the past decade, the real weirdoes got left out of the party. Unlike in the ’90s, when Nirvana fandom might reveal the mysteries of Daniel Johnston to an unsuspecting teenager, these days the eclecticism that once defined campus radio playlists has largely given way to homogeneity where the distinctions between Spoon and Metric are negligible.

Except for Ariel Pink. Back when Arcade Fire showed stadium-sized ambition that inspired a new generation, Pink was recording unlistenable pop songs too fuzzy even for those raised on Eric’s Trip, and playing with a new backing band in every town on his tours. It didn’t bode well that his first early champions were Animal Collective, nor did the fact that he boasted of having no musical talent or instrumental prowess at all—which was true. He recently told the New York Times, “I was dead set on toiling in obscurity. I was recording experimental music that was just designed to alienate people.”

All of which makes it shocking how much of Mature Themes manages to be, well, mature and somewhat amazing: a magical concoction of psychedelic pop music, whimsical and weird in ways rarely heard since Syd Barrett, and yet executed by a professional band and captured in vivid sonic colours and rich production.

A couple of years ago Pink toured with Brazilian tropicalia oddball legends Os Mutantes; it’s obvious why, because other than the bossa nova influence that helped define that band, they share a complete disregard for conventionality while still making very pretty pop songs. Pink occasionally loses the plot completely and veers into bad faux-Ween territory (“Symphony of the Nymph,” “Schnitzel Boogie”), appealing only to the most juvenile stoners in his small audience. Otherwise, Pink proves to be a brave, fascinating artist who easily surpasses the meagre expectations of anyone who remembers his 15 seconds of indie rock fame in 2005. (Aug. 23)

Download: “Is This the Best Spot,” “Mature Themes,” “Only In My Dreams”

Michael Rault – Whirl Pool (Pirates Blend)

Edmonton’s boy wonder of fuzzed-out retro rock’n’roll returns with a teaser EP that sounds as sonically smart as Spoon, full of the songcraft of Sloan and the soul of the Staple Singers (the latter evident on a cover of their “Two Wings”). Rault is an ace rhythm guitar player, a snarling singer who “Falls In Love With Every Girl I See” and manages to make the most out of lo-fi recording—not unlike the rock’n’roll originators that he’s clearly enamoured with. Rault gets a lot of love in his home province of Alberta, but remains a well-kept secret around these parts. That deserves to change much sooner than later, and this all-killer-no-filler EP offers seven more reasons why. (Aug. 9)

Download: “Suckcess,” “Two Wings,” “Everyone Must Cry Sometimes”

Rocket Juice & the Moon – s/t (Honest Jon’s)

Damon Albarn made headlines this year when Blur reunited for two new songs, a retrospective box set and a reunion show that coincided with the Olympics Closing Ceremonies. He also met with general derision for releasing an opera, Dr. Dee, combining Elizabethan-era instrumentation with African elements. What seems to be lost in the shuffle is this release—easily the best non-Gorillaz project this creatively hyperactive Britpop icon has unleashed in years. It’s certainly the funkiest: his two main collaborators here are the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ bassist, Flea, and drummer Tony Allen, who played with Fela Kuti in his prime.

Unlike Albarn’s last supergroup—2007’s The Good, the Bad & the Queen, featuring Verve guitarist Simon Tong, Clash bassist Paul Simonon, and Allen—this doesn’t sound like it was thrown together. It is a casual affair, but everyone gels so easily—guests include the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, Erykah Badu, and worthy African MCs and vocalists unknown on these shores—that it hardly matters.

This is not for Blur fans—though they might be pacified by the lovely ballad “Poison,” sung by Albarn, which is the closest this album comes to pop music. (His other vocal turn, “Benko,” is merely filler.) This album is, however, for people who love Flea’s bass playing, but hate the Red Hot Chili Peppers. It is for people in awe of the drumming of Afrobeat legend Allen. And it’s for people who admire Albarn as the owner of a fantastic record label (Honest Jon’s), prefer Gorillaz better in theory than in execution, and have never really warmed to anything he’s done on his own. In not trying so hard, Albarn accomplishes so much more. (Aug. 2)

Download: “1-2-3-4-5-6,” “Hey Shooter (featuring Erykah Badu),” “Lolo (featuring Fatoumata Diawara & M.anifest)”

Just Tell Me That You Want Me: A Tribute to Fleetwood Mac – Various Artists (Hear Music)

Compiling a tribute record to an artist is a lot easier when the artist in question has evolved through many different phases. Yes, Fleetwood Mac became one of the biggest bands in the world by selling a kajillion copies of Rumours, but they also started out as a British blues band and took post-fame detours into experimental weirdness. This is why artists as disparate as ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons, the New Pornographers, Marianne Faithfull and MGMT can all rally around the Fleetwood Mac flag for this album, which holds together much better than far too many similar star-studded projects do.

This crowd is more than ready to go for deep cuts instead of well-worn greatest hits. It’s telling that there are three times as many songs here from the much-maligned weirdo favourite Tusk (six) as there is from Rumours (two), though Lykke Li deserves credit for breathing life into the forgotten Rumours-era b-side “Silver Springs.” Shockingly, no one touches the group’s last big album, 1987’s Tango in the Night, whose sonic landscape sounds like it was a direct inspiration for several artists here. Only three artists dare dip back to the band’s blues period, including Black Dub’s Trixie Whiteley and a team-up of ’80s alt-rock guitar legends J Mascis and Lee Ranaldo. Groups like Washed Out and Tame Impala take Fleetwood Mac’s sun-fried Californian vibe to extremes, substituting synths for acoustic guitars to achieve otherworldly, dream-like states.

Of the more popular songs here, Best Coast turn “Rihannon” into a jaunty, hand-clappin’ ’50s number, while the Kills pull apart “Dreams” to just a lead vocal, the most minimal guitar possible, and a single drum beat every two bars in the verses. The unknown Gardens & Villa do “Gypsy,” and plenty of other second- and third-tier artists deliver fine performances and interpretations. If a tribute album is supposed to enhance your appreciation of the artist in question while bringing out the best of everyone involved, then this is a swinging success. (Aug. 16)

Download: Antony – “Landslide,” Billy Gibbons and Co. – “Oh Well,” Lykke Li – “Silver Springs”

Whitehorse - The Fate of the World Depends on This Kiss (Six Shooter)

Luke Doucet and Melissa McClelland have been partners in music, love and life for so long now that it made sense to bury their public identities as respected solo artists and start anew. And though Doucet is clearly the superior guitar player—he’s one of the finest six-string-slingers in this country and beyond, which is hard to compete with—they are otherwise equals as songwriters and vocalists. As Whitehorse, there’s no radical reinvention of sound from their respective solo work: they’re both big on noir-ish twang, roots rock, Mitchell Froom-era Los Lobos records, Fleetwood Mac and throwing in subtle studio tricks and electronics to maximize their miniscule recording budget. And naturally, their harmonies are glorious.

Download: “Devil’s Got a Gun,” “No Glamour in the Hammer,” “Mismatched Eyes (The Boat Song)”

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

July '12 reviews

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

Fiona Apple – The Idler Wheel is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do (Sony)

From that title onward, almost everything about Fiona Apple’s first album in seven years seems designed to alienate: the harrowing tight-rope of emotional stability heard in her voice, the sparse arrangements consisting only of piano and percussion, the hiccupping yodel of a chorus on the opening track, the album-length portrait of a psychologically damaged, anxiety-prone poet who feels unworthy of love. Sound like a good time?

“I just want to feel everything,” Apple sings on the opening track—and it certainly sounds like she does. She later claims that “I don’t want to talk about anything”—but she’s clearly ready to talk about everything, no matter how self-lacerating or embarrassing, such as stalking an ex-lover while cutting herself, or wondering, “How can I ask anyone to love me / when all I do is beg to be left alone?”

What’s astonishing is that Apple pulls it all off: at the age of 35, she’s gone from being a frightening waif of a pop star to an oddball artist with record company woes to her current incarnation as a defiant icon whose swagger and jazzy cadence puts her closer to Nina Simone than Cat Power. This could have been an all-too-precious examination of a precarious personality; instead it’s a melodic, commanding performance. Apple draws listeners in rather than simply treat herself like a freak show, by taking raw-nerve situations and weaving poetry out of them; she’s not angry at herself or her others as much as she is searching for answers, self-awareness and inner peace.

Musically, Apple’s voice is stronger than ever: often masculine, her tremolo conveying not fragility but a mistrust of pure tones. Her piano accompaniment is forceful though sparse, never overbearing; the percussion prefers kitchen sinks and cuts and clinks over a conventional drum kit, and yet never comes off as gimmicky. She’s not always so serious, either: the album closes with the playful, largely a cappella “Hot Knife” (set only to distant rumbling tympani drums), where Apple actually sounds like she’s having fun, while showing off an entirely different side of her vocals—pretty and soulful.

Apple has always been interesting, but never this fascinating. And other than Bjork, it’s impossible to think of anyone else in pop music or the periphery who still makes music like this on a major label. (July 5)

Download: “Hot Knife,” “Left Alone,” “Daredevil”

Badbadnotgood – BBNG2 (independent)

A cocky young jazz trio dissatisfied with their formal music college education, Badbadnotgood turned to reinventing hip-hop songs as jazz excursions, which led to viral YouTube videos, collaborations with their heroes and opening slots for jazz legends. Their debut album may have been somewhat slight musically and heavy on the novelty, but the follow-up shows how much they’ve grown in the past year, settling into their space-age psychedelic take on both jazz and hip-hop.

You don’t have to know any of their reference points to dig into their sound. In fact, knowing the original tracks by Kanye West or Odd Future or, um, Feist, is a tad distracting; one wonders why they didn’t just riff on motifs rather than crediting their source material, so far removed is the result from the inspiration. But of course doing that wouldn’t pique any interest from non-jazzheads, so they deserve full props for marketing themselves as well. Both this and the debut are available for free download from their website. (July 26)

Download: “Limit to Your Love,” “Bastard/Lemonade,” “UVM”

Canailles – Manger du bois (Gross Boite)

Canailles (not to be confused with the Toronto jazz group with a similar name) dip deep into Quebecois and Acadian folk traditions, including zydeco, and deliver the goods with raucous energy better suited for last call than a bright summer’s day. Yet they got their start staging impromptu hootenannies in Montreal parks. This, their debut album, was produced by Socalled, who was happy to set up room microphones and let the band loose: this sounds like it was all recorded live in one take, to Canailles’s credit. The result is one of the most refreshing Canadian folk records in recent memory: singers Daphné Brissette—who sounds like a backwoods Piaf—and Erik Evans holler their guts out while accordions, washboards, banjos and mandolins race and lurch around them and everyone shouts backing vocals. What could be a drunken mess is meticulously arranged, and the songs are surprisingly strong. This is not a group that shows up with an accordion and thinks that endows authenticity. Canailles have got the real goods. (July 26)

Download: “R’tourne de bord,” “Bien etre,” “Ramone-moi”

Dirty Projectors – Swing Lo Magellan (Domino)

Incredibly intelligent and talented musicians don’t always make the best music; it’s easy to disappear down the rabbit hole of virtuosity and overanalysis. For the better part of the last decade, that’s been true of Dirty Projectors’ Dave Longstreth—until now.

As a Yale graduate with an advanced sense of harmony and rhythm, Longstreth made often wrote music more difficult and conceptual than it had to be. Swing Lo Magellan, on the other hand, rocks as hard as Led Zeppelin, is as deceptively simple as vintage Joni Mitchell, and has all the pop smarts of Paul Simon (pre- and post-Graceland)—combined with a healthy dose of British folk harmonies and West African guitars. First single “Gun With No Trigger” even has the grandiose, dramatic elements of a classic James Bond theme. Most importantly, if not improbably: it all works, in service of songs that are insanely catchy despite their complexity.

Longstreth recently told Pitchfork, “You could say [the previous album] is about the idea of songs, but these [new songs] are just songs. It's less about self-consciously appropriating elements of other styles and putting them together in some clever way.” Whatever—if he wants to rationalize his new-found winning formula by self-consciously deciding to be less self-conscious, that’s up to him. The rest of us can let the luxurious pleasures of this record sink in slowly over the course of the summer.

Longstreth has made a classic rock record by sidestepping almost every classic rock cliché in the book: guitars, keys, drums and female backing vocals never do what you think they’re going to. And yet such is the skill of this band that it also doesn’t sound overthought or constricted: this music is loose and flowing, not tightly controlled. Just because it’s smart doesn’t mean it has to be sterile.

“Without songs,” begins the final track, a sparse ’50s-sounding coda that sounds like it could be a Buddy Holly demo, “our life is pointless, harsh and long.” Better late than never to figure that out. (July 19)

Download: “Gun Has No Trigger,” “Dance For You,” “Impregnable Question”

Doldrums – Empire Sound (No Pain in Pop)

Phedre – s/t (Daps)

Airick Woodhead is Doldrums, though some might recall he and his brother Daniel as one half of Spiral Beach, a wildly inventive teenage group from Toronto. After moving to Montreal and reinventing himself as Doldrums, Airick began to fly his freak flag even higher, pulling from samples, glitchy electronics, a slight Bollywood influence and some furious drumming to fuel his twisted take on pop music. He’s already got a nod of approval from Portishead, produced tracks on the new Cadence Weapon album, and has been signed to a British label. It all adds up in the studio, but the live trio has yet to live up to the recordings.

Woodhead is also behind the beats for Phedre, a side project for Hooded Fang’s Daniel Lee and April Aliermo. While both Doldrums and Phedre are lo-fi psychedelic electro-pop, Doldrums is often frenetic, while Phedre is chill and trippy, and the deadpan vocals of Lee and Aliermo sound like a Lee Hazlewood/Nancy Sinatra or Vaselines for the 21st century slacker crowd. Despite the laid-back vibe, the songs are simple yet strong; if anyone involved decided to make this their main focus, it could be much more than just a local curiosity. (July 26)

Download Doldrums: “I’m Homesick Sittin’ Up Here in My Satellite,” “Parrot Talk,” “Lost in My Head”

Download Phedre: “Aphrodite,” “In Decay,” “Ode to the Swinger”

Gentleman Reg – Leisure Life (Heavy Head/Outside)

Didn’t see this coming. I thought ex-Guelphite Gentleman Reg had put his eponymous project on hiatus, after leaving the Arts and Crafts label and reinventing himself in drag in the duo Light Fires, which has been the focus of almost all of his live shows in the last year. Little did I know that he was still with the ace band he assembled for 2009’s Jet Black (which includes Guelph keyboardist Kelly McMichael) and that he was recording new material with producer Chris Stringer, who has made most of my favourite Toronto records of recent years (Timber Timbre, Forest City Lovers, D’Urbervilles, Selina Martin).

Reg has always loved big pop music, but outside a few obvious singles, his own work rarely surrendered to big hooks and grand drama. On these five songs, which are a sneak peak at an autumn full-length, Reg doesn’t waste a single moment: he’s going for gold. These songs rock out in ways that Jet Black was just beginning to move toward; there’s barely an acoustic guitar in sight, and McMichael’s new wave keyboards help propel the sound. If Reg keeps this up on the other two EPs that will comprise the upcoming album, this is going to be his best year yet in a long, productive career. (July 12)

Download: “Waiting Around For Gold,” “I Could Be What You Wanted,” “Driving the Truth”

Hill and the Sky Heroes – 11:11 (PuckEye/EMI)

At this early point in her career, the CV of 24-year-old Toronto singer Hill Kourkoutis relies mostly on her associations with others: as a video director (Sass Jordan, Mother Mother) and a touring musician (The Weeknd, Tara Slone). Her debut album is produced by guitarist Adrian Eccleston (Drake, Nelly Furtado) and features co-writes with Serena Ryder and several other industry heavy hitters. Little of that matters once you hear her open her mouth: she’s got a ballsy, bluesy voice she places inside what she calls “alien surf rock,” but which is actually a noir-ish cabaret pop that goes for glossy production and yet is a tad too weird and dark to ever crack a radio playlist—and more power to it. Her closest comparison point as a singer is Alison Mosshart of the Kills and The Dead Weather, though Kourkoutis clearly has her own game going on. The only serious flaw with 11:11 is that it overstays its welcome, and all the best songs are front-loaded off the top. Yet that doesn’t mean Hill and the Sky Heroes aren’t the most promising new Canadian artist you’re likely to hear so far this year. (July 5)

Download: “There’s a Lie on Your Pillow,” “Rent an Ocean,” “In Retrospect (You Were the Asshole)”

Kelly Hogan – I Like to Keep Myself in Pain (Anti)

As you can tell from that title, country-soul singer Kelly Hogan has got the blues. Not that she lets it get to her: like Patsy Cline, Hogan sounds hopeful even at her most heartbroken. Which is why I Like To Keep Myself in Pain is a largely uptempo celebration—celebrating mainly the fact it’s been nine years since Hogan’s last album, the grossly underrated Because It Feel Good.

Hogan has spent much of that time as Neko Case’s BFF, backing vocalist and on-stage foil, as well as appearing with Mavis Staples, Jakob Dylan and others. She is deservedly beloved by all her peers, which is why she was able to not only commission new songs here from Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt, the late Vic Chesnutt, Robyn Hitchcock, M. Ward and many of her Chicago pals, but also to have legendary keyboardist Booker T. Jones and the Dap Kings’ Gabriel Roth as part of her backing band on the entire album.

That star power almost works against her, however, raising expectations for an album that succeeds most at its most subtle. Though she has a fabulous voice—strong, sensual and soulful—Hogan is not a showy singer. She needs a strong song from which she can channel a narrative and find emotional resonance, and only half the material here is worth hearing her sinking her teeth into. The strangest misfires are Stephin Merritt, who is unusually bland on “Plant White Roses,” and M. Ward, who seems like he’s trying and failing to be Stephin Merritt on “Daddy’s Little Girl,” with lines like: “Miami, you were my clean, dry scotch / Milan, you were the gold seam in my crotch.”

The other half of the album, of course, is fantastic. In the case of Jon Langford (Mekons, Waco Brothers), he writes her one of the strongest rock songs of his career, “Haunted,” allowing Hogan to holler like Dolly Parton. The normally wordy Andrew Bird sets music to concise lyrics by novelist Jack Pendarvis, on an homage to economic humility, “We Can’t Have Nice Things.” Soul man Roth pens the uncharacteristic ’50s-ish lounge pop song “Slumber’s Sympathy,” which sounds worthy of Roy Orbison.

Hogan’s voice is too good to remain hidden in the shadows. Hopefully this will serve as a reminder that we need to hear a lot more from her, a lot more often. (July 5)

Download: “We Can’t Have Nice Things,” “Haunted,” “Ways of This World”

KonKoma – s/t (Soundway)

Los Miticos del Ritmo – s/t (Soundway)

After the glut of amazing African reissues that have surfaced lately, all mining a golden period of the continent’s finest funk from the ’70s, one has to wonder when the well would go dry, and what labels like Soundway would do to maintain their quality standard.

One answer is to sign bands featuring old-timers who are still making exciting music as good as they were in their heyday. Enter keyboardist/vocalist Emmanuel Rentzos and guitarist Alfred Bannerman, two musicians who appear on Soundway’s beloved Ghana Special compilation, on tracks they recorded as teens. They now live in the U.K., and have teamed up with modern archivists and engineer Prince Fatty (who made last year’s grossly underrated roots reggae album by Hollie Cook) to form KonKoma. Though the Ghanaians sound great, the rhythm section here of bassist Derrick McIntyre and drummer Jose Joyette are the real stars—you could strip away the rest of this band and be satiated with just the rhythm section alone. That the rest of the band sounds so great is just icing on the cake.

Sadly, the same cannot be said of Los Miticos del Ritmo, a project for British producer and DJ Will “Quantic” Holland, who now resides in Cali, Colombia. He’s spent the last five years not only researching and compiling old cumbia records, but learning the accordion. Here, he assembles a new band of young Colombian cumbia musicians and records originals and some unsuccessful novelty covers, like limp takes on Queen’s "Another One Bites the Dust" ("Otro Muerde el Polvo") and Michael Jackson’s "Don’t Stop" ("No Pares Hasta Tener lo Suficiente"). His attention to period detail is impressive: recording live on analogue tape, and writing and arranging in the traditional style. With few exceptions, however, Holland doesn’t capture the same magic found on the older records that inspired him. You would be lucky to have a band like Los Miticos del Ritmo playing your local bar, but it’s hard to hold them to the same standard Holland met when compiling other people’s records. (July 19)

Download KonKoma: “Accra Jump,” “Handkerchief,” “Sibashaya Woza”

Download Los Miticos del Ritmo: “Willy’s Merengue,” “Cumbia de Mochilla,” “Fabiola”

Lindi Ortega – Little Red Boots (Last Gang)

When the Polaris Prize long list was announced last month, even I—a juror for the prize since its inception six years ago—had not heard a few of the 40 titles. One of them was Lindi Ortega’s Little Red Boots, which is now over a year old. Maybe I just hadn’t heard someone convince me that Ortega wasn’t any different than the legions of other country-ish singer/songwriters that populate this country’s musical landscape. My loss.

Ortega has a compelling, classic country voice, not unlike Dolly Parton’s; she prefers traditional acoustic arrangements with twangy electric guitars; she’s old-timey in spirit but Ron Lopata’s production is crisp, clean and modern. Most importantly, unlike dozens of other great vocalists, she writes kick-ass, clever and melodic songs that serve her talents well. It’s obvious why she’s just as comfortable opening for mainstream country acts as she is for veteran punk band Social Distortion (whose biggest hit was a revved-up cover of June Carter’s “Ring of Fire”).

I was late to Ortega’s party—but it sounds like it will still be swinging until her next bash. (July 12)

Download: “Blue Bird,” “I’m No Elvis Presley,” “Dying of Another Broken Heart”

Plaster - Let It All Out (Vega Musique)

Quebecois trio Plaster have backed up drag queens and hip-hop legend Lauryn Hill; they’ve played jazz festivals and opened for star DJs, and they’ve juggled various musical projects to pay their bills—all are part of the reason why it took them almost seven years to release this, their second album. Their chops and versatility are on full display—though just because these guys can do just about anything, they’re not out to prove it on every song, which means that groove is always paramount. This time out they go for a heavier, rock-infused dance vibe with many guest vocalists and MCs (and what sounds like a group of female cheerleaders, not unlike The Go Team), leaving some of the more jazz, experimental stuff to the side. As keyboardist Alex McMahon told Montreal’s La Presse, “C'est moins cérébral et plutôt headbanger.” Rock on, all you electro jazz heads. (July 12)

Download: “P.U.N.K.S.,” “Brooggere,” “Dancing Lemons”

Twin Shadow – Confess (4AD)

Nostalgia for the ’80s has been going on so long that it’s hard to believe they ever ended. As a child of that era, I’m largely fine with that, as long as it’s done as well as bands like The Magic and Diamond Rings and Grimes and Bat For Lashes and Santigold and Magnetic Fields and others do it. But seriously, this Twin Shadow album—it’s a joke, right? Some kind of deadpan Napoleon Dynamite-style non-sequitur joke that’s actually not that funny at all?

On the positive side, Twin Shadow does have fond memories of a time in the ’80s when R&B and rock weren’t living in segregation, a time when Michael Jackson used heavy guitars, when bands like INXS clearly wore their soul influences on their sleeves, and when Prince did whatever the hell he wanted.

Except Twin Shadow, though blessed with a strong voice, has yet to figure out that a retro conceit only goes so far without a personality or songs to back it up; even the best songs here sound like teen movie soundtrack filler at best (and not even Pretty in Pink—more like Weird Science), and even those songs sound remarkably similar to each other; I often forgot which one was playing, expecting a different chorus.

The biggest knock against the ’80s has always been that it was a time when style trumped substance. Twin Shadow doesn’t seem to think that was such a bad thing. (July 19)

Download: “Golden Light,” “Five Seconds,” “Be Mine Tonight”