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)”

1 comment:

bubbalouiex said...

That's so cool that Dead Can Dance is coming out with a new album. Thanks for the info.