Friday, October 05, 2012

September '12 reviews

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

David Byrne and St. Vincent – Love This Giant (4AD)
The classic Talking Heads concert film, Stop Making Sense, has a loose narrative involving a stiff, awkward white guy slowly loosening up and learning how to dance, as more bandmates are introduced to the stage. It makes sense, then, that Talking Heads’ David Byrne is the man to bring St. Vincent’s Annie Clark out of her shell: the eggheaded singer/songwriter has built a discography of fussy, cluttered prog rock. Here, she sounds unchained for the first time, helped also in part by the fact that all songs are arranged primarily for full brass, with a minimum of drum programming and keyboards.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that this sounds like a mere experiment in collaboration rather than something worthy of these two extremely talented people. Love This Giant is neither pop nor experimental enough to add up to much of anything. Byrne, who has been on a roll lately with his buoyant 2010 disco opera Here Lies Love and his uplifting 2008 Brian Eno collaboration Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, sounds spent here, and almost claustrophobic. He’d have been better off collaborating with a number of his younger fans—including Arcade Fire and Dirty Projectors—than committing solely to Clark. (Sept. 13)

Download: “Who?” “Optimist,” “Outside of Space and Time”

Calexico – Algiers (Anti)
To mariachi or not mariachi? That is the question that plagues Calexico. Ever since the Tuscon duo expanded into a full band and started incorporating Mexican influences more overtly into their material, their audience expanded considerably beyond the chin-scratching music geeks who respected the subtle and refined instrumental prowess involved with everything these two men do. The tracks that featured big brass parts and danceable rhythms quickly became fan favourites and live show highlights. Would that trajectory hijack the abstract, anything-can-happen aspects of Calexico that set them apart from all their peers?

On their last album, 2008’s Carried to Dust, Calexico managed to absorb those Latin influences into everything they did, using smaller gestures instead of obvious nods, and as a result delivered their most satisfying album to date, where the songcraft matched the sonics and the arrangements. Here, however, after a long rest (due in part to fatherhood for both men), Calexico retreat even further, barely breaking a sweat on 11 rainy-day tracks that revel in space, serenity and atmosphere. Even the vocal turn by auxiliary band member Jacob Valenzuela—his song “InspiraciĆ³n” was a highlight of Carried to Dust—is a low-key duet with Spanish singer Jairo Zavala, brought to life primarily by Valenzuela’s magical, ethereal trumpet solo and a piano vamp in the bridge.

Algiers is named not after the capital city of Algeria—across the Mediterranean from Spain—but for a neighbourhood of New Orleans where the album was recorded. It marks the first time in the band’s career they decamped to a city other than Tuscon to create, and they claim it inspired much of the album. If that’s true, it’s impossible to hear: there’s nary a trace of that town’s rhythms here; you can take Calexico out of Arizona, but you can never take the very specific regional sound of Arizona out of Calexico.

Like Carried to Dust, Algiers finds Calexico further developing into their own unique sound; unlike that record, however, it doesn’t signal any kind of progression, or even the band at the height of their powers. For one of the great American bands of the last decade, it’s merely business as usual—and, for better or worse, with less mariachi to distract us. (Sept. 13)

Download: “Splitter,” “Maybe on Monday,” “No Te Vas”

Cat Power – Sun (Matador)
Six years after Chan Marshall’s last album of original material, her commercial breakthrough The Greatest—a period of time during which she had a breakdown, declared bankruptcy and released an album of covers—Cat Power comes back swinging. Not only is Sun the most upbeat and musically adventurous of her career, Marshall plays every instrument herself—and what could have been an insular, tentative work (like most Cat Power records) is instead the most extroverted Marshall has ever been.

Death, stress, freedom, monkeys on her back—the subject matter is not particularly cheery. “Real life is ordinary / sometimes you don’t want to live,” she sings, and much of the album concerns itself with romance and adventure, Marshall’s plaintive, melancholy voice expressing world-weariness and ennui, torn between desire and domesticity, between hope and despair.

Part of her musical rebirth involved breaking every habit she had: she wrote on synths rather than piano or guitar, she recorded with her touring band and then ditched the entire session to redo it herself, and she consciously avoided anything that sounded too much like her sad-sack records of old. The result is surprisingly approachable, even though it’s far from weightless coffeehouse music, like The Greatest was. Indeed, it’s downright strange at times, whether it’s the 11-minute two-chord drone “Nothin’ But Time,” which conjures an amalgam of the Velvet Underground, Patti Smith and David Bowie (and actually features Iggy Pop on backing vocals), or the globetrotting cri de couer “Ruins,” delivered in an oddball patois over a post-punk disco/ska backbeat.

Sun is an album that long-time fans can recognize as genuine growth (almost 20 years into her career), while skeptics, newbies and the curious can approach her as almost an entirely new and different artist. (Sept. 6)

Download: “Cherokee,” “Ruin,” “Manhattan”

Change of Heart – There You Go: ’82-’97 (Sonic Unyon)
There’s always that band you loved in your 20s, the one you were convinced was a game-changer, the one who showed you musical possibilities, the one who slew every time, the one who slammed you up against the back of the venue wall gig after gig after gig, the one about whom you were always pontificating, the one who gets entire chapters in rock history books, the one whose T-shirts were a badge of cool back in the day.

There’s also sometimes that very same band whose CDs go out of print, whose CDs always seem to be in the quarter bin at the local music shop, who is barely remembered by the next generation of listeners, whose own members proudly move on to completely different musical projects and let sleeping dogs lie.

Change of Heart is one of those bands. During the mid-’90s, they were beloved by so many of their peers, from the underground to the most mainstream, including The Tragically Hip, Sloan, Blue Rodeo, Barenaked Ladies and Sarah Harmer. Fifteen years after their demise—during which time bandleader Ian Blurton fronted at least two bands and produced classic Canadian albums by the Weakerthans, among many others—comes this compilation, covering not just their landmark work in the ’90s, including 1992’s Smile, but long-unavailable early gems. To say this overdue resuscitation is a landmark in Canadian rock history would be a gross understatement.

And yet, as with all romanticized affairs of youth, one has to wonder: was Change of Heart really that good? Listening to these roaring, remixed (by Blurton and long-time collaborator Michael Philip Wojewoda) and remastered (by Joao Carvalho) tracks, the answer is obvious: yes, yes, they were. Near the end they were a prog-rock grunge band capable of the occasional pop song, but early tracks betray both straight-up punk influences as well as ’80s college-rock zeitgeist, with unexpected nods to early R.E.M. and Replacements. Throughout, Blurton’s guitar work is exemplary—and certainly not just with rock riffs and blistering leads that dominated his more recent projects. Change of Heart had several rhythm sections over its history; they’re all fascinating and propulsive.

When Change of Heart had access to major label funding, their last two albums captured the huge sound Blurton had in mind. Here, though, their 1992 classic Smile is finally given the crispy crunch it always deserved; producer Wojewoda has been on record for years claiming that he botched the original mastering job, and now reparations have been paid. Earlier tracks belie the myth that this band only came into its own circa Smile; “Directions for Going,” from the 1986 debut, is rousing and gorgeous, and 1989’s “Pat’s Decline” is one of the best Canadian songs of that decade—unavailable digitally until now.

The market for full reissues is admittedly limited, so this is likely the final word from Change of Heart. Therefore, diehard fans are welcome to mourn the omission of other key tracks like “Coma,” “Yeah It Matters,” “What My Paws Can Move” and “Halifax Facial”—a trauma all 100 of us who still care that much will just have to live with. At least a new generation can finally discover what that 40-year-old in the corner of live venues across the country has been blathering on about for all these years—and appreciate it on their own terms. (Sept. 20)
Download the tracks never before available since their original vinyl release: “Pat’s Decline,” “Winter’s Over,” “Directions for Going”

Deerhoof – Breakup Song (Polyvinyl)
By this point in Deerhoof’s 15-year-long career, you would think the joyously experimental rock band would have done everything: big riffs, math rock, blasts of noise, playful children’s music, electronic bossa nova, and everything in between. And they have—very well. Where do they go from here?

The band themselves describe Breakup Song, their 12th album, as “Cuban-flavoured party-noise energy music”—which tells you everything and nothing (only “The Trouble With Candyhands” displays a hint of Cuban influence, for starters). It’s frenetic, polyrhythmic, noisy and fun, and it sounds nothing like a band with the traditional two-electric-guitar-bass-drums lineup would ever be capable of. With the exception of drummer Greg Saunier’s superhuman ability behind the kit, very few other sounds are recognizable here. Who knows what they’re getting up to or how they do it, but the songs themselves are just as inventive and catchy as always: this easily stands with the finest moments in Deerhoof’s somewhat spotty discography.

When Deerhoof is on fire, as they are here, all other forward-thinking rock bands might as well retire. (Sept. 6)

Download: “There’s That Grin,” “Flower,” “The Trouble With Candyhands”

Carly Rae Jepsen – Kiss (Schoolboy)
Somehow I managed to be the Last Man on Earth to have heard the ubiquitous 2012 summer smash single “Call Me Maybe,” by this Mission, B.C., singer. And now that I have—well, yes, it’s pretty fun. But here’s the shocking thing about this full-length debut album from Jepsen: it’s nowhere near the catchiest song on it. And it’s hard to choose from at least half-dozen more to decide what would take its place.

The big shocker, of course, is the raw, stripped-down Cat Power arrangements. Just kidding! Everything about Kiss threatens to out-gloss Katy Perry; it’s full of blinding synth stabs, tinny beats and big pop melodies designed to accompany showers of confetti. Not that there’s anything wrong with that: Jepsen does this better than almost anyone else, aiming to be a one-woman 21st-century ABBA. Unlike Perry, Jepsen doesn’t sound like an overachieving robot while doing so—there are actually traces of naturalism in her otherwise heavily processed vocals.

She sings about taking a lover’s guitar string and wearing it like a wedding ring, though you’d be hard pressed to hear a single guitar anywhere on this album. There are tracks where a guitar could come in handy, too: “Tonight I’m Getting Over You” could have been a country crossover hit, if the backing track didn’t sound like it was produced by Skrillex.

As a kiddie pop album, Kiss is, naturally, too long and wears out its welcome, though its lowest point is actually one of the advance singles (and a huge hit): a duet with Owl City, “Good Times,” is Jepsen is at her most insipid, a horrifically happy song that should never be played anywhere outside Disney World and North Korean pep rallies. At least the duet with her label boss, Justin Bieber, fares much better. (Sept. 27)

Download: “This Kiss,” “Sweetie,” “I Know You Have a Girlfriend”

Danny Michel – Black Birds are Dancing Over Me (Six Shooter)
Danny Michel has been hiding out in Costa Rica in recent years and fallen off Canadian radar. Here, however, he reminds us what we’ve been missing; this is not just a comeback, it may well be the best work he has ever done. Michel has always been a craftsman as a songwriter and a guitarist, so it’s no surprise this is melodically strong and impeccably performed, and his lyrics are more mature, less reliant on clever one-liners and turns of phrase. The key difference here hearkens back to his earliest days as a performer, when his band the Rhinos were still a ska band evolving into much more. Michel has soaked up his local Latin American influences and made a glorious gumbo that effortlessly recalls Paul Simon’s more successful experiments, enhancing Michel’s sound without sounding like he’s wading in waters over his head. “Take My Heart and Run” and “Break It You Buy It” are slinky disco soul songs; “A Cold Road” is a tender West African ballad; “Survivor’s Guilt” is a reggae/cumbia hybrid; all these tracks work on their own merits, however, without playing spot-the-influence. Clearly, spending some time away from home has recharged Michel’s restlessly creative spirit. (Sept. 27)

Download: “The First Night,” “Survivor’s Guilt,” “Break It You Buy It”

Stars – The North (Soft Revolution)
It’s been five years since Stars delivered their career-best album, In the Bedroom After the War: since then, the largely forgettable album The Five Ghosts was a placeholder in between side projects and parenthood for most of the band. Here, they bounce back with an album designed to fill the stadiums they’ll be playing when they open for Metric across Canada this fall.

The North is perhaps their most musically diverse outing to date: straight-up tributes to New Order, Big Audio Dynamite and other ’80s staples are pulled off with aplomb, while the addition of an additional guitarist bolsters Amy Millan’s always-solid rhythm work and provides additional crunch; meanwhile, the ballads are more beautiful than ever, notably the title track and the GTA commuter tribute “The 400.”

Usually there’s at least one moment on a Stars album where co-lead singer Torquil Campbell proves insufferable; surprisingly, it’s not on the political track here (“A Song is a Weapon,” dedicated to Stephen Harper and featuring the chorus, “You will be here ages after I’m gone / I can only hope to kill you with a song”). Instead, it’s the bombast of “Do You Want to Die Together” that would even make Romeo and Juliet cringe.

That aside, The North shows these Stars are far from burning out. (Sept. 6)

Download: “The Theory of Relativity,” “The North,” “Hold On When You Get Love and Let Go When You Give It”

The XX – Coexist (XL)
This is a minor miracle that didn’t seem possible.
Not when this trio of childhood friends emerged from nowhere with a perfectly minimalist debut album in 2009: an album featuring narcoleptic vocals, subsonic bass, sparse guitar, atmospheric electronics and beats; an album whose popularity started by slow-burning word of mouth and soon became overwhelmed with hype, as it won Britain’s Mercury Prize and shout-outs from indie rock snobs, hip-hop megastars and could even be heard in supermarkets; an album that was so singular and affecting that it seemed certain to set the band up to fail should they try to either replicate it or move beyond it.

And yet—Coexist is every bit as stunning, as minimal, as affecting as the debut.

The two singers have improved beyond their bedroom mutterings—Oliver Sim in particular no longer sounds like he’s moaning like a melancholic with mono; Romy Madley-Croft, meanwhile, is considerably more confident, reminiscent of Everything But the Girl’s Tracey Thorne, but still doesn’t raise her voice above a gentle hush. And Jaime Smith’s beats have evolved beyond the most basic to intricate and essential, throwing the occasional four-on-the-floor bass drums in for good measure, but, again, never straying from the less-is-more aesthetic that works so well for this band. Finally, all songs clock in around the three-minute mark (often less); this band knows better than to milk a motif dry.

Rarely does a band with such a definitive debut album manage to follow it up without repeating themselves or breaking the formula and becoming an entirely different act (see the Cowboy Junkies, for just one example). Play this band’s two albums one after another and, well, they coexist perfectly. (Sept. 13)

Download: “Angels,” “Try,” “Sunset”

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