Monday, December 10, 2012

November 2012 reviews

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

The Amazing - Gentle Stream (Subliminal)

With a band name like that, this Swedish combo have a lot to prove. Perhaps needless to say, the moniker is mere hyperbole; the album title is a much more apt evocation of the musical contents. Woodwinds, jazzy drums, acoustic guitars, electric 12-string guitars and even some bongos conjure up sonic images of Nick Drake and Belle and Sebastian; if the songs here aren’t quite up to those high standards, the aesthetic most certainly is.

The Amazing features the guitarist from Dungen, who had a fleeting moment of pseudo-fame during the mid-2000s, when the indie boom had an anything-goes thirst for anything exotic, including ’70s-drenched Swedish psychedelia. His noodly yet tasteful style fits in perfectly here, though with considerably less distortion than he preferred in Dungen.

If Tame Impala are the new face of electric psychedelic rock, The Amazing aim to be the folkie counterpoint. Calling themselves The Lovely and Pretty Good was not an option; their name at least gives them something more to work toward. (Nov. 29)

Download: “Flashlight,” “Dogs,” “The Fog”

Bat For Lashes – The Haunted Man (EMI)

The difficult third album: you’re no longer a most promising act, and if you wowed everyone your second time out, you suddenly have a lot to prove. And so Natasha Khan, who records under the unfortunate moniker Bat For Lashes, comes to us with The Haunted Man, carrying great expectations—and shucking them immediately.

If 2009’s Two Suns was a glorious, epic reboot of Kate Bush’s wild, witchy and weird take on pop music, The Haunted Man ventures more into early Sarah McLachlan territory, only with slightly more inventive instrumentation. “All Your Gold” is driven by glass percussion; “Oh Yeah” takes rave keyboards and strips them of their bombast, preferring instead to have them dance over a delicate, skittering beat and a sampled man choir; the real man choir shows up on the title track. Throughout, Khan’s voice shows opera chops and pop perfection; we’d likely be listening to her no matter what she was up to.

Where The Haunted Man falls flat is the songs. Khan doesn’t cast the same spells she did last time (despite her promise: “It’s time to get enchanted”), and there are more than a few times when she sounds downright pedestrian, never more so than on “Laura” (the album’s only co-write), where she consoles a former party girl who’s been left behind by so-called friends; what should be an uplifting song instead sounds like a shallow ode to scenesters (“You’ll be famous for longer than them / your name is tattooed on every boy’s skin”) set to the most simplistically earnest arrangement on an otherwise musically complex album.

Khan is unique enough that The Haunted Man has plenty to love about it, but it’s unlikely to be a highlight of her career, or even of this year. (Nov. 8)

Download: “All Your Gold,” “Horses of the Sun,” “Oh Yeah”

Diamond Rings – Free Dimensional (Secret City)

Ever since he debuted as Diamond Rings, John O’Regan seemed destined for bigger stages. The glam makeup, the big pop songs, the ridiculous dancing—could Lady Gaga territory be far off? Not at all. Now with a big-money promotional push behind him, Free Dimensional pumps up the volume on O’Regan’s previously lo-fi production and proves that now he’s shooting for stadiums, not just perennial opening act status (notably for Robyn across North America) or hometown hero (as frontman for now-defunct rock band the D’Urbervilles).

Tracks like “I’m Just Me” prove that O’Regan is more than just an androgynous stick figure in funny outfits and makeup, and that he’s determined, Gaga style, to inject some affirming self-esteem lyrics into a bubblegum Top 40 context—and more power to him, as the track is destined to be a fist-pumping club hit uniting geeks across the globe.

Aside from that and a handful of others—all front-loaded in the first five tracks—Free Dimensional is sadly not the star-making showstopper it wants to be. “I want to be your A-Z,” sings O’Regan, but he doesn’t get much past C here. The songs are fine—merely fine—and the production seems torn between lo-fi charm and high-sheen bombast; if it was one or the other, it would work much better. Instead, beefing up crappy drum machines and standard vintage synth sounds means that Diamond Rings doesn’t seem quite ready to take the full plunge, instead stuck in ’80s teen movie soundtrack hell. As for the ill-advised attempts at rapping on “I Know What I’m Made Of,” the less said the better.

These Diamond Rings aren’t quite polished yet. (Nov. 1)

Download: “I’m Just Me,” “Runaway Love,” “All in Time”

Brian Eno - Lux (Warp)

Brian Eno returns to the extremely sparse approach of 1978’s Music for Airports. It’s rare to hear anything shorter than a whole note here; melodies are stretched until they’re made opaque in a series of drones over the space of 15 minutes (the 75-minute album consists of only four tracks). The primary sound is that of somnambulism; Eno is not out to raise your pulse.

Rather than rely solely on synths and heavily treated acoustic instruments, the violins and pianos are distinguishable, making this less about sonic innovation than about composition. But first and foremost Eno’s ambient albums—of which this is one of his stronger ones—are about mood, and precious few are the artists who project calm and inner peace without resorting to wind chimes or an equally offensive sonic tranquilizer.

How does he do it? Who cares. He wrote the book on this kind of music, and if it sounds like he can do it in his sleep, that’s kind of the point. (Nov. 29)

Bill Fay – Life is People (Dead Oceans)

Bill Fay’s new album—his fourth ever—is perhaps one of 2012’s least anticipated releases. Bill Fay is 70 years old. Bill Fay put out two albums in the ’70s that neither you nor anyone else other than Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy has ever heard. Bill Fay told NPR, “You can't make a comeback album unless you arrive in the first place. I'm getting a little bit worried that I'm coming close to arriving.” In that case, Bill Fay should start worrying: Life is People is an astounding album, not just one of the year’s best, but one of the finest singer/songwriter albums in recent memory.

You know how every classic album has that one song that sounds like it unlocks all the mysteries of the universe in the space of a few simple verses and elementary chords, that carries the weight of the world in the singer’s voice, that is arranged so modestly and elegantly that it can reduce you to a puddle in an instant, a song that casts a shadow over everything else on the album—you know that song? Bill Fay has got 12 of them for you here.

Of course, Fay has the advantage of drawing from 40 years of unrecorded songs that no one other than his family has heard until now. There are no throwaway lyrics here. There are no songs that aren’t carefully drawn character sketches, that aren’t wrestling with weighty philosophy and theology—and yet Fay makes it all sound easy. He’s witnessed decades of war and strife in the “never-ending happening,” but still sees minor miracles every day in the “cosmic concerto.” An old hippie? Not really: Fay is rooted in realistic, non-idealistic spirituality.

There’s nothing belaboured here; the album was recorded in about two weeks with a 30-year-old producer and a mix of players both veteran and young. The sympathetic arrangements combine what you might expect from fellow veterans Scott Walker, Van Morrison and Bob Dylan—gospel choirs, lush organs, cellos, classical guitars, a soulful rhythm section—with more ominous use of fractured electric guitar that owes debts to Godspeed You Black Emperor and Radiohead. In other words, not unlike what Wilco get up to in their weightier moments. Superfan Jeff Tweedy shows up to duet on the sole buoyant number, “This World,” while Fay returns the favour by covering Tweedy’s “Jesus Etc.,” giving it a sparse piano and voice treatment that illuminates new aspects of one of Wilco’s best-loved songs.

The peak, however, is “City of Dreams,” a cinematic masterpiece of storytelling with incredibly haunting soundscapes to match, in which Fay sings, “I’m a street sweeper / in your city of dreams / sweeping up the paper cups / in between the limousines.”

Who knows if Bill Fay will ever record again after this; I hope he does, but he certainly doesn’t have to. Life is People will stand as a legacy for generations. (Nov. 1)

Download: “Never Ending Happening,” “City of Dreams,” “This World”

Guano Padano - 2 (Ipecac)

Ennio Morricone is not yet dead—the veteran Italian film composer is 84, and still working—but this instrumental Italian trio is more than ready to assume his mantle. And they sound better doing it than, say, Danger Mouse did earlier this year with his star-studded album Rome, which was recorded in Morricone’s studio and with many of his key players.

Guano Padano don’t do anything that sounds forced; they sound like they live and breathe Morricone and European reimaginings of American music, rather than treating it like a genre exercise. They’re also big fans of another Italian film composer, Angelo Badalamenti, who is David Lynch’s go-to guy; one track here is titled simply “Lynch.” They love twangy guitar; bandleader Alessandro Stefana could give our own Shadowy Man Brian Connelly a run for his money.

But as with anyone who draws serious influence from cinematic canvases, Guano Padano give themselves free reign to try anything. So there are banjo-led country numbers, Calexico-esque desert soundscapes, Asian melodies, dark piano jazz, and a typically ominous vocal turn by their label boss, Mike Patton. To close the album, they take a lovingly executed shot at covering the slide guitar classic “Sleep Walk,” just to pay an obvious debt.

A band this good deserves to cross all borders, and because there’s no language barrier, that’s all the more reason they should. (Nov. 29)

Download: “Zebulon,” “One Man Bank,” “Un Occhio Verso Tokyo”

Zaki Ibrahim – Every Opposite (Motif)

Sci-fi soul music from South Africa via Toronto and Nanaimo, B.C., filed somewhere between Sade and Santigold: that’s shorthand for Zaki Ibrahim, who first built a buzz around 2008 when she was coming up at the same time as K’naan and other Canadians of African descent. This album has been four years in the making; Ibrahim says she knew she was too green back then to make a serious statement, and this was well worth the wait.

Featuring collaborations from Torontonians like house music producer Nick Holder and hip-hop beatmaker Rich Kidd (who is originally from Ghana), as well as producers from London, Kenya and her new home in South Africa, Ibrahim easily carves herself a niche of progressive, modern soul music that combines electronics, string sections, African instrumentation and strong songwriting—the latter being the essential element to tie Ibrahim’s vision together. Ibrahim has a confident, versatile and seductive voice, but that’s really just the beginning of her appeal.

She may have moved on from Canada, but we’d be idiots to lose our claim on someone this brilliant. This is easily one of the most underappreciated albums to come out of Canada in 2012. (Nov. 29)

Download: “Draw the Line,” “Something in the Water,” “Heart Beat”

Manu Katché  - s/t (ECM)

Best known as the go-to drummer for Peter Gabriel and Sting—a gig that doesn’t just go to any slouch—this Parisian drummer unsurprisingly has a strong interest in jazz. And while his drumming here is lyrical and beautiful as always, this is not an instrumental showcase for Katché—frankly, he plays flashier stuff with Gabriel. (There’s really only one drum solo on the entire record, during “Loose.”) His fifth solo album is about his own songwriting, for which he enlists two Norwegian brass players and a British keyboardist. The tone is one of elegance, of icy cool, tempos rarely rising above a heartbeat, and Katché’s melodies are front and centre; each player’s interpretive solos sound just as meticulously composed as the lead. Yes, it’s more than a bit restrained for most jazz fans and the danger of ’80s cheese lingers large, but all of these guys are way too classy to let that happen. (Nov. 8)

Download: “Loving You,” “Walking By Your Side,” “Beats and Bounce”

Kendrick Lamar – Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City (Universal)

Much like his pal Drake, on whose last album he appeared, Kendrick Lamar shot to stardom on the basis of mixtapes and A-list cosigns (paging Dr. Dre). And again like Drake, his major label debut is a sprawling, epic work, musically subdued, sexually obsessed and equal parts braggadocio and self-loathing. But unlike Drake, Lamar is full of personality, storytelling smarts and with no shortage of compelling narratives.

Lamar is old enough to be a child of N.W.A.; born in 1987, he grew up in their L.A. neighbourhood of Compton, raised on gangsta rap and now, at the ripe old age of 25, is coming to terms with that legacy. Lamar embraces the form without coming across like the carbon-copy cartoons that have dominated the genre for at least the last 15 years. He’s not all bluster and boneheadedness; on the contrary, it’s clear that he’s writing in character, developing an album-length narrative about a kid who gets quickly swept up in criminal situations way over his head, whose family tries to teach him responsibility, who expresses real remorse—indeed, the album opens with him praying to Jesus for forgiveness.

Lazier rappers rely on their subject matter itself to tell their story; Lamar has serious skills as an MC, and at one point says, “I could never right all my wrongs unless I write them down for real.” The music—produced by the likes of the Neptunes, Just Blaze, and the pride of Ajax, Ont., T-Minus—is ambitious next-level G-funk on the slow burn, and Lamar contorts his voice around every syllable to tailor himself to the varied beats, and has no trouble maintaining the listener’s attention through the two-song, nine-minute title suite or the 12-minute denouement “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst.”

Plenty of MCs aim for the grandiose, album-length statement, complete with skits and endless star cameos—and they almost all fall flat on their face. Kendrick Lamar deserves credit for coming out on top, and for raising the game in a genre that was played out long ago. (Nov. 15)

Download: “Backseat Freestyle,” “The Art of Peer Pressure,” “Good Kid”

Maestro Fresh Wes – Black Tuxedo EP (independent)

Maestro lays proper claim to being the first breakthrough hip-hop artist in Canada, and it seems he’s been on the comeback trail ever since he first fell off in the early ’90s. Now he’s back yet again, with a career as a TV character actor and self-help-book author on the side, to boast of past glories and reassert himself. Except that unlike most over-the-hill blowhards, Maestro has still got all the goods: he’s always been unfairly portrayed as a one-hit wonder, when in fact he’s a dextrous MC who can lay waste to challengers half his age, and his old-school skills of internal rhymes, double entendres and wordplay make him sound positively Shakespearian next to most modern MCs. “My identity is an endless entity,” he asserts; he’s not kidding.

Fourteen years ago he lifted The Guess Who’s “These Eyes” as a sample; this time he looks to Blue Rodeo’s “Try” (a song as old as Maestro’s debut album) and showcases its soulful swagger on “Reach for the Sky”—it’s the ’80s CanCon equivalent of Otis Redding covering the Beatles, and it works. As does just about everything else Maestro tries here, which is just a teaser for a full-length early next year. Few hip-hop artists get a second act; Maestro’s aiming for a third, and it might be his best yet. (Nov. 8)

Download: “Reach For the Sky,” “Black Tuxedo,” “Too Melodic”

Menahan Street Band – The Crossing (Dunham)

This album came out a week before the American presidential election, and it’s a perfect soundtrack. Funky, cinematic instrumentals recall the malaise of the mid-’70s, which was the last time the U.S. appeared so bleak. And yet the horn section is so majestic and elegant, that it doesn’t just convey the intense drama of the everyday, it also hints at hope in the near future. And so now with a funky president back in the White House, the Menahan Street Band exude cautious optimism.

That this album sounds as good as it does should be no surprise. All the players are drawn from the Daptone label roster: the Dap Kings, Budos Band, Antibalas, etc.; an earlier Menahan Street Band track was used in Jay-Z’s single “Roc Boys.” Where Menahan differs from their brethren is in a more subdued, jazzier approach, heavier on organ than most of those other bands. Guitarist Thomas Brenneck plays acoustic and slide on top of the funky rhythm section and, on “Driftwood,” shows more of a dreamy country influence than one would expect in this context. 

The Daptone crew rarely puts out a bad record, but likewise the pure solid gold gems are few and far between. Menahan puts themselves ahead of the pack not just on skills and songwriting, but with diversity and subtlety as well. It swings, it swaggers, it’s subtle, it’s sexy, it’s somewhat scary. And it’s a perfect soundtrack for November 2012. (Nov. 15)

Download: “The Crossing,” “Three Faces,” “Sleight of Hand”

Miguel – Kaleidoscope Dream (Sony)

Miguel has been waiting a long time for this: his debut album was shelved, his second album was delayed for two years and didn’t become a hit until six months after its 2010 release. Now that the world is finally listening—and that the likes of Frank Ocean and The Weeknd have cultivated an R&B scene thirsty for something new—Miguel is ready to cash in all his chips.

Kaleidoscope Dream follows a lineage from wacked-out Sly Stone to trippy Shuggie Otis to “Sexual Healing”-era Marvin Gaye to Prince circa 1999 to—well, not many others outside of D’Angelo and Erykah Badu. Other than the modern update on the wonderfully weirdest corners of R&B history—for this is far from a retro record—Miguel separates himself from the scene by placing songs first, rather than depending on his producer’s beats or his own vocal acrobatics. There’s no shortage of ear candy here, but it’s never the main focus.

As a singer, Miguel has got macho swagger, but he uses it in unusual ways; who else would croon a line like, “You can defiiiiiiiiiiiile me!” He’s not always on the mark, of course: a line like “Do you like drugs? ... I’m going to do you like drugs tonight” is almost enough to put you off entirely, if it wasn’t followed up immediately by the arresting title track. Otherwise distracting moments are few and far between; Miguel’s dream is fully realized. (Nov. 15)

Download: “Adorn,” “Kaleidoscope Dream,” “Where’s the Fun in Forever?”

Son Real and Rich Kidd – The Closers (Black Box)

This cross-country collab between Vancouver MC Son Real and Toronto rapper and beatmaker Rich Kidd has all the makings of a mainstream breakthrough. Though both have gained considerable reps on their own, by teaming up they’ve created the most entertaining, well-rounded and hit-packed hip-hop album to come out of Canada since the heyday of Kardinal and K-os (and, at a concise 11 tracks, with no filler). Both MCs are complementary and competitive, one upping each other while Rich Kidd’s beats are some of the funkiest heard this year from anywhere. It only dips when they go for big pop hooks—“Control,” “Mind All Day” and the insipid yet catchy “Fuck Yeah” all seem to be aimed at the Black Eyed Peas crowd—that they get sidetracked, although each of those tracks is entirely successful at what it’s trying to do. On the poignant “Hometown,” they manage a mix of both approaches that recalls the best of K’naan and should be a surefire hit—or at least a gateway for listeners to discover two of the most exciting new voices in Canada. (Nov. 1)

Download: “Best Believe,” “Money Money,” “Hometown”

The Tom Fun Orchestra – Earthworm Heart (independent)

One of Canada’s best-kept secrets is this Halifax group of barnburners, the rare live band who bottle their rock’n’roll energy with banjos, accordions, fiddles and full horn sections (think: Bruce Springsteen’s Seeger sessions band, the Pogues’ less traditional moments, Sunset Rubdown meet The Burning Hell on Cape Breton Island) and successfully translate it onto tape. The result is a triumphant recording that delivers (most of) the release of their live show, with more focus on the seedy underbelly of the lyrics, communicated with gruff male lead vocals and female harmony, never better than on the opening salvo: “God lives underground / in a dark and dirty hole / he’s waiting to be found / we dig to save our souls.” This band wants to make you think while you drink, to pour some tears into your beer, and to have you end the evening with your arm around a total stranger and howling at the moon in unison with the rest of the crowd. Sound like a good time? You bet. (Nov. 8)

Download: “Merry Christmas Jim,” “Lungs,” “Sympathetic Wolf”

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