Monday, January 28, 2013

January 2013 reviews

The following reviews ran in January in the Waterloo Record and Guelph Mercury. Highly recommended: Petra Haden, Kvety, Lee Harvey Osmond, Bob Wiseman.

Petra Haden - At the Movies (Anti)

Roomful of Teeth - s/t (New Amsterdam)

At the Movies is all about choirs and show tunes, but this is definitely not Glee. Petra Haden makes a cappella albums by layering her own voice into orchestras and reinventing the familiar: her last album was an inventive full-length cover of the album The Who Sell Out—which was arguably as good as the original. Here, she takes the familiar trope of tackling famous movie theme songs. Occasionally she dives into campy, novelty territory—how can the James Bond song “Goldfinger” not be campy?—but more often than not she takes what could be a ridiculous notion and turns it into something entirely transformational: the theme from Psycho is actually far more frightening performed entirely by female voices than by piercing strings. 

Haden is mostly dealing with instrumental material, naturally, but the occasional pop song (“It Might Be You,” from Tootsie; “This is Not America,” from The Falcon and the Snowman) sneaks in, as do three key instrumentalists in guest spots: pianist Brad Mehldau, guitarist Bill Frisell and her father, bassist Charlie Haden. The one time she strays close to cliché is “Calling You” from Baghdad Cafe, a torch song staple of the last 25 years. Otherwise, you'd never expect a vocalist to interpret Trent Reznor's score for The Social Network, or to pick the Superman theme from John Williams' endless list of anthems--and Haden has the chutzpah and the talent to reimagine iconic works in her own image. 

Roomful of Teeth are an eight-piece New York City vocal ensemble, in which Petra Haden would fit right in. The group grew out of a circle of modern classical composers revolving around the New Amsterdam label, which in turn is a younger generational offshoot of Bang on a Can, the leading American avant-garde collective of the last 30 years. Madrigals, Meredith Monk weirdness, Broadway, Bulgarian harmonies, yodelling, Inuit and Tuvan throat singing--they cover just about vocal tradition but doo-wop. Though it's often esoteric and edgy, they can go for grandiosity, like on the enormous chorus with the odd lyric that goes: “There is no subtlety in death / It’s like a hurricane / it’s like Farrakhan,” by composer William Brittelle. They also collaborate with Merrill Garbus of Tuneyards, who they've accompanied live, and who pens two key tracks here (though she does not appear on them). 

Should Petra Haden hit the road for At the Movies, Roomful of Teeth would be the obvious choice to be her hired backing band. And I dare your local high school glee club to tackle anything from either of these records. (Jan. 24)

Download Petra Haden: “Superman Theme,” “Psycho Prelude,” “It Might Be You”

Download Roomful of Teeth: “Amid the Minotaurs,” “Montmartre,” “Quizassa”

Kvety – Bile vcely (Indiescope)

This Czech band could never be accused of a one-note shtick. A lot of central and eastern European rock music can be downright baffling to North American ears; while Kvety are enchanting and intriguing: alien, yes (Czech is not a poetic language when sung), but entirely inviting. The male vocalist’s soft delivery helps, as does the dominant role of violin, but Kvety combine melody, old-world mystery and unpredictable arrangements in an entirely original blend that begs easy comparisons: but if pressed, I’d offer Welsh weirdo folk band Gorky’s Zygotic Minci, early Pink Floyd, Swedish psychedelic jazz-rockers Dungen, Camper Van Beethoven’s Key Lime Pie and Radiohead’s The Bends. Do those make sense together? They do here. Considering the incredible 2012 album by Kvety’s labelmates Dva, where are the articles in the international press about the Czech music scene? It’s a matter of time. (Jan. 31)

Download: "Kamosi," "Papousek noci," "My deti ze stanice Bullerbyn"

Lee Harvey Osmond – The Folk Sinner (Latent)

Tom Wilson, of Junkhouse and Blackie and the Rodeo Kings, has been a mainstay in Canadian music for more than 20 years—a career, he often jokes, that has earned him “tens of dollars” over that time. And yet ever since he reinvented himself as Lee Harvey Osmond in 2009, it sounds like he’s just hitting his stride now. This is where he teams up with the Cowboy Junkies’ Michael Timmins, and together they set Wilson’s haunting baritone and bluesy songs to spare and spooky goth-folk arrangements centred around chugging, droning guitars and a healthy dose of rockabilly reverb.

Guest stars lend a hand: Hawksley Workman’s lovely falsetto on “Break Your Body,” a duet with Oh Susanna on “Big Chief,” the haunting harmonica of Paul Reddick, and the unmistakable harmony presence of Margo Timmins. As producer, Michael Timmins is careful never to crowd a song: all extraneous elements—and plenty of excellent electric guitars, courtesy of Colin Cripps, Colin Linden and Timmins—hover around the atmosphere, leaving the focus on the spare rhythms and Wilson’s commanding, though subtle, presence.

It’s Canadiana cottage-country weirdness at its finest, as well as a fine album by two guys who’ve wanted to be wise, old ragged veterans ever since they were 25 years old. Now that they are, they have even more to offer than they did in their supposed prime. It’s far too early to begin compiling a best of 2013 list, but The Folk Sinner is a good start. (Jan. 17)

Download: “Devil’s Load,” “Oh Linda,” “Honey Runnin’”

The Liminanas – Crystal Anis (Hozac)

The Velvet Underground’s debut album and a collection of Serge Gainsbourg’s ’60s hits: two albums that every member of this Parisian band probably had in common growing up. Fuzzy garage-rock guitars, primitive drums, whispered vocals, reedy organs and minor-key menace flip the usually sunny French yé-yé sound on its head, and wouldn’t sound out of place in an early Godard movie featuring reckless boho youth who worship American fashion driving through the Left Bank. It’s a bit of a one-note shtick, but that one note sounds fabulous. (Jan. 31)

Download: “Longanisse,” “Belmondo,” “Betty and Johnny”

Minotaurs – New Believers (Static Clang)

The last time we heard from Guelph songwriter and drummer Nathan Lawr, he had abandoned his singer/songwriter mode to embrace Afrobeat influences; here, on his second album leading a project called Minotaurs, he returns with much of the same band—featuring King Cobb Steelie bassist Kevin Lynn, Toronto’s most valuable saxophone player Jeremy Strachan, pianist Shaw-Han Liem—and vocalists Casey Mecija (Ohbijou) and Sarah Harmer, plus a full horn section and producer Paul Aucoin at the helm. If the first Minotaurs album boasted only a few tracks that burst with Lawr’s new-found confidence in this new territory, here he fully inhabits the swagger necessary to pull this off, and his band—in particular the horn section and the percussionists (Lawr, Aucoin and Jay Anderson)—is firing on all cylinders. The only time he stumbles is when the tempo slows down, on the closing “Windchimes in the Evening”—which is odd for a guy whose solo career started out as a balladeer. Otherwise, he’s got his calling card for summer festival season ready to roll. (Jan. 24)

Download: “Open the Doors,” “New Believers,” “Make Some Noise”

Pantha du Prince & the Bell Laboratory – Elements of Light (Rough Trade)

As an electronic musician, you can spend your whole life working on new patches for your keyboards or ways to manipulate found-sound samples.

Or you could just hire the bell carillon player for Oslo City Hall—who plays a three-tonne instrument with over 60 bronze bells—and collaborate with a local composer and Norwegian jazz players on tubular bells, marimba, xylophone, cymbals and more, while you work subtle manipulations and place subdued beats beneath it all.

Yes, there are moments on Elements of Light when you feel like Quasimodo has taken over a rave in the town square of a small European town. But Pantha du Prince, the German producer whose 2010 album Black Light is one of the finest electronic albums of the past five years, moves this far beyond an aesthetic gimmick and creates one of the few convincing compositions to bring the influence of Steve Reich and Moondog to modern electronic dance music—even if you’re unlikely to hear these tracks in an actual club, as Elements of Light is a much more rewarding headphone experience than anything else. (Jan. 17)

Download: “Particle,” “Photon,” “Spectral Spirit”

Bob Wiseman – Giulietta Masina at the Oscars Crying (Blocks Recording Club)

For much of the last 15 years, singer/songwriter Bob Wiseman has been working on film and theatre projects, while his solo albums—which, in the ’90s, were wildly eclectic Toronto all-star affairs that contained some of the most inventive and politically provocative music of the era—became withdrawn, solitary and somewhat humourless. For whatever reason, Wiseman has let the world back in to his songs: not just in the studio, where he once again corrals his ideal harmony vocalist Mary Margaret O’Hara and others, but in his songs. As the obtuse title suggests, this is a collection of character sketches, with songs about Fellini’s wife, former Haitian presidents, Neil Young and RCMP tasering victims.

Wiseman is the rare political songwriter who, at his best, can write extremely specific, name-calling songs, and have them stand the test of time--as songs from his first two proper solo albums, about government plots against native activists and Greenpeace campaigners, have done so well. Here, he's back in that mode, most successfully skewering anti-science conservative ideology in “The Reform Party at Burning Man,” where he gets Serena Ryder to do a powerful rap in the middle, notes with a sinister scowl about suppression of governmental information that "what's especially perverse is that this all feels rehearsed," and concludes the song by repeating: “We didn't vote so / you could make a joke out / of people that are broke.” 

He's not all piss and vinegar—far from it. What makes this return to form so enjoyable is Wiseman's playful musicality, his skittery keyboards, his '50s-inspired vocal arrangements, the inspired drumming of Mark Hundevad and the spot-on saxophones of Shuffle Demon Richard Underhill. A touching ode to Wiseman's late friend, actress Tracy Wright, is disguised in a song about a distrusted mutual friend set to a “Whiter Shade of Pale” chord progression. The title track is one of Wiseman's loveliest melodies ever, and “Neil Young at the Junos” is, for Wiseman, an oddly reverent song about a mainstream icon.

Together with the recent success of his solo autobiographical theatrical piece, Actionable, this is a welcome reminder of Wiseman's songwriting legacy, and proof that his best work is far from behind him. (Jan. 31)

Download: “,” “The Reform Party at Burning Man,” “Aristide at the Press Conference”

Yo La Tengo - Fade (Matador)

When Yo La Tengo was the subject of a biography last year, many people—starting with the band members themselves—wondered how such an artistically consistent, mild-mannered group could possibly provide a compelling narrative for a book. Indeed, the author instead used Yo La Tengo’s career as a way to explore the ebbs and flows of alternative music in general in the last 25 years.

And so what does one say about Yo La Tengo’s new album, their 13th proper record, which is interchangeable with any of their albums from the last 15 years? Not that their well is dry: from the outset, this musically insatiable trio have drawn from dream pop, country, R&B, free jazz, hardcore punk, funk, ambient, squalls of feedback, avant-garde soundtracks and just about everything else, all filtered through their generally soft-spoken, reverent personas.

Yo La Tengo rarely makes a wrong move, but much of Fade sounds like the band on lithium: there is no standout track, the likes of which even their weakest album can be counted on to provide; there is little variation in tempo; and even the quietest moments (with the exception of the stunning "Cornelia and Jane") often sound limp rather than softly powerful, which is normally Yo La Tengo’s forte. Maybe it’s the introduction of producer John McEntire (Tortoise), which marks the first time in 20 years the band has not worked with longtime collaborator Roger Moutenot; maybe Moutenot brought more to Yo La Tengo than anyone realized until now. (Jan. 17)

Download: “Well You Better,” “Cornelia and Jane,” “Ohm”

Monday, January 21, 2013

Post-2012 catchup

I spend most Januaries (is that how you spell the plural of January?) reading various year-end lists and catching up on records I missed. And I usually, against my better financial judgment, end up spending way too much money on Boxing Day at Soundscapes and Rotate This. Soundscapes’ year-end list proved very helpful (see the William Sheller, Personal Space comp and the Meridian Brothers); Rotate’s decision to mark every CD in store down 50% made me feel somewhat better about my indulgences.

The biggest surprise for me (it was also a surprise I even bought it, but the Soundscapes review was rather convincing) was Max Richter’s reinvention of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons on the Deutsche Grammophon label, which is amazing—however, because I have nowhere near the language to write critically about it, you’re just going to have to take my word on that.

Here’s a round-up of other 2012 releases I reviewed this month for the Waterloo Record and Guelph Mercury.

Various Artists – Belle and Sebastian Late Night Tales Volume 2 (Another Late Night)

This long-running compilation series attracts some fine curators, and almost every installation is a worthy treat. Belle and Sebastian are the first to be invited back, and with good reason. They’re not record-collector favourites without reason: they have impeccable and diverse taste, ranging from Brazilian samba to psychedelic prog to electronic sitar jams to modern chillwave to ’80s pop to French chanson to, well, the undeniably awesome “Spinning Wheel” by Blood, Sweat and Tears (one of the only recognizably popular tunes here, and one of two Canadians—the other being obscure folk gem Bonnie Dobson). Remember when your friends would make you mix tapes as good as this all the time? Be thankful Belle and Sebastian are your friends. (Jan. 3)

Bjork – Bastards (One Little Indian)

Since when is a remix album better than the original? In the case of Bjork’s Biophilia, it wasn’t that much of a challenge. As someone who finds something to love in everything she does, I found that album tested even my patience. But here, surrendering her vocals to the likes of largely unknown remixers, the Biophilia material is entirely recast: the two songs Syrian pop icon Omar Souleyman tackles are indistinguishable from his own work and feature him in full command as a vocalist, making Bjork’s presence barely noticeable; These New Puritans strip most of the instrumentation away and set Bjork’s voice against a sample of a Melanesian choir—which, you know, she was probably thinking of doing anyway.

Bjork is so far removed from pop music these days that we no longer expect her to write proper songs; we can only hope to be swept up in the sonic world she creates. Biophilia’s failure was that while making music with a Tesla coil is theoretically interesting, it doesn’t go down easily with lyrics like “Like a mushroom on the tree trunk as the protein transmutates.” Whereas this group of sonic scientists don’t treat anything she does as precious—maybe they should all be hired immediately to work on her next proper record. (Jan. 3)

Download: “Crystalline” (Omar Souleyman remix); “Virus” (Hudson Mohawke Peaches and Guacamol remix); “Mutual Core” (These New Puritans remix featuring Solomon Islands Song)

Julie Doiron – So Many Days (Aporia)

Julie Doiron has spent half of her life in the public eye, and her best solo album, 2007’s Woke Myself Up, dealt with divorce and doubt and rebirth—and, Doiron’s default setting, loneliness. Where could she go from there?

On the opening track here, she sings, “I’m writing this song to prove to myself that I can still write songs.” That doesn’t bode well. And yet Doiron dances with both the devil and angel on her shoulder here, giving their dialogue a voice in song, at one moment expressing gratitude for her health and family while admitting that she thinks she “can’t make it no more” and pleading, “I need another second chance, for the 20th time in my life.” Albums about the depths of depression are one thing; this one is by someone who is trying to hold her head up against all—or at least many—odds.

Musically, Doiron is once again working with Eric’s Trip bandmate Rick White; the results are characteristically ramshackle yet charming. The surprise is that on several occasions they step out of their ’90s lo-fi grunge-folk template and come up with downright gorgeous arrangements with Fleetwood Mac-style harmonies. Alternately, Doiron is at her most haunting and sparse on the track “Homeless,” accompanied by just a bass guitar; there, she sounds more vulnerable than ever—which is saying something, considering her discography.

So Many Days is in some ways like Jodie Foster’s Golden Globe speech: is she retiring? Has she had enough? Is this it? Because Doiron’s songs have always been so personal, it’s hard to tell. But if nothing else, this album is proof that Doiron can still pull off some new tricks. (Jan. 24)

Julie Doiron plays January 24 in Waterloo at the Starlight Social Club, and on January 31 in Guelph at the Ebar.

Download: “Our Love,” “The Only,” “Beneath the Leaves”

Jens Lekman - I Know What Love Isn't (Secretly Canadian)

So much about Jens Lekman is so wrong: the incredibly earnest, twee ESL lyrics, the schmaltzy arrangements that make Belle and Sebastian sound muscular, the plaintive Swedish croon. And yet Lekman remains endearing, in a Jonathan Richman sort of way: how can you not like a guy who understands the importance of being earnest?

Sure, his double entendres are cornier than Iowa. And the amount of proper names in his lyrics makes you think he’s mostly writing these songs for his friends (or people who like to think they know him and his friends personally). More than a few lines could have been composed by eavesdropping in any café populated by twentysomethings: “ ‘Hey, do you want to go see a band?’ ‘No, I hate bands / it’s always packed with men spooning their girlfriends / clutching their hands, as if they’d let go their feet would lift from the ground and ascend.’ ”

And yet Lekman is smart enough to know that though the personal is universal, navel-gazing doesn’t serve a larger purpose: “A broken heart is not the end of the world, because the end of the world is bigger than love.” That is, of course, the chorus of a song called “The End of the World is Bigger Than Love.” And he manages to pull off an impossible feat of songwriting circa 2012: writing a song about how hard it is to write a song after a breakup: on a song that sounds as affecting as an early Leonard Cohen classic, he sings, “Every chord I struck was a miserable chord / like an F minor 11 / or an E flat major 7 / it all sounds the same / every chord knows your name.” (Jan. 10)

Download: “I Want a Pair of Cowboy Boots,” “The World Moves On,” “Every Little Hair Knows Your Name”

Shawn Lee's Ping Pong Orchestra - Reel to Reel (Ubiquity)

Multi-instrumentalist Shawn Lee has put out 10 albums with his Ping Pong Orchestra, and at least 10 more as collaborations with various artists, including the funkiest Chinese zither album you’re ever likely to hear (Bei Bei’s Into the Wind). And every one is chock full of big-band jazz, exotica, funk, ’60s soundtracks, and dub reggae, with nary a note out of place. This is one of his finer works. So why doesn’t he get any respect? He needs a legend, other than being a hard-working schlep who was raised in Kansas and now lives in London: his music career would have to meet a tragic end and he’d have to have his work resuscitated 20 years from now in order to get the props he deserves. In the meantime, here’s (yet another) lovely and worthy entry into Lee’s world. (Jan. 10)

Download: “Mirror Mirror,” “Spy Seduction,” “Soho Chase”

Meridian Brothers - Deseperanza (Soundway)

The Meridian Brothers—actually just one musician, Eblis Álvarez—mine traditional Colombian cumbia rhythms and arrangements, but send it all through a space-age sci-fi filter, performed on wiggly synths, tiny-sounding drum machines, and pitched-up vocals that put even more of an alien sheen on the whole affair. It’s like Ween and Tom Zé went to Bogota and locked themselves in a sweltering apartment with a four-track recorder. The result is suitably strange, sweaty and sumptuous and not unlike a 22nd-century Esquivel. Worldly weirdos should dive right in. (Jan. 17)

Download: “Guaracha U.F.O. (No Estamos Solos),” “Salsa Caliente (Version Aumentada),” “La Gitana Me Ha Dejado (Salsa Electronica)”

Lindi Ortega – Cigarettes and Truckstops (Last Gang)

This Toronto singer references Dolly Parton in the lyrics of the opening track here, and no wonder. She shares Parton’s timbre, tone and range, and Ortega’s songs sound like they could have been written any time during Parton’s 45-year career. If it’s her stunning voice that is the immediate draw, Ortega has also employed producer and sideman Colin Linden (Blackie and the Rodeo Kings) to steer this ship, with predictably excellent results—even though he’s perhaps the most in-demand sideman in Canada, he never steals the spotlight from Ortega’s voice. Behind the mixing board is Darryl Neudorf, the sonic architect of Neko Case’s spacious, spooky and lush discography. Both men take Ortega’s rockabilly roots approach to country and give it a sheen that will easily apply to traditionalists, the new country crowd and everyone who enjoys a tear in the beer and the occasional two-step shitkicker. (Jan. 24)

Download: “Murder of Crows,” “Heaven Has No Vacancy,” “Cigarettes and Truckstops”

Personal Space: Electronic Soul 1974-1984 - Various Artists (Chocolate Industries)

We usually think of home recording as having exploded in the ’80s, with hip-hop and punk rock, particularly. But it was in the early ’70s that high-quality tape recorders, primitive drum machines and synths all became somewhat affordable to bedroom hobbyists. Rockists might have turned up their noses at these alien sounds, but funk and soul musicians snapped them up: obviously Stevie Wonder and Sly Stone and Shuggie Otis were all over this on their classic recordings, but this collection gathers some entirely obscure, private-pressed records from the era.

Some of it could pass for the best soft-porn soundtrack you’ve ever heard—a lot of it, um, intimate by design—and some presages the current chillwave movement. At its best, however, this music takes the passion and the urgency of soul music and sets it to an otherworldly backing, where a larger-than-life vocal presence clashes with soft, pillowy—and often downright weird—sounds on songs titled “Starship Commander Woo Woo” and “Disco From a Space Show.”

Some of these artists were electric blues players; some played in popular Motown bands; some were burned out from trying to make it big with conventional recordings; some were aiming for mainstream success (like Johnnie Walker, who titled his album Farewell to Welfare for literal reasons; sadly, the song “Love Vibrator” didn't land him any big royalty cheques). The latter were not entirely out of bounds: after all, there isn’t that much separating a hit like Hall & Oates’ “I Can’t Go For That” from tracks like Jeff Phelps’ “Super Lady” or T. Dyson and Company’s “It’s All Over.”

A down-and-out artist known only as Spontaneous Overthrow has a litany of things he laments he can’t do “without money,” which he incants over a slinky, seductive yet ominous beat, one of which is: “Can’t make this record!” And yet he did, and like everyone else here, proved that you can make timeless, inspiring music with next to nothing. (Jan. 3)

Download: “I Finally Found the Love I Need” – Jerry (J.G.) Green; “All About Money” – Spontaneous Overthrow; “It’s All Over” – T. Dyson and Company

Saoco!: The Bomba and Plena Explosion in Puerto Rico 1954-1966 - Various Artists (Vampi Soul)

Before the boogaloo, before the samba, before New York City fell under the sway of Afro-Latin sounds in the late ’50s, there was Puerto Rican bomba and plena music, which originated from local traditions and fused with Cuban rhythm instruments and calypso, as well as plenty of accordion. According to the curators of this compilation, the primary architects of this sound were in Cortijo y su Combo, featuring percussionist Rafael Cortijo and singer Ismael Rivera—one source quoted in the liner notes says, “In my house, Rivera is what Elvis Presley was for the gringos.”

The Vampi Soul label can always be counted on for loving assembly, exciting graphics and quality liner notes, and Saoco is no exception. Along with their earlier collection of Colombian cumbia, as well as Sounday’s Panama series and Tumbélé compilation, it’s another valuable archive of Afro-Latin Caribbean musical history that also sounds great at a party. (Jan. 10)

Download: “El bombon de Elena” – Cortijo y su Combo con Ismael Rivera; “Karakatis Ki” – Mon Rivera Y Su Orquesta; “Cabellero Que Bomba” – Cortijo y su Combo con Ismael Rivera

William Sheller – Lux Aeterna (Omni Recording Corporation)

Imagine a Catholic choral mass performed by Pink Floyd and Serge Gainsbourg in the early ’70s, and you have William Sheller’s Lux Aeterna. Trip-hop drum beats, string sections, brass, flutes, oboes, slide guitar, some wigged-out pipe organ, a full choir and—woah, wait, what the hell is that? Three minutes into the opening track Sheller zaps us into space by throwing everything through flanger and phaser pedals. Later on, a girlish voice starts talking about Jesus, John and Paul, while spaceship sounds start whirling about. What does it all mean?

Lux Aeterna was written and recorded for a friend’s wedding in 1970 (must have been some wedding), and then 2,000 copies were printed in 1972. Naturally, it became a sought-after rarity in the interim; this is the first time it’s been available since. It’s worth the wait, not just as a weirdo oddity, but as a lush, majestic wonder. Sure, plenty of people today make music this singular and strange, but no one commissions the Opera Orchestra of Paris to record it.

Sheller was disheartened that the album didn’t achieve success at the time, but he went on to sell hundreds of thousands of records in France later in the ’70s (with the considerably less-appealing album title Rock ’n’ Dollars). This reissue includes an earlier hit pop single and some soundtrack work, making the entire package a more than welcome introduction to the strange and wonderful world of William Sheller. (Jan. 3)

Download: “Introit,” “Ave Frater Rosae et Aurae,” “Opus Magnum Part 1”

Taraf de Haidouks & Kocani Orkestar – Band of Gypsies 2 (Crammed)

One is a Romanian folk band where nonagenarians play traditional melodies at breakneck speed; the other is a Macedonian brass band that makes your lips hurt just listening to them. The nuances of the regional differences between the two are lost on this urban Canadian, so I can’t vouch for the level of cross-cultural pollination happening here (starting with the fact that one band is Orthodox Christian, the other Sufi Muslims). This is the second time the bands have recorded together since Kocani showed up on a handful of tracks on Taraf de Haidouks’ astounding 2001 live recording Band of Gypsies. While there are 27 musicians—including four accordionists and a cimbalom player—doing acrobatic tricks around each other, you’d never guess this ensemble hasn’t always been together. Yet despite the tempos, it’s missing some of the fire of each band’s earlier records, perhaps because there have been some lineup changes, perhaps because they each compromised a bit to bend to the other. Either way, it’s sadly not as strong as the sum of its parts. (Jan. 10)

Download: “Pe Drumul Odesei,” “Turceasca a lu Kalo,” “Gypsy Sahara”

2012 on stage

Now that I’ve finally got around to changing my calendar, I’m reminded of my favourite live moments of 2012. I don’t get out much anymore, largely due to parenting but also because of a busier-than-expected second half of 2012, so we’ll just talk about five gigs.

1. Tuneyards (The Phoenix, Aug. 1). My favourite album of 2011 sounded even better after a full 18 months on the road. Merrill Garbus has never lacked confidence, but as a huge fan who had seen her before, I didn’t expect to be so blown away yet again. The new choreography from the horn section was also a nice touch. Joyous, visceral, and completely cathartic. 

2. Orchestre Poly-Rhythmo (Harbourfront, July 13). There was a time when much of my Toronto summers were defined by Harbourfront’s music programming. That’s less true now, but every so often a show like this comes around that reminds me what a gift the free venue is to the city. These Beninese legends from the ’70s have put out over 100 albums, of which I’ve heard maybe two. They live up to their name, as every track had an astounding number of rhythmic layers that added up to a feverish dance party perfect for a hot summer night on the water.

3. Fanfare Ciocarlia / Lemon Bucket Orchestra (The Hoxton, Sept. 21). Speaking of old guys who can still get it up, this Balkan brass band blast through blistering tempos that leave most men one-quarter their age gasping for air. Most men, that is, who aren’t in perfectly simpatico Toronto openers Lemon Bucket Orchestra.

4. Corb Lund (Danforth Music Hall, Nov. 23). When Corb Lund puts out a beginning-to-end great album, as he did this year with Cabin Fever, you almost have to worry that some of his earlier classics will get squeezed off the set list. But with so many two-minute miracles scattered across his discography, Lund and his crack band almost suffer from too much of a good thing. Throw in a mid-set political tangent, including the rural vs. oil company prayer “This is My Prairie” and a cover of Geoff Berner’s “That’s What Keeps the Rent Down,” and you have a full evening’s worth of entertainment.

5. The Magic (Great Hall, Aug. 10). When you’ve been a live band for five years gearing up to release your debut, damn straight you’re going to be tight. But just for kicks, why not stage the show as a ’70s TV taping with a raunchy MC in drag, played with aplomb by Keith Cole, who hectors unsuspecting members of the studio audience? What could easily have been a silly mess was instead a polished performance, with lead vocalists Geordie Gordon and Sylvie Smith inducing libidinous squeals from the eager crowd.

Runners up: Toronto Symphony Orchestra – War of 1812 (Luminato, June 17); Bahamas / Joel Plaskett / Geoff Berner (Hillside Festival, July 27-29); Leonard Cohen (Air Canada Centre, Dec. 4); Willis Earl Beal (Drake Hotel, April 30); Bidiniband (Dakota Tavern, Jan. 28)