Friday, February 22, 2013

February 2013 reviews

Highly recommended this month: Nick Cave, Veda Hille, Hilotrons, Jim James, Two Hours Traffic.

Atoms for Peace – AMOK (XL)

AMOK is ostensibly the debut album by Atoms for Peace, a new band featuring Radiohead’s Thom Yorke and the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea. But how do we know it’s not just a single? This sounds like 10 remixes of the same song. A pretty great song, mind you— glitchy, groovy and gorgeous in its own way, a song that would be a highlight on any Radiohead album of the last 10 years or Yorke’s 2006 solo album, The Eraser (the 2009 tour for which spawned this band—these guys obviously doesn’t mind taking their time).

Atoms for Peace makes you think it’s the job of the other guys in Radiohead to kick Yorke out of his ruts, to ensure that a Radiohead album has a modicum of diversity. Even though Yorke is hardly surrounded by yes men here—Flea, keyboardist and longtime Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich, drummer Joey Waronker (Beck, R.E.M.), Brazilian percussionist Mauro Refosco (David Byrne, Chili Peppers)—none of them bring anything new to Yorke’s bag of tricks.

Those expecting to hear Flea unleashed from his Chili Peppers template will be disappointed; he’s just another ghost in this machine, where very few sounds are identifiably human-generated. (Flea fans are advised to instead check his African collaboration with Damon Albarn, Rocket Juice and the Moon, which came out this time last year.)

AMOK sounds fantastic and features brilliant players. Maybe that’s all it has to be. (Feb. 28)

Download: “Before Your Very Eyes,” “Default,” “Stuck Together Pieces”

Jill Barber - Chansons (Outside)

Jill Barber, who built a career moving from a folk singer to a retro jazzy chanteuse, says that “singing in French has been like rediscovering my voice, my instrument.” That’s not an exaggeration. Her vocal timbre is perfect for Piaf’s native tongue, and she shows it off on this collection of mid-century francophone songs. Having gone to great effort to immerse herself in the language—spending a lot of time touring Quebec, and living in France for a while—Barber inhabits this material naturally.

That’s only half the appeal of this record, though: producer Drew Jurecka, plays violins, accordion, clarinets, and saxophones, invites an all-star roster of Toronto session musicians to play everything else, and captures it all in a appropriately retro sonic sphere, staying true to the source material. Surely it’s no fluke that Barber is putting out this love letter right before Valentine’s Day. (Jan. 31)

Jill Barber plays Toronto’s Winter Garden Theatre on May 3.

Download: “J’attendrai,” “Sous le ciel de Paris,” “Plus blue que tes yeux”

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Push the Sky Away (Bad Seed Ltd.)

“You grow old, and you grow cold,” sings the 55-year-old Nick Cave here. Yet here he gives every indication that he’s just heating up a third or fourth wave of his career.

What does Nick Cave have left to say? The poet laureate of Biblical and perverse murder ballads has explored the seamier side of life on 14 albums with the Bad Seeds, two each with Grinderman and The Birthday Party, endless collaborations and various other projects, including novels and screenplays—and, naturally, a musical adaptation of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis for a Norwegian theatre company, which is coming to Toronto in 2014.

There are moments here where it sounds like Cave has everything and nothing at all left to say, in a series of free-associative hallucinations that he admits he wrote after “googling curiosities.” Why else would he rhyme “Hannah Montana” with “African savannah” for no apparent reason, just before a missionary “saves the savages with his Higgs Boson blues”? And why, in a different song, does he have “a fetus on a leash”? One suspects that underneath his baritone gravitas, Cave is mostly just yanking our chain and daring us to take him seriously.

What comes out of Cave’s mouth here is nowhere near as important as what comes out of his band—which, unlike the lyrical content, is entirely focused and very serious. His guitar player of almost 40 years, Mick Harvey, recently split, opening up a large hole in the Seeds’ sound. Cave and the remaining players fill the space with ghostly organs, Warren Ellis’s haunting strings, and otherwise unidentifiable ambience that sets this album far apart from much of Cave’s discography, which relied on either whip-tight visceral tension or sombre piano ballads. Bassist Martyn P. Casey is the musical anchor here, and nothing is more ominous on this record than the rumbling, one-note bass line of “We Real Cool.” It’s certainly more ominous than that ridiculous, un-Cave-like title.

Cave’s discography is so vast that it’s easy for potential converts to excuse themselves from the fray, and for loyalists to ignore a new album. But this is arguably one of only three essential Cave albums in the last 20 years. Push Away the Sky—because perhaps the sky is no longer the limit. (Feb. 21)

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds play a sold-out show at Toronto’s Massey Hall on March 23.

Download: “We No Who U R,” “Jubilee Street,” “We Real Cool”

Doldrums – Lesser Evil (Arbutus)

After the breakout success of Grimes last year, her pal and Montreal neighbour Airick Woodhead, a.k.a. Doldrums, has been picked as the next big thing to break out of that city’s Arbutus Records label and avant-garde pop scene. And why not? For starters, Grimes loaned Woodhead her laptop and took him on tour. But Woodhead is no naïf in need of a helping hand: he spent seven years in the incredibly creative teenage Toronto band Spiral Beach, he’s remixed no less of a legend than Portishead, he’s produced tracks on Cadence Weapon’s astounding Hope In Dirt City record, and he has two EPs credited to Doldrums that showed great promise.

So: why is Lesser Evil one of the worst records I’ve ever heard not just this year, but in my life? It’s not just disappointing coming from someone of Woodhead’s obvious talent. It’s practically unlistenable: sitting through first single “She is the Wave” is like enduring dental torture during a rave held in an active construction site. Or, worse: every Skrillex track being played at once while an atonal drunk sings over top of it. Good times!

The rest of the album isn’t much better. Woodhead’s collage-based compositions show as much coherence as a babbling meth addict; his synths clash and collide and appear to be either constantly set to a random noise generator or distorted in the most abrasive manner possible (and not in a good way). The beats and melodies are as flat as Woodhead’s singing voice. It all sounds like Animal Collective on a particularly bad day—which is saying something. This is ultimately masochistic music—if you’re into that.

When Grimes locked herself in her Montreal apartment to make Visions, she crafted a transcendent, transgressive and joyous album that took the sound of isolation and insularity and made something sensual and universal. When Woodhead locked himself in his Montreal apartment—with the same computer, no less—he sounds like disappeared down the darkest of holes and lost his mind completely. I hope Woodhead is okay. After listening to Lesser Evil, I’m not sure I am. (Feb. 28)

Doldrums headline the Arbutus Caravan Tour across North America, starting March 8 at the Majestic Theater in Detroit.

Download: “Anomaly,” “Lesser Evil,” “Lost in Everyone”

Foxygen - We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace and Magic (Jagjaguwar)

There's nothing modern about Foxygen at all, despite their album title. The most current reference point for these San Franciscans is Pavement, complete with hipster-baiting slackerish vocals (like their oft-quoted line, "You don't have to be an asshole / you're not in Brooklyn anymore"). (Side note: the two 22-year-old men in Foxygen were still in diapers when Pavement's Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain came out.) Otherwise, Foxygen mines both the dark and light sides of late '60s and '70s psych pop, be it the Mamas and the Papas or Nuggets' garage bands, played with a Stax Records soul shuffle and with big harmonies backing up a singer capable of both detached Lou Reed drawl and Bee Gees' falsetto. Plus, Foxygen do the unthinkable in this quantized age: the band routinely accelerates or drops gradually into a half-time groove, which means there's no overdubbing here—this is a real live rock'n'roll band. "The 21st century is going to kick your ass, boy," they sing, but that's no reason not to revel in some distinctly 20th-century pleasures here. (Feb. 7)

Foxygen play Wrongbar in Toronto on March 4.

Download: “Shuggie,” “No Destruction,” “On Blue Mountain”

Veda Hille – Peter Panties (Independent)

In which Peter Pan is reimagined by a Vancouver songwriter—one who recently brought her successful musical about Craigslist to Toronto—working with a playwright with Down syndrome, a rock band consisting of 15-year-old boys, and two of Vancouver’s most successful pop producers, with a song cycle that somehow ropes in Macbeth, CSI and interpolations of classic songs by Bob Dylan, The Who and the Grease soundtrack mixed into vibrant originals.

Make sense? Of course it doesn’t—not outside its theatrical context, anyway, where even the most glowing rave reviews of the show’s 2011 run in Vancouver (and there were many) admitted that Peter Panties’ strengths had nothing to do with making sense beyond fusing a beloved text with a modern-day tale of arrested growth (“Fuck that, no moustache!”) and societal difference.

As a standalone record, Peter Panties is curious, confounding and absolutely delightful. It opens with just voice and piano singing, “I have a place where dreams were born”—though whether that voice is Veda Hille’s or that of playwright Niall McNeil is unclear, as the recording is androgynously pitch-shifted beyond clarity. McNeil does appear on several jazzy improvisations with Hille, but this is a full cast recording (with additional guests); the diversity of voices and vocal arrangements go a long way to bringing the joyous and playful material to life. We also hear Hille do things she rarely does, like deliver the kind of ripping organ solo heard on "Mister Darling." [UPDATE: That solo is in fact played by 16-year-old Zak Youssef of the Bank Dogs.] Producers JC/DC—who were behind the boards for the New Pornographers, Destroyer, Tegan and Sara and other Vancouver classics—give everything the oomph of a large-scale Broadway show.

It’s been five years since Hille released the triumphant This Riot Life, her most recent album not associated with a theatre project or a commission. But as both Peter Panties and the Craigslist musical illustrate, she continues to get even better as a songwriter—which makes one marvel at what she’ll do next with an entirely blank slate. (Feb. 28)

Veda Hille’s Craiglist musical continues at Toronto’s Factory Theatre until March 3; it returns to Vancouver for a month-long run on April 18 at Artsclub Theatre. Veda Hille plays an extremely rare Toronto solo show on Monday, March 25 at the Music Gallery.

Download: “Wendy Darling,” “Mister Darling,” “Oh My God”

Hilotrons – At Least There’s Commotion (Kelp)

"I know he's got the hooks!" are the first words you hear on this record, over a whip-tight smackdown of a drum beat, and emitted from a jerky, strangulated vocalist who sounds like he's confessing under torture; almost immediately, a staccato synth starts oscillating in ways not heard since Bernie Worrell in Talking Heads' Stop Making Sense. No, the Hilotrons have never heard of you either, which is why they open their first record in five years with all guns blazing and demanding to be heard.

Kelp Records' head honcho, Jon Bartlett, sent me the new record by this Ottawa band and claimed it was one of the best records ever made in that town. Obviously he's biased. But he's also right. 

Our nation's capital often gets left out of Canada's musical map; something Kathleen Edwards, Jim Bryson and The Acorn have rectified in the last 10 years. During that time, the sparky new wave Hilotrons have been plugging along, wowing the fellow musicians who form their core audience, and scoring silent films in their plentiful spare time. This is their fourth album and first in five years; it's safe to say that no one who isn't a personal friend of bandleader Michael Dubue was waiting for it, although 2008's very fine Happymatic appeared on the Polaris Prize long list. 

None of that particular context is necessary to fall in love immediately with what is an instant classic of a record. Dubue is the rare frontman who is also the keyboardist, and so his records are full of synth sounds and pianos of every timbre, roped into a rock'n'roll context by killer drummer Philip Shaw Bova, the only other musician on this record (though there is vocal assistance from Ottawa's who's who: Bryson, Jeremy Fisher, Lynn Miles, Snailhouse's Mike Feuerstack). 

There are obvious influences from late '70s fidgety new wave: Devo, Joe Jackson, XTC, Talking Heads. But with the exception of the outright Kate Bush homage “Emergency”(itself a cover of local Ottawa artist Yellow Jacket Avenger), this album carves its own path: heartbreaking, space-age country balladry (“Not There Tonight”), punk rock with AC/DC riffage (“Modern Way Woman”), '50s soul played on '70s synths (“My Number”), the Cure-like “She Knows My Condition,” all transcending their origins and ultimately sounding like no one else but the Hilotrons. The key is Dubue's vocals, capable of operatic heights and delivered with a Freddie Mercury gusto that precious few male vocalists in this country attempt (unless their name is Hawksley Workman).

Amazing singer, great band (all two of them), incredible sound and some killer songs: the Hilotrons will not be Ottawa's secret any more. (Feb. 7)

The Hilotrons play March 2 in Ottawa at the Hintonburg Public House, and March 26 at The Branch in Kemptville, Ontario.

Download: “Runaway Heart,” “Venus at Your Back Door,” “She Knows My Condition (Part One)”

Jim James – Regions of Light and Sound of God (ATO)

For the last decade, Jim James has taken My Morning Jacket from a hushed, dreamy project into a powerhouse band that is perhaps the finest live rock act in America right now—anchored as always by James's choir-boy voice. His first album under his own name doesn't have any shredding guitar solos or dramatic moments, but it isn't entirely a retreat, either. James surrounds himself with psychedelic keyboards, strings, heavy, syncopated drumming, and a mellotron set to a saxophone setting with maximum tremolo—the latter an effect used sparingly but to wonderful effect.

Following My Morning Jacket’s excellent 2011 release Circuital, James is obviously now on a roll and uses the studio to maximum effect, either in intimate moments or in the rare grandiose gesture, and plays all the instruments himself. Much of the album creates a lilting dream state set to an unusually funky, sparse backbeat, with James's aching, soaring voice functioning as the curious, reassuring guide. James claims he was inspired by a woodcut graphic novel from the 1920s called Gods' Man; more power to him, as I'm sure the reference will go over the heads of at least 99 per cent of his fans. But there is definitely a spiritual undertone here, one of searching and questioning, which is likely why the music sounds so strange, displaced and yet comforting at the same time. 

After all those four-hour My Morning Jacket shows and more than six studio albums, Jim James shows no sign of running out of fresh ideas. (Feb. 7)

Jim James plays the Phoenix in Toronto on April 24.

Download: “State of the Art (A-E-I-O-U),” “All is Forgiven,” “Know Til Now”

The Peggy Lee Band - Invitation (Drip Audio)

Veteran Vancouver cellist and improviser Peggy Lee fronts an eight-piece jazz band where she exercises her compositional chops. She’s a modest player: there are no showcase cello solos here. Instead, she features the three horn players and avant-garde approaches of her two guitarists, Tony Wilson and Ron Samworth. Long-time right-hand-man, drummer Dylan van der Schyff, keeps things swinging, though for every breezy melody there’s just as much time devoted to fidgety, beatless improvisation, and it all works together seamlessly. Even if, like me, you’re left cold by much of Vancouver’s prolific jazz scene revolving around the Drip Audio label, Peggy Lee is a warm breeze. And hopefully we’ll be hearing an album sooner than later from her duo with vocalist Mary Margaret O’Hara, Beautiful Tool, which appeared at the Guelph Jazz Festival last year. (Feb. 21)

Download: “You Will Be Loved Again,” “Why Are You Yelling?,” “Path of a Smile”

Justin Rutledge – Valleyheart (Outside)

Justin Rutledge has built an entire discography out of albums that get thrown on the stereo at 2 a.m. in 100-year-old hotel bars in small-town Ontario, in order to send heavy-lidded drunks on their sleepy way home. This album is no different.

Recorded by the Rheostatics’ Tim Vesely and featuring the predictably stellar cast of Toronto’s best roots sidemen (David Baxter, Burke Carroll, Blue Rodeo’s Bazil Donovan), Valleyheart sounds fantastic, all wide-open spaces, ringing chords and a gentle touch throughout. Too gentle, one could argue, especially when Rutledge sings a line like: “Listening to heavy metal makes me think of you.” Nothing about this album, conversely, sounds like anyone involved knows what heavy metal even is.

Part of what made Rutledge’s last album, The Early Widows, such a revelation was Hawksley Workman’s muscular production, some rousing choruses and even a tasteful use of a gospel choir. Valleyheart is very much a retreat back to smaller pleasures, where the sudden appearance of an electric guitar in a song like “Through With You” threatens to throw the whole thing off balance. It’s too somnambulant to win Rutledge any new fans, but it’s perfectly executed and, at the very least, consistent—guaranteed not to startle any CBC Radio 2 programmers. (Feb. 14)

Download: “Out of the Woods,” “Through With You,” “Downtown”

Ron Sexsmith – Forever Endeavour (Warner)

How does Ron Sexsmith, the songwriter who had an acclaimed documentary made about how underappreciated he is, the man with a sad-sack face who writes sweet love songs, the performer whose last album (Long Player Late Bloomer) was a bold, Bob Rock-produced bid for the big time that garnered rave reviews and a spot on the Polaris Prize shortlist—how does that very same Ron Sexsmith open up his new album? By singing about how “there’s nowhere to go but down.”

Written after a health scare, this record was made while Sexsmith was feeling more vulnerable than usual, and there are few rainbows hiding behind the clouds he paints here lyrically. It’s left to producer
Mitchell Froom, the sonic architect of Sexsmith’s first three major-label albums on which he built his reputation, to provide glimpses of sunlight. He does this not through the bells and whistles of those early records, but by arranging elegant string sections for almost every song, and judicious use of woodwinds, French horn and brass. Sexsmith himself largely sticks to acoustic guitar. For a guy who, for years, longed to be considered a pop artist rather than a folkie singer/songwriter, Forever Endeavour is where Sexsmith fully embraces his early ’70s influences: part Nick Drake, part Harry Nilsson.

Ultimately, of course, a Sexsmith album sinks or swims based on a particular set of songs. Though this is a bit of a letdown after the stellar Long Player Late Bloomer, it still shows a songwriter back on track after a series of albums that were merely treading water for so great a talent. As he says on the best-titled track here, “Me Myself and Wine,” “I’m making the most of my loneliness.” That’s not an understatement. (Feb. 14)

Ron Sexsmith plays the Randolph Theatre (formerly Bathurst Street Theatre) in Toronto on March 22.

Download: “If Only Avenue,” “Me Myself and Wine,” “Sneak Out the Back Door”

Tannis Slimmon - In and Out of Harmony (independent)

It doesn’t seem like five years since Tannis Slimmon released her last album, but that’s because the light of Guelph’s folk scene always seems to be around—her impeccable voice part of the eternal soundtrack of that city.

And though she has appeared on over 80 albums, you can count on less than one hand the ones that bear her own name. The woman takes her time. Like her approach to harmony, she doesn’t make an appearance until exactly the right moment. Which is why In and Out of Harmony is an impeccable distillation of Slimmon’s many talents: not just as a vocalist, but as a songwriter, an arranger and a curious musical soul.

Created, as always, with her long-time collaborator in life and song, Lewis Melville, there is plenty here to separate Slimmon from, say, the Justin Rutledges of this country. Though her voice is like a warm blanket, her lyrics earnest and her songwriting rooted in traditional Canadian folk, very little else in her music is predictable. Whether its her seamless integration of African instruments—she and Melville have acted as a bridge to Canada for several musicians from Mali—or the way she layers harmonies like early, eerie Joni Mitchell, or the way Melville always places an odd instrumental juxtaposition or something slightly off-kilter in the mix, Slimmon’s music is always working on several different levels simultaneously. She gets plenty of ace help here from the likes of former Rheostatics Martin Tielli and Dave Clark, as well as Western Canadian guitar hero Bill Bourne.

Lyrically, Slimmon is writing in a way that only a songwriter on the other side of 50 can, confronting issues of mortality, stock-taking, redemption and acceptance. Slimmon’s music has always had a healing effect even in happier times; it’s no surprise that she delves into our darkest fears and comes back with empathy and an eternal optimism. Being both deadly serious and taking pleasure in life’s simplest joys are not mutually exclusive, and set to a soundtrack like this, anything seems possible. (Feb. 14)

Download: “Good News,” “Animals,” “One More Day”

Two Hours Traffic – Foolish Blood (Bumstead)

Mo Kenney – s/t (New Scotland/Pheromone)

Bands who specialize in well-crafted, upbeat three-minute pop songs rarely find new inspiration with 10 years and three albums behind them. Yet P.E.I.’s Two Hours Traffic have suddenly transformed from a decent, mid-level Canadian indie band into architects of a classic pop masterwork, one that sounds like Spoon producing a Nick Lowe album, like the New Pornographers’ A.C. Newman working with early R.E.M. as a backing band. As songwriters, they pack these 10 songs with plenty of ear-candy melodies, delivered with spot-on three-part harmony. As arrangers, they work with producer Darryl Neudorf (Neko Case, 54.40) to ensure every 12-string rhythm guitar, every tambourine beat and every summertime harmony enters the song at the right moment. The only other current band making music like this and doing it this well is Vancouver’s Yukon Blonde; put those two on a bill together and you have the ideal soundtrack to a summer sunset at a lakeside venue.

Two Hours Traffic’s first two albums were produced by Joel Plaskett, whose profile no doubt opened many doors for the band. These days Plaskett is throwing his weight behind Mo Kenney, a 22-year-old Nova Scotian he discovered while visiting a high school music program five years ago.

Plaskett’s touch here is subtle, even though he and Kenney are the album’s sole instrumentalists. The tracks with little more than Kenney and her guitar prove that Plaskett didn’t have to do much to highlight Kenney’s natural talent. She’s an accomplished guitarist and her vocals fall somewhere between Mazzy Starr and Kathleen Edwards (or, for those with fond memories of ’90s indie rock, Carol van Dijk of Bettie Serveert), with a mix of youthful curiosity and premature world-weariness (“The more I love, the less I know”). Musically, she moves with ease from lo-fi power pop to eerie psychedelic folk, with hints of ’60s R&B ballads.

Small wonder then, that she moved serious amounts of merchandise as Plaskett’s opening act last year, and is likely to have Ron Sexsmith fans snapping up even more when she tours with him next month. (Feb. 21)

Two Hours Traffic play Lee’s Palace in Toronto on March 21. Mo Kenney plays The Great Hall in Toronto the same night.

Download Two Hours Traffic: “Audrey,” “Meaning of Love,” “Faster 4 U”

Download Mo Kenney: “Sucker,” “Déjà Vu,” “Carnivore”