Monday, April 29, 2013

April 2013 reviews

The following reviews ran in the Waterloo Record and the Guelph Mercury last month. Highly, highly, highly recommended: AroarA. Merely highly recommended: Rokia Traoré, Joshua Van Tassel.

AroarA – In the Pines EP (Club Roll)

Someone old, something new. You know Andrew Whiteman from Broken Social Scene, Apostle of Hustle and many other projects. You don’t know his new collaborator Ariel Engel, who sings the bulk of this material and brings out the best in Whiteman. The lyrics on AroarA’s debut EP are by American poet Alice Notley, from her 2007 book of the same name, set here to original music made with primitive cigar-box banjos and drum machines. Notley’s poems themselves reference old folk songs, and even a Bob Dylan lyric about Blind Willie McTell, so repurposing Notley’s words for modern avant-garde pop music taps into a natural continuum. If that doesn’t intrigue you enough and you need a big namedrop, it was recorded at Feist’s house.

Concept and pedigree aside, it’s the music of AroarA that compels. Like the Los Lobos side project Latin Playboys, AroarA takes traditional elements—Spanish pop, American blues, Asian melodies, PJ Harvey—and tosses them in a digital kaleidoscope that defies easy description. Engel’s compelling voice is the anchor: a confident calm presence not unlike Feist or Daniela Gesundheit of Snowblink (who all performed together at the 2012 Polaris Prize gala). The sonic density that marked Whiteman’s last album as Apostle of Hustle has been stripped back; each track contains only a few elements: sampler, two guitars and percussion, either electronic, hand-played or of unknown origin.

These five songs are as fulfilling as a full-length album, but they’re just the beginning: nine more are due on AroarA’s debut album in June. (April 4)

Download (tracks only have numbers as titles, as per the original poems; they don’t refer to running order): “#11,” “#6,” “#2”

Arts and Crafts: 2003-2013 – Various Artists (Arts and Crafts)

Many people and many artists across the country contributed to the explosion of great Canadian music in the last decade, but it’s safe to say that Toronto label Arts and Crafts were at the forefront of taking it all to the mainstream: first with Broken Social Scene, whose Kevin Drew is a cofounder, then with Feist and many others. Arts and Crafts has released many classic Canadian records, and it’s a safe bet that a decade retrospective would be a worthy time capsule.

Sadly, it’s not. The selection here appears to have been selected from a shuffle playlist, albeit one that favours Broken Social Scene, Feist and Stars, with three tracks each—odd for Stars, who have released just as many albums off the label as they have on. Many artists are relegated to the “rarities” disc, hence people like the Constantines, Hidden Cameras, Cold Specks, the Dears, Gonzales and Snowblink are not necessarily on their A game. Bell Orchestre, who put out one of the best albums in the label’s entire discography, is not found anywhere here.

Listening to the main disc gives further credence to the notion that the label has faltered the most when it recruits from outside its immediate family: The Most Serene Republic? Los Campesinos? New Buffalo? Dan Mangan? Well, at least Mangan sells a lot of records and deserves to be here. The compiler does deserve some credit, at least, for finding a listenable song by the Stills.

You probably own the best Arts and Crafts albums already, and this compilation won’t shed much light on the rest of the roster. Save your money and buy a ticket for their June 8 anniversary show in Toronto featuring a one-off Broken Social Scene reunion, Feist, Stars, Zeus, Cold Specks, Jason Collett and more—including Hayden and Bloc Party, who are also absent from the comp. (April 18)

Download: “Islands in the Stream” – Feist and the Constantines; “I Want a New Drug” – Apostle of Hustle; “Apology” – Kevin Drew

The Bicycles - Stop Thinking So Much (Aporia)

This Toronto pop band was beloved but underrated during their run in the 2000s; after a four-year hiatus, they remind us what we’ve been missing by returning from various other projects sounding entirely rejuvenated and more eclectic than ever, not unlike a ’70s K-Tel collection where the only real through line is an abundance of sunny California harmonies. Twee pop, country balladry, glam rock, even some Rolling Stones swagger weave their way through these two- and three-minute miracles, where each member brings their own songs to the table—and drummer Dana Snell nearly steals the whole show with her opening track, the lovely “Appalachian Mountain Station.” (April 25)

Download: “Appalachian Mountain Station,” “Bandana Cat,” “Goldeneye”

James Blake – Overgrown (Polydor)

This young Brit wowed plenty with his 2011 debut, with its blend of innovative electronics, live performance and Blake’s androgynous croon, as well as a dreamy Feist cover.  And yet anyone who heard Blake’s earlier instrumental EPs may well have wondered why he appeared to have dropped the ball for his coming-out party, with a collection of tracks that were neither great songs nor particularly cutting edge: clearly this man had more potential than just a great voice.

Blake more than makes up for that on Overgrown, which is both as sonically stunning and seductive as what is ostensibly a pop album could possibly be. He’s obvious invested more time into the songwriting process instead of coasting on his studio wizardry, and yet he’s not about to embrace clichés. What would have happened had Joni Mitchell fled California in the early ’70s and moved to Berlin to work with Brian Eno? They would have spawned James Blake. (April 18)

Download: “Overgrown,” “Retrograde,” “Digital Lion”

The Burning Hell - People (weewerk)

“Inside everyone one of us is a comedian, a cult leader and an amateur rapper.” So says Mathias Kom, singer and songwriter at the core of The Burning Hell. He should know: he’s all three. His band is an open invitational depending on what city he’s living in at the moment (Peterborough, Whitehorse, now St. John’s); he’s a verbose wordsmith who claims he writes songs while listening to the Wu-Tang Clan; and he’s wry, witty, and occasionally hilarious.

Kom writes songs that ask questions no one else dares to ask—never mind set to music. Why aren’t cults ever any fun? Why, as teenagers, were we prematurely nostalgic for the age we actually were at the time? Why not set the legend of Loki to a seven-minute rock epic? When Lionel Richie wrote “Hello,” was it you he was looking for and not the blind girl in the video?

As Kom has shifted from ukulele-wielding folk singer to stream-of-consciousness rock bandleader, he’s less concerned with writing songs than he is using the music as a vehicle for observational ramblings. It can be a recipe for disaster—his last album, overburdened with pop culture references, was proof of this—but here he’s a raconteur par excellence, holding court while his band keeps the party going behind him. (April 25)

Download: “Grown-ups,” “Amateur Rappers,” “Industrialists”

Dusted – Total Dust (Hand Drawn Dracula)

Pick a Piper – s/t (Mint)

Canadians seem to excel at albums tailor-made for long-haul late-night drives: spooky enough to suit the occasion, but with enough volume and pulse to keep the driver awake. And why wouldn’t we? We, especially our touring musicians, spend an inordinate amount of time in the wee hours travelling from town to faraway town. Brian Borcherdt, a rock’n’roll lifer who’s spent almost 20 years on the road, is no different, hence the sound of his new project, Dusted, made during a rare time when he was standing still.

While his all-live electronic band Holy Fuck was touring the world in the last eight years and hailed as one of the best live acts in Canada, Borcherdt was busy releasing quiet solo albums under his own name. When his bandmates took some time off to raise babies, Borcherdt threw himself into Dusted, a collaboration with producer/drummer Leon Taheny (Owen Pallett, Bruce Peninsula, Austra).

Taheny brings out the best in Borcherdt’s songwriting; while his solo work was often lovely but aimless, Taheny tightens everything up with minimal percussion and dropping in ukulele, violin and minimal keyboards when necessary. Borcherdt, who’s also in fine vocal form, plays chugging rhythm guitar with a steady hand and both feet on effects pedals, looping it and running it through various decaying levels of distortion. The result sounds unlike Borcherdt’s good pal Chad Van Gaalen (especially in a live setting), but the album successfully creates its own world, one where the late-night radio is your guiding light.

A similar vibe prevails for K-W’s Pick a Piper, though further astray from the indie rock singer/songwriter genre Dusted is working in. Waterloo drummer Brad Weber has been performing with psychedelic electronica group Caribou for the last decade, and that band’s sound inevitably bleeds through on Weber’s first full-length as Pick a Piper. Comparisons are inevitable not only because of the direct connection, but because very few, if any, other acts working today successfully merge those elements, other than Atoms for Peace, the new band from Radiohead’s Thom Yorke (who is a big Caribou fan). Like Caribou’s Dan Snaith, Weber employs lovely melodies and Beach Boys harmonies, sets them to club beats on both acoustic and electronic drums, and layers in various percussive and jazz elements—and then lets you sit back and zone out. Vocalists from Braids, Ruby Suns and Enon also show up to provide additional scenery along the way, though they easily fade into the blurry background of a fascinating journey. (April 4)

Download Pick a Piper: “Cinders and Dust,” “Once Were Leaves,” “South to Polynesia”

Download Dusted: “All Comes Down,” “(Into the) Atmosphere,” “Pale Light”

Iron and Wine – Ghost on Ghost (Nonesuch)

Iron and Wine’s Sam Beam introduced himself to us many years ago as a solo, fingerpicking singer/songwriter. As his popularity grew, his arrangements swelled and he slowly shifted into swampy, New Orleans psychedelic funk that owed a few debts to Dr. John’s more outré output. Here, however, it sounds like he took a more marked left turn: by getting happy.

Ghost on Ghost is notable for sounding much sunnier than any other Iron and Wine album; the preponderance of major keys helps. For an album with “ghost” in its title, Beam has shifted from spookier sonics into opiated bliss, California soft rock that could be a funkier Fleetwood Mac. Longtime producer Brian Deck continues to provide plenty of tasty tricks underneath the steady calm of Beam’s voice; just because the music is pleasant doesn’t mean it can’t be multi-layered and sophisticated. The other key difference is the increased role of a horn section, providing not just soul shots but even embarking on bebop jazz breakdowns on tracks like “Lover’s Revolution”—didn’t see that coming.

It’s easy to underestimate Iron and Wine, but Sam Beam has just given us yet another reason why we never should. (April 18)

Download: “Joy,” “Low Light Buddy of Mine,” “Winter Prayers”

Kacey Musgraves - Same Trailer, Different Park (Universal)

This 24-year-old Texas artist is notable most for what she is not: she’s far removed from the gloss of new country—no crunching guitars or synths here—yet conventional enough to target the same market; a year older than Taylor Swift, she writes poignant, homespun and youthful observations without sounding like a 15-year-old Twilight fan. Musgraves has a sweet enough voice, though unremarkable; the appeal is her songwriting. Her first single features the opening line, “If you ain’t got two kids by 21, you’re probably going to die alone / at least that’s what tradition told you.” That, and her love of minor chords, makes you wonder how she ever wound up a contestant on Nashville Star (where she placed seventh). This, her fourth album but major-label debut, sounds like the love child of Lucinda Williams and Fred Eaglesmith, with trace elements of teen angst found in a line like, “It’s a fine line between telling a joke and twisting the knife.” The album has already topped the U.S. country charts and sold half a million copies in three weeks, and it sounds like this well is just going to get deeper. (April 11)

Download: “Merry Go ’Round,” “My House,” “Dandelion”

New Country Rehab - Ghost of Your Charms (Kelp) 

The name of this band suggests that they’re tried and true traditionalists bucking against the slick new country scene. Well, they do replace gloss with grit, but the muscular, modern arrangements here aren’t all that far off from stadium-size country music—or Bruce Springsteen circa The Rising. This ain’t no Hank Williams revival act (see: Daniel Romano). Frontman John Showman is not only a convincing belter, but he’s a fine fiddler player, and its those textures that set this band apart from every other roots rock act in Canada. Producer Chris Stringer (Timber Timbre, Snowblink) captures the live energy effectively: this is a record that demands to be played loud. Too bad the performances and the production outshine the songwriting, something that matters a whole lot less on stage, which is obviously this band’s forte. (April 25)

Download: “Rollin’,” “Lizzy Dying of a Broken Heart,” “Midnight Cargo”

The Ford Pier Vengeance Trio – Huzzah! (independent)

Ford Pier is one of Canada’s musical MVPs, playing with members of the Rheostatics, NoMeansNo, backing up arty singer/songwriters Veda Hille and Christine Fellows, and serving time in punk legends D.O.A., cowpunk pioneers Jr. Gone Wild and reggae band Roots Roundup. What does Pier get up to on his own terms? Tightly controlled jazz-punk chaos in a power-trio setting that celebrates “the gift of life” one minute while decrying destruction and banality the next. Pier doesn’t do anything simply: every track here twists and turns inside out and yet never spirals out of control, thanks in part to a phenomenal rhythm section that seem to understand every synapse in Pier’s brain. It’s all overwhelming on first listen; sometimes you wish Pier didn’t feel the need to change chords every two beats. But Pier’s invention and magnetism—and brevity—carry the day. Huzzah, indeed. (April 11)

Download: “When We Were Poor,” “The Gift of Life,” “Newton and the Counterfeiters”

Cam Penner – To Build a Fire (Rawlco Radio)

Cam Penner is the kind of guy who wanders up to your folk-festival campfire and casually starts playing a few songs that sound like howling winds set to blues stomps that suddenly shut up all the drunks, until everyone is spellbound wondering exactly who this travelling stranger is. That’s just how he rolls: Penner is a wandering troubadour who has lived and worked all over the continent (“sometimes I wonder if I’m running or being chased”), performing songs with choruses like “may the good Lord take you in self-defence.” He opens this, his fifth album, with a brass instrumental; the Everlast-esque single “Memphis” drops a drum machine into the rhythm. But for the most part, Penner stays true to his cabin-in-the-woods aesthetic, drawing you in with tales of travel and dollops of inspiration for tough times. (April 25)

Download: “Whiskey Lips,” “No Consequence,” “Memphis”

The Sapphires – Various Artists (Sony)

It’s been over 20 years since The Commitments, one of the finest and funniest movies about rock’n’roll ever made, in which a band of ragged Irish misfits attempt to make American soul music. And unlike 1990, classic R&B is back in style in full force, so the idea of a new film soundtrack stacked with actors singing faithful versions of Motown and Stax classics won’t seem an overworked concept for anyone too young to remember either The Commitments or The Blues Brothers. Plus, this time the artists doing the reappropriation of African-American culture are Australian Aborigines.

But do we need yet another version of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” or “Land of 1,000 Dances”? (Supplementary question: does CCR’s “Run Through the Jungle” need to appear on yet another soundtrack of a Vietnam film?) The cinematic twist this time is the ’60s story of Australian Aborgine women, who had only recently been granted political and legal rights, who were recruited to form an R&B band to entertain American troops in Vietnam. The story sells the movie, but all you really need to hear is actress Jessica Mauboy open her mouth: she is every bit the equal of Diana Ross, Carla Thomas, Gladys Knight and Mavis Staples, and she even pulls off Merle Haggard’s “Today I Started Loving You Again” and Arthur Lyman’s “Yellow Bird.” On the one modern-sounding track here, “Gotcha,” she enters Beyoncé territory, signalling that she’s poised for much more than a fluke film role. (April 11)

Download: “Gotcha,” “What a Man,” “I’ll Take You There”

Telekinesis – Dormarion (Merge)

People continue to whine about lacklustre new Weezer albums, while young Michael Benjamin Lerner, a.k.a. Telekinesis, is now on his third flawless record of anthemic power pop. What gives? Lerner is a master of melancholic lyrics set to sunny melodies, crushing guitars, fuzzy bass and new wave keyboards, to say nothing of his own buoyant drumming. He gets production help this time out from Spoon drummer Jim Eno, like Lerner himself a multi-tasking percussionist. Eno not only brings out Lerner’s pre-existing strengths, he also drops a drum machine on him and plays up an ’80s influence on several tracks. And majestic closing track “You Take It Slowly” is the song you keep hoping the reunite Pixies would get around to writing. (April 4)

Download: “Power Lines,” “Laissez-Faire,” “Ever True”

Rokia Traoré – Beautiful Africa (Nonesuch)

This Malian musician has collaborated with novelist Toni Morrison, Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones, and toured with Blur’s Damon Albarn. She’s the daughter of a diplomat who was posted to the U.S., Europe and the Middle East. She studied sociology in Brussels. This, her fifth album, is produced by PJ Harvey sideman John Parish. And yet after Beautiful Africa, it’s unlikely she’ll need such name-dropping to be remembered.

She’s a stunning guitar player, steeped in Malian blues (and one of the few female instrumentalists from that scene), but it’s her voice that’s entirely captivating: though she’s capable of projecting, she’s at her most powerful when she applies her strength at a lower volume, with an ever-so-slight tremolo that’s nothing short of chilling, especially on the epic nine-minute ballad N’Teri. Parish gives her a stripped-down backing: a minimalist funky drummer, an n’goni player and a bassist, all used sparingly.

Traoré recently relocated with her son to Paris from Bamako, which is threatened by Islamist insurgents who, among other atrocities, want to ban music in one of the most musically rich regions of the world. Her lyrics are in French, so I can’t assess their political content (if any), but her voice alone is resilience and beauty embodied. (April 25)

Download: “Sikey,” “Melancolie,” “Tuit Tuit”

Joshua Van Tassel - Dream Date (Backward Music)

“Dream date” doesn’t refer here to a fantasy romance; it’s about an appointment with an imaginative, abstract, haunting and playful environment. Van Tassel is an in-demand drummer and multi-instrumentalist for many Toronto singer/songwriters; left to his own devices, he constructs carefully constructed melodic and cinematic instrumentals of all varieties: propulsive, subdued, acoustic instruments manipulated electronically or left to shine on their own strengths. He believes in brevity—only one song here is longer than five minutes—and every sonic layer is entirely deliberate; there’s very little clutter. He does invite two vocalists into the fold—an uncharacteristically gut-wrenching Justin Rutledge, and a soaring Kate Rogers—for two of the album’s strongest songs, but those are by no means the most melodic. Van Tassel has charted an eclectic sonic journey where Calexico, Patrick Watson and the Rheostatics are fellow travellers. (April 11)

Download: “The Sharpest Corner,” “Sentimental Health,” “I Think You’re a Salesman”

Yeah Yeah Yeahs – Mosquito (Universal)

In the first three songs of the first new Yeah Yeah Yeahs album in four years, we hear: a raw post-punk song that culminates with a full-on gospel choir: a brooding, haunting lullaby that samples a New York City subway car as a rhythm track; an unhinged, nonsensical shriekfest that hearkens back to the very first tracks that put this once-incendiary trio on the map. After the smash success of their electro-disco makeover on 2009’s It’s Blitz!, it sounds like the band has no idea what it should be anymore and doesn’t care. Neither should we, if they sound this good flailing in all directions.

No doubt it helps that singer Karen O has returned to New York from California to join her bandmates; Mosquito is much more informal and loose than this band has been since their debut full-length. Invite long-dormant Kool Keith alias Dr. Octagon to rap on “Buried Alive”? Why not. A Cramps-style sci-fi goof-off about alien conspiracy theories? Of course. And then there are the garage rock rave-ups, the ballads, the disco songs and everything in between. O has lost none of her potency as an ever-elastic vocalist—the bonus tracks include three acoustic demos where she’s pitch-perfect and gorgeous, as well as a howling, snarling live version of the title track—and her bandmates rarely resort to rock clichés.

If their former comrades in the Strokes—another band who defined New York City and rock and roll’s comeback in the early 2000s—are getting successively sleepier with each release, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs return fully invigorated. (April 18)

Download: “Subway,” “Mosquito,” “Despair”

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Thatcher is dead. Do I still care?

It’s hard to imagine a more embittered political song than Elvis Costello’s “Tramp the Dirt Down,” a song that popped up frequently in my Facebook feed after Margaret Thatcher died on Monday. Leftist gadfly and British MP George Galloway tweeted the title as his official response. The lyrics read in part: “When England was the whore of the world, Margaret was her madam / And the future looked as bright and as clear as the black tarmacadam … I’d like to live long enough to savour / that when they finally put you in the ground / I’ll stand on your grave and tramp the dirt down.”

Costello was far from alone. This week saw plenty of lists compiling anti-Thatcher songs, from The Beat to Billy Bragg to Crass to Pink Floyd to, um, the Blow Monkeys, some dating as recently as 2011 (Pete Wylie’s “The Day That Margaret Thatcher Dies”). And one of my Maclean’s colleagues, Jaime J. Weinman, wrote an excellent story about Thatcher’s galvanizing effect on the British film industry, which resulted in many entrepreneurial, angry young filmmakers (Stephen Frears and Mike Leigh among them) railing against the prime minister and producing brilliant art along the way.

I don’t have anything nice to say about Margaret Thatcher, outside of her obvious importance as the first female leader of a world power—which surely even Top Girls playwright Caryl Churchill would admit is a feat in itself, regardless of the PM’s politics. She is perhaps the most incredibly uncomfortable feminist icon of all, one who once proclaimed: “I hate feminism. It is poison.”

I’m sure she had her finer points, but I only know she opened the floodgates of deregulation (enabling financial atrocities like the mysterious, all-powerful man known only as ‘the London Whale’), mercilessly attacked unions on principle, and opposed economic sanctions to apartheid-era South Africa. (When Brian Mulroney dies, one of the three nice things I will say about him is that he fought Thatcher firmly on this last issue.) On the other hand, the country was in obvious, seemingly irreversible decline before she was elected, under the Labour government in the ’70s—which is in part why punk rock happened.

But like most of my peers, most of my impressions of Thatcher come from popular culture. Britain is a foreign country to me; our Constitution was patriated three years into her first term. I care no more for British politics than anywhere else outside of North America, and I don’t even like much British music since Thatcher left office. (Coincidence?)

So I’m largely surprised—judging by largely laudatory mainstream media coverage and the hissing from my own lefty social circles bidding good riddance—that anyone here has any passionate feelings at all for the Iron Lady. Do we still hold serious grudges about her on this side of the Atlantic? If so, why? Just because some of us still listen to our Smiths and Sinead O’Connor records? I can understand if you were born there or still have family there. But as Canadians, any fascination faded long ago. Except for John Baird, of course—who named his cat after her. (Remember this?)

(On the flip side, I felt the same way about John Peel’s death in 2004. How many North Americans ever actually heard his BBC show? Or is our affection entirely second-hand, based entirely on what our favourite bands thought of him?)

Britain, of course, is still angry. I understand why. Time doesn’t easily heal the wounds inflicted by such a polarizing figure. But I honestly can’t believe that people are holding street parties celebrating her death, 23 years after she left office. She’s no Ceausescu or Pinochet (though she was inexplicably cozy with the latter). I also can’t imagine anything like that happening in North America. Surely the most reviled politician—by the culturati, anyway—of the last 50 years was Richard Nixon, and yet I can’t remember anyone singing about dancing on his grave in 1994 (maybe some of us were still recovering from Kurt Cobain’s suicide). Nor Ronald Reagan, who died in 2004 (maybe we were too busy being actively angry at George W. Bush). I still think Mike Harris was an asshole—but I’m not going to be drinking in the streets when he kicks it; I’ve largely forgotten about him entirely.

And yet one of Britain’s most popular cultural exports of the last 10 years, the film and then the stage musical Billy Elliot, has an uplifting Christmas song in which the chorus fantasizes about Thatcher’s death. (The show is still playing in London’s West End, and, after deliberation, the audience decided the show must go on this week.)

Meanwhile, there’s a Facebook campaign—the kind of which Brits excel, utilized to send an old Rage Against the Machine song to No. 1 during Christmas 2009, or to resuscitate Jeff Buckley’s version of “Hallelujah” to fight off a reality-show contestant’s version of the same—to send a certain The Wizard of Oz classic up the charts. That’s just weird, and yet somehow emblematic of an era when people consider Facebook’s “Like” button as a form of activism. It’s a song Klaus Nomi also directed toward her during her reign—I’d like to see that climb the charts, just to make it even weirder.

She once said, “I am not a consensus politician. I am a conviction politician.” I’ll grant her that. And I wish I had someone similar on my side of the political fence in power during my lifetime—I haven’t yet. Even if that meant art might get lazy.

I'll admit, though: I do have a sudden urge to see Billy Bragg on his current tour—not only because he just put out his first good record in 20 years.