Friday, August 30, 2013

August '13 reviews

Highly recommended this month: Dictaphone, Kiki Gyan, Sarah Neufeld.
Also worth your while: Ebony Bones, Jenny Hval, Pet Shop Boys, Rodion G.A.

The following reviews ran in the Waterloo Record and the Guelph Mercury, mostly while I spent my summer vacation listening to old records.

Braids – Flourish/Perish (Flemish Eye)

Braids, the Polaris Prize shortlisted oddballs of 2011, were never much of a rock band to begin with. So the fact they’ve ditched all their guitars for their second album isn’t that much of a surprise; nor is the fact that it sounds like a busier version of Blue Hawaii, a side project for singer Raphaelle Standell-Preston that released an excellent album earlier this year. That all four members of Braids are intelligent, delicate and daring musicians is without question; whether it all adds up to something is something else entirely. Even eggheads like Bjork and Radiohead, whose b-sides Braids no doubt grew up studying, are prone to visceral pleasures. Braids, on the other hand, inspire not just chin-scratching but more than a bit of head-scratching.

Braids were born in Calgary and moved to Montreal, a city seemingly much more in tune with their love of abstraction, synths and the avant-garde. However, Flourish/Perish sounds like they took their lessons learned in Canada’s artistic capital and went back to Canada’s newest financial capital, where the buildings are newer, the suburbs are endless and it’s easy to feel rootless. Flourish/Perish works best when suspended in time, commuting to work, its layers of beauty without cohesion perfect for illustrating in-between states.

It doesn’t help, however, that the album’s best three songs are sequenced last; maybe they’re trying to make some point about rewarding patience, but until the final stretch here Braids gains respect while offering little to love. (Aug. 29)

Download: “Juniper,” “In Kind,” “Hossak”

Dustin Bentall and the Smokes – You Are an Island (Aporia)

Bentall may have started out as a rootsy troubadour—and he still regularly employs fiddle and mandolin—but by employing Limblifter’s Ryan Dahle as producer for this third album, he adds fuzz bass, “Lust For Life” drums and much more bounce in his step. His right-hand man, Del Cowsill (son of Billy, of ’60s group the Cowsills), provides solid lead guitar and harmonies, while fiddler Kendel Carson (also of Belle Starr) proves to be invaluable. Somewhere between Blue Rodeo and Yukon Blonde—and nowhere near the shadow of his father, Barney—Dustin Bentall is an island waiting to be discovered. (Aug. 29)

Download: “Shine,” “Oxford Street,” “Pretty Good Life”

Dictaphone – Poems from a Rooftop (Sonic Pieces)

A Berlin trio featuring electronics, bass guitar, woodwinds and a violin, Dictaphone play noir jazz slowly being unspooled and dissected. This band took six years to follow up their last record, and everything here sounds like a band that likes to take its time. Tempos are uniformly languid; the violin and clarinet pop, hop and swoon around the glitchy electronics while a jazzy, dubby rhythm percolates underneath. The electroacoustic blend sounds more mid-2000s Montreal than 2013 Berlin, like a Mitchell Akiyama remix of Bell Orchestre—though ultimately, Dictaphone sound entirely out of time and place and in their own smoky, shadowy world. (Aug. 1)

Download: “Rattle,” “The Conversation,” “Maelbeek”

Ebony Bones – Behold, a Pale Horse (1984 Records)

Did you ever lament that Grace Jones and Kate Bush never made an album together in their prime?

This oddball Brit opens her second album with what sounds like a Bulgarian choir and (what is credited as) the Symphony Orchestra of India performing over pulsing tom drums; the next track appears to stutter and loop a sample of the first song, bring in a British children’s choir and what could be a skipping-rope-rhyme rhythm. (The choir later returns to sing a Smiths cover.) Only by the third track, five minutes in, does a pop song emerge, one that swaggers like Janelle Monae and Santigold and sounds like a particularly sinister James Bond theme written by The Cure’s Robert Smith.

Little has been written about Ms. Bones on this side of the ocean, other than that she’s toured with kindred spirit Cee-Lo Green. But even in a world of modern iconoclasts like Lady Gaga and Nicki Minaj, Ebony Bones cuts her own path, embracing over-the-top bombast (and visual outrageousness—she looks like Macy Gray with makeup by Bjork and outfits by Dr. Seuss) while, unlike anyone else currently operating at this scale, also capable of dialling it all back to create something majestic and monumental out of the most minimal of elements. For Bones, one dares to say, a skeletal structure is all she needs. As a result, the album—indeed, even individual tracks—ebb and flow with dynamics that display the full range of her vocals and her arrangements. Bones goes out on a limb on every track here, which, if it proves successful, could make her the most outré pop star since Bjork. (Aug. 8)

Download: “I See I Say,” “Neu World Blues,” “Breathe”

Eons - Arctic Radio (Headless Owl)

The raucous Toronto prog-folk choir Bruce Peninsula has been a magnet for some of the city’s finest musicians: Austra, Snowblink, Ohbijou and more, including playwright/short-story writer Misha Bower. Here, Bower and BP’s Matt Cully—who normally plays second banana to BP frontman Neil Haverty—step out with this duo, playing haunting acoustic music with rich harmonies, weeping pedal steel and rich lyrical imagery. The title is evocative: this music does indeed sound like it was made communally by the population of a small, remote hamlet, surrounded by a vast expanse, broadcasting to unknown sympathetic ears.

Download: “Brothers and Sisters,” “Martial Law,” “Arctic Radio”

Jaron Freeman-Fox - The Opposite of Everything (independent)

The late, great boundary-pushing violinist Oliver Schroer is no longer with us. Ashley MacIsaac went right off his rocker long ago. And so here comes shit-hot fiddle fiend Freeman-Fox (who indeed was mentored by Schroer) to extract smoke from his bow while tearing through genres from Yiddish, Irish, Acadian, Roma and ragtime to anything else he finds in his travels, including various shades of jazz and prog rock—and even some Mongolian throat singing for good measure. Only a bluesy take on the Doors’ “People Are Strange” falls flat.

Freeman-Fox might well be just another astonishingly gifted madman were it not for the sympathetic players he surrounds himself with, starting with producer David Travers-Smith, but particularly drummer Dan Stadnicki and clarinetist John Williams (Boxcar Boys, Lemon Bucket Orchestra). Without them, Freeman-Fox might come across as a brilliant dilettante; together, they can slay any band, anywhere, anytime. (Aug. 8)

Download: “Burnin’ Sun,” “The Rabid Rabbi,” “Stray Camino”

 Daughn Gibson – Me Moan (Sub Pop)

There are many things to admire about Daughn Gibson’s second album (his first for Sub Pop). One of them is the baritone’s incredibly frustrating ability to sing with marbles in his mouth, not to mention holding long notes on the R sound rather than vowels—even drawling out even words like “me” and “you” to sound like they end in R.

That drawl—as well as the prevalence of slide guitar and rockabilly reverb—has caused some to slot Gibson as a post-modern roots-rock revisionist. And sure, a song like “Kissin on the Blacktop” comes off like Randy Travis as produced by Trent Reznor. Much of the time, Me Moan sounds like a Wall of Voodoo 45 played at 33 speed.

No matter. The uniqueness of Gibson’s sound overcomes his odd voice, with sonic signifiers of an America rapidly receding into a rust belt—Gibson lives in a small town outside Harrisburg, Pennsylvania—mixed with synth strings, sound effects, keyboard bass and, um, bagpipes.

Surrealist filmmaker David Lynch just put out his second album; after surviving his debut, I can’t fathom the idea of listening to his new one. And why would I, when Daughn Gibson easily scratches the itch for Americana that combines the slick and the sweet with the strange, seamy underbelly. (Aug. 15)

Download: “Mad Ocean,” “The Pisgee Nest,” “Won’t You Climb”

Gogol Bordello – Pura Vida Conspiracy (ATO)

Gogol Bordello’s Eugene Hutz is not ashamed to take credit for North America’s interest in Slavic and Roma culture in the last decade. Indeed, his New York-based brand of “gypsy punk” did usher accordions and fiddles and pave the way for Beirut, Devotchka and other acts who filled large clubs and theatres with audiences eager to embrace music from former Soviet socialist republics. While Hutz was always a visionary and an exuberant performer, was Gogol Bordello ever much more than a carnival-esque spectacle?

Hutz opens his sixth album with “We Rise Again,” as stirring an anthem as he’s ever written, punctuated by a bold brass section. The next track, “Dig Deep Enough,” combines the mandolin-drenched eastern melancholy with two-step punk and a boozy barroom chorus, making it a perfect distillation of everything this band has ever excelled at. After that, Hutz’s cartoonish side takes over—as it often does—and, as a guy now on the other side of 40, it doesn’t suit him well. You know the scuzzy old guys who reunite to play Warped Tour and act like they’re still 20 years old? If he wasn’t lugging accordions and violins around with him, Hutz could well be that guy. (Aug. 8)

Download: “We Rise Again,” “Dig Deep Enough,” “Amen”

Kiki Gyan – 24 Hours in a Disco 1978-82 (Soundway)

African disco—makes perfect sense. Just as disco was taking over the Western world in the’70s, Fela Kuti was developing the long, hypnotic, repetitive rhythms of Afrobeat. Occasionally, the two styles overlapped; there’s an excellent compilation of Nigerian disco that came out a couple of years ago. But for Ghanaian keyboardist Kiki Gyan, he was all disco, all the time—and this collection proves that he deserves to be considered one of the best. And during the summer of 2013, when Chic’s Nile Rogers can be heard all over the smash hit album by Daft Punk, it sounds even better.

Gyan was an in-demand session player who served a stint in one of the first successful African bands in Britain, Osibisa, before leaving to cut these disco tracks, full of his rich falsetto, popping bass and staccato rhythm guitar. “Sexy Dancer” takes a clavinet riff not unlike Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” and stretches it into a seven-minute disco-funk workout; “24 Hours in a Disco” features the punchiest string section you’ve heard since the orchestral version of Beethoven’s fifth from Saturday Night Fever.

Gyan succumbed to hard drugs and died of AIDS-related illnesses in 2004—just shortly before so many incredible, obscure African recordings started being reissued. That’s a tragedy. But the greater tragedy would be for these joyous, vibrant records to be lost in history. (Aug. 8)

Download: “24 Hours in a Disco,” “Disco Dancer,” “Sexy Dancer”

Helado Negro – Invisible Life (Asthmatic Kitty)

Roberto Lange might have been raised in southern Florida by Ecuadorian immigrant parents, and he may have lived in Savannah, Georgia, before relocating to Brooklyn, but everything about his lazy, hazy and trippy third album as Helado Negro sounds like it was beamed in from another galaxy. He sings largely in Spanish and there are rhythms from Brazilian tropicalia, dub reggae and Berlin minimalist techno, but it mostly seems like Lange left his record collection in the sun too long, and then started loading it all onto his sampler while smoking a big spliff. Rarely does an album this discombobulated sound so sparse and lovely. Out of time, out of place, and seemingly from outer space. (Aug. 15)

Download: “Illumina Vos,” “Lentamente,” “Junes”

Jenny Hval – Innocence is Kinky (Rune Grammofon)

While listening to the intriguing and often astounding sound worlds created by Norwegian singer Jenny Hval, one can imagine the conversations she might have had with producer (and long-time PJ Harvey collaborator) John Parish. In fact, I’m pretty sure one of them comprises the brief track “Give Me That Sound.” Amidst a squall of feedback, white noise and intermittent percussion, she intones, “I have a mouth and I want to sing like a face that is slit open / I want to sing like a continuous echo of splitting hymens.”

All right, then. Hval is no mere provocateur, however. She’s a novelist and performance artist who can also do incredible things with her elastic voice, bending her pitch conversationally, turning a frayed screech into a melody, or holding a sustained, quiet note to uncomfortable lengths, at once vulnerable and determined. Parish darts and stabs around her melodies with jagged guitar and evocative soundscapes; he’s the perfect sounding board, illuminating her often opaque lyrical and musical ideas. Together, they’ve made a daring album, one that—compared to say, the new album by The Knife—goes to the limit of avant-garde songcraft without falling right off the edge. (Aug. 1)

Download: “Innocence is Kinky,” “I Got No Strings,” “Amphibious Androgynous”

Roberto Lopez Afro-Colombian Jazz Orchestra - Azul (Curura Musique)

Colombian-Canadian guitarist Roberto Lopez notes that the year he moved to Montreal to study music, 1994, was the same year that marked the death of a Colombian musical legend, Lucho Bermudez, a man described as the Benny Goodman or Duke Ellington of his country. With that in mind, Lopez likewise combines American big-band orchestration with Colombian rhythms, his four-piece horn section led primarily by clarinetist Jean-Sebastien Leblanc. Lopez is a strong rhythm player and soloist, but he’s no showboater; instead, his eponymous band is primarily a vehicle for his skills as an arranger and bandleader. He’s the only South American in this group, but he’s found a fine group of players who find the southern swing with ease. (Aug. 15)

Download: “Fiesta de Negritos,” “Blue Vallenato,” “Tres Clarinettes”

Sarah Neufeld – Hero Brother (Constellation)

What to expect from a solo violin record? Moreover, what to expect from a member of Arcade Fire and the partner of Colin Stetson, whose solo saxophone albums and performances are not only bringing avant-garde music closer to the mainstream, but are feats of physical strength?

For anyone who knows Neufeld’s work in Bell Orchestre, a group she formed with Richard Reed Parry before either of them joined Arcade Fire, Hero Brother unfolds exactly as you suspect it might: haunting, droning melodies that unfold through pulsing rhythms that feel more like lapping ocean waves than beats (the only actual percussion here is Neufeld’s stomping foot on the title track). She owes debts to Czech icon Iva Bittova and neighbours Godspeed You Black Emperor, but Neufeld already has an immediately recognizable compositional sense, carried through from Bell Orchestre. The production varies from capturing the intimate tones of her instrument in a spacious room of reverb to what sound like field recordings in underpasses. A melancholy and romantic record, Hero Brother presents a naked Neufeld conquering the biggest challenge of an already productive career: creating captivating atmosphere while standing on stage alone. (Aug. 22)

Download: “Hero Brother,” “Wrong Thought,” “Below”

Omar – The Man (Shanachie)

This British soul singer, who came of age in the late ’80s alongside Soul II Soul and predated the U.S. neo-soul movement of D’Angelo, Maxwell and Erykah Badu, was recently appointed to the Order of the British Empire for his musical contributions. And on this, his first album in seven years, he sounds like the elder soul statesman he is, the kind of guy for whom Stevie Wonder wants to write songs (he has).

Omar tries on all kinds of clothes here, from songs that seem to have sprung directly from Wonder’s mid-’70s albums to jazzier arrangements to New Orleans groove to folkie soul to the funkiest song you’ve ever heard revolving around a bass clarinet. He even redoes his first single, “There’s Nothing Like This,” giving it a slinkier Bill Withers-esque makeover, featuring D’Angelo bassist Pino Palladino. Despite some vintage sounds, however, he’s not a retro act: there are bubbling electronics and passages that wouldn’t be out of place on an album by Frank Ocean—who could learn a few lessons from a guy who rightfully calls himself The Man. (Aug. 22)

Download: “I Love Being With You,” “I Can Listen,” “The Man”

OMD – English Electric (BMG)

Listening to this new OMD album, Kraftwerk immediately springs to mind. The two acts were not exactly contemporaries—Kraftwerk were the pioneers of synth pop in the early ’70s, while OMD didn’t show up until 1978, the year of Kraftwerk’s biggest pop album, Man Machine. OMD were less experimental and, eventually, much more mainstream—complete with strings and sax solos, culminating in their massive hit from Pretty in Pink, “If You Leave.” In 1990, the original duo behind OMD broke up for 15 years, eventually reuniting for a few gigs and now releasing the second album of their comeback. Kraftwerk, on the other hand, claimed to still be together, despite a fluctuating lineup and only one album of new material in the last 25 years.

English Electric owes more to Kraftwerk than OMD’s mainstream period, or certainly anything resembling contemporary music. Such is the throwback that not only are the synths (or comparable plug-ins) ancient, but many lyrics appear to have been written 40 years ago, when technology was still exotic and dazzling—not ubiquitous and dull.

Once you get over how archaic and strange this new OMD record is—and a few total clunkers (“Atomic Ranch,” “Helen of Troy”)—English Electric finds both Paul Humphreys and Andy McCluskey in fine voice and capable of majestic pop hooks. There’s nothing here that wouldn’t sound out of place on a 1982 album; that they seem frozen in time is both the best and worst thing about this record. (Aug. 1)

Download: “Kissing the Machine,” “Metroland,” “Dresden”

Pet Shop Boys – Electric (X2)

The last time I loved an album called Electric was 1987; it was by The Cult, who until then were a hippie goth-rock band, suddenly transformed into a visceral, ass-kicking—and frankly, more than a bit ridiculous—riff-rock saviours.

What does that have to do with cerebral disco duo the Pet Shop Boys? After the second two-thirds of their 30-year career produced a rather spotty, limp discography with only the occasionally strong single or album (2006’s Fundamental stands out, but little else), they’ve suddenly come back swinging with their own Electric: a muscular, maximalist tour-de-force of pure, dumb pleasure that demands to be played at full blast.

Except, of course, that it’s not that dumb. Sure, the Eurotrance production is over the top, and mastered to an obnoxious volume, making that last Lady Gaga album seem subtle. But lyricist Neil Tennant is in fine form, in fact never better than when he writes the best Stephin Merritt song of the last 10 years, “Love is a Bourgeois Construct”—in which the narrator eschews roses, fidelity and romance in favour of thumbing through his old Marxist texts, before finally delivering the punchline: “I’m giving up the bourgeoisie / Until you come back to me.” Tennant, the bone-dry robot who once transformed Willie Nelson’s “Always on My Mind” into a techno anthem, pulls off a similar miracle here, recasting Bruce Springsteen’s 2007 Iraq War-era song “The Last to Die (For a Mistake)” on the dance floor.

Do two guys pushing 60 still go to dance clubs? Sure seems like it, judging by the sound they achieve here with Stuart Price, the British producer who also gave Madonna her only good album of the last 15 years (Confessions from a Dance Floor). While there are elements of the evolving electronic sounds the Pet Shop Boys have always drawn from, they’re not going retro: tracks like “Shouting in the Evening” could easily be dropped into a set with Skrillex or Deadmau5. These guys are not going to dance gently into the good night. (Aug. 15)

Download: “Love is a Bourgeois Construct,” “Inside a Dream,” “The Last to Die”

Rodion G.A. – The Lost Tapes (Strut)

Maybe, just maybe, you’ve been seduced by Ethiopian jazz and ’60s Cambodian pop and Peruvian psychedelia and Indian ragas on Moog synthesizers and god knows what else from every corner of the Earth. But surely no one saw this gem coming: futuristic synth home recordings from Romania in the late ’70s, from a band that only ever released two songs on a local compilation in 1981, despite being a popular live act from 1975 to 1987.

Primarily the work of one man, Rodion Ladislau Roșca, and his tape machines, Rodion G.A. sounds like the Cold War relic it is: spooky, ominous and alien, using DIY technology of the time (effects created with reel-to-reel tape machines, homemade amplifiers) that was technologically advanced for the time yet entirely tangible and fragile. It’s comparable, of course, to German electronic music of the same time period (captured on two invaluable compilations recently assembled by Soul Jazz Records, the second of which came out in 2012, both called Deutsche Elektronische Musik). But Rodion G.A. is much more primitive, raw and downright weird, not so much hippies exploring avant-garde music and ambient sounds, as in Germany, but more like acid burnouts and proto-punks trying to retain a semblance of sanity under one of the most brutal Communist regimes of the time period.

Despite the lack of officially released recordings, Rodion G.A. did have some success, with appearances on national television (including a New Year’s Eve gig) and scores for a ballet at the national opera company, as well as the soundtrack to an animated film. Only an artist from behind the Iron Curtain could boast having a sentence like this in his record company bio: “Scores for gymnastic routines also helped provide some income.” As the regime became even harsher in the mid-’80s, however, gigs dried up and Rodion walked away from music two years before the Berlin Wall fell. He became a labourer in London in the ’90s, before returning to Bucharest to work servicing sound equipment.

After his music was rediscovered recently, Rodion G.A. played an acclaimed, sold-out comeback show in Bucharest with a full European tour this summer. But as he told one interviewer just before this compilation came out, getting his due now is bittersweet. "It hurts me because it's too late,” he said. “Even if I became a millionaire now, it will be too late. It's too late, my life was destroyed." (Aug. 29)

Download: “Diagonala,” “Caravane,” “Imagini Din Vis”

Kinnie Starr – Kiss It (Aporia)

One never knows what to expect from Kinnie Starr, who’s been a hip-hop MC, a spoken-word poet, a grungy guitar-slinger and sensual folk artist. But an album like Kiss It is definitely not what I expected from this 42-year-old artist. Her seventh album sounds like a Peaches-style reinvention: an older woman alone with minimal technology and making sexually charged, primitive pop music—though less raunchy and less successful. The amateurish approach from this charismatic veteran has its charms—especially on a playful and prescriptive ode to cunnilingus with the chorus “kiss it all around before you go downtown.” But more than a few times, especially on the uncharacteristically juvenile “We Just Want to Play” or “We Should Go Back,” Starr sounds like a 17-year-old kid in her bedroom trying on a pose. Maybe it’s a mid-life crisis. (Aug. 22)

Download: “Body Like a Queen,” “Kiss It,” “Go Go See It”

Superchunk – I Hate Music (Merge)

When once-great punk bands reunite, the audience wants them to sound fossilized, almost exactly the way they remember them 25 years ago or more. It doesn’t matter if said band developed and matured during the first phase of their career, signing off with a career highlight that combined their earliest enthusiasms with a more tempered, adult refinement. In the case of Superchunk, that was their 2001 album Here’s to Shutting Up. When they returned nine years later—time spent away nurturing their label, Merge, which birthed Arcade Fire and many more—they came roaring back with the aptly titled Majestic Shredding.

Listening to their new single, "Me & You & Jackie Mittoo" (a title that references a Jamaican reggae legend, a long-time Toronto resident), it appears that all is still well: enormous power chords, wailing guitar leads, and yelping singer/guitarist Mac McCaughn opining, “I hate music / what is it worth / can’t bring anyone back to this Earth.” It’s easily one of the best songs of Superchunk’s extensive discography.

From there, however, the well goes dry. The members, now in their early 40s, all have other projects—musical and otherwise—that occupy their time, so there’s little incentive to try and bring something new to Superchunk. If Majestic Shredding showed there was still lots of pent-up punch in their pogo, I Hate Music has all the bluster and chops but little of the same urgency. One of the best pop hooks on the album (FOH) is set to lyrics about, um, sound check—surely, and sadly, a sign that someone’s running out of steam. (Aug. 22)

Download: “Me & You & Jackie Mittoo,” “FOH,” “Low F”

Tricky – False Idols (!K7)

The last time British trip-hop pioneer Tricky made headlines in this country was 2010, when his tour bus was stranded off the 402 near Sarnia in a huge snowstorm. A local farmer saw the tour bus stuck on the road and invited the whole crew in for dinner. They’d never heard of Tricky. He told them he was a performer. They asked him to sing some Christmas carols. He said he didn’t know any.

Who knows what effect that had on the notoriously crusty producer, who at that point in time was coasting on a long-faded rep after once being hailed as the future of British music. But after admitting that his recent albums weren’t really that good, he’s coming out swinging while promoting False Idols, claiming that it’s his best album since his 1995 debut, Maxinquaye. He’s right. And part of the reason is that he’s written some songs he could sing on piano for Ontario farmers, should the occasion ever arise again.

Despite an unusual supply of melodies, False Idols is not the sound of a shadowy man suddenly embracing sunlight. It is every bit as murky, mysterious and occasionally downright creepy as Tricky’s finest work, which he seems prepared to accept as what he does best. His path in the last decade has been varied, but rarely rewarding. The burden of being acclaimed as an innovator is that no one wants to hear you evolve once your debut ends up defining an entire genre. (Portishead managed to avoid this by taking 11 years between their second and third records.) For this, his first album on his own label, he put aside any external pressure and recorded the whole thing in two weeks; hence, it’s sparse and natural, both in its beauty and its darker tensions. For an artist who’s tried so long to break out of a pigeonhole, Tricky is most productive just being himself. (Aug. 1)

Download: “Nothing’s Changed,” “Valentine,” “Bonnie & Clyde”