Monday, September 30, 2013

September 2013 reviews

The following reviews ran in my weekly column for the Waterloo Record and Guelph Mercury in September; highlights of the month (Neko Case, Man Man, AroarA, The Julie Ruin) have already been posted as individual reviews.

Belle and Sebastian – The Third Eye Centre (Matador)

The last decade of Belle and Sebastian’s career may not seem to have been that productive—just three full-length records—but this 19-track collection of b-sides and rarities proves otherwise (and die-hard fans will point out that there are still some covers and compilation tracks missing). This was the period when the Glaswegian pop band broke out of their twee image and embraced their omnivorous tastes, resulting in a more muscular sound. Listening here, their b-sides were an excuse to indulge in genre exercises into ska, country, bossa nova, Latino rock’n’roll, surf instrumentals, or hilarious slow-jam odes to S&M. The lyrics are also more ridiculous, like the mid-2000s song about zeitgeist porn, “Suicide Girl,” or singing about “eating a falafel of peace” in a song called “The Eighth Station of the Cross Kebab House.”

The hands-down highlight is a previously unreleased remix of “Your Cover’s Blown” (the original appeared on a 2004 EP), in which Glasgow DJ Miaoux Miaoux sounds like he invited Nile Rogers and Daft Punk to have their way with the backing tracks; the band obviously loved the reinvention; it was the surprise hit of their summer tour this year, and they made a video for the new version. It’s not a typical remix with a thumping bass thrown under it; the three-part, six-minute suite opens with a mid-tempo soul clap, segues into a pulsing disco number at twice the speed, then settles in for a gentler reprise. It’s one of the most satisfying moments of the band’s entire career; meanwhile, the rest of this naturally uneven collection proves that even their off days are solid. Long live their life pursuit. (Sept. 12)

Download: “Your Cover’s Blown (Miaoux Miaoux Remix),” “Suicide Girl,” “Heavin in the Afternoon”

Black Joe Lewis – Electric Slave (Vagrant)

It’s been 20 years now. Can we admit that grunge sucked? Nirvana still holds up, naturally, but most everything else sounds like it was merely paving the way for Nickelback. That’s why Black Joe Lewis is here to steal rock’n’roll back from the soulless and the sexless and brings some of its lineage back. Bo Diddley, the Stooges, the Cramps, the Dirtbombs: meet your latest offspring.

He’s not the only one, of course. Jack White’s done a fine job of it in the last 15 years (Lewis tapped White’s engineer, Stuart Sikes, to record this album). But Lewis is all bluster and bombast and heavy as hell, possessing the most convincing rock’n’roll scream recorded in recent memory, with the riffs to match, a thunderous rhythm section and a punchy three-piece horn section who rarely dare to solo. Lewis’s guitar playing is sloppy and raw; he’s not here to blow you away with his chops, he just wants to play like a wrecking ball.

He also wants to party, as he outlines on one of the most exciting singles of 2013 not made by Daft Punk. It’s titled, of course, “Come To My Party.” Note the emphasis on his own party—he doesn’t want to be a part of someone else’s idea of cool (“Oh, come on man / fuck that shit,” he taunts on “The Hipster”). And he’s not doing this for the little girls to understand; like Jon Spencer before him, he wants a full-grown woman: “I don’t want no young girl / I want one who’s 30 years old / knows what she wants!”

Black Joe Lewis plays rock’n’roll with his rules, on his terms, his way. It’s the right way. (Sept. 12)

Download: “Come to My Party,” “Dar Es Salaam,” “The Hipster”

Elvis Costello & the Roots – Wise Up Ghost (Universal)

These are not strange bedfellows. It makes perfect sense for the onslaught of verbosity that is Elvis Costello to team up with hip-hop’s greatest live band, the Roots. Both parties have an infinite musical curiosity outside their comfort zone. Costello has long needed a band to both kick his ass and allow his never-ending verses room to flow. “Just because you don’t speak the language, doesn’t mean you can’t understand,” he sings, and of course this is not a hip-hop album per se. And really, hasn’t he been rapping ever since “Pump It Up” and “Watching the Detectives”?

Both parties tone down their excesses to meet in the middle; even if Costello wasn’t involved, it’s also a fine Roots album—obviously with drummer ?uestlove at the forefront, with punctuation from a punchy horn section and textural keyboard flourishes colouring every groove. The band doesn’t just complement Costello: they push him to try new approaches with his vocals, and it actually works—not an easy thing to do with an old dog who’s been guilty of overextending his vocal palette in the past. “Wake me up with a slap or a kiss,” he sings; the Roots do both.

Costello has done his share of full-on collaborations throughout his career, but this is the only one that scores a direct hit: this has needed to happen for a long, long time. In fact, it’s only the second album he’s made in the past 22 years that’s worth listening to. (Sept. 19)

Download: “Walk Us Uptown,” “Sugar Won’t Work,” “Tripwire 

Peter Gabriel – And I’ll Scratch Yours (RealWorld)

In the 1980s, Peter Gabriel, David Byrne and Paul Simon all brought African music to Western ears; the first two gained respect for setting up record labels to put out albums by their collaborators and inspirations, while Simon was seen as the mainstream sellout who broke the cultural boycott against South Africa.

Which is why it’s interesting that Gabriel covered Simon’s “The Boy in the Bubble” on his 2010 covers album, Scratch My Back, and why it’s even lovelier to hear the normally apolitical Paul Simon cover Gabriel’s “Biko,” a lament for a slain anti-apartheid activist. (Not that there’s any political risk in doing so, over 20 years after apartheid’s demise.)

Three years after this album’s promised arrival—Gabriel kept holding out for David Bowie, Neil Young and Radiohead to cough up their contributions, to no avail—the companion to Gabriel’s all-covers album arrives, containing considerably more interesting arrangements of Gabriel’s back catalogue than what the man himself did with solo-piano renditions of his favourite artists on that album.

That tone is set immediately by David Byrne’s spirited version of “I Don’t Remember,” which sounds more like a ditzy old man at a disco than the paranoid narrator in the original. Bon Iver delivers a lovely “Come Talk To Me.” The Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt sets “Not One of Us” in a strange synth world populated by either munchkins or the cast of Freaks. Joseph Arthur strips “Shock the Monkey” down to what could be an outtake from the Daniel Lanois and Neil Young sessions. Arcade Fire phone in “Games Without Frontiers,” and Regina Spektor does a rote version of “Blood of Eden.” Lou Reed—why does anyone invite him to open his mouth anymore?—moans through the sludgiest version of “Solisbury Hill” you’d never care to imagine (in which he changes one line to read, “My friends would think I was a slut”).

The highlight, hands-down, is Randy Newman, who has a blast recasting “Big Time” for a New Orleans jazz piano setting, bringing to life the playful absurdity of the lyric, which was somewhat lost in the original. Finally, Feist and Timber Timbre inhabit “Don’t Give Up” (and flipping the genders on the Kate Bush duet), a song that seems almost impossible to remove from its original production and vocals.

Everyone else makes you want to go back and listen to Gabriel himself; Feist, Newman and Byrne transform the material completely. (Sept. 26)

Download: “I Don’t Remember” – David Byrne, “Big Time” – Randy Newman, “Don’t Give Up” – Feist and Timber Timbre

John Legend – Love in the Future (Sony)

Frank Ocean leave you scratching your head? The Weeknd bum you out? Fear not, as not all modern R&B is abstract, bleak and twisted. John Legend returns with his first album of original material in five years, to remind us that there are still some acts for grown-ups left in R&B. Never mind Justin Timberlake and Jay-Z’s tuxedo shtick; Legend is the real class act.

With production by Kanye West and some assists from Q-Tip, Rick Ross—and, um, Joe Jonas of the Jonas Brothers?—Legend puts some swagger into smoothed-out soul. Legend is a loverman without any irony or hidden malice; it’s near impossible to find someone this earnest and this squeaky clean who’s not a complete cheeseball (sorry, Usher).

If Legend’s gentlemanly manner seems retro, the music is not: he may be inspired by the likes of Bill Withers, Marvin Gaye and Roberta Flack, but Love in the Future is decidedly modern; having Kanye on board assures that outcome. “Made to Love” is a soaring, majestic track drenched in atmospherics, house music backing vocals and a raw, hand-clapping rhythm track.

It’s true Legend’s voice is a stunning instrument—but that’s almost a given for R&B royalty. His songwriting and lean arrangements are what really sells his sizzle, especially on the solo piano ballad “All of Me,” which surely has Coldplay’s Chris Martin weeping with envy, not to mention Adele, Elton John, Phil Collins and, I don’t know, Air Supply. If this instant classic doesn’t become a wedding-dance staple in the near future, then Legend might as well give up now. (Indeed, he wrote it for his new bride, at their Italian wedding, where Stevie Wonder and Quincy Jones looked on.) (Sept. 26)

Download: “Made to Love,” “All of Me,” “Save the Night”

Janelle Monae – The Electric Lady (Universal)

Everyone loves Janelle Monae. What’s not to love? She has an astounding voice, great ambition, eclectic taste, she’s a snappy dresser and drop-dead gorgeous.

Except that her music sounds a step above mediocre Broadway musical territory (Rent comes to mind more than once). To be sure, there are some solid grooves here, like the one buried beneath the collaboration on the title track with Solange, but the soul of the material gets squeezed out by unnecessary layers of overproduction, and Monae’s overachieving, pitch-perfect vocals that render everything she does oddly sexless. Mind you, that worked for Whitney Houston, whose music was far less interesting, so it may well be the key to Monae’s success. Listening to her duet on “Primetime” with Miguel—an artist who manages to maintain his personality amidst big production—exemplifies the gap between them.

Thankfully, the one moment where she really lets loose is on the duet with Prince, who brings out the best in her while lighting off some guitar pyrotechnics in the background (which are more impressive than the ’80s bag of tricks attempted by her own guitarist on every other track). She also scores on the giddy “Dance Apocalyptic” (a worthy follow-up to her breakthrough single, “Tightrope”), and the ultra-cheese operatic ballad “Look Into My Eyes,” which evokes the least cool comparison possible: Barbra Streisand. 

If Monae is disappointing, it’s only because she promises so much. And so by the time The Electric Lady concludes with the limp cruise-ship reggae of “What an Experience,” your time would have been better spent listening to albums by any of her collaborators. (Sept. 19)

Download: “Dance Apocalyptic,” “Givin Em What They Love (featuring Prince),” “Look Into My Eyes”

The Sadies – Internal Sounds (Outside)

The hardest working band in Canada—and perhaps beyond—the Sadies maintain a relentless touring schedule on top of backing up numerous other artists in the studio. And in the first 10 years of their existence, they were incredibly prolific in the studio as well. Now guitarist/producer Dallas Good wants to slow down, and make every album matter. 2010’s Polaris-shortlisted Darker Circles was the first payoff, a sea change where the Sadies stepped up their game as songwriters and arrangers, not just a brilliant assembly of musicians.

Internal Sounds continues that path, brilliantly encapsulated in opening track “The First 5 Minutes.” Unfortunately, about half of Internal Sounds comprises variations on that song, to lesser effect. Only on the runaway-train groove of “Another Tomorrow Again” do they really pick up steam again; “Story 19” starts out as a psychedelic, mid-tempo country song before culminating in a “White Light/White Heat”-ish Velvet Underground climax; the acoustic “So Much Blood” is one of the most haunting songs the Sadies have ever recorded.

The real surprise is the appearance of Buffy Sainte-Marie on the closing “We Are Circling,” a three-minute drone with the refrain, “This is family … this is celebration … this is sacred.” That’s true anytime the Sadies are in a room together. (Sept. 26)

Download: “The First 5 Minutes,” “So Much Blood,” “We Are Circling”

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