Tuesday, October 29, 2013

October 2013 reviews

Are you headed to a record store today to buy Reflektor? Some other good records came out this month too. (And last month, too, of course.)

The following reviews ran in the Waterloo Record.

Highly recommended: Willis Earl Beal, Darkside. I had to stop myself, when writing about such a sexy record, not to say: “Come to the Darkside!”

Recommended: Basia Bulat, Dirtbombs, Haim, Tim Hecker, Jordan Klassen, Lindi Ortega, Shad

Willis Earl Beal – Nobody Knows (XL)

This man debuted in 2012 with an album of extremely primitive home recordings, in which his stunning voice detailed a life of despair and hardship as sung into a hand-held device. On stage, he could silence large rooms with just his a cappella voice, or accompanied by a reel-to-reel tape machine. Beal may look and sing like a modern-day Sam Cooke, but he doesn’t fit any particular mould, from soul music or anywhere else. On his first proper recording, Beal—who never wanted his demos released in the first place—takes advantage of his new resources and colours in his sketches, albeit sparingly: rarely does he employ a full band, and a mournful string quartet evokes loneliness rather than sounding lush. Beal is a guy who wrote his first songs while riding his bicycle through deserted city streets at night; his music still suits those solitary, nocturne environs. No matter how you dress him up, he’s still the wallflower who fixes you with a steely glare and a commanding voice, drawing you into his slightly unstable mind. Don’t look away. (Oct. 3)

Download: “Wavering Lines,” “Coming Through” (featuring Cat Power), “Too Dry to Cry”

Blue Rodeo – In Our Nature (Warner)

In the last two years, Blue Rodeo officially welcomed long-time shadow member and guitar wizard Colin Cripps into their lineup, and released a revelatory box set covering their first five albums, each of them a classic in their own right. Their last studio album garnered their best reviews and sales in over a decade. And on top of that, Jim Cuddy put out his finest solo album to date, Skyscraper Soul. So why is this album so flat and uninspired and perhaps the dullest of their entire career? We had reason to expect so much more. (Oct. 31)

Download: “Wondering,” “When the Truth Comes Out,” “Paradise”

Basia Bulat - Tall Tall Shadow (Secret City)

The third album is key: after the surprise of the debut, after the expected letdown of the follow-up, it’s then that you really have to step up or step off. Toronto singer/songwriter (and one-woman autoharp revival society) Basia Bulat rings in Arcade Fire’s Tim Kingsbury (with accompanying engineer Mark Lawson) and sets her mind to writing the best songs of her career, and letting her voice shine against sparse backdrops—“It Can’t Be You” gives instant goosebumps, as does any other track where she strips the arrangements down to two or three instruments. “Never Let Me Go” finds her reaching for big, Celine Dion-style high notes; thankfully the Brian Eno-ish soundscape behind her is devoid of bluster. The bigger songs don’t disappoint, however, as befitting an album produced by a member of Arcade Fire; the title track is a slow build of a gospel number with a rousing payoff. (Oct. 10)

Download: “Tall Tall Shadow,” “It Can’t Be You,” “Someone”

Darkside – Psychic (Matador)

You know a band can successfully create a mood when the 11-minute opening track of their debut album whizzes by in no time. Darkside is a duo started by Nicolas Jaar, a French electronic musician, and his touring guitarist Dave Harrington. They’ve both spent time making minimal techno and jazz and experimental rock, and together they create something not unlike a 21st-century Pink Floyd: pre-, um, Dark Side of the Moon (they deny they’re named after the album), or a collaboration between Caribou and Thom Yorke. The sound is sparse and yet huge, and for an album based on house music, it seems almost frightened of repetition; every track is constantly evolving, and the smallest guitar lick or live percussion passage can alter the entire song. When it comes to seriously sexy records of 2013, there is really no contest. The Darkside beckons. (Oct. 24)

Download: “Golden Arrow,” “Paper Trails,” “Freak Go Home”

The Dirtbombs – Ooey Gooey Chewie Ka-blooey! (In the Red)

This album has some of the stupidest songs ever written. Did the album title give it away? In this case, though, that’s a good thing. Detroit’s finest garage rock band tackle ’60s bubblegum with complete reverence, lots of fuzzy guitars and a helluva lot more funk than these songs deserve (there are two drummers here). This is the band, after all, whose last album (Party Store) brilliantly applied a garage rock aesthetic to covers of Detroit techno classics.

These aren’t covers—there are no Archies or Banana Splits classics, although one song blatantly rips off the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations.” And so bandleader Mick Collins, a man in his 40s, is writing new songs about yummy food and girls on carousels and playing in the sunshine—and succeeding brilliantly, just as the original bubblegum songs had been calculated by older men to appeal to a teen market. Rich with vocal harmonies and slightly psychedelic effects, the Dirtbombs take this silly idea very seriously, as craftsmen of any genre should.

Most importantly, however, it’s the sound of a hot, sticky summer that never ends. (Oct. 10)

Download: “Sugar on Top,” “Hot Sour Salty Sweet,” “Jump and Shout”

Haim – Days Are Gone (Sony)

I’ve been reading about Haim in Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone months before this, their debut album, arrived. The advance buzz from the mainstream media elite—not a term I use lightly, but come on, Vanity Fair?—is completely understandable. This album sounds like a million bucks: three sisters with impeccable harmonies singing sunny California pop seeped in Fleetwood Mac and Sheryl Crow, with a bit of the ’80s (Hall & Oates, Bananarama) thrown in for good measure. One track, “The Wire,” even opens with drums cribbed directly from the Eagles’ "Heartache Tonight."

Their big-tent appeal is aimed at Millenials and their grandparents and everyone in between, therefore Haim’s sole weakness is occasional bouts of blandness. But between the solid songwriting and the occasional sonic surprise—like the ersatz dubstep of “My Song 5,” which sounds a bit like Tom Waits producing BeyoncĂ©—Haim actually live up to the hype. Move over, Adele. Call off the Grammys right now and give most of them to Haim. (Oct. 10)

Download: “Falling,” “If I Could Change Your Mind,” “My Song 5”

Tim Hecker – Virgins (Paper Bag)

Tim Hecker does not make ambient music, although at times his heavily processed and reprocessed approach to abstract soundscaping can be soothing enough—if you’re not paying attention. For Hecker is the rare ambient artist that demands to be played at maximum volume—not simply to appreciate the enveloping, subtle layers in his music, but because, despite the lack of beats or easily identifiable musical motifs, Hecker’s music is aggressive and unsettling. To patronize it as aural wallpaper is to entirely miss the point—especially when the cover of Virgins is an image meant to emulate one of the infamous torture photos from Abu Ghraib. The music inside is often just as disturbing.

Hecker, who self-identifies as a “middle-brow brutalist,” started his career creating with sonic manipulations that seemed adrift in a digital world. On his last album, Ravedeath 1972, he employed a pipe organ to achieve a much more ominous sound than anything possible with computers alone, and ended up with the most popular album of his (albeit obscure) career; messing audibly with the real world paid artistic and commercial dividends.

Here, he uses pianos and clarinets and flutes and god knows what else—it’s often hard to tell—to create music as terrifying as The Exorcist, and as awe-inspiring as Sigur Ros at their best (they invited him to open for them at Madison Square Gardens, which must have been both an incredible and incredibly strange venue). It’s haunting, intriguing yet almost completely opaque; as Jackson Pollock was to Georgia O’Keeffe, Hecker is to his fans like Godspeed You Black Emperor and The National: similar in intent, radically different in construction. And—unlike many of his peers at this end of abstraction—nothing about this could ever be accused of being lazy, for Hecker is a maximalist, constantly mutating and transforming his sounds and composition to keep the listener on their toes.

Because Hecker refuses to give you any easy answers, engaging with his music is a two-way exchange. He only gives you half the story, if that; in doing so, he’s more than stimulated your imagination to fill in the rest. (Oct. 17)

Download: “Live Room,” “Black Refraction,” “Virginal II”

Elton John – The Diving Board (Universal)
Paul McCartney – New (Universal)

Every few years, it seems, Elton John claims he’s had an artistic rebirth and is getting back to his roots and setting aside the Disney schlock he’s been peddling for decades now. The Diving Board, the 31st album of his career, follows up his two-piano collaboration with his formative idol, Leon Russell; producer T-Bone Burnett returns to make this equally bare bones record, made with mostly just a rhythm section.

John finished most of it in a matter of days—and then kept coming back to it and adding more. He should have left it alone. The woodshedding didn’t improve the album; the 15-track albums seems interminable—the fault solely of the perfunctory songs, because his piano playing and singing are top notch.

He opens the album by singing, “I hung out with the old folks / with the hope that I’d get wise”—this from a 66-year-old man who has said this is his “most adult album” ever. It’s nice to hear him trying, but it’s unlikely to be more than a curiosity for most fans.

Much like Elton John, Paul McCartney has spent decades lowering our expectations—offstage, anyway. And for a 71-year-old to title his new album, um, New doesn’t get anyone’s hopes up. Here, however, he sounds inspired in ways he hasn’t for years, sounding exactly the way you’d always hoped this Beatle would. It’s the kind of album precious few of his peers are still making, one with modern production that successfully references every point of his career. (Oct. 24)

Download Elton John: “Oceans Away,” “Oscar Wilde Gets Out,” “The Ballad of Blind Tom”

Download Paul McCartney: “Save Us,” “Early Days,” “New”

Jordan Klassen – Repentance (Nevado)

Ah, 2003. It was the year of Arcade Fire’s first EP and Sufjan Stevens’s Michigan album and the Dears’ No Cities Left and the Hidden Cameras’ The Smell of Our Own. Vancouver songwriter Jordan Klassen was 18 at the time, right at the age when we fall most deeply in love with the music that shapes the rest of our lives. And so it is that his first proper full-length draws heavily from those records, filled with plaintive guitar, banjo and gentle singing as well as rousing choruses, choirs of friends and decorative strings. And yes, a glockenspiel or two. While pleasant and soothing and perfectly suited to soundtrack a trailer for a quirky indie film, Repentance  also shows a strong new songwriter with an uncanny ear for melody. Don’t be surprised if this becomes a word-of-mouth favourite in the coming months; it has all the hallmarks of a quiet classic—at the very least, Klassen is the most promising new songwriter from Canada’s West Coast in far too long. (Oct. 31)

Download: “Ranchero,” “Piano Brother,” “Go To Me”

Moonface – Julia With Blue Jeans On (Paper Bag)

“There’s a pseudo-intellectual inside of me / oh, but luckily, there’s something else,” sings Moonface, a.k.a. Spencer Krug, formerly of Sunset Rubdown and Wolf Parade. Thank god.

What is that something else, exactly? “A frog with its tongue stuck to the inside of my chest / a crow that keeps banging up against the glass / a well-intentioned demon somewhere within / maybe that last one’s not so bad / maybe that last one’s the main attraction.”

Yep. Krug is a confounding figure, an acquired taste who seemed to be diving off the deep end once he retired the Sunset Rubdown band and reinvented himself as Moonface, which until now has mostly focused on experimental instrumental music. This, however, is a solo piano and vocal collection of confessional cabaret music. Even as a fair-weather fan of Krug’s, I was worried this raw approach would not suit him. I was dead wrong.

His singing is stronger than ever, his youthful yelp having mellowed into an odd but compelling croon. His piano playing is alternately delicate and strangely ham-handed; one has to assume the latter is for effect, distracting at times yet adding to the emotional heft of the performance: he’s demanding your attention. This is not piano-bar music.

Although it’s hard to tell with someone as poetic as Krug, this also sounds like a remarkably personal album about his recent move to Helsinki, and it’s to his credit as a performer that he can turn prose like this into a plausible melody: “If I am an animal I am one of the few that is self-destructive / I have chewed through my beautiful muscle / I have chewed through my beautiful narrative to get out of Canada / and into your door.” (Oct. 31)

Download: “November 2011,” “Everyone is Noah Everyone is the Ark,” “Julia With the Blue Jeans On”

Lindi Ortega – Tin Star (Last Gang)

There are lots of good country singers; precious few great ones. Toronto-to-Tennessee transplant Lindi Ortega is, simply, one of the best. She’s a hollering heartbreaker who sounds schooled in gospel and loves vintage Johnny Cash, and now has some Nashville cats to colour in her noir-ish balladry and occasional shitkicker. If you’re already hip to Ortega, there’s not much new on her third album: just 11 more reasons to be floored by her voice, one that would make Dolly Parton proud. (Oct. 10)

Download: “Gypsy Child,” “Tin Star,” “All These Cats”

Shad – Flying Colours (Black Box)

If anyone tries to knock Shad, they usually complain that he’s too nice. After all, who doesn’t love Shad? Born to Kenyan/Rwandan parents, raised in London, Ont., educated in Kitchener-Waterloo, and now calling Vancouver home, he’s dropped three albums full of intricate but clear wordplay, rocked stages with his winning charisma, and acted as a rap ambassador as a clean-cut, conscious alternative to audiences who didn’t think they liked hip-hop.

That last tag obviously irks him a bit, and it’s one he addresses directly on lead single “Stylin’,” while he also makes fun of people who exoticize his background. But “Stylin’ ” is the kind of song sure to silence any critics, as he spits dense, brilliant and often hilarious lyrics, playing with his flow, while the backing track alternates between a fuzzy bass and John Bonham beat that recalls the Beastie Boys, while the chorus switches to a low-riding Dr. Dre beat with Saukrates on the hook.

He’s even better on the joyous African-tinged “Fam Jam,” a tribute to the immigrant experience in Canada, while throwing in injustice against Aboriginals and refugees, Big Oil, and how it feels “when you’re Third World born but First World formed / sometimes you feel pride / sometimes you feel torn.”

Shad’s free-association and triple-entendres are where he’s at his best, but on “He Say She Say” he takes a turn into straight-up love-gone-wrong storytelling, a tale of a Peter Pan manchild who loses his love, with a chorus that simply repeats, “I wanted to do a verse about how they worked it out, but…”

Conversely, he goes all epic on “Progress,” a song ostensibly about—what exactly?—Don McLean’s “American Pie,” the death of Biggie and Tupac, Hurricane Katrina, the history of slavery, and how “America don’t need Jesus / the future is here.” That one’s going to take some time to process.

Shad’s Achilles heel has always been his backing tracks. The production here has stepped up considerably, though it does seem to be stuck in middle gear—following the Drakeification of hip-hop in 2013, most tracks here are mid-tempo and reflective. The difference, of course, between Shad and Drake—and Shad fans usually posit him as the anti-Drake, something he admits on “Long Jawn”—is that Shad has a helluva lot more to talk about. (Oct. 24)

Download: “Fam Jam (Fe Sum Immigrins),” “Stylin’ ” (feat. Saukrates), “He Say She Say”

Justin Timberlake – The 20/20 Experience (Sony)

It’s not 20/20 vision if you’re blind in one eye.

Earlier this year: I couldn’t believe how good the new Justin Timberlake was. This month, I can’t believe how hideous the new Justin Timberlake is.

Ostensibly the second half of an album with the same name he released back in March, this companion piece has none of the swagger, soul or the magic that made the earlier installment one of the most joyous pop pleasures of 2013. Never mind that he borrows a slogan from anti-rape campaigns (“Take Back the Night”) and sets it to a seduction number, one that recalls late-period Lionel Richie, of all things. Ignore the lame Jay Z rap on “Murder,” in which he attacks Yoko Ono, of all people (“the pussy that broke up the Beatles”—really, that misogynist myth still exists?).

Granted, both albums are guilty of unintentionally hilarious, unsexy lyrics (“I got you saying Jesus so much it’s like we’re laying in the manger”), but the music here is half-baked, tracks that obviously didn’t meet a quality control that was intact last time. Worse, he ventures into guitar territory on “Drink You Away” and “Only When I Walk Away,” a sonic suit that’s particularly ill-fitting on an otherwise well-dressed man.

If he hadn’t set his own bar so high, none of this would matter. But everything about this looks like a cheap cash grab from an artist who’s worked hard to finally earn our respect. (Oct. 10)

Monday, October 28, 2013

"Lou hates it!"

Lou Reed had a rep as a cantankerous old goat who did not suffer fools. In his obit, former sparring partner Robert Christgau—the Village Voice music critic who was one of many targets of Reed’s on-stage ranting, heard on the Take No Prisoners live album—said, “Artists can be irascible motherfuckers, and all indications are that Lou Reed was more irascible than most.”

But that was with critics. What was it like to work with him?

Michael Phillip Wojewoda is one of the greatest musicians and producers in Canadian music of the last 25 years, primarily known for his work with the Rheostatics; he also served behind the boards for some of the best-loved recordings to come out of Toronto’s underground in the late ’80s, and he’s helmed recent records by Barenaked Ladies, Lemon Bucket Orchestra and Anvil.

Here, he writes about attempting to capture Reed’s magic on tape—and why Lou always knows best.

The Guest
by Michael Phillip Wojewoda

Sitting in the mastering room I realized that Lou was right. Humility rears it beautiful head and gives me a wink. I sink into the oversized leather couch at the back of the room and enjoy the tradition of "letting go" that only a mastering room allows a record producer.

A month earlier I had been in a Manhattan studio setting up to record guitar overdubs for a new Kevin Hearn album. Although Kevin might be best known as a member of Barenaked Ladies, he is also a prolific solo artist in his own right. I have had the privilege of producing most of his solo efforts. The tale of Kevin's journey through cancer and recovery is perhaps best left for his memoirs, but suffice to say that it was these events that led to his friendship with Lou Reed.

Kevin eventually became Lou's bandleader and piano player of choice. Having a guest guitar solo was a sweet exchange between them. With all the amps and guitars setup and ready to go, I saw a leather-clad man with a cane walk in, rake thin and frail. I recognized the hip pain in his gait. Perched on top of this humble body was the unmistakable head of Lou Reed. 

The stories I had heard about his temperament were absent in our session. He played with creative enthusiasm and the tracks sounded interesting and full of life. Perhaps it was the presence of his wife, Laurie Anderson, in the control room that had a tempering quality on his mood. Earlier in the day she had laid down some violin tracks as well. After playing for almost two hours he eventually came into the control room.

Everyone was preparing to head off to dinner. I didn't expect an invite, but once he heard some playback he got very excited by the sound of his guitar tracks. I was then asked to join the party. The evening was warm and friendly. I enjoyed listening to Lou gently mentoring Kevin about working one’s strengths as a vocalist. An almost paternal quality could be seen. When Kevin went to the washroom the table bonded over how lovely Kev is as a person. Much wine was consumed.

The guitar solo was to be played on the back third of the song. To expedite the process I ended up looping a four-minute section of the outro and had the solo played across it. My intention was to then edit a "best of" guitar solo and trim the section back down to about 45 seconds, then fade. During the session a solo was performed across the whole four minutes. Our only note was, "Do with it what you will."

It was only after we mixed and mastered the whole album did a call come from New York: “Lou hates it! Please send the hard drive down and his people will mix it.”

The funny part was that I was actually flattered to finally get some of the legendary difficulty coming my way. It was like spending a pleasant evening with Don Rickles and finally getting insulted as I'm leaving. I was honoured. We waited a few days to hear the results. As it turned out they recalled the computer session from the day we recorded, the very sound he heard when coming into the control room. Turned up the guitar solo and said, "print it!" The only way to describe the solo was... four minutes, no edits, Holy Shit Loud. It made me laugh. Sitting in the mastering room, the task of matching Lou's mix to the body of the song we mixed fell to Joao Carvalho. He did a great job of matching Ted Jenson's original mastering.

When the stitching was complete we listened to the whole song. It sounded fantastic.

Lou was right. Damn.

The song, “Coma,” is the lead-off track from the 2009 album Havana Winter by Kevin Hearn.

Hearn shared his own memories of Lou Reed with CBC here.

UPDATE: Here are Emily Haines's brilliant words about her relationship with the man.