The following reviews ran in the Waterloo Record and Guelph Mercury.
Highly recommended: Mark Berube, Jimmy Hunt, Kae Sun.
Recommended: Howe Gelb, Kashka, Shearwater.
Berliner Philharmoniker – Centenary Edition (Deutsche Grammophon)
For the classical music fan on your holiday shopping list, this should get you in their good books for the next, oh, I don’t know, century. The Berlin Philharmonic has been making recordings since 1913. What better way to commemorate that occasion than with a 50-CD box set encompassing the Western canon, much of it conducted by the iconic Herbert von Karajan (who led the philharmonic for 35 years), only slight nods to 20th-century compositions, and very little that would ever be performed in a symphony orchestra’s “Pops” series of light classical concerts.
Needless to say, the fidelity of the recordings increases considerably over the course of a century. The only knock against this comprehensive set is that no amount of digital mastering technique can compensate for the primitive recordings of the first decade: folk, blues and jazz music of that time still sounds decent, but the power and majesty of an orchestra this size is entirely lost. That all changed by the time Karajan took charge: he was a vocal champion of stereo recordings in the ’60s and the shift to compact discs in the early ’80s.
Obviously the Berlin Philharmonic’s output is even greater than what is here—for starters, they recorded for labels other than Deutsche Grammophon. But they’ve cherry-picked the best for this set, which sells for $110—just over $2 a CD (it’s actually more expensive to buy it digitally). Stuff that in your stocking. (Dec. 12)
Mark Berube – Russian Dolls (Bonsound)
This Montreal-via-Vancouver-via Brandon songwriter came out of the gate with a very promising debut, 2008’s What the River Gave the Boat, that set him up as a classically trained cabaret pop singer whose boho beauty seemed destined to soundtrack Montreal tourism ads. His records since have been interesting, at least, but here he seriously steps up his game. His bandmates—cellist Kristina Koropecki, bassist Amélie Mandeville and drummer Tonio Morin-Vargas—are integral parts of every song’s arrangement, and producer Jace Lasek of the Besnard Lakes lets his clients run rampant with ancient synths and gives the material the widescreen berth it deserves. Berube belongs in the same ballpark as Patrick Watson and Rufus Wainwright, but there’s nothing on Russian Dolls that sounds like he’s anything but a complete original. Now that he has one of Quebec’s most successful indie labels behind him and an album more than worthy of his many talents. (Dec. 5)
Download: “Carnival,” “Ethiopia,” “Queen and Country”
Blood Orange – Cupid Deluxe (Domino)
Listening to the underrated Kae Sun and the overrated Blood Orange in the same week is depressing. There’s no question that Devonté Hynes is a talented producer: his work on Solange’s breakthrough EP and his dead-on impression of early ’80s Prince and Hall & Oates records on this, his second album as Blood Orange. He’s not the only one mining that territory in 2013: Haim, for one, do it far better—though Blood Orange does trump the even worse Twin Shadow in this same genre. For Hynes, production values don’t compensate for limp songs; everything here is puddle-deep, every smooth sax solo a reminder of what we’ve all tried to forget about the ’80s (Destroyer somehow pulled off sax-cheese thing. Throwing in James Brown’s once-ubiquitous “Funky Drummer” sample on "Clipped On" is not only retro, it speaks to how unnecessary this entire album feels. (Dec. 12)
Download: “Chamakay,” “Uncle Ace,” “You’re Not Good Enough”
Howe Gelb – The Coincidentalist (New West)
Howe Gelb has legions of disciples across North America and Europe, all drawn to the mysterious musician and his scattershot approach to recording and performing, constantly veering the steering wheel onto yet another dusty back road, not giving a damn who’s following him. “How did I get so lucky?” he asks on one song here, his umpteenth album in the past 30 years (and second this year alone). Well, because for every five albums full of genius hidden underneath throwaway, improvised sketches of half-baked songs, he’ll pull something like The Coincidentalist out of his hat (see also: The Listener, Sno Angel Like You, Chore of Enchantment).
Some of his high-profile comrades show up here: M. Ward (She and Him), KT Tunstall, Bonnie Prince Billy, Steve Shelley of Sonic Youth. But they are all minor players in Gelb’s domain; his charisma fills every track on this concise and oddly focused—for Gelb—album of Leonard Cohen-esque balladry, heat-baked Arizona Americana, jazz flourishes and weirdo piano bar blues with titles like “An Extended Plane of Existence.” Gelb is self-aware enough to know what friends and foes think of him, in both the title track and on “Pichacho Peak,” where he sings: “I got one hand on the wheel / one’s holding my coffee / and I’m still holding the phone talking to you / I hope to remain so severely talented / least for another mile or two.”
That’s never in question. Whether it all coalesces into a cohesive album is always a crapshoot; The Coincidentalist is one of those glorious, rare moments when Howe Gelb hits a home run. (Dec. 5)
Download: “Vortexas,” “Triangulate,” “Pichacho Peak”
For a francophone artist from Quebec, Jimmy Hunt sounds incredibly British: particularly, the lazy, hazy dreampop tradition that weaves through early Pink Floyd to Roxy Music to Talk Talk to the Stones Roses to Stereolab. Maladie d’amour is rich with languorous late-night grooves: not surprisingly when you find out Hunt wrote and recorded the skeletons of these songs while on mushrooms in a studio on a lake in La Mauricie National Park, and fleshed out the arrangements during 12-hour nighttime sessions in Montreal a year later. Hunt’s songs are decent, but it’s the last-minute overhaul he subjected them to that elevates the material from the merely nice to the epic and occasionally transcendent. Things get really weird on “Christian Bobin,” which sounds like an Air/Daft Punk collab with Thurston Moore on guitar. Montreal is known for being a city of dreamers; this sounds like that dream. No wonder Hunt has a song called "Rever souvent." (Dec. 12)
Download: “Nos Corps,” “Marie-Marthe,” “Christian Bobin”
This album came out in May—where was I hiding?—but clearly it’s never too late to champion this grossly underrated Toronto singer. Born in Ghana, raised in Canada, Kae Sun may well be the best male R&B singer in Canada. Sure, The Weeknd’s Abel Tesfaye has a lot of Michael Jackson in him, but Kae Sun—who’s more of a Sam Cooke guy—has a three-dimensional range. His music is thoroughly modern, rich with electronic textures and borrowing from soul, reggae and pop grooves, but that voice could sell you an entire a cappella album should he so choose. Opening track “Blackstar Rising” is nothing short of stunning; should this make it on to radio, it would literally stop you in your tracks were you to hear it in public. Sometimes he’s as poppy as Miguel, sometimes as dark and dubby as Massive Attack, and on only one occasion does he fully embrace his African roots. Production values throughout are top-notch; nothing about Afriyie sounds like an independent release. Kae Sun is an enormous talent: it’s literally incredible that this record didn’t make huge waves in 2013, either in Toronto, Canada or beyond. (Dec. 12)
Download: “Blackstar Rising,” “Ship and the Globe,” “Weh-Weh”
Kashka – Bound (Independent)
When Kat Burns disbanded her long-running Forest City Lovers earlier this year, it closed a chapter on one of the most underrated acts to emerge from the fertile southwestern Ontario scene of the 2000s. Burns had already kickstarted her solo project, Kashka, as an all-electronic project with Jamie Bunton of Ohbijou. Their debut recordings didn’t hold a candle to the spellbinding, understated magic of Forest City Lovers: was Burns making a tragic mistake?
Chalk that debut up to growing pains, because Bound recaptures Burns’s strengths as a singer and songwriter, with electronics only one part of her new palette, and her musical horizons having been expanded considerably wider than anything else she’s done to date would suggest. Beneath Burns’s pleasant voice is often a harsh lyrical truth; as welcoming as the music is, everything is hardly hunky dory under the surface. It’s typical of Burns to set her most buoyant pop song to lyrics about a relationship full of nothing but regret, with lyrics like, “Maybe I was a fool to think that I could fight off my denial,” followed by a chorus of: “Maybe we never had it anyway.”
Burns is not a powerhouse vocalist; she doesn’t write obvious hooks; there’s no intriguing backstory. All of which is to her disadvantage when trying to separate herself from every other indie act trying to carve out space in the crowded Toronto scene. And yet we underestimate her at our own peril. (Dec. 5)
Download: “Never Had It,” “We Let the Shadow In” (feat. Neil Haverty of Bruce Peninsula), “Maybe It’s Time”
Shearwater - Fellow Travelers (Sub Pop)
Let’s say you’re a respected but generally underrated band who often tours with other respected but generally underrated bands—and occasionally the totally overrated superstar band that offers you a hand up by taking you on as an opening act. Wouldn’t it be frustrating to hear so many great songs every night on said tours, knowing that only fans of Obscure Band X would ever hear them?
Fellow Travelers is a love letter from Texas band Shearwater to their many peers they’ve toured with over the past 12 years. By covering those artists’ songs, it doesn’t sound that much different than any other Shearwater album—somewhere between histrionic agit-art-rockers Xiu Xiu and Coldplay and esoteric post-grunge indie rockers Wye Oak, with shades of ’70s British folk (a tradition continued here by David Thomas Broughton). It speaks to Shearwater’s strengths that they make the disparate source material work as a coherent whole: with the possible exception of Folk Implosion’s freak ’90s dance pop hit “Natural One” (which is perhaps too faithful to the original), singer Jonathan Meiburg owns all of this material: the fact that the Coldplay cover doesn’t sound at all out of place with the Xiu Xiu song speaks volumes.
It’s a total win-win situation—bringing out the best in Shearwater, and highlighting their peers—and kind of remarkable that more people don’t do this instead of obvious gimmickry (hey, let’s cover Dark Side of the Moon!) or, God forbid, yet another Christmas album (which, as a matter of policy, this column refuses to review). (Dec. 5)
Download: “Natural One” (Folk Implosion), “I Luv the Valley OH!” (Xiu Xiu), “Fucked Up Life” (Baptist Generals)