Tuesday, February 25, 2014

February 2014 reviews

Highly recommended this month: Adrian Raso with Fanfare Ciocarlia

Worth your while: Wet Secrets, Sam Roberts, Freedom Writers, New Mendicants

These reviews appeared in the Waterloo Record and Guelph Mercury earlier this month.

Beck – Morning Phase (Capitol)

Apparently Morning Phase involves not having yet left the bed. Beck’s first album in six years (and first good one in almost 10) finds him struggling to find his own pulse. The sluggish tempos aren’t the problem; his 2002 album Sea Change was a full-on bummer of a record, albeit beautiful, and containing some of his finest songs. Morning Phase, on the other hand, is Beck at his most marble-mouthed, surrounded by amazing studio musicians who are called upon to do—well, not much of anything. The not-terribly-originally titled "Blue Moon" conjures some pleasant Pet Sounds moments, but it stands out from the rest of this pack merely because it’s remotely interesting psychedelic folk. Sad-ass strings milk the melancholy for all its worth, but come off as the emotionally manipulative soundtrack to a 10-hanky tearjerker rather than a worthy successor to Nick Drake, which appears to be the mood Beck is after here. By the time he gets to a song called “Turn Away,” I’m ready to take his advice. Especially during the same week that new records by Neneh Cherry and St. Vincent show up. (Feb. 27)

Download: “Blue Moon,” “Say Goodbye,” “Turn Away”

Broken Bells – After the Disco (Columbia)

Broken Bells is James Mercer of the Shins and Danger Mouse of—well, of a lot of your favourite records of the last 10 years (Gnarls Barkley, Black Keys, Gorillaz). They’re talented men. Their attention to minute sonic detail is impeccable. They both know a thing or two about songwriting. But you knew that already.

What’s striking about the second Broken Bells album is how almost exactly half the album is inspired, engaging and brilliant—and then the other half sounds like they kind of gave up. When it succeeds, After the Disco marries delicate acoustic guitars with electronics, string sections, drum machines and—surprisingly—bass lines driving the instrumentation, whether it’s a disco song, a ballad, an obvious Bee Gees homage (“Holding On For Life”) or something in between. When it flops, it sounds like a lot of fancy toys and no one to play them. (Feb. 6)

Download: “After the Disco,” “Perfect World,” “Holding On For Life”

Egyptrixx – A/B Til Infinity (Night Slugs)

You can practically hear the dripping neon. Toronto producer David Psutka, aka Egyptrixx, creates industrial, ambient electronic music that reeks of ’80s futurism. It’s a few small steps from Vangelis’s Blade Runner score, ominous and eerie and existing in a suspended state: Psutka resists throwing a thumping bass drum beneath these tracks. Indeed, there’s very little bass at all, just a lot of sounds from an archaic ’80s Roland DX7 synthesizer, including the cheesy yet haunting digital choir patch. Psutka was collaborating with a visual artist in Berlin while making this record; the artist works with fluorescent lights, images of Martian landscapes and what looks like molten lava. The music here is equally amorphous, melodic yet ephemeral—and as lovely as it is downright creepy. (Feb. 20)

Download: “Disorbital,” “Water,” “Alta Civilization”

Neil Finn – Dizzy Heights (Lester)

The Crowded House bandleader keeps himself busy with plenty of projects—with his brother and Split Enz bandmate Tim in the Finn Brothers, with his wife in Pajama Club, and with a reformed Crowded House—so this is only the third solo release in his storied career. Here, he turns to modern psychedelic wizard Dave Fridmann, the sonic architect behind the Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev, Tame Impala and MGMT, to immerse the Beatlesque songwriter in rich soundscapes.

On paper, it sounds like a perfect match. But Finn’s songwriting skills haven’t aged well—nothing he’s done since Crowded House’s heyday, including the band’s two reunion discs, holds up to those first four albums. Fridmann and Finn share production credit, so hopefully not all the good ideas here are Fridmann’s, but it might sound that way to any Flaming Lips fan. Especially when Finn tries on an ill-fitting falsetto, ala the Lips’ Wayne Coyne, on "Divebomber"; he fares much better in brothers Gibb territory on "Recluse." (The Bee Gees are clearly on a comeback in the zeitgeist. See also: the new Broken Bells album.)

If you dive in not expecting the quality of songcraft on which Finn made his name, it’s a decent collection of adult pop. But it feels like Fridmann could have made this record with anyone. (Feb. 20)

Download: “Recluse,” “Flying in the Face of Love,” “White Lies and Alibis”

Freedom Writers – Now (independent)

The list of great Canadian hip-hop records is too short; the list of great Canadian political hip-hop records is minuscule, if it exists at all. The Freedom Writers may not have much competition, but even if they did, this record would be sure to come out on top.

This is a collective of Toronto MCs—Tona, Adam Bomb, Frankie Payne, Theo 3 and Progress, with occasional guest Mathematik— and producer Big Sproxx, who set pointed critiques and manifestos to music: “I make red, black and green face-mask music / I make First Nation genocide retribution music / Nat Turner, slave revolt / Rakim, Paid in Full.” Aside from the potent language and expected swipes at more lightweight hip-hop (“I see you making hella hits but you should rebel a bit”), Freedom Writers dig deeper—unlike most political posturers, you get the impression these guys *actually read newspapers*: “Water levels rise / hire more cops / Lord of the Flies / Piggy’s on top / A wolf in disguise eats from the flock / The revolution is televised / See it on Fox.”

Not to suggest they’re po-faced sourpusses. Big Sproxx packs his tracks with big, brassy samples, some serious scratching skills, and the five MCs have a winning chemistry that’s all too rare these days, when hip-hop groups are an endangered species and guest MCs phone in their cameos. They’re also not exclusively political; there’s a much broader emotional spectrum here than that, but that’s when they pack their biggest punches. (Feb. 6)

Download: “Separation,” “Never Give Up,” “Arizona Bay”

Fresh Snow – I (Reel Cod)

This instrumental Toronto quartet wanted to make an album inspired by the ’70s German experimental group Neu!, by recording a long jam session shortly after the band formed. So many ideas came out of that one session that engineer Tim Condon and guitarist Brad Davis slowly assembled the various motifs and sounds in the studio and sculpted them into actual songs, inviting string and wind players to enhance the melodic elements while allowing squalls of feedback and droning keyboards to inject chaos into the creation. And so this debut album by a noisy, experimental improv act is surprisingly polished. If they can extract this much from one six-hour jam, their future looks promising indeed. (Feb. 20)

Download: "Helix Pass," "Your Thirst For Magic Has Been Quenched By Death!," "To a Sea"

The New Mendicants – s/t (Ashmont)

Joe Pernice, Norman Blake and Mike Belitsky have formed a new group. To most people, this is not only not news, the names don’t even register. All are members of underappreciated bands of the last two decades: Pernice with the alt-country act the Scud Mountain Boys and folk-pop Pernice Brothers, Blake with the Scottish power-pop veterans Teenage Fanclub. Only drummer Belitsky, as the drummer in the venerable and ubiquitous Ontario favourites the Sadies, might look familiar.

Both Pernice, a Boston native, and Blake moved to Ontario for love. They recently became neighbours in Toronto, around the corner from Belitsky. (Until recently, Blake had been living in Kitchener.) Within minutes of their first kitchen session, the story goes, Pernice and Blake were booking recording dates. No wonder: their voices blend beautifully together. Comparisons to the Byrds are inevitable, but not made lightly; Pernice and Blake hit that sweet spot between English folk and California pop that few bands since the Byrds have pulled off. The music is consistently lovely; the lyrics, however, are not nearly as sunny. “You look so young at the ledge on the edge of December” doesn’t lend itself to sing-alongs on a summer day with a warm breeze. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Blake is on a roll, even though Teenage Fanclub’s output has slowed to a trickle. His last album, released in 2011 under the name Jonny, was another collaborative effort, with Euros Childs of Welsh pop weirdos Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci. It wasn’t that far removed from this album. Maybe Pernice and Blake should invite Childs into this fold to flesh out the live harmonies, and make him a Mendicant next time around. There can never be too much of a good thing. (Feb. 13) 

Download: “Cruel Annette,” “Shouting Match,” “Out of the Lime”

No - El Prado (Arts and Crafts)

For everyone who’s ever hated the band Yes, here comes hot new L.A. band No!

But seriously, folks, for everyone who wishes The National would release two new albums in the space of 12 months, here comes hot new L.A. band No. With a baritone singer and a flair for dark drama set to stadium-size alt-rock anthems, No seem tailor-made for the modern zeitgeist. That’s not their fault. They do it very well—arguably better than The National themselves; they’re certainly less narcoleptic. They should soak it up while they can. But stop them if you’ve heard all their songs before. (Feb. 20)

Download: “Monday,” “Leave the Door Wide Open,” “What’s Your Name”

Adrian Raso and Fanfare Ciocarlia – Devil’s Tale (Asphalt Tango)

I’ll admit: it’s been a while since I’ve lived in Guelph. When I was there, I knew Adrian Raso only as the guitar teacher at Guelph Music, whose fiery fingers were mostly put to work on wailing heavy metal leads (which he still does, with his rock band the Big Idea). Not my bag. What I didn’t know was that his career had blossomed to the point where he’s collaborated with Prince percussionist Sheila E. and members of the Stray Cats and Extreme. More important, I had no idea he had an acoustic side of him that revered Django Reinhardt’s style of gypsy jazz.

It’s that pursuit that led to this collaboration with arguably the best Balkan brass band in the world, the 12-piece Fanfare Ciocarlia, who hail from a remote region of Romania. They specialize in a blistering, relentless tempos and virtuosic display. It’s hard to imagine them taking a back seat to anyone, never mind a Guelph guitar teacher. It’s just as hard to imagine Raso carving out a space for himself amidst Fanfare Ciocarlia, who have played together for decades.

And yet: both camps meet here as complementary equals. Neither is here to upstage the other. Even though Raso’s fingerwork can match the brass players 16th note for 16th note, more importance is placed here on the actual songs and group dynamic. We know these people are all incredible; they don’t feel they have to prove it in every phrase. On the track “Spiritissimo,” Raso even makes room for another guitar hero, Rodrigo Sanchez, of Rodrigo y Gabriela, with whom he shares a similar love of metal shredding and flamenco.

Now: can someone help Raso bring Fanfare Ciocarlia to the Guelph Jazz Festival this fall? If so, that town will never be the same. (Feb. 6)

Download: “Quatro Cicci,” “Devil’s Tale,” “Spiritissimo”

Sam Roberts – Lo-Fantasy (Universal)

Sam Roberts’s breakthrough 2002 single, “Brother Down,” owed as much of its success to its stripped down, percussive arrangement as it did to its singalong hook. Roberts and his band subsequently turned toward less imaginative guitar rock, but their last release, 2011’s Collider, displayed an Afrobeat influence and more emphasis on rhythm.

Here, Roberts gets all groovy on us. Opening track “Shapeshifters” sounds like INXS on a good day; the second track, “We’re All In This Together,” recalls the Stone Roses, of all people, the 1990 sensation that hyperbolic Brits will still try and convince you redefined rock and dance music forever. (They did not.) On hand to help is British producer Youth (Killing Joke, The Verve, Paul McCartney), who told Roberts to stop clinging to ideas hashed out on his home demos; everything was ripped up and put back together in the studio, and it’s no doubt a stronger record because of it. In the midst of that creative chaos, his band never relies on lazy rock arrangements. I don’t know what they’ve all been up to in the past three years, but they’ve become versatile studio sidemen, the likes of which Daft Punk could call to take on the road with them. They’re now much more than a dime-a-dozen Canadian bar band.

Of course, Roberts is not the only Montreal rock artist to be found on the dance floor lately, and there are moments here that wouldn’t be out of place on Arcade Fire’s Reflektor. If anything, Roberts has taken the rousing anthems of Funeral and set them to a Reflektor beat in ways that even Arcade Fire themselves don’t entirely pull off. Most importantly, he’s come up with 11 tracks that comprise the best album of his career, all but guaranteed to dominate pop radio in 2014 and be road-tested in time for summer festival season. (Feb. 13) 

Download: “Metal Skin,” “Human Heat,” “Too Far”

Warpaint – s/t (Rough Trade)

It’s February. Valentine’s Day. It’s cold and miserable outside. Maybe you’re lonely. What do you need? Something that sounds like Warpaint. But not necessarily Warpaint.

Warpaint are four ladies from L.A. who were formed—on Valentine’s Day, actually—10 years ago. They’ve toured with The XX, worked with Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist John Frusciante, and this, their second album and first for a large indie, was produced by Flood (U2, Nine Inch Nails) and mixed by Nigel Godrich (Radiohead, Beck). While it’s—obviously—well-produced, Warpaint still sound embryonic. Granted, it’s abstract, delicate music, and owes more than a few debts to early Cat Power.

Warpaint are not great players, with the exception of drummer Stella Mozgawa, who anchors most of the more airy moments here. They effectively conjure atmosphere and texture, and when they gel, it’s seductive and satisfying (and reminiscent of the early ’90s Golden Palominos albums featuring Lori Carson, if that means anything to you). Over the course of the entire record, however, they sound not just lethargic—nothing wrong with that—but lazy. There’s a lot to love here, but not nearly enough to make you want to get out of bed. (Feb. 6)

Download: “Love is To Die,” “Disco // very,” “Son”

The Wet Secrets – Free Candy (Rawlco)

The Wet Secrets are a band from Edmonton who wear marching-band outfits, boast a mean horn section, and were favourites on CBC Radio 3 way back in 2007 with snotty pop-punk anthems like “Get Your Own Apartment” and “Grow Your Own F--king Moustache.” Seven years later, bandleader Lyle Bell is sober, less snarky and taking the group as seriously as you can take a band called the Wet Secrets. The outfits are still there, but the horns take a back seat to spacey keyboards, female backing vocals and fuzzed out guitars. Atypical for the genre, the lyrics are hardly flippant or flaccid: “I’ve seen the fire in the eyes of the darkest souls who own the night,” starts one song. The peppy “Sunshine” has a chorus that goes, “I want to die in the sunshine in the city.” Bell is experienced enough not to tolerate any ramshackle sloppiness: every drum fill and organ chord is carefully placed, without sacrificing any rock’n’roll energy. The result is one of the finest garage rock records to come out of this country in recent years. (Feb. 13) 

Download: “Nightlife,” “Animals in Disguise,” “Death of the Party”

Monday, February 24, 2014

Happy St. Vincent day, with Cherry on top

St. Vincent – s/t (Universal)

Annie Clark, a.k.a. St. Vincent, has always been smart. Too smart, as if she’s approaching her music like an algebraic equation rather than creative expression. She’s always been talented. Too talented. She’s an operatic singer and a shredder on the guitar and loves to immerse herself in distorted electronics, and often she liked to flex all those muscles at once.

Such is the folly of youth. She’s now 31. This is her fifth album, if you include her full-length collaboration with David Byrne, on which she began to leave her head and loosen up her body. (Byrne knows more than a few things about that divide. See: Stop Making Sense.) Perhaps it’s not wise to read into her decision to make this a self-titled record, but St. Vincent, the album, is a bold new statement of purpose. (Could you tell from her new look?) Clark has always had the confidence, the swagger, the chutzpah to go for the gold and hope her technical prowess would carry the day. This time, she’s also got guts and heart and grooves and songs to complete the package.

Vocally, she soars and howls: angel and demon, light and dark. Sonically, her beats are as dirty as Skrillex. Her guitar playing is as electric sensual as Prince, and she runs it through every electronic treatment imaginable. She’s got heavy metal chops when she needs them. She summons bold brass sections to punch through the chaos. None of it makes much sense together the first time you hear it. Clark demands that you listen closely. And you do. Then she dials everything down several notches for a killer ballad, not once but three times—including a tender number titled "Severed Crossed Fingers." All the while, she tosses out lyrics like, “Remember the time we went and snorted / a piece of the Berlin wall that you'd extorted / And we'd had such a laugh of it / Prostrate on my carpet.” Or, more directly: “Oh what an ordinary day / take out the garbage, masturbate.”

Clark’s latest round of publicity pics show her with shock-white dyed hair, looking a bit like the Bride of Frankenstein. She looks glammed up and larger than life, both sexy and scary, otherworldly. As she should. This music couldn’t be delivered any other way—or by anybody else.

Download: “Digital Witness,” “Prince Johnny,” “Psychopath”

Neneh Cherry – Blank Project (Smalltown Supersound)

Carte blanche, indeed. Neneh Cherry was a pop star in the late ’80s and mid-’90s but her last album was made with a Scandinavian free jazz band, her biggest hit was a duet with Youssou N’Dour, and she helped bankroll the birth of Massive Attack and Portishead. Her new album, her first solo album in 18 years, was produced by Kieran Hebden, a.k.a. FourTet, a musician known for esoteric electronica who has also made albums with African jazz drummers and Syrian pop singers. What on Earth would Cherry and Hebden come up with together?

Opening track "Across the Water" plays their cards close to their chests: with just two drums and Cherry’s captivating voice, one so rich with emotional resonance that it requires no accompaniment whatsoever. While Hebden’s electronics drive much of the rest of Blank Project, every song could work just as well were Cherry to sing them a cappella. Cherry has always done whatever she wants to. This is no different. Here she goes from a funky duet with Swedish superstar Robyn to ominous torch songs to reggae-influenced electronics to furious rock songs delivered with only two synth parts and a drum kit.

She closes the album with the chorus: “Everything is everything and good things come to those who wait.” Point proven.

Download: "Out of the Black" (feat. Robyn), "Across the Water," "Blank Project"