Monday, March 24, 2014

March 2014 reviews

I’ve had a grumpy month. It’s March. Earlier I was blown away by Calgary upstarts 36?, and Kevin Drew’s second solo album is one of the strongest records he’s ever made. But other than being unable to resist the charm of Pharrell Williams—especially in a month devoid of anything resembling warmth, either emotionally or meteorologically—this month had some slim pickings.

Highly recommended: Pharrell Williams
Worth your while: Many people will tell you that I’m dead wrong about The War on Drugs.

These reviews appeared in the Waterloo Record and Guelph Mercury.

Barzin - To Live Alone in That Long Hot Summer (Monotreme)

Barzin got his start as a singer-songwriter when he was living in Guelph, back in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, when his voice never rose above a whisper, when his drummer only ever played with brushes, when the other musicians accompanying him rarely played more than one note per bar. Not much has changed, except that his recordings are remarkably more confident and accomplished—especially this one, his first in five years. (Barzin’s release schedule is even slower than his tempos.)

Sympatico Toronto pals Daniela Gesundheit (Snowblink) and Tamara Lindeman (The Weather Station) lend a hand on backing vocals, as does Barzin’s most faithful champion, Tony Dekker of Great Lake Swimmers. After more than a decade working with the exact same template, one that invokes candlelight, red wine and some tattered books of poetry, Barzin’s writing has shed the clich├ęs and repetition of his earlier material, and he’s found some extremely sympathetic players to add accordion, cello and clarinet, as well as a subtle but extremely effective drummer.

He couldn’t have titled the album more perfectly: it’s the sound of melancholy and ache when the weather is suited for nothing more than extreme sloth. The music itself, however, is anything but lazy. (March 20)

Download: “All the While,” “In the Dark You Can Love This Place,” “Lazy Summer”

Johnny Cash – Out Among the Stars (Sony)

In the years preceding and immediately following his death in 2002, Johnny Cash seemed to have a “new” record out every couple of months: an actual album here, a reissue there, maybe a box set or two, and then the inevitable scraping of the bottom of the barrel: endless outtakes packaged as new material. So what fresh hell is this?

Out Among the Stars is a previously unreleased album, but it doesn’t come from a mythologized part of Cash’s career: this is not from his Tennessee Two days, nor from his Folsom Prison comeback period, nor from his Rick Rubin-assisted final victory lap. This was made during his lowest commercial slump: the early ’80s, when he considered himself “invisible” in his label’s eyes; they dropped him after rejecting some of the material that appears here.

Cash’s brand of country may have not been commercial in the early ’80s (despite the fact that Bruce Springsteen was going through a big Johnny Cash phase, first with Nebraska and then with the top-10 single “I’m On Fire”), but it holds up well. Cash was never one to chase trends, so you won’t find him falling prey to any of the sonic traps that shackled so many of his contemporaries. Out Among the Stars only features two Cash originals, but the rest of the track list is written by then-current songwriters, and devoid of well-known songs, with the sole exception of a cover of Hank Snow’s “I’m Movin’ On,” as a duet with Waylon Jennings.

Considering the glut of Johnny Cash albums on the market, you could do far worse than stumbling across this one. Then again: considering the glut of Johnny Cash albums on the market, one can’t help but wonder if anyone but the most diehard completest will consider this essential. (March 27)

Download: “Out Among the Stars,” “Baby Ride Easy” (with June Carter Cash), “If I Told You Who It Was”

The Heavyweights Brass Band – Brasstronomical (Lulaworld)

This Toronto ensemble wins this year’s Most Improved Award, hands down. Simply being a New Orleans-style brass band doing covers of Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber songs is a shtick that only goes so far, so the arrangements had better be whip tight, and the delivery full of verve and spark. On the debut, that wasn’t the case. Here, it most definitely is. Covering the Rush instrumental “YYZ” is not a task to be taken on lightly; completely reinventing it and owning it as your own is a whole other kettle of fish. Sousaphone player Rob Teehan tackles Geddy’s Lee’s insanely bass line with aplomb, while saxophonist Paul Metcalfe somehow captures every minute detail of Alex Lifeson’s guitar. Recasting rock songs is not their only forte here: they also take on a sensual Erykah Badu ballad, a song by Toronto jazz legend Jane Bunnett, and they invite Jamaica-to-Toronto R&B master Jay Douglas to sing one of their originals. It’s those originals that set Heavyweights apart these days: Metcalfe and trumpet player Jonathan Challoner each deliver punchy tunes that showcase the best this band is capable of. Coming soon to a summer jazz festival near you. (March 6)

Download: “YYZ,” “Booze Hounds” (featuring Jay Douglas), “Telephone”

Kalle Mattson - Someday, The Moon Will Be Gold (Parliament of Trees)

The Weakerthans, one of Canada’s most beloved bands, only put an album once in a blue moon; it’s now been seven years since Reunion Tour. Mattson, an Ottawa-via-Sault-Ste.-Marie singer-songwriter, bears a remarkable vocal resemblance to the Weakerthans’ John K. Samson, and his backing band (which includes Cuff the Duke’s Paul Lowman on most tracks here) likewise applies pop-punk drive to nerdy, wordy folk songs. And, like the Weakerthans, Mattson pulls it off far better than you would ever expect (and, although you wouldn’t guess it from this review, he does so without constantly inviting comparisons over the course of the album). He also does it with trumpeter JF Beauchamp adding majesty and melodic thrust over the raging guitars. Producer Gavin Gardiner (The Wooden Sky) knows when to let the songs breathe, when to let the band rock out, and when a flurry of guitar feedback serves and excellent purpose. Drummer Kyle Woods also deserves a nod for his sympathetic performance. This is Mattson’ third full-length album; it’s clearly the one where he comes into his own. (March 6)

Download: “Hurt People Hurt People,” “A Love Song to the City,” “Darkness”

The Notwist - Close to the Glass (Sub Pop)

One of my favourite music writers once complained that listening to Radiohead was a joyless exercise akin to being “on the Internet reading debates about the Internet”—the implication being that the music was too impressed with itself and its importance, and devoid of actual ambition or emotional resonance. Germany’s The Notwist have garnered their share of Radiohead comparisons ever since their 2002 album Neon Golden became a sleeper cult hit, with its mix of balladry, hints of blues riffs and plenty of bleeps and blurps. Close to the Glass is only their second album since then. It would unlikely impress anyone who shared the above opinion of Radiohead. 

The stereotype of German music is that it’s emotionally detached and deadpan; The Notwist live up to that reputation, and then some. When the band is on hiatus, its members have a variety of experimental side projects. When they get back together here, they sound bored out of their minds, like they’re punching the clock with some pop songs that will fund their true labours of love. There’s something wrong when the most raucous song is about a seven-hour drive: It’s called, you guessed it, “7-Hour Drive.” The weirder they get, the better: the title track sounds like a sexless Teutonic take on Jamaican dancehall, while “Lineri” is an entrancing instrumental that benefits greatly from not having Markus Acher’s mumbling over it. (March 13)

Download: “Kong,” “Close to the Glass,” “Lineri”

Angel Olsen – Burn Your Fire for No Witness (Jagjaguwar)

Why would you burn your fire for no witness? Are you trying to hide something? Are you a recluse? Is there a deep loneliness inside of you that recoils from human contact?

The latter would seem to apply to this Asheville, N.C., singer-songwriter, whose voice alters between defeated and yearning. On the tracks where she provides the sole accompaniment, she sounds almost frightened, spooked, like Julie Doiron or Cat Power in a cabin in the Blue Ridge Mountains. For at least half the record, however, she employs a Chicago garage-rock duo, Lionlimb, who give her an emotional lift and colour in the corner of her songs with surprising subtlety. Producer John Congleton, who also helmed the all-out sonic attack of St. Vincent’s new album, knows exactly when to leave Olsen alone, and never tries to dress up her arrangements. Yet even when she shows signs of extroversion, Olsen still casts a lonely figure that still sounds like a 27-year-old who’s been beat down by too many crappy retail gigs and dubious relationships. How much you enjoy this record may well depend entirely on how far away you are from your own 27-year-old’s existence. (March 6)

Download: “Forgiven/Forgotten,” “Lights Out,” “White Fire”

The War on Drugs – Lost in the Dream (Secretly Canadian)

Much like the real-life war on drugs, this War on Drugs—a Philadelphia band led by Adam Granduciel—is hopelessly lost. They packed up their van, drove it to the middle of a former industrial town in the middle of nowhere in Pennsylvania on a cloudy summer day, set up shop and started daydreaming while playing their instruments. That’s what it sounds like, anyway: aimless, carefree, pleasant yet melancholic and in a constant state of anticipation: surely, something is about to happen. It has to. Because nothing’s been happening now for a long, long time. Sometimes that can be its own pleasure. Others, it’s just plain tedious or, worse, imperceptible. Invisible.

For some mystifying reason, people who should know better—i.e. everybody who’s ever written about this band—compare The War on Drugs to Bruce Springsteen. Apparently the mere presence of a saxophone in a rock band gives people strange ideas. Tom Petty also pops up quite a bit. But comparisons to these greats only make sense if you imagine those artists showing up in the studio baked out of their minds, with no songs in mind, telling their ace bands to drive the same groove deep into the night—and hey, while you’re there, boys, take some time to gaze at the stars.

Granduciel is a passionate frontman, even when he’s doing a strange Bob Dylan impersonation, and he’s a guitar noodler par excellence—if you’re into noodling. This is his band; other members have come and gone. No wonder: they could all be easily replaced by machines, as the arrangements consist largely of metronomic beats devoid of dynamics.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. If you’re looking for music to ignore—like High Fidelity’s Rob Gordon does in the novel and film that most War on Drugs fans know all too well—then this is your band. Lost in the Dream is—well, dreamy. And lost, in the Chet Baker sense of “Let’s Get Lost.” Maybe it’s an album that encapsulates hollowed-out, Rust Belt America, devoid of hope and lulled into an opiate state by the distraction-industrial complex—a timely soundtrack to accompany George Packer’s book The Unwinding. Or maybe it’s just an album where not much happens at all. (March 27)

Download: “An Ocean in the Waves,” “In Reverse,” “Red Eyes”

Pharrell Williams – G I R L (Sony)

Pharrell is a happy guy. You probably knew that already, because of his 2013 smash single, “Happy,” from the Despicable Me 2 soundtrack. He performed it at the Oscars last week, even getting Meryl Streep up to dance. He looked happy. He sounds happy. He should be. And you will be, too, after you hear the most joyous pop album in ages.

As a producer, Pharrell has shaped the sound of pop and hip-hop over the last 15 years, having been responsible, behind the scenes, for dozens of hits. G I R L is sunny-day funk par excellence, making Justin Timberlake’s recent records sound bloated and excessive, imagining what Michael Jackson would sound like if he fronted a tight five-piece band rather than an orchestra of rock and R&B players. 

Pharrell puts the vocals and the beats first, and fills in every other element sparingly, less they distract from the groove and melodies. Even on “Gust of Wind,” with guest robot vocals from Daft Punk and featuring a string arrangement by bombastic soundtrack composer Hans Zimmer, can barely be accused of bloat. 

"Happy" is undeniably a catchy song, but the real winner here is "Hunter," impossibly funky and deliciously libidinous, where the riff is shared by a synth clavinet and a slap bass (with another, deeper bass adding maximum effect with a minimum number of notes). Like “Get Lucky,” the chord progression never changes, but it doesn’t have to: the groove is killer, and Pharrell is full of casual swagger and seemingly improvised, ridiculous lyrics (“Duck Dynasty is cool and all / but they got nothing on a female’s call”).

Being who he is, Pharrell could easily have stuffed his album with A-list guests. He doesn’t have to: Justin Timberlake and Alicia Keys show up, but they’re barely noticeable. If he’s out to teach us anything here, it’s that simplicity is the key to happiness. (March 6)

Download: “Happy,” “Hunter,” “Come Get It Bae”

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Kevin Drew, Darlings and Andy Kim

My story about the odd couple friendship between Broken Social Scene’s Kevin Drew and "Sugar Sugar" legend Andy Kim—whose new record, due out later this year, was co-written and produced by Drew—is online at Maclean’s here.

It’s a necessarily condensed version of the 2½-hour interview I had with them both at Drew’s Toronto apartment, which was one of my favourite interviews of recent years. I recommend you read the expanded Q&A here.

My review for the Waterloo Record:

Kevin Drew – Darlings (Arts and Crafts)

Kevin Drew was due for an implosion. The Broken Social Scene bandleader started out making amorphous, ambient records before his band suddenly evolved into a rock’n’roll orchestra with a half-dozen guitars and just as many lead singers. Even his 2007 solo album, Spirit If, featured an even bigger cast of characters than found on a BSS album (including Tom Cochrane and Dinosaur Jr.’s J Mascis).

Following a BSS hiatus and a midlife crisis, Drew returns with Darlings, an album that features just five musicians (and one guest vocal from Feist). While it still has the rich synthesizers and reverbed vocals Drew always employs, it also features 12 songs he could ostensibly perform by himself, with no small army required to back him up. The result is the most melodic and direct Drew has ever been, and easily his best record next to Broken Social Scene’s 2002 classic You Forgot It In People.

Yet Drew can still be he own worst enemy: the two worst songs on this otherwise excellent album are the ones he chose as singles to preview the album, "Good Sex" and "Mexican Aftershow Party." Musically, they’re congruous with the rest of Darlings, but lyrically they’re repetitious and mundane—and, in the case of "Mexican Aftershow Party," could only possibly make sense to Drew or members of his band.

As befits a humbled man trying to regain his footing, Drew doesn’t reach for grandiose musical moments. Much of Darlings is intimate, mid-tempo and lovely; even at its most raucous, it’s still warm and inviting—and yet still finds room for sonic experimentation; it’s not a case so much of Drew watering down his approach as it is distilling it at a lower volume. The whole record is basically one big hug—which, if you’ve ever met Drew or seen him interviewed, should not be a big surprise.

Download: “You Gotta Feel It,” “You In Your Were,” “And That’s All I Know”

Monday, March 10, 2014

Shane Abram Nelken, 36?

Today, two off-the-radar gems from Western Canada. Both are highly recommended.

 36? – Where Do We Go From Here (independent)

Calgary’s Taylor Cochrane is 25 years old. This is his fifth album as 36?. It sounds like several lifetimes in one. Cochrane’s youthful exuberance is palpable, as is his talent. As per his perplexing band name and album title, Where Do We Go From Here sounds like a confusing mess on the surface. It’s not. It’s actually one of the most refreshing and inventive Canadian rock records in a long while.

Cochrane delivers ambitious and anthemic alt-rock, psychedelic textures, weirdo electro-pop, folkie detours and a three-part suite of ambient noise: the kind of mix tape or open-format radio show no one makes anymore. That all-out noise excursion aside, Cochrane writes great pop songs, and then throws everything he can at them to see if they survive. There’s no indication here what instruments Cochrane or his bandmates Eric Svilpis and Scott White handle individually; it’s safe to assume there are no slackers on board. Drummer Ryan Kusz gives it all muscle that prevents everything from drifting apart: in the middle of the eclectic experimentalism, this is a rock band. It also helps that Cochrane is no vocal slouch either: when he goes for those high notes that all emo boys attempt, Cochrane actually pulls it off. Nineties campus radio fans: imagine Neutral Milk Hotel’s Jeff Mangum joining Change of Heart circa Smile.

What’s next for this band? Taking their show on the road, coming to Ontario in May, and apparently a plan to rerecord this album with household objects and acoustic instruments. Why would they do that? Like everything heard here: just because. (March 13)

Unrelated tangent: With the sole exception of Chad Van Gaalen, 36? may well be the only musical act from Calgary I've ever loved. I've yet to be convinced otherwise.

Download: “Cloud Chaser,” “Soul Searching,” “Head First”

Shane Abram Nelken – Your War Is At Home (independent)

Even the most miserable, self-loathing loser needs a song—or 12—to soundtrack their second-guessing and anxiety during endless nights of insomnia. The man to sing those songs is Shane Abram Nelken, a Vancouver singer-songwriter who surely takes no solace in being called “underrated” and “overlooked”—to say nothing of “outright ignored.” He released two albums in the past decade under the name The Awkward Stage, two albums that were bursting with smart, funny, melodic songs that owed small debts to Nick Lowe, Joe Jackson, and Nelken’s own pal (and former employer), the New Pornographers’ A.C. Newman. No one cared (except Mint Records). They should have.

Nelken opens his new album boldly stating, “I have learned nothing.” The next song opens with the line, “These songs are the flailing arms of one who’s drowning.” The third song? “There reflected in your haunted look / is a pile of burning books.” The common thread here is burned bridges and a lifetime of regret. In less talented hands, it could easily be a bitter bummer, if not downright poisonous. Yet Nelken writes mostly major-key melodies so catchy they could double as Christmas carols, making the bite underneath that much more satisfying.

Yes, he can be morbid (“It’s so much harder to ask for help  / than it is for some to lay beneath the plough”), but it’s always delivered with musically rich arrangements worthy of Laurel Canyon country records, soul ballads and, on one song, a spy movie theme. Nelken spends more time in 3/4 than most other songwriters, and several tracks owe an odd debt not to the blues exactly, but specifically to the Beatles’ “She’s So Heavy.” Because I know for a fact Nelken scrounged every last penny to make this record (full disclosure: I chipped in for his Kickstarter campaign), it’s a small wonder that the production sounds like a million bucks.

Nelken’s narrators have all had life bite them in the ass. Damn straight, they’re angry—mostly with themselves. But to Nelken, those travails are never a reason to throw in the towel; they’re just as worthy of the elegance, craft and empathy most people only bestow on much more agreeable subjects. (March 13)

Download: “Busy Losing Somebody New,” “I’ll Tear Your Heart Out,” “Spent the Morning Making Her Cry”