Tuesday, May 20, 2014

May 2014 reviews, part one

Highly recommended: Rodrigo Y Gabriela, Death Vessel
Worth your while: TuneYards, Chad Van Gaalen, Lykke Li, Dolly Parton

These reviews ran, as always, in the Waterloo Record and Guelph Mercury.

Damon Albarn – Everyday Robots (Parlaphone/EMI)

It took me a long time to come around to Damon Albarn: never being a Blur fan, and being attracted more to the idea of Gorillaz—and that band’s undeniably great collection of collaborators—than any particular record. But I have to respect Albarn for the music he puts out on his Honest Jon’s label, everything from calypso to avant-garde eccentric Moondog to the Hypnotic Brass Band, as well as his role as a catalyst in records like soul legend Bobby Womack’s The Bravest Man in the Universe. He’s a man of impeccable taste. I even liked Monkey, his Chinese opera. No one else seemed to.

Most Blur fans—and there are still millions of them waiting for an album to accompany the reunion gigs of recent years—don’t really care about any of that. Which is why this Albarn solo album arrives with great anticipation—and proceeds to bum everyone out. That it’s a generally downcast record is not its downfall; it’s that it’s so dull, stuck in one programmed drum groove, and Albarn appears to be mumbling his way through it. The chipper ditty about an orphaned baby elephant, "Mr. Tembo," is out of place here—or anywhere, really. It's certainly not going to make anyone revisit their prejudices regarding songs about baby elephants.

Lyrically, Everyday Robots is partially a concept album about alienation in a society suffering from too much technology. Mostly it just makes me want to pull the plug. I suppose I like everything about Albarn’s taste in music… except his own music. (May 8)

Download: “Everyday Robots,” “Lonely Press Play,” “Hostiles”

Jeff Bird – Rhythm and Entertainment: Recordings 1983-2009 (independent)

If you’ve seen live music in Guelph, K-W or Elora in the past 35 years, you’ve most likely seen Jeff Bird. Hundreds of thousands of people around the world have seen him with the Cowboy Junkies since 1988. Before that band’s success and whenever he’s had free time since, Bird has been a very, very busy man. He was a founder of Canadian folk group Tamarack, does regular jazz gigs and had a long-standing collaboration with fiddler Riki Gee, some of Bird’s many sides that appear on this career retrospective of sorts.

On his own, however, Bird gets up to all kinds of experimental weirdness: improv with shakuhachi and drums, cinematic ambience, some straight-up country shuffles, experimental dub reggae, francophone folklore, spoken-word dream recollections set to music, and gorgeous harmonica and harmonium duets. You know, the usual. The stunner is “Little Hooves,” a piano ballad from his 1997 album featuring vocalist Nick Craine, followed closely by a take on Hank Williams’s "Rambling Man," featuring Tony Quarrington on vocals.

In the background of "Mu Blues," you can hear a dinner audience blithely ignoring Bird’s jazz combo, gabbing away despite the fiery fingerwork of pianist Witold Grabowiecki. The track is indicative of Bird: always around, politely ignored, inconspicuous, and indifferent as to how he might be blowing the minds of anyone who cares to listen. (May 8)

Download: “Souvenir Flutes,” “Six Legs,” “Little Hooves”

Death Vessel – Island Intervals (Sub Pop)

Joel Thibodeau, a eunuch-voiced singer/songwriter from New England, sums up the ever-elusive and mysterious creative process better than most: “I don’t know what to do when the universe is in my room.” Clearly, however, he figured it out on this, his third album, for which he travelled to Iceland. Sure enough, Jonsi from Sigur Ros—a man with an almost identical range and timbre as Thibodeau—shows up. Arrangements of Thibodeau’s wonderfully wistful, melodic folk songs are adorned with marimbas, glockenspiels, fuzzed-out bass, pump organs, accordions and other instruments that seem to be always lying around Icelandic studios (see also: Bjork, Mum, Nico Muhly). On first impression, Thibodeau is too fey by half, with lines like, “I have an unbridled ideation / jumping over every moon with indignation.” He also enjoys employing words like “derring-do” and “looky-loo” with a straight face. He’s nothing if not earnest, and it wouldn’t be surprising to discover that he spent the six years since his last album in a seaside cabin with a library of pre-Victorian literature. (He didn’t—to my knowledge, anyway.) No matter your take on the lyrics, however, the melodies and arrangements are consistently and almost undeniably gorgeous. (May 1)

Download: “Velvet Antlers,” “Mercury Dime,” “We Agreed”

Brian Eno and Karl Hyde – Someday World (Warp)

Brian Eno can work with anyone in the world. The legendary producer often does, whether it’s Coldplay or a totally obscure musician in Mali (see the excellent 2013 Africa Express album). Eno’s last pop album was a collaboration with David Byrne. Here, he joins Karl Hyde of ’90s electronica act Underworld, a man whose vocals aren’t that different from Eno’s, and who doesn’t appear to enhance any of the musical sketches Eno had kicking around since the ’90s—or earlier, as the tinny synth horns would suggest. (There are also, however, real horns to be found on the peppiest song here, “Daddy’s Car.”) Eno credits Hyde with bringing life to long-dormant material he’d had lying around; yet it’s the basic rhythm tracks here that are most fascinating, steeped in African polyrhythms. The more elements Eno and Hyde layer on top—particularly Hyde’s vocals—the less interesting it is. (May 8)

Download: “When I Built This World,” “Daddy’s Car,” “Witness”

Paul Heaton and Jacqui Abbott – What Have We Become (Universal)

The Beautiful South are a long-forgotten artifact of early ’90s British pop, one that arose from an only slightly better-remembered band, the Housemartins. Like most North Americans, I didn’t realize The Beautiful South lasted until 2007, when they finally parted ways, citing “musical similarities”—admitting that most of their albums sounded the same. (They were always witty lads.) Founder Paul Heaton has been largely in the musical wilderness ever since, but this album reuniting him with his old band’s female vocalist Abbott, perhaps the only two people on Earth who could create a peppy chorus out of the line: “The revolution won’t be televised, and neither will your death.” Abbott hadn’t sung for anyone but her own family in 14 years, but you’d never know it; Heaton is clearly—and quite understandably—inspired in her presence. (May 15)

Download: “Moulding of a Fool,” “D.I.Y.,” “If He Don’t”

Lykke Li – I Never Learn (Warner)

Swedish singer Lykke Li is about to enter the world of fashion this fall, releasing her own line of clothing through a subsidiary of H&M. According to London newspaper The Independent, one can “expect black, black and more black.”

No wonder. Check the titles on this, her third album: “Sleeping Alone.” “Never Gonna Love Again.” “Heart of Steel.” It sounds like Li wrote this with a broken heart in a hamlet set atop a wet, wind-swept cliff. Despite the rich, full-band arrangements with choirs, this is the loneliest pop album you’re likely to hear this year. Gone are the synths and layers of percussion that defined her earlier work; in their place are 12-string acoustic guitars, pianos and barely any drums at all. This is all about Li’s voice, which has all the command of Stevie Nicks at her prime, and her songs, which are minor-key grandiose ballads worthy of, well, ABBA—and I’m not just saying that because of their shared nationality. “Heart of Steel” features a guitar riff lifted from Roxy Music’s “More Than This,” from Avalon: an album with an equally luxurious melancholy at its core. That said, Li excels when she strips everything right down: “Love Me Like I’m Not Made of Stone” could pass for an old Everly Brothers ballad. (May 15)

Download: “No Rest for the Wicked,” “Gunshot,” “Love Me Like I’m Not Made of Stone”

Dolly Parton – Blue Smoke (Sony)

Dolly Parton is 68. This is her 42nd album. It proves, for the umpteenth time, that Dolly Parton can do whatever the heck she wants. The title track is blistering bluegrass. The duet with Kenny Rogers, “You Can’t Make Old Friends,” is ripe old cheese and better for it. A cover of the traditional murder ballad “Banks of the Ohio” is all the more disturbing because Parton delivers it so beautifully. A cover of Bon Jovi’s “Lay Your Hands On Me” completely—and thankfully—obliterates any memory of the original. Speaking of originals, the woman whose songwriting talent has always been her most underrated asset shows that she’s still on top of her game and capable of writing modern classics. I had to double check to make sure “If I Had Wings” wasn’t a new take on an earlier Parton track—perhaps one suspected to date from a period I would naively consider her prime—because the fact is, Parton never left her prime. Her contemporaries might be more than willing to coast and cave in to low expectations; Parton’s still pumping out new material with the same pride and purpose she’s had her entire career. (May 15)

Download: “Blue Smoke,” “Don’t Think Twice,” “If I Had Wings”

Pixies - Indie Cindy (Pias)

There is no way the Pixies could have won this round. The legendary alt-rock game-changers broke up acrimoniously in 1993; they reformed in 2002 and have been touring large venues, playing all their classic non-hits, ever since. In 2013, beloved bassist Kim Deal announced she was finally quitting days before new material was to be recorded. For many fans, expectations were low—and most reviews of the two EPs questioned why this material even had to exist other than to sabotage a near-perfect discography.

But come on: if you’ve been touring for the last decade cashing in on your rep, wouldn’t you want to make new music? Bandleader Frank Black has probably put out at least 20 non-Pixies albums in the last 20 years; why wouldn’t he employ the musicians who helped make some of his best work?

Of course (the admittedly terribly titled) Indie Cindy is nowhere near as powerful as Surfer Rosa or Doolittle. Whatever could be? But it hardly defecates on the band’s reputation; most of this material wouldn’t have been out of place on the 1991 swan song Trompe le Monde. Guitarist Joey Santiago has a distinct style that, when paired with Black’s absurdist lyrics (“I’m the burgermeister of burgatory!”) and unhinged howl (which is in fine form here, despite the passing of time), sounds undeniably like the Pixies. Returning producer Gil Norton no doubt helps as well.

Indie Cindy could easily shed a few of the more ham-fisted rockers (“Blue-Eyed Hexe”) that sound like third-generation copies of vintage Pixies, but it’s nowhere near the disaster Pixie purists expect it to be. (May 1)

Download: “Greens and Blues,” “Andro Queen,” “Magdelena 318”

Rodrigo y Gabriela - 9 Dead Alive (ATO)

This Mexican duo, who were discovered while busking on the streets of Dublin, made a name for themselves for playing traditional Spanish and Roma guitar music, having come from a background of heavy metal: they’ve covered Metallica and Led Zeppelin, and their last album, 2009’s breakthrough 11:11, featured a guest spot from Testament’s Alex Skolnick.

Here, however, on their fourth album, the novelty has worn off. Not that Rodrigo y Gabriela were ever just a novelty: they are serious shredders and songwriters, possessed with an ability to amaze any music fan. They’re not attempting to fit into flamenco mode, nor cater to rock or jazz or “world music” audiences or anything else. You can still hear the metal influence in the riffing and chord progressions on songs like “Torito” and “Somnium,” but that’s only for trainspotters. Such is the power of the playing and the songwriting that there isn’t much time while listening to ponder much else.

The title references the idea that each of these nine songs was inspired by a historical figure: psychiatrists, luthiers, poets, nuns, slave liberators, Nobel laureates and Russian novelists. This duo is not dense. They’re not just hot-shot showoffs; they’re clearly inspired by much more than Malmsteenian fretwork. And the music they make here could easily bring the dead back to life. (May 1)

Download: “The Soundmaker,” “Misty Moses,” “Megalopolis”

TuneYards – Nikki Nack (4AD)

TuneYards is currently opening some dates on Arcade Fire’s Reflektor tour. It makes a lot of sense. Both travelled to Haiti for inspiration recently. Both started making music in Montreal in the first half of the 2000s. Both take great care to make every corner of their career part of a larger art project. And sadly, the most recent albums by both are bisected into moments of thrilling brilliance and head-scratching bewilderment.

One thing is obvious: lead single “Water in the Fountain” is a lip-smacking, finger-popping good time that’s been compared more than once to a digital take on the Dixie Cups’ “Iko Iko.” It illustrates Merrill Garbus’s exuberant vocals, love of percussion and melodic hooks thrown into a dense sonic delicacy. She mines similar territory in “Sink-O” and “Real Thing,” diving deep into hip-hop influences like never before; her 2011 masterpiece, Whokill, was largely infused with West African rhythms. The gorgeous “Wait For a Minute,” a comparatively low-key R&B track, provides a welcome respite from the general hustle and bustle.

As captivating as Garbus usually is, Nikki Nack is the first time she sounds adrift. She tapped into a certain energy on Whokill and is clearly trying to move beyond it and expand her range; more than admirable, but Nikki Nack sinks as often as it soars. Not unlike, say, Reflektor. (May 8)

Download: “Water in the Fountain,” “Wait for a Minute,” “Sink-O”

Chad Van Gaalen - Shrink Dust (Flemish Eye/Sub Pop)

Plenty of artists in the last 50 years have claimed to make psychedelic country music. They’re all posers. (Okay, not the Sadies.) Chad Van Gaalen qualifies to be a truly interstellar cowboy, a “cosmic destroyer”—his term. For this Calgary singer/songwriter, the phrase “high lonesome sound” works on several levels.

The country signposts are certainly here: pedal steel guitar, country rhythms, rich harmony, as well as the fact that Van Gaalen has never sounded more like Neil Young than he does here. But this is the perpetually unconventional landscape that Van Gaalen has always inhabited, one as bizarre and unsettling as it is glorious in its fractured beauty.

His voice is drenched in ghostly reverb, his drums sound like they were recorded in a bedroom (they most likely were), the guitars sound like they’re falling apart, and in between the spaces are evocative sounds of indeterminate origin—never more so than when Van Gaalen sings a song called “Where Are You,” seemingly from the middle of a tornado, as droning synths and Echoplex guitars swirl around him. As always, Van Gaalen’s lyrics find him keeping it surreal: “All the blues and greens rise up and out of us now”; “Last night I weighed my sins”; “Come on, let’s get high on other people’s dreams.”

The prolific Van Gaalen can sometimes come off as too carefree and ramshackle; certainly, much of Shrink Dust seems held together by a thread. Though it’s often beautiful, it’s not a pretty album—most of it will scare CBC to death. (Good.)  But it’s as weird and wild as Van Gaalen has ever been, without diving right off the deep end. (May 1)

Download: “Cut Off My Hands,” “Frozen Paradise,” “Weighed Sin”

Wye Oak - Shriek (Merge)

Chances are good that you’ve never heard of this Baltimore duo, so you probably don’t care that singer Jenn Wasner has abdicated her crown as a roaring guitar hero, in order to take up bass and surround herself in synths. In more ways than one, Wye Oak is a brand new band for most people—including the band themselves. Drummer Andy Stack was already accustomed to juggling drums and keyboards; now the division of labour between both musicians is harder to decipher.

Perhaps not coincidentally, this new material also lacks some of the tension at which Wye Oak always excelled; without the roaring guitar, and with a now-necessary dependence on consistent tempos, much of this material explores a trippy weightlessness that is both the best and worst thing about it. Wasner’s vocals occasionally drift into the stratosphere, recalling ’80s 4AD acts like the Cocteau Twins; speaking of that decade, “Despicable Animal” nods to Tears For Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.” There’s no known precedent, however, to the inverted reggae of “The Tower.”

As one of the more creative American rock bands of the last five years, Wye Oak’s makeover doesn’t entirely suit them—yet. That doesn’t make it a mistake. It just sets them up for even greater adventures. (May 15)

Download: “Shriek,” “Glory,” “Sick Talk”

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