Highly recommended: Meridian Brothers, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Jack White, Slakah the Beatchild
Can’t believe I missed this in 2013: John Grant
Worth your while: everything else
The following reviews originally ran in the Waterloo Record.
Fatima Al Qadiri – Asiatisch (Hyperdub)
Born and raised in Kuwait, currently living in London and New York, Fatima Al Qadiri has never been to China. Yet she’s fascinated by the music of that country—more specifically, how the rest of the world understands Chinese music: its tonalities, its scale, how it’s been interpreted by Western ears over centuries. She describes Asiatisch as “a virtual road trip through imagined China.”
What a Chinese musician might think of this, no one’s bothered to ask; Qadiri was raised literally in between China and London—to which her style of electronic music owes its largest debt, specifically her icy, noir-ish labelmates on the Hyperdub label—so she’s arguably more entitled to this exploration than, say, some white guy from Wyoming.
The politics of her approach aside, Asiatisch is bewitching and fascinating, both melodically and texturally. This is not beat music; Qadiri opts for a more cinematic, dreamlike approach. She also has a penchant for unfashionably out-of-date synths, i.e. ones from the late ’80s, which fit her contextual motif perfectly: the sounds that are too cheezy to be either vintage or forward-looking are perfectly in line with the anomaly that is current Asian pop music, which appropriates many of Western pop’s worst habits 20 years later.
That manifests itself in the bizarre, ersatz cover of Sinead O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U,” sung by guest vocalist Helen Feng. Rather, it’s not exactly a cover: it’s titled “Shanzai,” for one thing, and takes just enough liberties with the melody that it might withstand a court challenge for plagiarism. It’s disorienting, haunting and oddly beautiful: no wonder Qadiri chose it as the opening track, setting up the rest of her conceit perfectly. (June 26)
Download: “Szechuan,” “Wudang,” “Shanghai Freeway”
John Grant – Pale Green Ghosts (Nevado)
I don’t normally review albums more than a year old. But I had never heard of John Grant before now. Or maybe I had: Pitchfork and Mojo and The Guardian and Sinead O’Connor and Elton John are all huge fans; O’Connor has covered him, and Elton John invited Grant to be on his self-curated tribute to Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.
Grant’s non-descript birth name doesn’t do him any favours in the recognition department. What makes more of an impression than anything else is the phrases tumbling out of his mouth, articulating the unthinkable—comparing a lover’s silence to Agent Orange—and using words like callypigian (look it up, it’s a good one).
In an album chock full of quotable moments, nothing beats this chorus, set to a tune worthy of Tom Petty: “I am the greatest motherf--ker that you’re ever going to meet / from the top of my head down to the tips of the toes on my feet / Go ahead and love me while it’s still a crime / don’t forget, you could be laughing 65 per cent more of the time.”
This baritone bear of a man, a failed alt-rock musician from Colorado who relocated to Iceland (where he wrote that country’s 2014 Eurovision entry), pens lush ballads and electro pop, both equally strange and profane, that sound like no one else—except perhaps a strange amalgam of Buck 65 and the Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt. Maybe Pink Floyd and Kraftwerk setting Lou Reed diaries to music, only with a much greater sense of melody. Maybe—nope, I can’t do it. John Grant is a rare and beautiful bird. End of story. His name and face might be easily camouflaged in the crowd, but these are songs you will never forget. (June 19)
Download: “Blackbelt,” “GMF,” “You Don’t Have To”
Hedwig and the Angry Inch – Broadway Cast Recording (Warner)
The greatest rock music of our time debuted 15 years ago off-Broadway; the 2001 film, starring creator John Cameron Mitchell, became a cult hit, and this year a Broadway remount of the show, starring Neil Patrick Harris, nabbed four Tony awards: hence this new cast recording.
“It’s funny how things work out,” Mitchell told the Toronto Star last week. “The original show was never a big money-maker, the movie was initially a flop, although Hedwig is always playing somewhere around the world. It’s so popular in Korea they even had a TV reality show to pick the next Hedwig in the last production.”
The story of Hedwig is threadbare: its appeal lies entirely in the title character, a failed glam rock singer who suffered a botched sex-change operation, and her relationship with a protégé who steals all her songs and becomes a star. Hedwig is both hilarious and tragic, but it’s the songs—by Mitchell and Stephen Trask—that transform it from a curiosity into a triumph. There’s already a cast recording from the off-Broadway version, the soundtrack to the film, and a tribute album (Wig in a Box) featuring Cyndi Lauper, Rufus Wainwright, Spoon, Sleater-Kinney and more. Do we need to hear these songs again?
Yes. For all its cult popularity, Hedwig still needed a proper, modern recording. The tribute album, worthy as it is, is more interpretive than reverent. The energy of the band here is more pronounced here than on either soundtrack featuring Mitchell, and the production is full of punch. Perhaps needless to say, Tony winner Harris is fantastic, as is his female foil, Lena Hall. As a bonus, there’s one new song, “When Love Explodes (Love Theme from Hurt Locker)”: “Love can be scary in the hurt locker / it’s tender and it’s raw and filled with shock and awe / and we will be consumed when love explodes.”
Every one of these songs deserves to be an American classic, and this is the recording to make the case. Hair? Tommy? Jersey Boys? American Idiot? Please. Hedwig rules them all. (June 26)
Download: “Tear Me Down,” “Wicked Little Town,” “Wig in a Box”
Hamilton Leithauser - Black Hours (Ribbon)
Some voices are too big for rock’n’roll. Hamilton Leithauser certainly had sublime moments as frontman for the Walkmen, but at some point the bombast started to sound suffocating. Here, on his solo debut, Leithauser and Walkmen guitarist Paul Maroon strip everything down and steps into noir-ish cabaret mode (hence the title, no doubt), adding marimba and the Dirty Projectors’ Amber Coffman on backing vocals when they see fit. Given room to roam over this moody, often atmospheric collection, Leithauser proves what a remarkable vocalist he truly is. He only disappoints on the tracks that sound merely like the Walkmen unplugged. Someone send this guy to Broadway. (June 12)
Download: “5 AM,” “The Silent Orchestra,” “Bless Your Heart”
Corb Lund – Counterfeiters Blues (New West)
Corb Lund and his Hurtin’ Albertans are a barn-burning live act, and have been for more than a decade. This is their first live album—of sorts. With seven fine albums behind him, Lund is consistently converting new fans—many of whom surely don’t know where to start with his back catalogue. Counterfeiters Blues is not a live album, but it finds Lund and his band revisiting his two bestsellers—2002’s stone-cold classic Five Dollar Bill and 2005’s Hair in My Eyes Like a Highland Steer—by recording selected songs from them live at Memphis’s fabled Sun Studios (former home to Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, etc.).
These are songs that these boys know inside out—and it shows. Playing the title tracks and crowd-pleasers like “Shine Up My Boots” or “Roughest Neck Around” is surely little more than muscle memory by now, but it comes off as a lot more than that. You could argue that these veterans were in awe of their historic surroundings in Memphis, but the truth is that they probably sound like this every night. This is a well-oiled machine that gets better with age, especially guitarist Grant Siemens.
Lund doesn’t need a nostalgia trip; his last album, 2012’s Cabin Fever, was easily one of his best. But this collection, which accompanies a television special about the session (included with the CD), is a welcome treat for fans old and new. (June 19)
Download: “Hair in My Eyes Like a Highland Steer,” “(Gonna) Shine Up My Boots,” “Truth Comes Out”
Meridian Brothers – Salvadora Robot (Soundway)
Your summer should sound like this: drunk, demented, delirious—and South American. This is what your World Cup party feels like after your underdog team beats all odds and you find yourself using a vuvuzela to imbibe multi-coloured sugary drinks you’ve never seen before, kissing people in the street and waking up in a strange part of town.
Elbis Alvarrez is the one-man operation from Bogota calling himself Meridian Brothers. On his third international release—not counting his side projects, including the mind-melting Los Piranas—he mashes together every equatorial genre of music (cumbia, calypso, reggae, samba) and escorts you through a funhouse of mirrors. Whether you dance or just sit there dazed is up to you.
Alvarrez has a simple methodology: set up a killer percussion track, employ minimal rhythm guitar, and then wig out on either processed lead guitar or fuzzy organs that sound like bees—all while cackling maniacally. Evil genius, or just plain genius? Maybe just the album of the summer. (June 19)
Download: “De Mi Caballo Como Su Carne,” “Un Principe Miserable Y Malvado,” “Balie Ultimo”
Shi Wisdom – Stranger Things Have Happened (independent)
Perhaps the most underrated Canadian hip-hop record of 2013 was Water, by Toronto producer KJ, where the dark, ominous beats put to shame the considerably more acclaimed work of Drake and The Weeknd; together, they all make Toronto seem like one spooky place. Now comes singer Shi Wisdom, with KJ behind the boards, and she injects some badly needed estrogen into the scene. Her ultra-cool coo is nothing short of chilling on “Young Gunner,” a harrowing tale of urban violence; that track alone should catapult her into the larger consciousness. But she has a softer and sultry side, too, one that aspires to be “sipping champagne on a yacht”—even if her uneasy aural surroundings suggest that to be more aspirational than immediately attainable. With a voice like that, however—and with KJ in her corner—surely it’s only a matter of time. (June 12)
Download: “The Key,” “Fly Too,” “Young Gunner”
Slakah the Beatchild - Soul Movement Vol. 2 (BBE)
Hip-hop has been sounding a lot less funky lately—thanks, Drake and Kanye. “Old school” no longer means a throwback to the ’80s or the Golden Age of the early ‘90s; by channelling the broken beat movement and neo-soul of the early 2000s, Toronto producer Slakah the Beatchild—on whose previous album Drake was a guest MC—now sounds positively retro, and better for it. The first lyrics you hear come from MC Spek Won, setting the tone: “Starts with a boom, ends with a bap, it’s in between the boom and the bap is the gap / in between the gap is where the magic happens / a chemical reaction.”
The last Slakah record came out under his rock/pop guise, the Slakadeliqs; it landed on the Polaris Prize long list and got a fair amount of attention, but I found it limp and uninspired. This, however, proves that he’s much more than just a genre dabbler; these tight and jazzy grooves, many of which turn themselves inside out over the course of a track, are the product of a serious vision. Guest vocalists include powerhouse soul sister Tanika Charles, newcomer Ayah and the long-lost Glenn Lewis, but they all take a back seat to the beats—and the Beatchild. (June 12)
Download: “Stompthatflo” (feat. Spek Won), “Something About Her,” “Love Fool” (feat. Tanika Charles)
William Tyler – Lost Colony EP (Merge)
If I told you this was an instrumental guitar rock record, I wouldn’t blame you for running away screaming. The genre is usually the domain of masturbatory showboaters who just don’t know when to shut up and sit back. Nashville’s William Tyler, however, is a much more delicate man than that. Having grown up as a young wunderkind playing sideman in older people’s bands (Lambchop, Silver Jews), Tyler has a deep reverence for both mainstream country (his parents are hit songwriters) and the avant-garde (he’s a big fan of Krautrock band Neu!; here, he covers a solo track by that band’s guitarist, Michael Rother). On this EP, which follows up two acclaimed albums of solo, fingerpicked electric guitar compositions, Tyler employs a backing band to allow him to explore psychedelic textures, hammer out droning power chords over a driving rhythm section, and bring the subtle virtuosity he displayed as a sideman to the forefront. Tyler’s version of Americana draws from so much more than cliché country or rock forms; this is a man whose guitar speaks many languages. (June 19)
Download: all three songs
Viet Cong – Cassette (Mexican Summer)
Matt Flegel and Matt Wallace are not Vietnamese, yet they are Viet Cong. They are also not women, yet they used to be one-half of the Calgary band Women. When they don’t claim to be anything at all, they’ve been known to be sidemen for freaky fractured folk guy Chad Van Gaalen. As Viet Cong, they play catchy, ramshackle and reverb-heavy garage rock that owes a debt to early ’80s British post-punk: opening track “Throw It Away” is a dead ringer for The Jam, while “Structureless Design” is downright goth. Psychedelic touches colour the edges, and they make the most out of their decidedly lo-fi sound. A full-length album is currently being recorded with Graham Walsh (Holy Fuck, Metz); look for it to be some of the most glorious noise of the year. (June 12)
Download: “Throw It Away,” “Static Wall,” “Unconscious Melody”
Jack White – Lazaretto (Third Man/Sony)
No artist wants to launch a new album with a public apology. A week before Lazaretto’s release, Jack White was quoted in Rolling Stone dissing various peers; this, along with messy details of his divorce last year, didn’t do well to endear him to the record-buying public. So he quickly issued a long apology on his website, claiming he was quoted out of context and has nothing but respect and/or love for those artists allegedly caught in his crosshairs. (Widely reposted, the original post in question has mysteriously been taken down.) “Would You Fight For My Love?” asks White in the title of one of his new tracks. Long-time fans may be beginning to wonder.
Maybe Jack White is a bit of an ass. Maybe he’s not. He certainly has terrible hair these days, for what it’s worth. But if we approach his music on its own terms, White gives us plenty of reason to stand by our man. His first solo album, 2012’s Blunderbuss, sounded like White suddenly liberated from the constraints of each of his other three bands; here his eclectic tastes crystallize into a far more potent punch. Country fiddles collide with blues riffs on heavy garage rock with R&B beats, and White makes it all sound effortless. (It wasn’t; uncharacteristically for White, he spent much longer than a week on this record.) He even does it while using two completely different full bands—one male, one female—each of which boasts killer keyboardists, pedal steel players and funky drummers, each of which bring out the best in him. Perhaps needless to say, his guitar sound is monstrous, and he plays with more fire than he has in ages—it’s probably the divorce talking. (The lyrics back up this thesis.)
If you only read the rock’n’roll gossip pages, you might want Jack White to fail. But once you hear this record, you can be sure that he hasn’t. (June 12)
Download: “Three Women,” “Lazaretto,” “High Ball Stepper”