Wednesday, August 27, 2014

August 2014 reviews

Shamir: best summer sounds of 2014
Highly recommended: Bahamas, Shamir

Well worth your while: Hari Kondabolu, Kasai All-Stars, Shabazz Palaces

Strangely enough, the ghost of Kurt Cobain visits this month in the form of Benjamin Booker and Mirel Wagner, two artists as different from each other as they are from Cobain

Bahamas – Is Afie (Brushfire/Universal)

Another singer/songwriter album, another dozen love songs—except that this one sets the bar considerably higher, right from the opening lyrics: “I held your breath inside my lungs for days / and I saw myself as just one of many waves / when I knew I’d become the ocean’s slave / I just stayed.”

As the title partially explains, Bahamas is guitarist Afie Jurvanen, one-time sideman for Feist and Jason Collett. These days he’s selling out theatres on his own—before anyone even heard this career-making album.

Jurvanen recorded his first two (highly acclaimed) albums in the space of a week each. On this, his third, Jurvanen spent a whole summer in a studio. His love of late-night sessions fuelled by Willie Nelson and wine hasn’t changed; nor has his modest reluctance to showcase his skills as a soloist. But the extra attention to detail is obvious in every carefully constructed track, from the lovely vocal arrangements to the occasional string section to just the right amount of space left inside every song: Bahamas is all about the subtle charms, the soft sell.

There is no better album for the summer of 2014 to wind down a hot day, but of course Bahamas is an all-season affair—and this album is going to sound just as strong 50 years from now. (Aug. 21)

Download: “I Can’t Take You With Me,” “Bitter Memories,” “Half Mine”

Benjamin Booker – s/t (ATO/Maple)

Benjamin Booker is currently the handpicked opening act on Jack White’s arena tour. Growing up in Tampa Bay, Florida, the 24-year-old artist had a poster of the White Stripes on his wall ever since he was 13. If nothing else, Booker represents a passing of the torch: much like White did 15 years ago, Booker is poised to reinvigorate garage rock, blues and soul and reclaim it for his own generation. He does so with a voice that is at once a beaten-down Sam Cooke and a resurrected Kurt Cobain, fronting a group that’s equal parts Strokes, Constantines and a blues band you might stumble across in the wee hours of the morning in a bar off a back alley in New Orleans (where Booker now lives). His songwriting doesn’t yet match the rest of his talents, but he sounds one album away from a major breakthrough. (Aug. 21)

Download: “Old Hearts,” “Violent Shiver,” ”Wicked Waters”

Big Sugar – Yard Style (EOne)

Ever since Gordie Johnson first turned his amp up to 11 on 1993’s 500 Pounds album, Big Sugar has been known as one of the loudest bands in Canada—despite the fact that they started out as a jazz combo backing up Molly Johnson. Here, Johnson unplugs again.

Yard Style finds Johnson and his band literally in someone’s yard in Negril, Jamaica—you can hear the nighttime insects buzzing in the background between tracks—with acoustic guitars, harmonicas, melodicas and a nyabinghi drum, as well as reggae legend Willi Williams (“Armagideon Time”). Reggae has always been a primary element in Johnson’s pallet, especially on the 2000 dub remix album Alkaline. It’s miles—nay, continents— removed from the Sublime cover band playing at your local pub. It’s (almost) enough to reclaim the phrase “acoustic reggae” back from Jack Johnson. This Mr. Johnson is in a league of his own. (Aug. 7)

Download: “Calling All the Youth,” “Messenger Man” (feat. Willi Williams), “100 Cigarettes”

Cold Specks – Neuroplasticity (Arts and Crafts)

“Come along with me / I’m a maker of dreams,” sings Al Spx of Cold Specks. Sounds lovely—until you realize how ominous and creepy her dreams really are. She doesn’t call her music “doom soul” for nothing. Even when she uses major chords, there’s still some sinister sorcery at work underneath. It’s not clear which witch is Spx: the benevolent one guiding you through dark storms, or the evil one lording over armies of ghostly figures ready to pull you into the night. Between her, Austra and Timber Timbre, some of the best Canadian music of recent years has been decidedly more goth than usual.

Neuroplasticity is Cold Specks’ second album; the first revealed to us the glory of Spx’s voice, but largely suffered from similarity: same tempo, same key. Here she plays with a larger palette, to greater effect, but her songwriting ratio is the same: less than half of these 10 tracks fulfill her potential. It’s not exactly true that she has the kind of voice that could effectively sing the phone book, but it’s that voice that keeps us coming back for more. (Aug. 28)

Download: “Bodies at Bay,” “Living Signs,” “Absisto”

FKA twigs – LP1 (Beggars Banquet)

The most lauded debut of the year, by this 26-year-old Brit, most certainly deserves a “most promising” designation. But is FKA twigs really all that? She has a stunning voice, no question: sensual, mysterious, equally ethereal and soulful, often reaching the stratosphere with ease. Her art-damaged take on bedroom R&B is alluring; the production is avant-garde and intriguing, while she coos “When I trust you we can do it with the lights on,” or, “I could kiss you for hours.” And yet—it all feels paper-thin, ice-cold and distant. With two or three exceptions, the material is instantly forgettable. With her talent and profile attracting plenty of potential collaborators—T-Pain, for what it’s worth, who claims she changed his life—expect LP2 to carry plenty more weight. (Aug. 28)

Download: “Lights On,” “Two Weeks,” “Kicks”

Kasai Allstars – Beware the Fetish (Crammed)
Shabazz Palaces – Lese Majesty (Sub Pop)

As album titles go, Beware the Fetish is more than a bit intriguing. What fetish would that be, exactly? In the case of the 15-piece Congolese collective Kasai Allstars, it might be the fetishization of African music by Western audiences; despite the diversity of cultures on that enormous continent, African music often gets distilled down into two or three stereotypes. Kasai Allstars, on the other hand, sounds like little else in Africa or anywhere else. Their use of electronically modified thumb pianos—which can sound like croaking frogs or buzzing insects—sets them apart from every African act for whom electronics means Western synthesizers, presets and electric guitars. It also distinguishes them significantly from Western electronic music, the vast majority of which is sterile and rigid. Call-and-response vocals and traditional percussion round out the sound; songs last as long as they need to, sometimes well over 10 minutes—the album is 100 minutes long, though it never feels like it. It’s raw, visceral and hypnotizing—and more than anything else, it’s psychedelic.

Mind-altering psychedelia is also at the core of trippy Seatlle hip-hop outfit Shabazz Palaces, whose second album features even fewer concessions to conventions of pop, rap or anything else. Vocals are augmented by disorienting amounts of delay and reverb; beats stutter and fumble; choruses are non-existent. Ringleader Ishmael Butler used elements of jazz in his previous group, Digable Planets, but here he’s into some next-level, mid-’70s Miles Davis: pushing boundaries and challenging expectations. Eighteen tracks coalesce into seven “suites,” but Lese Majesty works best as one piece—or, perhaps, on shuffle in a playlist with Kasai Allstars, if you really want to trip to the outer reaches of space and sound. (Aug. 21)

Download Kasai Allstars: “He Who Makes Bush Fires For Others,” “In Praise of Homeboys,” “The Dead Don’t Dance”

Download Shabazz Palaces: “Forerunner Friday,” “Solemn Swears,” “#CAKE”

Hari Kondabolu – Waiting for 2042 (Kill Rock Stars)

Being a political comedian is much easier than being a political songwriter—but it’s still no walk in the park. Channelling your anger into humour, and simultaneously hoping to enlighten rather than just preach to the converted, is a rare talent. Hari Kondabolu has a master’s degree in human rights from the London School of Economics: he’s not here just to take cheap shots at Republicans. He will, however, relish in pointing out the illogical doublethink of racists who refuse to believe in a non-white Jesus or are worried about America’s white population becoming a demographic minority by 2042—which, as Kondabolu points out, is only even possible if you assume a) the other 51 per cent are all the same, and b) that all white people identify as one.

Kondabolu also delights in skewering those of his own political bent, especially his myriad friends who, frustrated with the state of America, continuously claim that they’re going to move to Canada. “Canada does not have a special visa for American liberal cowards. That’s not how the immigration system works!” Kondabolu hectors. He then goes on to debunk Canada’s good-guy reputation, and suggests that we look good only because the U.S. is so widely reviled around the world. “It’s like in high school, and there’s the dude who’s punching you in the face, every day, against your locker. Then his friend shows up and starts laughing. As the two of them start walking away, the dude that was laughing turns around and says, ‘Dude, I’m so sorry.’ That’s Canada!”

Kondabolu’s true brilliance, however, is not just his political or racial material, but his self-awareness (including his use of third person) and meta-jokes, in which he analyzes his own delivery and set-ups immediately after delivering a punchline—and sometimes the footnotes are funnier than the original joke. (Aug. 14)

Download: “My White Chocolate Joke,” “Toby,” “2042 and the White Minority”

Shamir – Northtown EP (Godmode)

Shamir Bailey is a 19-year-old from Las Vegas with a gorgeous, androgynous voice—that’s not a falsetto, folks. At the end of his disco-driven debut EP is a cover of Toronto country singer Lindi Ortega, a solo guitar-and-voice take on her song "Lived and Died Alone." It’s a shocking twist following four tracks of joyous dance pop that owes more than a few debts to early ’90s house music (which is undoubtedly on its way back; see: Kiesza). Apparently he’s also a huge Tegan and Sara fan and used to play in a punk band: this guy’s taste is all over the map. “I still don’t feel like there are too many artist around my age that are being very diverse with their music,” he told Pitchfork. The stark Ortega cover is the only evidence of his catholic interests on this EP; otherwise, he sounds like a musical sponge who’s been dwelling in discos his whole life, displaying the range and control of a veteran diva—especially on the show-stopping R&B ballad "I’ll Never Be Able to Love." Undoubtedly the most promising act of 2014. (Aug. 7)

Download: Everything you possibly can. Listen here

Spoon – They Want My Soul (Universal)
Operators – EP1 (Last Gang)

An interesting title choice for this band’s first major-label album in over 15 years. Yet little has changed for these critical favourites, who are still a minimalist rock band writing classic pop melodies with R&B swagger and experimental electronics hovering in the background. They’ve already sold hundreds of thousands of records and cracked the American Top 10, so it’s not like this album will suddenly break open new doors for Spoon: if you like Spoon, there’s plenty of Spoonness to like here, with fewer of the weird detours found on 2010’s Transference. It’s hard to fault a band this good for their consistency.

But if you love Spoon, you’ve heard it all before—and They Want My Soul is far from Spoon at their best, despite the fact they brought in outside producers for the first time: Dave Fridmann (Flaming Lips, Tame Impala) and Joe Chiccarelli (Morrissey, Shins). They certainly don’t need them, as drummer Jim Eno has been a principal architect of Spoon recordings since the beginning. (Eno also helmed Telekinesis’s 2013 album Dormarion, which is one of the best American rock records since Spoon’s 2007 album Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga.) Singer/guitarist Britt Daniel’s side project Divine Fits, whose 2013 debut flew under most people’s radar, contained both better songs and wilder detours.

Unfortunately, Divine Fits also outshines Operators, the new band by Daniel’s partners in that band: Dan Boeckner (Handsome Furs, Wolf Parade) and Sam Brown (New Bomb Turks). Boeckner has been surrounding himself with more and more electronics since the dissolution of Wolf Parade—which until now has worked well, especially on the Handsome Furs’ second album, Face Control. Yet Boeckner sounds best when he’s at least anchoring himself with a guitar slung over his shoulder; at the very least, it inspires him to write better songs than the five on offer here. (Aug. 14)

Download Spoon: “Inside Out,” “Do You,” “Outlier”
Download Operators: “Ancient,” “True,” “Start Again”

Mirel Wagner – When the Cellar Children See the Light of Day (Sub Pop)

Cheery title, that. This Finnish folk singer opens her album with a morbid minor-key children’s rhyme: “1, 2, 3, 4, what’s underneath the floor? / Chewed up lips, milky milk teeth, little bit of pain and a whole lot of need.” Things don’t lighten up from there. Not that you want them to: Wagner is so effective at creating a sparse and desolate atmosphere that any hint of redemption would seem disingenuous.

There’s very little decorating the skeleton of her and her acoustic guitar; she sounds like a ghostly girl discovered playing in a corner of your attic. It’s not just the instrumentation that’s sparse; so is her playing, almost amateurish in its rhythm if it wasn’t so obviously intentionally creating a mood. Her chord choices are right out of Nirvana’s Unplugged, a mixture of folk and blues motifs and occasional left-field chords borrowed from the Beatles or Pixies; her deadpan drawl recalls Townes Van Zant at times. Wagner keeps her songs short and sharp; yes, she delivers a downpour of dread, but never is it maudlin or obvious or remotely gimmicky. She’s a charismatic storyteller who can stop you dead in your tracks. (Aug. 28)

Download: “1 2 3 4,” “The Dirt,” “The Devil’s Tongue”

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

New Pornographers - Brill Bruisers

New Pornographers – Brill Bruisers (Last Gang)

The New Pornographers once had a song called "Sing Me Spanish Techno." This is their first album that could actually be accused of doing so.

It’s not that the New Pornographers have gone EDM, exactly. But it’s not at all hard to imagine some Euro DJ taking these tracks and having a field day with them, creating club bangers in the process.

Lead songwriter A.C. Newman has always employed new wave synths in his power pop; on his most recent solo album, Shut Down the Streets, he populated his folkie singer/songwriter side with spacy keyboards seemingly borrowed from ’70s sci-fi soundtracks. Here, the synths sound borrowed from Tegan & Sara’s recent makeover (a duo who was produced by New Pornographer associates John Collins and Dave Carswell before they blew up as a pop act). Brill Bruisers has plenty of chugging, metronomic eighth-note guitar riffs and four-on-the-floor beats underscoring the baroque vocal arrangements and layered rock instrumentation.

Other than those cosmetics, Brill Bruisers continues to exploit the wealth of talent in this band: not just Newman’s songwriting but that of Destroyer’s Dan Bejar, whose three songs here are the only ones, oddly enough, to feature an entirely incongruous harmonica, even on the ambient, beatless techno of Spidyr. Kathryn Calder, whose solo albums the world seems to be ignoring at their own peril, continues to carve out her own real estate in an already crowded band that happens to feature Neko Case as resident show-stealer.

That wealth of talent, however, also invites comparisons—and A.C. Newman, Case, Destroyer and Calder have all put out solo records in the last two years that tower over almost everything they’ve ever done. Imagine if you could successfully argue that solo albums by the four Beatles were better than The White Album and Abbey Road: in 2014, a new New Pornographers record has even more to live to than any one band’s discography. By that near-impossible standard, Brill Bruisers takes a back seat; on first impression, it would seem strength in numbers doesn’t necessarily apply this time out—more Travelling Wilburys than Beatles. Yet the glory of their combined vocals—which are distributed more evenly this time out, with the normally selfish Bejar even duetting with Calder—is still more than thrilling, and essential listening. (Aug. 28)

Download: “Champions of Red Wine,” “War on the East Coast,” “Wide Eyes”

Monday, August 25, 2014

Morrissey, Tom Petty, and the 25-year slump

I haven’t listened—willingly and repeatedly—to a new album by Morrissey or Tom Petty since I was in high school. That was 25 years ago, folks. Did I miss anything?

Morrissey – World Peace is None of Your Business (Harvest/EMI)

You’d be forgiven for thinking Morrissey is an over-the-hill, pompous British rock star best left to the ’80s—the decade in which, arguably, was the last time he made a good record. The Smiths broke up. Morrissey’s solo career proved largely to be of diminishing returns. Now he’s good for little more than the occasional, inflammatory quote about animal rights.

Well, you and I are both wrong. World Peace is None of Your Business is a dramatic tour-de-force that finds Morrissey with a more commanding voice than in his heyday, leading a band that provide his overwrought lyrics with all the requisite drama they deserve. Producer Joe Chiccarelli gives everything a massive sonic weight to it, without merely turning up the guitar amps. Morrissey sounds like he spent as much, if not more, time on his melodies than his infamously (inane and) provocative lyrics.

It’s tempting, in a Morrissey review, to just provide a litany of lyrical zingers. There’s never shortage to choose from. (My favourite absurdity here: “Neal Cassady drops dead / and Allen Ginsberg’s tears shampoo his beard.”) There was a time when we laughed with Morrissey’s lyrics and Wildean wit; nowadays, we mostly laugh at him.

Yes, he’s ridiculous. When was he not? For every comical couplet (or questionable one, of which there are more than a few, starting with the title track), he also has retains his powerful ability to champion the outcasts, the suicidal, the bullied, the gender outlaws: “Humans are not really humane / and Earth is the loneliest planet of all.” Of course it is. His misanthropy (and arguably misogyny) gets the better of him on the vile “Kick the Bride Down the Aisle,” but surely the last 30 years have prepared us for that.

The man who put out some of his best songs with the Smiths on B-sides is up to similar tomfoolery here: this is available as a 12-song album with six bonus tracks on the deluxe edition, and at least half of the bonus tracks are better than most of the regular album—including the bombastic power of “Scandinavia,” the one track here that can instantly convince you Morrissey is on top of his game. (Aug. 7)

Download: “Scandinavia,” “The Earth is the Loneliest Planet of All,” “I’m Not a Man”

Tom Petty – Hypnotic Eye (Warner)

Tom Petty wrote enough classic songs in the first 20 years of his career, that you can forgive him for coasting these last 20—maybe even 25—years. Can you name a single Petty song after 1994’s Wildflowers? We’ve come to expect very little from Petty except a tour every couple of years. And yet here he comes out swinging with 11 tracks that make up for a lot of lost time. He told CBC Radio’s Q that “the snarl had come back”—this is not the sound of an old stoner who’s into transcendental meditation, but that of an angry guy with something to prove. Who knows what led Petty to this place: maybe, as he sings, “I feel like a forgotten man.”

No matter, because his band of Heartbreakers—including guitarist Mike Campbell and keyboardist Benmont Tench, who have been with him since high school—match him with vigour and spirited performances. For a legend who gets a standing ovation just for showing up these days, Tom Petty finally found some fire in his belly. A few more albums like this and he could coast for another 20 years.

“If I’m not making good records,” he told Q, “there’s no reason to buy another Tom Petty record. You’ve got quite a few already. But if I can make one that you want to get, then I’ve done my job.” Job well done, Mr. Petty. (Aug. 14)

Download: “American Dream Plan B,” “Red River,” “Fault Lines”