Thursday, October 30, 2014

Scott Walker and Sunn 0)))

Scott Walker and Sunn O))) – Soused (4AD)

Just in time for Halloween, a new Scott Walker record. Not just Walker—a 71-year-old man who sings like he’s in a haunted house, his records full of atonal music and industrial sounds and general discomfort—but here he’s teamed up with droning avant-garde metal band Sunn O))). To some ears, it’s surely a match made in hell. Should you choose to blast it from your windows on Oct. 31, it’s guaranteed to terrify the neighbourhood children.

Yet as latter-day Scott Walker records go—he’s been on an increasingly strange trip since the 1980s, after starting out as a teen pop idol in the 1960s and a respected torch singer in the 1970s—Soused is relatively accessible. Sunn O))) are a grounding presence; even though it doesn’t sound like they’re doing much other than playing the longest, loudest guitar chords in history, they provide a valuable anchor for Walker’s melodies. They’re the railroad track that keeps you tethered as you travel through Walker’s house of horrors, where odd sounds creep out of the shadows, the light shifts subtly throughout, and Walker jumps in front of you every so often to assure you that there are “no raindrops on roses / no whiskers on kittens” and sing choruses about a woman who has “hidden her babies away” and perhaps break into an Iroquois children’s lullaby while he’s at it.

When Walker released the 2012 album Bisch Bosch, I wrote:Walker does not make music for you to enjoy; he makes music for you to endure ... He arranges unusual sounds and aural colours in ways most musicians could never imagine, rendering every other rock artist claiming to be avant-garde exposed as a timid poseur.”

That’s still true, which is why it’s weird that Sunn O))), of all people, turned out to be the collaborators that pulled Walker back from the brink. Sometimes a few guitars is all it takes.

Download: “Herod 2014,” “Brando,” “Lullaby”

Monday, October 27, 2014

Mopping up Q's mess

Today Brent Bambury was sent to mop up the mess at CBC’s Q, to be the public face of the show for the first episode of its future following a devastating weekend.

I’ve long thought that the wide-ranging cultural curiosity built into the Q structure was modelled on a (considerably) more mainstream version of Bambury’s first radio show, Brave New Waves—right down to the opening monologue. Bambury always opened his show with a quip, an observation, a commentary; it might have been a sentence, it might have been several paragraphs. (It didn’t rhyme.) It was one of my many favourite things about the program. For that reason, and others, Bambury has always been an ideal Q host; props also to Piya Chattopadhyay—here’s hoping one of them gets the gig. (I have a crazy hunch it won’t go to a man.)

Brave New Waves changed my life, with Bambury at the mic, 1985-1995. Of course, it wasn’t just he who changed my life: it was everyone who worked on the program and made it what it was. It wasn’t until I became a professional broadcaster that I fully realized that. We all hear the host; we don’t all hear the people behind him pitching ideas, researching his questions, writing his scripts (including the opening essays). Some radio hosts—not going to name any names here—are nowhere near as quick-witted and sharp when they attempt to freestyle without a script and prepared notes in front of them. A great radio show will survive the cult of celebrity.

One of the best things Bambury did during his the opening salvo today, other than acknowledging that the staff and the listeners are the true heart of the program? He didn’t conclude with a cutesy rhyme. The future doesn’t always rhyme. The truth doesn’t follow a tempo. There are always bumps ahead.  

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Perfume Genius - Too Bright

Perfume Genius – Too Bright (Matador) 

Ever since gay marriage vaulted queer issues into the mainstream, pop music has responded, if at all, with earnest platitudes (see: “Born This Way,” "Same Love"). Few musicians, if any, have used their art to suggest just how subversive queer culture was and is, how dangerous it is to embrace supposed “flamboyance,” the marginalization that exists outside of mainstream assimilation.

Then along comes a guy who calls himself Perfume Genius, with a song called “Queen,” with a chorus that baits: “No family is safe / when I sashay.” This man does not want a peaceful life in the suburbs and settling for tolerance rather than acceptance. He’s a queer Stagger Lee, a homophobe’s worst nightmare, “casing the barracks / for an ass to break and harness / into the fold / marry.” And he does so with a voice that struts and seethes, staring down death and disease and contempt, backed by a sparse and gutsy rhythm section that crafts majesty out of a bare minimum of notes.

Perfume Genius is 32-year-old Mike Hadreas of Seattle; this is his third album, but his first working with a full band. Producers John Parish (PJ Harvey) and Adrian Utley (Portishead) know when to leave Hadreas and his piano ballads alone, and exactly when to inject the appropriate bombast, glam rock and occasional steps into operatic avant-garde. He told Rolling Stone that he’s “trying to use whatever it is that makes people uncomfortable around me as a sort of power over them." It works.

“Fool” spends its first minute in a finger-snapping, pseudo-Motown groove before breaking down into a delicate dirge of operatic beauty that suspends the song for a full 90 seconds; the initial groove then returns with even more swagger. “Grid” is a two-chord synth blues, with Hadreas’s voice drenched in rockabilly reverb a la Suicide’s Alan Vega, with a chorus of screaming women in the background; someone considered it commercial enough to be the second single from the album (with accompanying bizarro video).

Too Bright is too short; it’s just over half an hour long. No complaints, however: it’s thoroughly satisfying, blending traditional songcraft—some songs here could easily be tackled by ’50s torch singers—and performance art in ways that precious few ever have done so successfully. His voice and piano playing are inherently gorgeous, yet he relishes dissonance and ugliness, perhaps to cast his brighter side in starker relief. Perhaps because this man is anything but one-dimensional.

Download: “Queen,” “My Body,” “Fool”

Aphex Twin - Syro

Aphex Twin – Syro (Warp/Maple)

Aphex Twin, a.k.a. Richard D. James: the enfant terrible of ’90s electronic music, the game-changer, the mad genius, the magical misanthrope, the man who made Radiohead’s Thom Yorke want to burn guitars. He’s been largely laying low for the past 13 years, living in a Scottish hamlet and raising two children. Apparently he’s kept busy, building robots in his backyard and making a lot of music that only now is seeing the light of day. Naturally, his legions of fans are ecstatic to see him return. What about the rest of us?

I’ve never cared for Aphex Twin in the past. Yet I love this album. Has he changed—or have I? (We’re the same age.) It’s natural for an innovator to sound benign two decades after first turning tables (or turntables). It’s entirely possible that Aphex Twin’s influence—digitally deconstructed beats and tones that can sound randomly generated to the untrained ear—is so far-reaching that we now take it for granted. (His ambient work, on the other hand, not heard on Syro, is a direct extension of Brian Eno’s early ’80s records.) The avant-garde of electronic music today is still catching up to what Aphex Twin was doing in the late ’90s. EDM owes James an enormous debt (see: Skrillex), even if it takes the most obvious aspects of his work set to punishing disco beats. Meanwhile, mainstream pop has become stranger and stranger, to the point where it’s not hard to hear the evil sonic sorcery of James at work there as well.

Squiggly bass, spasmodic rhythms, melodies as fleeting as jazz improvisations, played on alternately soft and distorted synthesizers—Aphex Twin weaves various discombobulated layers together to make something dense yet danceable, distant yet strangely seductive, despite the fact that it’s near impossible to detect a human hand at work anywhere here. The tracks are apparently named after some of the gear he uses, decibel levels he recorded at, or what seem like gobbledygook file names (or intentionally unintelligible passwords).

It’s tempting to wonder—especially when some ’90s jungle breaks surface, in mutated form—if James just dusted off some unreleased files from his heyday and passed them off as a new album; something his contemporary Plug did a couple of years back. But the tracks on Syro display a maturity, a confidence in which James doesn’t feel like he has to prove anything to anyone or even himself. There’s no need to be oppositional for the sake of it; there’s no envelope to consciously push against. Left on his own, in that small Scottish village, the mad musical mind of Richard D. James doesn’t have to compete with the noise of the world. He’s already changed the face of music; now he can sit back and enjoy it. So can we—some of us, for the first time.

Download: “180db,” “Minipops,” “CirclonT14”

Buck 65 - Neverlove

Buck 65 – Neverlove (Warner)

Matthew Sweet, a great songwriter better known as a one-hit wonder (“Girlfriend”) in the ’90s, once said that your dumbest song will be your biggest hit. Randy Newman (“Short People”) would agree. So would Chuck Berry: the rock’n’roll legend’s only No. 1 hit was not “Johnny B. Goode” or “Roll Over Beethoven”—but “My Ding-a-Ling.”

Buck 65 might be the next to join this list. Despite over 20 years making left-of-centre hip-hop—which occasionally borrowed from country music, prog rock and David Lynch soundtracks—he’s never had a commercial hit. A divorce album—which Neverlove is—seems like an odd gamble for success.

Yet here he is with “Super Pretty Naughty,” surely the greatest single of 2014, equally hideous and hilarious and an all-too-perfect send-up of Swedish techno pop that pushes all the right buttons, complete with the decadent chorus: “I wanna get dressed up, get sexed up and cake on my birthday!” What seems like a nonsensical party song sneaks in self-aware lines (“I wanna sell my perfect life”) and perhaps even a nod to Chuck Berry’s biggest hit (“Ding-a-ling! Sugar snack!”). And the video—well, that just needs to be seen to be believed. Let’s just say that it involves lasers shooting out of his groin. It’s merely a few punchlines short of a Flight of the Concords sketch.

What’s this song doing on a divorce album? Buck 65 says he wrote it during one of his lowest moments of his life: he wanted to write the most insanely happy song imaginable in a genre of music he didn’t understand. Mission accomplished.

The rest of Neverlove bears zero resemblance to "Super Pretty Naughty," which will surely baffle anyone discovering Buck 65 for the first time should the single blow up. It’s not exactly clear who this album is for: the glossy pop moments—like the Alicia Keys-ish “Heart of Stone,” or “Only War,” which could be a Katy Perry ballad—stand in stark contrast to opening track “Gates of Hell,” about a suicide attempt and featuring a death metal scream in the chorus, or the delicacy of the hushed “Baby Blanket.” Somewhere in between, “Je T’Aime Mon Amour” or the bouncy “Love Will Fuck You Up,” capture what Buck 65 does best, straddling genres and eras, his gruff, hobo beatnik persona delivering densely layered and playful rhyme schemes. When he raps over a flamenco-tinged 6/4 rhythm powered by handclaps, it’s exactly the kind of exploratory trickery we’d expect from him: “Music you can feel, but also taste and smell.”

Every track here features female vocals, acting as a foil to what could be a divorcĂ©’s pity party—especially when he tells us: “When my baby left me, I cried for an entire year.” It’s not an angry, bitter album; it’s reflective, probing, yet hardly a downer. It’s not at all mired in specifics—nor does it name any names (pay attention, Robin Thicke). It is, of course, inherently flawed and bipolar. It’s confounding and creative, gloriously messy and mixed-up—like any one of us would be after an emotionally volatile time.

If the sugar rush of the single draws you in the door, Buck 65 would like to show you some of the darker corners of his empty house as well.

Download: “Super Pretty Naughty,” “Je T’aime Mon Amour,” “Love Will Fuck You Up”