Monday, November 24, 2014

November 2014 reviews

Highly recommended: Amelia Curran, Lynne Hanson
Well worth your while: Jennifer Castle, Sagot, Neil Young

As always, these reviews ran in the Waterloo Record this month.

Jennifer Castle – Pink City (Idée Fixe)

We’ve all had those artists we don’t “get” for years, until one minor epiphany suddenly reveals to us what we’ve been missing all these years. Some of the biggest musical loves of my life have been revealed to me slowly in this fashion, finally overcoming some strange subjective grudge. For years, my friends in Toronto’s music community have sung the praises of Jennifer Castle, known for her solo performances, her guest spots on Fucked Up albums, and her band with the Constantines Dallas Wehrle, Deloro. I’ve seen her play a couple of times; I’ve heard her recordings. I was always left cold, even the first dozen times I heard this album, which features some of Toronto’s finest musicians and string arrangements by Owen Pallett.

This month, she played Toronto with Denmark’s chamber-pop songwriter Agnes Obel, who has taken Castle on tour. In an acoustically pristine soft-seat theatre, Castle’s solo performance was jarring, captivating and curious. Everything about her stage demeanour appeared out of place, yet her voice was in full focus: every quiver, every time she slid between notes, the full body of her lower register.

Castle’s music sounds like it was made in isolation, crafted in a remote Appalachian (or Algonquin) cabin (“I don’t need a home / don’t need a lover / I’ll be out on my own / come hell or high water”). Though rooted in folk forms, she doesn’t always follow familiar refrains, chord patterns or consistent tempos; many of her instrumental voicings and melodies owe more of a debt to jazz. Then there’s her voice itself: part Mary Margaret O’Hara, part Vashti Bunyan, a folkie flower child sounding alternately lost and innocent or wise and weary. In her left-field approach to folk, she also recalls Nick Drake, who used jazz players and stood far apart from his contemporaries. (She does not, however, sound like Nick Drake.) Though it was her solo performance I found so striking, Pink City is very delicately decorated with subtle touches from players careful not to tread on her unique talent.

Of course, at the same concert where I had my conversion, my companion had the complete opposite reaction. To each their own. It takes time to enter this magical Castle’s world. (Nov. 13)

Download: “Truth is the Freshest Fruit,” “Nature,” “Broken Vase”

Amelia Curran – They Promised You Mercy (Six Shooter)

If you’re a folkie singer/songwriter looking to expand your sound, you’d be hard pressed to find a better producer than ex-Rheostatic Michael Phillip Wojewoda, a man who’s worked in almost every genre of music and knows how to capture dynamics. Your song that sounds perfect with just your own stunning voice and minimal guitar accompaniment sounds even better with what Wojewoda decides to add and how he does it.

The East Coast’s Amelia Curran has been stopping listeners dead in their tracks ever since her 2008 album War Brides brought her to national attention. Until now, her approach has been relatively bare bones; this, on the other hand, is a full-blown rock record by comparison, full of ringing electric guitars, powerful drums, strings (by Drew Jurecka, of Jill Barber’s band), horns (by Bryden Baird, of Feist’s band), lap steel, accordion, and some stunning jazz piano and organ work by Aaron Davis (Holly Cole Trio).

A great band and great producer don’t make a great record, of course, and it’s Curran’s voice and songs that are always centre stage. She is a master of empathy, the kind of voice you need to hear in your darkest moments, the kind of voice that has lived through mood disorders and anxiety (the topic of a current public awareness campaign she’s spearheaded) and reaches out in song.

Here, with the help of many friends, a variety of tempos and textures ensure that it’s not a dour affair. It’s much more than that: it’s a powerful record by a major artist. (Nov. 13)

Download: “I Am the Night,” “Coming For You,” “Somebody Somewhere”

Lynne Hanson – River of Sand (independent)

She’s chasing whiskey with what’s left of her tears. She says, “There are days I only feel the pain / Even god don’t wanna know my name.” She’s “living life like a country song.” She writes painfully honest songs about divorce, addiction and sexual predators. She is Ottawa songwriter Lynne Hanson, and she’s made the only roots rock record of 2014 to hold a candle to Rosanne Cash’s The River and the Thread.

This is Hanson’s third album, but her first in four years. Produced by veteran songwriter Lynn Miles and featuring a host of ace Ottawa session players, Hanson’s album boasts 11 songs that project a confidence and boldness that her characters are searching for. Her honey-sweet voice and lovely arrangements offset the subject matter; unless you’re listening closely, you might merely think this was a gorgeous, Sunday autumn afternoon album. There’s a lot more inside, however, and Hanson is the new(ish) Canadian songwriter you should be getting to know better right now. (Nov. 7)

Download: “River of Sand,” “Whiskey and Tears,” “Foolish Things”

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Pt. 1 OST – Various Artists

Every Hunger Games soundtrack so far—this is the third—has promised more than it delivered. Yet it’s that promise that excites every time, even if the albums have borne diminishing returns since the T Bone Burnett-produced original featured Taylor Swift in a surprisingly subdued, folkie mode, as well as solid contributions from Arcade Fire, Neko Case, Miranda Lambert and others. The Catching Fire soundtrack was handled by a traditional Hollywood music supervisor, whose best move was getting Lorde to cover Tears For Fears’ "Everybody Wants to Rule the World," one of the most memorable covers of recent years.

Lorde returns to assemble this soundtrack. In many ways, she’s an ideal curator: she is, after all, 18, the same age as Katniss Everdeen at this stage of the story. She offers two new songs (and a Kanye West reworking of one of them); sadly, neither stand out. She does, however, appear on a track with Stromae, Pusha T and Haim, surely the strangest collaboration of the year—and also the best. Charlie XCX, 22, gets Duran Duran’s Simon LeBon to guest on her track, another highlight here. Some of the high-profile collabs don’t pan out as well: Ariana Grande tries her best over a weak Major Lazer track, and Miguel is smothered underneath a sonic onslaught from the Chemical Brothers.

Tinashe, 21, stands out with the slow-burning "The Leap." At the other side of the age divide, roping in Grace Jones, 66, is another coup (much like getting Patti Smith for Catching Fire), even if her new song, the largely percussive "Original Beast," is a mere throwaway.

Even if at least half of this soundtrack doesn’t work, it still marks one of the rare occasions today when a Hollywood studio actually prioritizes an original soundtrack, one with modern, high-profile, relevant artists writing new songs in thematic accordance with the actual script. It’s that attention to detail—and carefully catering to its targeted fan base—that has made the franchise so wildly successful. (Nov. 20)

Download: “Meltdown” – Stromae feat. Lorde, Pusha T, Q-Ti and Haim; “Dead Air” – CHVRCHES; “Kingdom” – Charlie XCX feat. Simon LeBon

Jenny Hval and Susanna – Meshes of Voice (SusannaSonata)

This summer, Kate Bush returned to the stage for the first time in 35 years. That prompted plenty of long-dormant fans to book plane tickets to London for 22 shows that sold out in 15 minutes, and others to pen essays about how there has never been another pop performer like her. There has, of course: people like Bjork and Owen Pallett and St. Vincent—and more recently, EMA— all blend avant-garde sensibilities with pop music, making brainy music that also provides visceral release.

These two Norwegian performers, each with moderately successful solo careers, easily tap into Bush’s template of melodramatic, narrative piano ballads subverted by bursts of noise and abstraction and atonality that challenge your expectations around every corner. Hval is also a novelist and performance artist; in much of her work, the sounds she uses—as well as the way her voice slides between notes—are as much a part of the narrative as her lyrics. (Her 2013 album Innocence is Kinky was one of that year’s best.) Susanna’s music is usually much prettier than this; together, they’re fascinating and daring. (Nov. 7)

Download: “I Have Walked This Body,” “Black Lake,” “Running Bones”

Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes – Various Artists (Universal)

If this project sounded too good to be true, that’s because it is. Take some long-lost lyrics by Bob Dylan, written after his 1966 motorcycle crash, and hand them over to producer T Bone Burnett, who in turn invites Elvis Costello, Jim James of My Morning Jacket, Marcus Mumford (Mumford and Sons), Rhiannon Giddens (Carolina Chocolate Drops) and Taylor Goldsmith (Dawes) to write accompanying music to be performed by all involved—except Dylan, of course.

It doesn’t work, and there are plenty of reasons why. For starters, maybe these lyrics were long-lost for a reason; there’s nothing particularly Dylanesque about them. Maybe there are too many cooks in this kitchen. Maybe it’s because this was written and recorded in two weeks. Maybe everyone was trying too hard to sound like Bob Dylan. Maybe everyone was trying too hard not to sound like Bob Dylan. Who knows? What we have here isn’t even these artists sounding like the best versions of themselves—and that’s the bigger crime than whether or not this serves the legacy of Bob Dylan or not.

It’s not entirely terrible, of course; there’s enough talent here to make it at least listenable. Giddens delivers a beautiful “Lost on the River #20,” and her fiddle is a welcome presence throughout. Mumford offers the biggest surprise, with the sparse, somewhat funky and haunting “When I Get My Hands On You.” Taylor Goldsmith, probably the least known of these performers, acquits himself well.

Lost on the River comes on the heels of a six-disc “complete” version of The Basement Tapes, the original songs and cover versions recorded by Dylan and The Band in 1966; surely Dylan freaks will find much more there to pore over than the detritus heard here. The record company isn’t lying when it says, somewhat carefully, that this is “a music event 47 years in the making.” Whether it was worth waiting for is a whole other issue. (Nov. 20)

Download: “Diamond Ring,” “Lost on the River #20,” “When I Get My Hands On You”

Nickelback – No Fixed Address (Universal)

Nickelback is the biggest rock band in the world. (They’re also the loudest, based on the ear-splitting mastering job here.) Now they’re ready to—get funky? Check out the disco, up-stroke strut of “She Keeps Me Up,” where the constantly constipated Chad Kroeger sings, “Funky little monkey / she’s a twisted trickster / everybody wants to the sister’s mister / Coca-cola rollercoaster!” Even that doesn’t prepare you for the appearance of rapper Flo Rida (he of Low fame) on the somewhat Latin-tinged “Got Me Runnin’ Round,” which also comes with a horn section on top of the grungy chords and dash of wah-wah guitar, while Kroeger sings, “She tastes like the sunshine kissing me.” What fresh hell is this?

It’s actually a welcome change for Nickelback, who already flirted with ska on their last album—anything to break up the monotony of a litany of soundalike singles from this bludgeoning band should be encouraged. No, what’s weirder is that the man who only ever seems to sing about beer, boobs and babes is heard here railing against Wall Street thieves, rhyming mass delusion and mass confusion and chanting: “Hey hey, just obey / your secret’s safe with the NSA / in God we trust or the CIA / standing on the edge of a revolution.” Somewhere in Russia, Ed Snowden is snickering. (Nov. 20)

Download: “Edge of a Revolution,” “She Keeps Me Up,” “Got Me Runnin’ Round”

Pink Floyd – The Endless River (Sony)

As someone who hasn’t liked a Pink Floyd album in 39 years—that would be Wish You Were Here—I find it absolutely shocking that this, their final album, assembled from jam sessions recorded 20 years ago, is as lovely and reaffirming as it is.

All credit is due to the late keyboardist Richard Wright, who died in 2008; he’s the star of this instrumental show, which harkens back to the band’s pre-Dark Side of the Moon, considerably more experimental phase. Guitarist David Gilmour and drummer Nick Mason found 20 hours of improvised material from sessions for The Division Bell and shaped it into what is now The Endless River, with plenty of new overdubs and help from Roxy Music’s Phil Manzanera.

The reviews write themselves: cold leftovers from Pink Floyd’s worst album? No thanks. But listen again: It’s a helpful reminder of what Pink Floyd always did best, before the portentous weight of Roger Waters and Gilmour got the better of the both of them. It’s no surprise, then, that the sole track to feature vocals, the closing “Louder Than Words,” is the weakest one here.

Shine on, Richard Wright. (Nov. 13)

Download: “It’s What We Do,” “Sum,” “Things Left Unsaid”

Sagot – Valse 333 (Simone)

Something evil is afoot here. Julien Sagot sounds like he’s lurking around the shadier sides of Montreal, hanging out with eerie drone-pop savant Dirty Beaches and getting into trouble. At times he’s devilish, at times he’s fragile; at all times he sounds either frightening or frightened half to death at the voices in his head. Sagot borrows from Tom Waits, but only The Black Rider. Sagot borrows from Serge Gainsbourg, but only Histoire de Melody Nelson. Sagot favours twangy guitars, metallic percussion, cabaret piano, squalls of noise, and singing in a voice that we probably shouldn’t trust.

Sagot’s day job used to be in Polaris prize-winning band Karkwa, but neither this nor his 2012 debut, Piano Mal sound anything like that. Sagot doesn’t sound like anyone else in Quebec, anyone else in North America—maybe Italian weirdo Vincent Capossela. But seeing how that guy is one of Europe’s best-kept secrets, it’s up to us to seek out Sagot. We’ll probably find him in the last non-gentrified warehouse in Montreal’s Parc X, his studio set up like a madman’s lair. The lights are dim. The smell is unusual. The sounds, however, are completely intoxicating. (Nov. 7)

Download: “Avion,” “Transsiberien,” “Les Squellettes”

Neil Young – Storytone (Warner)

This is Neil Young’s 37th album in 46 years. Since his ’70s heyday, he’s managed only about three albums per decade that every fan should own. Each new release is greeted with the same reaction: do we really need this one? When it’s Neil recording cover songs inside a phone booth at Jack White’s studio, as he did earlier this year, maybe not so much. This time, however, the answer is yes.

Storytone finds Young in acoustic and orchestral mode—not unlike much of his 1972 classic Harvest. Unlike when Young employs, say, Daniel Lanois or Crazy Horse to inject life into songs that he may or may not have written hours before going into the studio, he must know that he can’t mess around when he’s hiring a symphony orchestra. Consequently, this batch of songs is his most melodically strong in a long while, even if some of the string arrangements have Disney moments and the attempts at introducing some Chicago blues into the equation (“I Want to Drive My Car,” “Say Hello” to Chicago) are a tad awkward. If strings ain’t your thing, these nine songs also appear in stripped-down solo format, with just piano, guitar, ukulele and harmonica. (Though that still doesn’t save “Say Hello to Chicago.”)

Storytone also comes at a time in Young’s life when he’s more inspired than usual. As befitting the sonic backdrop, Young sounds fragile. He and his wife of 36 years, Pegi Young, filed for divorce in September (“Like I Used To”); lately he’s been dating actress and environmentalist Darryl Hannah (“I’m Glad I Found You”). And that cross-Canada tour to protest the oil sands manifests itself in “Who’s Going to Stand Up?”—one of the most potent protest songs he’s ever written.

Neil Young: a sustainable resource if there ever was one. (Nov. 7)

Download: “Who’s Going to Stand Up?” “Plastic Flowers,” “Tumbleweed”

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