Recommended: Budos Band, Prince, Touré-Raichel Collective
As always, the following reviews first ran in the Waterloo Record.
Rich Aucoin – Ephemeral (Bonsound)
It’s September 2014: dozens of think pieces have been written about the fact Arcade Fire’s Funeral album is now 10 years old. Carbon traces of that album can be heard in much of today’s rock music, whether it’s the new U2 single or the piano-pulsing anthems by folkie band the Strumbellas or this entire album by Halifax techno artist Rich Aucoin.
Arcade Fire, of course, took some disco detours on their latest album, Reflektor, with mixed results. Aucoin—whose voice bears an uncanny resemblance to Arcade Fire’s Win Butler at times—has made an album showing us what would have happened if that band had dove even deeper into discotheques, setting the stadium-sized choral choruses of Funeral to peppy pop music that sounds like Skrillex cutting up Katy Perry songs.
Like Butler on his sunnier days, Aucoin wants to lift listeners out of darkness and offer an escape: “In times like this I want to be a believer,” goes one chant. The best and worst thing about Aucoin is that he’s a musical motivational speaker: it’s one thing to make a consistently strong dance party record like he does here; it’s another to feel like your personal trainer made you a mix tape.
If you step out from Funeral’s shadow and surrender to the ecstasy Aucoin’s peddling here, Ephemeral is a rush of a ride, a carefully controlled 30-minute release of endorphins and dopamine. There are just enough dynamics to prevent it from being an all-out onslaught, and Aucoin knows how to write the songs that can make the whole world sing. Indeed, most of the choruses here feature what sounds like entire small towns singing along.
This is not music that wants to be stuck in an indie ghetto or confined to the small clubs of Canada. Aucoin creates a big tent and wants the entire world dancing in it. No doubt they will, soon enough. (Oct. 4)
Download: “City of Love,” “They Say Obey,” “Yelling in Sleep”
Budos Band – Burnt Offering (Daptone/Maple)
What if Curtis Mayfield had produced a Black Sabbath record in the mid-1970s? The Budos Band have obviously asked themselves this question while making their fourth album. Budos have always been the heaviest players in the Daptone roster—where they share company (and members) with Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, Charles Bradley, Antibalas, Menahan Street Band, etc.—but this is the first time the songs have been fuzzed-out guitar riffs, not Afrobeat horns or Ethiopian jazz melodies. The horns are in full force, of course: bold, brash and with the baritone sax providing maximum muscle. Budos boast the only headbanger horn section whose jazz chops are indisputable. This sound could easily be gimmicky, but there is conviction and power in every note here. Do not, under any circumstance, miss a chance to see this band live. (Oct. 30)
Download: “Into the Fog,” “Shattered Winds,” “Magus Mountain”
Goat – Commune (Sub Pop)
When this band played Lee’s Palace in Toronto in June, as part of the NXNE festival, I ran into a music media mogul before their set. He couldn’t contain his excitement or anticipation. “You’re going to love this!” he shouted at me. “It’s like Led Zeppelin meets Fela Kuti!” He wasn’t far off.
Goat are neither British nor Nigerian nor, despite their recent signing to Sub Pop, American. They’re Swedish, claiming to reside in a tiny commune north of the Arctic Circle. The costumes donned seem to be cribbed from dozens of cultures at once. Feathers were involved. The two frontwomen started the set by lighting incense at each side of the stage. It’s a trip.
Commune commences with solemn ringing of a solitary bell; each stroke rings out for about ten seconds before decaying into silence. Finally, a trance-like West African guitar riff begins, followed by the singer exhorting you to “call my name when you talk to God.” Guitar solos are played with distortion and wah pedals. The women push the upper registers of their vocal limits. The drummer has a jazzy touch. The percussion and keyboards are welcome textures, but the guitars rule. The formula rarely changes; you wouldn’t want it to during the 40 minutes you spend zoning out to Commune.
For obvious reasons, it’s nowhere near as mind-blowing as this band’s live show, but it successfully captures the essence. (Oct. 18)
Download: “Goatslaves,” “Words,” “Talk to God”
Kiesza – Sound of a Woman (Universal)
Calgary-born Kiesza has already landed on the 2014’s top singles of the year, “Hideaway,” thanks to a viral video and a sound that tones down the crushing “bro-step” sound of modern EDM pop and returns to the joyous, diva-driven, soulful house music of the early ’90s. Kiesza was born in 1989, and, like Taylor Swift, is enamoured with music in the year of her birth: Soul II Soul, Neneh Cherry, Cathy Dennis (credit to Toronto Star's Ben Rayner for reminding me of this), Crystal Waters, etc. Retro or not—and a cover of Haddaway’s What is Love provides further context—Kiesza has some fine pop songs under her belt, even if most of them involve her reaching for the exact same notes in her register. No matter: she’s a stunning singer, and there is more than enough material on her debut album to suggest she’ll be more than a one-hit wonder. (Oct. 30)
Download: “Hideaway,” “No Enemiesz,” “Losin’ My Mind” (feat. Mick Jenkins)
Prince – Art Official Age (Warner)
3rdeyegirl – Plectrumelectrum (Warner)
Why do we expect new Prince albums to be good? Why?
There’s the small matter that he was the decade-defining creative force that dominated the 1980s, continued to release great music well into the 1990s, and then—well, and then we all keep waiting for a Prince album to thrill us as deeply as his live show does consistently. After an uncharacteristic four-year absence, Prince returns with both a solo album and a new band.
Rock critics remembering that it’s the 30th anniversary of Purple Rain have longed for Prince to show off his guitar heroics once again—but be careful what you wish for. Plectrumelectrum is interesting only in the way that eavesdropping on a jam by Prince’s garage band might be. The fact he occasionally surrenders lead vocals to his female bandmates doesn’t help matters any. The songs are weak, the arrangements are bland, and the guitar solos aren’t even that great—shocking, really, when you consider that Prince is the greatest guitarist of his generation. Also: he’s done tossed-off garage rock before, and much better, on the underrated 1996 album Chaos and Disorder, an album lost in the shuffle during a time when he was itching to get out of his Warner contract. If it’s hard to imagine the Purple One fronting a crappy grunge-blues band—well, it’s not that hard anymore.
Thank God, then, for Art Official Age, a pop/R&B album made for any fan who hasn’t bothered with Prince since 1996’s Emancipation. There are sonic nods to 1999, Parade and Sign O the Times, and even if there’s no song here that would ever catapult onto a future greatest-hits comp, yet there is ample display of everything at which Prince has ever excelled: the tight funk grooves, the unbelievably elastic voice, the jazz harmonies, the sultry slow jams, the unconventional instrumental voicings. When he was his creative prime, Prince’s B-sides were where he really stretched out his creative impulses—and so to say that those B-sides are what Art Official Age most resembles is in no way a slag.
Now: let’s have a tour, please! (Oct. 4)
Download Prince: “The Gold Standard,” “Clouds,” “Breakfast Can Wait”
Download 3rdeyegirl: “Pretzelbodylogic,” “Tictactoe,” “Funknroll”
The Touré-Raichel Collective – The Paris Session (Cumbancha)
There are no formal diplomatic relations between the governments of Israel and Mali. So there are obvious political undertones when two musicians, Jewish Israeli pianist Idris Raichel and Muslim Malian guitarist Vieux Farka Touré, collaborate and cross-pollinate so effectively, as they do here, on their second time together in the studio. Their 2012 debut was recorded in Tel Aviv; this was to made in Bamako, Mali, but the country was deemed too dangerous in which to record after an Islamist uprising last year. Instead, they relocated to Paris. Both men are subtle players; Raichel often takes a back seat here, while Touré’s tiny bursts of Malian blues leads recede as quickly as they appear. Nothing here sounds remotely like a collision of two cultures; perhaps that’s because Raichel’s appreciation of Touré and his father, Ali Farka Touré, runs deep—he says there was a time when he listened daily to the elder Touré’s landmark collaboration with Ry Cooder, Talking Timbuktu (they cover that record’s “Diaraby” here). Considering the chemistry heard here, this might even be the better album. (Oct. 30)
The Touré-Raichel Collective plays Toronto’s Koerner Hall on Nov. 21.
Download: “Tidhar,” “Hodu,” “Debo”