Monday, January 26, 2015

Bjork – Vulnicura

Bjork – Vulnicura (One Little Indian)

Until now, Robin Thicke and Bjork had nothing in common, other than the fact that neither would be considered a confessional singer/songwriter. Now they’ve both succumbed to one of the oldest tropes of the singer/songwriter: the profoundly uncomfortable breakup album. Not just a collection of songs that are incidentally about the end of a certain relationship, songs that ring with universal truths: but a song cycle that is explicitly and unavoidably about two people and one shared pain.

No one wanted to hear Thicke’s take on the matter. A lot of people want to hear Bjork’s because—well, her audience is far less fickle than Thicke’s, for starters. Also, her ex is a famous avant-garde filmmaker, which makes the whole affair that much more voyeuristic. Especially with lines clearly about two easily identifiable people: “You fear my limitless emotions / I’m bored of your apocalyptic obsessions.”

Bjork, as we know, is a smart, tough woman. Even in a state of emotional devastation, her pen is sharp. (“Moments of clarity are so rare / I’d better document this.”) Conceptually, Vulnicura is note-perfect: all the turmoil, confusion and clarity are here, both lyrically and musically. Certain songs are subtitled with their place in the timeline of the breakup: “9 months before,” “2 months after.” We can trace the evolution of her emotions: three songs before, three songs after, and three undated songs that speak of emancipation (“When we’re broken we are whole / when we are whole we are broken”).

Musically, Vulnicura is both imitative and the inverse of 2001’s Vespertine, the album that documented the beginning of the relationship in question (and arguably the last great Bjork record). Like that record, Vulnicura is dominated by strings and vocal arrangements over subtle electronics. Both are intimate, internal albums, with little that would even lend itself to a remix, for the club (as much of her work has) or otherwise. Both maintain a consistent tone and tempo throughout—though in this case, it’s to a fault.

Much of Vulnicura is brave and fascinating, albeit unsettling—it’s undeniably the most vulnerable and personal Bjork has ever been. And outside of a couple of songs from Volta, it’s the best thing she’s done in at least 10 years (should we blame her ex for that lost decade?). Yet it’s also a hard album to love. The beats and electronics, co-produced by Arca (FKA Twigs, Kanye West), are the least interesting she’s ever worked with. (It’s sad, then, that only now, after a revealing, must-read interview with Pitchfork this month, many people are realizing she deserves credit for production on her records; she’s always been overshadowed by collaborators.) Bjork’s critics have often accused all her melodies of sounding the same; never has that been more true than it is here—maybe it’s intentional (or unconsciously so) that some recall specific songs on Vespertine. The string arrangements are the saving grace, but even those are a reminder of how brilliant 1997’s Homogenic was and is.

Of course, Vulnicura exists as a singular work, capturing a moment in time for one of the most incredibly creative artists of the last 22 years. It was evidently difficult to create, and it succeeds on its own terms. But it’s also primarily a curiosity, one that only those with a pre-existing intimate, emotional connection to Bjork’s music could appreciate. Now that’s she been through this emotional ringer, it’s more exciting to think what she’s going to do next.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Sleater-Kinney's No Cities to Love

Sleater-Kinney – No Cities Left to Love (Sub Pop)

This is not a comeback album by a beloved band that went on hiatus in 2006. (This is also not, if you’re just tuning in, a side project for that funny woman from Portlandia.) This is an album that makes me wonder if I’ve even enjoyed any guitar-rock records in the past nine years.

Sleater-Kinney were much more than just part of a movement and/or a moment in time. They meant a lot to a lot of people for a variety of reasons. Context is important: but it is not crucial (sayeth this dude). Sleater-Kinney were, are, a band: a band whose individual elements—like the myriad meanings projected upon them—add up to a much larger whole. They were, are, a powerhouse, one where the guitars and vocals of the two frontwomen, Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein, overlap and intertwine to create a new language. Drummer Janet Weiss does what the drummer in every great power trio—from Keith Moon to Neil Peart to Stewart Copeland—must do: take your two bandmates by the hand and charge out of the starting gate, tumbling all over each other toward the finish line, and pulling them both off the ground when they start running in different directions.

The second track here, "Fangless," is a song with shades of early 2000s dance-punk—a style Sleater-Kinney themselves avoided back then. Not surprising, then, that Weiss never places her snare hits where you think they should be; there is no four-on-the-floor bass drum and only occasional open hi-hat. It’s not about what she tacitly chooses not to play, or what she chooses to play in place of cliché: it’s that she achieves a familiar effect through entirely inventive ways. “Only together do we break the rules,” goes a lyric on “Surface Envy,” “only together do we make the rules.”

Ten years ago, Sleater-Kinney turned to producer Dave Fridmann (Flaming Lips) to help them turn their template inside out on The Woods, tripping over all kinds of guitar pedals and surrendering to the ecstasy of sound. It worked more in theory than in execution—thankfully, The Woods is no longer the final chapter in Sleater-Kinney’s discography. By returning to John Goodmanson, who recorded the three best Sleater-Kinney albums until now (Dig Me Out, All Hands on the Bad One, One Beat), the excesses of The Woods have been weeded out; the lessons learned in experimentation remain and are applied with precision to short, sharp songs.

No one has looked to guitarists for innovation in a long, long time; only Jack White (former Sleater-Kinney opening act, by the way) seems to pull out some surprising new tricks every once in a while. But White listens to old blues records that set up the traditions still emulated most today; Sleater-Kinney play like they’ve been soaking in the textures of ’60s psychedelia and the rhythm of ’70s post-punk, arguably the last time in history guitars had something new to say. White flexes his muscle primarily in guitar solos; Brownstein and Tucker flex their muscle in practically every musical choice they make. There is no lead or rhythm guitar. Remove one piece of this puzzle and it would fall apart. “No outline will ever hold us / it’s not a new wave / it’s just you and me.”

That’s always been true for Sleater-Kinney, but No Cities to Love finds Brownstein and Tucker elevating their game. It’s also, sadly, incredibly rare in rock these days to hear this kind of technique delivered live and raw and so obviously the sound of two people playing together—you know, in a room. At the same time. Staring each other in the eyes. Wrestling each note from the hands of the other.

Because Brownstein, Tucker and Weiss are all older and wiser (unbelievably, Weiss turns 50 this year) and never walked away from music—or each other—entirely, No Cities Left to Love is driven by a natural combustion. No time has passed at all. They’re as hungry as they were on Dig Me Out, but with the power and wisdom of fortysomethings who don’t have any time to mess around: go big or go home. It’s unlikely they’ll ever share the same chemistry with other musicians as they do with each other: no matter how good those musicians may be (Mary Timony with Brownstein in Wild Flag; Stephen Malkmus with Weiss in the Jicks).

After mid-life, after motherhood, after second careers inside and outside music, Sleater-Kinney kick more ass than they ever did. And they showed up not a minute too soon.

Download: “Surface Envy,” “No Cities to Love,” “Bury Our Friends”

Friday, January 16, 2015

Cleaning up 2014

Most of the records I reviewed in my January columns were left over from 2014, either albums I didn’t get around to writing about or that I only recently discovered thanks to other people’s year-end lists.

Essential listening: Lydia Ainsworth
Recommended: Kevin Hearn, Mo Kenney, Sturgill Simpson, Frazey Ford

Lydia Ainsworth – Right from the Real (Arbutus)

Raised in Toronto, schooled in Montreal and New York, now back in Toronto, Ainsworth is straight from the lineage of (obvious yet inevitable comparisons) Kate Bush, Bjork, Fever Ray and Grimes: a classically trained cellist who scores films and draws as much inspiration from visual art and dream states as she does music. Indeed, she says she wants her music to feel like “shivers caused from a lucid dream.” Mission accomplished. Ainsworth’s layered cello and electronics are entrancing; her voice is conventionally beautiful; her songs unconventionally arranged, tripping over time signatures and easily melding textures both natural and otherworldly with strong melodies tying everything together. Ainsworth has a good home on Montreal’s Arbutus Records—home of Grimes, Blue Hawaii, Braids and other wonderful weirdos—and she’s opened for Owen Pallett, another kindred spirit. But comparisons and compatriots are not even necessary when she’s made a debut album as strong as this. (Jan. 8)

Download: “Take Your Face Off,” “Moonstone,” “PSI”

Ian William Craig – A Turn of Breath (Recital)

This sounds like music playing in a gallery exhibit: ambient, evocative, slightly unsettling. Small wonder: Craig is primarily a visual artist in Vancouver, who also happens to make mysterious music employing his operatically trained voice and layered, decaying loops of ¼-inch tape, which creates strange, ghostly harmonies and textures. It’s intensely lonely music, seemingly the work of the last artist standing in a bombed-out city, alone with his machines and his melancholy, documenting the decay that surrounds him and struggling to find sunlight through clouds of dust. (Jan. 8)

Download: “Before Meaning Comes,” “Rooms,” “Second Lens”

Melanie De Biasio - No Deal (Pias)

Torch songs as they should be: slinky, seductive and sparse. This Belgian singer employs only a jazz trio of piano, bass and drums, a trio that lets De Biasio’s voice do all the heavy melodic lifting. No problem there. De Biasio’s vocals—firm and bold even at the most hushed volume—come off like Shirley Bassey on opioids. Close the doors, start up the fireplace, and crack open the red wine: this is for long winter nights. (Jan. 22)

Download: “The Flow,” “I’m Gonna Leave You,” “With All My Love”

F&M – At Sunset We Sing (independent)

This Edmonton folk trio bottomed out at the end of 2013. Two members lost a load of money in a condo fraud; two of them suffered broken bones as well (for those processing that math, guitarist/vocalist Ryan Anderson was the doubly unlucky one). So what to do? Escape to Portugal in search of inspiration and healing, of course. Can’t afford to go to Portugal? Check out a bunch of fado records from the library and load up on cheap Portugese wine to help get you through the cruel Edmonton winter. The result is their fifth album, steeped in the tradition of European melancholic drinking songs, the kind to which you raise your glass of optimism and try to forget your despair, with accordions, pianos, vibraphones and violins at hand. (Jan. 15)

Download: “And We Will Mend Our Broken Hearts,” “Kukushka,” “Take Me Out”

Frazey Ford – Indian Ocean (Nettwerk)

The late Memphis musician Teenie Hodges, best known for being Al Green’s guitarist and co-songwriter, showed up in two very different Canadian contexts in 2014. One was an appearance in the video for “Worst Behaviour,” by his nephew, Drake. The other was here, as part of the backing band for Be Good Tanya singer Frazey Ford, alongside his brothers Charles (organ) and Leroy (bass). It would be the last recording the legend ever made: the 68-year-old died shortly afterwards, of emphysema. The record is dedicated to him; it’s a worthy capper to his career, capturing much of what made Green’s rhythm section so seductive.

But Indian Ocean is not, of course, about the Hodges brothers. It’s about a Vancouver folk singer fully coming into her own on her second solo album. Ford’s ghostly lilt is suited perfectly to the subtle, smooth soul sounds heard on classic Al Green records. Where someone like Green is all about tension, repression and release—both sexual and spiritual—Ford, obviously, approaches the sound from the opposite angle: almost sneaking up on the melodies, nailing all the notes with seemingly minimal effort, and generally sounding like she’s dressed in flowing robes and reclining on a sofa while recording her vocals.

It’s hard not to be reminded of Cat Power’s 2006 album The Greatest, where that normally hushed singer also teamed up with Teenie Hodges and other Memphis musicians for a complete career makeover. It worked wonders for her; it should do even more for Ford, who is a far superior singer and doesn’t get bogged down in ballads, allowing the rhythm section to actually swing. Ford gets full points for leaning on two sympathetic backing vocalists, Caroline Ballhorn and former Mother Mother singer Debra Jean Creelman, who—like the band behind them—bring out the best from one of Canada’s most beguiling singers. (Jan. 8)

Download: “September Fields,” “Done,” “Natural Law”

Foxes in Fiction – Ontario Gothic (Orchid Tapes)

This ambient pop project by Oakville-raised, Brooklyn-based musician Warren Hildebrand was initially sparked by the mourning process after his younger teenage brother died; this most recent album is dedicated to another untimely death, of a 22-year-old friend. Hildebrand has said he wants his music to provide healing—a lofty ambition, granted, but not unreasonable. Here, on an album three years in the making, he takes his love of synth textures and tape experiments and writes lilting melodies on top, inviting guest singers and—in a small coup—string arranger Owen Pallett to flesh out his vision. It’s definitely dreamy, although somewhat emotionally detached, and fits comfortably between Cocteau Twins and Beach House. (Jan. 8)

Download: “Into the Fields,” “Ontario Gothic,” “Altars”

Jim Guthrie and Solid Mas – One Of These Days I’ll Get It Right (independent)

Jim Guthrie is on a roll. After returning to his solo career after almost a decade writing soundtracks and jingles, he released the 2013 masterstroke Takes Time and re-released his beloved 2003 album Now More Than Ever. Here, he’s turned over a bunch of tracks—snippets of previously released work, including his soundtrack to the hit video game Sword and Sworcery, as well as unreleased material—to hip-hop producer Solid Mas, who sets Guthrie’s layers of melodies and cinematic motifs to much funkier beats than he usually employs. Although it’s technically a remix album, Guthrie fans will have trouble tracing the source material—not that they should bother. Fans of ’90s Ninja Tune artists like Coldcut and the Herbaliser will also find plenty to chew on here. (Jan. 15)

Download: “And We Died Younger,” “Lenny Bones,” “Red Rust”

Kevin Hearn – Days in Frames (Roaring Girl)

(Full disclosure: I was hired to write Kevin Hearn’s bio for his promotional purposes. This is not that bio. I do, however, love this record, which of course is not true of every record I’m paid to write about.) 

From 2007 to 2013, Kevin Hearn was also the musical director for Lou Reed’s band, becoming quite close with the notorious legend and his wife, Laurie Anderson, before Reed died in 2013. What most people don’t know is that Hearn, whose main gig is with Barenaked Ladies, has quietly been making lovely albums of his own for much of the last decade, and Days in Frames might be his best. Hearn is a modest man; he sings like he speaks, with a quiet, inquisitive, conversational tone. His instrumental prowess is only evident on occasion; Hearn’s solo records are all songs and textures, utilizing dreamy synths, folky mandolins, and his 22-year-old relationship with the rhythm section of Great Bob Scott and Chris Gartner (all were once in the freaky prog-rock band Look People).

Losing Lou Reed, as well as an aunt to whom Hearn was very close, has the songwriter in a more melancholic mood than usual (“Up Above,” “Floating,” “Crossing Over”). Not that Hearn ever gets morbid; after all, he already survived several serious bouts with leukemia more than 10 years ago, with his humour and optimism emboldened. “Life is a beautiful puzzle and then you fall to pieces,” he sings; he sounds more bemused by life’s turn of events than thrown off course.

Because of both his talent and his reputation as a mensch for whom people want to do favours, Hearn pulls in a lot of top-notch help here: violinist Hugh Marsh (Bruce Cockburn, Mary Margaret O’Hara), Ron Sexsmith, Dan Hill, producer Gavin Brown (Billy Talent, Metric), mixer Tom Elmhirst (Adele, Amy Winehouse), and the other members of Reed’s band (who appear on the comical death-bed meditation “Floating”). Needless to say, it sounds like a million bucks.

Based on the snapshot of his life heard here, Hearn spends his days in art galleries, in Canada’s Far North, birdwatching, searching for the meaning he once found in cathedrals, and detailing a humdrum day with a wry eye. Hearn has stared down his own mortality and seen loved ones succumb to theirs; every lyric and note here is the work of a man who marvels in the tiny details and sounds of everyday life, finding the fantastical in our common experience—and then painting it with glorious sonic colours. (Jan. 1)

Download: “Gallerina,” “Cathedral,” “You Wrecked Me”

Mo Kenney – In My Dreams (New Scotland/Pheromone)

It takes a certain talent to concoct a catchy chorus with the lyrics, “Take me outside and blow my f--king head off.” That’s what Halifax singer/songwriter Mo Kenney does here, winning the dubious honour of Most Disturbing Earworm of 2014.

That’s the only thing remotely dubious about Kenney’s second album, however: that song and the nine others here introduce you to your favourite new Canadian songwriter. Produced by Joel Plaskett—who also shares all instrumental duties with Kenney, and put out the album on his own label—In My Dreams fleshes out her songs in a variety of contexts: sometimes she’s a young Nick Lowe or Elvis Costello, sometimes she’s Elliott Smith, sometimes she’s Norah Jones’s badass little sister, sometimes she’s a psychedelic balladeer. Plaskett’s influence is obvious, but hardly overbearing: Kenney’s striking voice and approach to songwriting easily stands apart. Whether it’s her own sense of economy or Plaskett’s editing, Kenney is the rare young artist who knows how to keep it brief: none of these songs are more than four minutes long; most are under three.

In My Dreams came out in September and slipped under the radar. Shame. Expect at the very least, however, to be hearing about her again at Polaris prize time in June. She plays Harbourfront Centre Theatre on March 21. (Jan. 1)

Download: “Take Me Outside,” “Telephones,” “Untouchable”

Sturgill Simpson  - Metamodern Sounds in Country Music (Hightop Mountain)

As someone who loves country music too much to witness what’s happened to most of it in recent years, I rely on other people’s year-end lists to catch up on what I missed. Last year it was the incredible Brandy Clark album, which deservedly got a few Grammy nominations a few weeks back. This year it’s this Kentucky native, who moved to Nashville four years ago to suddenly try and kickstart a country music career. He’s now 35 and just put out his second album in two years, standing out not just for his ’70s outlaw sound—drenched in reverb, embellished with rich organs and psychedelic guitars—but his lyrics, which touch on hallucinogenic drugs, Tibetan Buddhism and string theory. Simpson can play it straight enough to win over an Opry crowd, or can freak out completely with lots of backwards tape and dub reggae influence on the wild closing track, “It Ain’t All Flowers,” which ventures into corners no pure country artist has dared to tread in eons, if ever.

Sturgill tries out two cover versions that reveal a lot about his duality. One is a straight-up truckin’ song, “Long White Line.” The other is a gorgeous, unrecognizable transformation of an ’80s new wave hit—I’d rather not tell you what it is, so that it sneaks up on you when you hear it. It could easily be novelty; it is not. Much like Simpson himself: he’s not just the “acid country” guy, he’s not the retro revivalist. He’s being true to himself, and dragging country music along with him. (Jan. 1)

Download: “Turtles All the Way Down,” “The Promise,” “It Ain’t All Flowers”