Highly recommended this month: Petite Noir, Pierre Kwenders
Well worth your while: Kronos Quartet featuring Tanya Tagaq, Michael Feuerstack, Will Butler, Buena Vista Social Club
Also this month: I wrote this feature on Will Butler for Maclean’s.
Bright Lights Social Hour – Space is Still the Place (Frenchkiss/Maple)
Five years is a long time wait between your first two albums, especially if you’re an active touring unit. Why it took this psychedelic Austin band so long to hustle back into the studio barely matters: these guys clearly live and die by their live show, and you can hear the years of sweat and blood in every note of this album. The rich harmonies are impeccable, the guitar solos and textures always tasteful without sacrificing any driving energy, and the synths set them apart from other jam bands.
Thankfully, this isn’t just a bar band wandering into the studio: “Space is Still the Place” (apologies to Sun Ra) is drenched in reverb and effects and carefully sequenced, with songs bleeding into each other seamlessly. Bright Lights Social Hour shares sonic space with the War on Drugs or a southern take on Broken Social Scene, but their closest comrades might be My Morning Jacket: only with more slide guitar, way more Hendrix, and a few more CDs by ’70s German bands in the tour van.
Once this album blows up after a slow-building buzz, expect them to be headlining every festival in the summer of 2016. (March 12)
The Bright Lights Social Hour play the Horseshoe in Toronto on April 15.
Download: “Infinite Cities,” “Sweet Madelene,” “Sea of the Edge”
Along with the Pops Staples record last month, this is the least expected album of 2015. The Buena Vista Social Club sensation is now almost 20 years old, dating back to when Ry Cooder corralled many of Cuba’s top players and singers to showcase traditional “son” music, resulting in a multi-million-selling album, tour, live album and a Wim Wenders-directed documentary.
Now five of the original members are deceased—not surprising, as many were, at the very least, 70 years old when the original album was recorded. Gone are Ibrahim Ferrer, Compay Segundo, pianist Ruben Gonzalez, percussionist Miguel Diaz (whose daughters just released their debut album as Ibeyi), and bassist Orlando Lopez. All live on in these recordings. The five remaining members (wait a minute, who’s left?!) are going on tour to mark the anniversary, and this collects various outtakes and live tracks.
On paper, Lost and Found sounds like it could be cash grab. It isn’t.
Instead, it’s a reminder of how potent and polished that original lineup was, what rich traditions from which they were drawing, how impeccably placed was every note, every rhythmic accent. Every player here is given room to showcase, without showing off; Gonzalez in particular is a quiet master of restraint.
During the first wave of Buena Vista mania, the World Circuit label was more than eager to satiate demand with plenty of spinoff recordings. At the time, it seemed too many. Now it doesn’t seem like enough. (March 26)
Download: “Brunca Manugua,” “Habanera,” “Black Chicken 37”
If Reflektor and 2010’s The Suburbs were high-concept and over an hour long each, Policy—the debut release from Arcade Fire’s Will Butler (younger brother of frontman Win) is decidedly low-concept and concise: eight songs in 28 minutes. The first single, “Anna,” was written during the last two hours Butler had in the studio with Arcade Fire drummer Jeremy Gara. Another track, “Something’s Coming,” was salvaged from the soundtrack for a TIFF-commissioned short film by New York-via-Winnipeg artist Marcel Dzama, Une danse des bouffons; it features Dzama himself on synths (as well as Gara and Arcade Fire’s Tim Kingsbury).
Policy is light-hearted and even goofy—though these are no more novelty songs than, say, the Rolling Stones’ “Shattered,” or Jonathan Richman’s “Roadrunner,” or any other rock’n’roll classic clearly born from either improvisation or carefree creation. Lyrics include: “If you come and take my hand, I will buy you a pony / we can cook it for supper / I know a great recipe for pony macaroni.” (It’s a play on “Bony Maronie,” the ’50s R&B hit covered by Joni Mitchell, John Lennon, the Who, and referenced in songs by Wilson Pickett, Patti Smith and Echo and the Bunnymen—which sums up Butler’s pop influences almost perfectly).
Don’t mistake this for a lark, however: the simplicity is deceptive, and Butler sneaks a lot of subtle treats into these tiny, perfect pop songs. (March 5)
Download: “Anna,” “Something’s Coming,” “Son of God”
Etiquette – Reminisce (Hand Drawn Dracula)
You know this band already. At the very least, you’ve seen Julie Fader sing with Sarah Harmer, Great Lake Swimmers, Blue Rodeo or Chad Van Gaalen. And you’ve seen her main man Graham Walsh with Holy Fuck, or heard records he’s made for Metz, Hannah Georgas or Alvvays. Together, they make lazy, hazy dream pop, laden with synths, drum machines and new wave guitars; fans of Beach House, Air and Saint Etienne should get on board. Fader’s voice is perfect for this sound; she last explored these areas in the later days of her old Hamilton band, Flux A.D., circa late ’90s, early 2000s; that’s also where she first met Walsh. It’s full circle, in a way, to the sounds that united them in the first place. Walsh is no slouch as a producer, of course, but this material sounds even better live. (March 26)
Download: “Pleasantries,” “Attention Seeker,” “Twinkling Stars”
Writing about a new Michael Feuerstack album is hard. What to say? He’s been writing music for 25 years. He keeps getting better. He’s oblivious to trends. He has lot of influential friends. He ditched the albatross of his long-running stage name, Snailhouse, and reverted to his birth name. None of it ever seems to add to an increased profile, not even last year’s Singer Songer album, in which he enlisted the Weakerthans’ John K. Samson, the Constantines’ Bry Webb, Jim Bryson and others to sing songs he wrote with them in mind. Many of those people were quoted in a recent, glowing Globe and Mail profile of Feuerstack written by Giller prize-winning author Sean Michaels, the kind of tribute that usually only appears after an artist has died—not for somebody with a new record to promote.
And so here we are: another fantastic record, and some more collaborators one degree removed from Arcade Fire (Pietro Amato of Bell Orchestre and the Luyas—Feuerstack also plays in both bands—and Laurel Sprengelmeyer of Little Scream). Feuerstack’s fatal flaw is that his mannered music often seems too polite, too stuck the same mid-tempo favoured by most sensitive singer/songwriters, and there’s plenty of that again here. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) But there are also tracks like “The Devil,” which features the noisiest, most raucous guitar solo heard on any recordings he’s made outside the Wooden Stars, his ’90s band.
There’s never a bad time to discover Michael Feuerstack. Might as well do it now. Apparently, some people have already: his recent Toronto show was sold out. (March 26)
Download: “Receiver,” “I Wanted More,” “The Devil”
The Kronos Quaret: is there anything they can’t do? The iconic string quartet has adapted Jimi Hendrix, flamenco, African folk songs, Chinese opera, Bollywood pop, and commissions from every corner of the world, while also appearing on pop albums by everyone from Nelly Furtado to Nine Inch Nails. Here they take on yet another seemingly impossible task: adapting Inuit throat singing to stringed instruments.
This music, by Nova Scotian composer Derek Charke, has been performed for almost a decade now; why it took so long to make it into the studio is anyone’s guess—for starters, Kronos is unbelievably busy, and this probably doesn’t rank among the most commercial of projects for them to prioritize (not that that’s ever been a concern). Now that Tanya Tagaq is more of a mainstream name—following her 2014 Polaris Prize win for Animism, and profiles in Chatelaine and The New Yorker—this music has added marquee value.
To emulate the guttural vocal sounds of throat singing for a string quartet, Charke developed techniques called circle bowing and vertical bowing (the liner notes here are extensive and helpful). Kronos, of course, is up for any challenge, and they make this material more than just a curiosity; it’s entirely engrossing even when you forget what it is you’re listening to.
Charke doesn’t want you to forget, however: both the main pieces here feature audio gathered in the North, both sounds from nature and storytelling. Tagaq features on the title track, both vocalizing and reading a version of the Inuit legend of Sedna written by Laakuluk Williamson Bathory (apparently used without direct permission, for which Tagaq has apologized), a harrowing tale matched in intensity by the swirling strings around her. It’s incredibly powerful and unforgettable—not, of course, unlike anything else Tagaq is involved in. But here the renowned improviser proves she can successfully fit into someone else’s vision; together with Charke and Kronos, they all bring out the best and most challenging in each other. (March 19)
Download: “Cercle du Nord III,” “Throat Song,” “Tundra Songs”
Montreal has Canada’s best African music scene and its best electro scene. Naturally, it’s also the city most likely to witness fusion between the two. Kwenders was born in Kinshasa and came to Canada from the Congo at 16; his fellow Montreal producers hail from Mozambique (Samito) and New Brunswick (Alexandre Bilodeau of Radio Radio, whose bizarro Acadian take on hip-hop landed them on the Polaris Prize shortlist a few years back). One track here, “Mardi Gras,” featuring a lilting, distorted violin track, is perhaps the only Cajun-Congolese electro track ever made (see below). That’s only the beginning of the successful cross-pollination happening here: dancehall, South African rhythms, cumbia, Bollywood vocals, rock guitars and hip-hop all help colour Kwenders’s tracks. If Manu Chao or Bran Van 3000 had kept pushing their sonic explorations further, they’d likely end up in a similar place to Kwenders. Whatever you do, the man who sings in four languages told the Montreal Gazette, don’t call it world music: this is polyglot pop, and it’s a matter of time before Santigold or Rihanna starts ringing him up. (March 19)
Download: “Popolipo,” “Mardi Gras,” “Ani Kuni”
Madonna – Rebel Heart (Warner)
Yes: Madonna is 56. Yes: ageism is bad, and Madonna’s career still doesn’t demand the same kind of respect that Mick Jagger or David Bowie’s does, even though it should. That’s not what we should all be upset about with all the kerfuffle surrounding her 13th album. What’s really offensive here is how terrible Rebel Heart is, musically and lyrically. This would be embarrassing if 23-year-old Miley Cyrus made it; age has nothing to do with it.
Rebel Heart starts out well enough. “Living for Love,” “Devil Pray” and “Ghosttown” are decent late-period Madonna singles: the former hearkens back to the early ’90s, which puts the legend in the unusual position of chasing an imitator 30 years younger like Kiesza, who rode this sound to the top of the charts last year.
From there, however, she transforms into “Unapologetic Bitch” (followed shortly by “Bitch, I’m Madonna”) and various other braggadocio numbers that sound sad, not sassy. Then the woman who once—more than 20 years ago—published a book called Sex has a song called “S.E.X.,” which is easily one of the least sexiest songs she’s ever done. There are unintentionally hilarious, faux-provocative songs called “Messiah” and “Holy Water.” Apropos of nothing, Mike Tyson shows up on a track, alongside Chance the Rapper.
Madonna has always craved our attention, no question—but she’s always commanded it just by showing up. Here she’s all crass, no brass. Considering her current pop competitors, is that her fault? Maybe. She once changed cultural conversations and helped North America shed its prudishness; now she has to shout to be heard.
What’s worse: Rebel Heart is interminable: 19 songs in 75 minutes, featuring a faded icon grasping at straws. It’s been 10 years since her last strong single, at least 15 years since an album worth hearing all the way through, but she’s always at least been somewhat interesting. It’s hard to recall a time when Madonna has sunk lower than this. (March 19)
Download: “Living for Love,” “Rebel Heart,” “Ghosttown”
Meligrove Band – Bones of Things (We Are Busy Bodies)
Golden Dogs – 3½ (independent)
The Elwins – Play for Keeps (Hidden Pony)
“Don’t Wanna Say Goodbye,” sing Toronto’s Meligrove Band on their fifth album in 15 years. After a career of ups and downs, this band gave up on reaching the top a while ago—but that hasn’t changed their approach to power pop, which they attack with the same enthusiasm and exuberance they did when they were teenagers. Sure, there are now a few mandolins and psychedelic detours thrown in for good measure, but this is a band who sees no good reason to slow down—and offers no audible evidence why they should, either.
Likewise, the Toronto-via-Thunder Bay Golden Dogs have been silent for the past five years, but return with keyboardist Jessica Grassia moving behind the drum kit and taking more vocals from her partner, singer/guitarist Dave Azzolini. With two new bandmates on board, the Golden Dogs sound young and hungry and ready to push out in all directions, sounding louder and wilder than ever before. Opening track “Decided” begins with shades of ’70s funk and falsetto before shifting into a heavy-metal spy-movie theme. All the more impressive—it was recorded entirely live off the floor at Toronto’s Revolution Recording. Everything here sounds like a band falling in love with music all over again, jamming in the studio with no expectations, for pure pleasure.
On the heels of both these geezers are the Elwins, a young band from the shores of Lake Simcoe whose second album is full of big, bright hooks that should rule the summer of 2015—starting with soaring lead single “So Down Low.” There are times when they sound like they’re trying a bit too hard, like the cloying opener “Bubble”—much better suited to, say, Katy Perry—but this is a band who is nothing if not eager to please. Seeing how their tour schedule finds them spending most of the spring in Germany and China, catch them in a small local venue now while you can. (March 5)
Download Elwins: “So Down Low,” “You Have Me,” “Sexual Intellectual”
Download Meligrove Band: “Tortaruga,” “Don’t Wanna Say Goodbye,” “Disappointed Mothers”
Download Golden Dogs: “Decided,” “Do It For You,” “MK Ultra”
Zeynep Ozbilen – Zee (independent)
Let me get this straight: a Turkish woman fronting a Latino band singing an American classic by a Canadian songwriter? Zeynep Ozbilen’s cover of “Spinning Wheel”—by Torontonian David Clayton-Thomas, of Blood Sweat and Tears—transcends any obvious novelty factor and comes out swinging, in more ways than one. She takes a well-worn standard and makes it entirely her own. Listening to the rest of this fantastic album, it’s indicative of only a portion of her talents.
I couldn’t make up this woman’s bio if I tried. Born and raised in Istanbul, for 10 years this classically trained singer led what was apparently Turkey’s pre-eminent Latin band. She now lives in Toronto, where she puts her M.B.A. to work in a corporate career while also owning a gallery and creating sculpture when she’s not busy singing jazz or melding Arabic and Latin influences into her own songs, all expertly arranged by pianist and producer Roberto Linares Brown.
How good is this album? She turns the soggy chestnut that is Phantom of the Opera’s signature song, “Memory,” into a salsa barnburner—and it works. That takes serious chutzpah—and talent. (March 26)
Download: “Spinning Wheel,” “Alufte,” “Icin Icin Yaniyor”
Petite Noir – The King of Anxiety EP (Domino)
Lapsley – Understudy EP (XL)
New wave? Nope—“noir wave,” according to 24-year-old Yannick Ilunga of Cape Town, South Africa, a.k.a. Petite Noir. It’s like Daniel Lanois producing Joy Division with Fela Kuti’s Tony Allen on drums, and it’s pure magic. Much like another Cape Town resident, Canadian expat Zaki Ibrahim, Illunga combines great melodies with forward-thinking production that embraces electronics with elements of traditional rhythms. Opener “Come Inside” has a loping drone not unlike Malian desert blues; “Chess” is the kind of subtle, pulsing pop song that U2 gave up trying to write after Zooropa; “Shadows” would sound right at home delivered by Santigold or TV on the Radio. All this from a guy who spent his teen years playing in metal bands and claims to have had a life-changing experience after Kanye West’s 808s & Heartbreak came out. Production and songwriting aside, it’s Illunga’s multi-octave range that’s the real star here, and what is most likely to push him ahead of the pack. Expect even bigger things when his full-length drops later this year.
On a similar wavelength is 18-year-old Liverpool singer/producer Lapsley, who draws more from torch-song balladry and sets her songs to late-night, downtempo electronics. She’s young enough to be heavily influenced by James Blake and Drake, but as with Petite Noir, it’s her soulful voice that sets her apart from every other bedroom shut-in thinking they can be a pop star. She’s signed to the same label as The XX; don’t be surprised if she becomes just as big. Lapsley plays the Drake Hotel in Toronto on May 5. (March 5)
Download Petite Noir: “Come Inside,” “Shadows,” “Chess”
Download Lapsley: “Falling Short,” “Brownlow,” “8896”
Joel Plaskett – The Park Avenue Sobriety Test (Pheromone)
What’s the definition of “dad rock,” exactly? Never mind Wilco, I’d offer this eighth album by Joel Plaskett as Exhibit A. Plaskett’s always been a bit of a freestyling cornball, but here he can be heard singing: “I’ve got a little boy and all my songs are silly / if I have another son, I might name him Philly.” So-called “mom music” is often mocked—largely for entirely sexist reasons—but surely even the worst mom music doesn’t sink this low, does it?
There are plenty of references to whisky, and in more than one song, we’re privy to Plaskett asking a mysterious man named Thomas if, in fact, the tape is rolling (it is). I don’t know exactly what a Park Avenue sobriety test is, but this album sounds like it was made during a bender of a weekend with a bunch of fellow dad dudes in the basement. “Dear Lord, I’m meandering I don’t how to stop it,” Plaskett sings. “If you buy my compact disc, this song might be on it.” Yeesh.
If this were almost anyone else, we’d have little reason to care. But this is one of the finest Canadian songwriters of his generation, something he proves yet again on about half the songs here—particularly three ballads in the middle of the record. One of which is the head-scratcher “Captains of Industry,” a country ballad set to a drum machine and lyrics that appear to be written by Naomi Klein. (“The captains of industry are driving us home / selling us lies and tapping our phones / shaking us down and we don’t even know it / if you want real love, show it.”) No matter, it works—and also features one of the finest guitar solos ever heard on a Plaskett record.
Largely, however, Park Avenue Sobriety Test sounds like Plaskett letting all guards down and jamming with his extended musical community. His role as East Coast musical ambassador is cemented in the album’s first full-band song, “On a Dime,” a fiddle-driven road song. “Alright/OK” is tailor-made for the live show, a chance to show off his band and engage in some rap swagger, complete with a shout-out to Nova Scotian pride. I’d love to hear it live; I never want to hear the recorded version again.
The Park Avenue Sobriety Test is Plaskett on autopilot, tailor-made for CBC Radio 2, rowdy folk festivals and Canada Day concerts. He’s (east) coasting, but he’s entitled. (March 12)
Download: “Alright/OK,” “When I Close My Eyes,” “Captains of Industry”
Who is Alana Yorke, and why are she and musical partner Ian Bent dressed in black posing with falcons on the back of this Halifax artist’s debut album? The mystery only deepens when one hears the majestic, cinematic art-pop that results from a magical connection between Yorke and Bent—friends, apparently, since they were five years old. Much like Toronto’s Lydia Ainsworth, Yorke is a disciple of Kate Bush, but doesn’t let that influence overshadow her many strengths. Recorded by Charles Austin (Super Friendz) and mixed by Mark Lawson (Arcade Fire), Yorke’s debut is not likely to remain an East Coast secret. (March 12)
Download: “The Wichita Years,” “Time Revisited,” “Anthem”