Monday, May 25, 2015

May 2015 reviews

Highly recommended this merry, merry month of May:

(reviewed below) Boogat, Jean Leloup, Siskiyou, Young Guv

And as excited as I am that Shamir’s debut full-length is finally out and getting tons of deserved attention—like, say, this article I landed in Maclean’s—only half of Ratchet hits home for me.

Boogat – Neo-Reconquista (Maisonnette)

Boogat! Why this Mexican-Montreal MC doesn’t have an exclamation mark as part of his brand, I have no idea. He should. His electro mix of cumbia, reggae and pop is a perfect soundtrack for spring thaw, with rich percussion and horn sections and killer grooves, most co-programmed with Ghislain Poirier, a man who loves music from any part of the world that emphasizes bass. Jean Massicotte (Patrick Watson, Lhasa, Arthur H) produces. Boogat raps in Spanish, so I have no idea what’s going on here lyrically, but I do appreciate the title “Los Tabernakos.”

Boogat might hail from a city renowned for the more off-beat elements of electronic music, but Neo-Reconquista is slick enough that it could be a totally mainstream album—of course, assuming the Canadian mainstream would ever embrace Latino sounds that didn’t come filtered through an American pop star singing in English. (May 7)

Download: “Los Tabernakos,” “Los Presidentes” (feat. Heavy Sounds), “Londres” (feat. Pierre Kwenders)

Leonard Cohen – Can’t Forget (Sony)

No, Leonard, you’re right: we can’t forget. BECAUSE YOU KEEP REMINDING US.

This is Cohen’s third album in the last six months—the second of two live albums, and the Juno-winning Popular Problems, a collection of new songs. Not only that, this is the fourth live album since his 2008 comeback. Leonard Cohen now has more than half as many live albums (eight) as he does studio albums (13). The 80-year-old appears to be on a mission to re-record his entire catalogue before he shuffles off this mortal coil.

So here we have him souping up “Tower of Song,” offering two new lacklustre blues songs, covering country legend George Jones and Québécois icon Georges Dor, and dipping deep into his catalogue for “Joan of Arc” and a best-forgotten track from 1992’s The Future.

At least the cover art is clever. But that alone certainly won’t give even the most diehard fan a reason to tune in here. (May 21)

Download: “Choices,” “Tower of Song,” “La Manic” 

Jean Leloup – A Paradis City (Bonsound)

I don’t have to tell you that Quebec has its own, enormously popular francophone rock stars that are largely—if not completely—unknown in The Rest of Canada. If you’ve never heard of Jean Leloup, well, then, it’s a safe bet that there are no francophones or Québécois in your social circle.

Leloup has been around since 1989; he took a brief hiatus in the mid-2000s and this is his eighth album. He’s the kind of carefree, globe-trotting troubadour who tries his hand making documentaries about monkeys in Costa Rica for six months, just because. He’s not wrapped up in rock stardom, despite his iconic status in his home province.

That’s why A Paradis City is such a refreshing, welcoming record: Leloup exudes confidence and charisma, and writes anthemic songs that never succumb to bombast or weighty instrumentation—even when he calls in the choirs or string sections. Leloup makes it sound easy—hell, he even makes it look easy, by providing chord charts in the liner notes, and there are vocal-free karaoke versions up on his website. A Paradis City is the sound of a guy who could dial up the drama if he wanted to, but prefers more subtle strengths. There are quiet folk songs here, midtempo rockers, and a triumphant title track that shows, among other things, how much Sam Roberts learned from Leloup.

Jean Leloup is only playing seven shows with his band this year, five in Montreal and two in his native Quebec City. They’re not until November, and they’re all sold out. But just because he’s not going to come here and beg for anglo attention doesn’t mean we can be excused for ignoring him. (May 28)

Download: “Zone zéro,” “Petit papillon,” “Paradis City”

My Morning Jacket – The Waterfall (Universal)

Now that we’ve heard all of My Morning Jacket’s greatest tricks—the soaring majesty of Jim James’s voice, the epic guitar jams, the detours into new wave, reggae, and odes to black metal, all wrapped up in the haunting, reverb-drenched psychedelic folk-rock that started it all off 15 years ago—what can MMJ do in 2015 to impress us? Maybe they can start by impressing themselves.

For such a creative, curious band, MMJ sound oddly bored. With precious few exceptions, there’s an audible lethargy here, even on the ostensibly up-tempo tracks. From the vocal harmonies to the guitar grooves to the stadium-rock drums, so much of The Waterfall sounds like ’70s rock clichés that this band successfully avoided, or subverted, in the past. The only songs here I ever want to hear again are the ones that are the most stripped down, the ones that might as well by Jim James solo tracks, the ones where the power and glory of his band aren’t even in play.

That doesn’t bode well—but apparently the follow-up album is already finished and scheduled to come out in the next 12 months. (May 7)

Download: “Get the Point,” “Compound Fracture,” “Only Memories Remain”

Shamir – Ratchet (XL)

Music can disguise so much about ourselves. Certainly, we never know the nationality or gender or any other identifying factor of an instrumentalist. Vocals betray much more: accents, vocal range, regional tics. Then there are singers that sound utterly alien, beyond gender or geography or sexuality. Shamir Bailey, a 20-year-old phenom from Las Vegas, is one of those lovable aliens.

He’s been picked to click in 2015 ever since his 2014 indie EP Northtown built underground buzz; he’s now signed to a big label, has flashly, colourful videos (in one of which he’s remade into a muppet), and has been profiled by every magazine that matters. It’s not just because of his songs, which are a throwback to early house music—in part because he made his tracks on ancient equipment, and all drum machines and synths are programmed manually. No, it’s because his backstory is fascinating, as is his eclectic musical taste: Nina Simone, Taylor Swift and Mac DeMarco are equal touchstones for him.

Shamir seems unstoppable, and there is plenty of ammunition here to vault him in the mainstream, not unlike the way Lorde came from nowhere with her wise-beyond-her-years appeal. Lead single “On the Regular” is incredibly catchy, and proves that Shamir oozes charisma even while goofing off by trying his hand at rapping. Vegas is a poison love letter to his hometown. “Make a Scene” and “Hot Mess” are party anthems for bored youth. “Demon, if it wasn’t draped in a synth soundscape,” could be a killer country music ballad. (Shamir covered Lindi Ortega on his EP.)

That said, Shamir is best in small doses: half of Ratchet falls a bit flat, displaying that despite all his talent, he’s still young as a songwriter. But rest assured this is only the beginning of a long, eclectic career. (May 21)

Download: “On the Regular,” “Vegas,” “Demon”

Siskiyou – Nervous (Constellation)

Sure sounds nervous. Anxious, even. Worried. And yet determined to plough through whatever weird situation we all find ourselves in, surrounded by spooky soundscapes on this, the third album by Vancouver’s Siskiyou. Fronted by former Great Lake Swimmers drummer Colin Huebert (and featuring that band’s string player, Erik Arnesen), Siskiyou maintains a tension throughout Nervous, regardless of tempo or arrangement, major key or minor.

Opening track “Deserter” begins with a haunting children’s choir, leading into a bass line borrowed from The Cure’s “Fascination Street” before Huebert’s hushed vocals begin the verses. The tune gets more animated as it proceeds, with the choir singing off-beat shots, Colin Stetson’s baritone sax taking the solo, and ending with a ghostly coda with just Huebert and electric guitar.

Nervous was written after Huebert, who suffers from anxiety and panic attacks, was also diagnosed with a severe inner-ear condition. He took a songwriting workshop residency in the Yukon and crafted this material during a silent retreat. When he came back to Vancouver he rehearsed the material at low volume—even though this is not a quiet record; that explains the tension. The result sounds like an artist throwing everything they have into one final project, just in case it’s their last. He employed Stetson, Owen Pallett, Destroyer trumpeter JP Carter, and renowned producer/engineer Leon Taheny (Owen Pallett, Austra, Bruce Peninsula) to flesh out his grand sonic vision.

It makes for a great creation story—but the music itself is even better. (May 28)

Download: “Deserter,” “Wasted Genius,” “Violent Motion Pictures”

Patrick Watson – Love Songs for Robots (Secret City)

Fewer bells, fewer whistles, fewer bicycle wheels: that was the intention on Patrick Watson’s 2012 album Adventures In Your Own Backyard, where the Montreal singer and his band downplayed the novelty instrumentation that made them such a creative force, and focused on strong melodies, the kind Watson said he wanted to give him goosebumps every night on tour. Mission accomplished: the album was easily Watson’s finest, even if earlier works won big prizes and sold more records.

Love Songs for Robots is Watson’s first album without founding guitarist Simon Angell, who left to form Thus:Owls; newcomer Joe Grass might not conjure the otherworldly sounds Angell did, but he provides plenty of Lanois-esque texture and fluid leads. He brings the band closer to the classic Pink Floyd albums that their fellow Québécois love so much.

While that potentially disruptive lineup change has gone smoothly, Watson doesn’t meet his previous melodic standard here: much like his earlier albums, we must be content to hear his gorgeous voice and incredible band do all the heavy lifting. As a result, Love Songs For Robots is neither experimental enough to turn heads or pop enough to embed into our consciousness: it’s just there.

Five albums in, Patrick Watson is undoubtedly more compelling on stage than he is on record. But being the intensely curious fellow he is, there is always time for more mischief. (May 28)

Download: “Love Songs For Robots,” “Bollywood,” “Know That You Know”


Young Guv – Ripe 4 Luv (Slumberland)

Despite the fact that internationally acclaimed Toronto hardcore punk band F--ked Up has a growling frontman who rarely sings melodies with more than one note, the band’s songs are unusually catchy—no doubt a large part of their appeal outside a genre niche. So maybe it’s not that surprisingly that guitarist Ben Cook ghostwrites pop songs for mall-punk bands and mainstream pop artists—or so he says. It’s really not the least bit surprisingly when you hear these eight summery pop songs, most sung in a falsetto and with Teenage Fanclub harmonies, many of which sound like they belong on some 1982 AM-radio mix tape with Prince, Rick Springfield, Adam Ant and Lindsey Buckingham. Things take a slightly weirder turn on closing track Wrong Crowd, with its meandering saxophone and someone mumbling in French over a pseudo-Sade groove. Whether or not Cook does write songs for Taylor Swift, Maroon 5 and Kelly Clarkson—his claims don’t stand up to a cursory fact-check—Ripe 4 Luv shows that he most definitely should be, if he isn’t already. (May 28)

Download: “Crushing Sensation,” “Ripe For Love,” “Crawling Back to You”

Friday, May 22, 2015

Polaris pondering, prior to the 2015 long list

Siskiyou - Nervous
It's almost time to submit my five-album ballot for the 2015 Polaris Music Prize. It's always hard to whittle diverse genres of music down to five albums that I'd place over all others: usually there are two or maybe three albums I think are near-perfect: encapsulations of an artist's (assumed) intent, reflecting the zeitgeist and/or something I keep coming back to again and again and hearing new delights. Then there's a bunch of very good albums that fill out the rest of my ballot. 

These are by no means all the good Canadian records released between June 1, 2014 and May 30, 2015, but these are the ones that I found completely captivating, and the ones I'm considering for my ballot. Of course, I'd love it if these 20 records composed half the long list, but my track record suggests that's not going to happen. 

And of course there are records I haven't heard: procrastinating Polaris jurors suggested no fewer than 20 albums in the last week. Frankly, I'm not going to listen to any of them I hadn't heard already—or at least not for Polaris purposes. With three exceptions (all May releases), I've been sitting with the records below for many months now. No matter what shakes down between now and the Sept. 21 gala, you should get to know them, too.

Here's my dance card, in alphabetical order:

Afiara Quartet + Skratch Bastid – Spin City (Centrediscs)
Lydia Ainsworth – Right From Real (Arbutus)
Bahamas – Is Afie (Brushfire)
Boogat – Neo-Reconquista (Maisonnette)
Jennifer Castle – Pink City (Idée Fixe)
Leonard Cohen – Popular Problems (Sony)
Ian William Craig – A Turn of Breath (Recital)
Amelia Curran – They Promised You Mercy (Six Shooter)
Keita Juma – Chaos Theory (independent)
Pierre Kwenders – Le dernier empereur bantou (Bonsound)
Daniel Lanois – Flesh and Machine (Anti)
Lee Harvey Osmond – Beautiful Scars (Latent)
Jean Leloup – A Paradis City (Grosse Boite)
Terra Lightfoot – Every Time My Mind Runs Wild (Sonic Unyon)
Native North America – Various Artists (Light in the Attic)
Sagot – Valse 333 (Simone)
Buffy Sainte-Marie – Power in the Blood (True North)
Siskiyou – Nervous (Constellation)
Tre Mission – Stigmata (Big Dada)
Whitehorse – Leave No Bridge Unburned (Six Shooter)

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Afiara Quartet and Skratch Bastid – Spin Cycle

Afiara Quartet and Skratch Bastid – Spin Cycle (Centrediscs)

If you only listen to one collaboration between a string quartet and a hip-hop DJ collab this year—this is the one.

This young Toronto string quartet commissioned four composers to write new pieces for them, which they recorded and then handed over to turntablist Skratch Bastid (Buck 65, Shad) to remix; the musicians then went back to the composers to add more material responding to the remix, furthering the musical conversation.

The idea sounds like it’s better suited for an arts grant proposal than a record you’d actually want to listen to. But this works. The composers and the players here aren’t looking to write music for the 18th century: this is modern work for modern players, whose often-percussive style suits the transformation to hip-hop perfectly, and their playing struts and swaggers.

String quartets have an inherently nimble nature that all small ensembles do, which makes their work easier to isolate and pull apart—especially if you’re doing so with their complete participation. Skratch Bastid will take an eight-bar riff and loop it, then take the violin line and make it sing in new ways with pitch shifting, while bringing in sampled drums and keyboards and anything else he likes.

Obviously the remixes are the real draw here, but the original works—by Dinuk Wijeratne, Laura Silberberg, Rob Teehan and Kevin Lau—stand entirely on their own merit, and not just as remix fodder. It’s there that Afiara shows off their subtle and dynamic side, where they prove that they’re not just brash players who secretly want to be in a rock band. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Oil and water? Nothing a little emulsification can’t fix.

Afiara Quartet and Skratch Bastid will be playing this material at Toronto’s Koerner Hall on Saturday, May 23 (upgraded from a smaller venue), and they’ll be accompanied by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra as part of the New Creations Festival at Roy Thomson Hall on March 5, 2016.

Download: “A Letter from the After-life,” “Skratch My Bach,” “Dirty Laundry, Heavy Load”

Monday, May 11, 2015

Buffy Sainte-Marie - Power in the Blood

Buffy Sainte-Marie – Power in the Blood (Gypsy Boy/True North)

“There is power in the blood”? No kidding, especially when you’re Buffy Sainte-Marie, a 74-year-old woman who’s been making records for more than 50 years, a woman who has never sacrificed her role as a protest singer, an educator (she has a Ph.D. in education), and a curious artist fusing modern sounds with traditional music, in ways virtually none of her peers continue to do. Only Neil Young is louder, but even he’s been making the same two records for decades now, whereas Buffy continues to evolve—or, in her term, “ripen.” 

Oh, and incidentally, she's also a woman who has physically aged even better than Tina Turner—who is two years older than Buffy, and now retired. Buffy Sainte-Marie is not retiring. Far from it.

Power in the Blood is only her third album of new material since her 1992 comeback (which followed 16 years away from recording studios, for a variety of reasons—though during that time, she won an Oscar for co-writing “Up Where We Belong,” sung by Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes). She covers all her bases: modern electro, country, plaintive folk, old campfire songs, reggae, blues rock and slick pop. She once again employs British producer Chris Birkett, with whom she’s worked since 1992, but also pulls in Torontonians Jon Levine (K’naan, Nelly Furtado and Michael Philip Wojewoda (Rheostatics, Ashley MacIsaac), with Wojewoda mixing the whole record and giving it a sonic consistency—and a punch that’s sadly lacking on her records with Birkett.

That all adds up to a bold musical statement and perhaps her best-ever assembly of songs outside of 1996’s re-recorded greatest hits collection. If much of her modern work has sounded dated, shackled to keyboard presets of the day, Power in the Blood roars to life. The title track, featuring Alabama 3 (best known for The Sopranos theme), with a thumping techno backbeat and Vocoders, sounds like it’s trying a bit too hard, but Buffy makes it her own—and it’s thunderous. Even the cheeziest song here, “Love Charms,” coasts along with the cool of a classic Sade track; if Buffy doesn’t score a hit with it herself, someone is bound to scoop it up sooner than later. (This is a woman, of course, who’s been covered by everyone from Elvis Presley and Barbra Streisand to Neko Case and Owen Pallett.)

Four songs hail from earlier in her career: the uplifting closer “Carry It On”—which should be the closing number in a Broadway jukebox musical of Buffy music—is a rewrite of 1976’s “Look at the Facts”; “Generation” first appeared on 1974’s Buffy, though it’s been updated to reference Idle No More; “Not the Lovin Kind” appeared in an almost identical arrangement on 1972’s Moonshot, though the guitar of Ian Blurton (Change of Heart, Public Animal) here is a welcome addition; and “It’s My Way” was the title track of her 1964 debut, and lyrics like ,“I’ve got my own seeds / I got my own weeds / I got my own harvest that I’ve sown” mean a lot more from a woman who’s lived 74 active and fascinating years, as opposed to 24. She also nods to her late husband, Jack Nietzche, by adapting a melody he wrote in 1990 for a long-forgotten soundtrack on the haunting “Orion.”

Most striking is her cover of UB40’s “Sing Our Own Song”: here is an Aboriginal American woman covering Brits playing Jamaican music and writing a song about South Africa. So whose song is it exactly? I, for one, had completely forgotten that UB40 wrote decent songs of their own instead of just doing reggae covers. Buffy resurrects this song of struggle, throws in a vocal sample from the powwow group Northern Cree (also heard in A Tribe Called Red tracks) and modifies the lyrics: “Native America run, we will no longer succumb to oil and to ore / we will be Idle No More.” Needless to say, only a woman as ballsy as Buffy Sainte-Marie would even attempt to pull something like this off—and she does.

But she’s not just borrowing from others and her past. The four all-new original songs here are just as strong as the rest of the record: the aforementioned “Love Charms,” the folkie ballad “Ke Sakihitin Awasis,” the country ode to her Hawaiian home (“Farm in the Middle of Nowhere”) and “The Uranium War,” a worthy follow-up to what is perhaps her most powerful protest song (with apologies to “Universal Soldier”): 1992’s “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.”

If you don’t know much about Buffy Sainte-Marie—and, frankly, most people don’t—chances are she’s not what you think she is. She’s not just a protest singer. She’s not just a writer of sometimes sappy love songs. She’s not just an Aboriginal artist and activist. She’s not just an old hippie. She is all those things, but she’s even more. She shouldn’t have to prove herself, although she certainly has here. There’s plenty more power in that blood.

Download: “Generation,” “Love Charms,” “Carry It On”