Friday, October 30, 2015

October 2015 reviews

Highly recommended this month: Ben Caplan, Majical Cloudz

Highly recommended, reviewed earlier: Geoff Berner

Worth your while: Evening Hymns, John Grant, Low, Michelle McAdorey

These reviews ran in the Waterloo Record.

Bryan Adams – Get Up (Universal)

Bryan Adams is 56 years old. Is that too young to make Viagra jokes when he puts out an album called Get Up?

After a couple of albums recorded in hotel rooms while on tour, and following a 30th anniversary re-release of Reckless, Get Up is touted as a return to form for Adams, the album he should have made in 1990 before he got sidetracked into being a sappy (and phenomenally successful) balladeer. Producer Jeff Lynne and co-writer Jim Vallance were enlisted. All the songs are around three minutes long. What could go wrong?

Get Up is like watching your old high school principal try and restart his old rock band with maximum enthusiasm and minimal effort. Adams writes lyrics dripping in nostalgia, as if to remind everyone that he used to wear leather jackets and torn blue jeans and dammit, he’s still the same dude today. Only now Adams writes with way more exclamation points. “If I’m going to go down, I’m gonna go down rockin’!” “We did it all, and we’d do it all again in a heartbeat!” “That’s rock’n’roll! You have to live it or you’ll never know!” “Get up! It’s a brand new day!” Thanks, grandpa, but if this is rock’n’roll, I’d rather stay in bed.

Get down. (Oct. 29)

Download: “You Belong to Me,” “Don’t Even Try,” “Do What You Gotta Do”

Blue Rodeo – Live at Massey Hall (Warner)

Thirty years together, 14 studio albums, and this marks Blue Rodeo’s fourth live album, recorded in one of Canada’s most hallowed halls.

Why do we need this? Another live album should contain some surprises, some reason to supplant 1999’s excellent Just Like a Vacation. Instead, we have predictable versions of old favourites—though thankfully not the obvious singles, with the exception of three well-worn songs from 5 Days in May and Bogulski’s chance to try and make “Diamond Mine” his own (an admirable attempt, but it will always be impossible to reach the standard set by Bob Wiseman). What’s another word for consistent? Rote. Inexplicably, there are five tracks from 2013’s In Our Nature—a record I totally forgot even existed—and who wants to hear those? Granted, they’re from the album they were promoting on this tour, but no one buys a live album that gives you time for obvious bathroom breaks. There’s also no reason to ignore 2009’s The Things We Left Behind, their most critically successful album of the last 20 years.

The only real revelation here is a resurrection of the underrated 1997 track “Disappear,” from Tremolo, which is given an extended piano solo. There are more than enough hidden gems in Blue Rodeo’s catalogue that a new live album shouldn’t be a sleepwalk. (Oct. 29)

Download: “Disappear,” “Diamond Mine,” “Lost Together”

The Boxcar Boys – Cicada Ball (Independent)

Sometimes music in the hustle and bustle of Toronto all seems like rock bands, pop singers and hip-hop artists. Then there’s a sextet like the Boxcar Boys, led by clarinetist John David Williams (Lemon Bucket Orchestra) and violinist Laura C. Bates (Del Bel, Fresh Snow), who play New Orleans jazz, European folk music, North American country, and anything else that sounds good with accordions, tubas, trombones and washboards. Williams is the standout player here, but everyone else rises to his level and is accorded equal space. Together, there’s a chemistry here that casual dabblers could never replicate. (Oct. 1)

Download: “Scrammy Jammy,” “Wah Dat Dah,” “The Busker”

Ben Caplan – Birds With Broken Wings (Warner)

A gregarious tenor who sings cabaret songs, country music and fiery folk music from several traditions, the Hamilton-born Caplan is a carny barker whose ringmaster—Montreal’s klezmer hip-hop maestro Socalled—conducts the violins, accordions, darboukas, cimbaloms and horns arranged by former James Brown sideman Fred Wesley. Caplan usually hollers like he’s unamplified under the big top; rarely does he feel like underplaying his material, which includes plenty of fantastic songs that—here on his second album, and first with wide distribution—are bound to turn heads even without Caplan and the potential cacophony that surrounds him.

This album could well have been a well-intentioned mess. It’s a credit to Socalled that it sounds as cohesive and powerful as it does; you feel like you’re eavesdropping on the most magical gathering of old-world freaks in the basement of a 400-year-old tavern. And then, just to throw you a curveball, right near the end Caplan gives us an uncharacteristically straight-up, strings-laden jazz song, “Night Like Tonight,” that he could probably sell to Michael BublĂ©—and then follows it with a Halloweenie cover of Daniel Johnston’s “Devil Town.” (Oct. 1)

Download: “Bird With Broken Wings,” “Ride On,” “Under Control”

Jesse Cook – One World (eOne)

Yes, listening to the new Jesse Cook album feels like being on hold on a helpline. In this case, however, I feel slightly more confident that my call is, in fact, somewhat important. It’s that good.

I’ll admit I have never followed Cook’s career. Maybe it was the hair. Maybe because it seemed like it was soundtracking a soft porn film late at night on Bravo. Maybe I’m an insufferable snob (wait—don’t answer that). But it’s impossible to deny the guy’s technical skill, nor—now that I’m listening closely for the first time—the soulfulness in his playing. Nine albums in, he’s clearly doing something right—and I’m a dick.

He’s capable of flamenco fireworks, but he’s a judicious player—and a generous one, considering how much time he shares here with violinist Chris Church. Here (I’m told) there are more electronics and loops than before, as well as Turkish and Brazilian and Cuban percussion; the synth bass, programmed by Cook, is rich and resonant. Maybe Cook’s entire discography is up to this standard. Or maybe this is the one to get. Or maybe it’s just me. (Oct. 22)

Download: “Shake,” “Taxi Brazil,” “Tommy and Me”

Emilie & Ogden – 10,000 (Secret City)

Montrealer Emilie Kahn plays a harp—yes, the 38-stringed classical instrument played by Joanna Newsom and, um, nobody else. Nobody, that is, except Sarah PagĂ© of the Barr Brothers, who appeared at Kahn’s high school as an accompanist to the choir. Young Kahn was hooked, and a few years later, we have her debut album as a singer-songwriter. The harp is, indeed, novelty and a lovely touch. But would we care about these songs if she played piano or acoustic guitar? Likely. Just like any arty singer-songwriter from her hometown, Kahn lives in the shadow of Patrick Watson, and she waltzes her way through these 11 tracks (several are, in fact, waltzes) with delicate aplomb. Producer/guitarist Jesse McCormack and drummer Francis Ledoux are her sympathetic backing band, anchors that ensure everything doesn’t drift away on waves of twee. (Oct. 1)

Download: “Ten Thousand,” “Long Gone,” “What Happened”

Evening Hymns – Quiet Energies (Outside)

“All my life I’ve been running and trying to break free,” sings Jonas Bonnetta on his new record as Evening Hymns. It sounds like it: this is the kind of open-road, driving record one plays during a trip home for Thanksgiving, where those old streets don’t feel the same, where some faces have faded away, where you reckon with how much your past informs your present and your future.

The last time we heard from this rural Ontario band (now located somewhere between Kingston and Ottawa), Bonnetta was mourning the death of his father. It was—well, a bit of a bummer (although widely acclaimed). Ghosts still haunt this record, but Bonnetta is no longer hanging his head: his chin is up, the guitars are plugged in, there’s a rollicking rhythm section behind him (who sound like they’ve been listening to The War on Drugs), and The Wooden Sky’s Gavin Gardiner, a fellow purveyor of Canadian Shield roots rock (a lineage stretching back to Crash Vegas, Kathleen Edwards and others). Timber Timbre’s Mika Posen contributes strings; former bassist Sylvie Smith returns to sing harmony. The production by James Bunton (Ohbijou) is wide-screen and wonderful, meaty and majestic. (Oct. 8)

Download: “If I Was a Portal,” “House of Mirrors,” “Oh Man You’ll Walk Again and Again”

John Grant – Grey Tickles, Black Pressure (Nevado)

What kind of a man begins an album with the lyric, “I did not think I was the one being addressed / by hemorrhoid commercials on the TV set”?

John Grant. Such a simple name, such a complex man. He’s a 48-year-old, ex-Coloradan gay man living in Iceland, making synth-pop songs that are sardonic and sometimes sentimental, sometimes silly, and sung in an arch baritone. It’s as if Stephin Merritt and Buck 65 decided to sit around and listen to old Depeche Mode records before writing songs for Iggy Pop to sing. Only better.

Grant lobs more zingers at you than an episode of 30 Rock. “You seem like someone they should chemically castrate,” he croons. On a duet with Tracey Thorn (Everything But the Girl), he rattles off a litany of supposedly sacred cows—ocelot babies, Francis Bacon, harvest moons, Rachmaninoff, and… Rachel Dratch?!—before declaring that “all these things are just disappointing compared to you.” And in perhaps the oddest chorus of 2015, he sets the following phrase to a beautiful melody: “Global warming encourages slack-jawed troglodytes to leave their homes with guns and knives in search of refreshments and some homicide.” No, really. It works. As does, for that matter, the bass clarinet solo on the new wave folk song “Down Here.”

It could all easily add up to a novelty record, or outtakes from Flight of the Conchords. But it’s not all witty one-liners. Grant himself describes himself as “moodier and angrier” this time out. The two-part title comes from the literal translations of the Icelandic phrase for midlife crisis, and the Turkish word for nightmare. Like most middle-aged people, Grant is both baffled and ticked off at modern mores and what passes for societal interaction. He’s HIV positive. He doesn’t have time for people who have “a black belt in BS,” as he sang on his last album, 2013’s excellent Pale Green Ghosts. He might be a funny guy, but he’s also deadly sincere—and he sings like it, whether he’s emoting over squiggly synths or string-laden piano ballads that sounds as big as Pink Floyd, thanks to producer John Congleton (St. Vincent, Spoon).

Sometimes a lot of John Grant is far too much, but a little John Grant goes a long, long way. (Oct. 8)

Download: “Voodoo Doll,” “Global Warming,” “Disappointing”

Low – Ones and Sixes (Sub Pop)

“What part of me don’t you know?” ask Low on their 11th album. Fair question. The trio anchored by husband-and-wife duo Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker have played most of their cards by now: the ultra-sparse, hushed and dead-slow early records, the explosive dynamics (and ever-so-slightly snappier tempos) heard on 2005’s The Great Destroyer, the electronic textures of 2007’s Drums and Guns. Every shift has maintained a focus on Sparkhawk and Parker’s eerie harmonies, rich guitar tones and minimalist percussion. An all-star list of producers and engineers—Steve Albini, Tchad Blake, Dave Fridmann, Jeff Tweedy—have helped their evolution along the way.

Ones and Sixes, helmed by the band themselves and Bon Iver’s engineer, doesn’t break any new mould. Does it have to? It’s a fine Low album, not quite a late-career highlight as 2013’s The Invisible Way was. For a band with such a history, it’s a worthy and easy entry point for newcomers. But if you’re a Low fan with at least three of their records on your shelf, save your money for a concert ticket. (Oct. 22)

Download: “No Comprende,” “What Part of Me,” “Lies”

Corb Lund – Things That Can’t Be Undone (New West)

Is Western Canada’s favourite songwriter entering his Blue Rodeo years? Where he just falls into old formulas, makes interchangeable records and switches producers to try and pretend he’s going for a new sound?

This is the eighth album for Corb Lund, following the 2014 victory lap Counterfeit Blues, which featured his band of Hurtin’ Albertans re-recording some of his greatest hits (and non-hits) live in Sun Studio in Memphis, for the benefit of new American fans who are discovering him after Miranda Lambert and Dierks Bentley became big champions, and NPR and the Washington Post finally got on board.

Those Albertans are still a crackin’ live band, notably guitarist Grant Siemens, who’s given plenty of room here. But Lund himself has his own high songwriting standards to live up to—and he comes up a bit short. It’s not entirely out of character: ever since 2003’s classic Five Dollar Bill, Lund usually follows up his strongest work by coasting a bit—so this might have been expected after 2011’s extremely strong Cabin Fever.

Even when Lund is coasting, of course, he’s still better than most. Which is why “Sadr City,” about a soldier serving in Iraq, is another one of Lund’s fine character portraits, as is “S Lazy H,” about generations of Alberta farmers (which Lund, a sixth-generation rancher, knows a few things about). His playful side shows up on “Washed-Up Rock Star Factory Blues,” about a has-been who suddenly has to show up for a real job: “Well I done a lot of singing about stickin’ it to the man / today’s the day he’s going to stick it right back, if he can.”

That’s unlikely to be a problem for Lund. (Oct. 22)

Download: “Sadr City,” “Run This Town,” “S Lazy H”

Majical Cloudz – Are You Alone? (Arts and Crafts)

“What’s the point of a sad, sad song?” asks Devon Welsh, the man with the odd inclination to call his musical project Majical Cloudz. The point, young man, is as old as the blues itself—and though Welsh’s music owes more to Brian Eno and Blade Runner than it does Robert Johnson or Howlin’ Wolf. 

Yet Welsh’s incantations are as ghostly and haunting as any blues, though his lyrics are very 21st-century confessional, a mix of maudlin moroseness and emo earnestness, populated by “red wine and sleeping pills … cheap sex and sad films.” Welsh is the kind of guy who thinks dying in a car crash with your lover is romantic—and he’s the first guy since Morrissey to make it seem remotely possible (“I want to kiss you in a car that’s crashing / and we will both die laughing / because there is nothing left to do”).

On paper, this could come across like the worst record of the year. (The name doesn’t help.) But Welsh has a natural magnetism, a voice strong enough to sell the material—which consistently conjures feelings of a 3 a.m. soul-baring session with some stranger with whom you just bonded at a bar. The vocals are uncomfortably bare against a sparse sonic backdrop of droning organs, swooshing synths and arrhythmic electronic beats. In his videos, Welsh likes to stare directly into the camera for three straight minutes; his record achieves the same effect aurally.

Just like Dan Hill, the honesty’s too much. Or is it? Maybe it’s what you need when it feels like nobody else is speaking to you, nobody else hears you, nobody else is willing to say something as painfully sincere as: “I am your friend until the end of your life.” Nobody else except a guy who calls himself Majical Cloudz. (Oct. 15)

Download: “Disappear,” “Are You Alone,” “Silver Car Crash

Michelle McAdorey – Into Her Future (DWR)

Fans of Crash Vegas—a brilliant and oft-overlooked Toronto band who released three classic albums between 1989 and 1995—might well have been wondering what the future might hold for singer Michelle McAdorey. This is the first new music from her in 10 years, following two very low-key and experimental records in the early 2000s. Into Her Future finds her teaming up once again with Blue Rodeo’s Greg Keelor—with whom she founded Crash Vegas in 1988; he left when they became too busy—and returning from her more experimental forays back toward the dusky, psychedelic country ballads that comprised some of Crash Vegas’s most compelling moments. This is a record as quiet as it is sleepy—in good ways—with one or two exceptions. McAdorey and Keelor get as trippy as they wanna be. If it wasn’t all so well-executed, you might think it was made over a lost weekend on Keelor’s farm under a haze of smoke. She’s no longer a steely-eyed rocker, but her voice is as riveting as ever. McAdorey has been dearly missed. (Oct. 29)

Download: “Into Her Future,” “Disappearing Things,” “Run Into Me”

Princess Century – Progress (Paper Bag)

Princess Century is a techno project for Austra drummer Maya Postepski, who readily admits that Austra’s Katie Stelmanis takes her pick of Postepski’s beats. Those must be the ones that work better as pop songs; as Princess Century, Postepski lets loose with longer, trance-like tracks filled with analog synth patches and shades of ’80s soundtracks. She told Vice magazine, “Princess Century is the project where I take the most risks with because I don’t care; I’m not trying to necessarily have a huge audience. It’s where I can indulge all of my f--ked up ideas and sometimes they work.” In fact, they almost always work here in this soundscape of decaying neon, even the hypnotic solo percussion pieces (she studied music at the University of Toronto) that would work better in a mix beside Moondog and Olatunji than Kraftwerk or Adult. Much of Progress sounds spontaneous and raw; you can tell Postepski goes with a first-idea-best-idea approach, not unlike Dan Snaith’s Daphni project. Isn’t it high time Cronenberg made another dystopian sci-fi flick? If so, he’s found his composer. (Oct. 22)

Download: “Bros vs. UFOs,” “Tokyo Hands,” “Domestic”

Rah Rah – Vessels (Hidden Pony)

This Regina quintet has been together for seven years; this is their fourth album; and yet the members are barely over 25 and write nostalgic songs about the early 2000s, “before my band broke up” (when they were, what, 14?!). The language can be earnest and polite; is that a Prairies thing? “There were some quiet years there / I courted a few girls.” Drake, it’s not. There’s also a song about feeling sore after a night of tobogganing. Gotta admit: have not heard that one before.

Rah Rah came of age during the last great explosion of Canadian music, and you can hear them as direct descendants of the Weakerthans, Stars, the New Pornographers and others: alternating male/female vocalists, a punk energy driving power pop melodies, tempered with sincere romanticism. There are, of course, plenty of bands like this across this country. Rah Rah, though, have that extra spark, have better songs than most, and the personalities of the singers shine through. The two women in the band, keyboardist Erin Passmore and violinist Kristina Hedlund, play a greater role than before; their harmonies are front and centre even when Marshall Burns takes the lead on half the dozen songs here. Producer Gus Van Go—who already this year has been responsible for incredible albums by Whitehorse and Terra Lightfoot—amplifies the band’s strengths and makes it impossible for radio programmers to ignore them. (Oct. 8)

Download: “Be Your Man,” “Wolf Eyes,” “Love That Sticks”

Keith Richards – Crosseyed Heart (Universal)

As someone who wishes the Rolling Stones had retired 35 years ago, as someone who enjoyed Richards’s autobiography but still refuses to find stories of parenting while strung out on heroin amusing, as someone with next to no time for side project by Baby Boomer icons—I’m shocked at how good this record sounds to these ears.

Away from the need to pander to legacy or superstar producers or a long-lost quest for relevance, Richards lets loose with whatever the hell he wants: blues, country, reggae, dirty rock’n’roll—hell, even “Goodnight Irene.” His vocals sound uncannily like Bob Dylan of recent years, but his guitar tone is unmistakable—and it sounds better here than it probably has since his last solo record, 23 long years ago.

Drummer and co-writer Steve Jordan’s production is fantastic: live and raw with just the right doses of atmosphere and reverb. The duet with Norah Jones, "Illusion," is an obvious highlight, but Richards surrounds himself with such a wealth of talent here—veteran session players Waddy Wachtel, Ivan Neville, Bernard Fowler, Spooner Oldham, the late Bobby Keys—that it would be hard for him to go wrong.

For decades now, Richards usually gets unwarranted adulation just for showing up and making it look effortless—but, as heard here, sometimes that’s all he has to do. (Oct. 1)

Download: “Trouble,” “Suspicious,” “Illusion” (feat. Norah Jones)

Friday, October 16, 2015

Geoff Berner - We Are Going to Bremen to Be Musicians

Geoff Berner – We Are Going to Bremen to Be Musicians (Coax)

Do the horrors of the world make any form of distraction inevitably dishonest? Or is the only way to deal with said horrors to embrace escapism and indulge in hedonism? As Tom Mulcair might say: False choice. Geoff Berner, a.k.a. the Whiskey Rabbi, is here to tell you that there is another way.

Berner—an accordionist, novelist and brilliant satirist—is not one to ever shy away from uncomfortable, or even upsetting, subject matter. You might even say he delights in this. But the Vancouver songwriter is also capable of making you laugh through your tears, while he and his band tear through raucous klezmer punk and acerbic folk songs, arranged with incongruously elegant flair by Montreal polyglot producer Socalled (who also helmed Berner’s last record, 2011’s Victory Party). Berner and Socalled are surrounded by top-notch players: violinists Diona Davies and Brigitte Dajczer, clarinetist Michael Winograd, bassist Keith Rose and longtime drummer Wayne Adams, who has never sounded better than he does here.

Berner’s whole mission is to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted—a job that used to belong to journalists. He spares no scorn on the album’s mission statement, “Dance and Celebrate” (which you can stream only in the right column of his website): “Let’s dance and celebrate the misfortunes of people we hate … Schadenfreude needs no translation / so I guess I’ll take it as a reparation / out on a date / where we’ll dance and celebrate.” There’s a particularly catchy and biting bridge on that song, skewering Stephen Harper and Ariel Sharon, which Berner probably wrote to bait Bill C-51. Later, on "Thank You No Thank You," Berner lambastes politicians who claim to be “friends of Israel”—and he’s happy to name names—as a way to either mask Islamophobia or a way to facilitate a Holy War that will result in the Second Coming (not, as one might hope, a fringe belief in the U.S.). Naturally, this is not your typical wedding band fare.

Thankfully, Berner doesn’t write knee-jerk screeds; his outrage is hardly an extension of an angry not-so-young man’s arrested adolescence. He takes on Benjamin Netanyahu because he finds the Israeli PM an embarrassment to Judaism, a culture Berner celebrates as often as he satirizes; he takes on the mayor of Vancouver because the city’s endless embrace of condo developers is pricing Berner and his peers out of the hometown they love. The strength of his satire is his avoidance of obvious punchlines, his carefully considered analysis, and the ultra-rare ability to convey absurdity in atrocity.

He’s not immune to the simple pleasures that make life worth living: two other key (and wordy) titles here are “I Don’t Feel So Mad At God When I See You in Your Summer Dress,” and “When DD Gets Her Donkey Everything Will Be All Right.” They’re also the catchiest melodies here, of course, perhaps not coincidentally because they’re the only tracks that are remotely hopeful.

Geoff Berner doesn’t want to make nice background music that everybody likes. He’d be happy sending half of any given audience storming out the door in indignation, for reasons either political or musical, and carousing all night with those that remain. Geoff Berner’s music is meant to stir your blood, meant to make you feel alive and present in a world of horrible contradictions, to make you raise a glass and embrace your neighbour and try to make some semblance of sense of it all.

What more could you possibly want from a record?

Download: "Dance and Celebrate," "Thank You No Thank You," "I Don’t Feel So Mad at God When I See You In Your Summer Dress"