Monday, June 27, 2016

June 2016 reviews

Highly recommended this month: Un Blonde, Fanfare Ciocarlia

Highly recommended, reviewed earlier: Tragically Hip, Allen Toussaint, Paul Simon

Well worth your while: Brandy Clark, Doomsquad

As always, these reviews ran in the Waterloo Record.

Streaming is great for sample purposes, but please find a way to support your favourite artists financially.

Un Blonde – Good Will Come to You (Egg Paper)

Perhaps the most obscure artist to vault onto this year’s Polaris Music Prize long list, Jean-Sebastien Audet spent his teenage years in Calgary with a variety of musical projects, which is probably why the latest album by this 19-year-old and recent Montreal transplant sounds so accomplished, even though it’s incredibly bare, featuring little more than acoustic guitar and layers of Audet’s gospel-tinged harmonies. (For anyone, like me, who’s been seeking out Prince demos online since that legend’s death, Un Blonde has further resonance.) One song is called “I Felt the Evening Come Through the Window,” and indeed, Audet retains the sound of falling rain outside his apartment, along with seagulls and other ambient noise. Audet isn’t just a singer-songwriter fond of sparse arrangements; on instrumental tracks like “Exercise A,” he also explores ambient textures (with what’s either a melodica, accordion or harmonium—hard to tell). Good Will Come to You features 21 songs in 46 minutes; tiny perfect sketches that speak volumes about the man’s talent. (June 9)

Stream: “Celebration,” “Brand New,” “Staying in Line”

case/lang/veirs – s/t (Anti)

The first time I ever heard Neko Case, I hadn’t been that electrified by a North American woman’s singing voice since k.d. lang. Twenty years later, the two women have formed a trio with Oregon singer/songwriter Laura Veirs. It sounds amazing—on paper. 

Both lang and Case are powerhouse vocalists who can leave listeners—at least this one—in a weepy mess. Veirs—well, frankly, it’s a bit of a mystery what she’s doing here. (I’m sure she’s a lovely person.) She doesn’t distract from the potential in this recording—she’s certainly a decent singer—but it’s not clear that she adds anything, either.

It starts out with a promise: opening track “Atomic Number” finds all three women trading off lines. That promise quickly evaporates: most tracks are solo turns, with the other two providing backing vocals, the likes of which could really have been performed by any studio professionals (admittedly, a rare occurrence in the age of solo artists multi-tracking their own backups). We’re denied the sublime pleasure of Case and lang exchanging lines, or even singing a lead in two-part harmony.

Much of the collaboration here took place in the songwriting process, which might be the problem: for the last 20 years, k.d. lang has been a masterful interpreter but a middling songwriter; Veirs is perfunctory, but not capable of writing material for a project like this; Case, the strongest songwriter of the three, has an idiosyncratic flair that may not lend itself to surrender. Veirs’s husband, producer/engineer Tucker Martine, dresses up the material in impeccably bland arrangements, with strings and woodwinds and vibraphones that merely clutter up the sonic space that should be left wide open for these voices to roam.

Naturally, there are sublime moments, starting with lang’s
“Honey and Smoke,” which ranks as one of her finest torch songs in the Roy Orbison mode. Case’s “Delirium”—written by all three, an apparently the song with the longest gestation—is the highlight here. Neither are enough, however, to compensate for the squandered potential here. Let’s hope the tour brings out the best in them. (June 23)

Case/lang/veirs play Toronto’s Danforth Music Hall on Aug. 16.

Stream: “Atomic Number,” “Delirium,” “Honey and Smoke”

Brandy Clark – Big Day in a Small Town (Warner)

Still have tears in your beer since ABC cancelled Nashville? Well, cheer up, because there’s a new Brandy Clark album. The 40-year-old songwriter, who’d penned hits for or with Miranda Lambert, Reba McEntire and Kacey Musgraves, was thrust into the spotlight with 2013’s 12 Stories, the kind of album songwriters of every genre study carefully, full of both killer one-liners, developed narratives and astute character sketches.

Here, Clark steps up into the big time, with a major label and a producer, Jay Joyce (Eric Church, Carrie Underwood) who beefs up her (previously predominantly acoustic) sound for radio play. Thankfully, it’s not an unrecognizable makeover: the core of Clark’s charm and songcraft remain. She can be incredibly poignant, as on the examination of faded youth on “Homecoming Queen,” or laugh-out-loud funny, on “Broke”: “Ain’t enough apples for our apple pie / if we had a penny not sure we could spare it / we’re sitting on the porch drinking generic  / Coke / we’re broke.” And she’s got sass to spare, as on the first single, in which she taunts, “If you want the girl next door, go next door.” (June 9)

Stream: “Girl Next Door,” “Broke,” “Homecoming Queen”

Doomsquad – Total Time (Hand Drawn Dracula)

Granted, there are moments here that sound like the soundtrack to a ritual sacrifice at a rave somewhere north of Sudbury. But when it comes to spookier-than-thou psychedelic trance music, it doesn’t get much better than these three Toronto siblings, who recruited Mary Margaret O’Hara to sing backups for them, and whom Wolf Parade picked to open their sold-out reunion shows in New York City. There are elements of dub reggae, hippie jams, plenty of goth angst, and you can practically smell the incense coming out your speakers. It’s certainly divisive, but to these ears, it’s just perfect for summer nights in subversive times. (June 2)

Stream: “Who Owns Noon in Sandusky,” “Pyramids on Mars,” “Farmer’s Almanac”

Fanfare Ciocarlia – Onwards to Mars! (Asphalt Tango)

Did you know one of the best bands in the world is playing the Italian Canadian Centre in Guelph this week? And Maxwell’s in Waterloo shortly after that? (And the major jazz festivals in Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and Quebec City as well.)

Fanfare Ciocarlia are a Balkan brass band from a remote Romanian village, celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. In 2014 they recorded an album with Guelph guitarist Adrian Raso, owner of the Little Shop of Guitars on Quebec Street. They’ve already toured in Europe; now they’re finally bringing it to major jazz festivals in Canada—and a local wedding hall in Guelph.

Here they’re on their own, doing what they do best: incredibly fast and brash brass lines, frenetic rhythm driven by sousaphones and two percussionists, and occasional vocal forays sung in their Roma language. It’s physically impossible not to dance to this music, the dizzying horn and clarinet lines adding to the euphoria.

The band’s style has evolved over the years, and not just through their work with Raso. Here, the oddball pop entry is a cover of the 1950s slow-grinding classic “I Put a Spell on You,” by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. Here it’s sung by Iulian Canaf, a comically histrionic soulman who attained notoriety as a contestant on the Romanian version of TV’s The Voice. It has to be heard to be believed—though, truth be told, the original is just as much of an oddball, (literally) snortin’ good time. (June 23)

Fanfare Ciocarlia and Adrian Raso are playing Toronto with the Lemon Bucket Orchestra on June 29 at the Opera House, the Guelph Italian Canadian Club on July 2, and at Maxwell's in Waterloo on July 5.

Stream: “Crayfish Hora,” “Out to Lounge,” “Mista Lobaloba”

The Kills – Ash and Ice (Domino/Outside)

The Kills are a bluesy guitar duo who’ve survived and thrived almost 15 years after forming, with much credit going to attention magnet Alison Mosshart—who also fronts perhaps the finest of all Jack White projects, the Dead Weather. Mosshart and guitarist Jamie Hince claim they wanted to flip the script on this, their fifth album, and even cited hip-hop master Pusha T as a big influence. Which is an interesting ploy to convince people that Ash and Ice is some radical reinvention, when in fact it’s just another Kills record, no better or worse, with slightly more interesting drum programming. It may not be fair to compare, but Mosshart is much better utilized in the Dead Weather, where her howls and snarls and sexual energy is completely captivating; in the Kills, one always gets the sense she’s underplaying her power. That does allow her to sink her teeth into some of the slower material, exploring the torch singer into which she’ll inevitably evolve some day. (June 9)

Stream: “Doing It to Death,” “Hard Habit to Break,” “Days of Why and How”

King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard – Nonagon Infinity (ATO)

A nonagon, for the geometrically challenged among us (I looked it up), is a nine-sided figure. This is the eighth album by this seven-piece Australian band in the last four years. All those numbers add up to: infinity?

That’s the intention behind these nine rollicking psychedelic rock songs, which not only flow seamlessly into each other like a 42-minute suite, but the last track also flows back into the first if you (are weird enough to) leave your player on “repeat.” That journey often travels at a breakneck speed, with influences from Led Zeppelin’s “Communication Breakdown” through Deep Purple and Can and Iron Maiden and Stereolab—basically, any band that’s ever strapped themselves to a runaway train. Nonagon Infinity is more than just a thrill ride, however, with a keen sense of dynamics, spacey keyboards and guitar textures balancing the hard-driving riffs and rhythms. (June 9)

Stream: “Evil Death Roll,” “Road Train,” “Robot Stop”

Pantha du Prince – The Triad (Rough Trade)

I played this record in a cabin in the woods one morning, surrounded by a symphony of birds—who fit in seamlessly with the stuttering bells and chimes that have become the trademark sound for this German producer. His rhythms have much more swing in them than you’d expect from minimal techno, and he’s more prone to using major chords than most of his peers. This time out there are more vocalists employed, though not to particularly great effect; his keyboard leads are still the main melodic driver.

The producer has mused that he’ll bury the name after this album, having achieved everything he wants to with this aesthetic. The Triad isn’t as strong as its predecessor, Black Noise—he’s starting to sound like a one-trick pony—so perhaps that decision is wise. In the meantime, the birds in my neighbourhood are more than happy to sing along. (June 2)

Stream: “The Winter Hymn” feat. Queens, “Frau im mond, Sterne laufen,” “Dream Yourself Awake”

Samaris – Black Lights (One Little Indian)

Of Monsters and Men have shifted our perceptions of Icelandic music away from esoteric electronica, avant-garde pop stars and whatever it is Sigur Ros happens to be, and toward catchy yet bland radio rock. Which is why it’s refreshing to encounter Samaris, a Reykjavik trio that draws from ’90s trip hop, dubby electronica and the (relatively) more recent sounds coming from London’s Hyperdub label, including Hamilton’s Jessy Lanza. Breathy female vocals and strong, skittering beats—even at slower tempos—are adorned with equally dreamy and disquieting synths, making for languid, late-night vibes. (June 30)

Stream: “Wanted 2 Say,” “Black Lights,” “3y3”

Sate – Red Black and Blue (independent)

Canada has no shortage of rock bands. What this country is lacking, however, is fantastic rock singers: people who can grab a song by the throat, who can be heard above electric guitars even without a microphone. More howlers, fewer growlers, please.

Enter Sate, a.k.a. Saidah Baba Talibah—daughter of Salome Bey, one of this country’s greatest R&B/jazz voices in the ’70s and ’80s—reinventing herself as a rocker here, after starting her career in a bluesier vein. The blues is still present here, but on opening track “Warrior” she goes for the jugular in ways the Toronto scene probably hasn’t seen since Danko Jones. “You’re gonna know my name / from the Mississippi to the Rhine,” she boasts—and by the end of the track you’re more than inclined to agree. As strong as that song is, in the context of the album it seems like a gimmick to get you to pay attention. Once she’s got you hooked, Sate starts to get serious: right away she delves into the blues of “What Did I Do,” and “Mama Talk to Me” is a poignant, emotional rocker about Bey’s struggles with dementia. For all her fiery delivery, the upbeat tracks here suffer in comparison with the slower numbers, especially the gorgeous, gospel-tinged closer, “Peace.” Red Black and Blue is an uneven record by an artist searching for her sound, but there’s no denying that Sate is a force to be reckoned with. Her talent is too enormous to be denied. (June 30)

Stream: “Warrior,” “Mama Talk to Me,” “Peace”

Andy Shauf – The Party (Arts and Crafts)

One of the most anticipated Canadian albums of the year is by this mild-mannered Regina singer/songwriter, who steps into the big time by signing with Arts and Crafts in Canada and Anti in the U.S., the label that is also home to the new album by k.d. lang, Neko Case and Laura Veirs, with whom Shauf will be touring this summer. Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy is a huge fan, as is novelist Nick Hornby. The hype seems strange for songs of such subtle pleasures; Shauf is on the same wavelength as Beck’s acoustic moods, or Elliott Smith, an early influence. And he’s chosen as his coming-out party a concept album of sorts, connected songs set at a house party, a series of character sketches that highlight Shauf’s eye for nuance. The playing and production are impeccable—all Shauf solo, except for the strings—though Shauf’s sedated vocals drag some of the material down; The Party in question is more than a bit of a bummer. No matter. This record puts plenty of wind in his sails; the after-party promises to be a lot more exciting. (June 2)

Stream: “The Magician,” “To You,” “Martha Sways”

Tegan and Sara – Love You to Death (Universal)

It’s heartening that an act like Tegan and Sara get bigger and bigger with each album—rare in the chart-pop sphere they no longer aspire to, but to which these 36-year-old sisters rightfully belong. Working again with producer Greg Kurstin (Adele), who helmed 2013’s Heartbeat, Tegan and Sara aim for stadiums and come up with a gold rush of hooks and radio-ready melodies—granted, few with the undeniable punch of Hearbeat’s “Closer” or “I Was a Fool,” which would be hard to top. “Boyfriend,” however, is unusually lyrically rich bubblegum, a lesbian love song that will forever erase the memory of Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl.” (June 9)

Stream: “Boyfriend,” “Dying to Know,” “100x”

American Tunes: Allen Toussaint and Paul Simon

Allen Toussaint – American Tunes (Nonesuch)

This week we lost 72-year-old Bernie Worrell, the synth wizard of Funkadelic and Talking Heads and session player on hundreds of recordings (and sampled on hundreds more hip-hop records), who redefined the keyboard’s role in R&B and funk and pop. A few months ago we lost Keith Emerson, 71, who redefined the role of piano, organ and synth in jazzy and bombastic rock music. And a few months before that, we lost Allen Toussaint, 77, the man who almost single-handedly introduced the unique New Orleans sound into rock and soul music, midwifing recordings by Lee Dorsey, the Meters, Labelle, The Band and Dr. John. It’s been a horrible 12 months for keyboard heroes. Hey, Herbie Hancock: hope you’re feeling okay.

This is the final recording by Toussaint, who, in the last decade of his life, was making lovely, simply adorned records that took leisurely strolls through his legacy. This one is no different, walking through a century of American music by composers such as Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, Bill Evans, Earl King, Professor Longhair, Fats Waller and more, including Toussaint’s own compositions (including his hit for Glen Campbell, “Southern Nights”) and the title song, by Paul Simon. That song, the last one recorded for the album—a month before Toussaint’s death of a heart attack following a performance in Madrid—contains these lyrics: “And I dreamed I was dying /
And I dreamed that my soul rose unexpectedly /
And looking back down at me
/ Smiled reassuringly.”

Produced by Joe Henry, who also helmed 2009’s The Bright Mississippi, American Tunes features the sympathetic rhythm section of drummer Jay Bellerose and Toronto bassist David Piltch, with guest spots from Bill Frisell, Greg Liesz, and vocalist Rhiannon Giddens. Toussaint’s reputation as a producer, arranger and songwriter often overshadowed just what a brilliant piano player he is: here he displays a magical touch that ranges from classical flourish to swinging jazz to boogie-woogie, all delivered with elegance. I thought I knew everything Toussaint could deliver until I heard him dive into a 19th-century composition by Louis Moreau Gottschalk, who was born in New Orleans but spent most of his life in the Caribbean and South America. Surprising us right until the end. (June 30)

Stream: “Big Chief,” “Danza, Op. 33,” “Dolores’ Boyfriend”

Paul Simon – Stranger to Stranger (Universal)

“Stranger to stranger / if we met for the first time / this time, could you imagine us falling in love again?” It’s hard to imagine anyone hearing Paul Simon for the first time in 2016, anyone not coming to a new Paul Simon record without some kind of preconceived idea. But I’m willing to bet that if they did, they’d be just as beguiled as someone hearing any of the iconic songs or albums that have made him such an enormous part of American music in the last half-century. “Certain melodies tear your soul apart,” he sings—and he should know.

Here, we find Simon once again delving into rhythms from Africa, South America and New Orleans, gospel harmonies, electronics (many lessons learned from his 2006 collaboration with Brian Eno, Surprise), and melodic remnants of his ’70s prime, all the while playing the role of the slightly bewildered and flustered Baby Boomer poet laureate adrift in the modern world. Only Paul Simon could write a song about being denied backstage access (“Wristband”) and make it funny and a metaphor for economic stratification rather than merely the precious complaints of a rock star. Simon often suffers when he suffocates from his own seriousness; he does not have that problem on this joyous and spritely album, on which he sings: “I make my verse for the universe / I write my rhymes for the universities / I give it away for the hoot of it / I tell my tale for the toot of it.”

The best three tracks are cross-generational collaborations with Italian DJ Clap! Clap! (who came recommended by Simon’s 23-year-old son), though everything else is produced by longtime guiding light Roy Halee, who’s worked on almost everything Simon has ever done, dating back to Simon & Garfunkel’s first record in 1964. Halee is now 81, and apparently had to be instructed on ProTools to record this album (seriously, what took him so long, and why now?); the modern sound of Stranger to Stranger more than proves why Halee has been the ideal midwife for Simon’s vision since day one. (June 2)

Stream: “The Werewolf,” “Wristband,” “Stranger to Stranger”