Friday, July 29, 2016

July 2016 reviews

Highly recommended this month: Badbadnotgood, Michael Kiwanuka

Well worth your while: Aaron Neville, Billy Talent

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.

Thanks to everyone I ran into at last weekend's Hillside Festival who told me they read this blog faithfully. It's always nice to know I'm not writing into a total void.

Badbadnotgood – IV (Arts and Crafts)

From Led Zeppelin IV to Black Mountain IV—hell, even Foreigner 4—and now the fourth album from Toronto hip-hop/jazz band Badbadnotgood, putting the number four in a title suggests you’re saving your best ideas for the music, not the marketing, and the fourth album is the ideal time to crystallize the myriad directions the band had taken up until now.

For Badbadnotgood—who, after starting out with jazz covers of hip-hop tracks, came into their own on a full-length collaboration with Ghostface Killah (Sour Soul) and their 2014 album III—this finds them stepping up their game once again, moving away from hip-hop slightly (collaborations with Kaytranada and Mick Jenkins notwithstanding) and toward the funk of Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters and the cinematic esoterica of space-age bachelor pad music a la Esquivel or Broadcast. They also dip into sultry soul music, with pop songs sung by Charlotte Day Wilson and a particularly surprising turn by Future Islands’ Sam Herring, on which he channels the late Bobby Womack.

Part of IV’s success is the natural evolution of these young players, but also the permanent addition of saxophonist Leland Whitty, whose guest spots on III were a highlight. Nonetheless, they enlist avant jazz star Colin Stetson to lend a beefy, baritone bottom end to “Confessions Pt. II,” where he trades leads with Whitty while the band vamps on what could be a ’70s action film soundtrack underneath.

Exciting as it is, even better is anticipating where this band will venture next. Just please, whatever you do, don't judge this album by the album cover. (July 7)

Stream: “Time Moves Slow” (feat. Sam Herring), “Lavender” (feat. Kaytranada), “And That, Too”

Billy Talent – Afraid of Heights (Warner)

Against most odds, Billy Talent is still standing. The Mississauga band who first broke through in 2003 are now on the other side of 40; you’d think it’d be getting hard to tap into the energy of their bestselling debut—surely it’s time for the synth experiments or the pseudo-country ballads, no? Well, there are apparently some synths hiding here somewhere (underneath the wall of guitars on “Horses and Chariots”), but after the more “mature” Dead Silence in 2012, the band revisited their debut album for live dates celebrating its 10th anniversary, and releasing a hits compilation that served as a reminder of just how hook-filled and durable all those shout-y singles have proven to be. A comeback record could well be a bunch of old men trying to recapture old glories; the lyrics of “Louder Than the DJ” (“Those glory days aren’t over yet”) suggest a bunch of leather-clad grandpas squeezing into skinny jeans and yelling at rave kids; thankfully the song is much better than that.

Afraid of Heights is very much a sonic throwback of sorts, with only a few clunky spots (“The Clutch”) and one poor attempt at power ballad (“Rabbit Down the Hole”), which is helped only slightly by Ian D’Sa’s lyrical lead guitar. Otherwise, the fact that D’Sa has always had more complex pop songwriting skills than most of his peers continues to set the band apart; once the title track runs its course at rock radio, look for the anthemic “Leave Them All Behind” to dominate the rest of the year.

The sad news for fans is that drummer Aaron Solowoniuk’s MS has finally forced him to resign; he’s been replaced by Jordan Hastings of Alexisonfire, though Solowoniuk helped the band arrange in the studio and appears beside Hastings in the press photos. It’s not age that’s taken a toll on this band, it’s the disease they’ve been fighting since the beginning. (July 28)

Stream: "Afraid of Heights," "Louder Than the DJ," "Leave Them All Behind"

Blood Orange – Freetown Sound (Domino)

Blood Orange’s Dev Hynes plays well with others: in addition to his prolific and eclectic career as an artist (recording under several different monikers), he’s written and produced records by Carly Rae Jepsen, Solange Knowles, and Florence and the Machine. Here, on his highly anticipated third album, he enlists the likes of Jepsen, Blondie’s Debbie Harry, Nelly Furtado—even bestselling social critic Ta-Nehisi Coates and Bob Marley’s granddaughter, because, why not?

Blood Orange’s sound leans heavily on ’80s iconoclasts like Michael Jackson, Prince and Terence Trent D’Arby—though only the more outré moments from any of those artists, filtered through shades of ’90s trip-hop like Tricky. Though Hynes obviously loves pop music, he doesn’t write particularly catchy melodies himself. Instead, he offers languid, lush, sometimes experimental R&B, where the tiny details—a bass squibble here, a subtle jazz piano turn there—usually trump anything in the foreground. The parade of guest vocalists lend a diversity to a record that could easily fade into the background, but they’re not necessarily enough to stave off overall ennui. (July 7)

Stream: “E.V.P.” (feat. Debbie Harry), “Desirée,” “Better Than Me”

Michael Kiwanuka – Love and Hate (Universal)

The U.S. hasn’t felt this politically divided and tumultuous since the late ’60s and early ’70s. And while Kendrick Lamar and Beyoncé provide fiery anthems and reflection as a soundtrack of the times, British folk-soul singer Michael Kiwanuka has delivered a comedown tonic for the end of each anguished day. His second album—four long years after his acclaimed 2012 debut, Home Again— is a rich and languid masterpiece, steeped in psychedelic blues, string-drenched soul, gospel vocals and more than a few nods to Marvin Gaye’s 1971 classic What’s Going On, as if it were reimagined by Portishead.

Co-produced by Danger Mouse (Gnarls Barkley, Black Keys, Broken Bells), Love and Hate strikes a perfectly consistent mood and tone: unhurried, gentle, yet feeling the weight of the world in every note. Kiwanuka himself is neither a showy singer nor one who retreats into whispers: his calm confidence is what glues this record together. So much of Love and Hate sounds like the flip side of Alabama Shakes’ 2015 summer soundtrack, Sound and Color: can someone put Kiwanuka and Brittany Howard in a room together, please? (July 21)

Stream: “Cold Little Heart,” “Rule the World,” “I’ll Never Love”

Aaron Neville – Apache (Sony)

Aaron Neville is best known as the singer who NPR describes as “an angel who swallowed a wah-wah pedal,” a man best known for a series of hit duets with Linda Ronstadt in 1989-90. Despite his vocal gifts, his solo work is almost uniformly cheesy and lightweight—unlike, by comparison, his incredible work with his siblings in the Neville Brother in the ’80s (start with the Daniel Lanois-produced Yellow Moon).

Apache, on the other hand, might well be the funkiest record of Neville’s solo career. Recorded in New York City, his adopted home, with local musicians—including the Daptone horns—you’d never know he wasn’t still in New Orleans. But maybe absence makes the 75-year-old’s heart grow fonder: he’s clearly in a nostalgic mood, as “Stompin’ Ground” and other tracks illustrate.

No surprise here, but he’s also in a romantic mood. He remarried in 2010 after losing his wife of 47 years to cancer in 2008, and several tracks here—his first album to feature original material in 13 years—mine his mushy side, while avoiding the adult-contemporary trap of his ’90s hits.

Of course, there’s that voice, which hasn’t changed a bit since his first hit single 50 years ago. Rather than showing a scrap of age, it sounds better than it ever did—hard as that may be to believe. (July 21)

Stream: "Be Your Man," "Orchid in the Storm," “Stompin’ Ground”

Pup – The Dream is Over (Royal Mountain)

This Toronto punk band themselves describe their second album as a “rowdy, noisy clusterf--k.” Yes, it’s rowdy and noisy, but it’s a lot more coherent (monotonous?) than that comment would imply. It’s an all-guns-blazing response to the end of one’s twenties, wondering if playing 200 shows a year is taking a toll on your domestic life, having to hear your doctor look at your vocal cords and tell you, “The dream is over.” A song called “Doubts” features the chorus, “What am I supposed to do now?” On “DVP,” friends chime in: “She says I drink too much / she says I need to grow up.” These are common rock’n’roll themes, and there’s no doubt that time logged on the road has made Pup a lean, mean rock’n’roll machine. But the best thing I can say about this record is that it makes me want to listen to Japandroids’ 2013 classic Celebration Rock: same theme, same punch, same raw power, much better songs. (July 21)

Stream: “DVP,” “My Life is Over and I Couldn’t Be Happier,” “Familiar Patterns”

Wake Up You! The Rise and Fall of Nigerian Rock, Vols. 1 & 2: 1972-1977 – Various Artists (Now Again)

Every retro reissue trend dries up eventually, right? Surely there are no more hidden gems from the golden age of American soul music in the ’60s and ’70s left to uncover? Hasn’t every punk band who had five minutes of fame in the ’80s been unearthed? Even the 30-volume Ethiopiques collections of East African jazz and soul have finally trickled to a crawl. And so while the Fela Kuti revival in the early 2000s sparked an interest in Nigerian and West African music, which opened the floodgates to seemingly hundreds of quality reissues—of which at least a dozen could be considered essential to anyone remotely interested in the scene—even that treasure trove appears to be running dry. I mean, after the elusive William Onyeabor was discovered, what great mysteries were left?

So here comes a two-volume set, 10 years in the making, accompanying two 100+ page books written by Onyeabor biographer Uchenna Ikonne, chronicling the Nigerian psychedelic rock scene in the wake of the country’s civil war and the rise of Fela Kuti. Some of these names will be familiar to followers—namely the Funkees, who had their own anthology on Soundway Records in 2012—but the pleasure here is finding even more new names that haven’t been featured on comps like Nigeria 70 (Strut, 2001) or The World Ends (Soundway, 2010). Like that latter comp, the guitars here are raunchy and louder and more psychedelic than heard on the straight-up funk comps.

It’s a lot to wade through, but it’s a testament to just how musically fertile Funky Lagos was during this pivotal time. Rest assured it won’t be the final word on the subject, either. (July 7)

Stream: “Everybody Likes Something Good” by Ify Jerry Krusade, “Graceful Bird” by War-Head Constriction, “Never Too Late” by the Apostles

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Yes, I'm going to Hillside

It’s Hillside time again. Time to celebrate 32 years of the Guelph festival's community spirit, groundbreaking programming and musical memories. But it’s no secret that Hillside—which blossomed from its local folkie roots to sold-out weekends with international headliners—has had a tough time in recent years, partially because of its own success: its family-friendly, multi-genre, foodie focus has been emulated by non-folk festivals in Toronto, Hamilton and beyond. 

Now there’s a major big-budget festival competing on the same weekend near Barrie—you know the one—with a lineup that has likely sucked away the twenty- and thirtysomethings of the Guelph/K-W area. One of the headlining acts of that festival this year, Arcade Fire, got its first big break in Ontario playing to a packed Hillside tent the summer before their breakthrough album came out.

There were many times in the last 10 years when I heard Guelphites complain that Hillside was too big, too crowded, and too hard to get tickets. They had a point. Last year, however, the dip in ticket sales actually improved my own Hillside experience—though I’m sure no one in the Hillside office wants to hear me say that (disclosure: I volunteer every year as an MC). There was actually room to move around the site; there were no lineups to get into tents; it was much easier to catch up with friends and still see the calibre of music I’ve always expected from Hillside, even if there were only two acts (Daniel Lanois, Michael Franti) who could be considered major headliners (and I missed both sets—parenting has changed my festival habits).

It’s admittedly hard for festival programmers with no headliners to say: trust us, it’s going to be great. This year the only big names are young American folk duo the Milk Carton Kids and Canadian songwriting legend Buffy Sainte-Marie, who’s on the comeback trail with an award-winning album and will be appearing with the Sadies as the Sunday closer. But while Milk Carton Kids are somewhat high-profile, they’re also niche, and as much as I worship Buffy, I’m not convinced she’s enough of a commercial draw. 

So cue the former Hillside faithful who are now complaining that they haven’t heard of anybody on this year’s bill, and so they’re either a) headed to That Other Festival or b) staying home. Even though the entire point of Hillside—indeed, the point on which it built its reputation—was that it was a place of discovery, a place where artists just starting to get a critical rep were put on stages in front of hundreds, if not thousands of people, a place where open-minded audiences who might only go to one major musical event a year fell in love with artists that would sell out larger venues (or festivals) in the space of a couple of years.

As a recent article in the Waterloo Record illustrated, Hillside is sounding a bit desperate this year. Other Canadian festivals have cancelled this year (Squamish, Wolfe Island), due to saturation as well as the weak Canadian dollar (because even major Canadian acts, many of whom are handled exclusively by U.S. booking agents, get paid in US$). Other than the behemoth festivals, everyone else is trying to get by with smaller names with smaller draws. Which is where the experience comes into play. If you have the choice to stand in any random field and watch a bunch of good-to-great music, then it’s all the other factors that will shape your decision: the expense, the food, the physical space, the access to shade, the beer lines, the bathroom lines, and whether the audience is comprised of boozed-up bros or families or something in between.

In this otherwise wonderful and passionate defence of Hillside and small festivals, Will McGuirk puts the question to Canadian artists performing at WayHome this year instead of Hillside: shouldn’t you remember the festival who gave you a big break? Have you no loyalty? By taking the (presumably) bigger cheque, are you undermining the infrastructure that made your success possible?

I don’t buy that argument. For starters, the Hillside/WayHome crossover includes acts with wildly different audience bases: of course Arcade Fire is not going to play Hillside again (turning it into a complete zoo and bankrupting the festival), and considering the wallop of international acts at WayHome, acts like BadBadNotGood, Bahamas, Stars, Shad and the Arkells are little more than a rounding error in that festival's budget. Also, if those five acts, for example, played Hillside again this year, then Hillside would start to look pretty stale and repetitious. Finally, with few exceptions (i.e. Arcade Fire in 2005), I’d suggest that most artists are happy to surrender their schedules to their bookers. It’s the bookers’ job to find the biggest cheques and the biggest opportunities for their artists. And God knows every musician has to take every paycheque they can these days.

Because of its size, Hillside will always be a farm-team festival: an incubator for the upstarts, a step down from the major leagues for old-timers. Hillside will never, ever, be able to book a major artist at the height of their popularity. That’s not the point. Hillside, for me and hopefully others, is an experience, one that should be full of surprises. There are many acts this year I’ve never heard of before that I’m looking forward to (bands from Mongolia and the Bahamas, Son Little, Versa), acts I love that I’ve never had the chance to see (Un Blonde, Tuns, Rose Cousins, Ben Caplan, Esmerine, Fond of Tigers), and acts I’d go see any day of the week (Holy Fuck, Lemon Bucket Orchestra, Jennifer Castle).

I’ll see you there. And maybe at Camp Wavelength in Toronto. And maybe at Arboretum in Ottawa. And maybe at Sandbanks in Prince Edward County.

Here’s a look at two Hillside 2016 artists not yet reviewed in this column, and a look at more sure-to-be-highlights.

Donovan Woods – Hard Settle, Ain't Troubled (Meant Well)

This songwriter from Sarnia recently landed a publishing deal in Nashville, where he’s written songs for Charles Kelley of Lady Antebellum and Tim McGraw. He writes about that experience on the bittersweet “Leaving Nashville,” where he talks about “Friends of friends with country stars who are buying homes and here you are, two weeks from sleeping in your car.” It’s hard to imagine the soft-spoken Woods singing a country hit himself—his voice is more Sufjan Stevens than Brad Paisley—but there’s no denying his skill as a songwriter, of which there is plenty of evidence on this, his third album, recently long-listed for the Polaris Music Prize.

Stream: “Leaving Nashville,” “They Don’t Make Anything in That Town,” “On the Nights You Stay Home”

Xylouris White – Goats (Other Music)

Hillside this year is not lute-free. That’s because virtuoso Cretan lute player George Xylouris is bringing his duo with dexterous drummer Jim White (Dirty Three, Nick Cave, PJ Harvey) to town, still promoting this (largely) instrumental 2014 debut album. The lute gets a bad rap: we know it only from Greek restaurants or because we confuse it for an oud on Leonard Cohen records. But like any string instrument, it’s all about the player, not the tool. Xylouris is an entrancing player, drawing from styles on every side of the Mediterranean, filtering it through his doom-laden modal blues style. White is an ideal dancing partner, a master of nuance, not to mention one of the most fascinating drummers you’ll ever have the pleasure to watch.

Stream: “Pulling the Bricks,” “Suburb,” “Chicken Song”

15 more reasons to go to Hillside this year:

Ben Caplan: A big-throated baritone with a carnivalesque bark who will go over big with Tom Waits fans.

Jennifer Castle: 2015 Polaris-shortlisted artist writes haunting, unforgettable melodies that operate on their own clock.

Choir! Choir! Choir!: They’ve filled the AGO and Massey Hall to lead singalong tributes to David Bowie and Prince, but it’s not necessary for legends to die in order for this large ensemble to have fun.

Esmerine: Guelph drummer Jamie Thompson joins these members of Godspeed You Black Emperor’s extended family for gorgeous, cello-driven instrumentals.

Gregory Pepper and his Problems: This prolific Guelph pop provocateur has been making catchy records since 2007, but he’s still making new converts. You could be next.

Holy Fuck: The live electronic rock band from Toronto return from a six-year hiatus, during which keyboardist Graham Walsh became one of Canada’s most in-demand producers (Metz, Operators), with what is sure to be an explosive set.

Land of Talk: Speaking of a six-year hiatus, Guelph’s Liz Powell has been MIA since 2010. Let’s hope this appearance is a sign of new material.

Lemon Bucket Orchestra: Simply one of the best live bands you’ll ever see, this multi-culti Ukrainian musical circus has been spreading their gospel around the world.

McGarrigle Family Slideshow: Anna McGarrigle, sister Jane and various extended family members including a “secret guest” (likely Rufus or Martha Wainwright) pay tribute to the late Kate.

Noah 23: This veteran Guelph MC puts out at least three albums a year. Time to play catch-up.

Rose Cousins: This Maritime singer/songwriter is guaranteed to break your heart. Bring some hankies.

Andy Shauf: This Regina songwriter has plenty of famous fans in the U.S., was recently shortlisted for the Polaris Music Prize, and was handpicked to open a tour for k.d. lang and Neko Case.

Suuns: If shiny happy people bring you down, surf the dark waves underneath Montreal’s Suuns.

Tuns: If you a) grew up in the ’90s loving Sloan and their spawn or b) haven’t loved a rock band of any kind in years, then you need to see this new supergroup with members of Sloan, Super Friendz and the Inbreds. This is a can’t-miss.

Un Blonde: Mysterious, lo-fi, gospel-tinged, experimental folk music from this 19-year-old Calgarian who found himself on the Polaris Prize long list.

Check the full line-up and performance schedule here 

(The above is a modified version of my column last week for the Waterloo Record.)