Tuesday, August 30, 2016

August 2016 reviews

Highly recommended: Anchorsong, Deerhoof, Anderson.Paak, Glauco Venier

Highly recommended, reviewed earlier: TUNS

Well worth your while: Sharon Jones, The Julie Ruin, The Magic, Nao

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.

Anchorsong – Ceremonial (Caroline)

Anchorsong is the name of the last track on Bjork’s Debut album. Now it’s also the name of a Japanese artist, Masaaki Yoshida, whose eclectic palette would have been right at home on that 1993 record. Call-and-response melodic percussion lines, Spaghetti Western guitar, bells and gamelans that could have been lifted from Pantha du Prince, plaintive strings, kalimbas—at times it sounds like a Moby remix of early Bjork, at others a more worldly Tycho. But mostly it sounds like a curious traveller in search of beauty, propelled forth by insistent rhythms that never let the listener drift off, asleep at the wheel. (Aug. 4)

Stream: "Eve," "Mother," “Butterflies”

Bat for Lashes – The Bride (Warner)

Ah! The Bride. It’s a concept album, no? A peek inside the narrative of a marriage, either an epic love story of perseverance or a psychological torture story, right? The first song is a lovely lullaby about, presumably, engagement, called “I Do.” But from there we go right into “Joe’s Dream,” with the opening line: “There's a tear in my lover's eyes / He's at my window, it's a gloomy night.” Uh-oh! What are we in for? The next track, “In God’s House,” makes it clear: she’s been stranded at the altar, her fiancée dead, the bride-to-be denied even the status of widowhood. For the rest of the album, she goes “Honeymooning Alone,” driving along the seaside, mourning the life that could have been.

Natasha Khan spent two years working on The Bride, both the album and what will be an accompanying film. The British songwriter recorded in rural New York state, and the resulting sound is a combination of the sea-swept gothica of PJ Harvey and David Lynchian smalltown-U.S.A. weirdness. Yet Khan is more conventional than many of her outré influences; there’s also a lot of Sarah McLachlan in here—though the side of that songwriter that we haven’t seen in a very, very long time.

Part of Khan’s charm is her ability to sound so haunting and creepy and yet simultaneously alluring; it’s a lot sexier than a record about a dead lover should probably be. (Aug. 4)

Stream: “Joe’s Dream,” “In God’s House,” “Sunday Love”

Deerhoof – The Magic (Polyvinyl)

It’s been a weird summer. And when the going gets really weird, no other rock band makes more sense than Deerhoof. The California quartet’s delightfully playful absurdism—executed with technical precision, lyrical naivete, and a sonic mashup of Zappa, punk rock and the weirdest parts of the Beatles—were a welcome tonic to soundtrack the Bush years. Deerhoof is always at the very least interesting, but every so often their oddball inventiveness coalesces into a top-to-bottom fantastic album. This is one of those albums. Considering their discography now stretches back almost 20 years, entry points can be hard to find for the uninitiated. So start here. And don’t miss them when they swing back this way again. (Aug. 11)

Stream: “Kate Mania!” “Life is Suffering,” “Plastic Thrills”

Hannah Georgas – For Evelyn (Dine Alone)

Mining the same vibe as Bat for Lashes is Vancouver/Toronto singer Hannah Georgas, whose third album is dedicated to her 98-year-old grandmother—for once, it seems, an artist celebrating someone still alive rather than writing an album-long obituary (see also: The Acorn’s Glory Hope Mountain or the Fiery Furnaces’ Rehearsing My Choir—which they recorded with their grandmother). Georgas doesn’t do so with a plunky ukulele or sad piano ballads (though there is one or two of those): she dives right into the synths found in the studio of producer Graham Walsh (Holy F--k, Operators) and comes out with a hot-blooded new wave record that trumps anything in her promising discography so far. (Aug. 4)

Stream: “Don’t Go,” “Evelyn,” “Naked Beaches”

Sharon Jones – Miss Sharon Jones OST (Daptone)

Sharon Jones was 40 years old when she first had her name listed as lead vocalist on a recording. That was in 1996. She’d sung live with plenty of bands and recorded backup vocals, but paid her bills as a corrections officer and lived with her mother. In the recent documentary Miss Sharon Jones, and in the one new track on its soundtrack (“I’m Still Here”), she says she was always told she was “too fat, too short, too black, too old,” to front her own band—an assertion that is patently ridiculous on every imaginable level. This woman is Otis Redding and Tina Turner reincarnate. If this woman is not a rock star, then that term might as well not exist.

Jones got her break by falling in with a group of sympathetic musicians in New York who would come to be the core of Daptone records—members of Afrobeat revivalists Antibalas and ’70s jazz-funk enthusiasts the Sugarman 3, among others. There were many excellent acts on Daptone, but all of them were instrumental. Sharon Jones quickly became the star of the show. As her profile rose, so did that of her band, the Dap-Kings, who were hired to record with everyone from Amy Winehouse (that’s them on “Rehab”) to David Byrne to Michael Bublé to Bruno Mars (that’s them on “Uptown Funk”).

Just as Jones was about to release her fifth and easily her best album, 2014’s Give the People What They Want, Jones was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. She postponed the album while she underwent treatment, but came back to triumph and tour—only to have the cancer reappear just as this documentary, directed by Oscar winner Barbara Kopple (Harlan County USA, Shut Up and Sing) debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival last fall. Instead of retreating during this round of treatment, she’s been on the road ever since, fighting as strong as she can. If you thought Gord Downie was brave (which he is), you should witness Sharon Jones in action (check out this April 2016 performance for KEXP in Seattle).

All of which is even more of a reason to celebrate the soundtrack to that documentary, which compiles some of the best tracks of Jones’s 14-year discography. The power of her voice and her band often overshadowed the songs, but that’s not the case here: this is all top-shelf material. The uber fan could quibble about omitting her covers of Janet Jackson or Woody Guthrie or Shuggie Otis, but as a sampling of her five albums and more, this is hard to top—especially with the addition of hard-hitting early singles like “Genuine.” (Aug. 18)

The Julie Ruin – Hit Reset (Hardly Art)

Kathleen Hanna has a lot of baggage. A principal architect of the riot grrrl movement of the ’90s with her band Bikini Girl, a key member of political electropop band Le Tigre in the 2000s, Lyme disease victim, subject of the acclaimed 2013 documentary The Punk Singer: anytime she steps back into the public eye with new music, it’s a major countercultural event. 

Not that she lets that get to her. After her reinvention with the new band The Julie Ruin, whose 2013 album Run Fast was full of themes of perseverance, age and triumphing over adversity, here she sounds more than happy to just make a fun rock’n’roll record with her new pals—one steeped in the bubblegum melodies and enthusiastic punk party music she loves (lots! of! handclaps!), with politics taking a backseat or expressed in considerably more subtle fashion than she’s known for. That said, she can still skewer like few others, like when she lambastes a gushing yet shallow male fan in “Mr. So and So,” who boasts, “I’ll show your autograph to my women’s studies class!”

Is this one of Hanna’s better records? Not really. But baggage be damned. The 47-year-old singer has nothing to prove to anyone, and sounds like she’s having the time of her life. (Aug. 11)

Stream: "Hit Reset," "I Decide," “Rather Not”

The Magic – Night Falling (Hailstone Entertainment)

What a Magical summer it is. There’s the aforementioned Deerhoof album, a new album by the international Toronto pop-reggae sensation Magic!, and now a new album from the Guelph band from whom the “Rude” band stole a name: Evan and Geordie Gordon, who perform and record as The Magic. This Magic makes blue-eyed synth soul with an ’80s bent, with Evan serving as the studio wizard and Geordie the cool-cucumber crooner who slips between his seductive lower range and a falsetto that keeps getting better with age. (He’s now 30, but keen audiences will remember him as a teenager in the Barmitzvah Brothers 15 years ago.) Night Falling was four years in the making, scheduled during time off from the brother’s duties as touring members of Islands. Once a full band, it’s now a duo, but they don’t sacrifice any side of their lush sound, which has nods to Sade, Hall & Oates, Haim and Blood Orange—and you’d never guess it’s a bedroom recording. (Aug. 11)

Stream: “If I Were You,” “Over and Over,” “Season’s Crown”
Whole album here.

Nao – For All We Know (Sony)

Last year, this British R&B singer dropped an EP with the slinky summer bass line on “Inhale Exhale,” announcing yet another bright new light in what is turning out to be a golden era in R&B. That track reappears on her major label debut, as it should, but Nao proves she’s certainly no one-trick pony. Her voice might be girlish in pitch, but there is a command and confidence here that sounds anything but naïve. There are many times here, notably “Bad Blood” (no, not a Taylor Swift cover) she feels like the missing link between Prince and Kate Bush (who, of course, were mutual fans and collaborators). Or, in modern terms, she sits somewhere between FKA Twigs and Miguel. Nao herself calls her music “wonky funk.” Either way, she’s staked out a claim in a competitive field this year. (Aug. 25)

Stream: “Inhale Exhale,” “Adore You,” “Fool to Love”

Anderson.Paak – Malibu (O.B.E.)

While R&B fans spent the first half of 2016 fretting about the arrival of a new Frank Ocean album, this California artist quietly dropped this minor masterpiece in the dead of January. He was the talk of the SXSW festival in March, appeared on one of the best tracks on Kaytranada’s Polaris Music Prize-shortlisted 99.9% in May, and sold out the Phoenix in Toronto in June. Why? Because Malibu is second only to Beyoncé’s Lemonade as a high-water mark for R&B in the last year. 

Paak is no spring chicken. He’s 30 years old, with experience as a professional drummer (for an American Idol contestant) and a Dr. Dre protégé (with several guest appearances on Dre’s comeback, Compton). He was raised on old soul music and California G-funk and his world was turned upside down by Outkast. His first gigs were in a Baptist congregation. He sings with a delicious rasp not dissimilar to Kendrick Lamar’s timbre as a rapper, with layered harmonies akin to D’Angelo and a psychedelic palette worthy of Miguel; on the straight-up funk of “Come Down,” he channels “Payback”-era James Brown. He’s a father and husband who was raised in a violent household and is determined to find the positivity in life. You can hear all of that life experience in Malibu, which announces the arrival of a fully formed artist ready to seize the crown. As an independent artist, he doesn’t have marketing hype behind him, but an album this good doesn’t need it. The music does all the talking. (Aug. 11)

Anderson.Paak is playing the Manifesto festival in Toronto on Sept. 17, on a dream bill with Kaytranada and Daniel Caesar, at Echo Beach. 

Stream: “Come Down,” “Heart Don’t Stand a Chance,” “Am I Wrong” feat. Schoolboy Q

Fatima al Qadiri – Brute (Hyperdub)

"You are no longer peacefully assembled," are the first words you hear on Qadiri’s second album. They’re sampled from a police officer at the 2015 protests in Ferguson, Missouri, which helped kick off the Black Lives Matter movement in the States. Qadiri’s electronic soundscapes are meant to evoke a dystopia—not a fantastical one, but one very much rooted in current realities. As an instrumental artist, she works to evoke these themes with groaning synths that sound like sorrowful choirs, with beats that sound disorienting and dazzling, with eerie melodies that are just waiting for the right sci-fi director to use them in film—though it would be Qadiri doing that director a favour, not the other way around.  The cover art, by Josh Kline, depicts a Teletubby-like humanoid in riot gear, looking like it just woke up to this strange new world with no idea what role it might play. Qadiri doesn’t have answers, just questions, colours, hues. That’s all she needs. (Aug. 4)

Stream: “Blood Moon,” “Oubliette,” “Power” 

Glauco Venier – Miniatures: Music for Piano and Percussion (ECM)

Pianists like Nils Frahm, 33, and Chilly Gonzales, 44, get a lot of attention for reinvigorating the art of neo-classical solo piano, in part because of their age and associated record labels and artists. More power to them, especially if they help open ears to this solo recording by 53-year-old Italian pianist Glauco Venier. Venier is a Berklee-trained jazz player who has primarily performed in a trio format. Here, he was hired to score a documentary about an Italian sculptor, with the intention of grafting on the sounds of “sonorous sculptures” to his minimalist piano compositions. That he’s doing so on the ECM label, home to Keith Jarrett’s legendary ’70s recordings, carries a certain weight among jazz fans. Venier is more than up to the task. Miniatures is meditative and lovely, melodic and gentle, the resonant gongs and bells and other metallic sounds employed tastefully and effectively. If, like me, you’ve had a hectic summer of visits and excess and joy and mourning and too much rock’n’roll and sweaty R&B, here’s your antidote and a perfect comedown. (Aug. 25)

Stream: “Byzantine Icon,” “Prayer,” “Asian Songs and Rhythms No. 40)

Friday, August 26, 2016


TUNS – s/t (Royal Mountain)

(full disclosure: I was hired to write TUNS’ official bio. This is not that bio. This is my genuine fandom.)

If the term Halifax Pop Explosion means anything to you, then this is the album you’ve been waiting for. Chris Murphy of Sloan, Matt Murphy (no relation) of Super Friendz and Flashing Lights, and Mike O’Neill of the Inbreds have teamed up to make a power trio that is even more than the sum of its parts. You know how when your favourites get together and make a so-called supergroup and 99 times out of 100 the end result is an inevitable disappointment and compromise? (See: Case/lang/veirs.) This is the one per cent you can get behind.

Attention magnet Chris Murphy is more than content to leave his bass behind and stay behind the drum kit here, letting equally natural rock star Matt Murphy handle all guitar parts (and rock kicks on stage). Of the three, Murphy has been the most musically dormant in recent years: here, he sounds pent up and unleashed, playing with the same vigour and excitement he did on his earliest records. O’Neill, whose bass playing in the duo that was the Inbreds was innovative and inspiring, has since, on his solo records, switched to guitar and played it relatively straight. Here, he’s back on bass, playing intricate and melodic lines that suit the power trio format perfectly: Paul McCartney meets John Entwistle. All three share lead vocals, although you wouldn’t necessarily know that: these musical brothers share a similar vocal timbre, which makes the three-part harmonies even more richer.

All these men can write a great pop song on their own; together, they weave together interlocking hooks and let the lead melodies go to sometimes unexpected places. Practitioners of a concise craft, they also keep it clean and quick: nine songs in less than half an hour, with nary a wasted note. As the old adage goes: all killer, no filler. The production is rooted in late ’60s Beatles and early glam stomp, with the directness and energy of early Jam records; it sounds timeless and raw, much like the performances themselves.

It’s hard to imagine a better straight-up rock record being released this year. Tuns o’ fun. No surprises, though: total pros, that’s what they’re here for. (Aug. 25)

Stream: “Back Among Friends,” “Lonely Life,” “Mind Your Manners”