Monday, October 31, 2016

October '16 reviews

Highly recommended this month: The Comet is Coming, John K. Samson

Highly recommended, reviewed earlier: Leonard Cohen, Gord Downie

Well worth your while: Craig David, Solange, Tagaq, Donovan Woods

As always, these reviews ran in the Waterloo Record.

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

Blackie and the Rodeo Kings – Kings and Kings (File Under: Music)

Boys club! The all-male trio Blackie and the Rodeo Kings—Colin Linden, Stephen Fearing and Tom Wilson—have invited some of their favourite fellow dudes to join them on duets, which means familiar faces like Bruce Cockburn, Buddy Miller and Rodney Crowell, but also relatively young pups like City and Colour, Jason Isbell, and Eric Church. Linden’s day job on the TV show Nashville helped him coerce the men of that show (a.k.a. to viewers as Deacon Claybourne, Will Montgomery, Avery Barkley, and Gunnar Scott) onto one track here. That’s one big sausage party.

To be fair, the Kings did court some Queens five years ago, on a similar star-studded duets album featuring Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams, Serena Ryder, Rosanne Cash and more. But if there’s a flaw here, it’s that same-sex duets—assuming they’re not romantically inclined, which is all but a safe bet in country music—don’t amount to more than a glorified role as a backing vocalist, either by the guest or by a Rodeo King taking a backseat. It’s also a strange concept for a group that was founded—a whopping 20 years ago now—on three men sharing songwriting and vocal duties in the first place.

Regardless, there are plenty of obvious highlights with this amount of talent involved. Raul Malo of the Mavericks is a joy to hear in any context, and Nick Lowe fits in so well that one suspects he might well sign for a full album as a fourth member; the same could be said of Jason Isbell. It sounds like Nashville house party for expat Canucks to which we’re all invited, and better hosts you couldn’t ask for. (Oct. 6)

Stream: “Live by the Song” feat. Rodney Crowell, “High Wire” feat. Raul Malo, “Secret of a Long Lasting Love” feat. Nick Lowe 

The Comet is Coming – Channel the Spirits (Leaf)

Who the hell is saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings? This fiery London player first crossed my radar as a member of Sons of Kemet, an award-winning jazz band with two albums under their belt, where he’s joined by two drummers and a tuba player. Here, he joins a former funk duo and ends up somewhere in outer space—not all that surprising, considering song titles like “Journey Through the Asteroid Belt,” and the fact they claim Sun Ra as a major influence (without ever trying to imitate him directly—that would be too obvious a move and counterintuitive to the spirit of the great bandleader). Indeed, Hutchings has recorded with the modern incarnation of the Sun Ra Arkestra, as well as Courtney Pine’s Jazz Warriors, the Heliocentrics and plenty more. Here, his saxophone journeys through some dubwise electronic filters, and his rhythm section delights in turning beats upside down, often at a propulsive tempo while Hutchings dips and glides above the tumult. Psychedelic, electronic jazz doesn’t come better than this. (Oct. 6)

Stream: “Space Carnival,” “Journey Through the Asteroid Belt,” “Cosmic Dust”

Craig David – Following My Intuition (Sony)

Who is Craig David? Not a household name here, but huge in his native Britain, David became a star in 2000 when he was 19 years old, with a uniquely British offshoot of R&B called “garage.” On these shores, he was long forgotten when he showed up on a track on Kaytranada’s 2016 Polaris Music Prize-winning album 99.9%; at home, he was already plotting a comeback, having released several singles in advance of this, his first album of original material in nine years (which also features that Kaytranada track, plus a new collaboration). One of those was an inspired reworking of Justin Bieber’s “Where Are Ü Now,” which David turned into a song called “16”—a number that references David’s age when he got his first break, the number of years since his 2000 debut, and the year of his (self-prophesied) comeback.

What a comeback it is: this album hit No. 1 in Britain, and it’s clear why: Following My Intuition is not only a reintroduction to a great vocal talent, but a tour de force of modern R&B songwriting and production. David cover almost all the bases: hip-hop and grime-influenced club tracks; modern British house music, the kind that drew Mary J. Blige to London for her best album in years; dancehall flavours; straight-up, stripped-down ballads like “Better With You” or “All We Needed,” produced by Dave Tozer, the man behind John Legend’s wedding classic “All of Me.”

Following My Intuition is either the result of Craig David, having nothing to lose, taking his title’s advice; or maybe it’s all cold calculation, aiming to please any many people as possible. Who cares? For a man who hasn’t had a hit on this side of the ocean in 14 years, it’s clearly working for him. (Oct. 13)

Stream: “16,” “One More Time,” “Louder Than Words”

Fantastic Negrito – The Last Days of Oakland (Believe Digital)

The only unfamiliar name on the Blackie and the Rodeo Kings’ new album was someone calling himself Fantastic Negrito. What’s this all about? The man born Xavier Dphrepaulezz is a late bloomer of sorts; the multi-instrumentalist had a kick at the can with a major label deal as a solo artist in the 1990s, which was derailed in a near-fatal car accident that put him in a coma. It took him years to recover his guitar skills, and when he did, the blues man Fantastic Negrito was born. A resident of Oakland, Calif., which is now heavily gentrified now that next-door San Francisco has been priced into oblivion, Mr. Negrito has plenty of reason to sing the blues as he witnesses socioeconomic calamity engulfing his neighbourhood. The Last Days of Oakland is very much a 21st-century blues album: all the traditional signposts are there, with nods to the genre’s evolution over the last 100 years, but there’s no questioning in which year it was recorded. There are (thankfully) no show-offy guitar moments, but Dphrepaulezz has a, well, fantastic voice, particularly his range, from a scowling growl to a glorious falsetto. (Oct. 6)

Stream: “Working Poor,” “In the Pines,” “Lost in the Crowd”

July Talk – Touch (Sleepless)

More of the same, but better. If you’ve tuned into rock radio in the past five years, you’ve heard the hits from Toronto band July Talk’s 2011 debut album. As it picked up steam around the world, the band kept putting off the follow-up. Good on them: nothing about Touch sounds rushed or green; these songs were no doubt road-tested long before they perfected them in the studio. Nothing here departs from the band’s formula: crunchy, stomping guitar rock with co-ed lead singers, one gruff and one lovely. They harmonize and play off each other more here than they did on the debut, and to far greater effect. Tanya Tagaq shows up to help provide rhythm on “Beck and Call,” and there’s a lyrical nod to the police brutality of “starlight tours” and MMIW on “Jesus Said So.” July Talk might come across as a feel-good, visceral party band, but there’s more depth to them than that, and Touch is easily as good as mainstream rock gets in this country in 2016. (Oct. 20)

Stream: “Push and Pull,” “Strange Habit,” “Jesus Said So”

John K. Samson – Winter Wheat (Anti)

The Weakerthans’ John K. Samson has emerged from his standard four-year hibernation period with his second solo album (albeit one that features 2/3 of his former bandmates). There’s a reason his fans are willing to wait so long for new material: because it’s always worth it. As always, every track here is a short story unto itself, populated by characters at crossroads in life—including, in an unusual twist for Samson, characters that could be perceived as autobiographical, namely aging punks reflecting on how those good old days might not have been so hot after all.

Samson’s sparse new musical environs suit his songs better than the oft-raging rock band he formerly fronted; full focus is on the lyrics, while a folkie, laid-back Neil Young vibe does its best to stay out of the way. On the few tracks where the tempo picks up, they’re driven entirely by acoustic guitars.

Samson has few peers as a lyricist: Gord Downie, Neko Case are in the same class, though all of course have their own unique style. Samson’s commitment to the simplicity of melodic folk structure, much like Leonard Cohen’s, makes his prose that much more inviting, drawing you further into the lives he chooses to illuminate.

John K. Samson has never made a bad record, and he sure isn’t going to start now. (Oct. 20)

Stream: “Select All Delete,” “Winter Wheat,” “Oldest Oak at Brookside”

Solange – A Seat at the Table (Sony)

Solange Knowles is no one’s little sister anymore. Technically, of course, she’s the younger sibling of Beyoncé, but after Solange’s third album—her first full-length in eight years, and her first new music since her breakthrough 2012 EP True—landed at No. 1 on Billboard the week of its release, it’s clear that her own work stands in no one’s shadow.

There are plenty of top chefs in this kitchen—Rafael Saddiq, Q-Tip, Dirty Projectors’ Dave Longstreth, members of TV on the Radio and Vampire Weekend, with cameos from Lil Wayne, Andre 3000 and Kelela—but Solange’s musical vision is consistent throughout, somewhere between the abstraction of FKA Twigs, the hippie neo-soul of Erykah Badu and the deconstructionist pop of Santigold. In an odd Montreal twist, there are also contributions here from now-defunct confessional electro duo Majical Cloudz and eccentric songwriter Sean Michael Savage—Solange has obviously been crashing some Pop Montreal after-hours loft parties.

What it’s not is a pop record: Solange doesn’t go for the heavy hooks, doesn’t want to teach the world to sing. She claims to have written the harmonies before many of the melodies. Much of A Seat at the Table is a meditative, modern iteration of R&B—not the darkness that consumes The Weeknd or Frank Ocean, but one that repurposes the slow jam for self-care anthems and affirmations of black pride. There are undoubtedly many political messages in these songs—made more obvious by the powerful interstitial interludes, featuring her parents and, um, Master P—but the music itself is so breezy, at times even featherweight, that it’s entirely possible the point of the record could go right over your head. Which would be a shame. But musical subtlety is Solange’s strong suit. (Oct. 13)

Stream Solange: “Cranes in the Sky,” “Don’t You Wait,” “Borderline (An Ode to Self Care)”

Tanya Tagaq – Retribution (Six Shooter)

Tanya Tagaq does not f--k around. The earth is dying, we are killing it, and goddammit, this is what it sounds like. That much can be inferred by the beauty and the horror evoked by the sounds created by Tagaq and her band, violinist Jesse Zubot and percussionist Jean Martin. But mostly, of course, Tagaq, whose singing voice is can be sweet and fragile—and whose throat singing voice can be even more terrifying that Linda Blair in The Exorcist.

Despite the power of her music, the Polaris Prize-winning musician doesn’t entirely trust the listener enough to get her message. Her press release states frankly: “This album is about rape. Rape of women, rape of the land, rape of children, despoiling of traditional lands without consent.” In the event you don’t visit her website, there’s a cover of Nirvana’s “Rape Me” that closes the album, just in case you weren’t sure what it is you’ve just heard. (“I’m not the only one,” she coos, no doubt as a nod to the MMIW issue she’s been illuminating for years now, but even more powerful post-Ghomeshi/Cosby/Trump.)

She also has introduced spoken word segments into her music, again underscoring the urgency of her environmentalist message. It’s not subtle, and it’s not necessary: her music speaks volumes on its own. Some guests are welcomed into the fold: most effective are Tuvan throat singer Radik Tyülyüsh, a natural cross-cultural collaboration, and Toronto’s Element Choir, whose orchestrated shrieks and howls have often accompanied Tagaq’s Toronto shows, including performances at the Polaris gala and at Massey Hall. Shad shows up as well.

Sadly, still no sign of a dream jam with Diamanda Galas. Next time. (Oct. 20)

Stream: "Aorta," "Retribution," "Summoning"

Donovan Woods – They Are Going Away (Meant Well)

Toronto singer-songwriter Woods, who makes his living as a writer in Nashville when he’s not performing his own songs, made plenty of new fans with his breakthrough album earlier this year, Hard Settle Ain’t Troubled. That 10-song album was full of perfectly miniature narratives and character studies; one of the many great things about it is that there was no fat. What’s even greater about it, it turns out, is that Woods left some even better songs on the cutting room floor, which now surface on this four-song EP. “What They Mean (When They Say Crazy)” sounds like an instant classic: why hasn’t some top 40 country artist glossed this up and landed it on the charts already? (Oct. 13)

Stream: The whole thing. It’s four songs. 

Canadian poets' society: Leonard Cohen and Gord Downie

Leonard Cohen – You Want It Darker (Sony)

Gord Downie – Secret Path (Arts and Crafts)

Happy Hallowe’en! Feliz Dia de los Muertos! Two of Canada’s greatest poets would like to talk to you about death: their own and others’.

One is 82 years old: his body is failing him and he’s made a meditation on mortality that’s easily one of the finest records he’s ever made. The other is 52 with a diagnosis of terminal brain cancer: he’s processing his own death by atoning for the death of another, a 12-year-old boy who died trying to escape abuse at a government-sanctioned institution.

Cohen’s record is a revelation. He’s been this dark before, he’s made records this sparse before, his wry wit has always been in evidence. Here, however, every moment here carries great weight, lyrically and sonically. It’s as slick as anything he’s done in the last 35 years, but with largely acoustic instruments in place of synths.

Great credit must go to Cohen’s son, Adam, who sat in the producer’s chair. Adam has (justifiably) taken a lot of flak for his own records, but it turns out he’s an excellent producer, judiciously employing only the most appropriate window dressing for the skeletons of blues and country songs his father wrote this time out. There’s the rumbling bass and the choir of Jewish cantors on the devastating title track; the twangy, Twin-Peaksish guitar on “Leaving the Table”; the familiar sound of female backing singers on “Traveling Light” (one of only two tracks where that classic Cohenesque embellishment appears); the weeping violins.

Both of Cohen’s recent comeback records—2012’s Old Ideas, 2014’s Popular Problems—have proven him to be as powerful as he is prolific in his third act, but this one is on a whole other plain. He claims he’s still writing and has more music he wants to finish. As insatiable as Cohen fans are, one can’t help but secretly—and, morbidly—hope that this is his final will and testament.

Supplementary reading:
David Remnick’s New Yorker piece
Brian D. Johnson’s Maclean’s piece

Gord Downie told the Globe and Mail, “If Secret Path is the last thing I ever do, I’ll be happy.”

He’s already succeeded on one level: he’s taken a long-forgotten tragic tale, that of a 12-year-old boy, Chanie Wenjack, who died of exposure, beside train tracks, trying to walk 600 km home from a residential school. That was exactly 50 years ago; a Maclean’s story was written about it the case after an inquest took place—an inquest whose recommendations, of course, went unheeded. Unless you’ve had a media blackout for the last month, you probably already know that this album comes with a graphic novel by Jeff Lemire (Essex County) and an animated film. There are several other Wenjack projects out there as well, including a Joseph Boyden novella; Boyden also talks about the case on the new Tribe Called Red album.

There’s a lot to unpack here: but what about the music? The production by Broken Social Scene’s Kevin Drew and the Stills’ Dave Hamelin is crisp and sparse, in ways that sound like nothing else Downie has ever recorded. The result is that his voice sounds fantastic; it’s unclear if he’s become a better singer, or if he’s just never allowed us to hear him like this, not even during the most fragile moments of his discography both in and outside the Tragically Hip, not even 2001’s Coke Machine Glow. Drew and Hamelin know how to create vast soundscapes with minimal instrumentation, the right synths and plenty of reverb, evoking the appropriate sense of isolation and empathy necessary for the subject matter.

The lyrics are curious. Gord Downie never does anything directly; hell, even that song about Bill Barilko is narrated by some young punk feigning experience, a trait that’s personified in his makeshift, faux fifty-mission cap. Secret Path does not tell the story of Chanie Wenjack, at least not a narrative recognizable to anyone who read the Maclean’s story that inspired the album. Instead, it draws some elements of Wenjack’s story—like the fact he set out on the final leg of his journey with only seven matches in a jar and a windbreaker to provide him warmth—and extrapolates on them. If you heard any track here out of context, you’d be hard pressed to link it to Wenjack or, in fact, anything remotely related to issues illuminated by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The good news: it’s not a preachy record, not in the least. The bad news: it’s unclear how effective it is as a teaching tool, which was the intention of Downie and his brother Mike, a filmmaker.

But because this is Gord Downie in 2016, immediately after he was the centre of one of the landmark cultural events of this generation, he has our ears. And he’s using the moment to not necessarily tell the story, but to draw our attention to a story mainstream Canada has not wanted to tell.  

Stream Leonard Cohen: “You Want It Darker,” “Leaving the Table,” “Traveling Light”
Stream Gord Downie: “The Stranger,” “Seven Matches,” “Son”