Tuesday, November 29, 2016

November '16 reviews

Highly recommended this month: A Tribe Called Quest, Hidden Cameras, Lizzo

Well worth your while: Cosmic Range, Alicia Keys, Agnes Obel

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.

A Tribe Called Quest – We Got It From Here … Thank You 4 Your Service (Sony)

A Tribe Called Quest have been teasing out promises of new music since they split up almost two decades ago. Throughout the 2000s, there were a series of reunion shows, and little new music from any of the three principals; even bandleader Q-Tip only released three albums in those 18 years.

Almost exactly a year ago, on a night that turned out to be the most horrific in music history with an attack on a Paris nightclub, Tribe performed on the Tonight Show to promote a reissue of their 1990 debut. For whatever reason—perhaps because rapper Phife Dawg’s diabetes was taking what would soon be a fatal toll—they decided to finally re-enter the studio. Phife would be dead four months later. This album came out days after the election of Donald Trump.

One of the first things you hear is sampled voice imploring, “It’s coming down hard: we got to get our s--t together!” One of the strongest tracks—indeed, one of the best singles of the year—is “We the People,” a screed against the polarized politics of the election year, particularly, and explicitly, the xenophobia that propelled a whitelash all the way to the presidency.

For all those reasons and more, this is not the happy-go-lucky Tribe of past glories. “F--k you and who you think I should be,” raps Phife; he’s addressing the power structure, not the listener, but the sentiment might as well apply to anyone expecting a nostalgia party or some kind of balm to relieve modern-day anxiety.

Musically, it’s a perfect update of their vintage sound: nothing here is a throwback, but nor do they try to fit into the latest fashions. It’s everything a comeback should be. There’s a heavy Caribbean influence throughout, including some straight-up reggae tracks. The slight touches of jazz are still there. The programming is decidedly modern. Jack White is one of the guests, alongside Busta Rhymes, Kendrick Lamar, Anderson.Paak, Talib Kweli and Andre 3000. In an entirely unexpected bit of stunt casting, Elton John shows up to sing the outro on a track that samples “Bennie and the Jets.” MC Consequence is practically a fourth member. Both Tip and Phife sound entirely on top of their game, the potency of their collective flow hasn’t diminished in the slightest. It’s telling that the only younger MCs to even be invited to this party are Lamar and Paak; few others of the next generation could attempt to hold a candle to these old-school masters.

This victory lap is bittersweet, of course. It’s quite consciously a farewell celebration to Phife Dawg. “Lost Somebody” is where Tip and Jarobi get downright mushy, and closing track “The Donald” (still trying to parse that title) is one big shout-out to the man they knew as the “five-foot assassin,” “the Trini-gladiator,” “the funky diabetic.”

A Tribe Called Quest is back. A Tribe Called Quest is finished. Thank You 4 Your Service. (Nov. 17)

Stream: “We the People,” “The Space Program,” “Black Spasmodic”

Cosmic Range – New Latitudes (Idée Fixe)

This was my most pleasant surprise of the Hillside Festival this past summer. Taking the stage were musicians I recognized from Bruce Peninsula, Diana, Slim Twig, Jennifer Castle’s band, and—wait, was that the original sax player from Martha and the Muffins? Why, yes it was.

Some semi-legendary starship cowboy Matthew “Doc” Dunn is the ringleader of this motely crew, who sound like Yo La Tengo covering Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew: a droning, wigged-out psychedelic trip driven by distorted organ and plenty of percussion. There are more delicate diversions as well, which bookend the album: the lovely ambience of “Morning, Ontario,” and the less enthralling eight-minute new-age piano of “Look at What Our Love Has Done.” In between, however, the grooves are heavy and haunting, the cacophony carefully conducted.

Bands like this are often a lot of fun on stage and a holy terror in the recording studio: one of the many wonders of New Latitudes is that it sounds fantastic—mixing engineer Jeff McMurrich is the real star of this project. (Nov. 10)

Stream: “Morning, Ontario,” “Love II,” “Kowboy”

Lori Cullen – Sexsmith Swinghammer Songs (True North)

Fans of Ron Sexsmith and Kurt Swinghammer, his long-time friend and frequent guitarist—the two once covered each other’s songs in a project called Sexhammer—will know that they share a love of the songwriting master of Burt Bacharach and the bossa nova pioneer Antônio Carlos Jobim. Sexsmith is also a big fan of Swinghammer’s wife, Lori Cullen, who has six previous albums to her name. Ergo, Sexhammer reunited to write a full album for Cullen, one that’s a full-on tribute to the breezy, sophisticated pop of their heroes. The instrumentation is perfect: plenty of nylon guitar, trombones, Rhodes piano, the most featherweight percussion, and the occasional clarinet or oboe to further remove it from any modern pop norms. Mia Sheard and Jennifer Foster chime in on backing vocals. It adds up to a series of love letters between incredibly accomplished musicians: both between friends and between generations. (Nov. 24)

Stream: “Face of Emily,” “New Love,” “Then There Were Three”

Hidden Cameras – Home on Native Land (Evil Evil/Outside)

Joel Gibb has had this on the backburner for almost 10 years, but Home on Native Land is far from a procrastination project; it’s more than worth the wait. It’s also not a coincidence that he’s finally releasing it immediately before Canada’s sesquicentennial year: the pun in the title is obvious, and for the album’s design he uses the beautiful new typeface called, yes, Canada 150, commissioned by the federal government for the upcoming national celebration.

Gibb’s nasal voice is well-suited to country and western, his skill at squeezing the most out of three- and four-chord songs perfectly in line with the genre. There are a couple of covers here, including a revelatory take on Percy Sledge’s “Dark End of the Street,” which illuminates the song’s sympathies with the love that dared not speak its name during more closeted times: “Hiding in shadows where we don't belong / Living in darkness, to hide alone / You and me, at the dark end of the street / I know a time has gonna take its toll / We have to pay for the love we stole / It's a sin and we know it's wrong / Oh, our love keeps going on strong.” It’s a song Gibb was born to sing. More important, it’s Gibb’s originals that truly shine: “Counting Stars” and “The Great Reward” deserve to be standards.

It may well be a cliché that every indie rocker eventually makes a country record, but few are likely to do it better than Joel Gibb. (Nov. 24)

Stream: “The Day I Left Home,” “Counting Stars,” “The Great Reward”

Jim James – Eternally Even (ATO)

The second solo album by the frontman of My Morning Jacket is another excuse for him to dive deep into his synth collection, sit down at his electric piano and jam over some sparse R&B grooves. The sound is luxurious and trippy, but the songs seem like afterthoughts and there’s little of the magic that James conjures when he’s leading a full band. His first album was delicate and lovely, like Bill Withers collaborating with the Flaming Lips; this time it’s more like Isaac Hayes being hijacked by Tangerine Dream. Hardcore fans of James won’t be disappointed; others should take this as a welcome reminder how good that overlooked first solo record was. (Nov. 10)

Stream: "Same Old Lie," “In the Moment,” “Hide in Plain Sight”

Alicia Keys – Here (Sony)

First Beyoncé, then Lady Gaga, now Alicia Keys: the biggest female pop and R&B artists have reinvented themselves in 2016, abandoning the maximalist demands of modern production, stripping down their sound and sounding better than they ever have.

Keys is still working with longtime associates Swizz Beatz, Mark Batson and Harold Lilly, but this time they turn their ear to early ’90s hip-hop beats, Roy Ayers samples (“She Don’t Really Care”), gospel blues (“Pawn it All”), Brazilian electro-pop (“In Common”), Lauryn Hill-style showdowns (“The Gospel”), Portishead-via-Issac Hayes balladry (“Illusion of Bliss”) and acoustic country music (“Kill Your Mama”). Even her incredibly earnest world-peace anthem (“Holy War”) is a winner; no doubt Bono is scrambling to figure out how to cover it with U2 ASAP. Is there anything she can’t do? Well, first single “Blended Family,” on the other hand, sounds like a treacly addendum to a TV movie soundtrack.

Alicia Keys has sold millions of records so far in her career; she didn’t need to change anything up to prove anything to anyone. But this finds her fulfilling the massive potential she’s shown since day one; this is the album she’s always had in her. (Nov. 10)

Stream: “Pawn It All,” “The Gospel,” “She Don’t Really Care”

Lady Gaga – Joanne (Universal)

There was always a lot more to Gaga than tabloid headlines and activism: her songs, her voice and her piano playing, for starters. Here, those three elements are at the forefront. Gone are the EDM trappings, the half-baked ideas fleshed out into album filler between singles, the cloying need to be everything to everyone. If 2011’s overproduced Born This Way started to fizzle her early promise, 2013’s Artpop just plain flopped and her 2014 album of duets with Tony Bennett was merely a distraction, Joanne marks a full-on comeback for one of the most exciting performers to emerge in the last decade.

Yes, there are more ballads, some with clear nods to Nashville, and one dedicated to Black Lives Mater. There are classic Gaga inspirationals, like “Diamond Heart” and the ’50s-via-’70s “Come to Mama.” There are obvious bids for pop radio (“John Wayne,” “Dancin’ in Circles”) and the dance floor (“A-YO,” “Perfect Illusion”). There are contributions from Mark Ronson, Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme, Father John Misty, Beck, Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker and Haim, as well as a frankly forgettable duet with Florence Welch called “Hey Girl”—a lost opportunity to team up with Ryan Gosling, if nothing else.

Rare is the superstar pop record this varied and this satisfying. For those who’ve been waiting for Gaga to make a record like this, it’s as thirst-quenching as Beyoncé’s Lemonade. (Nov. 3)

Stream: “Diamond Heart,” “Million Reasons,” “Sinner’s Prayer”

Lizzo – Coconut Oil (Atlantic)

"I don't need a crown to tell me I'm a queen." No doubt. Minnesota’s Lizzo makes her major-label debut with a flawless EP that announces her Queen Latifah/Lauryn Hill-level talent to the world: after two promising but uneven independent releases, a collaboration with Prince, a tour with Sleater-Kinney and a new job as an MTV host, she comes out swinging here as an unstoppable force not only as an MC, but as a powerhouse R&B singer—and, um, a flautist (that’s her playing the solo on the title track). With producer Ricky Reed (Pitbull, Meghan Trainor, Twenty-One Pilots), her stripped-down beats owe debts to New Orleans and dancehall, with the Latin-tinged opener “Worship” and first single “Phone” leaping out of the speakers. Body positivity is at the core of her message, hence the title track and “Good as Hell.” Best of all, she leaves us wanting more. A whole lot more. (Nov. 3)

Lizzo plays the Velvet Underground in Toronto on Dec. 8.

Stream: “Worship,” “Phone,” “Good as Hell”

Donny McCaslin – Beyond Now (Motéma)
Lazarus Original Cast Recording – Various Artists (Sony)

This year started with the death of David Bowie, and it ends with two direct reflections on his departure and his final creative endeavours.

The more successful of the two is from saxophonist McCaslin, whose band Bowie employed to create his final album, Blackstar. They are an enormous reason for its artistic triumph, bringing an energy not heard in his recordings for decades. On their own, they do their own thing—which makes it all the more remarkable how they managed to shoehorn themselves into Bowie’s songs in the first place. There are two direct nods to Bowie here: a cover of “A Small Plot of Land,” a forgettable later-period Bowie song that doesn’t get much better here, and a meditation on “Warszawa” from 1977’s experimental album Low. Both are curiosities at best, better employed as a gateway drug for Bowie fans to discover what McCaslin and band are capable of on their own compositions.

The cast recording for Lazarus, the off-Broadway production that was an odd jukebox musical of sorts produced with Bowie’s full participation, is a different beast. Recorded the day after he died, the cast runs through both popular (“Life on Mars”) and unpopular (“It’s No Game”) Bowie tracks, alternately murdering them (“This is Not America”) or reinventing them (“The Man Who Sold the World”) and, extremely rarely, improving them (“Absolute Beginners,” “Where Are We Now?”). The three new, previously unheard Bowie tracks are—okay. The bigger revelation, for those who didn’t already know, is that actor Michael C. Hall (Dexter, Six Feet Under) is a fantastic singer; I’d much rather hear him do his own Bowie tribute, independent of this weird stage production. (Nov. 3)

Stream Donny McCaslin: “Shake Loose,” “Bright Abyss,” “Warszawa”
Stream Lazarus: “Absolute Beginners,” “Where Are We Now?” “Valentine’s Day”

Agnes Obel – Citizen of Glass (Play it Again Sam)

As the weeks tick by on 2016, music lovers no doubt dread the news of each passing day: what beloved musician is going to die next? (Last week it was Sharon Jones.) How much more grief can we handle?

Agnes Obel is a Danish musician living in Berlin, who was raised by two accomplished musicians who buried their bigger dreams to take straight jobs. Her father died while she was touring her second album, 2013’s Aventine, and it was a huge blow. She cancelled a few shows but had to return to the road immediately. “After he died, I thought so much about his whole life, knowing how my life is now,” she told the Guardian newspaper. “He should have been a musician and I’m very aware I have something my father didn’t.”

It sounds like that stock-taking channelled directly into her work, because Citizen of Glass, her third album, is easily her best to date. It’s also heavy with grief: plaintive minor keys, her eerie string arrangements are filled with swoops and swoons, her voice increasingly comfortable in its lower range—in one case, artificially so; on “Familiar,” she duets with a pitch-shifted, masculine version of herself (not unlike Fever Ray of The Knife). Obel has a decidedly delicate touch as a pianist; here, she also utilizes harpsichord, spinet, celeste and a 1920s German synth called a Trautonium.

Citizen of Glass is for those long, dark winter nights ahead, during which we’ll reflect on all that we’ve lost. And in this case, what we’ve gained. (Nov. 24)

Stream: “Stretch Your Eyes,” “Familiar,” “It’s Happening Again”

Peppermoth – Now You Hear Me (independent)

How do you review ambient music? What makes one relaxation tape infinitely better than any other? Isn’t this music more of a function than art? Well, maybe, but it’s certainly easy to tell a good Saturday-night-beer-bash anthem from a piss-poor one, and you can easily delineate a quality Sunday morning meditation soundtrack from something that just sounds like a tap running in another room.

Peppermoth is the ambient project of Eccodek’s Andrew MacPherson, joined on occasion here by bassist Jeff Bird (Cowboy Junkies), trumpeter (and arts therapist) Gary Diggins, and guitar wizard Kevin Breit. It’s more than obvious that he’s spent time studying early Eno records—particularly the ones that featured trumpeter Jon Hassell—as well as the moodier side of the 4AD catalogue. But there’s nothing about Peppermoth that can be reduced to mere homage. Unlike a lot of ambient music, there is clear intention to every instrumental choice, every carefully placed note, every sonic layer that chooses to reveal itself at any given time. For a guy whose main band is about seeing what corners of the world he can bring into his sonic stew, this is a project where he peels back as much as he possibly can, how to make the most out of the most minimum of motifs—and he most certainly does. (Nov. 10)

Stream: “Dive,” “Ghosting,” “Moon Walk”

Robbie Robertson – Testimony (Universal)

The guitarist and principal songwriter with The Band has a new memoir out, you don’t need to be a fan of The Band or Bob Dylan or anyone else in the cast of dozens to appreciate a good yarn. But it sure helps to have an audio companion like this.

Much of this fans will have heard before: we don’t need to hear “The Weight” ever again, but by the same token this collection would be incomplete without it. No, the draw here is two tracks by Levon and the Hawks, recorded after Robertson and his bandmates quit as Ronnie Hawkins’s sidemen and before they hooked up with Bob Dylan. Here we finally hear the raw power of what was reputed to be the hottest live band on the Toronto scene of the mid-’60s—and the rumours are true. There are also live documents from their time with Bob Dylan, a track from The Basement Tapes, and other odds and ends.

There’s really no reason for any of Robertson’s post-Band solo material to be on here, as his book concludes with The Last Waltz. Apparently he’s writing a second volume; it’s safe to say there won’t be as much of an appetite for an audio companion to that one. (Nov. 17)

Stream: “He Don’t Love You” by Levon and the Hawks, “Honky Tonky” by Levon and the Hawks, “Come Love” by Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks

The Weeknd – Starboy

The Weeknd – Starboy (Universal)

“Look what you’ve done, I’m a motherf--kin’ starboy.” So goes the chorus to the Daft Punk-produced title track of The Weeknd’s new album. What have we done, exactly, by showering Abel Tesfaye with awards and adulation while singing along? He’ll tell us himself: we’ve enabled a drug-addled misogynist mired in modern Kardashian consumerism, while moaning that he needs “a girl who will really understand.” Starboy—supposedly a concept album about the emptiness of fame—just comes up plain empty. Oh, and the title? Presumably it was deemed more palatable than Bitch, Get Out of My Bed—which would have been much more accurate.

Tesfaye has played this bad boy since the beginning, with varying degrees of either ambiguity or the notion that he’s purposely embodying some kind of sexual supervillain. His breakthrough smash, 2015’s Beauty Behind the Madness, was sequenced so that the loathsome narrator who begins the album is seeking some kind of redemption by the end. That record’s biggest single, “Can’t Feel My Face,” had all ages gleefully singing along with an ode to cocaine; the song was so good that no one cared about the death-cult cartels Tesfaye appears to be propping up single-handedly. “Tell Your Friends” was nothing short of vile, lyrically—but, hey, that groove! And surely being invited to Beyoncé’s Lemonade stand should get him some feminist cred, no?

The benefit of the doubt has now disappeared—something Tesfaye owns up to almost immediately, on “Reminder”: “I just won a new award for a kids show / Talking ’bout a face numbing off a bag of blow … You know me / Every time we try to forget who I am / I’ll be right there to remind you again.”

So he does, on a plodding 18-song odyssey that plays out as a litany of man’s inhumanity to womankind, what his mentor Drake would call “worst behaviour.” The proud pussy-grabber goes on (and on and on) about bitches who dare to want something more from him; when he pauses to call out one lover’s promiscuity on “False Alarm,” the irony is more than a bit rich. I’d love to cheer on anyone who went “from homeless to Forbes list,” but here he’s just an A-list asshole. The cheeriest moment on the entire record is when he dies in a car crash while being fellated in the driver’s seat, singing, “This ain’t no ordinary life.” Good riddance, buddy.

Even the pop thrills of the last album have largely evaporated, despite the presence of Daft Punk, Max Martin and others. The catchiest song (“Secrets”) lifts directly from ’80s hits by the Romantics and Tears for Fears. This isn’t the second coming of Michael Jackson; it’s warmed-over R. Kelly, complete with all the requisite creepy moral quandaries. If he’d retreated to the mysterious vibes of his earliest mixtapes that would be one thing, but Starboy is innocuous pop and R&B that falls far, far behind the ever-higher standards of the genre he himself helped reinvent. Even worse, while his captivating voice can usually do a lot of necessary heavy lifting, the excessive AutoTune heard here bleeds his natural talent. All of which makes it even harder to excuse the juvenile revenge porn he’s still peddling—sounding even more pathetic the older he gets.

See ya later, Starboy. Have fun playing private parties for Bill Cosby and Jian Ghomeshi in the new White House—because it’s 2017, motherf--ker.

Stream: “Rockin’,” “Secrets,” “Sidewalks” feat. Kendrick Lamar