Tuesday, January 31, 2017

January 2017 reviews

Highly recommended this month: Japandroids, The Xx

As always, these reviews originally ran in the Waterloo Record.

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

Austra – Future Politics (Paper Bag)

Austra’s Katie Stelmanis must be an optimist to title both a song and an album Future Politics in 2017. If she is, she keeps her sunniness to herself in the actual music. Unlike the buoyant disco that illuminated the second Austra album, 2013’s Olympia, Future Politics doesn’t sound like a fun night out in the least—not that it has to be, of course, but it’s even more dour than the goth electro of the 2011 debut. Stelmanis wrote this material living in Montreal and Mexico, away from her Toronto home, and that isolation informs the more sombre mood this time out. The twin sisters from Tasseomancy are no longer in the band; their harmonies are missed; likewise, her talented band sounds underutilized here. (Jan. 19)

Stream: “Future Politics,” “Utopia,” “I Love You More Than You Love Yourself”

Japandroids – Near to the Wild Heart of Life (Arts and Crafts)

“If they try to slow you down, tell them all to go to hell.” So went the chorus to “The House That Heaven Built,” one of many anthems on 2012’s Celebration Rock that vaulted Japandroids from poorly kept secret of the Vancouver underground into beloved rock’n’roll saviours. And yet they did slow down: guitarist Brian King moved to Toronto; drummer Dave Prowse stayed in Vancouver; they took two years writing and recording this, their third album and first in 4½ years.

Japandroids are a guitar-drums duo, but there’s nothing simple about them. Wild Heart is a huge leap forward in terms of songwriting, performance and production. Whereas before they could be accused of simply extending a lineage that runs from Bruce Springsteen to the Constantines, here they really come into their own. These are much more than just drunken Saturday night odes to youth, romance, rock’n’roll and the open road (not necessarily in that order) that used to be Japandroids’ stock and trade. That still exists here: “North South East West” is exactly the kind of fist-pumping catharsis one expects from this band; expect this one to be a key part of the soundtrack of 2017. But they’re both in their mid-thirties now, and so their signature intensity is being applied to varying tempos and textures, including instrumentation that will be difficult to duplicate onstage as a duo. Wild Heart is very much an album as opposed to a live document.

Slowing down, in more ways than one, has made Japandroids an even better band. Great rock bands are getting fewer and fewer. This one is fighting the good fight. (Jan. 26)

I interviewed the band for this Maclean’s article.

Stream: “North South East West,” “Near to the Wild Heart of Life,” “In a Body Like a Grave”

Abigail Lapell – Hide Nor Hair (Coax)

Abigail Lapell is the latest signee to Rae Spoon’s Coax label, which has emerged as a vital documenter of communities often marginalized in the Canadian music scene, whether it’s trans advocate Spoon themselves, klezmer firebrand Geoff Berner, or the cross-cultural electronic grooves of LAL. Where Lapell fits in there isn’t exactly clear: there’s nothing revolutionary, sonically or lyrically, on her second full-length album of haunting, gorgeous modern folk music. Co-produced by Chris Stringer (Timber Timbre), he and Lapell enhance her solo guitar skills with the most subtle yet effective textures. (Jan. 26)

Stream: “Fur and Feathers,” “Night Bird and Morning Bird,” “Murder City”

Sleater-Kinney – Live in Paris (Sub Pop)

A friend mused recently: does anyone make live albums anymore, and if so, why? YouTube clips abound; it’s certainly no mystery what a band sounds like live, on any given tour, on any given night. They don’t even function as documents of greatest hits anymore; anyone can assemble one of those with a streaming playlist (or have an algorithm do it for them). (I expand on this idea in this Maclean’s article.)

The only real reason to release a live album is if you’re at a stage in your career where you’ve reinvented and/or improved on studio versions of these songs. By that token, there’s no reason for this live album from Sleater-Kinney’s 2015 tour. The Oregon trio are hands-down one of the most ferocious rock bands you’ll ever see, and their comeback album No Cities to Love—after an eight-year hiatus—showed that they sounded even better than ever. A third of this live album are songs from that record, sounding note-perfect; another third is from 2005’s The Woods—again, sounding almost identical to the studio versions. Which is to say, they kick serious ass: every slashing power chord of Carrie Brownstein’s, every cathartic caterwaul of Corin Tucker’s, every monstrous drum fill from Janet Weiss (I could listen to her play the opening to “Entertain” on loop all day). If for some bizarre reason you ever thought Sleater-Kinney was a studio band, this album lays that notion to waste.

The songs from earlier records are, naturally, more alive and fiery than when Sleater-Kinney was a younger band, than when they had yet to play those songs hundreds of times. The geekiest of fans will delight in hearing them—in one of their earliest songs, “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone”—change a reference to Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, to honour his creative partner and now-ex-wife Kim Gordon. But this is not a greatest hits record; it’s a set list, and a good one at that. In that sense, it’s a fair introduction to the band for newbies—and a decisive rebuttal to anyone who ever doubted the depths of this trio’s powers. (Jan. 26)

Stream: “A New Wave,” “Entertain,” “Dig Me Out”

The Xx – I See You (XL)

It’s almost like The Xx never went away. In the 4½ years since their second album was released, their sound has been ubiquitous in commercials, in Drake songs (he sampled them on the title track to 2013’s Take Care), and in straight-up rip-offs (the Chainsmokers’ “Don’t Let Me Down,” admittedly inspired by The Xx’s guitar sound, was one of the biggest radio hits of 2016). The name of that 2012 second Xx album? Coexist. How prophetic.

And now: I See You. On it, the British trio accept the fact that they’re now playing for a much bigger audience, as opposed to being shy 20-year-old goth kids making incredibly sparse music that married the mood of dour new wave classics with pop songs and modern electronics. The success of beatsmith Jamie Xx’s 2015 solo album informs many of the textures heard here underneath (and, often, above) Romy Madley Croft’s signature guitar sound and Oliver Sim’s R&B-inspired bass lines. Whereas earlier Xx songs stuck out on radio playlists, the subtle EDM textures heard here puts them even more squarely in the mainstream.

Yet the most beautiful thing about The Xx is that they haven’t in the least changed what it is about them that set them apart from everyone else in the first place. Though tempos are occasionally upbeat, there are no sunny pop songs. Sim and Croft, childhood friends who are perhaps the only two gay people (of different genders) to duet in the same band, will always sound like outsiders, like childhood friends since kindergarten still singing for each other in the shelter of their bedroom (though Sim, in particular, has improved greatly as a vocalist; Croft didn’t have to). “I will be brave for you / do the things I’m afraid to do,” sings Croft, in one of the album’s most affecting moments. Another is when Sim, a recently reformed alcoholic, sing, “I go out, but every beat is a violent noise.”

In almost every way, The Xx have proven how to maintain one’s artistic integrity in the face of massive success. No wonder everyone wants to rip them off. (Jan. 12)

I wrote about The Xx for Maclean’s here.

Stream: “Dangerous,” “Brave For You,” “On Hold”

2016 in 2017

Highly recommended: Nicolas Jaar, Débruit, Doing it in Lagos: Boogie, Pop and Disco in 1980s Nigeria

As always, these reviews originally ran in the Waterloo Record.

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

Doing It in Lagos: Boogie, Pop and Disco in 1980s Nigeria – Various Artists (Soundway)

In the past decade, we’ve seen enough compilations of ’70s West African Afrobeat to safely assume that that well has run dry. Hell, just before his death this month at the age of 70, even the elusive William Onyeabor emerged from hiding (and would likely not approve of the use of the word “hell”). The always-reliable Soundway Records, which is the rare label to have invested in modern acts while still scouring the globe for lost gems, now shifts its focus to the 1980s, from which they now present this stunning new Nigerian collection.

On Soundway’s website and in the liner notes by Uchenna Ikonne, this material is presented almost apologetically, as if the great legacy of Fela Kuti and Afrobeat was somehow tarnished once Nigerian musicians embraced the cultural steamroller that was disco. “It’s perhaps not for the purists who think they know what African music should sound like,” warns the Soundway website.

Poppycock. Yes, the influences of Chic, Cameo, Michael Jackson, Earth, Wind and Fire, New York hip-hop and Washington go-go are all more than evident here, in a hybrid style that Ikonne tells us was simply called “boogie.” It’s no less original than the way the previous generation had refracted the sound of Stax soul, James Brown, Sly Stone and other American greats. As happens around the world all the time—just as Jamaican ska was born as an ersatz take on New Orleans R&B—it’s the local transformation of an external influence that results in something greater. One of the only analogues from this side of the pond would be Talking Heads’ Remain in Light: a record, of course, heavily influenced by Fela Kuti. Here, Mike Umoh’s “Shake Your Body” wouldn’t sound out of place smack dab in the middle of Stop Making Sense

This is disco and electro like you’ve never heard it before, taking the intricacy and skill and precision required to play the polyrhythms of Afrobeat and applying that to Western club music of the day. That’s not to suggest that a subgenre like go-go is more simplistic—far from it—simply that it’s much different than what we hear here. If, now or then, there was to be any concern about watering down an Indigenous sound in service to Western norms, there’s no question from whence this music came. In the words of Odion Iruoje, one on the best tracks here, “Which one you de? You’re still an African.” (Jan. 19)

Stream: “Fellas Doing It in Lagos” by Hotline; “Don’t Give Up” by Willy Roy; “Identify With Your Root” by Odion Iruoje

Bremer/McCoy – Forsvinder (Raske Plader)

This young Danish duo—25-year-old bassist Jonathan Bremer and 24-year-old pianist Morten McCoy—are not hot young firebrands eager to show off. On the contrary, their third album displays delicacy and restraint, a minimalist approach that invites the listener to lean in. McCoy started his career at 13 in a popular Danish ska band (perhaps the only time I’ll ever type that phrase); Bremer has a side project in a surf band. Here, they take their time: melodies are rarely hurried, while Bremer’s bass dances lightly underneath. Forsvinder is a hypnotic record, never more so than when McCoy’s electric piano gets lost languid quarter notes that linger in delay loops on “Cirklen.” (Jan. 19)

Stream: “I Eet,” “Ny Begyndelse” “Cirklen”

Communism – Get Down Get Together (Zunior)

For the past 25 years, Don Kerr has been one of the busiest musicians in Toronto: as a producer, engineer and drummer. Rarely, however, has he taken the lead role, outside a rare turn on the mic from behind his drum kit with the Rheostatics, or on a ukulele duo album with Ron Sexsmith. Here, he fronts his own power pop band—again, from behind the kit—with guitar wizard Paul Linklater (Bidiniband) and bassist Kevin Lacroix (Sexsmith, Selina Martin). All three men are nimble multitaskers and harmony singers, so even the sunniest, straightforward pop song twists and turns with prog touches. The ahistorical naivete of the problematic band name is redeemed somewhat by the earnest positivity and critical thought that these middle-aged dads and Bernie Sanders supporters bring to their songs. It’s their combined musical chops, however, that push this project far beyond a novelty name. (Jan. 5)

Stream: “Take Care of Each Other,” “Forgiveness,” “Crapitalism”

Débruit – Débruit & Istanbul (Ici)

Gaye Su Akyol – Hologram Imparatorlugu (Glitterbeat)

We could use some good news out of Turkey right about now, for a variety of reasons, but especially after the New Year’s Eve massacre at an Istanbul nightclub.

French/Belgian producer Débruit, a.k.a. Xavier Thomas, went there in 2015 to collaborate with six local artists and to soak up the local flavour. He sought out elders like Okay Temiz, a jazz guitarist, and Roma clarinetist Cüneyt Sepetçi, as well as newer artists like singer Gaye Su Akyol and guitarist Murat Ertel, from alternative band BaBa ZuLa. Débruit is a synth player whose interest in funk, dub and African rhythms makes it easy for him to adapt to the cross-cultural pollination that has made Turkey such an important bridge between cultures for centuries. Not that he’s interested in merely throwing local sounds and players on top of dance tracks; though every track is deeply rhythmic, they’re just as likely to be intended for the cinema as they are a disco. On the tracks where he does not employ collaborators, his melodies and rhythms are obviously drawn from his new surroundings without ever sounding slavish to antiquated ideas of the local folk music.

On her own record, Gaye Su Akol roots herself in traditional-sounding melodies but is backed by a modern rock band who excel in hypnotic, mid-tempo grooves, the lead guitar and violin harmonizing leads while the oud provides an insistent rhythm over the bass and drums. Everything, of course, is in a minor key, which makes the album sound even more mournful, considering the current situation—and yet simultaneously strong and defiant. (Jan. 12)

Stream Débruit: “Kaçiyorum” (feat. Gaye Su Akyol), “Duman” (feat. Murat Ertel), “Çevreler”

Stream Gaye Su Akol: “Akil olmayinca,” “Nargile,” “Berdus”

Escondido – Walking with a Stranger (Kill Canyon/Cadence)

When you read about the new Nashville, the generation of artists setting up shop in the legendary music mecca who don’t necessarily adhere to country music orthodoxy, the type represented in the younger musicians on the fictional TV show Nashville, this is the kind of band that comes to mind. Escondido is a male-female duo who make dreamy, hazy, country-tinged music with twang that would be just as at home in the California desert (where they split their time). David Lynch is a huge fan, and listening to this evocative, cinematic music, it’s not hard to figure out why. Escondido sound like a less lethargic Mazzy Starr, a rootsier Beach House, and are one of the most underrated Americana acts of 2016. (Jan. 5)

Stream: “Footprints,” “Apartment,” “Try”

Future Peers – s/t (Phi Ro Sigma)

Rock bands who claim to be influenced by electronic music are usually po-faced Radiohead disciples, determined to evaporate the visceral joy of loud guitars. That’s not the case with Toronto’s Future Peers, who employ glitchy sounds, odd synth patches and vocoders in their peppy pop songs propelled by live drums and ragged guitar riffs. Produced by Broken Social Scene’s Kevin Drew and engineer Shawn Everett (Alabama Shakes), and recorded during a five-month sojourn in L.A., Future Peers’ debut picks up the since-fizzled promise of mid-2000s indie rock and carries it to—well, the future. (Jan. 5)

Stream: “Better Love Lost,” “Time Went Away,” “F--k Noises”

Gringo Star – The Sides and In Between (Nevado)

Yes, worst band name ever. But this Atlanta four-piece rock band (signed to Canadian label Nevado, home to the Wooden Sky, Jordan Klassen, and who launched Bahamas’ career) are a refreshing rock’n’roll revival act equally at home with ’60s psychedelic garage pop and ’90s indie rock and alt-country. They’re obviously a seasoned live act, based on their instrumental skill and chemistry together, and they have songs that echo the rowdier side of early Wilco and the snarl of prime Pavement, with some of the twee glee of the Elephant 6 bands. There’s much here that’s reminiscent of the debut by Foxygen a few years back, before that band went well off the rails; it sounds like there’s no danger of that ever happening to Gringo Star. (Jan. 12)

Stream: “Rotten,” “Get Closer,” “Heading South”

Nicolas Jaar – Sirens (Other People)

This 26-year-old Chilean-American electronic musician was last heard as one half of the psychedelic electronic rock duo Darkside; here, on his second solo full-length, Jaar reveals more layers of his sonic personality: singing in Spanish, exploring ambient drone, performing incredibly sparse pop songs that recall late-period Talk Talk, making hazy electronic cumbia, writing a ’50s-style 6/8 ballad sung in falsetto, paying tribute to the band Suicide in ways Radiohead would surely appreciate, or placing post-punk bass lines over ’90s jungle breaks with a bass clarinet in the mix just for kicks. Had I heard this when it came out in September—always a busy time for major releases—it would surely have found a spot on my best-of-2016 list. (Jan. 5)

Stream: “The Governor,” “Three Sides of Nazareth,” “No”

Jadea Kelly – Love & Lust (Fontana North)

Kelly has toured with neo-roots duo Whitehorse and sung with metal band Protest the Hero (from her hometown of Whitby, Ont.), but on her own she creates the kind of deceptively soft pop at which Sarah McLachlan once excelled: languid enough to lull you with its beauty, but with a bite underneath the portrays the artist as anything but a pushover. Kelly’s third album finds her writing her way through heartbreak and deception: “Mariah” is a swipe at a lover’s mistress; “Paper Thin Heart” is particularly devastating. She has some top-notch help here: drummer Gary Craig (Blackie and the Rodeo Kings), keyboardist Jason Sniderman (Blue Peter), backing vocals from Bahamas’ Afie Jurvanen, string arrangements by Jesse Zubot (Tagaq), and bass by Run With the Kittens’ Nigel Hebblewhite. There’s a reason that level of talent wants to work with Kelly, who splits her time between Toronto and Nashville—a town where she no doubt feels right at home. (Jan. 5)

Stream: “On the Water,” “Can’t Outrun,” “Good Girl”

Lowlands – Erie (Chelsea)

Formed in Toronto as buskers in 2010, this group relocated to Guelph and easily found a home for their sparse take on modern roots music; Erie is their third album, released late last fall, showcasing the high lonesome lead vocals of banjo player Gordon Auld, who has more than a bit of early My Morning Jacket in him. Pedal steel player Matt Monoogian provides welcome texture, augmenting the electric guitar of co-songwriter Abrahm Del Bel Belluz. Producer Gavin Gardiner of the Wooden Sky clearly sees kindred spirits in this band; he also put out this record on his band’s own label. (Jan. 5)

Stream: “Broken Man (Black Mask III),” “In the Cold,” “Wind Blows Back”

Supermoon – Playland (Mint)

Not sure what it is about Vancouver that always inspires a certain fetish for early ’80s British indie pop in the wake of Joy Division, the band The Organ being the prime example in the mid-2000s. But here comes another generation of rainy-day women in the form of Supermoon, whose lilting, melodic guitar lines are stronger than the lead vocals, the rhythm section quiet but insistent. All songs are under three minutes long; they know not to overstay their welcome. This digital album (also available as a double-seven-inch single) is a promising start; Supermoon is still waxing, you might say. (Jan. 19)

Stream: “Night Division,” “If You Say So,” “Stories We Tell Ourselves About Ourselves”