Friday, March 31, 2017

Magnetic Fields – 50-Song Memoir

The Magnetic Fields – 50-Song Memoir (Nonesuch)

This is literally Stephin Merritt’s life work: 50 autobiographical songs, one documenting each of the first 50 years of his life, spread over five discs (or 2½ hours).

There is no other modern songwriter audacious enough to attempt such a feat, never mind pull it off.  At least, no other songwriter with an audience that might care. But this is the man who, in 1999, was a largely obscure songwriter on the periphery of indie rock (a genre he despises) and managed to vault into the hearts of thousands with a 3CD set called 69 Love Songs, which became the kind of gift that generations of geeks enthusiastically exchanged, and still gets played at weddings today (or given as a wedding gift). The arguably arch concept on that album was executed by a stable of guest singers and generous genre-jumping that ensured an eclectic listen. It’s a work that is at once Merritt’s greatest triumph and his albatross: everything he’s ever done since has been compared to that opus. This time, however, making a comparison is entirely fair. And he comes up short.

Here, Merritt sings all the songs himself—which of course is fitting, given the nature of the project. But his wobbly baritone, the fragility of which he toys with throughout, is hardly capable of sustaining a work of this length. (The Klaus Nomi-like backing vocals on “84: Danceteria” are a more-than-welcome touch.) It doesn’t help that the musical backdrop rarely changes: lagging mid-tempo rhythms on little more than ukuleles and guitars, with minimal synth or keyboard touches and few flashes of percussion.

Then there are the characteristically oddball touches, like the plastic resonator tube solo stuck into the middle of “03: The Ex and I,” or the sound of what sounds like Merritt stumbling around Tom Waits’s junkshop accompanying himself only on various noisemakers and clumsily played cymbals on “91: The Day I Finally…” As ridiculous as they sound, those moments are what make the record tolerable, if only because they break up the morose monotony.

If the presentation is lacking, however, the songs are not. If Merritt’s last two albums (one as Magnetic Fields, one as Future Bible Heroes) found him sounding somewhat adrift and without purpose, 50-Song Memoir has plenty of reasons to remind fans what a gift he has, even if it’s an inhuman ability to extract a melody from a lyric like, “I spent the blizzard of ’78 on a commune in northern Vermont.”

For an autobiographical work, 50-Song Memoir is not as navel-gazing as one might expect; specific details and first-person narratives aside, almost (*almost*) everything here could be covered by another singer or band—and, in fact, those songs would probably be in better hands if they were. Some songs are not about Merritt at all, but might be pithy observations pulled from his habits in any particular year. Like this mega-meta-theatre opening couplet, from “02: Be True to Your Bar”: “Sitting in bars and cafés / writing songs about songs and plays within plays / but how rarely we dare to write something that says anything about bars and cafés.”

If 69 Love Songs was the moonshot that propelled Merritt into mountains of acclaim (and a modest career) by appealing to people who’d never heard of him before, 50-Song Memoir could only possibly appeal to fans who have stuck with him through thick and thin. Then again, those kind of people are the only ones you’d want rifling through your autobiography anyway.

Stream: “Rock and Roll Will Ruin Your Life,” “Foxx and I,” “Weird Diseases”

Old 97s and Spoon

It's been a really good musical month for 45-year-old, hip Texan dudes.

Old 97s – Graveyard Whistling (ATO)

By the usual rules of rock’n’roll, the Old 97s should no longer exist—never mind be releasing some of the best music of their career. The Texas quartet boasts the same lineup they’ve had since forming in 1993. They’ve been on major labels, indie labels, and everything in between. The singer and principal songwriter, Rhett Miller, has a solo career and yet keeps returning to his old bandmates. His lyrics detail excess that, if true, and combined with the band’s rigorous tour schedule, should have dried up his creativity at least a decade ago.

Yet here are the Old 97s, in their mid-40s, on their 11th album, still full of the piss and vinegar that defined their approach to so-called alt-country since day one. Miller’s sardonic songwriting (“Jesus loves you more than I do / just because he doesn’t know you like I do”) is still several steps above his peers of any age, whether he’s still singing about small-town dreamers who want to “put the past in the rear-view mirror” (“I Don’t Want to Die in This Town”) or whether he’s an older man taking stock of his life and deciding that “all I know is I’m good with God / I wonder how she feels about me.” (To which God, in the voice of co-writer Brandi Carlile, sings back to him: “You should be scared / I’m not so nice.”) Even when he slips into cliché (“Irish Whiskey, Pretty Girls”), Miller’s one-liners are still better than most.

The band behind him roars with energy harnessed from their raucous live shows, yet always leaving plenty of breathing room, perhaps influenced by the remote West Texas town where the album was recorded: more country than punk, with a pronounced spaghetti-Western sound on several tracks.

What a drag it is getting old? Not with the Old 97s. (March 2)

Stream: “Good with God” (with Brandi Carlile), “She Hates Everyone,” “I Don’t Want to Die in This Town”

 Spoon – Hot Thoughts (Matador)

Ever since 2002’s Kill the Moonlight (or 2001’s Girls Can Tell, if you’re a super music nerd), Spoon has been the kind of band that appeals to rock fans who have lost faith in the genre: grumpy old new wave moms and dads or disgruntled indie kids tired of emo whining. Spoon had swagger and mystery; Spoon made records with nary a stray note, minimalist rock’n’roll with an experimental edge with catchy songs always at the core.

After the breakthrough commercial success of 2007’s Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, which cracked the Top 10, the band lost their way a bit: 2010’s Transference veered too far toward the experimental for most fans, while 2014’s They Want My Soul was catchy enough but sounded like Spoon spinning their wheels. That last album teamed them up with Dave Fridmann (Flaming Lips, Low), who didn’t impose his usual production tricks on a band who didn’t need them—drummer Jim Eno is an acclaimed producer in his own right, so it wasn’t even clear why they’d hire Fridmann in the first place.

But Fridmann is back for Hot Thoughts—and so is Spoon’s creative spark. This is the most successful mix of their experimental and pop tendencies since Kill the Moonlight, and Fridmann brings it into brilliant focus with sonic touches that illuminate all the band’s strengths. Jim Eno’s rhythms are a driving force, even if (or especially when) a set of shakers is placed higher in the mix than his actual drum kit at times. Singer/guitarist Britt Daniel has said the death of Prince hit the band hard while recording; maybe it’s a coincidence, but this is also the sexiest Spoon record in a long while, thanks to Eno’s beats, Daniel’s rhythm guitar and the ear candy from Fridmann and new keyboardist Alex Fischel. (“Can I Sit Next to You” is the kind of killer groove with a song behind it that 2005’s “I Turn My Camera On” wanted to be but didn’t completely pull off.)

The influences of Jamaican dub and electronic music have always percolated in the background of Spoon records; here, they’re far closer to the forefront (see also: King Cobb Steelie, a band it’s safe to say Spoon has never heard); there’s also no acoustic guitar here, for the first time in Spoon’s history. The moments on Hot Thoughts that veer closest to straight-up rock music are filled with the tension of post-punk disco, especially “Shotgun,” which sounds like Public Image Limited covering “Eye of the Tiger” (if that makes any sense).

Daniel’s lyrics have always been somewhat oblique; even ardent Spoon fans might have trouble telling you what any of their songs are about. So it’s telling that on an album recorded during Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, there’s a catchy pop song by this Texan band with the chorus, “Let them build a wall around us / I don’t care, we’re going to tear it down / It’s just bricks and ill intentions / I don’t care, we’ll tear it all town,” followed by a “na-na-na-na-na” hook worthy of the Bee Gees that might come in handy as a protest chant.

But that’s about as straightforward as Spoon gets. Closing track “Us,” an instrumental track driven by a saxophone player they met in the studio, sounds like a Tears for Fears outtake from Songs From the Big Chair—in the best way possible. It’s the most un-Spoon-like thing this band has ever recorded, and it’s the most obvious sign that this is a band—more specifically, two men, Daniel and Eno, the only consistent members—that is 20 years and nine albums into a career and not remotely interested in sitting still. This Spoon is still ready to get bent. (March 23)

Stream: “Hot Thoughts,” “Shotgun,” “Pink Up”

March 2017 reviews

Highly recommended this month: Aimee Mann, Orchestra Baobab

Highly recommended this month, reviewed earlier: Old 97s, Spoon

Well worth your while: Duotang, Ibibio Sound Machine

As always, these reviews ran in the Waterloo Record.

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

Louise Burns – Young Mopes (Light Organ)

Vancouver never tires of rainy-day new wave music, and they seem to have plenty of people like Louise Burns who are this good at it. Burns, 31, is a 20-year veteran of the music biz (yes, you read that right) whose confidence buoys her third album through detours into Sheryl Crow-esque California country and psychedelic pop (“Dig” has a direct reference to the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows”), all informed by a mid-’80s aesthetic that recalls the best of Echo and the Bunnymen and the Cure. She’s also rocking a bit of a Stevie Nicks vibrato these days, and the verses of “Pharoah” are not dissimilar to the Fleetwood Mac classic “Dreams.” Burns’s songs are strong enough that all those obvious comparisons fade away once her melodies—given extra muscle by bandmates Darcy Hancock and Ryan Peters, on loan from Ladyhawk) get stuck in your head. And judging by the album title, she’s got enough of a sense of humour about herself: she reclaimed it from a bad review in the Globe and Mail. (March 9)

Stream: “Who’s the Madman,” “Pharoah,” “Storms”

Duotang – New Occupation (Stomp)

After weathering the tough times for Canadian indie rock in the late ’90s, this Winnipeg duo called it quits—or a hiatus, at least—in 2002, just as this country’s scene started to get international attention. But with a comeback album as strong as this, there is no time for neuroses of the coulda-woulda-shoulda variety. Bassist Rod Slaughter and drummer Sean Allum romp through a dozen tracks that sound like a greatest hits package—culled, of course, from four or five unreleased albums that only existed in Slaughter’s head in the past 15 years. Opening track “Nostalgia is a Vice” is a self-conscious nod to any band on the comeback trail, but this doesn’t sound like a band trying desperately to relive the glories of the youth. This is a band that sounds better than they ever did, playing with every bit of the energy that always propelled their powerful performances. Duotang were one of the most underrated bands of that time period; they don’t deserve that fate this time around, either. (March 23)

Stream: “Nostalgia’s a Vice,” “Karma Needs to Come Around,” “New Occupation”

Her Harbour – Go Gently Into the Night (E-Tron)

Ottawa singer/songwriter Gabrielle Giguere sounds like the last person left in a harbour town, singing her songs on piano and autoharp to the vast ocean before her. Surely this siren would soon summon some kind of audience across the water; her hypnotic voice draws the listener in to revel in its intimacy. Her accompaniment is appropriate sparse, though she does employ subtle help from violinist Mika Posen (Forest City Lovers, Merganzer) and vibraphonist Olivier Fairfield (Last Ex, Timber Timbre). Veteran engineer Dave Draves (Wooden Stars, Jim Bryson) makes it sound like Giguere has set up in an empty Massey Hall, rich with natural reverb and haunted by history. (I’m sure it’s just an effects rack, but still.) (March 13)

Stream: “Below Breaths,” “In Nude in Fog and River,” “Death Mask”

Ibibio Sound Machine – Uyai (Merge)

If there was one song that could have got you through the doldrums of February 2017, it was “Give Me a Reason,” an Afro-electro dance track by Ibibio Sound Machine, which sounded like LCD Soundsystem in Lagos with synths borrowed from the “Ghostbusters” theme, brash horns, and a delirious percussion breakdown in the bridge.

A few months ago, Soundway Records put out a revelatory compilation of Nigerian “boogie” from the 1980s, called Doing It in Lagos, on which West African funk grooves of the ’70s adapted to electro-pop and disco. It’s a sound that leads directly to this joyous British octet, fronted by London-born, Nigerian-raised singer Emo Williams, who sings in her parents’ Ibibio tongue.

Uyai is their second record, and the first to have a domestic North American release (as the odd band out even on the eclectic Merge Records). The fiery summer songs are in abundance, but the band also dials down the ebullience and slows the tempo on occasion, displaying more depth and range.

There are no North American dates announced yet, but this is one tour you won’t want to miss. (March 2)

Stream: “Give Me a Reason,” “The Pot is on Fire,” “Lullaby”

King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard – Flying Microtonal Banana (ATO)

Well, it’s going to be hard to beat that album title. Even if your band name is King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard. Even if it is one of five albums you’re threatening to release this year. (This doesn’t appear to be an idle threat: they’ve released eight albums in the last four years.)

This Australian septet is a psychedelic powerhouse that rides metronomic Krautrock beats that would make the late Jaki Liebezeit of Can proud. Each album has some kind of conceptual conceit; this time out, they were outfitted with guitars capable of playing microtones not found on conventional Western instruments, but which are quite common in many types of Asian music (and entirely natural for a band from Oceania to pick up on, even if just for geographical reasons). The difference on most of the album will be subtle to most, other than guitar solos that sound a bit odd to North American ears. But occasionally the band will foreground the difference by modulating a riff by using a microtonal harmony—which, if you’re not aware what’s happening, sounds like the entire band is pitch-shifting out of key.

All of that may be of little interest to anyone but the Lizard Wizard themselves and ethnomusicologists. The greater appeal is hearing this fine-tuned engine operating at full force, especially drumming duo Eric Moore and Michael Cavanagh. And unlike last year’s relentless Nonagon Infinity, which introduced them to North America, Flying Microtonal Banana shows off some softer sides of the band—in terms of volume and textural colours, if not tempo. (March 2)

King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard invade the Danforth Music Hall in Toronto—a venue three times the size of the last one they played here—on April 5.

Stream: “Rattlesnake,” “Melting,” “Sleep Drifter”

Aimee Mann – Mental Illness (SuperEgo)

Aimee Mann knows exactly how the public perceives her: that of a smart but sullen songwriter specializing in the sorrows and disappointments of life, delivered in somewhat sluggish songs that barely break a sweat. Even diehard fans might find her eight previous solo studio albums to be interchangeable; Mann has a formula that makes her easy to pigeonhole.

So why not embrace it? Here, Mann has assembled another collection of misfits, malcontents and broken people—all worthy of an ennui-filled graphic novel—and named her new album Mental Illness. Which is kind of like Kanye West calling an album Ego. In her own press release, she says, “If [people] thought that my songs were very down-tempo, very depressing, very sad, and very acoustic, I thought I’d just give myself permission to write the saddest, slowest, most acoustic, if-they’re-all-waltzes-so-be-it record I could.”

It works. Just as 2014’s collaboration with punk rocker Ted Leo, The Both, was so refreshing because she was playing much louder, much faster and in a collaborative fashion, likewise it’s a revelation now to hear her strip away so many of the sonic layers that defined her approach to adult-pop perfection in the last 20 years. She mostly plays acoustic guitar and piano here; drummer Jay Bellerose is barely noticeable, as is the rest of her band. Subtle string sections colour around the edges, as do layers of California vocal harmonies. This is Aimee Mann the folk singer, although her typically complex chord progressions still place her closer to the Brill Building than, say, Billy Bragg.

None of that suggests that Mann is reinventing herself—in some cases, she even seems to be recycling, especially when “Rollercoasters” sounds a bit too similar to her 1999 Oscar-nominated hit “Save Me.” But this album is easily one of the best collections of her career: her razor-sharp wit and powers of observation in full focus, her unadorned voice sounding crystal clear and lovelier than ever. (March 30)

Stream: “Goose Snow Cone,” “Patient Zero,” “Good For Me”

Orchestra Baobab – Tribute To Ndiouga Dieng (World Circuit/Nonesuch)

Of all the African artists of the 1970s who had career resurrections in the last 15 years, Senegal’s Orchestra Baobab has been one of the most magical. Formed in 1970 as the house band at an upscale club in Dakar—playing five hours a night, five nights a week—they combined local traditions with modern Cuban styles (those styles themselves descendant from Africa, of course). As new styles became more popular, Baobab became less relevant and broke up in 1987. In 2001, Buena Vista Social club producer Nick Gold reissued the 1982 Baobab album Pirate’s Gold to great acclaim; the band then reformed and recorded two new studio albums in the next 10 years, one—the excellent 2002 Specialist in All Styles—produced by Senegalese superstar Youssou N’Dour.

Though Baobab’s reunion hasn’t sparked many new recordings, they continue to tour. Last year, they lost one of their long-time vocalists, 69-year-old Ndiouga Dieng, to a long illness. Though the lineup has fluctuated over the years, original vocalist Balla Sidibe is still at the helm, and original saxophonist Issa Cissokho still takes most of the leads. They’re joined here by young kora player Abdouleye Cissoko, who sparkles throughout.

There are few sweeter sounds in the world than the Afro-Cuban hybrid, and Orchestra Baobab are the undisputed masters. It’s sad that it takes a tragic occasion to bring them back to the studio, but we are all richer for it. (March 30)

Stream: “Natalia,” “Woulinewa,” “Douga”

Preoccupations – s/t (Flemish Eye)

The band formerly known as Viet Cong—the name was changed after protests following their appearance on the 2015 Polaris Music Prize shortlist—needed to reinvent themselves. The name change may be cosmetic, but the rebirth—and no doubt the maturity of the hard-touring band in general—has paid musical dividend as well.

Whereas the self-titled Viet Cong album was morose and, more important, mind-numbingly dull, Preoccupations take their goth-influenced, ’80s post-punk brooding and scrape away the unnecessary walls of noise. It’s still noisy—but now it’s carefully sculpted rather than merely drowning in sound. Hell, there are even pretty moments (“Sense”). With producer Graham Walsh (Holy F--k, Etiquette) again at the helm, Preoccupations focus more on groove, all rumbling bass and Joy Division-esque drums, while the guitars alternate between textural washes, brittle shards of sound and twangy leads. Singer/bassist Matt Flegel’s baritone is suitably menacing while he sings at-times laughable lines of misanthropy: “all of consciousness is completely intolerable!”

Too bad the T2: Trainspotting soundtrack producers didn’t catch wind of this record before padding out their track list with acts from 35 years ago. (March 9)

Stream: “Anxiety,” “Memory,” “Stimulation”

T2: Trainspotting OST – Various Artists (Universal)

In 2017, rare is the film soundtrack by various artists (as opposed to original music, like Frozen) that makes any kind of impact. But in 1996, the Trainspotting soundtrack was bigger than the film itself. Almost a year and a half after it came out, it spawned its own sequel.

Now Danny Boyle and company have delivered a long-awaited sequel to the film. Some familiar names are back: Underworld and Iggy Pop—the latter in a completely unnecessary remix of “Lust for Life” by… the Prodigy? Surely this ’90s revival has gone too far. Counting Iggy, six of the 15 tracks here go back even further: The Clash, Blondie, Queen, Run-DMC, Frankie Goes to Hollywood—natural choices considering the demographic of the film’s characters, but hardly inspiring as any kind of modern benchmark. Thankfully, with the exception of Frankie and Iggy, the compilers went with less obvious choices for all other geezer acts.

The sound of the new falls primarily to Young Fathers, the Mercury Prize-winning hip-hop trio from Edinburgh. It’s an inspired choice, and proof that the project isn’t entirely a nostalgia trip; the other new acts—Wolf Alice, the Rubberbandits, Fat White Family, High Contrast (who has the best line here: “Last night I dreamed I went to Woodstock but I only saw Sha-Na-Na”)—do the job of simultaneously sounding contemporary and classic. (March 9)

Stream: “Shotgun Mouthwash” by High Contrast, “Silk” by Wolf Alice, “Get Up” by Young Fathers