Sunday, June 24, 2018

March and April reviews 2018

These reviews ran in the Waterloo Region Record in March and April 2018. 

Cardi B – Invasion of Privacy (Atlantic)

Here’s a question no one thought would need answering in 2018: just how significant is Cardi B’s debut album? Yes, she had one of the biggest singles of 2017 with “Bodak Yellow,” which became the first solo female rap No. 1 hit since Lauryn Hill’s “Doo Wop” back in—whoa, really?—1998. Twenty years after Hill’s debut album topped the charts, Cardi B has now repeated that feat with her own debut—and again, one has to wonder what took so goddam long. Not even Nicki Minaj pulled this off.

Anyone who underestimated Cardi B because of her past—an Instagram star who vaulted to celebrity status on a reality show—is eating crow now. Not just because Invasion of Privacy is such a blockbuster hit right out of the gate, but because it’s really good: Cardi B is a commanding presence on the mic, delivering rags-to-riches tales with a fierce and profane take-no-prisoners approach. Musically, her collaborators—including Toronto’s Boi-1Da—give her plenty to work with, especially on the Latin trap of “I Like It.” For such a huge pop record, Cardi B’s team keeps the grooves ominous and with few, if any, pop hooks to satiate the mildly curious. Whereas Nicki Minaj lost her edge when she awkwardly catered directly to the mainstream, Cardi B is playing by her own rules, sticking to it, and dominating the landscape. (April 20)

Stream: “Get Up 10,” “Bodak Yellow,” “I Like It”

Paul Brandt – The Journey YYC: Volume 1 (Warner)

The most commercially successful Canadian country artist of the last 20 years—if not ever—is nothing if not consistent, and this latest EP shows that he’s still at the top of his game. For whatever reason—because no one listens to albums anymore?—he’s splitting up his latest release into two EPs, which means that the six surefire gems here are bulletproof evidence that this Calgarian is a class act, from his rich voice to his songwriting skills to his ability to match his old-school skills with the demands of modern radio. He’s also generous: many of these songs are about paying respect, whether it’s to the love of his life on “All About Her” or “Slow Down,” or to his audiences on “Thank You, Thank You.” And when he sings about wanting “A Better Country,” he means it: off-stage, his #NotInMyCity campaign targets sex trafficking, and he also advocates for concussion awareness in the rodeo community. Most recently, he was on the CBC dedicating his 2001 song “Small Town and Big Dreams” to the families of Humboldt, Sask. The man is a mensch, and his cavalcade of hits is sure to continue to shine a spotlight on the causes he cherishes. (April 13)

Stream: “All About Her,” “Thank You Thank You,” “Slow Down”

Nels Cline 4 – Currents, Constellations (Blue Note)

Guitarist Nels Cline has an enormous discography, the best known components being his work with Wilco, and most of it being considerably more abrasive and experimental. In 2016, he debuted with venerable jazz label Blue Note for the Lovers album, a sprawling set of beautiful covers of artists ranging from Henry Mancini to Sonic Youth, and everything in between. His second album for the label stems from a guitar duo he formed with Julian Lage in 2014; here, they add a killer rhythm section—bassist Scott Colley (Herbie Hancock, Pat Metheny), drummer Tom Rainey—that allows them even more room to roam. There are more pointy edges here than on Lovers, but just as many lovely passages as well, like the cinematic “As Close as That.” (April 27)

Stream: “Furtive,” “Imperfect 10,” “As Close as That”

Felix Dyotte – Politesses (Coyote)

It’s springtime in Montreal, where the second solo album from this songwriter sounds like rays of sunshine melting the still-remaining snow. (Qualifier: this actually came out in the fall, but its profile in English Canada has been minimal.) Dyotte takes a languid, dreamy approach to French chanson, with thick grooves underneath that wouldn’t be out of a place on a record by Destroyer or Beck. Like a poppier Philippe B or a more esoteric Coeur de Pirate (who shows up to duet on “Croix”), Dyotte is yet another Quebecois artist making some of the loveliest and lush pop music today. Leap over the language barrier and check it out. (April 27)

Stream: “Que ce soit toi, que ce soit moi,” “Croix,” “Jeanne”

Thompson Egbo-Egbo – A New Standard (EOne)

How to get noticed as a jazz artist in Canadian media: have an amazing name, throw in nods to John Coltrane, cover a Radiohead song, and have an interesting news hook to boot (in this case, it’s the artist’s philanthropic foundation focusing on education in disadvantaged communities).

Pianist Thompson Egbo-Egbo has more than that, however. Listening to his debut record for EOne, it’s more than obvious that his talent opened up more doors for him than anything else. Those covers—of Radiohead’s “Exit Music for Film,” of the incredibly obvious standard “My Favorite Things,” even a nod to the ’70s Spider-Man theme—are all just red herrings to get the listener in the door. Once there, Egbo-Egbo wows with the delicate dexterity of, yes, Oscar Peterson or any other jazz artist with cross-genre appeal. He’s not showy, either; one of the most impressive tracks here is the gentle “You Must Believe in Spring.” His rhythm section of drummer Jeff Halischuk and bassist Randall Hall are just as impressive as their bandleader; this is a formidable trio.

Now that he has our attention, we’ll be listening for a long time. (March 9)

Stream: “Softly as in a Morning Sunrise Golden Earrings,” “You Must Believe in Spring,” “Favela”

Esmerine – Mechanics of Dominion (Constellation)

This Montreal instrumental group, comprised primarily of members of Godspeed You Black Emperor (Bruce Cawdron) and A Silver Mt. Zion (Rebecca Foon), is usually enthralling, but on their sixth album they prove that they keep getting better as well. Their take on modern chamber music involves fascinating, tiny textures underneath pianos, pizzicato strings and marimbas, with a strong melodic undercurrent to even the most abstract pieces. This is rainy-morning music par excellence, especially when Foon’s cello steps to the forefront, but drummer Jamie Thompson also helps propel some pieces to the epic sweeps of labelmates Do Make Say Think. More than 20 years after Constellation Records began—the history of which was documented in an excellent article in a recent issue of Maisonneuve—Esmerine display how that label’s signature sound has evolved and refined, with one of its strongest releases in years. (April 27)

Stream: “The Space in Between,” “La Penombre,” “La Plume des Armes”

Kacey Musgraves – Golden Hour (Universal)

There’s a reason why Kacey Musgraves gets attention from media outlets that don’t normally cover a lot of contemporary country music. No, it’s not because she’s socially progressive in a conservative context, nor because her music is particularly raw or that far removed from mainstream country radio. First and foremost, Musgraves is a fine songwriter of the highest order, with melodies that match any of Nashville’s most successful production teams.

Central to her appeal, of course, is her no-frills approach. She’s not a showy singer and until now her music has been fairly free of slick production. On Golden Hour, her third album, Musgraves moves closer to the mainstream without compromising what made her special in the first place. Granted, she dips into ’70s soft-rock disco on “High Horse,” and there are some Daft Punk-ish Vocoder backing vocals on “Oh, What a World.” But the woman who met her husband at the Bluebird Café in Nashville generally keeps her arrangements simple and unadorned, regardless of whether or not she’s straying from the country template; “Butterflies” could easily be an Alicia Keys ballad. It’s vintage Musgraves, the way she articulates the comma in the phrase, “You can have your space, cowboy.”

She might claim that, “I ain’t Wonder Woman / I don’t know how to lasso the truth out of you.” But like any great country songwriter, Musgraves speaks truth in volumes, and this is indeed her Golden Hour. (April 13)

Stream: “Slow Burn,” “Love is a Wild Thing,” “Rainbow”

Sting and Shaggy – 44/867 (Universal)

For whom was this record made? For Shaggy fans? For Sting fans? For the two artists themselves, just for a lark? Or is this whole project a way for Sting to recover some of the money he lost in his Broadway show a few years back?

When these two appeared all over the Grammy Awards in February, one had to wonder who got paid off to promote this oddball collab. It’s not at all odd, of course, for Sting to make a reggae record; after all, the Police drew a not insignificant amount of inspiration from Jamaica on their earliest records. It is odd, however, for him to co-write a limp pop song called “44/876,” a song about the international calling codes for Britain and Jamaica. It’s even more odd for him to, on a record that is ripe for parody and ridicule, write a song with the chorus, “My name for you is sad trombone.”

On the one hand, it’s refreshing to hear the normally ultra-serious Sting having fun; there is absolutely no weight of the world bearing down on him here. Shaggy is still capable of reminding us why his ’90s singles were so much fun—but also why he hasn’t had a hit in 15 years. (Nor, for that matter, has Sting.) 44/867 is nowhere near as bad as one might expect, but that doesn’t stop it from being a head-scratcher best left to the dustbins of history. (April 27)

Stream: “Waiting for the Break of Day,” “Just One Lifetime,” “Night Shift”

Victime – Mon VR de reve (Michel Records)

The three members of Quebec City no-wave band Victime are not going to be quiet about whatever it is that made them choose their name. Bassist and vocalist Laurence Gauthier-Brown leads her francophone trio through a short, sharp explosion of noise formulated into danceable rock songs on this thrilling EP. Not dissimilar to the band Weaves, but stripped of that group’s pop hooks, Victime are a tiny tornado of creativity who show great promise. (April 27)

Stream: “Fatigue,” “Robot ou humaine,” “Brocher un doigt”

The Weeknd – My Dear Melancholy EP (Universal)

The Weeknd became a huge pop star with “Can’t Feel My Face,” which masked the darkness at the heart of his music since day one: the misanthropy, the misogyny, the fetishization of cocaine (though the song in question was about cocaine, few realized it). Those elements were certainly present on 2015’s Beauty Behind the Madness and 2016’s quick follow-up Starboy, but were somehow overlooked as his celebrity status took off, with Oscar nominations and high-profile lovers. Now he returns to the down-tempo brooding that defined his masterful debut, 2011’s House of Balloons, and it suits him perfectly. The eerie music behind him makes for a much better fit than the pop bangers. He’s still emotionally stunted and wallowing in misery, but there are several signs that his rampant, bitter misogyny is evaporating; at one point on this EP where he repeatedly laments the loss of a lover, the heartbroken singer even promises, “I’ll take my time to learn the way your body functions.” (What a guy!) Elsewhere, of course, he promises to “fuck the pain away,” to borrow a phrase from Peaches to mean something very different than what she intended. Throughout, of course, Abel Tesfaye commands our attention with the one thing that was so compelling right from the beginning: his voice. (April 13)

Stream: “Call Out My Name,” “Hurt You,” “Wasted Times”

Charlotte Day Wilson – Stone Woman EP (independent)

Wilson is a multi-instrumentalist who runs her own show, including producing and engineering duties. In a male-dominated industry, that’s something she’s justifiably proud of. Too bad, then, that all of these songs—and those on her debut EP—limp along with little life or direction, tilting toward the tedious. Her voice is great, the textures are lovely, the grooves are strong—yet she’s still missing a key ingredient. One hates to challenge the pride of a talented and politically motivated 25-year-old, but maybe the self-described “Stone Woman” who goes to a funeral “just to feel something” would benefit from some collaboration.

The track listing itself sums it all up: “Stone Woman.” “Doubt.” “Nothing New.” “Let You Down.” “Falling Down.” “Funeral.” (March 2)

Stream: “Stone Woman,” “Falling Apart,” “Funeral”

Yo La Tengo – There’s a Riot Going On (Matador)

There are most definitely riots going on, but you won’t hear them on the new Yo La Tengo record. On the contrary: this album is meant to be a soothing balm acting as an antidote to the tumult of our times. For a band already prone to dreamy soundscapes—along with guitar skronkfests, free jazz, bossa nova and anything else they put their mind to—this is the most featherweight they’ve ever been, outside of their film soundtrack work. Even the somnambulant 2000 album And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out is a barn-burner next to this.

Only a band this seasoned and in-tune with each other—James McNew has now been in the band for 25 of their 34-year history—could pull off something this seemingly effortless. Songs are barely there, but such is their skill as texturalists that it’s never entirely dull, not even when a track is little more than a wash of sound, somewhere on the spectrum between Brian Eno and Tim Hecker. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, they’ll pull up a catchy little ditty like “Esportes Casual,” which sounds like a jingle for a modern furniture outlet, or “Forever,” which consciously echoes the Flamingos’ “I Only Have Eyes For You.”

This is no means essential listening for Yo La Tengo fans, and even less so for everyone else. But it’s a sign that even on auto-pilot and at low volume and the slowest possible tempos, Yo La Tengo can still hold our attention. (March 16)

Stream: “For You Too,” “What Chance Have I Got,” “Forever”

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