These reviews ran in the Waterloo Record in May and June.
Kiran Ahluwalia – 7 Billion (Six Degrees)
The title refers to the population of the planet. While this Toronto singer builds bridges in song, she wisely doesn’t try to represent the culture of all those seven billion people in what can easily (and dismissively) categorized as “world music.” The Indian-born Canadian effortlessly mixes the music of her parents’ country with West African blues and North American pop conventions, particularly on closing track “We Sinful Women,” with lyrics adapted from the work of feminist Urdo poet Kishwar Naheed. There, Ahluwalia’s band takes full flight while the singer addresses the concept of “nasty women” through history. (May 18)
Stream: “Khafa (Up in Arms),” “Raina (Night),” “We Sinful Women”
When this 30-year-old Australian singer-songwriter burst on to the scene, she was most definitely a child of the ’90s: the melodicism and aggression of Nirvana, the speak-singing and absurdist wordplay of Pavement and Beck, the storytelling of Lucinda Williams and Liz Phair. That hasn’t changed here—if anything, the ’90s quotient has been upped, with the presence of both Kim and Kelley Deal from the Breeders, a band to whom this album owes quite a bit. Barnett was in danger of becoming a one-trick pony—rattling off what seemed to be a series non sequiturs over big grunge choruses—but here she’s singing more than she’s speaking, although her droll delivery remains her trademark. She also gets deadly serious on songs like “Nameless, Faceless,” which riffs on a famous Margaret Atwood quote about how “men are scared that women will laugh at them / women are scared that men will kill them.” The not-so-cheery chorus: “I wanna walk through the park in the dark … I hold my keys between my fingers.” Musically, nothing here is as explosive as “Pedestrian at Best” from her debut, but Barnett is not playing for pop audiences: she’s in this for the long game. (May 18)
Stream: “City Looks Pretty,” “Crippling Self-Doubt and a General Lack of Self-Confidence,” “Nameless, Faceless”
Metaphora marks the continuing metamorphosis of Jill Barber from winsome folk singer to French chanteuse to jazz vocalist and now to modern pop star. Her career has always gone on an upward trajectory (she headlines Roy Thomson Hall later this year), and she claims her shift to pop was entirely unintentional, and not a bid for even bigger commercial success—although that might be exactly what it gets her.
Barber is approaching the age of 40: she’s a professional who’s been around a few blocks and around the world, is now a wife and mother, and found herself increasingly politicized in recent years. So instead of writing songs that sounded like they could have been written 60 years ago, which could be said of her last few releases, her new lyrics needed a modern sound. She turned to Ryan Guimond of Mother Mother, who co-wrote four songs, and to producer Gus Van Go, who’s made well-polished recent records by the likes of Whitehorse and Terra Lightfoot. Hitmaker Gavin Brown (Billy Talent, Metric) was also brought on board for a couple of tracks.
Barber wears all these changes well, while writing feminist anthems that could easily slip onto the radio. “The Woman” and “Girl’s Gotta Do” are both pop triumphs, while “Mercy” is a Sarah McLachlan-esque ode to self-healing, with a message to “show mercy to myself.”
Jill Barber has built her career on her own terms, and continues to do so—and Metaphora will take her to another level. (June 29)
Stream: “The Woman,” “Girl’s Gotta Do,” “Mercy”
An instrumental Latino funk band covering music from Public Enemy’s first four albums. I probably don’t even have to say anything else.
Brownout is a band led by Adrian Quesada of Grupo Fantasma, a Texan Latino band most famous for once backing up Prince. With Brownout, whose first two albums paid tribute to Black Sabbath, he and his bandmates (who once backed up Prince, by the way) deconstruct the density of the Bomb Squad’s production and untangle the original samples to interpolate the PE compositions in revelatory ways. This is not an entirely untested premise: a funk group called the El Michels Affair did something similar with Wu-Tang Clan’s Enter the 36 Chambers, to great effect. It worked there, and it works here. Unlike PE’s (glorious) originals, there is no audio claustrophobia here: the funk is deep, spacious and psychedelic. Now we just have to wait for a new generation of crate-diggers to discover this record and create something new yet again, a hyper-modern musical ouroboros. A gift that keeps on giving. (May 25)
Stream: “Fight the Power,” “By the Time I Get to Arizona,” “Welcome to the Terrordome”
Here’s your summer BBQ soundtrack right here. Carlo is a trio from Ottawa and Toronto, who, despite apparent geographic challenges, are an incredibly tight instrumental funk band that bring back the best memories of the Meters and Booker T and the MGs. Led by Kelsey McNulty on keyboards, with James Taylor (no, not that one) on guitar and Scott McCannell on bass—no fewer than five drummers fill that chair on this record—and with occasional slight excursions into spaghetti Western, surf and reggae territory, along with some songs could be TV game-show themes from the ’60s, Carlo is ready to play your next beach party. And if you know any old-school soul singers looking for a backup band, point them in Carlo’s direction. But if that doesn’t happen, they’re more than just fine on their own. (June 8)
Stream: “Ride,” “Corolla,” “Meathead”
Jennifer Castle – Angels of Death (Idée Fixe)
This Toronto singer-songwriter released one of the most beautiful records to come out of that city in years, 2014’s Pink City. On it, she embraced jazz phrasing, lush string sections, and utilized some of the city’s best players to frame her unique narratives. To follow it up, Castle embraces more of a psychedelic country-rock direction, with shades of vintage Memphis R&B, both of which suit her increasingly soulful vocals. Castle’s music used to be considerably more introverted; she now sings like she can see the sunshine. Which is odd considering the lyrical content here, much of which, as the title would suggest, deals with morbid matters. But death is not something to be feared, in Castle’s view. It’s something that’s ever-present, something that informs every decision and therefore worth singing about. She dances with these ghosts and celebrates life: this is not at all a dreary downer of a record. It is, however, a work by an artist deadly serious about her craft: "No one said poetry was easy / living with a song inside your heart / living with the muses all around me / waking up to soothe them in the dark." (May 25)
Stream: “Tomorrow’s Mourning,” "Texas," "Rose Waterfalls"
The last album from multi-million-selling Québecois artist Beatrice Martin was called Roses, her first (largely) in English. The title of her new one translates as “in case of storm, this garden is closed.” A peak behind the curtain reveals why: extended touring to push her further into the English marketplace drove her to drinking. Coming out as “pansexual” years before Janelle Monáe did the same thing, and entering into a relationship with trans activist and fellow musician Laura Jane Grace, added a public dimension to the drama.
The storm has now passed, but Martin is no longer tending to the anglos for whom she planted Roses. Or at least, not the fair-weather ones, anyway: from the beginning, Martin leapt over language barriers on the strength of her songwriting and welcoming pop arrangements, and her latest should prove to be no exception. There’s no major shakeup in sound—these are big, minor-key pop songs built for radio but which would be just as effective with Martin sitting solo at the piano—but a cameo from franco rapper Loud (see below for a review of his record) is a welcome twist. Martin is one of the brightest pop stars this country has, even when most of the country isn’t paying attention. (June 1)
Stream: “Prémonition,” “De honte et de pardon,” “
For 17 years, Frog Eyes has been a curious obscurity in Canadian music, a challenging and sometimes obtuse musical project capable of curious beauty and cathartic explosiveness. Now they’re calling it quits, shortly after frontman Carer Mercer survived throat cancer. He has said that for its swan songs, “We were trying to pretend it was our first record, when there’s no expectation that anyone will actually listen.” Considering the commercial prospects of Frog Eyes, I’m not sure that was ever a concern, but regardless: Psalms is an eccentric elegy, a fond farewell to one of the most intriguing Canadian bands of the last 15 years. (June 1)
Stream: “A Strand of New Stars,” “Don’t Sleep Under Stars,” “Itch of Summer Knees”
Galaxie – Super Lynx Deluxe (Lazy at Work)
Fuzzed-out guitar rock with plenty of psychedelic and dream-pop textures mixed with electronics and drum machines and turntable-scratching and (from I can tell) rather silly lyrics in French—that’s a formula that seems bound to fail. Yet here is the fifth album from Montreal band Galaxie, led by guitarist Olivier Langevin, which manages to combine all those elements into a cohesive whole. At times it’s a throwback to the punk rock tracks on Check Your Head-era Beastie Boys, with more of disco direction than funk.
At the very least, Super Lynx Deluxe sounds like a fantastically ridiculous night out on Boul. St. Laurent. (May 11)
Stream: “Phenomenal,” “Magie Magie,” “Manitou”
Greg Keelor spent 2016 and 2017 dealing with death in his family and circle of friends, including that of his peer Gord Downie, while also experiencing pain related to his tinnitus, which made playing music live with Blue Rodeo an increasingly excruciating experience. It’s got so bad that he now wears earplugs just to walk down the street, and can no longer listen to his beloved car radio.
In the midst of all that, he made this four-song EP, which is no slight effort: each of the four songs is eight or nine minutes long. It opens with “Gord’s Tune,” a fond farewell to the Tragically Hip singer, which Keelor posted online after Downie’s death was announced. It closes with “3 Coffins,” inspired by the death of his mother. In between is a cover of a Peter, Paul and Mary song, and the hypnotic “City is a Symphony.” Last Winter is a slow, psychedelic dream, with lush string arrangements that elevate simple songs into something enchanting.
Keelor’s condition makes it unclear if he’ll be able to continue making music. If this meditative mood-piece proves to be a swan song, it’s a lovely way to go out. (May 11)
Stream: all of it. It’s four songs.
L Con – Insecurities in Being (Wildlife Sanctuary)
Lisa Conway is the singer in the cinematic band Del Bel. As L Con, Conway collaborates with partner Andrew Collins to create late-night torch music that draws from ’90s trip-hop and film composer Angelo Badalamenti, as well as modern R&B. The stark sound and atmospherics are a huge part of the appeal here (she’s sometimes accompanied only by a small woodwind ensemble), but the fact is that Conway’s voices is absolutely stunning—especially in such a sparse context, as opposed to the large ensemble in Del Bel. (The production by Scott Merritt, whose most recent solo album employed incredibly effective minimalism, is also a major plus.) Her phrasing, her pitch, her nuance, even in the quietest moments, is a rare feat. It’s probably also why she’s confident enough to cede the lead vocal on “The Art of Staying Tough” to fellow singer/songwriter/producer Casey MQ (Cadence Weapon, Zaki Ibrahim), who shares all of Conway’s strengths as a vocalist. Conway is highly underrated and works largely under the radar; while that’s unfortunate, it’s also music that exists best in the shadows and devoid of hype, a secret between performer and listener. (June 29)
Stream: “Try,” “The Art of Staying Tough” feat. Casey MQ, “Cogs Awry”
This prolific Vancouver cellist has an extensive discography, but this 10-piece ensemble pulls together various threads in her career in an enchanting and hypnotic work. Written for a 2016 Vancouver Jazz Festival performance, the songs on Echo Painting employ bold and lush orchestration—a four-piece horn section, along with Lee on cello, Meredith Bates on violin and Bradshaw Pack on pedal steel guitar, over a nimble rhythm section including longtime Lee collaborator Dylan van der Schyff on drums—with plenty of room for improvisation showcasing each individual player, including long sections for one naked instruments, as well as more cacophonic and noisy outbursts that prevent the perfectly polished record from getting too polite. Oddly enough, Lee’s own cello rarely steps to the forefront—but she does plenty of smaller ensemble work where she shines more brightly. Here, all the strength is in numbers. (June 15)
Stream: "Out on a Limb," “Hymn,” “Incantation”
Loud – Une Année Record (Joy Ride Records)
The fact that this Montreal MC has a cameo on the new Coeur de Pirate record is the least of his accomplishments this year. Une Année Record is reportedly the hip-hop record of the year in that province, with a crossover pop hit (“Toutes les femmes savent danser”) and waves being made in France. Apparently his European label wanted him to take out his regional peculiarities—including an effortless skill in flipping between English and French in the middle of a phrase—but he declined, and he’s all the stronger for it. There are serious skills on display here, and may well be the first Québecois hip-hop record to put the province on an international musical map. (June 1)
Stream: “So Far So Good,” “Toutes les femmes savent danser,” “On My Life”
Barriers between country music and R&B have collapsed in the last few years—which is a pleasant and unexpected turn while the rest of the U.S. stratifies into polarities. But with the exception of Beyoncé’s “Daddy Lessons,” there have not been many African-Americans welcome on country radio. If anyone has the skills and charisma to change that, it would be Priscilla Renea.
Renea is a successful Top 40 songwriter, having written for Rihanna, Kelly Clarkson, Miranda Lambert and a huge hit for Carrie Underwood (“Somethin’ Bad”). She’s also an incredible, soulful vocalist from the gospel tradition and a bit of Southern drawl. Her second album is stacked with potential hits: pop songs that draw as much from country traditions as they do from modern R&B and trap. Renea told country publication The Boot that “every song I have ever written, no matter whether it turns into a rap song, an R&B song, a rock song or a pop song—everything I've ever written is a country song,” she says.
That also means a weakness for cliché: sometimes it works, like on the catchiest song here, with the chorus, “I want a big, strong man with gentle hands.” Sometimes it’s completely cringe-worthy: “You’re a gift in a you-shaped box.” But Renea is also unafraid to address autobiographical pain, as in the opening track, “Family Tree.” And on the closing track, “Land of the Free,” she directly addresses the racial divide in her country, in ways more explicit than she does on “Let’s Build a House.”
Priscilla Renea might just be the pop singer the U.S. needs in 2018. (June 29)
Stream: “Family Tree,” “Gentle Hands,” “Let’s Build a House”
Dana Sipos was born under the northern lights in Yellowknife. She longs for the Blue Ridge Mountains of Appalachia. In between, she spent time in Montreal and Banff and Ontario’s Grand River and, in her words, spent time “getting down low and pressing my head into the side of the earth, fire eyes and seashell ears help me translate what I hear in the trails of luminescence, in the walls of the old farmhouse, through the tangled waterways and in the threads of the past into a collection of sonic stories.” That about sums it up.
On Trick of the Light, Sipos makes psychedelic folk music with shimmering organs, eerie violins (by Tagaq’s Jesse Zubot) and a hypnotic rhythm section, all produced by Sandro Perri (Polmo Polpo) and featuring various players from the folk and improv community at Toronto’s Tranzac Club, including Mary Margaret O’Hara. Sipos stands in the middle of her talented collaborators with songs that could work a cappella, singing in a voice on the same spectrum as Cat Power, Natalie Merchant and Jennifer Castle. The arrangements are haunting, sometimes nudging into noir-ish jazz, sometimes dipping into the darker corners of country music, always perfect for late-night drives through rural countryside. “The road needs more songs like you,” she sings. It also needs more singers like her. (June 15)
Stream: “Blue Ridge,” “Lighthouse Nights,” “Lean Times”
Tracyanne & Danny – s/t (Merge)
Tracyanne Campbell was the lead singer of acclaimed Scottish indie pop band Camera Obscura, a band that came to a tragic end in 2015 with the death of 33-year-old keyboardist Carey Lander, from bone cancer. After a while laying low, Campbell rekindled a casual musical acquaintance with Danny Coughlan of Bristol band Crybaby; their debut as a duo continues her fascination with the “countrypolitan” era of American country music, with lush string sections and saxophones amidst the pedal steel and heartbreak. They also come up with possibly one of the greatest country song titles ever: “It Can’t Be Love Unless It Hurts” (which, thankfully, proves to be just as good as its title). Campbell sounds melancholy even on her most buoyant songs; Coughlan shares lead throughout, and proves to be a perfect foil. This is a rich return for one of the great unsung singer/songwriters of the aughts, whose music always sounded older than her years—in a good way. (June 1)
Stream: “It Can’t Be Love Unless It Hurts,” “Deep in the Night,” “2006”