Friday, November 30, 2018

October 2018 reviews

The following reviews ran in the Waterloo Record in October 2018. 

Beak – >>> (Temporary Residence)

As a key member of Portishead, Geoff Barrow has made three of the greatest British records of the last 25 years. Problem is, those three albums are spaced pretty evenly over those 25 years, and there’s no sign of a new one any time soon. What else does Barrow get up to in his spare time? Since we last heard from Portishead, on 2008’s Third, Barrow has turned his attention to this project, which is not that much more prolific: a debut in 2009, a second album in 2012, and here we are six years later. Much like that last Portishead record, Beak draws heavily on German art rock of the ’70s, primarily the group Can: funky live drumming with droning analog synths, pulsing bass and icy, new wave guitars. It’s entrancing, mysterious and magical, with a warmth that comes from its old-school approach: this very much sounds like a live group of mad scientists tripping over wires, playing synths on the verge of breaking down. No digital trickery here. It’s a matter of time before they’re tapped to score a dystopian sci-fi suspense flick. (Oct. 12)

Stream: “The Brazilian,” “Brean Down,” “RSI”

Cat Power – Wanderer (Domino)

A friend posted this Facebook status after Cat Power’s Toronto show earlier this month: “Cat Power was the worst show I saw in 2002. Cat Power was the best show I saw in 2018.”

Cat Power’s Chan Marshall has a terrible reputation as a live performer, for reasons that once had everything to do with a combination of crippling anxiety and alcohol. But she went into rehab more than 12 years ago, and since then survived a major health scare, while putting out two of the most confident records of her career. Wanderer is her first album in six years, and first since becoming a mother.  “I’m a woman of my word, haven’t you heard?” she asks, on a duet with Lana Del Rey—a major star who owes more than a bit of a debt to Marshall.

If 2012’s Sun was a daring pop album, featuring Marshall playing most instruments in the full-band arrangements herself, Wanderer finds her stripping down to mostly just her piano and guitar. It’s that sparseness that drew fans to her in the first place, whether on the stark 2000 album The Covers Record or the languid Memphis soul of 2006’s The Greatest. It’s that intimacy in which her voice truly shines, in which she found a kinship with blues, country and folk artists of the past; there is a timelessness to “Wanderer” that serves it very well—even on, in fact, especially on, the solo piano recasting of Rihanna’s “Stay.”

Every time you think Cat Power might fade away into oblivion, she surprises you yet again. Wanderer is no exception. (Oct. 26)

Stream: “In Your Face,” “Stay,” “Black”

Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds – Distant Sky EP (Bad Seed Ltd.)

Against all odds, 61-year-old Nick Cave keeps getting more popular, year after year. His goth-tinged, death-obsessed, tortured-writer shtick should be getting tired by now; indeed, many of his songs border on camp. But for a guy who was always harrowing to begin with, his live shows have become even more intense, in ways that only a veteran performer like Cave and his band can do. Even if his records are increasingly subdued—like 2013’s Push the Sky Away and 2016’s Skeleton Tree, recorded after the death of his teenage son—the fury and chaos he’s capable of conjuring live is something to behold. So while he prepares for his first tour of hockey rinks—he played Toronto’s Scotiabank Arena on Oct. 28—Cave has released this EP, featuring one track from each of his last two records, and two tracks that have provided the climax in his live sets for the past 30 years (!): “Mercy Seat” and “From Her to Eternity.” If you’re late to the game or sitting on a fence, “Distant Sky” is as strong a testament as any to Cave’s powers. (Oct. 12)

Stream: all of it

Cher – Dancing Queen (Warner)

Why on Earth does this exist? Disclosure: I’m a huge ABBA fan, albeit one who has zero desire to see them do a hologram tour and who has boycotted Mamma Mia! since its inception. Their music is their legacy, and their music is perfect: why mess with it? Cher has a cameo in this year’s Mamma Mia! sequel, a cameo that was so well received that someone convinced her to record a full album of ABBA songs, which now sits beside the two official Mamma Mia! film soundtracks (and more than one theatrical cast recording) as completely unnecessary. Cher’s is particularly galling, however, because the arrangements are so faithful—only the occasionally modern drum machine and the singer’s now-trademark use of Vocoder AutoTune—that these are not cover versions; they’re merely poor facsimiles. Cher herself is far from being in fine voice, which just makes the whole affair no better than a bad night at a karaoke bar. Avoid at all costs. (Oct. 12)

Stream: “One of Us,” “SOS,” “The Winner Takes It All”

Friendly Rich & the Woodshed Orchestra – The Leonard Cohen Sweet (The Pumpkin Pie Corporation)

Only the trickster known as Friendly Rich would open what is ostensibly a tribute to a songwriting legend with the line, “I took all of Leonard Cohen’s money / because of all the pain he put me through.” This five-song suite, featuring five different lead vocalists, might not be what you expect it to be, but it is an inspired and multi-sided look at the singer’s legacy, from his relationship to Montreal, to his time meditating on a mountain outside L.A. The Woodshed Orchestra, led by drummer and bon vivant Dave Clark, provide playful and jazzy orchestral colouring. The only complaint here is that it’s too brief: the cast of musical characters assembled here—and their collective sense of absurdism—means that there’s a whole lot more they could do with this subject. (Oct. 5)

Stream: “The Unforgotten Truth,” “Down from the Mountain,” “Oh Montreal”

Kalle Mattson – Youth. (Arts and Crafts)

Kalle Mattson made a splash with his 2015 video “Avalanche,” in which he walked through re-creations of his favourite album covers, spanning 40 years of rock music. He’s a twentysomething songwriter who’s been known to fetishize the past, either that of popular culture or his own personal history. On Youth., he writes about being on the cusp of ever-delayed adulthood, that weird purgatory period where one is no longer a student and not yet a married homeowner with a steady job (granted, that’s largely unobtainable for most demographics now, not just those 25-35). Mattson’s melancholy voice is well-matched for the subject, as are the musical textures he uses to evoke the feeling of emotional displacement. There’s an obvious debt to the indie side of Swedish pop music (Lykke Li; Peter, Bjorn and John), as well as the cinematic electronic instrumentals of Tycho. The core of every track, however, showcases his old-school songwriting chops; you could recast any one of these tracks in any genre you want—which Mattson did, releasing the acoustic demos as bonus tracks. But the studio choices here are all very deliberate: Mattson doesn’t want to be pigeonholed as a folk singer. Nor will he be after this, which is a major leap forward for the songwriter. (Oct. 26)

Stream: “Kids on the Run,” “Ten Years Time,” “Back to the Start”

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Anna Calvi - Hunter

Anna Calvi – Hunter (Domino)

 “I want to go beyond gender,” wrote the British singer in an online essay this spring. “I don’t want to have to choose between the male and female in me. I’m fighting against feeling an outsider and trying to find a place that feels like home.”

Because Calvi doesn’t yet feel at home anywhere else, the house she constructs is stunning in its construction, beautiful in its vision. Her operatic voice, occasionally explosive guitar work and balance of grit and class draws elements from PJ Harvey, St. Vincent and Florence Welch, and her choice of collaborators here—Nick Launay (Yeah Yeah Yeahs), Adrian Utley (Portishead) and Martyn Casey (Nick Cave’s Bad Seeds)—provide some obvious signposts. The more lush tracks here (“Swimming Pool,” “Eden”) also echo Goldfrapp’s 2000 debut, Felt Mountain, in which a seductive, classically trained voice (Calvi has a degree in music) sounds like it’s calling across the Alps to a long-lost lover.

Such is the power of Calvi’s voice and the accompanying music that it can overshadow her lyrics, which very much play with gender roles throughout Hunter, her third album. Sometimes she feels she has to hammer you over the head, like when she titles a song with the repeated chorus “Don’t Beat the Girl Out of My Boy”—which also happens to be the poppiest song here. Both on that track and on “Chain” (“I’ll be the boy, you be the girl / I’ll be the girl, you be the boy”), Calvi lets loose a wail that sounds like Merry Clayton in “Gimme Shelter” or Clare Torry in Pink Floyd’s “Great Gig in the Sky”: operatic gospel that sounds like a spirit leaving the body.

“I’m alpha,” she sings, toying with a particularly gendered adjective. Yeah, no doubt. When you have this much talent trapped in a tiny body, you’re going to overshadow everyone else around here. Hunter is a hands-down candidate for album of the year.

Personal side note: as someone who has joked about being an Anglophobe when it comes to music, I'll say that Calvi embodies all my favourite British music of the last 25 years. There's no sign of North American dates yet, but I'll be first in line when tickets go on sale. Would it be too much to ask if she took Perfume Genius on the road with her?

Stream: "As a Man," "Hunter," "I’m Alpha”

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Fantastic Negrito – Please Don’t Be Dead

Fantastic Negrito – Please Don’t Be Dead (Cooking Vinyl)

“Take that bullshit, turn it into good shit.”

That’s exactly what the man born Xavier Dphrepaulezz (ed: spelling is correct) does with his work as Fantastic Negrito. The 49-year-old guitarist from Oakland, California, has lived at least three lives; his biography is bananas, filled with heartbreak, pain, destitution, rebirth, and most recently a Grammy award as an independent artist. His resilience is evident in everything he does.

Please Don’t Be Dead, his second album as Fantastic Negrito, is a tour-de-force of modern blues music: he borrows the best parts of Funkadelic more effectively than Childish Gambino; his backing band could give the Roots a run for their money; his songwriting speaks to the desperation of these times—the corruption, the opioid crisis, the gun culture, the dismantling of truth itself—in ways that so few artists dare to do. One song is titled “A Letter to Fear”—this is an artist who has feels more than lucky to just be alive (he survived a terrible car accident in 1999)—and another is “Never Give Up.” The chorus to the incendiary single (and video) “Plastic Hamburgers” is a call to “break all these chains, let’s burn it down.” 

The music of Fantastic Negrito is the sound of overcoming both artificial barriers and very real obstacles: the strength required to do so can be heard in every note here. It renders most other music made in 2018 mere child’s play.

Stream: “Plastic Hamburgers,” “Bad Guy Necessity,” “Transgender Biscuits”

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

September 2018 geezers

This column is of old men: Eric Bachmann, Lenny Kravitz, Low, Paul Simon, Paul McCartney.

Eric Bachmann – No Recover (Merge)

For the last two decades, Eric Bachmann has quietly been amassing one of the greatest songbooks in modern American music—with the emphasis on “quietly,” because barely anyone knows who he is, whether he’s performing as Crooked Fingers or, more recently, under his own name. That, despite the fact that “Mercy,” a song from his 2016 self-titled album, is an essential balm in crazy times that should be on the playlists of everyone who gets panic attacks when they read the news.

Earlier this year Bachmann’s friend—and occasional employer—Neko Case covered his 2005 duet “Sleep All Summer” on her new album, Hell-On (St. Vincent also did a version with The National in 2009), which hopefully sent some people back to find out who her duet partner is.

No Recover is not going to be the album that suddenly changes Bachmann’s profile: it’s a gentle, lilting listen based on his finger-picked acoustic guitar playing and atmospheric backing vocals. The title song closes with the refrain, “Ain’t it good to feel the sun on your skin,” which repeats like lapping waves on a shore at sunset—an image that also happens to be on the cover of the album. But the title phrase, “No Recover,” which alternates with the aforementioned refrain, illustrates the dichotomy at the heart of so much of Bachmann’s work: life is full of trauma that will scar you for life, and yet the precious moments of beauty are what make life worth living.

Nothing here is as heart-wrenching, however, as the closing track, on which Bachmann, who recently became a first-time father, sings, “When your dreams fall through / I'll be there for you … And when I’m dead and gone / as you carry on / when your dreams come true / you’ll know what to do." (Sept. 28)

Stream: “Jaded Lover, Shady Drifter,” “Murmuration Song,” "No Recover"

Lenny Kravitz – Raise Vibration (Roxie/Sony)

This summer, Lenny Kravitz released two of his funkiest singles in many a moon: “Low” and “It’s Enough,” both of which rode slinky grooves and echoed the best Michael Jackson and Curtis Mayfield singles—not to mention Kravitz’s own classic “It Ain’t Over Til It’s Over.” If that’s the kind of vibe he was going to explore on his new album, then maybe it was time to start paying attention again.

And it was. Raise Vibration is everything Kravitz does best: a pastiche of classic funk, soul, rock and pop. This time out he doesn’t seem to have his aim as centred on the pop charts—it’s inexplicable why he wouldn’t release the surefire hit “5 More Days Til Summer” as a single earlier this year. Instead, Raise Vibration sounds like Kravitz just doing whatever the heck he wants, including a sample of a powwow group at the end of the title track. There’s even a psychedelic funk-folk ballad about Johnny Cash comforting him after the death of Kravitz’s mother—which, as one can imagine, doesn’t really work lyrically, to say the least, even after you find out it’s based on a true story. But the music is still lovely, and if that’s the worst track here, then Kravitz is doing just fine.

The world around him, however, is not doing fine at all: hence the litany of injustices in “It’s Enough,” and the chorus of “Who Really Are the Monsters?”: “The war won’t stop as long as we keep dropping bombs.” (Sept. 28)

Stream: “It’s Enough,” “Raise Vibration,” “Who Really Are the Monsters?”

Low – Double Negative (Sub Pop)

There was once a time, in this band’s 25-year career, when their albums were interchangeable, where a listener knew exactly what they were getting when they put on a Low album: dead-slow tempos, eerie harmonies between husband and wife Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker, delicate guitar and gently brushed drums. Then came 2005’s The Great Destroyer, which roared and exploded with squalls of feedback and even had uptempo pop songs, as well as two songs later covered by Robert Plant. Since then, however, Low have pulled back and redefined themselves continually with electronics and confounding expectations however they could.

So it shouldn’t be entirely surprising that Double Negative is like nothing else in the Low catalogue, full of granular electronic distortion that sounds like old Kraftwerk or Laurie Anderson records through a transistor radio tuned to a station of static. Those harmonies are still there, and at times even sound like an opiated Bee Gees (“Fly”). The overall effect is, incongruously, simultaneously soothing and downright disturbing. It is both a balm and a bomb—either a hissing wick trapped in an eternal state of tension, or the sound of the remnants after an explosion.

Whatever it is, it sounds the way 2018 feels. (Sept. 14)

Stream: “Always Up,” “Always Trying to Work It Out,” “Dancing and Fire”

Paul McCartney – Egypt Station (Capitol)

Paul McCartney wants to be heard. He’s not going quietly. He’s working every media angle: carpool karaoke with James Corden, telling scandalous stories to GQ, sitting down for a lengthy chat with podcaster Marc Maron. All anyone wants to talk about, of course, is the Beatles.

But wait! There’s a new McCartney record. And it’s good. As are many (though not all) of his solo records, not that many people have noticed since the early ’80s. McCartney has never wanted to rest on his laurels, and he’s certainly not doing so here. And unlike most people his age—he’s 76—he doesn’t sound like he’s trying *too* hard to fit in to current trends—although he does sound like he’s writing some of these songs for stadiums to sing (see: “People Want Peace”). The living legend is a naturally curious person, so much of this record sounds as au courant as any record by Katy Perry (“Fuh You”) or Gorillaz (“Back in Brazil”) or Jack White (“Come On to Me”), while plenty of tracks could have come from any McCartney record of the last 40 years (“I Don’t Know,” “Happy With You”). For fans of his Band on the Run-era, suite-length weirdness, tracks like “Caesar Rock” and “Despite Repeated Warnings” scratch an essential itch.

It’s always been true that McCartney’s biggest competitor is his own back catalogue. Surely we don’t have to wait for the man to disappear completely before appreciating the breadth of his solo career, and not just through decades of hindsight. (Sept. 14)

Stream: “Happy With You,” “Who Cares,” “Hunt You Down Naked”

Paul Simon – In the Blue Light (Legacy/Sony)

Last year, Paul Simon finally sat down with a biographer for an eponymous book subtitled The Life. Paul Simon recently played the final show of his final tour. Now, Paul Simon has released what he tells us will be his final album.

“I’m finished writing music,” he told NPR. After completing 2016’s underappreciated Stranger to Stranger album (his best record in 25 years, to this critic’s ears), he says, “I literally felt like a switch clicked and said, ‘I’m finished.’’

That’s why In the Blue Light finds Simon recasting earlier songs—though not the ones you might be hoping to hear. These are deep cuts, many from albums that never got much play (like 2000’s You’re the One). There’s nothing from Graceland here. In fact, there’s only one track here that has ever made a greatest-hits comp—and “Rene and Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After the War” was never what anyone considered to be a hit.

In the Blue Light is not a collection of songs about mortality or finality of any kind; these tracks seem to be selected simply because Simon wanted to shine a little more light on them. In some cases, he wanted to explore different musical terrain than the original, like 1990’s “Can’t Run But,” originally driven by Brazilian percussion, now recast for the string section yMusic, in an arrangement by The National’s Bryce Dessner. Simon has always employed jazz players, but here he gets some real heavyweights: drummer Jack DeJohnette, guitarist Bill Frisell, and trumpeter Wynton Marsalis; the latter leads a rollicking and raw New Orleans take on the 2000 song “Pigs, Sheep and Wolves,” while pianist Sullivan Fortner transforms 1975’s “Some Folks’ Lives Roll Easy.” 

The only other artist of Simon’s generation to recast their own songbook in this way is Joni Mitchell, who similarly unearthed overlooked tracks, largely from later in her career, for reinterpretation on 2002’s Travelogue. For both artists, it’s a way of looking backwards and forward at the same time. At the time, Mitchell declared Travelogue her final album. Five years later, inspired by an adaptation of her work by the Alberta Ballet, she wrote 10 new songs. If anyone from the Alberta Ballet is reading this, you might want to give Paul Simon a call in a few years and see what he says. Never say never again. (Sept. 7)

Stream: "Can't Run But," "Some Folks' Lives Run Easy," "Pigs, Sheep and Wolves"