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”

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