Monday, February 18, 2019

February 2019 reviews

These reviews ran in February in the Waterloo Region Record.

The Bangles / The Dream Syndicate / Rain Parade / The Three O’Clock – 3x4 (Yep Roc)

Yes, the Bangles are back. And yes, it’s a nostalgia trip. But it’s not what you were expecting.

The L.A. band had a string of Top-10 hits in the mid- to late ’80s, but most people don’t know that they were spawned from a broken social scene that called itself the Paisley Underground, including the three other bands reassembled on this album of new material. (Most people, including me until recently, also don’t know that Bangles’ bassist Michael Steele was in the original lineup of Joan Jett’s Runaways.) While the Bangles went pop, the Dream Syndicate were underground favourites, particularly their album The Days of Wine and Roses. Rain Parade featured Dave Roback, who later formed Mazzy Star. The Three O’Clock were signed by Prince (you know, the guy who wrote “Manic Monday”) to his label, Paisley Park. The collective influence could be heard in artists ranging from R.E.M. to Lenny Kravitz.

“3x4,” which had a limited-edition Record Store Day release in November and is now widely available, finds the old friends back together and covering each others’ songs. Those 12-string electric and acoustic guitars have been dusted off, those four-part harmonies have been whipped into shape, and everyone plays and sings with the vim and vigour they had 35 years ago. It’s particularly great to hear the Dream Syndicate’s Steve Wynn sing the Bangles “Hero Takes a Fall,” an unflattering song written about him.

No, there’s no “Eternal Flame.” But the spark that started this fire is still alive. (Feb. 15)

Stream: “That’s What You Always Say” by the Bangles; “Hero Takes a Fall” by the Dream Syndicate; “Getting Out of Hand” by the Three O’Clock

Broken Social Scene – Let's Try the After EP Vol. 1 (Arts and Crafts)

Speaking of 2000s nostalgia, Broken Social Scene—the band of a thousand false breakups—gets silently stronger all the time. It’s almost as if 2002’s “You Forgot It In People” was a fluke, because their records have been stronger in this decade than during their supposed prime. This four-song EP hedges their bets and plays to their strengths, which is a solid, if uncharacteristic, decision. For a band known to throw everyone and everything on every track, a little less goes a long way. (Feb. 15)

Stream: “Remember Me Young,” “1972,” “All I Want”

Don Brownrigg – Fireworks (independent)

It was 12 years ago that this Newfoundlander, based in Halifax, put out an album called Wander Songs, on the same label that brought us Great Lake Swimmers. Wander Songs was a tiny, perfect collection of sad folk songs, tied together with Brownrigg’s warm, empathetic voice. There was one album between now and then, but Brownrigg’s ventures outside the Maritimes, as far as I know, few and far between. So it’s a delight to reconnect with his charms on this new record, which is so good that he even manages to breathe new life into a cover of Suzanne Vega’s “Tom’s Diner”—a bold move that would overshadow most songwriters’ entire records, but not this one. (Feb. 22)

Stream: “From You,” “Nowhere At All,” “Room for Me”

The Cosmic Range – The Gratitude Principle (Idée Fixe)

I, for one, am grateful that U.S. Girls’ Meg Remy hired this band to help shape her 2018 masterstroke In a Poem Unlimited (which was my choice for album of the year—sorry, Grammys). I’m also grateful that Matthew “Doc” Dunn, the bandleader, decided a few years ago to pivot away from an avant-garde scene that seemed to want to purposely alienate its audience, and start setting his brand to exploratory experimentalism to (somewhat more) accessible psychedelic jazz grooves. Just like obvious influence Sun Ra, space is the place for this band—not that there’s much space to be found in the layers of texture created by such a large and talented ensemble. Not that it matters: more is more with this band, where instruments habitually wander away from traditional sonic expectations. On “The Observers,” a keyboard solo—I think it’s a keyboard?!—that sounds like someone strategically releasing air from a balloon in the most musically way possible. Strange and trippy times call for strange and trippy music, so might as well head out to the Cosmic Range. (Feb. 15)

Stream: “Breathing Water,” “The Observers,” “The Gratitude Principle”

Theon Cross – Fyah (Gearbox)

I don’t listen to a lot of bands with tuba players. (Maybe I should.) It’s safe to say, then, that I’ve never listened to a solo album from a tuba player who goes out on their own as a leader. There’s a first time for everything.

Theon Cross rocks the sousaphone in fiery British jazz quartet Sons of Kemet, who put out one of the best albums in any genre in 2018, Your Queen is a Reptile. The live show was even better. The star of that band is saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings, but live it became obvious that every member there more than pulls their weight.

Here, Cross hooks up with two other standouts of the vibrant London scene: saxophonist Nubya Garcia and drummer Moses Boyd. While there are some tracks that resemble Sons of Kemet’s Caribbean/New Orleans mashup, Cross also dips into slinky funk—an extended tuba solo on “Letting Go” is set to a beat akin to Bill Withers’s “Use Me”—rock rhythms (“Radiation”), smooth(er) jazz (“CIYA”), and deliriously dextrous Afrobeat (“Candace of Meroe”). 

This could well send me down a rabbit-hole shaped like a tuba. Or not: because I can’t imagine any tuba album being better than this. (Feb. 22)

Stream: “Activate,” “Candace of Meroe,” “Letting Go”

Joe Jackson – Fool (Ear Music)

It’s been 40 years since Joe Jackson’s debut album, Look Sharp, and so he’s celebrating with a tour featuring that and four albums representing each of the three subsequent decades—1982’s Night and Day, 1991’s Laughter and Lust, 2004’s Rain, and this new album. It’s a good gimmick, and helps casual fans overlook the many misses in Jackson’s career, which equal in number to his hits—and by “hits,” I’m referring to artistic peaks rather than commercial ones.

Look Sharp was and is a burst of snarky guitar-driven pop energy, informed by punk, new wave and ska. It’s a sound he rarely returned to after 1979, until 2003’s surprisingly strong throwback Volume 4. Fool has much more in common with the other aforementioned albums: piano-based, often ornate pop with Latin influences. Jackson’s critics claim he’s too clever for his own good, but so what? Yes, he’s always sounded like a grumpy old man—even 40 years ago—but his piano playing and the stellar cast of musicians he surrounds himself with, including stalwart bassist Graham Maby, consistently elevate even his weakest material.

Fool is not going to win Jackson any new fans, but it’s more than enough to satiate the faithful and hold its own in a set list peppered with favourites. Which, with rare exceptions, is all any artist of his vintage can ask for. (Feb. 1)

Stream: “Strange Land,” “Friend Better,” “Fool”

LCD Soundsystem – Electric Lady Session (Sony)

Since this band “broke up” in 2011, there’s been a 5LP live album to go with a concert film, a lukewarm “comeback” record in 2017, and now a “session” album featuring the live band playing 60% of that last studio record, along with three covers. On paper, at least, LCD Soundsystem is running on fumes at this point.

That said: their output in the mid-2000s still sounds untouchable, and there’s an incredible chemistry between them that is evident here. To its credit, this set doesn’t recycle the songs fans have heard 1,000 times before (“Get Innocuous” being the sole exception, and it’s not like that’s even in their top five most-beloved tracks). It breathes life into some of the mediocre material from the last two records. Most important, the covers are all a delight, whether they’re morose and goth (the Human League’s “Seconds”), joyous (Chic’s “I Want Your Love”) or both joyous and morose, as on the essential take here on Heaven 17’s “(We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thang,” on the latter two of which keyboardist Nancy Whang takes the lead vocal.

Come for the covers, stick around to hear a band losing their edge but defiantly soldiering on. (Feb. 15)

Stream: “You Wanted a Hit,” “I Want Your Love,” “(We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thing”

Elizabeth Shepherd – MONtréal (independent)

Every so often a profile will run of an artist, in which they confess they were ready to abandon their creative pursuits entirely out of frustration, but decided to give it one more go. The resulting work is the best thing they’ve ever done. That’s true of the new album by Canadian jazz singer/songwriter/keyboardist Elizabeth Shepherd.

The musician was schooled in Montreal but made her name in Toronto (one of her previous albums was called Parkdale), and moved back to Quebec after having a child, living in the Laurentians north of Montreal. Her tribute to the titular city is based on interviews she did with various locals of different background, who provided her with oft-untold stories, including those about Indigenous, black and LGBTQ communities in the city. It also gave her an excuse to track down one of her heroes, jazz piano legend Oliver Jones. She used all that material not only to write the 11 songs here, but to make a coffee-table book and short films for each song.

The result is much more than a high-concept make-work project. Shepherd sounds entirely on top of her game here, on every level—her instrumental skills, both delicate and funky, are always a delight—but particularly when she sings en français.

If she does decide to call it quits, she’ll do so while she’s ahead. But this suggests she has a lot more to give. (Feb. 8)

Stream: "Our Lady," "Jedlika," "Suits and Ties"

Royal Canoe – Waver (Paper Bag)

If you caught Terra Lightfoot’s Longest Road tour earlier this month, you saw the astounding singer Begonia. She’s part of a thriving Winnipeg scene in which Royal Canoe—featuring her songwriting partner Matt Schellenberg—is a central part. Royal Canoe is a synth-heavy, prog-pop-R&B combo that lies somewhere between the wigged-out funk of Beck (to whom they once paid a concert-length tribute) and the avant-garde whatever-it-is that Tricky does (they’ve toured with him) to the jazz groove of BadBadNotGood (no connection there, to the best of my knowledge). Superior musicians all, they truly find their groove on this, their fourth full-length (and their fourth record label) in the last 10 years, on which their pop skills move to the forefront, without sacrificing the egghead jazz-school chops that make them who they are. (Feb. 22)

Stream: “What’s Left in the River,” “Black Sea,” “Ashes, Ashes” (feat. Nnamdi Ogbonnaya)


William Tyler – Goes West (Merge)

Tyler is a Nashville guitarist, recently relocated to L.A. (hence this album title), whose instrumental music conjures the vast expanse between the two cities. He’s a fine finger-picker in both folk and classical continuums, whose meditative music draws from jazz, electronic composition and, yes, “new age,” a much-maligned musical genre of the ’80s that’s been critically rehabilitated in recent years--including by Tyler himself. He links the works of Windham Hill artists like Michael Hedges and George Winston with the decidedly less commercial and more outre work of Takoma Records’ John Fahey and Robbie Basho. In a lovely article for the website Aquarium Drunkard, Tyler writes about the link between the two camps: “Just because one group of artists sold millions of records and the other championed his own brand of joyful disruption, and at times toiled in obscurity, doesn’t mean that they weren’t and aren’t all united in a kind of strange outsider brotherhood. I like to think of all of this music being connected by something other than ‘new age’ … I think of it as ‘cosmic pastoral.’” Suitably, then, the acoustic-guitar-based Goes West (as opposed to Tyler’s earlier, electric explorations of psychedelic Americana) sounds like the soundtrack to a documentary about an abstract painter of Arizona landscapes. And reading his essay while listening to this music inspires curiosity about all of Tyler’s forebears. The man is as much of a deep thinker and historian as he is a composer and master instrumentalist. (Feb. 8)

Stream: “Alpine Star,” “Not In Our Stars,” “Rebecca”

Digawolf - Yellowstone

Digawolf – Yellowstone (independent)

“It’s cold, but I don’t care / because there’s something in the air.” There sure is. The man who calls himself Digawolf hails from the top tip of Great Slave Lake, 80 km northwest of Yellowknife, from the community of Behchoko, the capital of the Tlicho Nation. It’s not a big place, and Digawolf’s creativity can be found everywhere—because he helped design the street signs.

Recorded in an oceanside barn in Denmark, with Greenlandic producer Jan de Vroede, “Yellowstone” sounds massive: this is not a lo-fi production from an artist in a remote community. The drums are crisp and thunderous, the guitars are fuzzed-out and thick, and other sonic layers provide gorgeous colours. Digawolf himself has a gravelly voice that sounds like it could only come from the Canadian Shield, which suits his thoroughly modern and often atmospheric take on the blues, not entirely unlike Tom Wilson’s Lee Harvey Osmond. On opening track “By the Water” he hews a bit too close to July Talk’s Pete Dreimanis; it’s almost a bit too imitative—doubly so, because Dreimanis himself draws heavily from Tom Waits—and will no doubt cause confusion when played on the radio (which it should be). The other obvious influence is Daniel Lanois; when he’s not digging into a heavy riff, Digawolf is a textural player, separating him from any straight-up traditional takes on folk or blues.

On top of the musicianship, the production, and the (unfortunate) novelty of such a fully formed Northern artist, the songs here are all fantastic, whether they’re folk songs like “Northern Love Affair” or droning, dubby blues like “The Undiscovered World.”

Though he hails from the middle of nowhere, Digawolf has made major inroads in the industry, with wins or nominations from the Junos, Canadian Folk Music Awards, Western Canadian Music Awards, and the Canadian Aboriginal Music Awards. This is the album that should connect him with a much, much bigger audience.

Dig in.

Stream: “Northern Love Affair,” “Broken Bones,” “Elexe (Together)”

Thursday, February 07, 2019

Christine Fellows – Roses on the Vine

Christine Fellows – Roses on the Vine (Vivat Virtute)

There’s no easy box in which to fit Christine Fellows. The Winnipeg artist is a singer-songwriter who collaborates with visual artists and choreographers, writing songs based on people and events generations apart. For most of her career she played piano; other than textural synths, there are few, if any, keyboards on this, her seventh album. It was co-produced by her life and writing partner, John K. Samson of the Weakerthans; she, in turn, plays the same role on his recent records. Their influence on each other is obvious, and fans of the intricate character studies in his songs will find plenty to love in the writing of Fellows.

Roses on the Vine might well be her finest work to date, even from just a purely musical standpoint. There’s too much ukulele here for my own tastes, but other than that the plaintive cellos, the blurpy and droning synths, stuttering drum machines, and the always eclectic percussion from the Weakerthans’ Jason Tait all colour these creations in indelible ways.

The title track is a straight-up country song, and it’s a beautiful one. “One More For the Road” should be the closing song at every Canadian folk festival in the next 10 years. “Me and Carmen” is deep into Sufjan Stevens territory: wistful but wise. “Evening Train” owes a debt to Television’s “Marquee Moon.” "Unleashed" is so pop it could be a Tegan and Sara song.

It all adds up to a dense but rewarding listen, an embrace of eclecticism, and a masterful display of craft. Phase two of her career starts now.

Stream: "Evening Train," "Unleashed" “Spell to Bring Lost Creatures Home”

Tunde Olaniran – Stranger

Tunde Olaniran – Stranger (Big Wheel)

I won’t name names, but there is a Toronto R&B singer who came out of nowhere about eight years ago to become a Grammy- and Oscar-nominated superstar, with a voice that drew comparisons to Michael Jackson. Sadly, his vocal talent and musical innovation came with an unhealthy dose of drug-induced misogyny and general creepiness. (Not that that impeded his popularity.)

Then there’s Tunde Olaniran, from Flint, Michigan, a gospel-tinged R&B singer with a multi-octave range, who’s been toiling in relative obscurity ever since his phenomenal 2015 album Transgressor. Obsessed with science fiction, his synths convey either a dystopian Detroit or a vessel for liberation of norms: gender, colour, sexual orientation, body size, everything. "I took my strange ways of being ... and made a universe," he sings. He’s not wrong.

Olaniran never falls into formulas: his songs evolve and mutate, rarely sticking to a solid groove the whole way through—and they’re far stronger because of it. In that sense, at times he also seems to draw from Broadway, in his willingness to bend arrangements to the lyrics and experimentation in form. His approach to electronic textures and arrangements sets him far apart from almost everyone else working in the fertile field of modern R&B. Even when he’s playing it (ahem) straight, like on the uplift of “Miracle”—a song that, in an alternate universe, is a Disney-esque smash hit sung by schoolchildren around the world—he flips back and forth between stripped-down piano ballad and disco club banger, like he can’t decide. And why should he?

This man is massively talented, and is overdue for a breakthrough, mainstream or otherwise—this world needs more artists like him. In the meantime, someone should hook him up with Toronto’s Zaki Ibrahim or Bonjay, who come from a similar, synth-driven sci-fi soul scene just down the 401. They could make magic together.

Stream: "I'm Here," "Miracle," "Forgiveness"