Friday, September 25, 2015

September 2015 reviews

Highly recommended this month: Couer de Pirate, Lianne La Havas, Robyn & La Bagatelle Magique

Well worth your while: Battles, Tami Neilsen, Peaches, Telekinesis

Also reviewed: Beirut, Concealer, Carly Rae Jepsen, Katie Moore, Yo La Tengo

Reviewed earlier: The Weeknd

As always, the following reviews ran in September in the Waterloo Record.

Battles – La Di Da Di (Warp)

When Battles made their full-length debut back in 2007, they were the rare prog rock band you could dance to, the rare rock band that successfully incorporated innovative electronics, the rare band whose superior technical skill is matched by their ability to engage and form cohesion from chaos. That album also came out at the height of the George W. Bush era, and more than any actual protest music seemed to embody the infuriating zeitgeist.

Eight years later, La Di Da Di is just as effective. In between there was a transition album where they coped with losing an intergral founding member, but here the trio come out swinging—through trippy time signatures, of course, with the monstrous drumming of John Stanier (Helmet, Tomahawk) holding down the kit. Guitarist Ian Williams and bassist Dave Konopka rarely conjure any sounds their instruments are supposed to. Together, it sounds a bit like a heavy metal drummer playing Afrobeat while an Indonesian gamelan band wrestle with a German electronic group on top of him—less entertaining, perhaps, but a fascinating flurry of sound, rhythm and melody that functions far better than you might expect.

These Battles are not lost. (Sept. 17)

Battles play Lee’s Palace on Oct. 1

Download: “FF Bada,” “Summer Simmer,” “Tricentennial”

Beirut – No No No (XL)

Zach Condon is a happier man, and it sounds like it. He’s been making music professional since his late teens, when his debut, 2006’s Gulag Orkestar, became an unlikely underground hit, marrying Eastern European brass melodies to plaintive ukulele folk songs. Ten years down the road, he’s been divorced, collapsed on the road from exhaustion, and about a year decided his creative well had run dry.

Thankfully, that’s not the end of the story. With the help of his bandmates, he started to take himself less seriously and lighten up, and his fifth album is more upbeat, hopeful and playful than anything he’s ever done. There’s more electric piano than accordion, more—wait for it—funk in the backbeat, and rich vocal harmonies backing up Condon’s sad-sack croon. (Sept. 24)

Beirut play the Danforth Music Hall in Toronto on Nov. 13.

Download: “Gibraltar,” “No No No,” “Perth”

Coeur de Pirate – Roses (Dare to Care)

Beatrice Martin is related to neither Swedish hitmaker Max Martin Coldplay’s Chris Martin. But Beatrice, a.k.a. Coeur de Pirate, has just made an album full of songs that those men would kill to have in their own repertoire. The Quebecois artist has sold a million records in her own province and France, and is the only Francophone artist in recent memory to attract any significant notice in English Canada (she sold out Massey Hall in Toronto last year). Now, with her first album of original music featuring songs in English—seven of 10 here—Coeur de Pirate is poised for a major crossover.

Approximately 95 per cent of what you read every week in this column is the entirely subjective opinion of some guy who’s had a pathological addiction to new music for 35 years. But this is an objective fact: Roses is packed with future hits.

Martin is all of 25 years old, but writes like she’s studied Brill Building and Broadway and pop masters for decades. Everything here sounds enormous, Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound updated for 21st-century fireworks displays. Traces of modern R&B form the rhythm tracks, where Martin nods to her love of The Weeknd (she once covered his “Wicked Game”) and Rihanna (replicating the “Umbrella” beat on “I Don’t Want to Break Your Heart”). Meanwhile, tracks like “Undone” are the kind of stadium pop that Bono has been trying to chase for the last 20 years, the kind that Katy Perry might make if her songs weren’t stuffed with sonic steroids. Even the sparse ballads (“Oceans Brawl,” “Cast Away,” “Tu oublieras mon nom”) boast melodies meant to be sung by thousands in unison.

For many of my favourite Quebecois artists, I can usually understand that their music itself, not just the language, sounds slightly foreign to English Canadians. That’s no excuse this time. (Sept. 3)

Couer de Pirate play the Phoenix in Toronto on Oct. 7.

Download: “Carry On,” “I Don’t Want to Break Your Heart,” “Drapeau blanc”

Concealer - Feted: fetid (Coax)

Cowboy goth? Sure, why not. Edmonton’s Mark Davis and MissMannered call their new project “heavy wave.” Davis comes from a country rock background, having spent the better part of a decade in acclaimed roots band Old Reliable, and with three most excellent solo albums under his belt, all of them as melodic as they are morose. That tone continues here, but synth player Missmannered (Sean Picard) amps up the atmosphere, until it sounds like Townes Van Zandt being produced by the Jesus and Mary Chain.

The duo behind Concealer admit they’re an odd couple. As Davis told the Calgary Herald, “I’m the older, stoic, stay-at-home roots-rock guy, and Sean is more of a young, flamboyant, gay socialite DJ/makeup artist.” But that’s only in person. What we hear here is an entirely natural synthesis, one that finally takes Davis out of the alt-country ghetto where he’s been pigeonholed.

Concealer’s only real fault is that the sonic palette is limited: Davis plays mainly bass and drum machine, Missmannered plays synths, and the tone is—shall we say—consistent, and rather dreary. Davis’s melodies carry the day, however, as they always do. It’s exciting to hear him trying on different clothes, but I hope he throws them in the laundry once in a while. (Sept. 24)

Download: “Horns and Crown,” “Your Master’s Wishes,” “Throw Me to the Lions”

Carly Rae Jepsen – E.MO.TION (Universal)

Guilt free! That’s what Carly Rae Jepsen offers fans of bubblegum who find Katy Perry too tacky, Taylor Swift too cloying. Jepsen scored a massive hit a few years back with “Call Me Maybe,” and here the 30-year-old B.C. singer is out to prove that she has staying power. She most certainly does: there’s at least four or five songs here likely to linger around the charts for the next year, with the help of collaborators Sia, Vampire Weekend, and the producers behind Haim, Solange Knowles and, yes, Katy Perry and Taylor Swift. It’s a sugar rush, and it’s a good one. But the new Robyn EP that dropped last month is a much better bet. (Sept. 10)

Download: “E.MO.TION,” “Run Away With Me,” “Gimmie Love”

Lianne La Havas – Blood (Warner)

“Unstoppable”? You bet. That’s the name of the lead single from this British singer’s second album, produced with predictable class and bombast by Paul Epworth (Adele, Florence and the Machine, U2). On it, she rides a slinky, seductive groove while harps and strings swirl around her and she unleashes her unbelievable voice, a set of pipes that wows everyone within earshot.

This 25-year-old has made a modern R&B record that’s completely out of step: she’s not retro enough to be lumped in with Leon Bridges or Sharon Jones; she’s not weird enough to join Miguel and The Weeknd. Her music is as slick as Sade and delicate as Feist’s Let It Die, but she can belt it out Broadway-style, like Janelle Monae.

Most important, she’s (almost) as fantastic a songwriter as she is a singer. That title track could be the next great James Bond theme (for which Sam Smith has been tapped instead, alas), while the ballad “Wonderful” is one of the most sensual songs in recent memory (“electricity lingers in our fingers”). Mary J. Blige should be covering “Grow” on her next album. R&B and ornamental pop songs are balanced by songs based around just her guitar, while “Never Get Enough” alternates between verses with acoustic guitar playing bossa nova, and heavy choruses rich with distorted vocals and industrial synths.

Is there anything this woman can’t do? No wonder Prince is such a huge and vocal fan. Soon you will be, too. (Sept. 17)

Lianne La Havas plays the Danforth Music Hall in Toronto on Oct. 2.

Download: “Unstoppable,” “Tokyo,” “Wonderful”

Katie Moore – Fooled by the Fun (Club Roll)

Outside of Montreal, where she’s been a musical MVP for a decade now, few people know Katie Moore unless they’ve seen her sing with Socalled’s raucous live show, always go to Pop Montreal every September, are acutely tuned into that city’s roots scene, or closely follow Patrick Watson, Plants and Animals, or the Barr Brothers. To be fair, her heartbreaking voice has always been better than any record on which she’s put her own name—until now.

Fooled by the Fun was recorded live in a studio, and an all-star cast of Montreal musicians—including Socalled on electric piano, which casts a warm and earthy early ’70s vibe over the whole affair—bring the best game to Moore’s songs, which have improved so much over the years that a Tracy Chapman classic (“Baby Can I Hold You”) fits in seamlessly with the original material. Moore’s voice is still the primary selling point, however, a perfect balance of humility and confidence, not unlike Emmylou Harris. Montreal may be a big city, but it’s not big enough to contain a voice like Moore’s. (Sept. 3)

Download: “Talked All Night,” “Leaving,” “Find You Near”

Tami Neilson – Dynamite! (Outside)

The hottest country artist from New Zealand is Canadian. Tami Neilson grew up playing in her family band—that would be the Neilsons—in Canada in the 1990s, before moving to New Zealand to start her adult career. There, she’s won no fewer than five nods for Country Album of the Year at that nation’s equivalent of the Junos or Grammys, among other laurels. This, however, is the first time one of her solo records is getting a Canadian release. It couldn’t possibly be a better introduction.

Nielsen is a throwback; everything here is steeped in ’50s rockabilly and Nashville, and she’s got it down pat: the bare-bones production, the ace band, and a showstopper of a voice that could fill any room without a microphone. Her lyrics might be well-worn tropes—songs about a heart the size of Texas and lipstick on your collar—but the melodies, arrangements, and especially her vocals are all fantastic.

Let’s hope for a 2016 summer tour with Lindi Ortega, to see two of this country’s best belters duke it out. (Sept. 17)

Download: “Walk (Back to Your Arms),” “Dynamite,” “Running to You”

Peaches – Rub (XL)

When this provocative performer debuted with The Teaches of Peaches in 2000, it was a fascinating feminist art project dressed up in a libidinous electro sheen. Yet everything about it seemed destined to be dated: the minimalist production, the songs consisting of little more than one-joke catchphrases, the fact that it arrived in the midst of the short-lived electroclash movement.

And yet: 15 years later, The Teaches of Peaches has just been nominated in the 2000s category for the Polaris Heritage Prize; it remains beloved and respected and influential. That same week, Peaches released this, her fifth album, which proves—six years after her last album, I Feel Cream—that she’s still more than relevant, still pushing herself, still pushing buttons. And still, of course, NSFW.

She’s still tossing off silly jokes like “Dick in the Air” and “Vaginoplasty” (“Catch the whiff coming off my midriff!”), but she also turns up the heat on the title track (“whistleblow my clit”), and gets downright dark on “Free Drink Ticket” and “Dumb F--k,” tracks where her lyrics take more disturbing turns. Even on the lighter tracks, though, her lurid bathhouse soundtrack is always fuelled by an empowered female gaze and increasingly clever—though never subtle—turns of phrase. Part of the reason Peaches continues to endure is that she’s improved as an MC. “Use a thumb, or take a fist / Roll with it, Sisyphus / no hissy fit”; “Take it like a real woman, not Ayn Rand.” Feist and Kim Gordon show up as guests, but Peaches is more than juicy enough on her own. (Sept. 24)

Peaches plays the Phoenix in Toronto on Oct. 20.

Download: “Close Up,” “Dick in the Air,” “Free Drink Ticket”

Robyn & La Bagatelle Magique – Love is Free EP (Universal)

It’s been five long years since Robyn dropped her pure pop masterpiece Body Talk. Her somewhat abstract 2014 EP with Rokysopp was interesting, but the intention was not to deliver any of the club hits she’s known for. Now comes this new collaborative EP, with her touring keyboardist and the Swedish producer Christian Falk, best known for producing the 1994 hit for Neneh Cherry and Youssou N’Dour, “7 Seconds.”

There are five tracks here, each aiming for maximum punch, each designed specifically for the dancefloor. “Got To Work It Out,” with its dabs of Daft Punk and ABBA, could easily have fit onto Body Talk; the title track echoes vintage house and boasts a strange Spanish rap interlude; a previously released, faithful cover of Arthur Russell’s “Tell You (Today)” (it appeared on a Russell tribute album for the Red Hot organization last October) dabbles in jazzy Latino disco with a big brass section. And if Canadian opposition parties were remotely hip, they’d license “Lose Control” for an anti-Harper ad this election season: “If you can’t control it, you just don’t like it.”

The only complaint here is that it’s too short—but with the passing of Falk, who died during recording, this is the last we’ll hear of this trio. He certainly leaves on a high note. (Sept. 3)

Download: “Lose Control,” “Tell You (Today),” “Love is Free”

Telekinesis – Ad Infinitum (Merge)

Practically nobody knows Seattle songwriter and drummer Michael Lerner or his band, Telekinesis; his third album, 2013’s Dormarion, was all but ignored, despite the fact it’s a power-pop masterpiece, the kind that all those people whining about new records by Weezer or Sloan or Ben Folds or Spoon or whomever would be wise to pick up sooner than later.

And so few people will notice or care that Lerner has put his drumsticks down and built a home studio of synths and drum machines. The songs are still there, even if they lack some of the punch of earlier Telekinesis records; you can tell he’s been listening to a lot of Giorgio Moroder and Angelo Badalamenti soundtracks. It’s odd to hear such a great drummer programming Linn drums instead—think of just about any big ’80s hit: “Maniac,” “Take On Me,” “Love is a Battlefield”—but Lerner is clearly out to reinvent himself as a man of many moods, not just a quick sugar rush. (Sept. 17)

Telekinesis plays Toronto’s Horseshoe Tavern on Oct. 25.

Download: “Sylvia,” “In a Future World,” “Farmers Road”

Yo La Tengo – Stuff Like That There (Matador)

This year marks Yo La Tengo’s 30th year as a band; this album, featuring the return of original guitarist Dave Schramm, is a nod to their 25-year-old album Fakebook, a collection of covers. Of course a band at this stage in their career runs the risk of repeating themselves—and that’s more than the case here. Every one of these songs—by the likes of Hank Williams, The Cure, the Lovin’ Spoonful and obscurities by Antietam, the Parliaments, and the Cosmic Rays—is rendered acoustically, at mostly the same tempo, with the same whispered harmonies. Yo La Tengo have succeeded making full-on mood records before, like 2000’s And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out, but oddly enough they material they choose here—which includes two new songs, and three reworking of earlier material—doesn’t suit the task at hand. It’s all lovely and pleasant, but not particularly revelatory, nor an essential part of their long discography. (Sept. 24)

Yo La Tengo play the Queen Elizabeth Theatre in Toronto on Sept. 30. There is a dinner package catered by Fat Pasha available.

Download: “Somebody’s in Love,” “Friday I’m in Love,” “The Ballad of Red Buckets”

The Weeknd – Beauty Behind the Madness

The Weeknd – Beauty Behind the Madness (Universal)

Who rock star decadence is dead?

The Weeknd’s Abel Tesfaye, a rags-to-riches story from the streets of Scarborough—who now duets with Taylor Swift and Ed Sheeran and headlines arenas in New York and L.A..—is living large and loving it and wants you to “tell your friends about it.” It’s one thing when there’s a lyric or two about the massive quantities of drugs fuelling orgies at your house—it’s another when your entire album is a portrait of a foul, villainous coke fiend who resents the women he sleeps with.

So why is he the new prince of pop? Why do writers take him seriously when he says he wants to be the next Michael Jackson, the next Prince, the next R. Kelly? (Make what you will of that last claim.)

For starters, Tesfaye is an incredibly gifted vocalist; there’s a reason all those Jackson comparisons keep popping up (and not just because he once covered “Dirty Diana”)—and will continue to do so, thanks to tracks here like “In the Night.” The Weeknd’s first three albums—released for free online and then packaged in a box set that sold more than 500,000 copies—helped reshape modern R&B, along with Miguel and Frank Ocean, with disjointed, brooding beats.

He’s working here with established hit-makers—Max Martin (Katy Perry), Stephan Moccio (Celine Dion) among them—and it’s paid off, with a hit single originally found on the 50 Shades of Grey soundtrack (Earned It) and this summer’s smash, “Can’t Feel My Face”—a song which, if that’s all you know of The Weeknd, might leave you thinking that this guy is as fun and harmless as Justin Timberlake. Both songs are fantastic: one a disco smash, the other a bedroom ballad. They’re also anomalies here.

Beauty Behind the Madness drips with nihilism, contempt, and supposedly sexy scenarios that would be laughable if they weren’t so loathsome. Tesfaye sounds every bit the sexually frustrated college kid who suddenly finds himself in the spotlight and wants to exact all his revenge porn fantasies. It’s creepy and it’s gross—and it ruins some great songs. “Tell All Your Friends” is a slinky soul vamp that is, sadly, only here to serve a tiresome litany of Tesfaye’s decadence. Much of the first half of the album is no different.

Here’s the slight catch: Beauty Behind the Madness is carefully constructed as a narrative. The opener, “Real Life,” presents the narrator pushing every woman away, even his own mother. That’s followed by seven tracks of various degrees of misanthropy, before Tesfaye shifts gears on “Earned It”: suddenly, he’s repentant, realizing he actually craves intimacy. Just before this 66-minute epic record comes to an end, on a duet with Lana Del Rey, he sings, “I’m a prisoner to my addiction / I’m addicted to a life that’s so empty and so cold.” Oh, okay then.

The album concludes with a power ballad called, yes, “Angel,” in which he admits that he’s not good enough for the girl of his dreams. He employs a full female choir to help him out with the closing chorus: “I hope you find somebody to love.” Apparently this Hollywood movie has a feel-good ending, where the villain reveals his humanity and frees the subject of his abuse.

That makes Beauty Behind the Madness much more interesting than a cursory listen to “Tell All Your Friends” or “The Hills” or “Shameless” might suggest. But it’s not enough: this is still a bloated, often-boring and juvenile album that serves neither the intriguing talent that gave us House of Balloons nor the generation-defining icon his ego clearly wants him to be. Stick to the singles!

Download: “Losers” (feat. Labyrinth), “Can’t Feel My Face,” “In the Night”