Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Perfume Genius - Too Bright

Perfume Genius – Too Bright (Matador) 

Ever since gay marriage vaulted queer issues into the mainstream, pop music has responded, if at all, with earnest platitudes (see: “Born This Way,” "Same Love"). Few musicians, if any, have used their art to suggest just how subversive queer culture was and is, how dangerous it is to embrace supposed “flamboyance,” the marginalization that exists outside of mainstream assimilation.

Then along comes a guy who calls himself Perfume Genius, with a song called “Queen,” with a chorus that baits: “No family is safe / when I sashay.” This man does not want a peaceful life in the suburbs and settling for tolerance rather than acceptance. He’s a queer Stagger Lee, a homophobe’s worst nightmare, “casing the barracks / for an ass to break and harness / into the fold / marry.” And he does so with a voice that struts and seethes, staring down death and disease and contempt, backed by a sparse and gutsy rhythm section that crafts majesty out of a bare minimum of notes.

Perfume Genius is 32-year-old Mike Hadreas of Seattle; this is his third album, but his first working with a full band. Producers John Parish (PJ Harvey) and Adrian Utley (Portishead) know when to leave Hadreas and his piano ballads alone, and exactly when to inject the appropriate bombast, glam rock and occasional steps into operatic avant-garde. He told Rolling Stone that he’s “trying to use whatever it is that makes people uncomfortable around me as a sort of power over them." It works.

“Fool” spends its first minute in a finger-snapping, pseudo-Motown grooves before breaking down into a delicate dirge of operatic beauty that suspends the song for a full 90 seconds; the initial groove then returns with even more swagger. “Grid” is a two-chord synth blues, with Hadreas’s voice drenched in rockabilly reverb a la Suicide’s Alan Vega, with a chorus of screaming women in the background; someone considered it commercial enough to be the second single from the album (with accompanying bizarro video).

Too Bright is too short; it’s just over half an hour long. No complaints, however: it’s thoroughly satisfying, blending traditional songcraft—some songs here could easily be tackled by ’50s torch singers—and performance art in ways that precious few ever have done so successfully. His voice and piano playing are inherently gorgeous, yet he relishes dissonance and ugliness, perhaps to cast his brighter side in starker relief. Perhaps because this man is anything but one-dimensional.

Download: “Queen,” “My Body,” “Fool”

Aphex Twin - Syro

Aphex Twin – Syro (Warp/Maple)

Aphex Twin, a.k.a. Richard D. James: the enfant terrible of ’90s electronic music, the game-changer, the mad genius, the magical misanthrope, the man who made Radiohead’s Thom Yorke want to burn guitars. He’s been largely laying low for the past 13 years, living in a Scottish hamlet and raising two children. Apparently he’s kept busy, building robots in his backyard and making a lot of music that only now is seeing the light of day. Naturally, his legions of fans are ecstatic to see him return. What about the rest of us?

I’ve never cared for Aphex Twin in the past. Yet I love this album. Has he changed—or have I? (We’re the same age.) It’s natural for an innovator to sound benign two decades after first turning tables (or turntables). It’s entirely possible that Aphex Twin’s influence—digitally deconstructed beats and tones that can sound randomly generated to the untrained ear—is so far-reaching that we now take it for granted. (His ambient work, on the other hand, not heard on Syro, is a direct extension of Brian Eno’s early ’80s records.) The avant-garde of electronic music today is still catching up to what Aphex Twin was doing in the late ’90s. EDM owes James an enormous debt (see: Skrillex), even if it takes the most obvious aspects of his work set to punishing disco beats. Meanwhile, mainstream pop has become stranger and stranger, to the point where it’s not hard to hear the evil sonic sorcery of James at work there as well.

Squiggly bass, spasmodic rhythms, melodies as fleeting as jazz improvisations, played on alternately soft and distorted synthesizers—Aphex Twin weaves various discombobulated layers together to make something dense yet danceable, distant yet strangely seductive, despite the fact that it’s near impossible to detect a human hand at work anywhere here. The tracks are apparently named after some of the gear he uses, decibel levels he recorded at, or what seem like gobbledygook file names (or intentionally unintelligible passwords).

It’s tempting to wonder—especially when some ’90s jungle breaks surface, in mutated form—if James just dusted off some unreleased files from his heyday and passed them off as a new album; something his contemporary Plug did a couple of years back. But the tracks on Syro display a maturity, a confidence in which James doesn’t feel like he has to prove anything to anyone or even himself. There’s no need to be oppositional for the sake of it; there’s no envelope to consciously push against. Left on his own, in that small Scottish village, the mad musical mind of Richard D. James doesn’t have to compete with the noise of the world. He’s already changed the face of music; now he can sit back and enjoy it. So can we—some of us, for the first time.

Download: “180db,” “Minipops,” “CirclonT14”

Buck 65 - Neverlove

Buck 65 – Neverlove (Warner)

Matthew Sweet, a great songwriter better known as a one-hit wonder (“Girlfriend”) in the ’90s, once said that your dumbest song will be your biggest hit. Randy Newman (“Short People”) would agree. So would Chuck Berry: the rock’n’roll legend’s only No. 1 hit was not “Johnny B. Goode” or “Roll Over Beethoven”—but “My Ding-a-Ling.”

Buck 65 might be the next to join this list. Despite over 20 years making left-of-centre hip-hop—which occasionally borrowed from country music, prog rock and David Lynch soundtracks—he’s never had a commercial hit. A divorce album—which Neverlove is—seems like an odd gamble for success.

Yet here he is with “Super Pretty Naughty,” surely the greatest single of 2014, equally hideous and hilarious and an all-too-perfect send-up of Swedish techno pop that pushes all the right buttons, complete with the decadent chorus: “I wanna get dressed up, get sexed up and cake on my birthday!” What seems like a nonsensical party song sneaks in self-aware lines (“I wanna sell my perfect life”) and perhaps even a nod to Chuck Berry’s biggest hit (“Ding-a-ling! Sugar snack!”). And the video—well, that just needs to be seen to be believed. Let’s just say that it involves lasers shooting out of his groin. It’s merely a few punchlines short of a Flight of the Concords sketch.

What’s this song doing on a divorce album? Buck 65 says he wrote it during one of his lowest moments of his life: he wanted to write the most insanely happy song imaginable in a genre of music he didn’t understand. Mission accomplished.

The rest of Neverlove bears zero resemblance to "Super Pretty Naughty," which will surely baffle anyone discovering Buck 65 for the first time should the single blow up. It’s not exactly clear who this album is for: the glossy pop moments—like the Alicia Keys-ish “Heart of Stone,” or “Only War,” which could be a Katy Perry ballad—stand in stark contrast to opening track “Gates of Hell,” about a suicide attempt and featuring a death metal scream in the chorus, or the delicacy of the hushed “Baby Blanket.” Somewhere in between, “Je T’Aime Mon Amour” or the bouncy “Love Will Fuck You Up,” capture what Buck 65 does best, straddling genres and eras, his gruff, hobo beatnik persona delivering densely layered and playful rhyme schemes. When he raps over a flamenco-tinged 6/4 rhythm powered by handclaps, it’s exactly the kind of exploratory trickery we’d expect from him: “Music you can feel, but also taste and smell.”

Every track here features female vocals, acting as a foil to what could be a divorcĂ©’s pity party—especially when he tells us: “When my baby left me, I cried for an entire year.” It’s not an angry, bitter album; it’s reflective, probing, yet hardly a downer. It’s not at all mired in specifics—nor does it name any names (pay attention, Robin Thicke). It is, of course, inherently flawed and bipolar. It’s confounding and creative, gloriously messy and mixed-up—like any one of us would be after an emotionally volatile time.

If the sugar rush of the single draws you in the door, Buck 65 would like to show you some of the darker corners of his empty house as well.

Download: “Super Pretty Naughty,” “Je T’aime Mon Amour,” “Love Will Fuck You Up”

Monday, October 20, 2014

Canadian songbook: Zunior, Oh Susanna, Grey Lands

Canada has always been known as a songwriters’ nation, ever since the days of Ian and Sylvia, Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell and the rest of Yorkville scored hits via covers of their songs, even before their own careers took off. (You should read about this scene in Jason Schneider's excellent book Whispering Pines.) And yet, we rarely celebrate our modern songbook: for all the camaraderie and cross-pollination our best artists do, they rarely, if ever, cover each other’s work.

Earlier this year, Montreal songwriter Michael Feuerstack enlisted a bunch of his considerably more famous friends to cover some of his songs. Geoff Berner did the same thing, assembling a tribute album to himself to help launch his first novel. This fall, Great Lake Swimmers’ Tony Dekker, Cuff the Duke’s Wayne Petti and Oh Susanna continue the trend, covering their favourite songs and songwriters. (See reviews, below.)

Three years ago, I assembled a compilation of my favourite modern artists covering Canadian songs from 1985-95, a time period covered in my co-authored book, Have Not Been the Same. It’s an amazing record. Kevin Drew. Corb Lund. Hidden Cameras. Bry Webb. Great Lake Swimmers. Jill and Matthew Barber. The Burning Hell. Jim Bryson. Forest City Lovers. Cuff the Duke. Mark Davis. Selina Martin. Light Fires. Snailhouse. Veda Hille. Andrew Vincent. Geoff Berner. Bruce Peninsula’s Neil Haverty. Arcade Fire’s Richard Reed Parry. You should buy it. All proceeds go to CAMH.

I chose to put out that compilation via Zunior, the online record label and e-retailer run by the Inbreds’ Dave Ullrich. For 10 years now, he’s been selling independent Canadian music at decent prices (albums are $8.88), paying artists much more than they’d make through iTunes or other American outlets. All the major and minor indies are there: Arts and Crafts, Paper Bag, Constellation, Nettwerk, Kelp, Mint, Secret City, Six Shooter, Sonic Unyon, Weewerk, You’ve Changed, White Whale, Flemish Eye, and much more—even Jagjaguwar, a U.S. label with plenty of Canucks on it. If you buy indie Canadian music, you should buy it from Zunior. It’s also Stuart McLean’s preferred retailer; all his Vinyl CafĂ© products are available there.

Zunior also curates new compilations, usually around Christmas: one year featured its artists covering the Charlie Brown Christmas album in its entirety. This year, however, to celebrate its 10th anniversary, Zunior put out a cookbook, organized a festival, and commissioned a comic book. Zunior also got their BFF Tony Dekker, of Great Lake Swimmers, to cover some of his favourite Canadian songs of the last 10 years. The result? It’s almost as good as my album. ;)

These reviews ran in the Waterloo Record last month.

Tony Dekker – Sings 10 Years of Zunior (Zunior)

Great Lake Swimmers’ Tony Dekker has always tossed out oddball covers that counter his reputation as a sad-eyed, dreamy crooner. (Perhaps you once heard him on CBC Radio covering the Dead Kennedys’ satirical classic “Kill the Poor.”) Here, he celebrates the anniversary of Zunior; their 10 years as a business happen to coincide with an incredible decade of Canadian music, and so Dekker has plenty of incredible material to choose from.

Other than Chad Van Gaalen and Martin Tielli, neither of whose work is much different than Dekker’s day job, Dekker goes for the underdogs: Christine Fellows, The Burning Hell, Rae Spoon, Old Man Luedecke, Ohbijou. He also gives two nods to Guelph, covering Jim Guthrie’s “3AM” and Jenny Omnichord’s “Growing Too.” The one WTF moment is a silly and strange cover of Cadence Weapon’s “Do I Miss My Friends”—you may not think Tony Dekker should be rapping, and maybe he shouldn’t, but it has to be heard to be believed.

Dekker could have made this record in his sleep; he didn’t. He invests the same time and care he would on one of his own records; it’s obvious this is a complete labour of love. It’s also essential listening not just for Great Lake Swimmers, but for anyone who cares about the Canadian songbook. Your favourite acts of the last 10 years didn’t, with few exceptions, rise in isolation. They came from a community, and this is one man’s version of what that community sounded like. I can’t think of a better man for the job .

Download: “At the Airport” (Old Man Luedecke), “My Sweet Relief” (Martin Tielli), “The Woods” (Ohbijou)

Oh Susanna – Namedropper (Sonic Unyon)

For her sixth album, Oh Susanna commissioned her many talented friends to write songs for her, enlisting Joel Plaskett, Jim Cuddy, Ron Sexsmith and more. How could she go wrong?

She can’t. She enlisted producer Jim Bryson—who also happens to trump everyone else here by penning the album’s highlight and opening track, “Oregon”—and some of the songwriters into her backing band (as well as Kathleen Edwards, who, sadly, doesn’t contribute a song). Perhaps it goes without saying that Plaskett writes the album’s other surefire classic, “Into My Arms.” Amelia Curran, Melissa McClelland (Whitehorse), Old Man Luedecke and Royal Wood also stand out; Jay Harris’s “1955” has one of the catchiest melodies but some of the most unfortunate lyrics (it’s a peppy love song with the chorus: “Your love’s like suicide/ the kind of love you can only buy / 1955.” What do those three things have to do with each other, and why are they set to a country-rock anthem?)

Dropping names, stacking the deck, and being shameless about it—no harm in that, especially with company like this.

Download: “Oregon,” “Into My Arms,” “Mozart for the Cat”

Grey Lands – Songs by Other People (Paper Bag)

Grey Lands is a new solo project for Cuff the Duke’s Wayne Petti; the title of the debut album is self-explanatory. Here, Petti dips into psychedelic country in ways I’d been hoping he would ever since Cuff the Duke’s still-stunning 2002 debut album. Even though he’s doing it by covering some obvious songs—Bob Dylan’s “My Back Pages” (with Greg Keelor) and “Girl From the North Country” (with Joel Plaskett), even Sloan’s “Coax Me” (with Mike O’Neill)—he also digs deep to find obscurity’s like Jim Sullivan’s “UFO” and Lee Hazlewood’s “Sand” (with Sarah Harmer), and puts his own distinct stamp on each one. Whether or not Grey Lands starts including Petti’s own songs or not, the sound he gets here is well worth sticking with.

Download: “Outta My Head” (feat. Hayden), “My Back Pages” (feat. Greg Keelor), “Sand” (feat. Sarah Harmer)

All three titles are available from Zunior.com