Friday, April 08, 2016

March 2016 reviews

Highly recommended: Black Mountain

Highly recommended, reviewed in earlier post: Eric Bachmann

Well worth your while: Selina Martin, Minotaurs, Poirier

Streaming is great for sample purposes, but please support your favourite artists financially.

The following reviews ran in the Waterloo Record in March.

Black Mountain – IV (Dine Alone)

“Our Strongest Material To Date.” That was the in-jest working title of the new album by this Vancouver band, according to keyboardist Jeremy Schmidt. A joke, perhaps, but not without truth.

When Black Mountain debuted in 2004, they were a total throwback to psychedelic hard rock of the ’70s, equal parts Black Sabbath, Pink Floyd and Lou Reed. Very little has changed, other than the increased prominence of co-lead vocalist Amber Webber, who’s a welcome disruptor to the sausage party led by songwriter and guitarist Stephen McBean. The more whimsical side of the band has also evaporated; they’re heavier and naturally more humourless—and more power to them. (Maybe that’s why they dropped the working title and went with the Zeppelinesque IV.)

Most important, however, is that Black Mountain has found the perfect balance of sludgy, head-banging riffs and the respite of intervals soundtracked primarily by Schmidt’s spacey keyboards—as well as McBean’s guitar, which is more textural here than it’s ever been, not just power chords and solos (though his wrenching lead on closer “Space to Bakersfield” is surely his finest moment, the closest he’s come to Eddie Hazel’s work on Funkadelic’s “Maggot Brain”).

The most accomplished tracks here run more than eight minutes long, showcasing all the band’s strengths simultaneously; these are songs that celebrate Black Mountain’s longevity, their unity of purpose six years after their most recent albums, their ability to mature within their imposed parameters and push themselves to their full potential. One of Canada’s greatest rock bands of all time is back—yes, with their strongest material date. (March 31)

Stream: "Mothers of the Sun," "Crucify Me," “Line Them All Up”

Jeff Buckley – You and I (Sony)

Were he alive, Jeff Buckley would turn 50 this year. He died when he was 30, having released only one full-length album, 1994’s Grace. The last 20 years have seen five live albums (one is a two-disc version of a 1993 EP) and two collections of demos: one made with guitarist Gary Lucas in the early ’90s (Songs to No One), one of recordings meant to comprise his follow-up to Grace (Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk).

Now we’re hearing the demo reel he cut shortly after signing to Columbia Records: just Buckley and his guitar, with his A&R man and a sound engineer in the room. With the exception of the song “Grace” and the sketch of a song that is the title track here, it’s Buckley running through eight eclectic covers, three of which can be heard on the extended Live at Sin-é album (Bob Dylan’s “Just Like a Woman,” “Calling You” from Baghdad Café, Led Zeppelin’s “Night Flight”). New to all Buckley fans will be his takes on the Smiths’ “The Boy With the Thorn in His Side,” Sly and the Family Stone’s “Everyday People,” the blues standard “Poor Boy Long Ways From Home,” and the oft-covered classic “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying.”

Seeing how Buckley’s most enduring recordings and performances are of him performing Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” solo, it’s shocking that this reel took so long to see the light of day. Those other releases can—and have been—accused of scraping the bottom of a barrel, but that can’t be said of You and I. Buckley was always a superior interpreter rather than a gifted songwriter; turning these songs inside out with that unbelievable voice of his.

You and I, for all its charms, also displays some of young Buckley’s flaws. Though he’s capable of elevating “Just Like a Woman” to places Dylan could never take it, his caterwauling emulation of Robert Plant is best left forgotten. And the sense of hushed dynamics he would later display on “Hallelujah” would be welcome on “Calling You,” where he sounds more like a young buck trying to impress than a singer who’s taken time to inhabit the song.

Of course, that’s exactly what he was: young and trying to get our attention. Which he certainly did—and continues to do, all these years later. (March 17)

Stream: “Everyday People,” “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying,” “Just Like a Woman”

Låpsley – Long Way Home (XL/Beggars)

This 19-year-old Brit starting writing songs late at night in her parents’ basement, when she was supposed to be studying for exams. Her academic plans quickly took a back seat. Her second-ever gig was a set at the Glastonbury Festival. Now, following an acclaimed 2015 EP, comes her debut, produced by Rodaidh McDonald, whose atmospheric work with The XX is utilized effectively here.

Holly Låpsley Fletcher is a piano-ballad kind of girl with a big, soulful voice, but she’s also in love with electronics, which means Long Way Home sounds at times like a marriage between Adele and James Blake—a happy marriage, at that. For someone with as huge as voice as hers, Låpsley uses it judiciously, never indulging in showboat moments. In fact, the cadence of her delivery owes more to the noirish ballads of Drake or Kanye West—except, of course, she can actually sing, unadorned. The only incongruous moment on this nocturnal record is the disco excursion on “Operator”; it’s a direction one could see Låpsley going in the future—perhaps collaborating with her labelmate and BFF Shamir? (March 17)

Stream: “Heartless,” “Falling Short,” “Cliff”

Loretta Lynn – Full Circle (Sony)

I simply cannot believe this woman is 83 years old. There is virtually no sign of the ravages of time in her delivery or her timbre—how do we know these aren’t vocal outtakes from 1980 set to new instrumental tracks? Has anyone fact-checked this? It seems too good to be true.

Yet here she is, on her first new album since 2004’s Jack White-produced Van Lear Rose, shacking up at the Cash Cabin Studio in Hendersonville, Tennessee, with co-producers John Carter Cash and her own daughter, Patsy Lynn Russell. As on seemingly every single album by an artist on the other side of 75, there are re-recordings here of iconic early hits (“Fist City”), songs she grew up with (“In the Pines”), and songs that directly confronts mortality (“Who’s Gonna Miss Me?”, the Willie Nelson duet “Lay Me Down”). There are no sonic tricks, no attempt to pander to young hipsters, just a straight-up, traditional country record featuring a legendary singer and a well-curated slate of songs. (March 10)

Stream: “Wine Into Water,” “Everybody Wants to Go To Heaven,” “Who’s Gonna Miss Me?”

Majid Jordan – s/t (OVO/Universal)

The Toronto duo who helmed Drake’s monster 2013 hit “Hold On We’re Going Home” finally gets a proper introduction on their debut full-length, where their take on smooth and soulful electro-R&B stakes its place in a crowded field. Seductive singer Majid Al Maskat is easily the sexiest Canadian singer since Mike Milosh of Rhye—hell, he can even make an ode to the suburb of “King City” sound alluring. Majid Jordan sound distinctly suburban, the soundtrack to driving down six-lane roads home from downtown at 3 a.m. They don’t have the audacity of The Weeknd or the swagger of Drake; because they’re signed to Drake’s OVO label, expectations were sky-high—and not remotely close to being achieved, as many chart-watching cynics were quick to point out based on the first few weeks of sales. But Majid Jordan is more about the soft sell; they have more in common with the Junior Boys than they do Miguel. Despite their Drake hit and their high profile, they’re also still finding their feet; right now, they sound like they’re one album way from greatness.
(March 17)

Stream: “King City,” “My Love” feat. Drake, “Learn From Each Other,”

Selina Martin – Caruso’s Brain (independent)

“Why is the harder road always the way to go?” sings Selina Martin on her fourth album, the music of which answers her question for her: because refusing to take the easy route makes Martin’s music that much more rewarding. She’s a female singer-songwriter who doesn’t do acoustic ballads; she’s a rocker who doesn’t hide anonymously behind a band; she’s a guitarist who loves manipulating electronic textures. 

Martin has always had an ear for pop hooks—her last album, Disaster Fantasies, was full of them—but here she and producer Chris Stringer seem just as interested in what lies underneath, both in terms of overall sonic sorcery and in particular the ways in which they can manipulate the live drums of Jesse Baird (Feist). Martin is interested in messing with rock music in ways few people have in recent years; the only recent analogue that comes to mind is EMA; the furthest precedent is Post-era Bjork (the groaning electronic sirens in “The Addicted” recall “Army of Me,” but there are other hints throughout). Always a strong lyricist, Martin scores here on several tracks, but most especially “Wish List,” the rare new Christmas song that will actually survive the (past) season, with bonus points for local references (“I’m feeling hollow / here in Toronto”). (March 3)

Stream: “Lay Down Your Arms,” “Hawaii,” “When the City Fell”

Minotaurs – Weird Waves (Static Clang)

Guelph’s Nathan Lawr has had a rich and varied career, both as sideman (Royal City, Bry Webb, King Cobb Steelie) and as a solo singer-songwriter, but it’s his third album with Minotaurs that might well be his finest hour. The band started out as a way for Lawr to explore his love of 1970s Afrobeat, an influence that still reigns supreme. On Weird Waves, however, he recorded his live band’s rehearsals and then deconstructed the tracks at home, applying a dub reggae remix sensibility to the material and applying psychedelic textures throughout. Lawr (full disclosure: an old friend) told me he took singing and dancing lessons before the writing and recording of Weird Waves, and it shows: his vocals are stronger than ever, and his grooves have never sounded so fluid, the funk never forced. By letting go, he’s never been so in control. (March 10)

Stream: “Echoes,” “Gold Rush Lady,” “Underground Age”

Nap Eyes – Thought Rock Fish Scale (You’ve Changed)

Fronted by a mumbly man who owes debts to Lou Reed and Stephen Malkmus and fronts a surprisingly subtle rock band who don’t use any distortion, Nap Eyes just might be the most refreshing thing to happen to what’s left of Canadian indie rock (’90s definition) in many years. Singer/songwriter Nigel Chapman exudes a nonchalance that’s countered by an obvious attention to detail he employs in his lyrics. That’s true of the band’s arrangements as well, which sound like what a skilled and sympathetic group of players managed to conjure on the spot (shades of mid-period Destroyer). That said, this is still a young band where the promise outweighs the results, but they’re one to watch. You can watch Nap Eyes at the e-Bar in Guelph on April 6 with Julie Doiron, as part of the can’t-miss Kazoo Festival, which runs April 6-10. Check out the festival’s full schedule at (March 31)

Stream: “Stargazer,” “Don’t Be Right,” “Lion in Chains”

Sarah Neufeld – The Ridge (Paper Bag)

Pulsing 16th notes are usually the domain of metal, punk and frenetic techno. Here, they drive the solo violin work of Arcade Fire’s Sarah Neufeld on three tracks that form the centrepiece of her third album, two of them over seven minutes long—of course, they fall into none of the aforementioned genres. The Ridge is billed as Neufeld’s “pop” album, which it surely is only in relation to the rest of her catalogue, solo or with Bell Orchestre. Unlike her debut, 2013’s Hero Brother, The Ridge features Neufeld’s voice prominently on several tracks; Arcade Fire bandmate Jeremy Gara also contributes drums, while Colin Stetson—with whom she made the Juno-winning duo album Never Were the Way She Was—plays some bass synth. “Chase the Bright and Burning” sounds like the Doctor Who theme repurposed for bass drum, voice and violin; little else here begs obvious comparisons—which of course is to Neufeld’s advantage. (March 3)

Stream: “We’ve Got a Lot,” “The Glow,” “Where the Light Comes In”

Poirier – Migration (Nice Up!)

For the last 10 years, Montreal producer Ghislain Poirier has been mutating dancehall, soca and Brazilian styles into his DJ nights and original material. He’s released various EPs and singles since his 2010 album for Ninja Tune, Running High, as well as a detour back to his roots in abstract electronics under the name Boundary (Poirier originally came from the same minimalist scene as Tim Hecker).

So for his first full-length in six years, Poirier comes out swinging, with massive tracks that build on everything he’s ever done, whether it’s straight-up reggae and soca or draping chilly electronic textures over instrumental dancehall beats. Global guests on the aptly titled Migration include New York-via-Jamaica dancehall MC Red Fox, electro-reggae Chicago-via-Panama MC Zulu, Berlin-via-North Carolina producer Machinedrum, Toronto’s Dubmatix, Montreal-via-Haiti MC Fwonte and longtime collaborator Face-T. The thread throughout is Poirier’s finely honed aesthetic: the man is a veteran, not a dabbler, and his 15 years of experience can be heard in every track. His curiosity carries him anywhere with bright sunshine and deep bass, bringing it all back to the city in Canada where you’re most likely to find a street party on any given summer night. (March 10)

Stream: “Positive Up” feat. Face T, “Jump” feat. Red Fox, “Cobra”

Iggy Pop – Post Pop Depression (Loma Vista/Universal)

Iggy Pop knows everyone wants him to be the shirtless rocker that still fronts the Stooges occasionally: much of his discography of the last 30 years bears that out, with mixed results, to say the least. But there’s the other side of Iggy Pop that he keeps insisting on, that of the poetic lounge lizard, the kind of guy who records bossa nova classics and songs by Serge Gainsbourg and Edith Piaf or recites Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. (All of which he’s done recently.)

On what he’s suggesting is likely his last album, the 68-year-old teams up with Josh Homme (Queens of the Stone Age, Eagles of Death Metal) for a dignified departure, one that captures the crunch from the best of his non-Stooges solo work—i.e. his 1977 albums produced by David Bowie, or his late ’80s, early ’90s renaissance—and sets it to material worthy of the baritone crooner he’s always deserved to be recognized as. Strings, brass and orchestral bells augment a heavy rhythm section, with Spanish and Asian influences sneaking into the mix alongside an ’80s post-punk gloom (in fact, one can just as easily hear Siouxie Sioux singing much of this material).

It’s all going so well… until the last two tracks, the second last of which has the rather befuddling chorus of, “When you get to the bottom, you’re near the top / Your shit turns into chocolate drops.” Um, well then. What’s an Iggy Pop album without a detour into the gutter? Sadly, the whole affair ends with a two-minute rant tacked onto the end of “Paraguay,” where the proto-punk rocker sounds like Clint “get off of my lawn” Eastwood, yelling at some poor sod to “take your laptop and shove it into your goddam foul mouth…” It gets even worse from there.

Oh, Iggy. (March 24)

Stream: “Break Into Your Heart,” “Gardenia,” “American Valhalla”

Santigold – 99 Cents (Warner)

Three albums in eight years leaves a lot of long gaps for a pop artist, but Santi White is always worth the wait. Modern pop and R&B fuse with reggae and ’80s bubblegum, often all at the same time. That’s why she’s collaborated with everyone from the Beastie Boys and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs to Kanye West, A$AP Rocky and M.I.A., and written songs for pop stars. When she makes her own records, she calls in plenty of heavyweights: this time out her old pals Diplo and Switch are too busy, but TV on the Radio’s Dave Sitek returns, while Rostam Batmanglij (ex-Vampire Weekend) and Hit-Boy (Beyoncé, Jay Z) also pitch in. Toronto’s ILoveMakonnen shows up for a catchy duet, produced by Doc McKinney (The Weeknd). The consistent sound here shows that it’s Santigold in charge, however. It’s hard not to compare the sound of this record to Grimes’s Art Angels—one of biggest buzz records of the last six months—and realize that Grimes and everyone else are just catching up to where Santigold has been for years. If only Rihanna’s Anti sounded this good. (March 3)

Stream: “Big Boss Big Time Business,” “Chasing Shadows,” “Who Be Lovin’ Me” (feat. ILoveMakonnen)

God Don't Never Change: The Songs of Blind Willie Johnson – Various Artists (Alligator)

Tribute records are usually the worst, a hangover from the ’90s that overstayed their welcome. These days most are online only and a curiosity at best. What, pray tell then, is this, a glossy, well-packaged tribute to the blues singer Blind Willie Johnson, a man who only recorded 30 songs in his lifetime, all cut between 1927 and 1930?

Producer Jeffery Gatskill has been working on this project slowly for eight years; his patience paid off in the lineup he assembled here: Tom Waits, Lucinda Williams, Cowboy Junkies, Sinead O’Connor and more. There’s no telling if he commissioned others and jettisoned anything that didn’t cut the mustard, but his quality control is impeccable. Unlike 95% of all tribute albums ever made, there’s no filler here.

At first glance, it’s peculiar that Gatskill commissioned all white artists—with one exception, the Blind Boys of Alabama—to cover an iconic African-American artist. On the flip side, Gatskill’s previous project, Gotta Serve Somebody, focused exclusively on African-American gospel artists covering Bob Dylan. Still, the lineup here reflects the odd fact that the only bankable stars who champion blues in 2016 are ones largely removed from the music’s history. (Still: no Ben Harper? Gary Clark Jr.? And though not “bankable names,” I’d love to hear Willis Earl Beal or Mirel Wagner here.)

Waits and Williams get two songs each here—and deservedly so. Waits has drawn closer to the blues the older he gets; Williams started out singing mostly blues covers; both inhabit these songs and turn them inside out, with equal parts reverence and reinvention—which is all anyone could ask for in a cover version. Cowboy Junkies pull the audacious trick of sampling the original artist in their performance, which shouldn’t work at all—a middle-class Canadian woman duetting with a long dead bluesman who died in poverty—and yet it does. Maria McKee, who hasn’t been heard from in at least 10 years, reappears in fine form and full voice on “Let Your Light Shine on Me.”

Of course, like any tribute album good or bad, this ultimately makes you want to revisit Blind Willie Johnson himself. But these recordings all stand tall on their own, enhancing his legacy rather than tarnishing it. (March 31)

Stream: “The Soul of a Man” – Tom Waits; “Jesus is Coming Soon” – Cowboy Junkies, “It’s Nobody’s Fault But Mine” – Lucinda Williams

Monday, April 04, 2016

Eric Bachmann - s/t

Eric Bachmann – s/t (Merge)

“I’m gonna love you like we’re all each other have,” promises Eric Bachmann, in a song (“Mercy”) about family estrangement, the politics of division, Armageddon, atheism, world suffering and other pleasant topics. Sure, that’s a lot to cram into five minutes with a “Be My Baby” beat and Beach Boys backing vocals. But it works—and then some. “Mercy” is devastating, a song that of course takes on extra resonance in yet another year of horrible headlines, especially south of the border. It’s a song I know I’ll be revisiting for the rest of my life. It’s that good.

It’s also not an anomaly. After eight masterful albums as a singer-songwriter (six of them under the name Crooked Fingers, with five more leading Archers of Loaf and two as the experimental chamber orchestra Barry Black), we’ve come to expect nothing less from Bachmann. After two years touring with Neko Case as part of her band, often playing keyboards, he wrote this album—his first in a whopping five years, the longest gap between any of his recordings—on piano.

The above paragraph, of course, means nothing, as does the fact this album is self-titled. It’s all window dressing, silly marketing bullet points for a new album by an artist who shouldn’t need any. This entire review is little more than yet another attempt, often to little or no avail, by a Bachmann believer (i.e. me) to convince you that the man is the greatest songwriter of our time. I can tell you that he’s in the company of Lou Reed, Vic Chesnutt, Bill Fay and Jason Collett and any other songwriter who eschews irony and emotional distance. I can tell you that he should be teaching songwriting classes to stadium-rock acts, that his work should be staples of open stages at pubs across the continent. Hope, loss, love, damaged psychology, grappling for faith in humanity—these are the songs of our times. Escapism it’s not, but these are subjects from which you cannot and should not escape, subjects that require a soundtrack.

I could just print out the entire lyrics to “Mercy” to prove my point. But I’d rather you go and hear it yourself. Because even if you’ve tired of me waving his flag, Bachmann keeps getting better with each record. He’s on a roll that’s lasted at least 15 years. And—Oh! Look! A self-titled record!—it’s almost like he’s good as new. (March 24)

Stream: “Mercy,” “Modern Drugs,” “Dreaming”

Monday, February 22, 2016

February 2016 reviews

Highly recommended this month: Jim Bryson, Basia Bulat, Sons of Kemet

Highly recommended, reviewed earlier: Jason Collett

Well worth your while: Cris Derksen, Jordan Klassen, Mavis Staples, Rokia Traoré

As always, the following reviews originally appeared in the Waterloo Record.

Jim Bryson – Somewhere We Will Find Our Place (Fixed Hinge Records/Fontana North)

By his own admission, this Ottawa songwriter “carries the weight of the world around.” He tells his lover, “You never seem to worry about loneliness and doubt / but it seems to be all I ever think about.” To be sure, Bryson excels at the Canadiana take on “sad bastard music”—perhaps never better than he did on 2003’s “Something Else,” later covered by his frequent employer, Kathleen Edwards—but the mild-mannered, self-deprecating frontman is also fond of big sing-a-long melodies and huge guitars. He started out in the punk band Punchbuggy, and his last record—a whole five years ago now—was recorded with the Weakerthans as his bold backing band.

Here, Bryson teams up with producer Charles Spearin (Broken Social Scene), who gives his music a different kind of swagger and groove—most evident on lead single “The Depression Dance.” Bryson, who produces other artists in his home studio (Oh Susanna, Kalle Mattson), surrenders to Spearin and Grammy-nominated mixer Shawn Everett (who helmed Alabama Shakes’ stellar Sound and Color) and emerges with the most colourful album of his career, sonically speaking. I’d like to say that his songwriting has improved as well—but it hasn’t, if only because he’s always been this good; Bryson is nothing if not consistent. With the muscle of Spearin and Everett behind him, however, the songs sound better than ever. (Feb. 25)

Stream: “The Depression Dance,” “Changing Scenery,” “Breathe”

Basia Bulat – Good Advice (Secret City)

Basia Bulat’s voice can reduce a grown man to tears. That’s what happened to My Morning Jacket’s Jim James during the recording of the fourth album by this Montreal-based songwriter, which he produced. That emotional response is no small compliment, considering James’s own powerful pipes. But that’s what Bulat does nightly when on tour; to see for yourself, check out the short documentary capturing her sold-out, headlining show at Massey Hall in 2014.

Weeks before that show, she drove solo to Kentucky to start recording with James and a bunch of musicians she’d never met before. Unlike previous producers she’d worked with, James has a distinct sound: trippy modern psychedelia filtered through classic Southern rock and reggae. Thankfully, James didn’t make a record that sounds like Basia Bulat fronting My Morning Jacket—but he did grant her free reign with all his synthesizers, which makes Good Advice a sonic makeover for the woman best known for wielding an autoharp. That said, it never overwhelms That Voice or the songs she’s singing; this is not a case of a producer’s stamp overshadowing the artist’s core strengths. Perhaps the album’s title refers to him.

Instead, we’re told, it refers to female friendship, shoulders on whom Bulat relied during a recent breakup. For what is ostensibly a heartbreak record, Good Advice is remarkably upbeat: even the spacy ballads (“The Garden,” “Someday Soon”) are in major keys. 2013’s Tall Tall Shadow found Bulat bringing in more gospel and soul music to her palette, and that buoyancy remains here.

Some artists come roaring out of the gate with what turns out to be the best work of their career, to which they spend the rest of their lives measuring up. Bulat, on the other hand, keeps getting better and better, 10 years on and four albums deep. (Feb .11)

Stream: “La La Lie,” “Infamous,” “Fool”

Cris Derksen – Orchestral Powwow (Tribal Spirit)

Tanya Tagaq played with the K-W Symphony Orchestra recently, and apparently it was a smashing success. As much as I love Tagaq, I don’t really understand how an entire orchestra fits into the improvisation she and her band tap into every single night. As it turns out, she’s not the only Aboriginal musician attempting a unique collaboration with the symphonic world. Albertan Cris Derksen is a cellist who’s played with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra and Tagaq—separately—but on her solo recordings plays around with loop pedals and, on this record, samples of powwow music; live, she’s accompanied by a nine-piece symphonic ensemble and an 11-piece powwow group.

Riffing off the melodies, Derksen’s compositions and arrangements work surprisingly well, despite the somber nature of her work and the raw power of the powwow music. In the same way that A Tribe Called Red takes that same source material (recordings by Northern Voice and Black Bear, among others) and makes modern EDM with it, Dersken pulls it toward a more meditative place. There are times where the two worlds sound like their colliding rather than collaborating; instead of failing, however, that tension is just as interesting as when they emulsify.

This came out last summer, but it’s up for Best Instrumental Recording at the Junos on April 3, in a unusually strong category with Afiara Quartet and Skratch Bastid, Colin Stetson and Sarah Neufeld, Esmerine, and Jens Lindemann and Tommy Banks. (Feb. 18)

Stream: “Powwow Rhapsody,” “Intertribal Happy Feet,” “East Winging It”

Jordan Klassen – Javelin (Nevado)

This Vancouver singer-songwriter says his new album was inspired by depression and cancer. Well, helllooooo February! What perfect timing, Mr. Klassen. Everything about Javelin sounds wonderfully wintry: his soft, occasionally falsetto voice, the delicate piano and guitar, the plaintive cello, staccato rhythms fluttering like snowflakes underneath. Klassen fled his B.C. home and headed to Texas to make this record, largely by himself, and the wide-screen arrangements seem to reflect his adopted surroundings. Not that he ever sounded claustrophobic on previous records, but everything about Javelin sounds unrestrained, yet with plenty of space allowing the arrangements to breathe. There are obvious parallels to be drawn here to Sufjan Stevens, Magnetic Fields and A.C. Newman, but Klassen is quickly carving out his own niche. (Feb. 18)

Stream: “Gargoyles,” “No Salesman,” “We Got Married”

Lizzo – Big Grrrl Small World (BGSW)

Minneapolis rapper Lizzo has guested with Prince and toured with Sleater-Kinney and recorded at Bon Iver’s studio—three names that definitely stand out on a resumé. None of those people sound like the other, and Lizzo too stands apart from most hip-hop/R&B. Perhaps not since Neneh Cherry has a female MC sounded so simultaneously fierce and smooth and willing to bend her songs inside out just because she can. While her first album featured plenty of what she calls “Lizzobangers,” Big Grrrl Small World sees her coming out as a both a powerful singer and a R&B visionary with an avant-grade streak. “I think I’m in looooooooove…” she sings, drawing out a syllable before concluding: “…with myself.” As she should. (Feb .11)

Stream: “Ain’t I,” “Ride,” “En Love”

Rihanna – Anti (Universal)

Anti-climactic, more like it. After a year of teasing hints, including three singles, and collaborators ranging from Paul McCartney and Kanye West to Grimes and Kiesza talking about collaborations, none of those elements appear here, on the pop superstar’s eighth album. Why anyone expected this album to be so much different than any of her others—which, ever since 2007’s top-to-bottom classic Good Girl Gone Bad, usually yield two or three huge singles and then a lot of material that wastes her talent—is a bit of a mystery.

Expectations get lowered further with lead single “Work,” a dancehall pop song featuring Drake that’s one of the fluffiest things either has ever done. And yet it’s probably the most uptempo number here, on an album that starts out strong with the atmospheric dub-influenced slow burner “Consideration” and then proceeds to offer nothing but bummer after bummer—redeemed mostly by two very-old-school ballads, the acoustic “Never Ending,” which features a side of Rihanna we’ve never heard before, and the ’60s girl-group homage “Love on the Brain.” Along the way there’s a terrible nod to ’80s L.A. power ballads with “Kiss it Better,” and an interminable interpolation of Tame Impala’s “Same Old Mistakes.” Yes, this is the record where Rihanna reaches beyond her usual comfort zone, but she falls flat more often than she scores.

She’s always been a better singer than her super-produced singles would suggest, and she feels compelled to prove that here on the album’s final four tracks. On “Higher,” she tries way to hard and makes Sia sound subtle by comparison; on the closing piano ballad “Close to You,” she at least leaves us on a high note and wanting more. Because Rihanna does have much more to offer us, but Anti is just a mere glimpse. (Feb .11)

Stream: “Consideration” feat. SZA, “Never Ending,” “Love on the Brain”

Sia – This is Acting (Sony)

Sia writes great songs: we already know this, because that’s how she’s made her career, writing hits for Rihanna, Beyoncé, David Guetta and more. We also know she’s a powerhouse vocalist, as her 2014 smash “Chandelier” aptly demonstrated. This is Acting, therefore, is unsurprisingly full of killer melodies (“Bird Set Free”) and knockout vocal performances (“Alive,” written for and rejected by Rihanna). It’s not, however, a Carole King record: Sia doesn’t rearrange or tone down the songs she writes for multi-million-selling artists. Instead, she goes for the gusto and dresses her work up with every trick of the pop charts and EDM clubs. Which is unfortunate, because almost without exception these songs would be improved by removing the punishing, maximalist arrangements that seem designed for nothing more subtle than the Olympic closing ceremonies. “Move Your Body” takes what sounds like a Brazilian maracatu rhythm fed through EDM drum machines; the inspirational anthem “Unstoppable” also benefits from bigness, as does the peppy bubblegum of “Cheap Thrills.” But if there was ever an album that immediately made me want to seek out an unplugged version, this is it. (Feb. 4)

Stream: “Bird Set Free,” “Move Your Body,” “Cheap Thrills”

Sons of Kemet – Lest We Forget What We Came Here to Do (Naim)

Saxophone, tuba, and two drummers. What more do you need? This U.K. quartet, led by woodwind player Shabaka Hutchings, is driven by what sounds like a New Orleans backbeat, in part because it’s accented by bass lines on a tuba as per that city’s brass band tradition; the rhythms are actually Barbadian, as per Hutchings’s lineage. His melodies hint at Eastern influences (the name is a reference to an ancient name for Egypt), but his use of punchy repetitive riffs owes a large debt to James Brown and American soul music. To these ears, having two drummers in a band that’s neither African nor Latin is normally little more than a visual gimmick, but these two players complement each other perfectly; on the more frenetic numbers here, their interplay alone could carry this band without any bass or melody.

About a decade ago in Toronto, a duo of former hardcore punk musicians started a band featuring just saxophone and buckets, called Feuermusik. Anyone with fond memories that should seek out Sons of Kemet. (Feb. 25)

Stream: “In Memory of Samir Awad,” “Play Mass,” “In the Castle of My Skin”

Mavis Staples – Livin’ on a High Note (Anti)

If you were Mavis Staples’s record company, what would you do with this 77-year-old legend of American music? Staples has already revisited her roots with an album of civil rights standards; she’s made a live album with her hot new band; she’s made two albums with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy that were a mix of covers and new originals by Tweedy and a few of his friends. The last one, 2013’s One True Vine, was a masterpiece. Where does she go from here?

Anti Records decided to shake up the scenery a bit, partnering Staples up with another young(ish) producer, M. Ward, best known for being one half of She & Him with Zooey Deschanel (but who has a far superior solo discography), and 10 songwriters penning custom-made material. The roster includes Neko Case, Nick Cave, Ben Harper, Bon Iver, Aloe Blacc, and relative newcomers Tune-Yards, Benjamin Booker, The Head and the Heart, and Valerie June.

Yet as is almost always the case in star-studded match-ups like this one, the results fall short of the sky-high expectations. Just because I love Neko Case or Merrill Garbus of Tune-Yards doesn’t mean the songs they wrote for Mavis will be the best things on here. No, the real appeal is M. Ward’s production and arrangements, matching the strength of Mavis’s live band of more than a decade with Ward’s own studio atmospherics. The two songs Ward penned are also highlights: “Don’t Cry,” and “MLK Song,” which takes on the daunting task of adapting a speech by the civil rights leader—and old friend of the Staples family.

And of course, this is Mavis Staples: she could sing practically anything and bring you to tears. The talent assembled here ensures she has more than enough to work with. (Feb. 25)

Stream: “Love and Trust,” “Don’t Cry,” “History, Now”

Tindersticks – The Waiting Room (City Slang)

Worst marketing strategy ever: calling your album The Waiting Room. Images of interminable boredom in a hospital wing or a doctor’s office trapped beside the ill, the sad, the coughing, the desperate: sign me up!

For those not familiar with Tindersticks’ oeuvre of the last 25 years, the title might be all too apt, as in, waiting for something to happen. Tindersticks don’t do cathartic release: there are no big crescendos, nothing that might be mistaken for uptempo. Stuart Staples never sings in a way that doesn’t suggest he’s hugging the microphone as close as he can at 3 a.m. Tindersticks are all about tension, suspended states.

Very little changes in the Tindersticks world, other than occasional flirtations with lushly orchestrated ’70s American R&B, as framed through a group of well-dressed whisky drinkers in a subterranean European nightclub. It makes one wonder if bands like Tindersticks and Sigur Ros and Mogwai and Godspeed You Black Emperor and whoever else ever break into a Beyoncé or AC/DC jam at practice, just for kicks. Unlikely.

And yet here we have the odd appearance of a surprising Afrobeat influence on “Help Yourself”—nothing too high-voltage, of course, more like a slow-burning, mid-tempo Tony Allen groove, with a punchy horn section driving it along. Savages vocalist Jehnny Beth drops by for a duet (“We Are Dreamers!”), as does—via the vaults—Montreal’s late Lhasa de Sela, a previous Tindersticks collaborator who died in 2010. These three songs help elevate what could have been a particularly dreary affair—exemplified by the title track, which features only a droning organ and Stuart Staples’s voice—a voice that really needs a rhythm section underneath it—singing “Don’t let me suffer,” over and over again. A Tindersticks album shouldn’t be something to suffer through. (Feb. 4)

Stream: “Follow Me,” “Help Yourself,” “Hey Lucinda”

Rokia Traoré – Né So (Nonesuch)

“Strange Fruit,” a song immortalized by Billie Holliday, is one of the most harrowing ballads ever written, about a victim of racist lynching in the American South. In 2016, it’s being sung by Malian singer Rokia Traoré, whose homeland has been ravaged by Islamist jihadists, radicals who have targeted women, so-called apostates, and even music itself. A song that for decades has been associated with American racism has proven sadly universal, and not even specifically regarding race.

The last time we heard from Rokia Traoré was 2013’s Beautiful Africa, on which she teamed up with producer John Parish (PJ Harvey) and made her boldest, most buoyant and confident record to date. Parish returns here, and guests include Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones and author Toni Morrison, but the mood is considerably more subdued. Understandable. Traoré works with young musicians in Bamako and for the UN Refugee Agency; she might be the daughter of a diplomat who also has a residence in France, but she’s deeply rooted and affected by the conflict in her native country. “Spare me these words that fill me
with woe /
These acts that blacken the heart
… I hate conflict,” she sings in the Malian language of Bambara.

Traoré has a voice that could reduce the hardest of hearts to tears with its beauty. One can only hope the barbarians trying to tear apart one of the richest musical cultures in the world would stop and listen. (Feb. 18)

Stream: “Mayé,” “Ô Niélé,” “Strange Fruit”