Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Summer reviews '10 pt1

Apologies for the delay; the following reviews ran in thee Kitchener-Waterloo Record and Guelph Mercury in July 2010.

Laurie Anderson – Homeland (Nonesuch)

It’s true that perhaps only Laurie Anderson would begin a verse of a song with the lyric: “Ah this world, which as Kierkegaard said…” But it’s also true that perhaps only Laurie Anderson could set Socratic questioning and existential musings about the end of an empire (specifically, the American one) to music. Not only that, she does so with emotional weight—even while doing little more than reciting her lines with the detached neutrality of a planetarium narrator.

Homeland is only her third musical work in the past 20 years, but it’s a natural continuation of her vital work in the ’80s—right down to the use of a Vocoder (which she did on her one and only pop hit, 1981’s “O Superman”)—and yet miraculously, she doesn’t sound like an artifact of that decade. Instead, her lyrics are terrifyingly timely, and her music is otherworldly enough to be permanently out of time.

She may decry those who “haven’t a clue what time it is, or where it goes, or even what a clock is”—but rest assured, Anderson will never be any of those. (July 8)

Download (iTunes, puretracks.com, amazon.com): “Another Day in America,” “Only an Expert,” “Transitory Life”

Big Boi – Sir Luscious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty (Def Jam)

As one half of Outkast, Big Boi has long championed an eclectic, freaky brand of R&B and Southern hip-hop; when he appeared earlier this year on Janelle Monae’s track Tightrope, the song of summer 2010, it was as much a passing of the torch to a new Atlanta-based freak as it was a reminder how unproductive the Outkast camp had become lately.

Sir Luscious Left Foot is Big Boi’s long-awaited, much-delayed solo album; his first since Speakerboxxx in 2003. Various singles leaked out in the interim—none of which appear on the final version of the album. Combining the best of ’90s Dirty South hip-hop, ’80s funk and new wave, and old school ’70s funk, Big Boi also emphasizes vocal melodies and rich harmonies this time out. George Clinton, Janelle Monae, Lil Jon and T.I. all make appearances; sadly the Kate Bush hook-up didn’t work out, but there’s no reason why her idiosyncracies couldn’t have fit right into Big Boi’s vision as well.

For whatever reason, Sir Lusicous Left Foot was rejected by his previous record company, which claimed to not hear any hits—an accusation that is patently ridiculous. This is every bit as full of hooks as Speakerboxxx and doubles as a welcome return and a bold step forward. (July 15)

Download (iTunes, amazon.com, puretracks.com): “Shutterbugg,” “Tambourine,” “Follow Us”

Brasstronaut – Mount Chimeara (Unfamiliar)

This Vancouver band does feature a trumpet player and they do play spacey music—but that doesn’t excuse their terrible moniker. Can a group of musicians who pick the name Brasstronaut actually have any taste in music? Thankfully, they do, and Mount Chimeara finds them charting their own course with expansive songs and instrumentation that veers into jazzy territory: upright bass, electric piano, trumpets, clarinets and violins provide delicate shadings, like a jazzier Talk Talk or a considerably more chill and less apocalyptic Godspeed You Black Emperor. Mount Chimeara was partially written and recorded during a residency at the Banff Centre, but it’s the Vancouver vibe that is evident throughout—you can almost taste the ocean air. (July 22)

Download (zunior.com): “Slow Knots,” “Lo Hi Hopes,” “Insects”

The Clientele – Minotaur (Merge)

When The Clientele announced they were breaking up this year, shortly after the release of easily their best album, 2009’s Bonfires on the Heath, they were commended for going on a high note. And yet here they are again, with an eight-song EP that’s every bit as delectable and definitive as that album, one that encapsulates their rainy-day U.K. dream-pop perfectly. Alisdair MacLean gets increasingly melodic with each passing release, while “The Green Room” is little more than a poem set to sound art, showing the band pushing forward in every direction. Which once again leads to the obvious question: why stop now? (July 15)

Download (iTunes, eMusic, amazon.com): “Minotaur,” “Jerry,” “Strange Town”

Gonjasufi – A Sufi and a Killer (Warp)

Sumach Ecks, who records as Gonjasufi, admits in interviews he does yoga every day not just for his health, but to calm his temper. That’s obvious on his debut album, which straddles chilled-out, psychedelic soul and paranoid, dishevelled garage rock, with North African and Arabic influences woven throughout, and Ecks’s gravelly, morning-after crackle of a voice—not unlike Tricky’s, or late period Sly Stone—attempting to glue it all together. There are times when Ecks lets his aggression breaks free, but much of A Sufi and a Killer is about tension and restraint—especially when most of the songs clock in at less than three minutes, presumably checking out before things get really, really weird. Even at its most disorienting, it manages to be entirely intoxicating, and highly recommended for the next heat wave. (July 15)

Download (iTunes, eMusic, amazon.com): “Ancestors,” “Change,” “Duet”

Grady – Good as Dead (C12)

Not sure what the album title is referring to, but it’s safe to say that guitarist Gordie Johnson hasn’t had the same kind of success with Grady as he did with Big Sugar in the ’90s. Not that he seems to care: he’s relocated to Austin, Texas, is still playing as loud as ever, and Grady’s brand of what he calls “cowboy metal” has legions of enthusiastic fans in the U.S.—including ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons and, oddly enough, punk icon Jello Biafra, who is quoted as saying Grady is the “missing link between early Johnny Winter and Ministry.” (Biafra also put out an earlier album on his label, Alternative Tentacles.)

So while Grady once sounded like a low-grade boogie band doing Big Sugar covers, Johnson has whipped this band into shape and found its own sound—and its own songs, like “Alberta Bone”s and “If I Was King,” that prove Johnson isn’t just relying on guitar gimmicks. (A almost unrecognizable cover of The Tragically Hip’s “Boots or Hearts” is a nice touch, as well.) That he’s still a phenomenal guitarist is undisputed, and this album demands to be played at full volume. The rhythm section could use some more swagger and swing, but Johnson’s energy alone carries the day. (July 1)

Download (iTunes, eMusic): “Blackass Woman,” “Alberta Bones,” “If I Was King”

Sarah Harmer – Oh Little Fire (Universal)

It’s been five years since we heard from Sarah Harmer, and there was no telling what we might expect. Another acoustic record, like 2005’s I’m a Mountain? A return to her Weeping Tile rock days? An everything-all-at-once classic like 2000’s You Were Here? All bets were off when first single “Captive” made it to radio; some unsuspecting listeners thought it sounded like Metric, not because of some synth-rock makeover, but because of Harmer’s vocal style.

It turns out that this album’s closest predecessor is 2004’s All Our Names, a sanded-off album that didn’t seem to satisfy fans of any of Sarah’s various sides. Thankfully, Oh Little Fire has considerably more zip than that, perhaps due to her long absence, and it says a lot about Harmer’s charisma and talent that she can communicate some rather raw emotions in jaunty acoustic pop. She may be feeling heartbroken—as anyone could easily discern from titles like “Captive,” “Careless,” “New Loneliness and “The Thief”—but minor chords are rare here, and tempos seldom drag.

Sarah Harmer is so good at what she does—or rather, everything she’s done so far, be it raucous rock, old-timey jazz, acoustic country, or pop music—that one can only wonder what it would sound like if Oh Little Fire had sparked some serious reinvention. Then again, if it ain’t broke…(July 1)

Download (iTunes, amazon.com): “Captive,” “The City,” “Silverado”

Kylie Minogue – Aphrodite (EMI)
Robyn – Body Talk Pt. 2 (Universal)

Criticizing a fembot like Kylie Minogue is pointless: no one listens to her records expecting an outpouring of warmth or human emotion. She’s managed to maintain a mysterious 25-year international career by being largely faceless, her singles largely indistinguishable—with the exception of 2000’s “Can’t Get You Out of My Head.” Along the way there has been an oddball duet with Nick Cave and a high-profile battle with breast cancer, but there’s little on Aphrodite that sounds significantly different than anything else Minogue has done since day one, and with no standout single as a calling card, either.

And so Swedish pop singer Robyn is here to tell us: “I’ve got some news for you/ fembots have feelings, too.” On the surface, little distinguishes herself from Minogue: both sound robotic, both revel in technological artifice, neither of them pretend to be anything but pop stars. Yet Robyn actually has personality: she’s tough (“Don’t F---ing Tell Me What To Do”), she’s independent (“None of Dem”), and she can be vulnerable (“Dancing On My Own”)—but ultimately warns you not to fall in love with her (“Hang With Me”). She sounds perpetually dissatisfied that lovers and the world at large will never meet her high standards—and you can be sure that she’s not settling for second best: from anyone else, from herself, from her music. (July 15)

Download Robyn (iTunes, puretracks.com, amazon.com): “Dancehall Queen,” “None of Dem,” “Cry When You Get Older”

Owen Pallett – Lewis Takes Off His Shirt EP (Domino)

"Lewis Takes Off His Shirt" is by far the poppiest song on Pallett’s recent neo-classical masterpiece, Heartland. Odd, then, that the three remixes on this EP don’t make it any more danceable than it already is; only Benoit Pioulard’s near-ambient approach improves on the original—and does so by removing any rhythm track at all, as well as 95 per cent of the vocals, making the song sound almost sombre. Most disappointing is Dan Deacon’s remix, which manages to muddy the waters, seemingly forgetting about various faders and leaving everything on all the time. Simon Bookish wins the contest, however, by roping the 9/4 time signature of “Keep the Dog Quiet” onto the dance floor with all its quirks intact—if not adding more. (July 22)

Download (iTunes, eMusic, amazon.com): “Keep the Dog Quiet (Simon Bookish remix),” “Lewis Takes Off His Shirt (Benoit Pioulard remix),” “Midnight Directives (Max Tundra remix)”

Reflection Eternal: Talib Kweli and Hi-Tek – Revolutions Per Minute (Rawkus)

Never mind Jay-Z: Talib Kweli is one of the top MCs of the last decade, and that’s something Jay-Z himself has admitted on record (a line that’s immodestly sampled here). And while his albums have been somewhat spotty, his best tracks have always been with DJ Hi-Tek, dating back to Kweli’s days in Black Star with Mos Def. Revolutions Per Minute is only the second Reflection Eternal album (and the first in 10 years), but it’s a mature encapsulation of everything Kweli has been up to since the start. With one exception: there’s very little straight-up hip-hop here, relying instead of ’70s soul styles. And it’s not because Kweli is any less fiery. If anything, Hi-Tek pulls some punches in order not to compete with Kweli’s verses; instead of sounding weak, he sounds entirely complementary and comfortable—like long-time collaborators should. (July 15)

Download (iTunes, amazon.com, puretracks.com): “Back Again,” “In This World,” “Midnight Hour” (featuring Estelle)

The Roots – How I Got Over (Universal)

After eight albums, 15 years, and hundreds upon hundreds of marathon live shows, the Roots had announced that the 2008 album Rising Down would be their last. They had just got a gig as the house band on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, they still planned on being a touring band, and bandleader ?uestlove was consistently busy with other projects. What else was there to say? To do?

For starters, their recorded output had never reached the level of respect that everyone had for the band as an entity‹and that¹s why How I Got Over is as much of a comeback as it is a classic in their catalogue. Rarely, if ever, have the multi-talented Roots crew been able to sustain a mood over the course of a concise album that plays to all their strengths: classic hip-hop, both vintage and neo-soul, and eclectic influences filtered through their unique vision.

Lyrically, How I Got Over is very much like a hangover of the George W. Bush years, with battered idealism and plenty of self-doubt. And yet the music is far from dark: it¹s fierce and funky, it¹s soothing and soulful, and it benefits from a bevy of guests that range from usual collaborators Dice Raw, Phonte and Blu to John Legend and the Dirty Projectors. Two songs born of borrowed sources don¹t sample or cover existing songs, but instead invite the original artists—in this case, Jim James of My Morning Jacket and Monsters of Folk, and harpist Joanna Newsom—to sing their hooks while the MCs write verses that expand on the original themes.

This isn’t a band ready for its Vegas years. This is a band with a renewed sense of purpose. (July 8)

Download (iTunes, puretracks.com, amazon.com): “Right On,” “How I Got Over,” “The Fire”

Shad – TSOL (Black Box)

Shad doesn’t believe in wasting words. The London, Ontario MC packs enough of them into his third album that he could be excused for slacking off once in a while, but the free-associative double entendres fly fast and furious here. The pop culture references and occasionally adolescent jokes abound—he calls himself a “true school rapper with middle school humour”—but there’s no denying his versatility and verbal dexterity, which is equal to his ’90s heroes like Common or Guru. He can also be deadly serious when he wants to, like on the tribute to clever ladies on “Keep Shining,” or the post-Obama paranoia of “At The Same Time.” Guests include Ian Kamau, Classified, Justin Nokuza and Broken Social Scene’s Brendan Canning and Lisa Lobsinger, all of whom help make TSOL Shad’s most solid set of backing tracks to date. But there’s no doubt the spotlight is all on the main MC, who is as warm, funny and engaging as he is whip-smart on the mic. This fall he’ll be hooking up with K’naan for a fall tour; on TSOL, Shad sounds like he’s a small step away from a “Wavin’ Flag” of his own. (July 22)

Download (iTunes, eMusic, amazon.com, puretracks.com): “Telephone,” “We Myself and I,” “At the Same Time”

The Slew – 100% (Ninja Tune)

Ten years ago, Montreal turntablist master Kid Koala appeared on a track by Handome Boy Modeling School called “Rock’n’Roll Could Never Hip-Hop Like This.” Now, after years in the interim make abstract, absurdist and jazzy records and pop cameos, Kid Koala returns to the rock, splicing myriad ’70s rock riffs together and setting them to the heaviest hip-hop beats this side of John Bonham. That mash-up sounds almost too easy to do, in a way that everyone from Girl Talk on down has done already. But Koala doesn’t take obvious classics and funk them up; in fact, you’d be hard pressed to name any of these samples. Instead, as always, he’s primarily interested in sounds, taking a distorted organ or a fuzzed-out guitar or a hysterical scream and manipulating it manually, rather than letting the original sources play out. But unlike much of his other work, The Slew is very much a visceral rock’n’roll experience—live, it’s augmented by the former rhythm section of Wolfmother, although they don’t appear here—and leaves little doubt that, yes, rock’n’roll can hip-hop like this. (July 1)

Download (now only available physically): “You Turn Me Cold,” “Battle of Heaven and Hell,” “Robbing Banks (Doin’ Time)”

Stars – The 5 Ghosts (Universal)

Three years ago, Stars put out an album called In Our Bedroom After the War, with songs titled “Take Me to the Riot” and “Barricades.” If they’d have released that album the week of G20 protests in their hometown of Toronto, their melodramatic sense of drama might not have felt so histrionic—albeit effectively so—as it did at the time. Now, they return with songs about how “dead hearts are everywhere” and how “thousands of ghosts in the daylight walking through my hometown square.”

Yet the ghosts here might as well refer to Stars’ past glories, which seem hidden in a distant past on this, their major label debut. “I Died So I Could Haunt You” provides an unhelpful reminder that a definite sense of loss—even defeatism—hangs over the album, as opposed to the romantic idealism that has often buoyed their more triumphant moments. The band gets easily caught up in their own contradictions: “Changes/ I’ve never been good with change/ I hate it when it all stays the same.”

Musically, they step back from the more rock-heavy moves of recent album and rely more on synths. But while the production is top notch, the songs rarely rise to the occasion—especially when they try on an electro-pop sex-kitten jam called “We Don’t Want Your Body,” which sounds like a twisted collaboration between Trent Reznor and Mariah Carey.

At one point, Amy Millan sings: “I don’t mind this wasted, hated daylight.” I don’t know why her character hates the daylight, but it certainly sounds like it’s wasted here. (July 1)

Download (iTunes, eMusic, puretracks.com, amazon.com): “The Passenger,” “Wasted Daylight,” “Changes”

Wolf Parade – Expo 86 (Sub Pop)

When Wolf Parade first appeared on anyone’s radar in 2004, part of what blew everyone away was that they appeared fully formed, with classic songs and a sound of their own cobbled together from the debris of their major influences, and bashed out on equipment that could barely stay together. Now that the two songwriters (Spencer Krug and Dan Boeckner) have successful bands of their own (Sunset Rubdown and Handsome Furs, respectively)—with more records between them than Wolf Parade does at this point, the original project can seem like an afterthought—which it did on 2008’s disappointing At Mount Zoomer.

For whatever reason, Expo 86 finds Wolf Parade sounding hungry once again, ready to prove something either to themselves, the world, or both. Both Boeckner and Krug are not necessarily at the top of their game—their recent albums with their other bands are, overall, more cohesive and satisfying—but they’ve obviously agreed to make a full-on rock’n’roll record, with nary a ballad in the bunch, and the lines blurred between their individual songwriting styles.

Engineer Howard Bilerman helps deliver perhaps the biggest sound Wolf Parade has ever put to tape, and every member of the band puts everything they have into visceral performances—there are even guitar solos this time out. The lyrics are often absurdist (“I had a vision! / Of a gorilla! / And he was a killer! A KILLER!”), but no matter: Expo 86 is a return to the giddy thrill of discovery, the rush of youth, and the sparks that ignited such an explosive band in the first place. (July 8)

Download (iTunes, amazon.com, puretracks.com): “Little Golden Age,” “What Did My Lover Say?”, “Pobody’s Nerfect”

The Wooden Sky – If I Don’t Come Home You’ll Know I’m Gone (Black Box)

It’s tempting to file Toronto’s The Wooden Sky as a roots rock act. All the signifiers are there: pedal steel, acoustic guitar, country rhythms, occasional gospel influences and a slight twang in Gavin Gardiner’s voice. And yet The Wooden Sky don’t fit into any easy category, due primarily to Gardiner’s songwriting, which is more on par with the noir-ish elegance of The National than, say, Blue Rodeo. While most Canadian roots artists tend to play it rather straight, The Wooden Sky are, along with Cuff the Duke, one of the more convincing acts to deliver raucous, occasionally epic country rock that never sounds like it’s falling back on a formula. Passionate performances and no shortage of standout tracks make this a powerful statement from an exciting band. No wonder they leapt from obscurity to the Polaris Prize long list this year; their dynamic set at Guelph’s Hillside Festival in July proved that they’re ready for much bigger stages. (July 22)

Download (iTunes, eMusic, amazon.com, puretracks.com): “Angels,” “Oslo,” “An Evening Hymn”

Wovenhand – The Threshingfloor (Sounds Familyre)

“I am the god of hellfire!” began an old psychedelic rock classic by Arthur Brown, a man who has nothing on David Eugene Edwards, a.k.a. Wovenhand. Edwards believes in a god of blood and redemption, and doesn’t think that Christian music is meant to be some kind of feel-good false witness to the world. Edwards sings with great gravitas about a God who has the whole world in his hands—and is going to do whatever He damn well pleases with it, human intentions be damned. Speaking of the whole world,

Edwards expands his usual mix of gothic country, blues, Celtic and Appalachian folk with textures drawn from Arabic, Native American, Italian and Indian sources, all of which seamlessly fit into his songwriting and help create his best album to date—which, considering the impeccable 2003 self-titled Wovenhand album, is no small achievement. (July 8)

Wovenhand plays the Garrison in Toronto on October 1.

Download (iTunes, eMusic, amazon.com): “A Holy Measure,” “Sinking Hands,” “Terre Haute”