Tuesday, November 30, 2010

November '10 reviews

The following reviews ran in the Kitchener-Waterloo Record and Guelph Mercury in November.

Black Dub – s/t (Sony)

It’s easier to say what Black Dub is not rather than what it is: it is not a vehicle for the songs of Daniel Lanois, nor his voice; though it is texturally rich, it is not atmospheric pop; and—with the exception of single I Believe In You—it bears little relationship to Jamaican dub reggae music, as the band name might suggest.

If anything, this band—featuring master jazz drummer Brian Blade, longtime Lanois collaborator Darryl Johnson and young singer Trixie Whitley (daughter of the departed Chris Whitley, a client and friend of Lanois—is a showcase for the bluesy vocals of Whitley, a neophyte who certainly holds her own in the company of considerably more seasoned musicians. Yet that’s all it appears to be: a bunch of veterans hanging loose and letting the compelling young woman do her thing. Despite their long history of collaboration together, on Lanois’s records or with Emmylou Harris, they sound more like sidemen here than a band in their own right, and Whitley’s gospel-intensity vocals feel like they’d be better suited to music with a tougher edge.

Black Dub is the most accessible, pop-oriented album of Lanois’s solo career in years, which is no doubt in part why it rocketed to the top of the iTunes chart, and many fans will not be disappointed. And needless to say, it sounds amazing. But there’s a lot more potential in this project that has yet to be tapped. (Nov. 11)

Download: “I Believe In You,” “Ring the Alarm,” “Nomad”

Jason Collett – Pony Tricks (Arts and Crafts)

Jason Collett is currently on a solo tour; not coincidentally, he’s just released this album of stripped-down re-recordings of previously released songs. And not that his recent albums haven’t featured fine production and performances, but Collett’s songs sound much better here, in their bare essence, with little more than harmony vocals, occasional drums and maybe an accordion floating in the background. Collett’s skill as a rhythm guitarist can be drowned out on his other albums; here, his self-accompaniment shines. Likewise, when he’s not fronting a rock’n’roll band, his voice sounds much more at ease and less affected, at times downright intoxicating. Pure pop songs like "Bitter Beauty" get slowed down to a dead-stop tempo, and prove to be just as engaging. For much of his solo career, Collett has tried to resist being tagged as a folkie singer/songwriter as opposed to a pop artist—but this, his folkiest album to date, is easily one of the best things he’s ever done. (Nov. 4)

Download: “Bitch City,” “Bitter Beauty,” “Feral Republic”

Elvis Costello – National Ransom (Lost Highway)

Oh, enough already. Another year, another new album in Elvis Costello’s discography to mark a serious dent in his reputation. Just because his prolific output in his youth happened to result in albums that people still cherish 30 years later doesn’t mean he’s still capable of pulling off the album-a-year pace. What’s worse is that his Americana kick is still in full force, and no matter how much he hangs around T-Bone Burnett or Allen Toussaint, he still hasn’t learned the simplicity at the core of American folk songs; far too often he’s trying to shoehorn his dense narratives into an old-timey-sounding country shuffle, with forgettable melodies and off-the-cuff arrangements that don’t do the already weak songs any favours. An impassioned vocal delivery throughout only makes it all more mystifying, but at least he’s not phoning in that part, even if everything else sounds like he’s wearing someone else’s clothes. Tellingly, the best song here is called “I Lost You.”

Costello remains a powerful performer and a knowledgeable TV host; can we please declare a moratorium on new material, however? (Nov. 11)

Download: “I Lost You,” “You Hung the Moon,” “Stations of the Cross”

Tanya Davis – Clocks and Hearts Keep Going (independent)

Halifax’s Tanya Davis is an award-winning poet—but unlike most award-winning poets, you’ve probably heard her work. Over 1.8 million people have viewed a short film she narrated for director Andrea Dorfman, called How To Be Alone. Few of those people, however, are aware that Davis is also a singer/songwriter, but this album—her third, and produced by Jim Bryson—is likely to change that. Despite her literary background, Davis isn’t a poet adapting herself to a song format; she knows how to write an earnest and simple melody and let the music do most of the talking. Simplicity is her strength, and never more so than on “Sweep the Dust,” a gorgeous and lilting adult lullaby. (Nov. 25)

Download: “Mourn Your Losses,” “Eulogy for You and Me,” “Sweep the Dust”

Brian Eno – Small Craft on a Milk Sea (Warp)

Though Eno’s recent solo albums, including a collaboration with David Byrne, were more song-oriented, Small Craft on a Milk Sea is an instrumental affair that balances the atmospherics of his ambient work with more percussive electronic pieces that, on songs like “2 Forces of Anger,” can occasionally veer into rock territory. All of which, for such a well-known and little understood cult figure, makes this the ultimate introduction into everything Brian Eno is about as an artist and sound sculptor, one whose work and wide influence has spanned 40 years. If you’ve ever had difficulty navigating his uneven discography, which even diehard fans do, this is a welcome summation—and not one that’s about retreading past glories, but one firmly rooted in the present and just as contemporary as anything heard from the current generation of artists, a generation born around the same time Eno was composing his Music For Airports.

Download: “Dust Shuffle,” “Small Craft on a Milk Sea,” “Paleosonic”

Bryan Ferry – Olympia (EMI)

Bryan Ferry made Roxy Music’s Avalon album in 1980. Bryan Ferry has made many records since; all of them sound like Avalon. Some are almost as good—1985’s Boys and Girls, 1994’s Mamouna—but really, let’s be honest, they were no Avalon. So on that spectrum, Olympia is one of Ferry’s better solo records, populated more with his own songs (co-written with the Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart) than covers that he usually has a tendency to butcher—not that that hasn’t stopped him over the course of his 13 solo albums, especially 2007’s Dylanesque; thankfully, his take on Tim Buckley’s "Song to the Siren" here is one of his better interpretations.

As expected, Ferry is a suave, sultry leading man; the music is seductive, even if, as always with Ferry, you always feel somewhat underdressed for his cocktail party—the glamour shot of Kate Moss on the cover doesn’t help. Bryan Ferry will always be classier than you and me.

The list of his classy collaborators is outstanding: Pink Floyd’s David Gilmore, Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea, Chic’s Nile Rodgers, Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, Groove Armada and the Scissor Sisters. Roxy Music fans will note the presence of that band’s Phil Manzanera, Andy Mackay and Brian Eno; though they were also present on Mamouna, some of these tracks were meant for a new Roxy Music album dating back to 2005.

As lovely as it all is, Ferry’s music still sounds more like a lifestyle accessory than anything else; maybe that’s all it has to be. Too bad it’s coming out before Destroyer’s early 2011 release Kaputt, which takes more than a few pages from Ferry’s solo career. (Nov. 4)

Download: “Heartache By Numbers,” “Shameless,” “Alphaville”

The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger – Acoustic Sessions (Chimera)

Sean Lennon’s solo records—while pleasant enough—were never more than a curiosity for the freakiest of Beatle freaks, so it’s no surprise his new project, with girlfriend and model Charlotte Kemp Muhl, doesn’t grant him marquee status. Yet it’s very much Lennon’s show; Muhl’s cooing voice might be higher in the mix, but these are Lennon’s songs and his years of musical experience (musical director for his mother, Yoko Ono, as well as collaborating with his previous girlfriend, Cibo Matto’s Yuka Honda) overshadow Muhl’s presence. The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger is a breezy affair—mostly acoustic, as the title indicates—with nods to Brazilian bossa nova and lightweight French pop music of the ’60s. As always with Lennon, there’s little here that says much about him as an artist as opposed to a craftsman; but without his name front and centre, perhaps that’s all he aims to be. (Nov. 4)

Download: “Lavender Road,” “Jardin du Luxembourg,” “Rainbows in Gasoline”

Cee-Lo Green – The Lady Killer (Warner)

Cee-Lo Green claims he wasn’t out to turn heads with his single “Fuck You,” which became a viral video hit this past summer. But if combining a bitter kiss-off with a classic-sounding soul song seems gimmicky—which it might be, but the strength of the song more than justifies it—the rest of The Lady Killer easily matches the momentum of what could have been a fluke hit.

The template of “Fuck You” is consistent with most of the rest of the album, with Green setting heartbroken, sometimes bitter, sometimes manipulative, sometimes just plain sad lyrics to upbeat, major-key melodies—which could also sum up 90 per cent of the Motown catalogue, really. And, as he did with Gnarls Barkley, there are times when he takes darker turns (“Bodies,” “Love Gun”), part of the mentally tormented persona that is part of all his songs.

That Green is an astounding soul singer is no secret; it was his voice, after all, that was central to the Gnarls Barkley smash hit single “Crazy.” But the material here finds him at full throttle, illustrating at times an almost operatic range. The music is firmly rooted in soul music from the ’60s to the ’90s, from Motown through Philly through Michael Jackson (the bass line in “Bright Lights Bigger City” is suspiciously similar to “Billie Jean”) to more modern technology—a trajectory that stops short before the likes of R. Kelly and Usher took R&B somewhere else entirely. But Green never sounds old-fashioned; he’s more of a renaissance man with a wide template to do whatever the f--- he wants. (Nov. 18)

Download: “Fuck You,” “It’s OK,” “Bright Lights Bigger City”

Kid Cudi – Man on the Moon II: The Legend of Mr. Rager (Universal)

Kid Cudi is a Kanye West protégé—but one that has certainly surpassed his mentor with this album. He is every bit as self-indulgent, and Man on the Moon II is just as much of a downer, mood-wise, as West’s latest. But musically, it’s a diverse and fascinating journey that sets Cudi apart from anyone else in proximity of mainstream hip-hop, including West; that Cudi is as big as he is seems almost miraculous, considering how outré his beats are.

Part of the reason for that is that Cudi is an admitted stoner; marijuana is his drug of choice, although there are others mentioned here, too. And just like drugs themselves, Kid Cudi is best in small doses; Man on the Moon II is far too long and Cudi eventually wears out his welcome, as stoners are wont to do. But being the introspective navel-gazer that he is, Cudi is well aware of the pitfalls of his chosen lifestyle, and this album sounds like a reckoning, a snapshot of an artist in transition. If he can begin to emerge from his own fog, Cudi could be one of the major hip-hop artists of the new decade—if he isn’t already. (Nov. 25)

Download: “The Mood,” “Wild’n Cuz I’m Young,” “Mr. Rager”

Doug Paisley – Constant Companion (No Quarter)

Soft-spoken male singer/songwriters are a dime a dozen; precious few have the magic that elevate them above that wispy din you hear in the corner of your local coffeehouse. And then there is Doug Paisley.

Presumably no relation to Brad, it’s hard to imagine this Toronto performer ever raising his voice above a soft croon. His own guitar work is compelling enough alone as accompaniment, but he manages to rope in members of The Band (Garth Hudson), Blue Rodeo (Bazil Donovan), and Feist, who duets on “Don’t Make Me Wait.” There are more than a few stylistic similarities to Toronto’s suddenly quite popular Bahamas—with whom Paisley is currently touring—but while that band’s Afie Jurvanen is known just as much for his guitar playing as his songwriting, with Paisley it is all about the song.

Any one of the nine tracks heard here sound like a long-lost, dusty ’70s classic best suited for a Sunday morning hangover. Doug Paisley will not be a secret for much longer; this is easily one of the best singer/songwriter albums of the last year. (Nov. 25)

Download: "Always Say Goodbye," "No One But You," "Come Here My Love"

Steven Page – Page One (Warner)

If you wanted to, you could try and analyze Steven Page’s first proper solo album for insight into the tumultuous past few years of his life, which include a divorce, a drug bust, and leaving one of the most successful Canadian bands of the last 20 years (who released an album without him earlier this year).

But why would you? Page has always specialized in writing in a specific voice; many of his best songs have always been self-contained narratives and neurotic character portraits, and this album is no different. Playing guessing games with the lyrics is far less enjoyable than sitting back and appreciating a well-crafted pop album, which has only ever been Page’s aim since the early days of the Barenaked Ladies.

Now that he’s not performing under a name that most adults were embarrassed to pronounce out loud, Page hasn’t suddenly gone serious: instead, he seems ready to try anything, from big band (“Leave Hear Alone”) to Eurodisco (“Queen of America”) to string quartets (“All the Young Monogamists”) to Burt Bacharach-style sweet pop (“Clifton Springs”) to ambitiously big ballads (“The Chorus Girl”) to songs that could easily have been Barenaked Ladies songs (“Indecision,” “She’s Trying to Save Me”). Oddly enough, the only time he ever sounds derivative is on “Over Joy,” a song that sounds specifically like an outtake from Blue Rodeo’s Casino album—albeit a good one.

Throughout, Page sounds reinvigorated and ready for the next phase of his career—which, based on Page One, is unlikely to be overshadowed by earlier successes. (Nov. 4)

Download: “Over Joy,” “The Chorus Girl,” “All the Young Monogamists”

Rihanna – Loud (Universal)

On one of the vocal powerhouse showcases here, Rihanna tells her lover: “Everything with you is complicated / you’re not easy to love.”

You don’t say. The tough young Barbadian with big pop hooks who blew up large on 2007’s Good Girl Gone Bad returned with a limp pop album, 2009’s Rated R, that diluted her strengths and failed to produce even a couple of memorable songs. Loud is not only a return to form—full of catchy pop melodies that should keep its singles on the charts for another year—but it’s a more musically mature record that finds the often robotic singer letting loose a bit; on tracks like “Complicated” and lead single “Only Girl in the World,” she goes for the gusto and pulls it off.

Lyrically, however, this good girl is still trying to prove how bad she is, and that’s where Loud runs into trouble. Lead-off track “SAndM” is about exactly what you think it is, its chorus using a joke that only schoolchildren find racy: “Sticks and stones may break my bones but chains and whips excite me.” It’s set to one of the one of the more gripping club beats here, and wouldn’t be out of place on a Peaches album. But after the 2009 tabloid frenzy that made Rihanna one of the most visible victims of domestic abuse—at the hand of her then-boyfriend Chris Brown—it’s more than a bit disconcerting to hear her singing about masochism.

Mind you, that’s child’s play compared to her straight-up domestic-abuse duet with Eminim, “I Love the Way You Lie”; his version was already a hit this summer; here, she presents it more as a straight-up song without any annoying intrusion from—oh wait, there he is at the end. If the S&M of the opening track is playful, “I Love the Way You Lie” is downright disturbing, and not just because of Eminem’s detailed description of a mutually abusive relationship, but—again—hearing current pop music’s most high-profile battery victim sing: “Just going to stand there and watch me burn? / That’s all right because I like the way it hurts.” Granted, she also sings about her own murderous revenge on the dancehall-tinged “Man Down,” so maybe all is fair in love and war and pop art. But it’s sure going to be hard to explain all these complicated gender politics to all the pre-teens who love Rihanna. (Nov. 18)

Download: "SAndM," "Complicated," "Only Girl in the World"

John K. Samson – Provincial Road 222 / City Route 85 (Anti)

The first time I heard “Stop Error,” a song from John K. Samson’s Provincial Road 222 EP, I though the Weakerthans’ singer/songwriter had gone batshit crazy. The pop punk songwriter, whose voice can best be described as nasal, leads an all-choral arrangements of a madrigal that begins with the lyrics: “My monitor is broken” and goes on to speak of HTML tags, the theme music of Call of Duty 4 and assorted technological breakdowns. But once expectations had been shattered, “Stop Error” actually turns out to be brilliant—not because of the lovely choral arrangements, but in the way Samson’s befuddled narrator starts to see the patterns of flawed logic of his broken computer in the workings of the world around him.

Samson’s songwriting has always sounded worlds away from other bands who happen to sound like the Weakerthans; therefore, it’s not surprising that freed from any musical constraints, his songwriting is just as effective, affecting and poignant. Anything goes on Provincial Road 222; on the earlier EP City Route 85 (released last fall) Samson travels the more conventional solo singer/songwriter route. Both are part of a series he says will explore “the atmospheric streets and highways surrounding Winnipeg.” And if you missed Samson touring as part of the Correction Line Ensemble, with his wife Christine Fellows and four classical musicians, reliable rumour has it that it was quite a treat and a whole other beast altogether. (Nov. 11)

Download: “Stop Error,” “The Last And,” “Heart of the Continent”

Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (Universal)

Kanye West could be heard apologizing for past behaviour recently, making amends with Taylor Swift and admitting that he’s been a bit of a jerk. So now we should see a kinder, gentler Kanye West, yes? Not really. In one of the more (unintentionally?) hilarious boasts heard here, West retorts: “I don’t need your pussy, bitch, I’m on my own dick.” Whatever—he’s certainly crawled up his own ass.

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, is, as expected, remarkably indulgent, juvenile, and, well, boring. There are certainly no pop songs on the level of “Gold Digger” or “Stronger”; the most arresting tracks—“Power” and “Monster”—here are too profane for pop radio and have too many cameos to make them great Kanye West singles. And for every moment of musical brilliance, there’s a song like “Runaway,” a nine-minute epic that ends with an interminable guitar solo—which is actually West’s (or someone’s) voice run through a distortion pedal (and likely AutoTune as well).

Lyrically, West spends his sex-obsessed time drunk driving, getting slapped with restraining orders, and fantasizing about porn stars, eventually suggesting: “Let’s have a toast for the douchebags, let’s have a toast for the assholes.”

Maybe it’s too easy to take literally; maybe it’s all a massive orgy of self-parody. But who cares? The only lasting impression comes from the chorus of “So Appalled,” where West and Jay-Z point out: “You know this shit is fucking ridiculous.” But if it is, then what’s up with the gratuitous gravitas of the Gil Scott-Heron sample that closes the album, on a 90-second snippet called “Who Will Survive in America?” (Answer: the narcissists, apparently.)

Why anyone—least of all Taylor Swift or a former president of the United States—cares about Kanye West’s opinion on anything is mystifying. The man used to be a fantastic producer; now he is only so merely occasionally. He also used to be funny; now he sounds consistently mean and bitter. Every time he steps to a microphone, on stage or off stage, the man is increasingly embarrassing, a victim of his own hubris. And yet, we only seem to be rewarding him even more—look, I just wasted 400 words on the asshole. (Nov. 25)

Download: “Power,” “All of the Lights,” “Monster”