Thursday, February 24, 2011

Colin Stetson

When Colin Stetson straps on his bass saxophone, he looks like he’s girding up for war. This is the bass saxophone we’re talking about, not the baritone; the bass saxophone is the musical instrument that most resembles a rocket launcher.

Stetson’s solo performances—which is what he does when he’s not performing with Arcade Fire, Laurie Anderson, Antibalas, or as a member of Bell Orchestre—can be an all-out assault, involving sheets of sound ripped from the bell of his sax, woven together with relentless arpeggios—all delivered via circular breathing.

Stetson, who grew up in Michigan and lived in Brooklyn and San Francisco before moving to Montreal, is not the kind of guy to stand on a street corner and serenade you with “Harlem Nocturne.” He’s less interested in melody than he is in every acoustical property possibly found on his saxophone: the percussive clicks and clacks; the non-notatable sounds of wind moving through it; the resonance of a room; the sound of his voice amplified through the saxophone, with or without the reed in play.

All of that makes him a skilled player, and anyone who witnessed an early solo show or heard his 2008 debut album, New History of Warfare Vol. 1, could attest. And his capacity for subtlety is part of the reason why the likes of Tom Waits (Alice), Bon Iver (the upcoming album), and TV on the Radio (Return to Cookie Mountain) have all enlisted him for studio recordings.

His new album, Judges: New History of Warfare Vol. 2, is a different beast entirely. Compositionally and sonically superior to its predecessor, Judges finds Stetson moving beyond the obvious—dare I say—gimmick of his solo show into the realm of emotionally engaging and enrapturing material.

He claims there’s an overarching narrative running through both albums, something about the societal structures of a group of shipwrecked sailors and blind horses rigged with automatic weapons. This will all one day make it into a graphic novel. Thankfully, he didn’t ask guest vocalists Anderson or Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond) to provide explicit exposition; instead, they’re almost distractions from the pleasure of getting lost inside his very private soundworld. Stetson does everything else himself, and records it live: there are no loops, overdubs or other trickery, other than some strategic mic placement.

I didn’t feel like asking him about the sci-fi narrative; I think those things are best left to a listener’s imagination.

Judges was released on Tuesday by Montreal's Constellation Records. Stetson performs with Laurie Anderson on Jimmy Fallon tonight.

Colin Stetson

February 6, 2011

Locale: phone from his home in Montreal

In performance, there’s an aspect of it that’s very meditative, there are parts that are ominous, parts that are ecstatic, and part of it is an all-out assault at times. What do you hope people take away from it when they’re witnessing it?

That was pretty good, what you just said. For me, that sums up a lot of my process, my experience of it. There is the ecstatic, but there is also the element of physical suffering, which then gets into the mind, because there’s pain involved. There’s a weird balance you get when you’re in certain states and dealing with oxygen deprivation. It’s like running a marathon or some kind of physical feat, where there is a lot of satisfaction but a lot of mixed emotion. What I hope people get from it is any one of those things that they feel causes a reaction. I feel like music is there to tell stories and cause a reaction. If they are there and it affects them in any way—emotionally, physically or otherwise—then that’s good.

It’s very hard to ignore. It is a physical experience to witness it—though obviously not as physical as you actually doing it. It’s not music to chat at the bar over.

No, that’s not my intention.

But to play devil’s advocate: someone at the bar might say, ‘Why do I want to listen to a guy practice arpeggios and his breathing technique?’

If that’s all that people are seeing then I’d prefer that they all left. It’s not a geek show—although I understand that there’s an element of that, the spectacle of seeing a guy sweat and turn red and do freaky shit.

Like weightlifting, really.

But the point of it is the music. I’m not doing these things for the sake of doing these things, of saying ‘look what I can do.’ Those are the things I have to do to make that music, and I hope people are hearing and experiencing and being moved by that music. If they’re not engaged in it musically in any way, there’d be no reason for them to be at the bar still.

I’ve seen you perform twice, but I can’t recall if you ever actually explain what’s happening on stage, that there’s no pedals involved.

I rarely say anything about that. Sometimes people will yell out things or ask a question and I’ll say something about it. Mostly I find the only reason for doing that would be to let everyone know that I’m working hard up there. Musically, I don’t think it changes anything, so it would be an awkward thing to have to say. Sometimes people will go to the soundman and ask them about what pedals I was using. But even when people are told, they don’t believe me, so I don’t care anymore. It’s noted on the records, but there’s a certain lack of imagination, I think. I’ve had interviewers say, “Well, your record says there are no loops or overdubs, but really, what’s your process?” Why do you think I would lie about that?

It is so uncommon, especially with so many shortcuts available these days, for someone to invest in the physicality of such a thing. How much does mic placement play a role on stage?

It depends on the size of the show. I prefer to do acoustic shows, resonant spaces like churches, warehouses, concert halls, places that accept a lot of sound and actually enhance it. But that’s not often the case, and I’m usually playing through PAs. Then I use an extremely stripped-down pile of mics: an internal mic, which is key for getting the fundamental low end of the instruments; I use a clip-on external mic, which gives the overall shine of the bell; I sometimes use a throat contact mic and contact mic on the instrument for percussion.

But I rarely use all that; it’s too many wires to deal with. When the show is acoustic, all those things are in play: you’ll hear the percussion, you’ll hear the vocalization. The only reason I do more miking for large shows is the further away people are, the more the PA is giving off the sound, and I want more things to be represented. A lot of things are lost when you only have one tiny microphone providing a snapshot of the overall instrument. But there’s never a way to capture things the way I want to during the recording process.

Part of what makes this record come alive compared to the first one is the mix, the sense of space.

Everything was bigger with this record. The first one was my first attempt at this notion of multi-miking and creating a surrealist reality within the context of the recording medium. The room was much smaller; we only used hover mics, no contact mics or internal mics. The Hotel 2 Tango [Constellation’s in-house studio, where the new album was made] is a massive space, so there were a lot of things that could be miked.

When did you decide to devote yourself to solo performance rather than forming your own band?

I’ve been doing occasional solo performances since my mid-20s, but they were more in the genre of free jazz and improv. I was dealing with some of these themes and techniques, but in much more of a stream of consciousness, improvised way. The shows resembled some of the things I was doing now, but over the years they developed into through composed pieces.

It was probably around 2005 that I started to focus on the solo pieces, I think because I was really busy in New York, playing with tons of bands, and having a hard time feeling like I had a focus. Me and my best friend Stuart Bogie [of Antibalas], who is an amazing sax player in New York City, his advice was to strip things down and start from a place with just a couple of projects. So I quit a bunch of things and stopped the hustle, and started focusing on the solo project and just a couple of key projects.

When did circular breathing become an essential part of what you do?

I’ve been doing that since I was 15. When I was in high school, I was a classical player primarily. My teacher at the time, Christopher Creviston, he was a phenomenal classical player and the big inspiration for me getting more involved in music. One of the things he taught me right away was circular breathing. His reasoning was that a lot of the pieces we played were transcriptions of string pieces. String players don’t need to breathe, so they don’t have to make the same choices we do because of breath. He used it as a means to overcome that. Also, in the teenage classical scene when you’re playing competitions, it’s flashy and it’s impressive and it wins you shit! ‘Use this and you’ll win.’ It totally worked. I got a scholarship to college because of that.

Forgive my ignorance, but is it something anybody can learn, or do some people have a natural capacity for it?

No, it’s very easy to do. The actual act of doing it is very simple. It’s like riding a bike. As soon as your brain overcomes the natural unwillingness to allow your body to do it, when you do it once, then you have it. The process of breathing in while breathing out is simple. What is hard is doing it while doing other shit—the muscle control of everything while you’re doing the intake/outtake.

And then there’s the amount of breath required to play a bass saxophone, too.

You need to send up a lot of air up that instrument. When you’re doing the intake/outtake, you have to keep an enormous amount of pressure on there to keep up the volume you want. You use a lot of diaphragm and face muscle. The technique itself is really secondary. The only thing that has come into play for me is that now I have the ability to breathe in and out through my nose while breathing out through my mouth, which allows me to play softly and with more nuance. It’s an ongoing process, like anything else physical. People in yoga or running talk about this, how it’s this path you get on and you never stop learning.

The bass saxophone itself, there’s an inherent physicality to it whether you’re circular breathing or not. What drew you to it? Where did you find one?

I’d wanted to play it since I was in college. We had one in university that nobody ever played, and I occasionally took it out for a spin. I played a lot of baritone in college, and always loved the low end of things more. I appreciated the depth and breadth of overtone that you can obtain, and the power.

But it’s hard to find good bass saxophones, and when you do, they’re really expensive. I found one on eBay in 2005, out of the blue. It was a beautiful 100-year-old instrument going for a really low price. I couldn’t figure out what could be wrong with it, and neither could my repairman. So I was playing this ridiculous show called the Jammies—which is like the Grammys for jam-band music—in the most awesome band ever, which was Medeski Martin and Wood as the rhythm section, with Antibalas horn section, and Burning Spear and Sinead O’Connor singing. It was so amazing, so out there…

See, I saw all those people on your resumé, but I didn’t realize that was all at just one gig.

I know, that’s where you cheat with your resumé! So that night we were just about to go on and my eBay auction was coming up, and my friend and I just sat there hitting refresh. And we won; I got it a few weeks later. That was one of those dark moments when you finally get the thing you’ve wanted your whole life, and then you open it up and you start playing it and you realize that it’s fucking hard and you sound like shit on it. I always assumed it was just the same but a bit bigger—but it’s a lot bigger.

It’s about twice the size of a baritone, isn’t it?

Yeah, by the sheer size of the pipe and the width of it, yeah. It took a lot of training to get to a place where I could start making music with it.

After first seeing you live several years ago, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to buy the record. It was months later that I did. Hearing this new one, it’s obvious that there’s more composition and emotional resonance than something experienced only in the moment live. When I was watching it I wondered if it was something that only existed in the moment; the new CD answers that question for me.

They are two completely different experiences. When you present live music, all the things that are in play make a unique experience: you’re physically there, the sound is in the air and is touching your body. You’re experiencing it with your physiology, with your understanding, and with everyone else who is there. When you’re listening to a record, none of those things are in play. I don’t think you should approach it the same way. That’s why I try to make a unique experience out of this medium, so that it is not in any way trying to emulate the live experience, because you’ll always fall flat if you try to do that. I want to create something equally moving and informative. I come back to Haruki Murakami, who is my favourite writer, who achieves something I try to do with these records, which is to present this world as fact. I try to make a record like a Haruki Murakami novel.

Could you elaborate? What do you mean, creating a world with accepted parameters with an understanding of what happens within that world?

He’s not writing science fiction, but he’s not writing in this reality. His reality is his own, and you just accept it as you read along. You don’t accept it in a way that you’re envisioning another world or a different time or whatever. It’s just: this is the story, and this is its reality. There is a matter-of-factness that he demands and creates in a reader. It was the most impressive thing for me, so I’ve always wanted to achieve the same thing with these records, with this music. I’ve even ripped off some titles from his writing.

Maybe you should get him to appear on your next one. Why get Laurie Anderson or Shara Worden on this record? What role do their voices play on this record?

I always wanted to have human speech as an element; it’s the one thing the music is lacking. I wanted there to be some kind of abstract narrative, not in any way literal or having a vocalist for all these pieces.

With the first record, it was done quickly and in a haphazard way. We ended up using samples of talks by Buckminster Fuller. When I was first thinking about making these records, the recording process was the idea of the geodesic dome. We were going to take the three-dimensional sound, the reality of what’s happening in the studio, and capture it with as many mics as we can. We’d call that the dome, and then unfold it and fold it up again in a new way, creating a new reality from all the snapshots that we took. I grabbed some things that he said that I thought were creating this abstract narrative.

I had been working with Laurie for a little while, for the whole course of writing this new record, and I asked her if she wanted to do something. Her words and her voice are magic; there’s really nobody with her ability to, again, with one sentence can draw you into her world, something all of her creation. So I jumped at the opportunity for her to contribute, to be that voice. Shara I had been working with in The Long Count, and we’d talked about doing something together anyway. This record is inspired by a lot of American pre-war gospel music, and a lot of the writing was based on work songs, to have that inherent sadness and transcendence. I found a song that I thought would be perfect for the two of us to do in this way.

What was it you said you worked with her on? The Long Count?

Yes, Aaron and Bryce Dessner from the National teamed up with the Deal sisters and wrote this thing based on the Mayan calendar and its creation myth. It was a whole thing about twins. I was part of the group that played the music for it, and did some of my solo stuff in the context of it, and Shara was the main voice in it. She has this otherworldly haunting voice. Having her voice represent this part of this record helped create this element of a lost space, a lost people hunting, that was isolated geographically and through time and evolved in its own way, unfettered by outside power.

Laurie Anderson’s words here—was that a text she had lying around, or did you ask her to write something on the theme of the record?

I gave her very little to go on, and what I ended up giving her was that the album was about isolation, with themes of fear and transcendence. She just went ahead and riffed. The second to last song on the record, with both Shara and Laurie on it, was something that I had asked them both to do simultaneously, independent of one another, and I got both of theirs back on the same day. I pressed play on them both at the same time and I freaked out. They seemed to read each other’s minds, which was awesome.

What else is on your plate now? I know you were performing new works with Laurie Anderson in the fall, post-Homeland. What was she doing?

All last year we were doing her stage show Delusions. I think we’re done with that at this point, and she wants to do smaller musical projects. The two of us are talking about collaborating on some more stuff. I think we’re playing on Jimmy Fallon in a couple of weeks. [Tonight, actually, Thursday, February 24.]

Is she recording Delusions?

I don’t think so. Some of the stuff from Delusions was on Homeland, so that would be somewhat redundant. But I wouldn’t rule it out. So I’ll be working with her, I’ll be doing solo stuff, I might be playing again with Sway Machinery, which is a band I’ve been in for years. And come June I start to rehearse with Bon Iver and we’re going to hit the road in July for that new release.

What’s the lineup of that band?

It’s the original four, and then the four of us who orchestrated this new record, and one other, and that’s the touring band.

Anything happening with Bell Orchestre in the near future? Are you still a part of it?
Yeah, whenever it happens. I’m sure it will, but I’ve had no word yet. It’s a thing that’s very difficult to function when Arcade Fire is so busy. So when they finish in September or something—I’m not sure when they’re done—I’m sure Bell Orchestre will do something.

Will you be in Toronto any time soon?
Yeah, I’m playing the jazz festival. I forget the venue, but it’s on June 28.

I understand you just got back from Europe with Godspeed.

Yes, and then a solo show in New York and a show in Quebec City with Tim Hecker.

I just had a baby two months ago and Tim Hecker is perfect baby-whisperer music. Whereas your album, on the other hand, he likes to cry along with.

I’ve heard that before, actually. Old friends of mine brought their newborn to a San Francisco show a couple of years ago, and the baby liked to cry along in tune.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Feb '11 reviews

The following reviews appeared in the Kitchener-Waterloo Record and Guelph Mercury this month.

James Blake – s/t (Universal)

Over the course of 2010, James Blake went from being an obscure British bedroom electronic artist to appearing on dozens of year-end lists for three EPs he squeezed into that calendar year. Those EPs were fascinating fractures of the genre known as dubstep, the definition of which gets more dubious every day (especially now that teen emo metal bands are putting out dubstep remixes). Loosely put, it’s a sparse electronic subgenre reliant on subsonic bass, with elements of dub reggae and icy goth.

Blake wants to add another element to the mix: Bill Withers. Unlike his EPs—which were mostly instrumental, or used only cut-up vocal phrases rather than an actual performance—Blake’s self-titled debut portrays him as an R&B singer/songwriter trapped in some digital vortex, like D’Angelo on downers.

Occasionally, it works for him, like on the album’s key gateway drug, an acoustic piano treatment of Feist’s “Limit To Your Love” that finds Blake actually delivering a solid vocal and letting a rumbling bass sound set the whole thing delightfully off-kilter. The mysteriously titled “The Wilhelm Scream” fulfills all the promise of the entire project: a fragile, soulful vocal set to syncopated bass drum sounds, echo-drenched percussion and patiently percolating staccato synths.

But those two tracks aside, Blake sounds like he couldn’t be bothered to get out of bed. The listener gets fair warning right from the opening track: “Unluck” unfolds over no discernible time signature, with beats tripping over each other and Blake singing like he’s buried beneath blankets. The lyrics are often maudlin, and the arrangements sound like a career artist who’s already coasting on an established rep and using an old bag of tricks to do all the heavy lifting.

This is Blake’s first album—as good as 2010 was to him, he doesn’t have that much critical capital to waste. He’d better step up his game soon. (Feb. 24)

Download: “The Wilhelm Scream,” “Limit To Your Love,” “To Care (Like You)”

Buck 65 – 20 Odd Years (Warner)

The duets record is a tired cliché, usually put out by a veteran performer trying to prove to a new audience how young and hip s/he is. For Buck 65, who is only pushing 40 and yet is celebrating 20 years in the business called show, he long ago gave up on trying to prove anything to anyone. And yet 20 Odd Years find him in, well, an odd position: as iconoclastic as ever, and yet also attempting to straitjacket himself into pop music formulas.

As a hip-hop outsider—one who made his mark with a deeply personal album written partially about the death of his mother (1999’s Man Overboard), who signed to a major label and released four 15-minute collages as his debut for them (2002’s Square), who explored folk and country textures on 2003’s Talkin’ Honky Blues and paid homage to subversive art of the 1950s on 2007’s Situation—Buck 65 has always allowed audiences to find him on their own terms.

Now his mainstream day job (using his given name, Rich Terfry) is as a CBC Radio host on a show where he has little control over the programming; there are no rough edges on his Drive show, which is stuffed with mostly decent but overwhelmingly earnest and accessible folk pop.

And so 20 Odd Years finds him playing to every side, and not always successfully. When left alone, Buck 65 returns to the lyrically dextrous and playful terrain he built his career on. The four tracks without guests are among the strongest: “Superstars Don’t Love,” “Lights Out,” the reflective and romantic “She Said Yes” and the intentionally ridiculous “Zombie Delight.”

When he teams up with French pop singer Olivia Ruiz (for whom he co-wrote a chart-topper in France), The Tragically Hip’s Gord Downie (on surely one of the only hip-hop songs set to a 6/8 blues), or Maritime singer/songwriter Jenn Grant (who is an intriguing foil for him on four tracks here, including an unrecognizable Leonard Cohen cover), the results are inspired. Yet when he joins with Vancouver songwriter Hannah Georgas or Gaspé singer Marie-Pierre Arthur, Buck 65 sounds like he’s making a bad Metric album, or constructing singles just to please the major label that’s bankrolled him for the better part of a decade with no commercial payoff.

If 20 Odd Years is meant to represent the arc of his career, perhaps it’s inevitable that would include both the highs and the lows—and to be fair, the lows can only be defined as such based on Buck 65’s own high standards. (Feb. 10)

Download: “Tears of Your Heart,” “Who By Fire,” “Zombie Delight”

Cowboy Junkies ­— Demons: Nomad Series Volume 2 (Latent)

Last year the Cowboy Junkies released their finest album in over a decade, Renmin Park, based on songwriter Michael Timmins’s experiences in China, and the first of what the band is calling its “Nomad Series.” The second installment is different in almost every way: it’s a tribute album to recently departed songwriter Vic Chesnutt, and features a return to the more maximalist side of the Cowboy Junkies from which Renmin Park provided such a breath of relief.

With few exceptions, the Junkies take an often heavy-handed approach to the material, bringing out neither the best in the band or in the songs. The brink-of-suicide song “Flirting With You All My Life”—the “you” being suicide—is given an upbeat rock treatment, which despite the chorus of “Oh death, really I am not ready,” still comes off as exceedingly weird considering that Chesnutt did end up taking his own life on Christmas Day, 2009.

Chesnutt’s death looms large over this recording; though many of his songs deal with frayed personalities who run the gamut between broken and beyond broken, Timmins’s selections here seem determined to remind us of Chesnutt’s own tragedy. “Square Room” contains the line “last night I nearly killed myself,” while “See You Around” is as fitting an epitaph as any.

Not that this could never have worked; Vic Chesnutt’s music was often as sparse as the best Cowboy Junkies recordings, which one would think would make this album a perfect match. But Chesnutt was such an idiosyncratic writer that he’s a hard man to cover; his unique use of vocabulary and phrasing are not easy for any singer to interpret effectively, and though she tries her determined best, Margo Timmins isn’t entirely up to the job here. (Feb. 10)

Download: “Betty Lonely,” “See You Around,” “Supernatural”

The Dears — Degeneration Street (Maple)

Wrong title—this should be called Regeneration Street. It’s the most engaged and exciting this Montreal band has sounded in years, and is as good or better than their 2003 masterpiece, No Cities Left. Every element that has ever defined this band’s shining moments—epic rock guitars, new wave keyboards, Murray Lightburn’s impassioned vocals and large doses of dramatic flair—are front and centre here; every song is buoyed by the confidence of this latest lineup in the band (which features returning members from earlier incarnations, along with new powerhouse drummer Jeff Luciani), but the songwriting is strong enough that this material would likely be just as effective if Lightburn and keyboardist were the only Dears left standing.

But most importantly, the Dears sound, well, happy—which has never been an adjective used to describe this often-dour group of mopes. They haven’t exactly turned into shiny, happy people, but there is clearly a shot of optimism and uplift that runs through that makes all the difference in the world. The orgasmic rock crescendos no longer sound oppressive and ominous; they’re exhilarating, even the wonderfully ridiculous harmonized guitar leads from Robert Benvie and Patrick Krief. The grungier moments are not a mask or a crutch; they carry serious weight.

And while the Dears have always been credited with having a soul influence—which was dubious at best, and more likely a cheap critical cliché because Lightburn is black—this time it’s actually true, as proven by the uncharacteristic jaunty Motown influence on “Yesteryear” and the slow-burning “Tiny Man,” which sounds like an oddball mashup of Pink Floyd and Al Green.

After 10 years filled with plenty of promise, upheaval, strife and stumbles, this is a stunning comeback record. No wonder the band can be spotted smiling onstage these days. (Feb. 17)

Download: “5 Chords,” “Blood,” “Tiny Man”

Deerhoof – Deerhoof vs. Evil (Polyvinyl)

Anything can happen in a Deerhoof song, and it often does. Tempos lurch, speed up, or change on a dime. Delicate beauty smashes up against thundering drums and metallic guitars. Bassist Satomi Matzusaki’s singing voice is that of an innocent, wide-eyed naïf taking in and anchoring the sonic splendour and possibility around her. It’s equally absurdist, complex, simple—and almost always fascinating.

There are also times when Deerhoof can easily get lost in its own labyrinth (see 2005’s The Runners Four). But as its triumphant title might suggest, Deerhoof vs. Evil is one of the most joyous discs in its 10-deep discography, finding them exploring even more so than usual. As always, there are pop hooks to help guide listeners who aren’t sure what they’re in for. And Matzusaki makes it a bit easier this time out, more likely to sing a lyric asking “what is this thing called love?” than she is to invite you to “Come see the duck!” (as one older live favourite does repeatedly).

There’s a much lighter touch here: far more acoustic guitars than ever before, and touches of Brazilian tropicalia and ’60s film soundtracks. Their aggressive side can appear at any given moment—as can any other bump in the road Deerhoof decide to throw in the mix, while they all maintain a firm grip on the steering wheel. Working with even more colours on their palette plate, Deerhoof’s sense of possibility is greater than ever. (Feb. 3)

Download: “Behold a Marvel in the Darkness,” “Let’s Dance the Jet,” “I Did Crimes For You”

East River Pipe – We Live in Rented Rooms (Merge)

East River Pipe is Fred Cornog, who lives in suburban New Jersey with his family and has a day job at Home Depot. While that sounds like a half-decent existence, it’s actually palatial living compared to the depths of addiction he sunk to in the mid-’90s before his music career and his marriage managed to steer him on to a new path.

Cornog’s music tends to stick to a similar, plodding tempo, with a metronomic drum machine, dreamy electric guitars and synths padding out the remaining corners of the sound. It’s as laid-back and idyllic as suburbia is supposed to be—only it rarely is in Cornog’s songs. His characters are either conmen who make backroom deals, or they’re the type who suffer for the sins of the aforementioned while saying to themselves: “I swore I’d never live on my knees,” or “I’m living in the twilight every day / I know the deck is stacked.”

But neither Cornog’s music nor his lyrics cast stones or get riled up with indignation. Instead, East River Pipe exists in its own state of inertia, with an almost easygoing acceptance—if not exactly a resignation—about the way this world and the odd people in it function: “We know most things just don’t work / and it’s not worth the fight.” In “Tommy Makes a Movie,” Tommy doesn’t actually make a movie: he dreams one in his head, afraid that if he were to try to make a reality it would only be altered and compromised—and besides, it’s easier to sit at home and immerse yourself in empty pornography.

While the music is comforting, the lyrics most definitely are not: easy listening is rarely so uneasy. And just like suburbia itself, there’s a lot more going on underneath the placid surface of any given East River Pipe song. (Feb. 24)

Download: “Backroom Deals,” “Tommy Made a Movie,” “Three Ships”

PJ Harvey – Let England Shake (Island)

PJ Harvey was one of the most exciting new artists of the ’90s, and has spent the last decade largely in retreat, after achieving her commercial—and some would say her artistic—peak with 2000’s Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea. The two albums she’s released since then were stripped down, dark and intimate affairs, unlikely to appeal to anyone who wasn’t already a hardcore fan. Let England Shake is slightly more extroverted, but it’s ultimately no different, and no less weird.

Of course, PJ Harvey has always been weird—that’s what we loved about her. There are tracks here, however, where she sounds downright batty, and not even in the in-character way she excelled at in the past. Perhaps that’s because there’s an earnestness to Let England Shake that wasn’t even present during her grungy avenged-lover phase on 1993’s Rid of Me.

This time, she’s detailing the conflicted emotions she has for her home and native land—a country that, for no apparent reason, she insists on pronouncing “Eng-a-land.” Take this verse: “Goddam Europeans/ take me back to beautiful England/ and the gray and filthiness of ages/ and battered books/ and fog rolling down behind the mountains/ on the graveyards of dead sea captains.” On another song she asks: “What is the glorious fruit of our land?” The answer: “The fruit is deformed children.”

Themes of decay dominate. “England’s dancing days are done,” she sings on the title track, a song driven by autoharps and marimbas—and a song she somehow found herself performing in front of then-prime minister Gordon Brown last summer. “Let it burn, let it burn,” she chants on the single “Written on the Forehead,” while a sample of reggae classic “Blood and Fire” plays in the background.

While there are elements here of Kate Bush at her most flighty, maybe Harvey is deep into the Sinead O’Connor stage of her career, where the once-formidable and charismatic performer gets progressively strange and erratic, with only flashes of her previous brilliance. We’ll know when she starts ripping up photos of David Cameron on Later With Jools Holland. (Feb. 17)

Download: “Let England Shake,” “The Glorious Rose,” “On Battleship Hill”

Hooded Fang – s/t (independent)

Orchestral peppy pop music full of glockenspiels, handclaps trumpets and synth bass, topped off with deadpan boy-girl vocals: of course it’s cutesy, but Toronto’s Hooded Fang have plenty of personality and melodic hooks that rise above any schtick. The rhythm section is punchy and the trumpet is majestic, and so even if singer Daniel Lee sounds a bit bored at times, the rest of the band has no trouble keeping the energy up and the arrangements simple but never naïve. With the propulsion of early Hidden Cameras and the slight Swedish detachment of Jens Lekman or Peter, Bjorn and John, Hooded Fang sounds like a first teenage kiss on a spring afternoon. (Feb. 24)

Download: “Straight Up the Dial,” “Highway Stream,” “Promise Land”

Iron & Wine – Kiss Each Other Clean (Warner)

It’s been six years since Iron & Wine bred a new generation of neo-folkie fans, via 2004’s astounding Our Endless Numbered Days. But anyone surprised by the expansive sounds heard on Kiss Each Other Clean obviously hasn’t been paying attention—particularly to 2007’s grossly underrated The Shepherd’s Dog. That record’s sometimes disorienting psychedelia didn’t go down as easy for some as singer/songwriter Sam Beam’s acoustic beginnings did, but Kiss Each Other Clean combines the best of both worlds.

Beam unleashes his backing band (comprised mainly of experimental band Califone and the avant-garde jazz of Chicago Underground) anywhere they want to go underneath his straightforward soft-rock melodies, which can guide the listener through all sorts of unusual musical terrain. That’s why a Stevie Wonder-like clavinet burbles throughout the Tom Waits-gone-dub-reggae groove of “Monkeys Uptown,” or why African and Latin percussion, New Orleans saxophone, jazz flute, spacey synthesizers, and extensive use of textural vocal harmonies all surface intermittently without ever throwing the song in question off course.

Things get a bit swampy on “Big Burned Head,” and the climactic “Your Fake Name is Good Enough For Me” eventually falls under its own weight, but those are merely slight missteps on an album that finds Beam in an entirely bewitching mood, proving that easy listening doesn’t have to be so easy, and an artist can be calming without sacrificing creativity. (Feb. 3)

Download: “Glad Man Singing,” “Tree by the River,” “Rabbit Will Run”

Wanda Jackson – The Party Ain’t Over (Nonesuch/Warner)

At 73 years old, the party most certainly is not over for Wanda Jackson. One of the original rockabilly artists of the ’50s—old enough not only to have been a contemporary of Elvis Presley, but to have dated him—has been going strong for years as a live act (with frequent stops in Ontario and Quebec, using London, Ontario’s Rizdales as her backing band). But even though she’s a member of several halls of fame (Rock and Roll, Country, Rockabilly, Oklahoma Music) and a hero to people like Neko Case, she’s not nearly as well known as she should be.

Enter Jack White, who gave Loretta Lynn’s career a late-career high on 2004’s Van Lear Rose. Jackson’s album isn’t nearly as personal—but then again Jackson never was. Her entire discography is stacked full of sass and snarl, and that’s what she delivers here, right from the opening notes of “Shakin’ All Over” (the same song The Guess Who launched their career with), where her growling, still-girlish voice sings about “quivers down her backbone,” while White puts her voice through a freaky flange pedal on the chorus and rips off a fiery guitar solo. It’s over the top and more than a bit campy—but that’s true of most of Jackson’s discography.

White gives her a recent Dylan song to cover—“Thunder on the Mountain,” where Jackson replaces Dylan’s incongruous Alicia Keys reference with one to Jerry Lee Lewis—as well as Amy Winehouse’s “You’re No Good,” which maintains the soul shuffle but adds haunting pedal steel guitar. He also insisted she re-record one of her earliest hits, “Rip It Up,” and lightens things up with the Andrews Sisters’ calypso-tinted “Rum and Coca Cola.” Jackson’s country roots are on full display in a full-band take on Kitty Wells’s “Dust on the Bible,” and a version of Jimmie Rodgers’ “Blue Yodel #6”, accompanied only by White on acoustic guitar.

It’s all good fun, but not quite full of the fireworks one would expect from this pairing. The horn section in particular is heavy-handed, and with the exception of White and keyboardist Joe Gillis, the rest of the house band sounds a bit clunky. But as anyone who has seen Jackson in recent years will attest, the lady still has a lot of life in her, and White deserves full credit for putting her back in the spotlight again. (Feb. 3)

Download: “Shakin’ All Over,” “You’re No Good,” “Dust on the Bible”

Serena Ryder – Live (EMI)

Serena Ryder was six years old when Melissa Etheridge put out her first album; it’s hard not to believe that the young Ryder didn’t spend at least part of her childhood studying Etheridge’s full-throated, bluesy rock’n’roll wail. And so it sounds entirely natural to hear the two of them singing together on Ryder’s new song “Broken Heart Sun”—in fact, you can barely tell them apart when they let loose at full throttle. It matters not that the song is hardly Ryder at her best; the charisma of the two women carries it through. Is it over the top? Of course—if you had a voice like either of these ladies, you’d be over the top, too.

Listening to the rest of this stop-gap EP, however, it’s obvious that Ryder is actually 10 times the singer that Etheridge ever was or could hope to be. Ryder is a unique force of nature, one that’s rarely captured in full on her studio recordings, and one of the most powerful vocalists working today, in Canada or anywhere else. So hearing her captured a cappella here, on bone-chilling versions of “Melancholy Blue” and “Sing Sing,” is as revelatory as the first time you see her live.

Along with the live material and the new single, the EP is padded with two songs recycled from each of her last two studio albums (including her take on Leonard Cohen’s “Sisters of Mercy,” where she shows she’s capable of subtlety as well), making this the ideal introduction for anyone unaware of Ryder’s phenomenal talents. (Feb. 24)

Download: “Broken Heart Sun,” “Melancholy Blue,” “Little Bit of Red”

Spring Breakup — It's Not Me, It's You (Label Fantastic)

If you loved Ellen Page and Michael Cera duetting in Juno, then Spring Breakup is for you. A duo of Yukon songwriter Kim Barlow and Mathias Kom, the singer/songwriter who fronts rollicking Peterborough band The Burning Hell, Spring Breakup is more than a tad too precious. Kom’s baritone and Barlow’s deadpan alto are pleasant foils for each other, and this album works best when they're playing directly off each other, like a twisted take on old Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn duets, armed with a smart-ass vocabulary. Their self-penned description for MySpace, under the category "Sounds Like," reads: "Laughing on the inside while crying in front of your ex. The awkward end of the third date. A lonely clown crying. Lost puppies." They're not joking: those are actual song subjects.

Things peter out when one of the two of them dominate; those tracks sound like rejects from their other projects, and aren't enhanced much at all by the other player (Barlow plays banjo, Kom the ukulele). They'd be better off guesting on each other's albums than making records like this together, but no doubt the dry wit sparkles when they share a stage. (Feb. 17)

Download: “The Effect I Have On Women,” “It’s Not Me It’s You,” “You Don’t Need a Heart”

Telekinesis – 12 Desperate Straight Lines (Merge)

Michael Benjamin Lerner is one of the only, if not the only, drummers to front a power-pop band. Which probably explains why he writes such catchy melodies, because if a melody doesn’t sound good against just a drum track, it’s probably not worth keeping.

If that were all Telekinesis was, that would be fine. And in fact, it’s not much more; a distorted bass guitar is the lead instrument on most of these songs. Guitars and keyboards are barely noticeable, if in fact they’re there at all. Producer Chris Walla nonetheless creates a broad sonic spectrum to flesh everything out, but the only thing you’re ever paying attention to is Lerner’s propulsive drums and his vocals, which even on a lyric about a “car crash late in the night” is still surrounded by woah-oh-oh’s to keep everything peppy. And never nauseatingly so, either; 12 Desperate Straight Lines is much more dynamic than Telekinesis’s 2009 self-titled sugar rush of a debut, although the songs are less immediate. Lerner is not yet 25; here’s hoping he’s not peaking early. (Feb. 10)

Download: “You Turn Clear in the Sun,” “Please Ask For Help,” “Dirty Thing”

Monday, February 14, 2011

Crown of Love

What Sidney Crosby’s Olympic goal was to many, last night’s Arcade Fire win was to me.

The Olympics and the Grammys are two institutions I’ve never cared about. And of the two, the Olympics have a better track record of rewarding excellence.

So why do I care about Arcade Fire nabbing the Album of the Year award in an upset win?

Part of me doesn’t, really. It’s one more laughable WTF moment, the type that has been happening to the band ever since they ran out of copies of Funeral in the week of its release. Shortly after, they were being feted by their musical heroes and everybody wanted a piece of them. To their credit, they kept their feet on the ground, chose their collaborators carefully, and stayed true to who they were.

For whatever reason, this is the year Arcade Fire started saying yes. American Express wants to sponsor a live webcast of our Madison Square Gardens show? Sure, if it means we can get Terry Gilliam to do it. Google wants to help launch its new Chrome browser by collaborating on a mind-blowing video for “We Used to Wait”? Why not, if it means redefining what a music video can be. You mean the Grammys, the Junos and the Brit Awards all want us to play on television? Could be funny. And so with zero expectations other than to amuse themselves, everyone in the Arcade Fire camp headed to L.A., where they were up for three awards.

The Grammys are a notorious shitshow. The last time there was a Canadian upset, it was 1970, when David Clayton-Thomas and Blood, Sweat and Tears won Album of the Year over the Beatles’ Abbey Road and Johnny Cash’s At San Quentin. Legions of legendary musicians have never won a Grammy; last night Neil Young won his first one (for music, because a box set won a couple of years ago). Conversely, unworthy elder statesmen regularly get token nods for weak work; why else would Tom Petty be noticed for that wretched blues album he put out last year? Meanwhile, Grammy nights have been full of bizarre moments: Jethro Tull beating out Metallica for the first metal Grammy, Steely Dan winning Album of the Year—in 2001; various duets and unplugged albums taking home the big prize.

And so there was Arcade Fire, up against Lady Gaga (fascinating commercial superstar), Eminem (redemption/comeback story, second only to Gaga in terms of sales), Lady Antebellum (zzzzzzzz), and Katy Perry (entirely inexplicable in this category). What do all these acts have in common? They’re all part of the ancient starmaking system, nurtured along by industry veterans, massively successful on radio. Arcade Fire became popular before they even had a manager, they own their own music, which they lease to an independent label, they get nominal radio play at best, and are never seen in celebrity magazines—which might be why both Rosie O’Donnell and Dog the Bounty Hunter tweeted “never heard of ’em” after the win.

But you know all that.

Arcade Fire’s Grammy win means everything and nothing. It could be a triumphant victory for the underdog, one who dared to close the ceremonies by singing about an emperor with no clothes and “businessmen [who] drink my blood.” Or it could be just another weird blip in the rise of Arcade Fire, one that will be quickly forgotten by the celebrity culture the band disdains.

More than anything, it’s a laugh—as you can see in the band’s faces when Barbra Streisand stuttered over the name of their album, and as you can see in their press conference afterwards (both clips are available here; the press conference is priceless, and shows what the band is really like behind their all-too-serious public profile). “This is from outer space” said Win, when asked about the prize. “We will joke a lot about it. We’re just getting warmed up. I think the jokes we can make about this are endless.”

But for me, like Crosby’s goal, this was an exhilarating adrenalin boost and point of pride, even if it’s an ultimately meaningless, ephemeral and random moment that merely affirms something we knew already. Even though this band had nothing to prove to anyone—the album and the live show have already done that in the past six months—this small victory felt so right only because it was in the belly of the beast of all that is so wrong about the music industry.

“How will you be celebrating tonight?” asked one reporter. “You’re looking at it,” laughed Richie, surveying a room full of people who have to explain to their bewildered readers and viewers who Arcade FIre are. “Questions. Celebrating with a lot of questions.”

Now: will Winter’s Bone take home the Oscar?

Crown myself the prince of buzz
Can't wait until you, can't wait 'til you unsubscribe
I'll be a lonely scribe

But: what if they like it?
And lock us in a cannery with your accordion
Until we canned our love?

-Owen Pallett, “This is the Dream of Win and Regine,” 2005