The following reviews ran in the Waterloo Record and Guelph Mercury earlier this month.
Gentleman Reg – Leisure Life (Heavy Head)
Gentleman Reg Vermue has been steadily evolving from a determined yet shy performer into a full-on power-pop glam performer (with a drag-driven electropop project on the side, no less, called Light Fires). And if 2008’s coming-out party Jet Black was his boldest to date, Leisure Life takes that one step further, with giant synth riffs worthy of his peers Stars and Metric (courtesy of fellow Guelphite Kelly McMichael), driving electric guitars, and huge pop songs that never sound predictable—many of which pay an obvious debt to one of his biggest influences, the Breeders, though never sounding outright imitative. Ballads like “Solo Shows” and especially the jaw-dropping “Hit the Heart” showcase Reg’s unique voice in all its heartbreaking beauty; elsewhere, he’s fully come into his own as a rock singer without sacrificing any of the quirks that made him so special in the first place.
It’s a joy to hear him duet with McMichael on the slinky “The Declaration,” and if you’ve seen them do a Sheryl Crow song live, you know what chemistry they have together; Reg would be wise to feature her even more. It’s not like his larger-than-life presence is going to be overshadowed on his own record—and not on a record as strong as this one. (Dec. 6)
Download: “Waiting Around for Gold,” “Hit the Heart, “I Could Be What You Wanted”
King Cobb Steelie – Project Twinkle (Pheromone)
Part of King Cobb Steelie's appeal in their '90s heyday was that there was really no one else in Canada—or, for that matter, anywhere else in alternative music—attempting to fuse post-punk, dub reggae, African grooves and electronics the way this Guelph band did. It hadn’t been done since the early ’80s work of Gang of Four and Public Image Ltd., and it wouldn’t rise again until the early 2000s, when suddenly every indie rock band wanted to dance. Even in that trajectory, KCS maintain a fierce individuality, and each of their albums still sounds remarkably current.
Alll of which means that even an album considered by most to be their weakest—even the band admits it was a rush job, thrown together because they had an opportunity to work with prolific producer Bill Laswell—still holds up very well 18 years after its release.
Project Twinkle is obviously a transition album: they’re audibly moving away from some of the grungy elements that defined their best rock songs, and into more exploratory territory. They were clearly prepared for the journey, with help from Laswell, who had worked with everyone from Herbie Hancock to Bootsy Collins to Yoko Ono to, um, Mick Jagger. KCS were—and are—the rare rock band who could incorporate heavy funk grooves without coming off like the Red Hot Chili Peppers; indeed, nothing they ever tried—except maybe the occasional turntable scratch or awkward rapidfire rap—sounded like genre tourism. This was—is—a group of musically ravenous men who translate all their influences into a unique language.
King Cobb Steelie has been in a state of semi-permanent hiatus for the better part of the last eight years. While there are rumours of new material, this album’s resurrection and remastering came about entirely as a labour of love by a long-time fan who now runs the Pheromone label. Other than one bonus remix by dub master Mad Professor, there are no extras to speak of (sadly, no sign of the Steve Albini sessions that preceded this album). But this album doesn’t need accoutrements to stake its place in Canadian music history: and if nothing else, it reminds us that there was a lot more going on here in the ’90s than just The Tragically Hip, Our Lady Peace and Jann Arden. (Dec. 13)
Download: “Triple Oceanic Experience,” “80% Knockout,” “Technique”
Serena Ryder - Harmony (EMI)
Serena Ryder has been this country’s most powerful young vocalist for the better part of 10 years now. Only now, however, does it sound like her moment has truly arrived.
It couldn’t come at a better time. It’s been four years since her first widely available album, not counting a live EP and a vinyl-only collaboration with Toronto band the Beauties. And with her vocal doppelganger Adele selling truckloads of records, the zeitgeist is obviously hungry for such an equally genuine and breathtaking talent.
Ryder is not jumping on any kind of bandwagon, however. If anything, she’s jumping off. Until now, she’s been pegged as an acoustic-guitar playing, gutsy folk-rocker who can belt it out with Melissa Etheridge and cover classic Canadian songs. Here, however, she’s a pop diva, she’s a piano-and-strings balladeer, a soul belter, a Shirley Bassey-esque torch singer, and a rock’n’roll believer who could give the Heart sisters a run for their money. Produced by Jon Levine (Nelly Furtado, K’naan) and Jerrod Bettis (a member of Adele’s band), and with a live band featuring associates of Drake and The Weeknd, Ryder is given free reign to go wherever That Voice carries her, and always with songs that she could communicate just as easily with her guitar and voice—though that’s never the case on this high-gloss production.
The sweet irony is that freedom has created easily accessible music that is already breaking through every radio format, and will likely make her a household name by this time next year. The first hit single, Stompa, isn’t even the best track here. Ms. Ryder, your time is now. (Dec. 6)
Download: “What I Wouldn’t Do,” “Call Me,” “For You”
Tracey Thorn – Tinsel and Lights (Merge)
As of December 7, 2012, there were 78 Christmas albums in the Billboard Top 200 album chart. For whatever inexplicable reason, this one is not one of them. It should be.
Thorn, best known as the singer in Everything But the Girl and for her work on Massive Attack’s Protection album, has the ideal voice for Christmas music: the combo of pretty and sad that makes a surefire soundtrack for a season both beloved and dreaded in equal amounts (see also: Aimee Mann).
Thorn steers away from obvious Christmas song, with the sole exception of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”—which in her hands sounds more like wishful thinking rather than a glad tiding. There’s no real reason for anyone to record Joni Mitchell’s “River” again (not since Martin Tielli did in 1992, anyway), but thankfully she then goes on to gather songs by Low, Sufjan Stevens, Stephin Merritt, Dolly Parton and Randy Newman. She also tackles Ron Sexsmith’s oft-covered modern classic “Maybe This Christmas”—from one sad sack to another, it’s a perfect combination of singer and song—and the White Stripes’ “In the Cold, Cold Night.” Her own title track is destined, like Sexsmith’s song, a new underdog perennial favourite. (It also references Mary Margaret O’Hara’s Miss America, which immediately endears it to me.)
For many obvious reasons, nothing here sounds like a cash grab, the way 99 per cent of all Christmas albums are. This is the ultra-rare seasonal release that’s assembled with care, and probably the only one you’ll hear this year unlikely to induce projectile vomit. (I humbly encourage and hereby authorize Merge Records to use that line in future promotion.) (Dec. 13)
Download: “Tinsel and Light,” “Maybe This Christmas,” “In the Cold Cold Night”
Scott Walker – Bish Bosch (4AD)
Just in time for Christmas comes this lump of coal. Want to torture your loved ones? Want to metaphorically urinate all over Christmas dinner? Want something to soundtrack your act of arson against the Christmas tree? Or do you want to unite your politically argumentative relatives on one thing they can all agree to hate? Then Scott Walker has the album for you.
Walker does not make music for you to enjoy; he makes music for you to endure. The opening track features a pounding jackhammer rhythm that sounds like being beat on the head while an icy synth screams intermittently and Walker sings about "plucking feathers from his swan song." And that's about as poppy as it gets. The next song has Walker crooning about a "sphincter tooting out of tune," followed by the first instance in the history of recorded music when sounds of actual human flatulence are not being used for comic effect.
That doesn't mean it's not brilliant: it is. Like any truly great art, it's also confounding, confusing, ugly, beautiful, preposterous and impossible to appreciate casually. As Walker himself will tell you: "Nothing clears a room like removing a brain."
Walker sings like the saddest, strung-out fallen star of Vegas in the throngs of a nightmare, and his lyrics are generally beyond surrealist, largely impenetrable outside of the occasional zinger ("If shit were music, you'd be a brass band"). It's the music here that's truly gripping and the reason you can't turn away. Walker arranges unusual sounds and aural colours in ways most musicians could never imagine, rendering every other rock artist claiming to be avant-garde exposed as a timid poseur. Long silences, intimate breaths, squalls of dissonance, sudden samba breakdowns, ominous strings from The Shining soundtrack, and plenty of god-knows-what being flung around the recording studio in a fit of foley rage.
Are you ever going to listen to Bish Bosch over appetizers? On your morning commute? Walker doesn't make background music: this is foreground drama. It's daring. It's completely demented. It might be just plain dumb. But it begs you to deny its presence. (Dec. 13)
For my single favourite piece of music writing this year, read Alex Molotkow's take on Scott Walker here.
Download: “Corps de Blah,” “Phrasing,” “Epizootics!”
Wool on Wolves – Measures of Progress (independent)
Don’t judge this by either the band name or the album title. This wonderfully surprising album comes from a new Edmonton band boasting five songwriters and multi-instrumentalists, who tap into a similar set of influences that drive Wilco and Zeus to create a new classic rock that balances bombast and subtle moments. Rich harmonies, dynamic arrangements, brass sections and some nimble guitar work animate these carefully composed songs, which were no doubt developed during a killer live show. (Dec. 6.)
Download: “Midnight Avenue,” “Be the Change,” “Broken Pictures”