Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Mar '12 reviews

These reviews ran in the Kitchener-Waterloo Record and Guelph Mercury this month.

The Decemberists – We All Raise Our Voices to the Air: Live Songs 04.11-08.11 (EMI)

What do the Decemberists and Duran Duran have in common? Nothing, until now that they both have live albums that betray every vocal shortcoming of their lead singers. Hearing Simon LeBon whimpering and straining to sing his biggest hits on 1984’s Arena album sealed that band’s fate and marked the end of an era. The Decemberists’ Colin Meloy, although known for having a nasal and somewhat affected delivery, has never come off as a terrible singer on studio recordings. Here, one this pre-hiatus release, his tenuous relationship to pitch is more than distracting, even if the band behind him sounds on top of their game running through their entire discography in front of an adoring crowd.

Meloy’s voice here may be one that only a fan could love—but then again, this entire package (released as the band begins a hiatus) is aimed at fans only. That explains the inclusion of stage banter, in-jokes, and instructions for audience participation. You kind of had to be there. If you weren’t, you’ll wonder why this high-end bootleg is commercially available. (Mar. 22)

Download: “We Both Go Down Together,” “The Crane Wife 1, 2 and 3,” “I Was Meant For the Stage”

Del Bel – Oneiric (Out of Sound)

Picture yourself travelling across the country, from west to east, stunned by the natural beauty during endless daytime drives, and haunted by the neverending sky and all-consuming darkness at night. Del Bel is the the ideal soundtrack for such a journey, a balance of beauty and optimism with eerie, uncertain undertones.

This Toronto band revolves around two Western musicians, Calgary’s Tyler Belluz (Kite Hill, Bry Webb’s band), who wrote and arranged all the music, and Lisa Conway (Mandibles, Owle Bird) from remote northwestern B.C. The music they make together is either a jaunty though somewhat unsettling country shuffle, or full of ominous dread, scraping violins and twangy guitars, all of which could out-spook their friends in Timber Timbre. “How does one fight the dark alone, with no guns and no will to go on?” asks Conway, in a way that suggests she may know the answer, but certainly isn’t going to give anything away to you.

Though Del Bel tap into a Canadian gothic tradition of everyone from Cowboy Junkies to the Silver Hearts and the Sadies, they’re a step above many of their influences and their contemporaries with incredibly delicate and deliberate arrangements: this sounds less like a rock group of friends than a hired orchestra of players, with Conway singing out front and Belluz conducting everyone else behind her. The result is magical, unique, and easily one of the strongest Canadian albums of the last 12 months. (Mar. 22)

Download: “Dusk Light,” “This Unknown,” “Beltone”

Bill Fox – One Thought Revealed (Jar Note Records)

Until last year, Bill Fox was one of those reclusive geniuses with a limited discography and mysterious whereabouts—the kind of geek obsession that inspires Nick Hornby novels (see his latest, and finest, Juliet Naked). Fox was in fact the subject of a much-loved article in The Believer magazine in 2007, where the author tried in vain to find the man who made one of his favourite albums of the ’90s, Shelter From the Smoke. In 2009, that album was reissued and Fox started playing sporadic live shows (in part at the urging of Ottawa’s Jon Bartlett, of Kelp Records).

So now the mystery is just a man, just another guy with a guitar who happens to be releasing his first album in 14 years. Will anyone still care? They should. One Thought Revealed is not just an acoustic singer/songwriter record made by a guy who grew up listening to Bob Dylan and came of age with Robert Pollard of Guided by Voices. Fox makes the most of his limited recording means: the acoustic guitars sound crisp, the organs and keyboards are ghostly and psychedelic, and his own coarse howl is impassioned and intriguing—in part because of his unusual imagery and wordplay. And Fox is nothing if not economical: the 27-minute album has eight songs without a wasted moment between them, rich in both melody and atmosphere.

Welcome back, Bill Fox. Don’t hold out another 14 years. (Mar. 22)

Download: “Whithering Soul,” “Babylonia,” “Moonlight Stragglers on a Lonesome Toe”

A. David MacKinnon – The Past is a Foreign Country (independent)

MacKinnon spent most of the last 12 years co-fronting the Fembots, one of the perennially underrated bands during that transformative time in Canadian music. With that band now on hiatus, MacKinnon’s solo debut isn’t about to change his underdog status: albums full of cinematic instrumentals rarely vault anyone into the limelight. Yet it’s easily one of the best records in his discography. His melodies sing out stronger without his vocals; they’re illustrated fully and effectively in his piano playing and his horn arrangements. Those two elements are at the core of almost every song here, whether the music is a wistful romantic number, a harpsichord-driven tango, or, as in the title track, a 7/4 swing showing traces of Ethiopian jazz scoring a ’70s New York City action flick. Not only is the music evocative; MacKinnon scores some great titles as well. Thanks to him, I googled “Ambrose Small” and “the Sylvan Apartments” and found some fascinating ancient Toronto history. Lots of rock musicians turn to soundtracks after they’re done with pop music, but with an album as good as this one on his resumé, MacKinnon should be accepting Oscars in no time. (Mar. 29)

Download: “The Past is a Foreign Country,” “Clocks Against Typewriters,” “March of the Hydro Towers”

Magnetic Fields – Love at the Bottom of the Sea (Merge)

Blouse – s/t (Captured Tracks)

Songwriter Stephin Merritt has never met an artifice he doesn’t like. His biggest success was a 3CD conceptual project exploring the love song in every possible incarnation, and he’s recently been collaborating on new versions of Chinese operas. The through line in all his work has been a wicked wit and a keen insight that spoke emotional truths underneath the wordplay and winks. For a man committed to arch genre exercises, Merritt could still make grown men cry—as really, any great popsmith should.

Love at the Bottom of the Sea marks the first time in over a decade that the Magnetic Fields has returned to a synth-based approach, much to the delight of his oldest fans. And while there’s no faulting the instrumentation, Merritt’s melodic sense has faded somewhat—even though it was still in full force on the last two Magnetic Fields albums, which were less than well received by the ardent fanbase (and both of which are better than this album).

It’s the lyrics here that really sink Merritt’s ship. With one or two exceptions (including the superb single “Andrew in Drag”), Merritt’s reliance on his rhyming dictionary is no longer clever, it’s juvenile. He’s more concerned with finding out how many words rhyme with mariachi than he is in writing a lyric with any weight—or, for that matter, wit. For one of this generation’s most outstanding songwriters, one whose lesser works have been at least interesting, it’s shocking to see him stumble like this.

Unlike Magnetic Fields, the Portland, Oregon band synth pop band Blouse arrives with zero expectations—and therefore have plenty of room to surprise. They draw heavily from early New Order, mid-period Cure and other staples of John Hughes soundtracks, with nods to more modern incarnations of the same sound, like The XX or their chillwave Portland neighbours Washed Out. While the synths and the icy cooing of singer Charlie Hilton are the focus, the arrangements are far from bloodless, showing off more muscle than you’d expect from this genre of music, even when the synth sounds are bent to sound like broken cassette players. The songwriting is not yet fully realized, and though there are some awkward lyrical moments (“Time machines can be unfortunate when they’re in your hand”), these are growing pains rather than fatal flaws. (Mar. 15)

Download: “Into Black,” “They Always Fly Away,” “Firestarter”

Mike O’Neill – Wild Lines (Zunior)

Since the demise of the beloved ’90s bass-and-drums indie rock duo the Inbreds, Mike O’Neill has kept a very low profile, releasing two solo albums but mostly working in the Halifax film industry—including a recurring role on Trailer Park Boys.

Wild Lines, his first album in eight years, marks a fine return to form: O’Neill always wrote clever, catchy songs, and this is easily his finest collection since the end of the Inbreds. O’Neill is an economical writer; any time he pushes much further past the three-minute mark (which is not often—twice, in fact) he sounds like he’s treading water. He’s nowhere near as quirky a lyricist as he was in the Inbreds, for better and worse. But nor should he be—he’s an older man now, and more likely to write a song about flipping through old family photo albums or teaching children to tidy up than he is to sing about eating a bicycle. The recording is homespun but fully fleshed out, somewhere between the slick 2000 album What Happens Now? and 2004’s lo-fi The Owl; O’Neill’s tender and affecting vocals are at the forefront, layered with Beatlesque harmonies. Well worth an eight-year wait. (Mar. 15)

Download: “Henry,” “Calgary,” “She’s Good”

Joel Plaskett - Scrappy Happiness (Maple)

“A real rock record is like a wrecking ball,” sings Joel Plaskett on this, his seventh solo album. He’s not talking about the new Springsteen album (or an old Emmylou Harris one), but about the galvanizing power of a great rock record, one that changes your life, makes you reimagine your world and the possibilities within.

One wishes that this was just such a record—it’s not. Instead, it’s a record about how much Joel Plaskett loves listening to and making records. Dropping a lyrical reference to Husker Du is one thing; dropping a reference to ’80s prog band Marillion or the ’70s rock band Cactus (which featured Jeff Beck and members of Vanilla Fudge) is a whole other geekfest. At least this time out Plaskett avoids some of the dorky rhymes that threaten to derail some otherwise great songs on his last couple of albums.

Plaskett’s reverence is more than just pastiche; this could be a genuine lost ’70s rock record, recorded live in the studio with an equal mix of warm mandolins and blistering loud electric guitars. Or, for diehard Plaskett fans, it sounds like the finest moments from his two best records: Down at the Khyber and La De Da.

Plaskett is enough of a Canadian institution now that no one expects a sharp left turn, and so if Scrappy Happiness can be faulted for being entirely predictable, it also shows off a master craftsman at work: as a songwriter, as a bandleader, and even as a guitarist (he and sideman Peter Elkas trade hot licks in the closing “Lightning Bolt”).

It’s no wrecking ball, but it’s another solid storey in Plaskett’s tower of song. (Mar. 29)

Download: “Harbour Boys,” “I’m Yours,” “Somewhere Else”

Johnny Reid - Fire It Up (EMI)

Johnny Reid doesn’t sing the blues. Johnny Reid probably wonders why anyone would sing sad songs in the first place. Isn’t music supposed uplift the listener? Shouldn’t you come away from a performance—or even just a song on the radio—feeling reassured, loved, and inspired? Reid may be the last earnest man left in the music business, the kind of guy whose song titles ask rhetorical questions like “What Makes the World Go Around?” (I’ll give you one guess what the answer is. Hint: it’s love.)

Reid continues his move away from country music and into gospel-inflected inspirational rock balladry. It’s inherently cheesy territory, but don’t tell Reid that: he throws his considerable talents as a vocalist behind every line, and you better believe that he’s feeling it. As a songwriter, however, he doesn’t always hit that mark: “Let’s Have a Party” sounds suspiciously close to Bruce Springsteen’s “Mary Place” (from The Rising, an album from which Fire It Up draws obvious inspiration—no Darkness on the Edge of Town here). “Walking On Water” is a duet with Serena Ryder that should be a match made in heaven—their voices are perfectly complementary, both being natural born bluesy belters. It’s a crying shame, then, that the song itself is dismal and riddled with clichés.

Reid is a powerful presence who can milk genuine emotion from the thinnest source material; too bad he’s all too often called on to do just that. (Mar. 29)

Download: “Fire It Up,” “Till We Meet Again,” “Right Where I Belong”

Tindersticks – The Something Rain (Constellation)

Tindersticks are well-dressed men in black who make noir-ish lounge music rich in narrative and ominous atmosphere. (Which explains their appeal to Sopranos’ creator David Chase, who used their music in two key episodes.) They’re good at what they do, and they’ve been doing it fairly consistently for 20 years now—to a fault. If you’ve ever owned one Tindersticks album, you own them all. Until this one.

After a series of lineup changes that stripped the band down to its core, Tindersticks now sound like an almost entirely new outfit, even though all their signature sounds are still there. Singer Stuart Staples is a seductive, compelling crooner, who doesn’t seem bothered by the fact that The National’s Matt Berninger has sold out small stadiums with the same schtick. The soul influence Tindersticks took on in the late ’90s has simmered to a fine essence, giving the rhythm section an extra punch and making the presence of sax solos and bongos less incongruous. Every sonic texture appears to be wrapped in red velvet; every song is set after sundown. No matter the tempo, every track on The Something Rain is sensual and luxurious, lulling the listener into an opiate daze.

Come Inside sounds like Bryan Ferry fronting Pink Floyd circa Dark Side of the Moon (specifically “Us and Them”). “Show Me Everything” could be Nick Cave fronting Air. And yet The Something Rain is such a world unto itself that such comparisons—to other or the band’s own discography—only surface when trying to explain why a new Tindersticks album is worth your time. It’s the most intoxicating album you’ll hear this winter—isn’t that reason enough? (Mar. 15)

Download: “Show Me Everything,” “This Fire of Autumn,” “Medicine”

Caetano Veloso and David Byrne – Live at Carnegie Hall (Nonesuch)

The Talking Heads frontman played a large role in introducing the Brazilian tropicalia legend to North American audiences in the late ’80s. Why this 2004 recording is only coming out now is a mystery, but for fans of either artist it’s a welcome chance to hear them in an acoustic setting. Veloso’s six solo songs are dreamlike and languid; Byrne’s eight-song set is more direct, and obviously the few Talking Heads songs jump out, even if he reinvents them effectively for the setting. But Byrne also doesn’t get enough credit for his songwriting of the last 15 years, which is the real focus of his set here (“She Only Sleeps,” “Everyone’s In Love With You”). The two duet on Byrne’s “Dreamworld” and Veloso’s “Ile Aiye,” which both help make up for the atrocious version of Byrne’s “Nothing But Flowers,” where Veloso camps it up to the point of mocking Byrne’s vocal tics—it might have been funny at the time, but it’s downright painful here. Appropriately enough, the set ends with Veloso’s song “Terra”—written in 1968, about viewing photos of Earth from space—and Byrne’s “Heaven.” (Mar. 29)

Download: “Terra,” “Ile Aiye,” “Everyone’s in Love With You”

Yukon Blonde – Tiger Talk (Dine Alone)

The Shins – Port of Morrow (Sony)

It was over 20 degrees in Ontario on the day in March this album was released. In fact, everything about Yukon Blonde’s second album sounds like summer all year round. Huge four-part harmonies and songs meant to be sung at full volume barrelling down the 101: that’s what this Kamloops, B.C., band excel at, along with a strange affinity for 1982, a time when new wave power pop (think: the Go-Go’s) competed with Southern rock holdovers (think: 38 Special) on the Top 40 charts. Producer Colin Stewart (Black Mountain, Kathryn Calder) gives everything a streamlined radio sheen that sounds huge while never sacrificing warmth and still placing the acoustic guitar front and centre when necessary. The tunes are sharp and sassy, and the occasional dorky lyric is easily forgiven. What would it sound like if Fleet Foxes fronted Sloan? Yukon Blonde are taking that answer all the way to the bank.

The Shins aren’t as rooted in classic rock as the deliciously derivative Yukon Blonde, but songwriter James Mercer is likewise known for writing killer melodies and setting them to a hazy, luxurious West Coast soundscape to decorate his take on indie rock. The 2007 Shins album Wincing the Night Away was their best—and by that point the band had essentially been stripped to being a Mercer solo project. Port of Morrow similarly finds Mercer working with hired guns, including members of Sleater-Kinney and Modest Mouse. Only this time, Mercer’s surefire pop songs are in much shorter supply. He pulls off a quirky ballad or two, and “Simple Song” packs a punch that the rest of the album seriously lacks. Everything else falls through the cracks; at best, Mercer sounds like a mellower, poor man’s version of the New Pornographers’ A.C. Newman. The dreamy production, by Greg Kurstin (Lily Allen, Kylie Minogue, Foster the People) saves this from being a total snoozer, and diehard fans will at least be placated. (Mar. 22)

Download Yukon Blonde: “My Girl,” “Radio,” “Stairway”

Download the Shins: “Simple Song,” “Fall of ’82,” “It’s Only Life”

Monday, March 05, 2012

Bruce Springsteen's Wrecking Ball

Bruce Springsteen – Wrecking Ball (Sony)

2012 demanded a big-moment, cultural watershed album from one of America’s working-class heroes. The U.S. is in the middle of not only an economic crisis, but an existential one—and it’s an election year partisans paint as a battle between good and evil. What better time for a Bruce Springsteen album? And not just any Springsteen album (the less said about 2009’s Working on a Dream, the better), but one where he’s firing on all cylinders, playing to the back seats, waving the tattered flag and standing up for the common man in one rousing anthem after another.

Ideally, said album will also be at least pretty good—and Wrecking Ball is, more often than not, pretty fantastic.

Springsteen has done this twice before in the last decade: once, on 2007’s knockout Magic, when he saw upstart young disciples like Arcade Fire stealing his mojo, and once in 2002 when he channelled the energy of the reunited E Street Band to help heal America in the wake of 9/11 on (the arguably less successful) The Rising. In 2012, he sees his beloved country dissolving into a bubbling cauldron of bitterness and defeatism: “the road of good intentions has gone dry as a bone.”

Springsteen easily taps into that anger on one banker-bashing number after another. By comfortably numb pop music standards, he comes off like a raving, Fox-baiting Marxist, even though the themes here are perfectly in keeping with the folk classics he reinterpreted on 2006’s We Shall Overcome—an album with which Wrecking Ball not only shares sentiments, but most of its backing band. (Very few E Streeters appear here—oddly enough, no-longer-touring member Max Weinberg is one of them).

Springsteen is not just channelling old protest songs, however. He’s pissed, and so are his protagonists. The angriest song here is “Death to My Hometown,” and it’s far from the lament of a similar name that closed Born in the U.S.A.: it decries the “robber barons” and “greedy thieves” who “ate the flesh of everything they found.” Furthermore, it’s set to a rousing, militaristic Celtic march, like it’s being sung by bloodthirsty barbarians crossing bridges into Manhattan, looking for heads to roll.

Even a seemingly more reassuring song—"Jack of All Trades," in which a handyman narrator assures his family that they’ll be self-sufficient amidst the current storm—concludes with the same narrator expressing a need to “find the bastards and shoot ’em on sight.” This isn’t about fairness or victimhood: it’s about vengeance.

Meanwhile, whereas Springsteen’s narrators on 1975’s “Meeting Across the River” or 1982’s “Atlantic City” have trepidations about doing some shady business to get by, the man in 2012’s “Easy Money” is swinging with a new-country swagger, boasting about strapping a pistol, hitting the town and looking for, yep, easy money. Springsteen doesn’t sing it with any shame or regret; this character sounds joyously entitled. And in the context of this album, why shouldn’t he? The corporate cannibals who profited from the bank bailouts are rolling in it—why should the average schmuck bother working for his windfall?

Lead single “We Take Care of Our Own” sets itself up to be another “Born in the U.S.A.”: a song with a feel-good anthemic chorus that is actually about what a pile of shit America has stepped in. Springsteen mourns the death of empathy, charity and civil society: “From the shotgun shack to the Super Dome / there ain’t no help / the cavalry stayed home.” He sings the titular chorus with a straight face, simultaneously mocking the sentiment while wishing it was still true.

On the title track, Springsteen taunts the forces that are tearing his community apart, inviting them to “bring on your wrecking ball / c’mon and take your best shot.” The bridge of the song urges: “hold tight to you anger / and don’t fall to your fears.” The song is Springsteen at his stadium best, with a wordless chorus, dynamic swells and ebbs, a horn section, Max Weinberg driving the ship, and the lyric’s ability to turn desolation into delirious release.

The rest of the album isn’t always as musically successful. Producer Ron Aniello is an odd choice: his biggest clients to date appear to be Jars of Clay, Barenaked Ladies and late-period Candlebox, and some of the production choices are a bit Pete Seeger-meets-Nickelback. The first rap to ever appear on a Springsteen album is performed by Michelle Moore on an uninspired gospel song, “Rocky Ground.” More than a few tracks sound good only because they’re in Springsteen’s hands; if anyone else—say, uh, Bon Jovi, for example—attempted the exact same material, it would be laughable. And finally, why does Springsteen hire Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello to play bloated and bad guitar solos on the ballads? Ultimately, however, these are all forgivable crimes, and Wrecking Ball is far more consistent than we’ve come to expect from late-period Springsteen.

It’s fitting, then, that Wrecking Ball is also the first Springsteen album since the death of his iconic sidekick, saxophonist Clarence Clemons in 2011; an excerpt from Springsteen’s eulogy for him appears in the liner notes, and Clemons appears on two tracks. (It’s not clear if they were recorded before or after his spot on Lady Gaga’s 2011 album Born This Way. For history’s sake, let’s hope it’s after.) Clemons’s solo on the 12-year-old live staple “Land of Hope and Dreams” (appearing for the first time on a Springsteen studio album only now) is undoubtedly affecting—but only really because it sounds like the last gasp of a once-great powerhouse. As sax solos go, it’s rather innocuous—nothing like the Clemons who would have once stolen the song out from under Springsteen and carried it to a whole other emotional level. It’s sad but beautiful, undeniably poignant, hearing him give all he had left, on a song about travelling to the afterlife.

Maybe more than the state of the nation, more than the election year anxiety, Springsteen knew that the best tribute he could pay his friend was to frame his final recorded moments inside a rousing rock’n’roll record that ranks with Springsteen’s best since he put the E Street band back together.

Download: “We Take Care of Our Own,” “Wrecking Ball,” “Land of Hope and Dreams”

February '12 reviews

These reviews ran in the Kitchener-Waterloo Record and Guelph Mercury in February.

Bahamas – Barchords (Brushfire)

Bahamas’ main man Afie Jurvanen is a guitar hero: not in the classic rock sense of showboating, and most certainly not in the video game world that co-opted the term. No, Jurvanen is the kind of guitar player that sounds like an entire R&B/soul band (or, alternately, Neil Young’s Crazy Horse) with the help of only a drummer—in this case, the Weakerthans’ Jason Tait. Together, they communicate volumes with negative space: the notes they don’t play are as important as they ones they do. Both men have long histories of being sidemen (Jurvanen has toured with Feist and Jason Collett; Tait’s resumé outside the Weakerthans is long and varied), so subtle inflection comes naturally to them.

Barchords is not a minimalist album aimed only at guitar geeks, however. Rather, you barely notice anything missing, largely because of the strength of Jurvanen’s songwriting, the subtle extra touches—including glorious backing vocals by Carleigh Aikins and Felicity Williams—and Jurvanen’s relaxed yet compelling approach to both his vocals and his guitar leads. There are straight-up pop songs ala Nick Lowe, atmospheric ballads ala M. Ward, and jammed-out rock songs ala My Morning Jacket, though the only time Jurvanen takes an actual guitar solo is on “Your Sweet Touch.” Though he constantly wears his heart on his sleeve, this is not a confessional sad-sack heartbreak record, and never does he sound as syrupy as Jack Johnson, the smooth surf-folk dude who became a big Bahamas fan after their 2009 debut Pink Strat and put out this record on his own label.

Slow, steady and subtle sometimes win the race; now that Barchords is finally out, the rest of 2012 will be a series of victory laps for Bahamas. (Feb. 16)

Download: “Lost in the Light,” “Caught Me Thinking,” “Your Sweet Touch”

Fred Eaglesmith - 6 Volts (E1)

Fred Eaglesmith has earned the right to do whatever he wants, after 16 albums, endless kilometres, mainstream covers, and finally landing on Letterman’s show last year. The southern Ontario country songwriter has always done things on a DIY scale—from running his own record label to putting on an annual charity picnic near his hometown of Brantford—but 6 Volts is one of the most raw recordings in his long discography.

Working again with Guelph engineer Scott Merritt—the two have been collaborating for over two decades now—Eaglesmith records his band live in the studio around a single microphone, where the banjo and the Neil Young-ish electric guitar compete for sonic space. The result is more of a garage rock record than anything else in Eaglesmith’s discography.

But no one listens to Fred Eaglesmith for the sonic landscape. The man is a master storyteller; one of the finest working in country or any genre, of any generation, and 6 Volts does not disappoint. His cast of characters includes loners, murderers, musicians, truckers, and the kind of guys who boast: “I been so lonesome, I made Hank Williams look like a party of five.” And only a true industry outsider like Eaglesmith can sound so convincing calling out fairweather Johnny Cash fans who jumped on the legend’s bandwagon late in his life: “Where were you in 1989, when it looked like Johnny was on the decline?”

Eaglesmith is a legend in his own time—and on his own terms—and 6 Volts is yet another reason why. (Feb. 9)

Download: “Betty Oshawa,” “Trucker Speed,” “Cigarette Machine”

First Aid Kit - The Lion's Roar (Wichita)

The story of the Swedish Soderberg sisters has all the makings of a flash in the pan: teenage hippie siblings in a woodland setting sing an acoustic cover of an American hit (well, an underground hit—Fleet Foxes’ “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song”) and it becomes a viral YouTube sensation (2.7 million hits and counting).

The Lion’s Roar is their first major album, but it sure doesn’t sound like it. This young band already has plenty of experience: they have another full-length, an EP, and extensive touring behind their belt, along with nods from the likes of Jack White, Lykke Li, The Knife, and now Bright Eyes: Conor Oberst sings on rousing album closer "King of the World," and Oberst’s wizard behind the curtain, producer and multi-instrumentalist Mike Mogis, is behind the boards for the entire record.

All that buzz and celebrity approval wouldn’t mean anything if the Soderberg sisters didn’t have the goods—which they do. Lead singer Klara has an astounding voice, as rich and resonant as Neko Case, and, needless to say, her keyboardist sister Johanna complements her perfectly. But it’s the songwriting that sets them apart from other ingénues; though there’s nothing fresh or original here, neither do they fall into tired clichés, and there are slight traces of psychedelia that pull them away from straightforward verse-chorus structures. They’re well steeped in Americana country and folk traditions, so that even when they write a tribute to the genre’s musical heroes (“I’ll be your Emmylou [Harris] / I’ll be your June [Carter] / you’ll be my Gram [Parsons] and my Johnny [Cash] too”), it comes off as innocent and charming rather than cloying.

Cute teenage hippie Swedish siblings may make for a good meme, but The Lion’s Roar speaks volumes about this duo’s staying power. (Feb. 9)

Download: “The Lion’s Roar,” “Emmylou,” “Blue”

Galactic - Carnivale Electricos (Anti)

Did you miss Mardi Gras? Then you need to hear Galactic, a one-stop-shop on the history of New Orleans funk, who celebrate Mardi Gras every day. They’ve worked with everyone from Irma Thomas to the Neville Brothers to Trombone Shorty to Big Freedia, and here they set out specifically to make a Mardi Gras carnival record—complete with brass bands, hip-hop, zydeco, jazz and funk—with traditions from Brazilian carnivals. They cover the 1960 Mardi Gras anthem “Carnival Time” with original vocalist Al Johnson (now age 72) and invite ’90s hip-hop icons Mannie Fresh and Mystikal to the party, along with up-and-comers from Brazil and local high school marching bands. Unlike a lot of cross-genre party bands who bring the house down wherever they play, Galactic also make fine records, and this may be their best. (Feb. 23)

Download: “Hey Na Na,” “Voyage Ton Flag,” “Ha Di Ka”

Grimes - Visions (Arbutus/4AD)

Who would dare earnestly embrace Mariah Carey and Animal Collective? Meet the deliriously confounding 23-year-old Montreal musician Clare Boucher, aka Grimes.

On her third album—but first for a larger indie label, and the first to be written up in glossy international magazines—Boucher’s girlish and acrobatic voice is delivered rich with reverb, layered with towers of her own harmonies and electronically pitched into the stratosphere. No matter how strange she makes herself sound, she is almost always singing bubblegum melodies. Her sonic backdrop owes as much to Robyn as it does to Aphex Twin or to The Weeknd—or, given the ’80s sheen of Visions, she conjures sonic images of the Cocteau Twins singing Debbie Gibson songs with Men Without Hats as the backing band.

Like Braids—her fellow weird Western Canadian transplants, Montreal neighbours and Arbutus label mates—her love of sound supersedes all else. So even if Visions boasts big beats here designed for dance floors, even if she’s writing sing-song melodies, the ecstasy of Grimes’s music comes from the opaque luxuriousness of the sonic landscape, a world as stimulating, disorienting and brightly lit as Tokyo at night, a trip through a psychedelic children’s cartoon, an abstract collision of sounds that perhaps only an ADD-addled, self-taught musician could stumble upon and decide to assemble together.

It’s entirely possible that Boucher may be a lucky musical naïf—a listen to her nebulous, earlier recordings would suggest this—but Visions displays a bold sophistication and originality, not to mention confidence and drive (she recorded this in a three-week stint, locked in her bedroom with blacked-out windows). As good as it is, Visions also suggests a dozen different directions she could go from here. An intensely creative and restless spirit, Boucher may find herself in Bjork’s company sooner than later. (Feb. 23)

Download: “Genesis,” “Vowels=Space and Time,” “Oblivion”

The Little Willies - For the Good Times (EMI)

Norah Jones, whose excellent last album veered away from jazz toward pop music, announced recently that her next solo album, due in the spring, will be produced by Danger Mouse (The Black Keys, Gorillaz). It’s safe to say that her days as a jazz artist are numbered. So if you want to hear Jones wrap her velvet tones around traditional material, she’s still hanging onto The Little Willies, her country side project, where she and acoustic guitarist Richard Julian sing songs by Willie Nelson (their namesake), Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, and others.

Much like Jones’s massively successful debut, Come Away With Me, the Little Willies offer tasteful but bloodless performances, with the advantage of mining vintage tunes. They’re all excellent musicians, the music is perfectly pleasant, and some of the cover choices are inspired (“Diesel Smoke, Dangerous Curves,” “Foul Owl on the Prowl”). But largely it sounds like little more than a sedate living room jam (literally: the band started at a Manhattan songwriters’ club called The Living Room). Jones lets her honky-tonk piano skills loose on the instrumental “Tommy Rockwood,” but there’s little here to raise anyone’s temperature—not even versions of Loretta Lynn’s fiery “Fist City” or Dolly Parton’s “Jolene.” (Feb. 9)

Download: “Diesel Smoke, Dangerous Curves,” “Tommy Rockwood,” “Foul Owl on the Prowl”

Sinead O'Connor - How About I Be Me and You Be You (Universal)

Sinead O’Connor has been pilloried by the press for the past 25 years, for any number of reasons: her politics, her personal life, her religion, her genre excursions, her inability to produce a pop hit since her 1990 breakthrough I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got.

And so after the recent dissolution of her fourth marriage (which lasted 17 days, apparently, and ended amicably) and rumours of suicide attempts, O’Connor surfaces with an album (and title) that practically dares her naysayers to take aim again. Yet surprisingly, this is getting O’Connor her best reviews in years, in part because it’s an angry rock record—for lack of a better term, if only because it isn’t reggae, religious, big band, traditional Irish, or a collection of lullabies. No doubt many long-spurned fair-weather fans feel like this is a return to form, just because O’Connor is howling once again and cursing up a storm.

That doesn’t make it a good record; in fact, much of it is downright embarrassing, even for someone who’s never been anything less than frank, singing lines that even Alanis Morissette would be ashamed to utter. Oddly enough, the most outrageous confessional wasn’t even written by O’Connor, but by American songwriter John Grant: "Queen of Denmark" has lines like, “I wanted to change the world / But I could not even change my underwear / And when the shit got really really out of hand / I had it all the way up to my hairline.” (Note to all songwriters: do not use the words “underwear” and “shit” within one line of each other, ever.) As cringe-inducing as much of the song is, it’s nonetheless powerful and written from a place of obvious pain; O’Connor throws herself completely into the vocal in a harrowing way, and the arrangement brings out the full drama of the lyric. It’s a train wreck you can’t help but be sucked into.

Her own writing, sadly, misses the mark by a mile, often not even enough to warrant a fascinating failure. She says the song "Take Off Your Shoes" is what she imagines the Holy Spirit might say to the scandal-ridden Vatican, but the song’s chorus is centred around a bizarre metaphor: “You’re running out of battery, and I don’t see no bunny around here.” Surely one of the Church’s most scathing critics could come up with a better line than that?

For anyone who wants to hear O’Connor dig her teeth into a solid pop/rock album, go back to the unjustly ignored 2000 album Faith and Courage; this one sounds more like her caving in to people who want her to do what they think she once did best. I’d rather hear Sinead O’Connor do something completely different really well—which she’s done often in the past—than sound like a parody of herself in 1990. (Feb. 23)

Download: “4th and Vine,” “Queen of Denmark,” “Reason With Me”

Nichol Robertson – Stranger Things (independent)

This Toronto guitarist cut his teeth as a sideman to dozens of performers in the city’s country, folk and avant-garde scene (he’s an occasional member of Friendly Rich’s Lollipop People and Dave Clark’s Woodchoppers), but on his debut solo album he dives deep into instrumental country music of the early ’60s. Not just stylistically—he’s an obvious disciple of Chet Atkins, and an heir to Shadowy Men’s Brian Connelly as a brilliant player combining technique and melodic reach—but aesthetically as well, as every amplifier and pedal used here is unmistakably vintage, as is the 50-year-old long-lost convention of using wordless male backing singers in instrumental music. And yet unlike, say, the raw new Fred Eaglesmith record or the ragged psychedelics of the Sadies, Robertson’s recording is decidedly modern. He employs some of Toronto’s top players, including bassist Victor Bateman and pedal steel guitarist Burke Carroll, but Robertson is the clear star here. His music may be far out of fashion, but that doesn’t make Stranger Things anything less than a stunning debut. (Feb. 9)

Download: “Stooge Country,” “Black Mountain Rag”

Skrillex – Bangarang EP (Big Beat)

If you don’t hang around anyone under 20, you might not know that a new wave of rave is sweeping North America, with Toronto’s Deadmau5 as the tribal leader. Skrillex came out of emo, metal and hardcore scenes (and played the Warped Tour with his old band when he was 16) before shifting to high-octane, distorted ADD techno. Considering his beginnings in a scene that has disdain for any musical history before Nirvana, Skrillex is surprisingly eclectic, drawing not only from squiggly video game soundtracks, recent maximalist pop like Lady Gaga and big-beat dance acts like Justice, but early rave records and even Kraftwerk-era synthesizers. Maybe that’s why he was feted by the Grammys this year.

Nothing, however, prepares the over-30 set for the stunt casting of the Doors—yes, that Doors, the surviving members anyway—on “Breakin’ a Sweat.” And Skrillex isn’t sampling them or remixing them, either: that’s Ray Manzarek on the organ and Robbie Krieger on talk-box guitar (of all things). (Estranged bandmate John Densmore is also drumming on the track, though he wasn’t in the studio at the same time. )

Fans of envelope-pushing electronic pioneers of the last 15 years like Autechre and Venetian Snares may be baffled to hear these sounds pummelled into fist-pumping anthems for mall rats, but it’s refreshing to hear someone being so playful and inventive with what is often a lowest-common-denominator market. And unlike the joyless, sexless emo world of “scene kids” that gave birth to Skrillex, this is actually music you want to dance to—while its shrill, noisy distortions will still give parents plenty to be peeved about. (Feb. 16)

Download: “Breakin’ a Sweat,” “The Devil’s Den,” “Summit”

Van Halen – A Different Kind of Truth (Interscope)

Be careful what you wish for. Van Halen fans have been clamoring for a reunion between original lead singer David Lee Roth and the rest of the band for decades; while that happened on stage in 2007 for a full tour, they’ve only got around to releasing new music now.

Thanks, guys, but you shouldn’t have. No, really—you shouldn’t have. A Different Kind of Truth is a pale imitation of the band that changed the face of heavy metal and pop music in the early ’80s. Though Eddie Van Halen rips through some blistering solos that are a potent reminder of why he was a game-changer—and his brother Alex likewise shows no sign of slowing down his tempos in his advanced age—the material itself makes it clear that the soul of the band was long ago sucked out by Sammy Hagar, Roth’s replacement in the second phase of the band’s career.

Van Halen attempt to recapture the zip of the earliest material—there are no synths anywhere here, and no power ballads—but without any riffs or vocal hooks, they’re left flopping around the studio searching for any kind of direction. Roth sounds like a grumpy old man complaining about other people’s driving, and his once bawdy self is reduced to asking, “When you turn on your stereo, does it return the favour?”

Everyone knows major label acts don’t make any money from record sales; all the dough comes from touring revenue, which a Roth-led Van Halen will no doubt be rolling in. So why bother with a new album at all? (Feb. 16)

Download: “As Is,” “She’s the Woman,” “Bullethead”