Wednesday, October 31, 2012

October '12 reviews

The following reviews ran in the Guelph Mercury and Waterloo Record in October.

Jason Collett – Reckon (Arts and Crafts)

Every songwriter needs something to shake them up and inspire their best work. For Jason Collett, he tells us that witnessing the economic collapse of the last four years has sharpened his pen; even though he put out his last record in 2010, this collection of songs has obviously allowed the long-term effects of the 2008 crash to sink in. In the interim, he also witnessed his old friend and bandmate Andrew Cash get elected to the House of Commons as an NDP MP. Collett tells us this is a political album: to be sure, there are tracks like “Don’t Let the Truth Get to You,” “When the War Came Home” and the soon-to-be anthem of the Occupy movement, “I Wanna Rob a Bank” (with lyrics like “I want a TKO of the CEO” set to a jaunty ska beat). But even those songs are, like the majority of this album, at their core character sketches of the disillusioned, the adrift, the lost. “It’s hard to make a living,” he sings, “when it’s easy making a killing foreclosing homes.”

I haven’t been as impressed with his last two albums, which means that I’d have to go back to 2005’s Idols of Exile to find a distilled example of his formidable talent. Here, however, he’s at the height of his powers, and not just as a tunesmith: Reckon is pretty much a perfect rock’n’roll singer/songwriter record, with impeccable playing, a mix of acoustic, alt-country, pop and ’70s rock, and warm production (by Howie Beck) that provides many spinetingling moments. The real anomaly is “You’re Not the One and Only Lonely One,” which sounds suspiciously like Some Girls-era Rolling Stones, with some spooky vocoder backing vocals and a wigged-out recorder solo thrown in for good measure and absurdist pleasure. Perhaps needless to say, it’s the best song the Stones haven’t written in about 30 years.

Collett has also thankfully abandoned the affected Bob Dylan cadence that was so distracting on his last two albums; here he sounds much more like his natural self, which highlights the empathy in the lyrics.

Reckon is being packaged with a bonus disc collecting Collett’s best tracks from the last 10 years, which is just one more reason you should buy this instead of the new Dylan record: it’s Collett’s best in years, collected with his best of all time. You reckon? (Oct. 4)

Download: “You’re Not the One and Only Lonely One,” “Jasper Johns’ Flag,” “Don’t Let the Truth Get to You”

Daphni – Jiaolong (Merge)

Dan Snaith of Dundas, Ontario, has made dance music for the last decade as Caribou: sometimes of the bedroom, minimalist variety; sometimes as psychedelic rock; sometimes as astounding, vivid and fully realized as he did on 2010’s Swim. For the past year, Snaith has been quietly releasing 12” singles under the name Daphni, hastily assembled tracks using samples from non-Western recordings (mostly African) and an analog synthesizer. This is material distinctly designed for dance floors; Snaith hesitated to assemble it on an album at all. Many Caribou fans might find it too repetitive and not as delicately layered as Snaith’s main project, but there’s no mistaking that it’s the product of the same creative mind. The bass lines are nimble, the synth squiggles are melodic and endearing, and the drum programming dances around the four-on-the-floor pulse. On “Jiao,” he takes a synth solo that sounds like a nod to Charanjit Singh’s recently reissued Moog classic Ten Ragas to a Disco Beat. Snaith is not aiming for the Deadmau5 crowd, but there’s no reason Daphni couldn’t take on a whole popular life of its own. After all, The New Yorker loves it already. (Oct. 18)

Download: “Ye Ye,” “Pairs,” “Ahora” 

Four Tet – Pink (Text)

Four Tet’s Kieran Hebden has spent the last 12 years making esoteric electronic music that married clipped, folksy sounds to stuttering beats, often resulting in exquisitely beautiful chill-out music. He’s explored a lot of terrain as Four Tet, but in the last year started putting out 12-inch records focused primarily on minimal dance beats, with little of the layers that he’s known for. They’re collected here to form a surprisingly cohesive album, one that flows easily from beatless bits of beauty like “Peace For Earth” to propulsive dance tracks like “Pinnacles,” with an upright bass line pushing a disco beat, ethereal pedal steel guitar and sparse piano chords. Most tracks are incredibly long but never repetitive: on the nine-minute track "Lion," he’s still introducing new elements—like, say, a kalimba—around the six-minute mark. It’s telling that the two shortest tracks here: "Ocoras" and "128 Harps"—are the least inspired, repetitious and sound like diluted versions of his earlier triumphs. Pink is not an album for short-attention spans, and even casual listening doesn’t do it justice. It’s not background music: it deserves to be played loud in a club or alone with headphones. And after years of experimenting and uneven releases, it’s the best work Hebden has done in a long, long time. (Oct. 4)

Download: “Pyramid,” “Pinnacles,” “Jupiter”

Godspeed You Black Emperor – Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend! (Constellation)

The reclusive Montreal collective—and they actually are a collective, as opposed to just a large group of musicians—recently lamented that people find Godspeed’s music such a bummer. Why would they? Oh, I don’t know: the droning chords, the weeping violins, the desolation, the despair—all the crescendos and eventual transcendent uplift inserted into their music could never compensate for the wrist-slashing that seemed to permeate every other aspect of this band’s existence.

But hey, we all grow up. And during the decade of Godspeed’s hiatus, the members have become parents, owned successful Montreal businesses and joined multiple other musical projects. All that life experience can be detected in between the notes on this, their fourth proper album, which sounds considerably more confident and accomplished than anything else in their discography. It also illustrates why Godspeed are so much better than bands of the same era (Mogwai) or descendents (Explosions in the Sky), none of whom manage the emotional wallop and tension release at which Godspeed has excelled since their arresting 1997 debut.

Allelujah! contains just four tracks: two around the 20-minute mark, and two shorter drone pieces that provide respite. The awesome opening track features what could be a klezmer guitar line and ends with field recordings of this spring’s “casserole protests” in Montreal—the track is called “Mladic,” named after a Yugoslavian war criminal, with whom even the reviled Jean Charest is surely not a moral equivalent. No matter. Whether Godspeed is attempting a grand statement or merely messing around with atmosphere, there are much more advanced arrangements at work here than the past. The band knows that you can’t take anything for granted; you don’t get points just for showing up; and that if they were going to reassemble this unruly group, they should be firing on all cylinders. Hey kids, this is what you missed—and it sounds better now than it has since the debut. (Oct. 18)

Heart – Fanatic (Sony)

Perhaps the most successful female-fronted hard rock band in history, Heart has been on the comeback trail in recent years, with high-profile tours and a tell-all autobiography from the Wilson sisters out to coincide with this new album. And unlike on the synthy power ballads of the ’80s and ‘90s, Ann and Nancy Wilson are returning with a modern take on the raunchy rock’n’roll that launched their career, back when they were a band of Seattle draft-dodgers starting out in Vancouver (a history acknowledged on the terribly titled track “Rock Deep” here; there’s also a duet with Vancouver’s Sarah McLachlan). Produced by Ben Mink (FM, k.d. lang), Fanatic is by no means a career-defining comeback, but it’s a strong rock record that shows these sisters have a lot of life left in them yet. And listening to Ann Wilson’s powerful pipes in action, you don’t want to try and convince her otherwise. (Oct. 11)

Download: “Dear Old America,” “Skin and Bones,” “A Million Miles”

K’naan – God, Country or the Girl (Universal)

The key to being an international superstar is being everything to everyone—which of course runs the high risk of being nothing to nobody. The intensely charismatic K’naan now finds the world watching after the global reach of his single “Wavin’ Flag,” and so God, Country or the Girl is packed with arena-sized pop songs, more than a few ballads, and not so much of the hip-hop flow that launched his career. Most moves this calculated fall flat on their face; K’naan, on the other hand, is all but guaranteed to conquer all charts for the foreseeable future.

That’s because even at his cheesiest, like the inspirational Europop song “Better” (“Failure is just an excuse for me to get better”) or the Bono-assisted “Bulletproof,” K’naan has the melodies to match the bombast; while his lyrical ingenuity is nowhere near his normal highs, he still drops enough head-turning phrases that would leap out of any Top 40 playlist—and make no mistake, every song here could be a hit.

Exhibit A is “Alone,” which features Black Eyed Peas’ sampling the Romantics’ “Talking in Your Sleep,” with an insanely catchy guitar rock hook, techno build-ups, a sing-song chorus over huge power chords, and K’naan sounding like he’s having more fun than ever. That’s the most obvious song here, but surprises abound. “70 Excuses” starts out as a lovely, lilting ballad until the last 90 seconds erupts into a joyous, jazzy, African march; “Gold in Timbuktu” samples a lilting lullaby from Chilly Gonzales’s Solo Piano; “Waiting is a Drug” uses a Dave Brubeck-style piano vamp to inspire the best hip-hop track here; the kalimba-driven “Simple” seems inspired by Peter Gabriel and early U2.

Some tracks are tailor-made for tourism ads and soccer matches, but K’naan brings the strength of his personality to rescue them from insipidness. And despite this being a largely upbeat pop album—one that includes an anti-bullying song with Nelly Furtado on the chorus—K’naan doesn’t shy away from scary stories about growing up in war-torn Somalia, a street cred he played up on his first two albums but refers to here only as a reminder that he’s not all sun ’n’ roses.

Like his first two records, though, K’naan occasionally stumbles badly: “Hurt Me Tomorrow” sounds like a bad Matchbox 20 song, and a song called “The Wall” indulges in the worst geopolitical metaphor possible: “Whenever we turn a wheel, peace talk and make a deal / you remind me of Palestine and I feel so Israel / look at all the walls I’ve built / look at all the guards you’ve killed.” Thankfully, K’naan generally doesn’t conflate the personal and the political: “It’s not an earthquake or a tsunami / what you hear is the sound of my breaking heart.”

With “Wavin’ Flag,” K’naan grabbed the world’s attention; this album ensures he’s going to get even more of it. (Oct. 25)

Download: “Waiting is a Drug,” “Alone,” “Simple”

The Luyas – Animator (Paper Bag)

Art or pop? For most artists, it’s not hard to tell which side of that divide they’re on. For Montreal’s Luyas, that had always been a problem.  The tension between singer/guitarist Jessie Stein, previously of grunge pop band SS Cardiacs, and her bandmates Pietro Amato and Stefan Schneider, both of cinematic instrumental band Bell Orchestre, was distracting and failed to coalesce.

Here, however, on their third album—on which Schneider has been replaced with Land of Talk’s Mark Wheaton, and Arcade Fire’s Sarah Neufeld signs on as violin player and arranger—the Luyas hit a stride and find their identity.

Opening track “Montuno” spends 2½ minutes determining atmosphere before blossoming into a song; that’s followed by the shimmering rocker “Fifty/Fifty,” which could be a long-lost British single from the early ’90s (think: Lush, the Sundays, Laika) with much better drumming. Stein’s electric 12-string zither and Amato’s treated French horn dance with Neufeld’s strings to bring texture to the forefront, while keyboardist Mathieu Charbonneau provides the structural backbone. Stein’s wispy voice is not the focal point; although her melodies are stronger than ever, she sounds more like a little girl lost in a sound world, a dreamlike presence extending a hand to the listener.

And so for the first time, the Luyas sound less like an experimental collaboration and more of a band; the loss of the restlessly inventive Schneider is lamented, but Wheaton provides an anchor that helps bridge both sides of the Luya’s ambitions, while everyone else in the band has seriously stepped up their game. (Oct. 18)

Download: “Fifty-Fifty,” “Face”, “Traces”

Janka Nabay & the Bubu Band – En Yay Sah (Sub Pop)

This New York City band, led by a singer from Sierra Leone, joins an exciting 2012 trend whereby African immigrants start bands with U.S. and U.K. musicians and create exciting hybrids: witness also Boston Ethiopian group the Debo Band and London Ghanaian combo KonKoma, both of whom also put out excellent debuts this year. The Bubu Band specialize in high BPMs, synth-y percussion, call-and-response vocals between Nabay and female vocalists, and funky organ stabs. It’s the kind of African music that shares such a obvious debt to vintage James Brown—but not by being an African version of American R&B (and Nabay is not at all trying to imitate Brown’s vocal style), like many recently reissued African funk gems, but by demonstrating the through link to Brown’s innovations in terms of intensity, specific rhythms and structure—all the while sounding thoroughly modern, and not a throwback of any kind. This is the kind of band that needs to take a lot of their  neo-Afrophile Brooklyn neighbours to school. (Oct. 25)

Download: “Tay-Su-Tan-Tan,” “Ro Lungi,” “Rotin”

A.C. Newman – Shut Down the Streets (Last Gang)

The singer/songwriter who normally fronts the power pop sugar rush of the New Pornographers has never been known to tone it down, even on his solo records. This is the first solo venture that stands apart from everything else he’s done in the past 12 years: both in tone and in content. With the death of his mother and the birth of his son, Newman is in a surprisingly direct frame of mind; for a man known for indecipherable lyrics that rely more on phonetics than emotional content, this is the most candid Newman has ever been. But because of his past, that also means he’s the least likely songwriter to slip into maudlin territory; this is not an ultra-personal confessional.

Musically, Newman is using psychedelic and folkie textures—banjo, accordion, flutes and hammered dulcimer, anyone?—to imbue these songs with plenty of room to breathe, which is not what we’re used to hearing from him. Newman’s trademark sound involves dense orchestration, so it’s a revelation to hear him in this context, like he’s learning to relax for the first time in his life (as a 44-year-old new dad, no less). The music is no less complex, but it’s less fussy, much more welcoming. The oft-arch craftsman has suddenly become warm and fuzzy, and Newman wears it well. Neko Case drops by to provide ample backing vocals, but unlike her role in the New Pornographers, she’s never out to steal the show: this is The Newman Show, through and through, and he’s never sounded better. (Oct. 11)

Download: “I’m Not Talking,” “You Could Get Lost Out Here,” “There’s Money in New Wave”

Snowblink – Inner Classics (Arts and Crafts)

Snowblink is beautiful—that much is obvious upon first listen. Daniela Gesundheit’s weightless voice and the meticulous, sparse arrangements are immediately gripping. The songs themselves—not so much, on first impression.

But give it time, and the craft begins to reveal itself: this is much more than just brilliant production (courtesy of Chris Stringer) and a great voice (two, actually: co-conspirator Dan Goldman contributes a soothing baritone whisper underneath Gesundheit’s dulcet tones). Though she may be working in a North American alt-folk idiom, Gesundheit easily draws from Indian, African and East Asian scales in her melodies—“Safety Stories” sounds like it could be from a Chinese opera—while always rooted in hazy, California-sun-tinted folk music, with a few faint traces of country and surf music just for kicks. 

Snowblink recently performed as part of Feist’s band at the Polaris Music Prize gala, and it’s easy to see why they appeal to her: there is a similar desire to marry the delicate and pretty to the unexpected and daring. Snowblink creates a glorious opiate of a sound, one that defies any easy description, except to say that the more time you spend with it, the greater the reward. Feist knows that; so should you. (Oct. 11)

Download: “Unsurfed Waves,” “Best-Loved Spot,” “Black & White Mountains”

Tame Impala – Lonerism (Modular)

Flying Lotus – Until the Quiet Comes (Warp)

The best psychedelic music doesn’t require the listener to take any drugs: the musicians and engineers have already done all the work for you, moving instruments and strange sounds around your stereo system and painting your room with all sorts of new colours you didn’t even know existed. Both Australian rock band Tame Impala and Los Angeles electronic producer Flying Lotus excel at modern psychedelia, but they come at it from entirely different angles.

Tame Impala is considerably more traditional. We know and love these sounds from the first psychedelic wave in the ’60s: the shimmering organs, the thunderous drums, the phasing pedals, the crunchy guitar solos—even the lead singer’s voice sounds like John Lennon, just for added time warp effect. And yet outside of the Flaming Lips—whose vision has taken a darker turn in the last five years—few people are making psychedelic pop rock that is equal parts fun and fuckery. Tame Impala are like a vintage roller coaster: you know all the tricks, but every twist and turn can still seem like a surprise and it’s no less thrilling than the slick new model next door.

Flying Lotus doesn’t go for thrills. He’s happy to not just consistently pull the rug out from underneath you, but to take the floor away as well, and then proceed to ricochet you around his hard drive. Beats fall where they may. Jazz guitar and piano pop their heads into view. Massive bass sounds lurch and careen around the corners. Erykah Badu shows up as a ghostly Galadriel. Thom Yorke is here somewhere. Flying Lotus doesn’t do dance floors. This is 22nd-century jazz, utterly unfamiliar and fascinating. But is it, you know, pleasurable? That’s debatable; it’s hard to detect emotional investment at work here. But Flying Lotus is entirely in a class of his own, and as long as music like this exists, there’s no reason for us to take drugs. (Oct. 25)

Download Tame Impala: “Be Above It,” “Keep on Lying,” “Elephant”

Download Flying Lotus: “Putty Boy Strut,” “Sultan’s Request,” “Until the Quiet Comes”

The Tragically Hip – Now for Plan A (Universal)

This is Plan A? Sounds like a bunch of B-sides.

It’s not easy to sound fresh and invigorated in your 25th year of being a band—although the Hip managed to do just that on their last two studio records, where they bounced back from years of low expectations and sounded hungry to prove something again. Those albums—World Container (2006) and especially We Are the Same (2009)—were produced by Bob Rock, who is replaced here by Gavin Brown (Billy Talent, Three Days Grace).

Here, the Hip seem content to replicate their largely forgettable releases from the early 2000s: the band is on autopilot, the rock songs fall flat, and Downie’s melodies sound remarkably recycled—and not even from the Hip’s better songs. The exceptions are the title track, featuring a lovely (and long, long overdue) harmony from Sarah Harmer, and the soaring “Man Machine Poem,” which finds Downie going for a full-on bravado vocal performance—and pulling it off.

We know better than to write this band off, but Plan A is full of zzz’s. Great album cover, though. (Oct. 11)

Download: “Man Machine Poem,” “Now For Plan A,” “The Modern Spirit”

Corin Tucker Band – Kill My Blues (Kill Rock Stars)

After the demise of Sleater-Kinney—one of the most powerful rock bands of the 2000s—the two guitarists, Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker, both took time off before returning to the fold. Brownstein threw herself into comedy (Portlandia) before forming an equally ferocious new band, Wild Flag; Tucker focused on raising her two kids before forming a solo band and releasing the low-key 1,000 Years, which featured the unlikely sight of Tucker—whose state-of-emergency, emotive vocals are unmistakable—playing comparatively hushed material, even piano ballads. She herself called it her “middle-aged mom record.” It certainly wasn’t terrible, but it didn’t suit her.

Long-time fans will recognize the old Tucker here; she’s turned her amp up and is ready to holler. Her band no longer sounds like friends who dropped by to help out; they’ve developed serious chemistry, adding keyboards, backing vocals, and generally bringing out the best in her, both as a vocalist and an arranger. She brings back some of the psychedelic textures of Sleater-Kinney’s swansong, The Woods, writes a beach-party punk song like “Neskowin,” and even feels confident enough to throw in a blatantly Nirvana-ish guitar riff in “Constance” (referencing “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” no less—Tucker came of age in the same Olympia, Washington, scene that inspired Kurt Cobain.)

Tucker doesn’t sound as hungry here as she did in Sleater-Kinney—maybe she never will again until that band gets back together (which has not been ruled out, apparently). In the meantime, it’s good to hear her howl. (Oct. 4)

Download: “Kill My Blues,” “Neskowin,” “No Bad News Tonight”

Tusks – Total Entertainment (Static Clang)

The band name may be sharp and pointy, but the welcoming album title is apt. Samir Khan is a lifer in the Canadian underground, having played in more bands than even he can probably remember (some include Kepler, Snailhouse, Jim Guthrie), but on his second record as Tusks he aims for the sunny side of the street, with buoyant melodies, ’50s-inspired vocal trio harmonies, hints of new wave and vintage R.E.M. (especially the 12-string electric guitar on “New to Old Money”), and pop songs that aim for Bacharach complexity, not three-chord wonders. It’s all executed by an all-star band, including guitarist Jordan Howard (The Magic, The Acorn), drummer Steve McKay (Bruce Peninsula) and keyboardist Shaw-han Liem (I Am Robot and Proud). Even more impressive, however, are the lyrics, which are poetic reflections on family, children, legacy and death, especially on the song “Ocean”: “New tasks are at hand, there is work to be done in the names of the people who made us.” Finally, Khan knows that part of the concept of “total entertainment” is not wearing out your welcome: hence nine tracks, 31 minutes, leave ’em smiling. (Oct. 18)

Tusks are playing the Piston in Toronto tomorrow night, Nov. 1.

Download: “New to Old Money,” “Wake Them Up,” “In the Beginning/Give It Time”

Friday, October 05, 2012

September '12 reviews

The following reviews ran in the Waterloo Record and Guelph Mercury last month.

David Byrne and St. Vincent – Love This Giant (4AD)
The classic Talking Heads concert film, Stop Making Sense, has a loose narrative involving a stiff, awkward white guy slowly loosening up and learning how to dance, as more bandmates are introduced to the stage. It makes sense, then, that Talking Heads’ David Byrne is the man to bring St. Vincent’s Annie Clark out of her shell: the eggheaded singer/songwriter has built a discography of fussy, cluttered prog rock. Here, she sounds unchained for the first time, helped also in part by the fact that all songs are arranged primarily for full brass, with a minimum of drum programming and keyboards.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that this sounds like a mere experiment in collaboration rather than something worthy of these two extremely talented people. Love This Giant is neither pop nor experimental enough to add up to much of anything. Byrne, who has been on a roll lately with his buoyant 2010 disco opera Here Lies Love and his uplifting 2008 Brian Eno collaboration Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, sounds spent here, and almost claustrophobic. He’d have been better off collaborating with a number of his younger fans—including Arcade Fire and Dirty Projectors—than committing solely to Clark. (Sept. 13)

Download: “Who?” “Optimist,” “Outside of Space and Time”

Calexico – Algiers (Anti)
To mariachi or not mariachi? That is the question that plagues Calexico. Ever since the Tuscon duo expanded into a full band and started incorporating Mexican influences more overtly into their material, their audience expanded considerably beyond the chin-scratching music geeks who respected the subtle and refined instrumental prowess involved with everything these two men do. The tracks that featured big brass parts and danceable rhythms quickly became fan favourites and live show highlights. Would that trajectory hijack the abstract, anything-can-happen aspects of Calexico that set them apart from all their peers?

On their last album, 2008’s Carried to Dust, Calexico managed to absorb those Latin influences into everything they did, using smaller gestures instead of obvious nods, and as a result delivered their most satisfying album to date, where the songcraft matched the sonics and the arrangements. Here, however, after a long rest (due in part to fatherhood for both men), Calexico retreat even further, barely breaking a sweat on 11 rainy-day tracks that revel in space, serenity and atmosphere. Even the vocal turn by auxiliary band member Jacob Valenzuela—his song “InspiraciĆ³n” was a highlight of Carried to Dust—is a low-key duet with Spanish singer Jairo Zavala, brought to life primarily by Valenzuela’s magical, ethereal trumpet solo and a piano vamp in the bridge.

Algiers is named not after the capital city of Algeria—across the Mediterranean from Spain—but for a neighbourhood of New Orleans where the album was recorded. It marks the first time in the band’s career they decamped to a city other than Tuscon to create, and they claim it inspired much of the album. If that’s true, it’s impossible to hear: there’s nary a trace of that town’s rhythms here; you can take Calexico out of Arizona, but you can never take the very specific regional sound of Arizona out of Calexico.

Like Carried to Dust, Algiers finds Calexico further developing into their own unique sound; unlike that record, however, it doesn’t signal any kind of progression, or even the band at the height of their powers. For one of the great American bands of the last decade, it’s merely business as usual—and, for better or worse, with less mariachi to distract us. (Sept. 13)

Download: “Splitter,” “Maybe on Monday,” “No Te Vas”

Cat Power – Sun (Matador)
Six years after Chan Marshall’s last album of original material, her commercial breakthrough The Greatest—a period of time during which she had a breakdown, declared bankruptcy and released an album of covers—Cat Power comes back swinging. Not only is Sun the most upbeat and musically adventurous of her career, Marshall plays every instrument herself—and what could have been an insular, tentative work (like most Cat Power records) is instead the most extroverted Marshall has ever been.

Death, stress, freedom, monkeys on her back—the subject matter is not particularly cheery. “Real life is ordinary / sometimes you don’t want to live,” she sings, and much of the album concerns itself with romance and adventure, Marshall’s plaintive, melancholy voice expressing world-weariness and ennui, torn between desire and domesticity, between hope and despair.

Part of her musical rebirth involved breaking every habit she had: she wrote on synths rather than piano or guitar, she recorded with her touring band and then ditched the entire session to redo it herself, and she consciously avoided anything that sounded too much like her sad-sack records of old. The result is surprisingly approachable, even though it’s far from weightless coffeehouse music, like The Greatest was. Indeed, it’s downright strange at times, whether it’s the 11-minute two-chord drone “Nothin’ But Time,” which conjures an amalgam of the Velvet Underground, Patti Smith and David Bowie (and actually features Iggy Pop on backing vocals), or the globetrotting cri de couer “Ruins,” delivered in an oddball patois over a post-punk disco/ska backbeat.

Sun is an album that long-time fans can recognize as genuine growth (almost 20 years into her career), while skeptics, newbies and the curious can approach her as almost an entirely new and different artist. (Sept. 6)

Download: “Cherokee,” “Ruin,” “Manhattan”

Change of Heart – There You Go: ’82-’97 (Sonic Unyon)
There’s always that band you loved in your 20s, the one you were convinced was a game-changer, the one who showed you musical possibilities, the one who slew every time, the one who slammed you up against the back of the venue wall gig after gig after gig, the one about whom you were always pontificating, the one who gets entire chapters in rock history books, the one whose T-shirts were a badge of cool back in the day.

There’s also sometimes that very same band whose CDs go out of print, whose CDs always seem to be in the quarter bin at the local music shop, who is barely remembered by the next generation of listeners, whose own members proudly move on to completely different musical projects and let sleeping dogs lie.

Change of Heart is one of those bands. During the mid-’90s, they were beloved by so many of their peers, from the underground to the most mainstream, including The Tragically Hip, Sloan, Blue Rodeo, Barenaked Ladies and Sarah Harmer. Fifteen years after their demise—during which time bandleader Ian Blurton fronted at least two bands and produced classic Canadian albums by the Weakerthans, among many others—comes this compilation, covering not just their landmark work in the ’90s, including 1992’s Smile, but long-unavailable early gems. To say this overdue resuscitation is a landmark in Canadian rock history would be a gross understatement.

And yet, as with all romanticized affairs of youth, one has to wonder: was Change of Heart really that good? Listening to these roaring, remixed (by Blurton and long-time collaborator Michael Philip Wojewoda) and remastered (by Joao Carvalho) tracks, the answer is obvious: yes, yes, they were. Near the end they were a prog-rock grunge band capable of the occasional pop song, but early tracks betray both straight-up punk influences as well as ’80s college-rock zeitgeist, with unexpected nods to early R.E.M. and Replacements. Throughout, Blurton’s guitar work is exemplary—and certainly not just with rock riffs and blistering leads that dominated his more recent projects. Change of Heart had several rhythm sections over its history; they’re all fascinating and propulsive.

When Change of Heart had access to major label funding, their last two albums captured the huge sound Blurton had in mind. Here, though, their 1992 classic Smile is finally given the crispy crunch it always deserved; producer Wojewoda has been on record for years claiming that he botched the original mastering job, and now reparations have been paid. Earlier tracks belie the myth that this band only came into its own circa Smile; “Directions for Going,” from the 1986 debut, is rousing and gorgeous, and 1989’s “Pat’s Decline” is one of the best Canadian songs of that decade—unavailable digitally until now.

The market for full reissues is admittedly limited, so this is likely the final word from Change of Heart. Therefore, diehard fans are welcome to mourn the omission of other key tracks like “Coma,” “Yeah It Matters,” “What My Paws Can Move” and “Halifax Facial”—a trauma all 100 of us who still care that much will just have to live with. At least a new generation can finally discover what that 40-year-old in the corner of live venues across the country has been blathering on about for all these years—and appreciate it on their own terms. (Sept. 20)
Download the tracks never before available since their original vinyl release: “Pat’s Decline,” “Winter’s Over,” “Directions for Going”

Deerhoof – Breakup Song (Polyvinyl)
By this point in Deerhoof’s 15-year-long career, you would think the joyously experimental rock band would have done everything: big riffs, math rock, blasts of noise, playful children’s music, electronic bossa nova, and everything in between. And they have—very well. Where do they go from here?

The band themselves describe Breakup Song, their 12th album, as “Cuban-flavoured party-noise energy music”—which tells you everything and nothing (only “The Trouble With Candyhands” displays a hint of Cuban influence, for starters). It’s frenetic, polyrhythmic, noisy and fun, and it sounds nothing like a band with the traditional two-electric-guitar-bass-drums lineup would ever be capable of. With the exception of drummer Greg Saunier’s superhuman ability behind the kit, very few other sounds are recognizable here. Who knows what they’re getting up to or how they do it, but the songs themselves are just as inventive and catchy as always: this easily stands with the finest moments in Deerhoof’s somewhat spotty discography.

When Deerhoof is on fire, as they are here, all other forward-thinking rock bands might as well retire. (Sept. 6)

Download: “There’s That Grin,” “Flower,” “The Trouble With Candyhands”

Carly Rae Jepsen – Kiss (Schoolboy)
Somehow I managed to be the Last Man on Earth to have heard the ubiquitous 2012 summer smash single “Call Me Maybe,” by this Mission, B.C., singer. And now that I have—well, yes, it’s pretty fun. But here’s the shocking thing about this full-length debut album from Jepsen: it’s nowhere near the catchiest song on it. And it’s hard to choose from at least half-dozen more to decide what would take its place.

The big shocker, of course, is the raw, stripped-down Cat Power arrangements. Just kidding! Everything about Kiss threatens to out-gloss Katy Perry; it’s full of blinding synth stabs, tinny beats and big pop melodies designed to accompany showers of confetti. Not that there’s anything wrong with that: Jepsen does this better than almost anyone else, aiming to be a one-woman 21st-century ABBA. Unlike Perry, Jepsen doesn’t sound like an overachieving robot while doing so—there are actually traces of naturalism in her otherwise heavily processed vocals.

She sings about taking a lover’s guitar string and wearing it like a wedding ring, though you’d be hard pressed to hear a single guitar anywhere on this album. There are tracks where a guitar could come in handy, too: “Tonight I’m Getting Over You” could have been a country crossover hit, if the backing track didn’t sound like it was produced by Skrillex.

As a kiddie pop album, Kiss is, naturally, too long and wears out its welcome, though its lowest point is actually one of the advance singles (and a huge hit): a duet with Owl City, “Good Times,” is Jepsen is at her most insipid, a horrifically happy song that should never be played anywhere outside Disney World and North Korean pep rallies. At least the duet with her label boss, Justin Bieber, fares much better. (Sept. 27)

Download: “This Kiss,” “Sweetie,” “I Know You Have a Girlfriend”

Danny Michel – Black Birds are Dancing Over Me (Six Shooter)
Danny Michel has been hiding out in Costa Rica in recent years and fallen off Canadian radar. Here, however, he reminds us what we’ve been missing; this is not just a comeback, it may well be the best work he has ever done. Michel has always been a craftsman as a songwriter and a guitarist, so it’s no surprise this is melodically strong and impeccably performed, and his lyrics are more mature, less reliant on clever one-liners and turns of phrase. The key difference here hearkens back to his earliest days as a performer, when his band the Rhinos were still a ska band evolving into much more. Michel has soaked up his local Latin American influences and made a glorious gumbo that effortlessly recalls Paul Simon’s more successful experiments, enhancing Michel’s sound without sounding like he’s wading in waters over his head. “Take My Heart and Run” and “Break It You Buy It” are slinky disco soul songs; “A Cold Road” is a tender West African ballad; “Survivor’s Guilt” is a reggae/cumbia hybrid; all these tracks work on their own merits, however, without playing spot-the-influence. Clearly, spending some time away from home has recharged Michel’s restlessly creative spirit. (Sept. 27)

Download: “The First Night,” “Survivor’s Guilt,” “Break It You Buy It”

Stars – The North (Soft Revolution)
It’s been five years since Stars delivered their career-best album, In the Bedroom After the War: since then, the largely forgettable album The Five Ghosts was a placeholder in between side projects and parenthood for most of the band. Here, they bounce back with an album designed to fill the stadiums they’ll be playing when they open for Metric across Canada this fall.

The North is perhaps their most musically diverse outing to date: straight-up tributes to New Order, Big Audio Dynamite and other ’80s staples are pulled off with aplomb, while the addition of an additional guitarist bolsters Amy Millan’s always-solid rhythm work and provides additional crunch; meanwhile, the ballads are more beautiful than ever, notably the title track and the GTA commuter tribute “The 400.”

Usually there’s at least one moment on a Stars album where co-lead singer Torquil Campbell proves insufferable; surprisingly, it’s not on the political track here (“A Song is a Weapon,” dedicated to Stephen Harper and featuring the chorus, “You will be here ages after I’m gone / I can only hope to kill you with a song”). Instead, it’s the bombast of “Do You Want to Die Together” that would even make Romeo and Juliet cringe.

That aside, The North shows these Stars are far from burning out. (Sept. 6)

Download: “The Theory of Relativity,” “The North,” “Hold On When You Get Love and Let Go When You Give It”

The XX – Coexist (XL)
This is a minor miracle that didn’t seem possible.
Not when this trio of childhood friends emerged from nowhere with a perfectly minimalist debut album in 2009: an album featuring narcoleptic vocals, subsonic bass, sparse guitar, atmospheric electronics and beats; an album whose popularity started by slow-burning word of mouth and soon became overwhelmed with hype, as it won Britain’s Mercury Prize and shout-outs from indie rock snobs, hip-hop megastars and could even be heard in supermarkets; an album that was so singular and affecting that it seemed certain to set the band up to fail should they try to either replicate it or move beyond it.

And yet—Coexist is every bit as stunning, as minimal, as affecting as the debut.

The two singers have improved beyond their bedroom mutterings—Oliver Sim in particular no longer sounds like he’s moaning like a melancholic with mono; Romy Madley-Croft, meanwhile, is considerably more confident, reminiscent of Everything But the Girl’s Tracey Thorne, but still doesn’t raise her voice above a gentle hush. And Jaime Smith’s beats have evolved beyond the most basic to intricate and essential, throwing the occasional four-on-the-floor bass drums in for good measure, but, again, never straying from the less-is-more aesthetic that works so well for this band. Finally, all songs clock in around the three-minute mark (often less); this band knows better than to milk a motif dry.

Rarely does a band with such a definitive debut album manage to follow it up without repeating themselves or breaking the formula and becoming an entirely different act (see the Cowboy Junkies, for just one example). Play this band’s two albums one after another and, well, they coexist perfectly. (Sept. 13)

Download: “Angels,” “Try,” “Sunset”