Wednesday, December 19, 2012

2012: Going out with a bang

1. Grimes – Visions (4AD). 

Grimes has been caught wondering aloud why she gets pegged as an infantile naif: and yet on the 90-second track that opens this, her international pop breakthrough, Clare Boucher comes off like a wide-eyed, helium-voiced anime heroine. Yes, her voice is a mix of an '80s pop moppet and a new age flake. And yes, her fashion choices, her videos, her interviews and her on-stage banter are, more often than not, insipid. 

So perhaps Visions' greatest strength is that we're able to look past all that and discover a dense, layered masterpiece that, like, say, Bjork, stems from a pop history alien to preachers of punk orthodoxy: Grimes (the artist, as opposed to what may have been Boucher's personal experience) was born of Kraftwerk and Nina Hagen, grew up on Madonna and Mary J. Blige, and attended more than a few Vancouver raves and Montreal loft parties before holing up in her bedroom and blacking out the windows to imagine the dreamscapes heard here. 

It's the polar opposite of what the CanRock curmudgeons tell us Canada sounds like, and yet it is clearly the sound of a lonely Canadian winter spent fantasizing of escape, of connection, of sunshine, of reimagining the self—both metaphorically and, in the case of Grimes's voice, the physical form as well. Grimes is all about transformation, not unlike Prince in his prime; like that artist, she is a solitary studio entity buried in beats, role play and libidinous exorcism. 

Visions is not just the best album of 2012; it's also the best album that sounds like 2012, of aiming to find beauty in chaos, of forging an uncertain future, of navigating digital landscapes, of communication beyond words. Oh yeah--and of Canadian artists continuing to take over the world, one landmark album at a time. (This blurb originally appeared on Exclaim, where Visions was also their #1 pop album of the year. Check out the rest of their list here. I also wrote about Grimes in my pre-Polaris prize deliberations here.)

2. Leonard Cohen – Old Ways (Columbia). The master is in his finest form; his second comeback is in full swing, and not just on stage. In a recording career spanning almost half a century, this is easily one of Cohen’s best three albums, in terms of his vocals, his songwriting and his arrangements. Enough said. (My original review here. My extensive timeline for Exclaim is here.)

3. Santigold – Master of My Make-Believe (Warner). Plenty of artists claim to draw influence from all genres and all corners of the world, but few--if any--manage to transform it into pop songs the way Santigold does. Reggae, dancehall, West African grooves, '80s prog pop ala Peter Gabriel, British electronics, American hip-hop, Bollywood melodies, even the dreaded dubstep of the post-Skrillex era: Santigold pens powerful pop songs to make sense of it all. And there's no half-stepping here, no lame genre tourism, no overshadowing collaborators: she owns this record. It's the sound of an assured artist with an elastic voice, an insatiable artistic appetite and--rarer still--a sense of dynamics that allows for poignant ballads (the timeless "The Riot's Gone"), rock anthems ("The Keepers"), mid-tempo marimba pop ("This Isn't Our Parade") and strobe-light techno tracks ("Big Mouth"). Chameleons ranging from David Bowie to Lady Gaga are surely green with envy. And if Santigold is as smart as she sounds here, she won't return Madonna's calls. (This blurb originally appeared on Exclaim, where Santigold was #5 on their "groove" list. Check out the rest of their list here.)

4. Japandroids – Celebration Rock (Polyvinyl). This celebration is like an Irish wake: revelling in glory days long past at a party to end all parties. Japandroids rhapsodize about “younger us” while making rock music better than we ever remember it being. It’s a geezer rock album by 30-year-olds that’s louder, harder and more exhilarating than any young pup came up with in 2012. Bonus round: this indie Vancouver duo were named Spin magazine’s band of the year. (My pre-Polaris thoughts on Japandroids are here.)

5. Bill Fay – Life is People (Dead Oceans). Bill Fay, a long-forgotten never-was who hasn't put out a proper album in almost 40 years, has suddenly coughed up 12 deeply profound, moving, classic songs full of wonder and enlightenment and acute observation, which he has literally spent a lifetime crafting. He recorded quickly with a young producer who knew how to marry Fay's '70s British singer/songwriter vibe with occasional modern moody psychedelia on arrangements that place his lyrics in haunting, evocative soundscapes and lush, gospel-tinged folk. If you had no idea who Bill Fay was before hearing this album—I certainly didn't—you'll be thankful he waited this long to release an album this good, and rejoice in the fact that he's still alive to get his due. (I also wrote about Bill Fay for Exclaim's year-end, where he was #8 on their roots list.)

6. Corb Lund – Cabin Fever (New West). Whether he’s goofing off, telling yarns or getting his heart broken, Lund never wastes a single word. His band of Hurtin’ Albertans—the newest of which has now been in the group for 11 years—has never sounded better, and Lund’s melodies soar, whether it’s a ballad or a barn-burner. Lund rarely slouches, but he's at his finest here. Cabin Fever is Lund’s seventh album—it’s a lucky one. (I wrote about Corb Lund for Maclean's here; Cabin Fever was #1 on Exclaim's roots list, where this blurb originally appeared.)

7. Divine Fits – This is Divine Fits (Merge). Two of the only men in rock’n’roll with a convincing howl, Spoon’s Britt Daniel and Handsome Furs’ Dan Boeckner, unite for a best-of-both-bands project where their minimalist tendencies and melodic sense complement each other perfectly, sounding like a ’70s German band transplanted to a 1981 British post-punk party: Neu! wave, if you will. This is not a side project. This is a real band. This is Divine Fits.

8. Miguel – Kaleidoscope Dream (Sony). Frank Ocean may one day prove to be the game-changer many think he is, and The Weeknd spent 2012 repackaging his triumphs of 2011—but that left Miguel with the most purely pleasurable and progressive R&B album of the year: lush, dreamlike psych pop like Prince at his paisley best, neither retro nor avant-garde, just libidinous aural dopamine, borrowing from the best and yet entirely original.

9. Snowblink – Inner Classics (Arts and Crafts). The most underrated Canadian record of the year is this quiet gem from a Toronto duo, one of whom was raised in California and clearly pines for the hazy, golden glow of that state’s coastline, which is conjured expertly in every guitar and vocal texture here. It improves with each listen, as both the songs and the experimental layers underneath illuminate themselves slowly.

10. Kendrick Lamar – Good Kid, m.A.A.d. city (Interscope). Listening to Lamar makes it crystal clear why he rules supreme over every so-called hip-hop innovator of the last 10 years: he has the sonic innovation and pop hooks of Kanye West without the jackassery; he’s an expert storyteller who shames Drake’s narcissism; he’s a script-flipping role-player with a voice equally charismatic and elastic like Nicki Minaj, minus the nonsensical blabber; he comes from a life of crime like Jay-Z but actually sounds like he’s learned lessons from it. This is everything Take Care wanted to be but didn’t come close to achieving.

11. KonKoma – s/t (Soundway). Two Ghanaian legends with a red-hot London rhythm section give collectors of rare ’70s African funk some new music to get excited about for a change.

12. M. Ward – A Wasteland Companion (Merge).
One of America’s most quietly prolific songwriters put out his best record in years, where his hazy, dream-like, fuzzy production augmented a fine collection of songs (and thankfully sparse contributions from his partner in She & Him, Zooey Deschanel).

13. Kathleen Edwards – Voyageur (Maple). Right from her first album, we all knew that Edwards was the kind of songwriter who would only get better and better with age and experience; Voyageur marked major new territory for her, grabbing the attention of much more than just the roots rock crowd, and, with “House Full of Empty Rooms,” writing one of the best divorce songs since ABBA’s “Knowing Me Knowing You,” while “Soft Place to Land” is the perfect summation of a rebound relationship. (I wrote about Voyageur in my pre-Polaris deliberations here.)

14. Dva – Hu (Indiescope). This literally Bohemian duo—as in, they’re from Bohemia, in the Czech Republic—are part bossa nova, part birdsong, music that could score a spaghetti Western set in Sweden. On the rare occasion when they throw a straightforward beat underneath them, they sound like early Lykke Li. On other occasions, they sound like an unplugged Deerhoof and Patrick Watson backing up Czech avant-garde icon Iva Bittova.

15. Metric – Synthetica (Metric Music). U2 has been trying to recapture the glory of Achtung Baby for 20 years. Metric finally did it for them. The soaring melodies, the anthemic songs, the epic scope inside a five-minute song, the Edge-influenced guitars that bleed into synth textures, the slightly clever platitudes and one-liners that straddle the line between profound and pointless. Haines is writing about lives in stasis, lives once full of promise now facing defeat and monotony: “Is this my life? Breathing underwater?” The power of songs and the power of girls are two apparently ancient concepts to the idealistic narrator of “Dreams So Real,” who resigns herself to singing: “I’ll shut up and carry on / a scream becomes a yawn.”

16. Cadence Weapon – Hope in Dirt City (Upper Class). Opening track “Get On Down” begins with a blistering verse that suggests Montreal-via-Edmonton MC Rollie Pemberton is out to prove something, toying with meter and internal rhymes, and references to Cessna, Telsa, Stephin Fetchit, disinfectant and Roy Orbison, over what sounds like a bastardized Bollywood funk beat, courtesy of Doldrums. That gives you only some idea of what’s to come, which includes skronky sax, icy electro an almost-show-stealing Buck 65 cameo and plenty of narrative role-playing. (I wrote about Cadence Weapon in my pre-Polaris deliberations here.)

17. Dirty Projectors – Swing Lo Magellan (Domino). What would happen if Bjork and the McGarrigle sisters fronted Led Zeppelin? I had honestly never wondered before hearing this, the first album I’ve thoroughly enjoyed by this always admirably adventurous band who finally unite their heart, head and groin.

18. Dr. John – Locked Down (Nonesuch). Every year some geezer teams up with a young hotshot and attempts to make a comeback record. Few succeed. This one soars. Produced by the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, this is the funkiest, trippiest recording Dr. John has been involved with in about 40 years, full of bold, bottom-heavy horn sections, jazzy bass, gospel backing vocals and African percussion—and of course Auerbach’s searing guitar and a snarling Dr. John behind various vintage organs and synths.

19. Bahamas – Bar Chords (Brushfire). Even though M. Ward put out a fabulous record this year, the smoothest, swoony, soul-soothing songwriter and guitar hero was Afie Jurvanen, who finally stepped out of the sideman shadow and brought his subtle charms to the big time. Though Jurvanen is a much better singer than Leonard Cohen, he too likes to use female backing vocals as an essential texture on these soulful songs, while the Weakerthans’ Jason Tait paints minimalist percussive pictures underneath.

20. Menahan Street Band – The Crossing (Daptone). This Daptone funk band needs a movie to score. Preferably one about a down-on-his-luck hero struggling to get his life back together in a formerly great American city, finding reasons to swagger despite perpetually grey skies on the horizon.

Also recommended:

Willis Earl Beal – Acousmatic Sorcery (XL). You know that crazy young war vet who bikes around the neighbourhood late at night singing out loud while listening to Tom Waits and Cat Power and Daniel Johnston on his Walkman? That guy made one of the most intriguing arrivals of 2012. Apparently he’s embarrassed the label chose to release this, a collection of home recordings, as his debut album, but even the slightest bit of polish could negate this record’s infinite charms.

Cat Power – Sun (Matador). Rarely does an artist come back from a nervous breakdown with the most focused and accessible album of their career, but the power of Sun is that singer/songwriter Chan Marshall sounds fearless: playing every instrument (very well, especially drums), embracing a new-found confidence, writing a tarantella for the four-on-the-floor dance floor, writing a 10-minute self-help epic that doubles as a musical tribute to David Bowie’s "Heroes." Sad sack begone: let the Sun shine in.

Neneh Cherry and The Thing – The Cherry Thing (Smalltown Supersound). This pop singer is the daughter of a jazz legend, so we shouldn’t be surprised that she shows serious chops here, reinventing punk, jazz and hip-hop classics with an equally aggressive and subtle skronky trio. Together, they’re daring and dreamy.

Jason Collett – Reckon (Arts and Crafts). Neither Nick Lowe nor Ron Sexsmith released records this year, so Collett stepped up with tiny, perfect pop songs that achieve maximum impact in minimal time.

Cold Specks – I Predict a Graceful Expulsion (Arts and Crafts).
John Hammond was a legendary record company executive who signed both Aretha Franklin and Leonard Cohen in the ’60s. What would have happened had he put the two of them together? They would give birth to Etobicoke, Ontario’s Cold Specks, who announces her arrival with an astounding voice and a morbid streak that seeks redemption in slow builds on acoustic instruments and man choirs. (Pre-Polaris thoughts on Cold Specks are here.)

Daphni – Jiaolong (Merge). When Dan Snaith took breaks from making intricately layered psychedelic dance music as Caribou, he banged out one track a day as Daphni in time for a DJ set later that night. The immediacy paid off: these tracks sound tactile; you can practically hear him applying the layers and twiddling the analog synths, and as a result it’s the most human-sounding EDM in a year full of commercial cock-rock takeover in the same genre. (I interviewed Snaith about this for Maclean's here.)

Debo Band – s/t (Next Ambiance). Two Ethiopian-Americans from Boston are joined by nine other musicians who bring eclectic influences into the group, including klezmer, European brass bands, R&B and psychedelic guitar. Were they intending to be entirely faithful to tradition, they wouldn’t include sousaphone, accordion and electric violin; those elements immediately set it apart from the source material, and yet there’s not a whiff of grafting incongruous elements together.

First Aid Kit – The Lion’s Roar (Wichita). Swedish sisters barely out of their teens, this duo is the rare European country folk act who betters the North Americans at their own game. This is neither child’s play nor role play: this is as strong as anything from Laurel Canyon in the ’70s, with subtle psychedelic touches and songs that their sworn hero Emmylou Harris would be proud to sing.

Flying Lotus - Until the Quiet Comes (Warp). There were two albums in 2012 that were equally confounding and compelling: one, Scott Walker’s Bish Bosch, is something I’m not sure I ever want to endure in one sitting ever again. The other, this Flying Lotus album, dances around my headphones like extraterrestrial jazz and opens my ears to untold possibilities. Every other record on this list plays by a certain set of easily understood rules; Flying Lotus sounds revelatory and new every time.

Guano Padano – 2 (Ipecac). Ennio Morricone is alive and well. He really is, actually, and well into his 90s, but this instrumental Italian trio takes lessons from the master of spaghetti western soundtracks for a sprawling, haunting, rollicking rumpus through reimagined landscapes that give our own Sadies a run for their Rickenbackers.

Zaki Ibrahim – Every Opposite (Motif). Sci-fi soul filed between Sade and Santigold, made by this Canadian now based in her father’s homeland of South Africa, and tapping into that country’s progressive dance scene. This gets better with every listen: who knows, in a couple of weeks this might vault into my top 10 retroactively.

The Magic – Ragged Gold (Half Machine). Thank god for crashed hard drives. Losing the first version of their debut album, Guelph band The Magic started fresh and made an astounding entrance with this collection of slick, syncopated ’80s soul that pays homage to Hall & Oates and Michael Jackson without descending down mountains of cheese.

AC Newman – Shut Down the Streets (Last Gang). One of modern pop’s greatest tunesmiths chills out with some pastoral folk-pop with psychedelic, space-age touches: flutes and acoustic guitars with bubbling Moog synths in the background ornament yet another set of timeless melodies.

Plug – Back on Time (Ninja Tune). Drum’n’bass music sounded dated mere years after its late-’90s heyday, so either enough time has passed that it now sounds refreshingly retro, or Luke Vibert—who has a number of recording aliases, Plug being one—was always considerably ahead of his peers. In 2011 he unearthed this material, made between 1995 and 1998, on long-lost DAT tapes and released it early this year. Turns out his cast-offs still sound fantastic.

Rocket Juice and the Moon – s/t (Honest Jon’s). Can a rhythm section make a record? If that rhythm section is Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Fela Kuti drummer Tony Allen, then yes, yes it can. With Gorillaz’ Damon Albarn at the helm and a slew of West African MCs and singers on the mic (as well as Erykah Badu), this record’s obscurity, even among world music followers or Albarn acolytes, remains the year’s biggest mystery to me.

Sagot – Piano Mal (Simone). Gainsbourg meets Godspeed on this debut by this drummer-turned-pianist, which is the seedy franco lounge lizard record you never knew you needed in your life.

Patti Smith – Banga (Sony).
New York punk progenitor Patti Smith has had a more prolific second phase to her career than her first burst of inspiration, but only here does she match the majesty, the innovation and the sheer songcraft of classics like Horses and Easter. She hasn’t altered her band, hasn’t abandoned her wandering spirit and still draws equal inspiration from myths, the mystical, celebrity tragedy and natural disaster. So why Banga should be any different or better than any other Smith album is no matter: it’s simply one of her best.

Tindersticks – The Something Rain (Constellation). For those autumnal nights when you feel too drunk, too lecherous and too ashamed to do anything but stare out your rainy window and imagine yourself to be way more suave than you can ever actually hope to be.

Patrick Watson – Adventures in Your Own Backyard (Secret City). A
choir boy lost in an eerie enchanted forest, Patrick Watson and his band feel like they just figured out how to fly, and every note here is the soundtrack to that moment when your legs leave the ground for the first time. Four albums in, Watson fulfills every ounce of his long-reserved potential.

Yukon Blonde – Tiger Talk (Dine Alone). Remember when Tom Petty was young and hungry and wrote killer songs? No, me neither, it was so long ago. This Kamloops, B.C., band writes summer rock songs with rich harmonies, chiming guitars and huge hooks that hit it out of the park almost every single time. This is the new classic rock.


The Weeknd – Trilogy (Universal). These three albums debuted as free downloads over the course of (oh-so-long-ago) 2011; now slightly remixed (no more obvious samples) and beefed up, they’re making a major label debut and introducing Toronto’s mysterious Abel Tesfaye to a much wider audience, who will hopefully realize that he’s far more fascinating than either Frank Ocean, with whose dark, searing take on modern R&B he shares many similarities, or Drake, who brought him to the world’s attention.

Francis Bebey – African Electronic Music 1975-1982 (Born Bad)
In the late ’70s, this Cameroonian Renaissance man dove headfirst into electronic music, mixing Moog synths and thumb pianos while programming polyrhythmic African beats into primitive drum machines, creating sounds that owed as much to German experimental Krautrock and French pop as it did West African music. It’s strange, welcoming, innocent, and often (intentionally) hilarious.

Have Not Been the Same: The CanRock Renaissance 1985-1995 (Pheromone). Okay, I’m a bit biased on this one.

December 2012 reviews

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”

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Have Not Been the Same: The originals

From the shameless (somewhat) self-promoting file, here’s the album I was most excited about last month. This review ran in the Waterloo Record and Guelph Mercury on Nov. 22.

Have Not Been the Same – Various Artists (Pheromone)

Full disclosure: I have a clear conflict of interest in reviewing this compilation: I co-authored the book on which it is based, about Canadian rock music between the years 1985-1995, a period I called the CanRock Renaissance. The book came out in 2001, and was revised and reissued in 2011, which prompted me to put out my own compilation, where current artists, including Great Lake Swimmers, Corb Lund, and members of Broken Social Scene and Arcade Fire, covering the likes of Sloan, The Tragically Hip, Men Without Hats and more. (It’s available from and iTunes, with all proceeds going to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. It’s amazing and you need to own it. I’m not just saying that, trust me.)

Now my co-author Jason Schneider (who, by the way, also wrote the amazing and underrated Whispering Pines) has followed up with a collection of rare, unreleased and out-of-print recordings that celebrate a period of this country’s musical history that is easily swept under the rug to make room for baby boomer classic rock and our more recent successes. All proceeds go to Kids Help Phone, and unlike my digital-only release, Schneider managed to get this pressed on to two heaping slabs of vinyl—the format much of this material first appeared on (if, in fact, it ever surfaced at all).

The real coup for Schneider is securing the rights to the title track, which has been unavailable in any format (other than low-res YouTube clips, see above) for almost 20 years. It’s by the short-lived Vancouver sensation Slow, who were beloved in the Pacific Northwest for being a forerunner to grunge’s marriage of punk and hard rock. The three-minute track is still incredibly thrilling, anchored by a guitar riff that owes more to a Stevie Wonder lick than anything else, cooing female backing vocals, a deliciously nasty vocal turn from Tom Anselmi, and a chorus that still delivers thrills and chills.

If bringing that one song to light again was all this comp accomplished, that would be enough. But Schneider has found more. Much more.

Also from the file of lost classics is Bob Wiseman’s “Gabriel Dumont Blues,” found on his out-of-print second album, Presented by Lake Michigan Soda, perhaps his finest solo record. Crash Vegas are a band that have undeservedly slipped into the dustbins of history—not one of their three albums is in print—while Colin Cripps is the newest member of Blue Rodeo, and Michelle McAdorey is working on a new solo album with Greg Keelor; their 1989 song “Movin’ Too Fast” appears here in a rowdy live version. Though 13 Engines had their earliest albums reissued a few years back, but they’re once again unavailable; their 1988 campus radio hit “Beached” is here. And the Local Rabbits song “Play On,” which provided the book with its epigraph, is available for the first time in over a decade.

Some tracks are not exclusive to this comp and still available elsewhere, but it’s striking, contextually, to hear the prog-punk of NoMeansNo and the sound of Sarah Harmer rocking out in Weeping Tile and the title track to Change of Heart’s opus Smile all in one place.

Then there are alternate versions of well-loved songs: Sloan offers a scrappy early live recording from when they were still a grunge band; there’s a raw full-band demo from the normally meticulous and pristine Jane Siberry; and the Grapes of Wrath contribute a startlingly lovely 2000 acoustic version of one of their earliest songs, “Misunderstanding.” Entirely unheard-until-now songs are here from the Skydiggers, Pursuit of Happiness, and the notorious Toronto band A Neon Rome, whose legend is greater than their actual musical output (arguably, the track here, from their long-lost second album, shows why—but this was always a live band first and foremost).

Being a diverse collection, naturally some tracks don’t deliver. The Pursuit of Happiness track, “Wake Up and Smell Cathy,” is one of songwriter Moe Berg’s lamest double entendres. The pre-Cowboy Junkies band Hunger Project is a patience-tester, though no more so than any similar Siouxie and the Banshees track from the same time period, which they were obviously trying to emulate. And while I’m a big fan of Montreal’s Rational Youth, one of the first decent synth pop bands in Canada, their track here, “To the Goddess Electricity,” finds their Kraftwerk worship more than a bit imitative: this track is a dead ringer for “Neon Lights” (not entirely a bad thing).

With any project like this, the obvious question is: does the material hold up? Will a new generation be interested, or is this just for that smallest of all demographics, collectors of Canadiana musical artifacts? The answer is clear from the opening notes of the title track from 1985, and by the time the Local Rabbits’ wistful 1995 ode to fellow rock’n’roll travellers concludes, the listener has been on a rollercoaster ride providing an alternate history of Canadian music, one far outside the purview of David Foster, Bryan Adams and Celine Dion—and even one outside The Tragically Hip, Blue Rodeo, and other heroes of the book that inspired the project.

Even I—as a co-author of said book—discovered things I’d never heard before while listening to this. No matter what you think you know about Canadian music, this record will teach you much more. (Nov. 22)


Download: “Have Not Been the Same” – Slow, “Moving Too Fast” – Crash Vegas, “Gabriel Dumont Blues” – Bob Wiseman