plus Neil Young, Mark Ronson, Antony & the Johnsons, Melligrove Band, Bedouin Soundclash, Michael Franti, Grinderman
by James Brotheridge
Can I give this a question mark out of five? Is that a thing? No? Kinda arrogant? Wrecks the template? Then I guess four and a half will have to do.
Really, how do you put a number on a record so lovely and ugly and strange, that demands so much but is so thoroughly enjoyable?
At the best of times, giving music any kind of rating — letter grades, numerical values, thumbs up or down, or however Vice does it these days — boils an album down to one very generalized (and potentially misleading) impression. But for anyone writing short reviews, ratings are a necessary evil. Until the day we kill the editors. Ratings really, really pose a problem for bands like Women. The Calgary act purposefully strives for the unexpected in every part of their music, so much so that when they do trend closer to conventional songs — like on “Penal Colony”, a sweet number off their latest album, Public Strain — it’s jarring.
Public Strain borders on incoherent at first listen. It takes a while for the baroque, acrobatic construction to emerge, but it’s always there. “China Steps”, for example, is a basement jam marched through a cacophonic hell of unexpected jumps and clashing elements that maintains startling cohesiveness. Somehow, Women contextualize conventional songwriting in an aural carny of oddities. It works.
This is more accomplished than anything on the band’s perfectly compelling last release. “Penal Colony” would’ve been out of place on that self-titled 2008 debut — that record had shorter songs with a lot of interesting but fleeting ideas. Public Strain lays down more developed tracks. That’s the dividend of experience — more richly realized songs are what you would expect from a seasoned touring band who’ve refined their ideas on the road.
Public Strain borders on incoherent at first listen. It takes a while for the baroque, acrobatic construction to emerge. The band ventures into extremes under the light hand of weirdo-indie artist Chad Vangaalen, their producer on both records. Listeners will be pushed, challenged and ultimately rewarded with jagged but appealing songs. It’s fucking deft, is what it is.
Neil Young’s career has seen more twists and turns than a British Columbia logging road. Le Noise, produced by Daniel Lanois (U2, Emmylou Harris, Bob Dylan, Peter Gabriel) is the latest curve in his career. The album features Neil in full Billy Bragg mode — unaccompanied, and playing only an acoustic or (heavily distorted) electric guitar. The songwriting ranges from good to great (“Love and War”, “Peaceful Valley Boulevard”), but it’s an album that will appeal to only the hardest of the hardcore Rusties (Neil Young fans). If all you know about Neil Young is “Cinnamon Girl”, “Heart of Gold”, and “Rockin’ In The Free World” you won’t know this Neil Young at all. /Stephen LaRose
ANTONY AND THE JOHNSONS
Antony and the Johnsons have dug out a very distinctive niche in pop music. After the success of I Am a Bird Now and The Crying Light, they’re beginning to risk retreading the same ground and falling into unintentional self-parody. Swanlights mostly avoids this fate by dint of its beautiful chamber pop arrangements and Antony Hegarty’s exquisite floating voice. There are a few unfortunate moments when Hegarty’s attempts at transcendence get shot out of the sky — his cries of “Snake!” on “Ghost” remind me too much of the Badger Badger Mushroom song — but the soul-drenched “Thank You For Your Love” and the breathtaking “Salt Silver Oxygen” will make you forget the occasional false note. A deluxe edition of Swanlights includes a 144-page booklet of Hegarty’s photos and art. /Aidan Morgan
MARK RONSON & THE BUSINESS INTL.
For his third album, British DJ/producer Mark Ronson rounds up an eclectic group of collaborators (everyone from Spank Rock to Simon Le Bon) and turns out some catchy little dance floor tunes, referencing genres like disco and new wave. While there are a couple of good singles here (namely “Bang Bang Bang” and “Somebody to Love Me”), Ronson’s weakness for ’80s synthesizers — a sound that’s been mined by countless bands in recent years — feels trite. The best DJs are able to lure listeners in with a hint of something familiar… but also thrill us with the unexpected. Too bad there isn’t more of the latter on this record. /Gillian Mahoney
José Contreras produced this album. Not the guy who pitches for the Chicago White Sox, the guy who fronts Canuck rock veterans By Divine Right. With his input, the Toronto-based quartet has crafted an album with more than a few curveballs and change-ups for longtime fans. The biggest is the additional instrumentation beyond guitars, drums and bass. Violins, vibraphones and trumpets (opener “Ghost at My Back” has a 20-second trumpet intro and two or three interludes after that) all figure prominently. More attention is paid to backing vocals too. Consistent with the title, the disc shimmers with pop-rock gems. /Gregory Beatty.
LIGHT THE HORIZON
PIRATES BLEND RECORDS
Third CD by a Canuck band I’ve reviewed recently (after Comeback Kid’s Symptoms + Cures last issue and Shimmering Lights) that’s clocked in at under 33 minutes. To me this is borderline EP territory. First two I didn’t mind because they packed plenty of punch. This effort by songwriter Jay Malinski and bandmates Eon Sinclair and Sekou Lumumba … not so much. Liner notes reveal the significance of the lone arbutus tree on the front cover, and a green-tinged forest on the back. Light the Horizon was written at a remote B.C. location overlooking Nanoose Bay. And it is mell-ll-ll-ow. Laden with metaphorical allusions to nature too. Anyone know an eco-chick who’s into dub reggae I could slide this to? /Gregory Beatty
THE SOUND OF SUNSHINE
MICHAEL FRANTI & SPEARHEAD
A Michael Franti album where his traditional activist politics take a back seat to songs about personal happiness, contentment and love may inspire charges of sellout, which dissipates when the first notes of the first song, the single, and title track come over the speakers. In a better world, Franti’s mixture of pop, folk and hip-hop would be the perfect summer album. /Stephen LaRose
Grinderman, a stripped-down Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds side project, is best approached as an unhinged, fuzzy-guitared, coyote-lean and desperately horny aspect of Cave’s musical personality. Most of Cave’s obsessions are on board for Grinderman 2: depraved outlaws, wilder-than-wild women (“She don’t care about Allah /She is the Allah”) and condemned men mumble and moan and scream out their stories against a backdrop of roaring guitar and bass. But Grinderman 2 also strikes out for personal territory. “What I Know” meditates on maturity. “Kitchenette” — a deranged lust letter to a married woman — sums up the tension between Cave’s aging body and still-firing libido. And “Palaces of Montezuma” is the kind of love song that silences a table while everyone pauses to listen. /Aidan Morgan