Record Review: Said the Whale – “New Brighton EP”

This reveiw originally appeared at Exclaim.ca

For anyone who fell in love with Said the Whale’s sophomore record, Islands Disappear, first spins of their new four-track EP will come as a bit of a shock. While that album’s specificity of place is what drew many in, New Brighton refuses to saddle any of its songs with a set location. But if the novelty of hearing the changing landscape of Vancouver’s False Creek set music was all Islands Disappear had going for it, the record would never have been the slow burning sensation it was.

New Brighton sticks with the rest of Said the Whale’s hallmarks – the savvy mix of indie and folk rock, soaring harmonies and quirky, observational lyrics – seeming to indicate that their third effort won’t veer too far from the formula that brought them national acclaim. Their songwriting, which was already top-notch, has improved, creating a tight quartet of indie pop gems. The sprightly pace and sunny demeanour of “Lines” is the clear highlight, while the start-stop rhythm of “Sandy Bay Fishing Song” shows that the group aren’t afraid to venture into relatively foreign sonic territory while retaining their innate tunefulness.

New Brighton comes across as lightweight at first, but repeated listens reveal these songs’ nostalgic depths.

“Lines”

Record Review: Vex Ruffin – “Crash Course EP”

This review originally appeared at Exclaim.ca

Even for a label with a roster as eclectic as Stones Throw’s, Vex Ruffin is a weird signing. Eschewing 20 years of genre conventions in both punk and hip-hop, the L.A.-based Ruffin wants to take the two back to early ’80s NYC, when the Mecca’s most potent musical styles started rubbing shoulders at downtown clubs.

Over scuzzy, minimalist beats and dirty, single-note guitar riffs, Ruffin raps, speak-sings and monotones, creating a post-punk-hop that equally bastardizes its source material. “I’m Creative” even goes so far as to cheekily cop Peter Hooks’ groove from Joy Division’s “Leaders of Men.” On paper, Crash Course sounds more like insubstantial record nerd fodder, but in practice it’s a surprisingly potent combination that ditches the cerebral for the visceral.

Whether or not Ruffin can take his unusual sound beyond the six songs on this debut remains to be seen, but Crash Course is a go for the gut blast that’s bound to divide music fans.

“Man With a Plan”

Video: Leslie David Baker – “2 Be Simple”

You know those moments on the Office when Stanley looks up from his cross words to express displeasure in whatever tomfoolery is happening around him, or the asides where he lets us in on his view of the world? Man, those are great. This video is five minutes and seventeen seconds of that.

Record Review: Hi Fi Phantoms – “All At Sea”

This review originally appeared at Exclaim.ca

There’s a great “everything and the kitchen sink” vibe to this debut EP from Toronto, ON’s Hi Fi Phantom. That most likely has something to do with the way the quartet rotate instruments and singers with each song, ensuring that just when you think you’ve got them pinned down ― Talking Heads wannabes, heirs to the Clap Your Hands Say Yeah throne ― they’ll toss in a new element that throws your cleverly reductive comparison out the window. Let’s just say they like echo-laden pop music.

The group met on Craigslist, but British ex-pat Bill Bedford previously did time in short-lived Toronto band Young Flux. While there’s really no way to tell what direction these guys are going to head in, there are more than enough ideas (and pretty stellar songs) on this debut to keep even the most fickle ears interested.

 

Record Review: Prurient – “Bermuda Drain”

This review originally appeared at Exclaim.ca

Prurient is the long-running project of Dominick Fernow, best known outside of the noise community for his work with Wesley Eisold in Cold Cave. And while both projects can trace their sound back to late ’70s post-punk offshoots, most fans of Cold Cave’s icy synth rock will find Bermuda Drain down right jarring ― and this is one of Fernow’s most accessible records.

Fernow clearly focused himself on writing songs instead of soundscapes, even if his “songs” include weird spoken word diatribes overtop of ambient drones and Throbbing Gristle-inspired industrial scraping. Still, “A Meal Can Be Made,” with Fernow singing above of razor wire guitars and a pounding drum machine, sounds like a lost, great Ministry track.

Bermuda Drain is a complex, baffling record that veers left at every turn. Not for the faint of heart, it’s none the less a compelling listen and a weirdly appropriate entry point into the world of beautiful noise.

“There are Still Secrets”

Record Review: Huddle – “All These Fires”

This review originally appeared at Exclaim.ca

“Islands,” the first blast of indie pop from Toronto, ON group Huddle, was stunning in both its succinctness and ability to burrow into your ears for days on end. Nothing on the band’s debut matches the two minutes of bliss of its leadoff track, but none try and the record is all the better for it.

Blending a host of turn-of-the-century indie rock acts, no two tracks on All These Fires sound like a rehash of another. Instead of leaning on a sonic bag of tricks, the group focus on hooks, milking each of these ten tunes for all they’re worth, which is a lot. Coming hot on the heels of “Islands,” “Sleepwalker” uses Sea & Cake-like instrumental precision to craft the soundtrack to a time-lapsed construction video. Meanwhile, “Dark Times” uses the rough-hewn edges and vocal bombast of early Modest Mouse to create a slow-burning anthem.

All These Fires is a rare album where the band put the songs first. The result is a release that’s immediate in its catchiness, but rewards repeated listens due to its complexities.

“Islands”

Video – Rich Aucoin – “It”

I’ve written a lot about Haligonian Rich Aucoin over the years, most prominently in last month’s issue of Exclaim! Some might accuse me of boosterism – and that would be fair – but in my defence, he’s just a hard guy to dislike.

Anyway, rather than go on about Aucoin, his live show, and his new full-length We’re All Dying to Live, I’ll just say watch the video below for his track “It.” You won’t regret it.

Live Review: the Lemonheads – Lee’s Palace, Toronto 10/17/2011

Coming hot on the heels of Evan Dando’s aborted attempt to perform It’s a Shame About Ray at New York’s Bowery Ballroom (the singer claims he was under the weather), expectations for this Lemonheads gig were tentative at best. Which Dando would we get? The inconsistent shell of a man that sunk his career in the second half of the ’90s? Or the still-got-it performer whose voice has aged incredibly well and played the same venue during NXNE in June?

Before taking the stage with his backing band (an unnamed drummer and bassist who looked like Jackson Browne), Dando made his way through the packed crowd with only a couple people even noticing the one-time teen heartthrob. After doing his own sound check, he let loose the opening riff to “Rockin Stroll.” Dressed in baggy cords and worn hoody, with his long greasy hair falling into his face, Dando was Gen X personified — or at least the version Reality Bites would have had us believe.

Making their way through Ray, Dando sounded pitch-perfect with the band sounding as raggedly brilliant as on the original record. Former bass player Juliana Hatfield’s backing vocals were missed, but the crowd did an admirable job on “Rudderless” and “My Drug Buddy.” Dando engaged the crowd rarely and looked somewhat hesitant in his playing, but the group knocked out one tune after the next.

Skipping their cover of “Mrs. Robinson” that was tacked on to the end of Ray by Atlantic Records, Dando ran through nine songs on his own. Looking far more comfortable now that the pressure to deliver was clearly over, he took requests from the audience (though he stipulated it had to be “one of our songs” to cries for their cover of Suzanne Vega’s “Luka”) while playing material fromCome on Feel the Lemonheads and Car Button Cloth, such as “Outdoor Type” and “It’s About Time.”

Bringing the band back on stage, they continued this manic run through Dando’s catalogue; “Style,” “Big Gay Heart” and “Down About It” all made appearances to rapturous applause as the band and especially Dando loosened up a lot. In fact, this part of the show carried far more energy than the advertised performance ofRay, as if Dando felt put upon to perform the record, even though he’s been playing most of those songs on solo tours for the past half-decade.

After ending their main set with a muscular “Into Your Arms,” Dando once again took the stage for a final quartet of songs. The show ended anticlimactically as he sauntered off stage following “Ride with Me.” But the singer had clearly proven that he was still capable of moving an audience with his golden pipes and ramshackle guitar playing.

“It’s A Shame About Ray”

Record Review: Ben Folds – “Best Imitation of Myself”

This review originally appeared at Exclaim.ca

While Best Imitation of Myself may be a contractual obligation, no one could accuse Ben Folds of phoning this one in. A three-disc retrospective, this collection features a disc of some of his most popular tracks with a live collection and a set of b-sides and rarities, all from an artist who many people still think of as that guy that sang “Brick.”

That odd-ball hit (a morose ballad about abortion) kicks off the “hits” set that mixes Folds’ work with the Five (who reconvened to record three new songs for this collection) with solo material, up to and including last year’s collaboration with author Nick Hornby. Included are a couple alternate versions of Folds classics, including “Smoke,” with the Australian Symphony Orchestra, but “Army” and “Song for the Dumped” are both curiously missing. They do show up on the live disc, which picks up where Naked Baby Photos left off (about 1997) with selections showcasing Folds’ surprisingly muscular live show. Performances with Rufus Wainwright and the Bens (Folds with Ben Kweller and Ben Lee) sit next to a healthy selection of deep cuts.

But the third disc is the gem, featuring demos, rarities and b-sides, including Folds’ popular cover of Dr. Dre’s “Bitches Ain’t Shit.” While it’s easy to see why some of these tracks didn’t make the cut, there are no stinkers. Some insightful liner notes written by Folds come with the set, as does a download for an additional five-track EP. From there, fans gain access to the Ben Folds 55 Vault, where an additional 50 tracks are available for purchase, ensuring that even the most hardcore fan won’t run out of material to root through.

People often reduce Folds’ music to that of a second-rate Elton John, but as this compilation reaffirms, he’s a restless artist whose desire to break new ground has more often than not created some genuine pop triumphs.

“Army”

Film Review: Pearl Jam Twenty

This review originally appeared at Exclaim.ca

Fifteen years ago, the thought of Pearl Jam taking part in a documentary to celebrate their 20th anniversary seemed ridiculous. The Seattle, WA rockers’ notoriety for their aversion to the media and self-destructive career decisions (suing Ticketmaster, not making music videos) seemed to ensure that even if the group managed to stick around to see their 20th anniversary, they’d have no interest in celebrating it in such a public way.

But here we are, with Pearl Jam Twenty, directed by one-time rock journalist turned star director Cameron Crowe, no less. Of course, picking Crowe to helm the project was a logical decision; he cast band members Eddie Vedder, Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament in his film Singles back when they were still operating under the name Mookie Blaylock.

Given full access to all five current members of the band, Crowe documents their rapid rise to fame and the ensuing difficulties that created for the group. He digs back to Gossard and Ament’s days in Green River and Mother Love Bone, before recruiting guitarist Mike McCready and a California singer named Eddie Vedder.

Pearl Jam’s story is well known, even to casual fans, and Crowe does little to alter that narrative. It’s the band’s willingness to confront their past with honest hindsight that makes it such an enjoyable film. The death of Andrew Wood (lead singer of Mother Love Bone) still hits a nerve for everyone who knew him, especially Chris Cornell, who visibly wells up while talking about him. Equally moving is the group’s reflection on Kurt Cobain’s suicide and the effect his criticisms of the group early on had on all the members.

There are holes in the story of course: the band’s post-Vitalogy years get skimmed over (Riot Act and Pearl Jam don’t even warrant a mention) and none of their former drummers are interviewed. Ament’s affection for weird hats is similarly ignored.

But Pearl Jam Twenty reveals its subjects to be flawed, yet principled stars who remain remarkably relatable after two decades of making music.