Album Reviews

Kelly Joe Phelps: Brother Sinner and the Whale

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Black Hen Music

There’s more than a whiff of weirdness around this album. After a decade of adamantly refusing to play his signature slide guitar, the ramblin’ man of the Pacific Northwest chose this collection of songs to return to his bottleneckin’ roots.

While Phelps has always been a deep running river, song titles like “I’ve Been Converted” and “Talkin To Jehovah”, delivered without a sliver of irony, signal spiritual doings afoot in the Phelpsian world.

To get the job done right, KJ returned to longtime collabo Steve Dawson in Vancouver’s The Henhouse Studio for this squirrel ass tight collection.

This is the other kind of summer album, the one with the dust in your throat and sweat in your eyes and the road ahead shimmering silver in the heat is really no escape.

It’d be easy to tag it as Phelps goes Gospel, if it were not for the fact he remains one of the finest finger pickers about and that alone informs every song he touches in very specific ways. Very much a case of the singer not the songs.

Fans are already calling this his best work ever, high praise when you recall previous efforts have made fans of U2’s The Edge and Steve Earle, to mention but two. The new songs are beautifully crafted acoustic gems, layered with nuance and so captivating melodically the message is often lost in the music.

PURITY RING: Shrines

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4AD

“Cut open my sternum and pull/my little ribs around you," Megan James intones with sweet and heartfelt warble. And lives there a man, woman or small furball dog you can’t tell one end from the other who could resist such an invitation? If so, wouldn’t want to be that especially as this is but one facet of the many diamonds in Purity Ring’s setting.

The Edmonton-born electro freak rock oddballs, featuring  James’ vocalising while Corin Roddick plays an instrument shaped like a tree of lights, on relocating to Montreal found a sympathetic environment for their eccentric, highly textured style of music.

On Shrines, Purity Ring’s muchly hyped major label debut, the duo do not disappoint. PR sounds settled into its groove, making it easier to step out experimentally via wordmangling lyrics and lurching, woozy, vaguely familiar pop melodies. James drops some impressive lyrical changeups that woujld have wowed James Joyce, only hinted at in song titles such as “Belispeak”, “Lofticries” and “Obedear” which clearly set her head and creamy shoulders above the rest of the freak pop field.

Of interset too is that many of these tunes carry enough triggers to make the transition to club bangers, making for a potentially grabby live show.

Meantime, slap on the headphones, get down with Purity Ring’s death disco for bolgheads and get reaccquainted with your sense of wow wonder.

Shrines drops July 24 with a cross-country tour already in progress.

James Lizzard

Brian Dunn: tvs and radios

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Independent

Vocally and thematically, Dunn’s coming from a space between a pair of Bruces, Cockburn and Springsteen. Like that pair, on this album Dunn’s loking at vanishing technologies with affection and nostalgia. The good news is he’s got the gravel and the ear for the stadium rumble. Not so good is the creeping sense of sameness which shows up around track 5. Sure there are some fast songs and some slow songs but within  those parameters a little more shuffle would have been nice.

Dunn’s foray into ‘new’ country is more like old time country rock, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Coupled to a sense of quality recordiing and a commitment to roots authenticity (recorded in Sudbury) the album has its power moments.

Album opener “Winnipeg” comes out swinging with horns, rattling percussion and keyboard flourishes, and ends up stagggering under the weight of all that. Much better in that regard is “Mexico” featuring  rumbling drums, heavy electric riffage from Dunn and a hoarse, convincing vocal. Which stomps the spit out of the similar-sounding and immediately folllowing “tvs”.

Best on the flipside of that would be slow-burning “Slow Learner”, a well-crafted song which plays to Dunn’s immediate strengths as player and singer. Plus it has the sweetest line on the album; “Christ, you’re a hard love.”

Justin Bieber: Believe

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Universal

Check it as da Beeb takes his first steps out on the slippery yellow brick road to adulthood, hopefully with career intact.So cue slick arrangements, transitional lyrics and the standard mix of comfy ballads and club bangers.

It’s a soft shuffle onto the glory road laid out for the other Justin, when Timberlake had to make the transition from teen idol to cougar bait. It had to be soft, as befits any testing of the waters, especially as the Beeb’s pipes still have that kiddie warble.

Likewise with the lyrics, which handle the burgeoning sex thing via the most PG of sentiments, studded with wistful looks and hopes to “touch your body”.

While on the surface it might seem a slam-dunk, the Bieber posse did a savvy job with this most important stepping-stone of an album.

From the brand-buffing guest stars,  Ludacris (“I love everything about you / You’re imperfectly perfect”), Big Sean (“I don’t know if this makes sense, but you’re my hallelujah”), Nicki Minaj and especially Drake, whose contributions are likewise warm and fuzzy as the ones quoted, this thing’s designed to hug and kiss Bieber’s teenycore audience. Both only as friends, ‘kay?

In this regard, “Maria” stands out like a cold sore on Selena Gomez as the only ‘adult’ track on the album. It’s crafted as a slapdown to the woman who accused Bieber of fathering her child in 2011 and comes off as an opportunistic rip on “Billie Jean.” This one leaves a sourish aftertaste and probably won’t see singlehood.

Rush: Clockwork Angel

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Roadrunner

So you’re one of the biggest prog rock bands on the planet and have been so for a long time. Long enough to cut 18 albums and sell zillions of units. By now no one looks to you for something new; they come for the hits and the musicianship, for the magical memories of nostalgia.

So for album Number Nineteen why not put out something sounding like it might have come out at your peak; bombast, bigass production, impenetrable lyrics and all.

This is exactly what the dudes of Rush, Peart, Geddy and Lifeson have done, dropped an album which amplifies all the quirky stuff and steadfast vision that put them on the radar back in the day, not to mention the throwbackin’, balls-to-the-wall playing which evaluated them to their current exalted status.

‘Clockwork Angel’ sounds like the work of a much younger band, a much less famous band, almost the sound of a band demanding to be heard. That’s probably the biggest surprise here and it shows in shorter, tighter songs and muscular musicianship.

Clockwork Angels is reportedly a concept album involving a repressive force known as ‘The Watchmaker.’ As usual, you have to get into it and dig out Peart’s narrative fingernail by fingernail. It’s a minefield of poetic mazes of rhyme, alliteration, metaphor and allusion, filled with references to “angels,” “prayers,” and “miracles.” Concept aside, these words sound important to the very soul of the project and Lee delivers them with subtlety grace and the deep understanding only possible between brothers in arms.

Andre Williams & The Sadies: Night And Day

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Outside Music


On which the great funky one reunites with the Canuck kids who brought him a new career and further evidence they did the right thing.


The year was 1999 when The Sadies hooked up with a more or less clean Williams for the Red Dirt album, his first with the Toronto alt-country stars. While the album didn’t sell a ton it introduced Williams to a whole new audience of players and fans, leading to collabs with The Dirtbombs, Morning 40 Federation, The Diplomats Of Solid Sound, and other garage/punk/blues/soul acts.
The sessions for Night And day commenced in 2008 and the initial signs didn’t look good. At that time, Williams was in his seventies and dealing with legal troubles as well as substance abuse issues. Eventually the sessions were put on hold while he worked through his legal problems and cleaned up.


It took years, but when Williams and The Sadies finally hooked to finish the album, the difference in Williams’ demeanour and state of being was, as they say, "night and day."
Which kind of describes the way the album is structured; the first half loose and gritty, the back end tracks cleaner and more coherent, “One-Eyed Jack” and “I’ll Do Most Anything For Your Love,” as strong as anything Williams has put out.

Sills and Smith No Way In No Way Out

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Electric eclectic folk rock is one way to describe the textured sound of the new CD by Ottawa based duo Sills and Smith. The fifteen song collection is a musical and lyrical journey deftly produced by multi talented and multi instrumentalist Jonathan Edwards. Recorded at Edwards’ Corvidae Music in Ottawa is a ‘thinking man’s” CD ,with introspective , probing and thought provoking lyrics backed by airy, creative tracks of acoustic, slide and electric guitars, bass, drums and keys.

All tracks were written by Frank Smith, Jeremy Sills and Jonathan Edwards with all the lyrics written by Frank Smith. Smith handles the vocals and Sills plays guitars, acoustic and electric and vocals while Edwards plays guitars, bass, keyboards and drums.

JAPANDROIDS: Celebration Rock

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Polyvinyl

There’s something very right with the universe when the best snot rock record in ages is put out by a couple of dudes pushing 30. That would be singer/guitarist Brian King and drummer David Prowse, collectively known as Japandroids.and with Celebration Rock they’ve delivered an aptly titled, fundamental rock album that stands tall in the genre.
How’d they do it?

By putting out an album almost exactly the same as the one that blew up for them, only better. Same number of songs, same fuzzed out noise pop, same impassioned vocals, with a running time just ten seconds longer than the debut.
Just the one major change and it’s way for the better, the songs are written from personnae viewpoints, they’re not just about life as a Japandroid, grippng though that is.

The Vancouver based duo broke out in 2009 via the rousing noise pop of debut album Post-Nothing the success of which was a surprise to all concerned. See, after years of treading water, Japandroids figured to hit 'delete' after the release of Post Nothing. Instead, they found themselves suddenly Pitchforked and Blendered into indie stardom.

Aengus Finnan: North Wind

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Aengus Finnan North Wind is available through Borealis Records, whose slogan is ‘The Best in Canadian Folk Music’ and Aengus Finnan truly fits that description.

A charming CD, that has all the Celtic criteria in every song; getting the stories across mixed with fabulous ‘kitchen party’ musicians on the well mixed and produced tracks. Born in Dublin, Ireland then raised in Canada, Aengus Finnan has the unique way of drawing you into his songs and making them come alive.

Track # 1 ‘Rollin’ Home’ captures the pictures of backroad trips with the live movie rolling by your window. You can almost smell the Canadian countryside, with wheat and corn and idle cows and horses in the fields. ‘Ruins’ continues along that vein of thought with the comment on the CD liner saying “If You Ate Today….Thank a Farmer.” ‘Swing Boys Swing’ was inspired when Finnan walked along an overgrown railroad track and the ghosts of workers long gone could be heard saying “Swing Boys Swing, God Speed Your Hammers.” Tackling a traditional and adding some lyrics, Finnan has done a great rendition of ‘Lost Jimmy Whelan’, a young shanty boy who drowned in the 1878 log drive at King’s Chute near Pembroke, Ontario.

‘My Heart Has Wings’ is a love song and ‘Apple Blossom Tyme’ is a young lad’s first memories of Canada, chasing after summer workers on trucks, hoping to get a dropped apple or two. ‘Sandy’s Story’ is one that will take you back to a time when tales were told in front of fireplaces and families kept the stories going.

COLD SPECKS: I Predict A Graceful Expulsion

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Arts & Crafts

Al Spx started showing up on stages in the T.Dot last year behind major hype and packing a soulful, idiosyncratic vocal style to back it up. This was well in advance of the retro soul revival currently underway and the artists now known as Cold Specks caused a major splash with her hard to pin down and often raw style.

Simultaneously she could sound old time rickety and blues gal from outer space; she could reconcile the beautiful with the strident, as brilliantly demonstrated on  “Steady”.

Nor does the songwriting lack in ambition or scope. From the intimate and soul bearing to the anthemic and soul searing, the is the music of intent.“”Holland” has a subtext relevant to the black experience in Europe, where Cold Specks made its initial impact,  “Blank Maps’’ with its refrain of “I am, I am/A goddamn believer” is a grabber, anthemic one moment, down to the ground the next, “Winter Solistice” weaves Gospel into a modernist soul setting.

She’s a skiiled lyricist, adept at layering unstated meanings with highly evocative imagery but it’s the voice that makes it all happen. A singular thing with few contemporary reference points, it echoes all the way to the Delta and Odetta, Leadbelly and “Mississippi Goddam” seen through a modernist, indie prism. Or to put it another way, both Feist and Nick Cave are gonna  love this.

Call it Goth Soul and you’re not far off the mark.

Lenny Stoute

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