St. Vincent

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Submitted by Lenny Stoute

Blame David Byrne for the overblown, self-consciously arty cover. Thankfully, that and a smattering of percussive passages are the only overt traces of 2013’s Love This Giant collab with Mr. Bryne. The rest is pure Annie Clark; transforming, fearless, wary and tireless in pursuit of a unique musical vision. On this fifth album, she nails all that like J.C. on the cross. Or as The Guardian put it, “An artist who has worked out exactly what she wants to do, and exactly how to do it.”

This collection builds on 2011’s Strange Mercy, the album on which Clark managed to channel her usual avalanche of ideas into a clutch of finicky, quirky and very relatable post-pop songs. Her most reliable source of creative dynamic, the contrast between the watercolour vocals and the shred-infused guitar lines, serve her well here too, only this time, the guitar magic comes down in short sharp bursts. The sense of restraint is palpable, generating its own kind of tension as we wait for her to bust out. And wow, in some songs, she just never does.

“Huey Newton” is like that, coming in on an angular, fuzzed out, barely contained riff, Annie goes to snarling snd setting the stage for a nuclear guitar explosion. Instead, the tune’s dark menace and sense of foreboding comes courtesy of a finely tuned vocal performance and wall to wall bass lines. This sense of coiled restraint shows up in the lyrics as well.

Lydia Loveless Somewhere Else

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Submitted by Lenny Stoute

Brazenly over the top, recklessly funny and somehow oddly touching, this is the alt-est country album you’re gonna hear this year.

Right off the line (“Really Wanna See You”) Lydia sets the tone with a narrative involving a wild party, lotsa coke and an evil phone call to an ex with the specific purpose of messing up his marriage. Who wouldn’t love this woman?

On “Chris Isaak” she sings “When I was 17 I'd follow men around with my head jammed way in their ass”/“Oh, what I wouldn’t give to still be able to conjure up energy like that”. Right there is the knife-edge upon which much of this album balances; the implication that it’s better to burn bright and flame out than sputter along with a puny little light. So self-destruction or self-preservation, it all depends on the song and the tack the lady takes.

“Head, one of the more intense tracks, is a celebration of that thing we do, delivered with a cheerleader’s zest: (“Don’t stop giving me head”) riding atop a jagged, confrontational guitar line conveying both frenzy and despair.

Random Order: Black Lipstick Kiss

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Submitted by Lenny Stoute

Lynn Phillips and has band of hooligans have been shaking the foundations since 1989 and judging by what’s here, show no signs of mellowing. Over time the band has expanded and contracted its line-up, the current crew being Bryant Didier: bass guitar and back up vocals, Anita Graciano: percussion and back up vocals, John Jowett: trombone, Caterina Marchese: drums, Aimee O’Connor: guitar and Lynn Phillips: guitar and vocals. If you think this crew has been loud and rambunctious in the past, you’ll love the stabbing brass hits, clever, in yer face guitar lines and propulsive rhythms, pushing Phillips to quirkier vocal phrasings, all with a live off the floor feel.

On that front, this collection showcases the dude’s vocal talents in ways that the last two RO albums, which were more ‘sound’ oriented, did not. Nor does he back away from any of the self-imposed challenges. Check the way the title track starts out with a slowly picked out swamp ska intro, Phillips comes in smoky and seductive, then seconds later explodes growling and howling at both ends of his range, before dropping into a slinky vibrato to take the thing home.

Or the way he deals with “Trans Mission”, working his lowest register for maximum ominous effect in a tale of hitting the wall while on the road, stopping just short of dropping down into the snarling rage of the doomed.

Rosanne Cash: The River and the Thread

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Submitted by Don Graham

A reigning member of Country Music’s royal family, Rosanne Cash has released her first album in 5 years and it could well be her best ever. The daughter of Johnny Cash, step daughter of June Carter Cash, the step sister of Carlene Carter and ex- wife of country music icon singer/songwriter Rodney Crowell,  is much more Americana than country but whatever label you pin on her, she’s one of the best.  She released 10 studio albums from 1978 to 2006 and in 2009 released The List, an album of songs that were  just that; a list of songs her Dad gave to her  when she was 18 years, saying if she was serious about country music she needed to know these songs. The original list consisted of 100 songs. She picked 12 songs for the album.

Cash was born in Memphis, Tennessee in 1955, just as father Johnny was recording his first tracks at Sun Records. The family moved to California in 1958, first to Los Angeles, then Ventura, where Cash and her sisters were raised by mother Vivian. Vivian and Johnny separated in the early 1960s and divorced in 1966. After graduating from high school, she joined her father's road show for two and a half years, first as a wardrobe assistant, then as a background vocalist and occasional soloist. It was on tour during this time she was given “the list.” She lived in Nashville, L.A. and for the past 23 years has called New York City home.

Shad: Flying Colours Black Box

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Submitted by Lenny Stoute

Nuff respect Saukrates but Canada’s reigning philosopher rapper is Shad. The Vancouver-based rhyme smith broke into the mainstream by taking the 2010 Juno for Best Rap Album with TSOL and has been musically silent since then, focusing on completing his Master’s Degree.

With that diploma done, Shad turned his attention to the TSOL follow-up and the typical artist's challenge of topping your best work, in this case a Juno winning one which beat Drake’s album for the prize. Flying Colours is it, living up to expectations and then some: thematically, lyrically and sonically pushing borders on what may be his best work yet.

At once classic Shad and him getting all tricky and scattering stuff like treasure in a video game, while referencing Canada like an immigrant hip hop Stompin’ Tom. Savvy as Da Stomper, Shad maintains his sharp eye for how shit goes down Canuck style. So balance “The girls are playing bingo/and the boys are gettin’ stinko/ It’s a Sudbury Saturday night” against  “T.O. knows I’m like a Benz in this city of Fords” and you get why this also shares bloodlines with such as Kanye’s “New Slaves” and “Black Skinhead”. It’s a supremely ambitious, insightful, clear-eyed look at the Canadian immigrant experience, once the airport dust has settled.

Dum Dum Girls: Too True

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Sub Pop
Submitted by Lenny Stoute

Dum Dum Girls leader Dee Dee Penny is on record as saying this is the one with which she blows up bigger than her indie rock star status. The jury’s still out on that but what’s undeniable is that Double D’s a changed woman, and it’s for the better.

This album distances itself from the previous Phil Spectoresque girl-group sound, diving headfirst into 80s Goth/Glam with all the glossy gloom that implies. Not that she’s entirely dropped her knack for crafting sweet’n’hooky pop, with “Too True To Be Good” sounding as fine as anything she’s done in the genre.

But it’s the tunes from the heart of darkness which make the most impact, likely because they cause Penny to push the vocal envelope. She drops down into a sultry low key for the aching ballads "Are You Okay", "Too True" and "Trouble Is My Name", sounding a little more grown-up in the process.

Blackie and the Rodeo Kings: South

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Submitted by Lenny Stoute

Maybe it’s the cold, bleak weather, maybe too many dark nights of the soul in January but there are not a whole of toe-tappers on this cookie. It’s stark in production,  the instrumentation’s mostly acoustic and maybe too reliant on the vocals to carry the show. This is only a thing here, because in the past this crew have amply demonstrated their ways around clever arrangements, which can elevate a song.

On that front, there are a few numbers here that could have benefited from more panache. As Nick Cave has demonstrated, you can brood with style but lacking that agenda, there are times when stripped down just sounds tired, as if the dudes are drained from touring 2012’s brilliant and superbly executed Kings and Queens.

So what’s to like? Lots, with the opening pair of “North” and “South” being among the best, both working from an easygoing lope of a bass line by Johnny Dymond while lyrically  exploring opposite polarities. They also share a rueful tone of ‘things that might have been’ and full-bodied heartfelt vocals, both of which elements define the album. With Colin Linden, Tom Wilson and Stephen Fearing manning the vocal mics, the power amd emotion  are guaranteed. Too bad so much of the emotions evoked are on the downside, with appropriate music.

Coeur de Pirate: Trauma

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Dare to Care Records
Submitted by Lenny Stoute

Part covers compilation, part TV drama soundtrack, this album’s typical of the way our Quebec brethren manage to move their independent product forwards. Intended to accompany the fifth season of hit Quebec hospital drama Trauma, Francophone chanteuse Couer de Pirate (a.k.a. Béatrice Martin) opted for an all-covers soundtrack of her favourite English language tunes. Obviously, train loads of trust between Martin and the TV folk.

Teaming again with studio collaborator Renaud Bastien, who was along for Martin’s breakout album Blonde, the Pirate plays most of the instruments herself, particularly strong on guitars, piano and cellos on this quirky collection.

Martin gleefully rummages through most of recent pop history, cherry picking nuggets from Kenny Rogers, the Rolling Stones, the Libertines, Bon Iver, Nancy Sinatra, Patrick Watson, the McGarrigle sisters, Amy Winehouse and others.

The Pack A.D.: Do Not Engage

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Submitted by Lenny Stoute

So here’s the reigning queens of West Coast garage skrunk getting all melodic and even trying to get your attention. Probably was inevitable once they signed to Nettwerk but you know you have the right album when co-creator Maya Miller noted: "Let's put it this way, I don't hate this album yet, and I usually hate them fairly quickly."

That’s because the thing isn’t a complete makeover, Nettwerk being canny enough to let ‘em alone with producer Jim Diamond, who’s work with White Stripes, Electric Six and the Dirtbombs makes him just the guy to fully engage with their jagged blues rock and sardonic sensibility.

The 11 songs include the previously released "Battering Ram" and "Big Shot.", fitting in this incarnation nicely besides the likes of "Creepin' Jenny" and "Stalking Is Normal."  Tunefulness aside, this collection is a long way even from 2011’s Unpersons, itself the first album ‘melodic’ enough to get the Vancouver-based duo on the radio. The songs are tightly written and executed with lo-fi precision which takes away nothing from the band’s ferocity while ushering in a whole new range of influences the likes of the Breeders, the Grifters and Superchunk.

Neon Windbreaker: New Sky

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We Are Busy bodies
Submitted by Lenny Stoute

This Toronto band broke out in 2012 with a debut album of grabby, post-melodic noise rock and have been busy building a following since. Along the way, the Windbreakers have embraced brevity in song writing to a degree unheard of in this year of the double album.

On New Sky, the ‘hard and fast’ approach peaks with five tracks clocking in at a brisk 8.4 minutes. It’s truly a ‘blink and you miss it’ avalanche of high-energy drumming, rough-edged rhythms and slashes of melody fighting for survival against the OTT vocals of firebrand front man Eric Warner. What the crew have here is a clutch of tunes that are unpredictable and searing without being chaotic or grating.

If there’s a peak track it’s “New Sky”, built on a strong melody with hints of The Pixies, bustling guitars and furious vocalising managing a nice balance between the moody and the totally pissed off. The rest of the album is all like that, except with less melodic emphasis. A personal fave is “Nails”, with Warner spitting the lyrics like they’re coming out of a nail gun for a minute and 34 seconds of raw aggression and power riffage.

Still and all, I’m left with the feeling that though there’s nothing wrong with any of the tracks as delivered here, it would have been interesting to hear “Nails” go on to sharper things and “Pink Suit” maybe filled out a little.

This ain’t Christmas tunage but it sure is Winter music in the way it gets the blood to rushing.

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