Monday, July 26, 2010

Tokyo Police Club

The release of the second album is a fabled concept amongst rock commentators. Some assign it epic value – the definitive answer as to whether an artist or band will amount to anything over the long-haul. Others will more reasonably suggest its simply the album that follows a debut, nothing more or less. The truth, like most things, likely resides somewhere in the middle, which is the case of Champ by the Toronto indie outfit, Tokyo Police Club.

While I'm certainly not attempting to project some ultimate prognosis on the career of the young group, their sophomore release, out this past June 8th, shows a trajectory of maturity in both songwriting and performance demonstrated recently by The Gaslight Anthem on their recent American Slang (yeah, I probably cannot go a week without referencing them). On the Club's previous LP, Elephant Shell, and earlier EPs, A Lesson in Crime and Smith, the quartet largely employed a throttle-up, run-n-gun approach, sometimes sounding like a cleaner John Spencer Blues Explosion and others similar to a more jarring Strokes, producing speedy and driving skinny-jeans style power punk. Here, they tone down the fury a bit and settle into a more composed, but no less forceful format that retains the core of their sound but adds new tools and smarts to their work. However, similar to earlier efforts, Champ can be navigated in its entirety during the course of a morning commute to work, rounding out its dozen tracks in a brisk 37 minutes.

The evidence of this evolution comes early, on the opening track, "Favourite Food" (note the superflous "u" signifying their Canadian identity). Hark, it's an acoustic guitar intro for well over the number's just-under four minute duration, a component nowhere to be found in the band's previous material. Singer/bassist Dave Monks situates the listener in the past, likewise a rare occurrence in his preceeding lyrics, suggesting a "looking back on your days / How you spent them all in a blur / When they asked if you were for sure." It's an entirely new sound for the group, and one that's all the more stark a contrast at the collection's outset, even as drummer Greg Aslop eventually infuses the number with more pulse later on, and guitarist Josh Hook and keyboardist/guitarist Graham Wright introduce more of the band's signature flavor, alternating clean, Mick Jones-style riffs with jangly delay loops a la The Edge.

But the real mark of the foursome's new direction is on the following number, "Favourite Color." With Monks and Aslop laying down its "1979"-influenced rhythm part, the song's narrative is the most developed Monks has yet offered, its protagonist inquiring about the number's title subject and "your younger brother." Even though he tosses up clever lines such as, "Like KC & Jojo / like Sunny & Cher / You're Tina, but I'm not Ike," he steps further away from his younger flirtations with Iggy and closer to a more mature relationship with Bruce with, "the national child star, in a coat and a scarf / Alone in the laundromat," a line that wouldn't appear out of place on "Blinded By the Light." Moreover, the musicianship supplied by Hook and Wright is loose and more improvisational than the stabbing cuts they offered before.

After a "Breakneck Speed" that is not, in fact, indicative of its title – again capturing the more restrained mood – the infectous and breezy first single, "Wait Up (Boots of Danger)," steers the ship a bit back towards their previous catalogue, but without the gnashing sneer of earlier offerings that limited their accessibility to hipsters in the indie scene clubs. Some of the swagger that fueled the Strokes' "Last Night" to a larger audience is present here, and their aim for that same spirit is self-evident, as Monks describes "the music and the lights and everything" on top of the number's nervous energy.

And yet, as much as I like the record's first quartet of tunes, I equally dislike the following "Bambi," whose schitzophrenia is too distracting considering the well-crafted material before it. Additionally, Monks explores the lowest reaches of his register here, which is hard to execute in his nasal-throaty voice much in the John Linnell / Colin Meloy mold (by comparison, singers like Neko or Chris Cornell fuel their vocals from the lungs). Now, plenty of singers do fine with less-than-stellar tones – not only folks like Linnel and Meloy, but also Billy Corgan and John Lennon – and Monks simply needs to settle in the heart of his range as he does on the rest of the album.

A pleasant deep-cut discovery is "Gone," as in "to the coast" or "on the beach, where I let my ship sail." Hook's stabbing guitar riff establishes the song's motion from the first chord, while Wright's wafting organ part at the first chorus delivers the tune's lighthearted feel, as Monks emplores us to let our hair down. Any fan of Weezer's "Surf Wax America" will be delighted with this number.

Come for: "Wait Up (Boots of Danger)"
Stay for: "Gone"
You'll be surprised by: "Favourite Color"

P.S. Tokyo Police Club headlines tonight at Washington's Black Cat club. Opening act, Arkells, hailing from down the Q.E.W. from Toronto in Hamilton, are generating a bit of buzz. Expect a follow-up review here should that buzz be justified.

P.P.S. This is the third consecutive review of a Canadian artist. I can assure you the trend will continue next week.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Kathryn Calder

Last month, the National Hockey League – in its annual end-of-season awards ceremony – recognized Tyler Myers of the Buffalo Sabres with its award for the league’s top rookie player. That prize is known as the Calder Trophy, and is earned by a first-year player who distinguishes themselves apart from not only their teammates, but also their peers in competing clubs with potential for even greater accomplishments ahead. Similarly, a relatively new, young performer will release her first full-length album next month, and the name Calder once again designates a stand-out debut like Myers.’
Stepping out from her cadre of bandmates in the indie-rock supergroup, The New Pornographers, Kathryn Calder’s Are You My Mother – due out August 10th – presents a half-dozen compelling, uptempo tracks with a smaller handful of more subdued piano ballads. New Pornographer’s frontman, A.C. Newman introduced his niece, Calder, to the band on the group’s Twin Cinema record to cover Neko Case’s lead vocals when her own solo tours prevented her from tagging along to NP shows. And while Calder might not have the same pipes as Case – after all, who does? – she nonetheless offers a perfectly enjoyable vocal style to carry the entire 10-track effort, with a sound closer to Rilo Kiley’s Jenny Lewis.
After starting somewhat gently with first single, “Slip Away,” with its post Bill Berry-era R.E.M verses and Evanescence-style wordless chorus and the somber “Low,” third track “Castor and Pollux” is a solid introduction to Calder’s more aggressive material, with its chorus speaking to “chambers that have been blown wide open.” Its useful in establishing Calder’s direction independent of the New Pornographers or her previous group, Immaculate Machine, in which her vocal contributions were largely limited to back-up parts.
Still, for those looking for something similar to her Pornographers’ work, the mid-collection “If You Only Knew” features some communal harmonies with her session players and a guitar riff similar to Newman’s “All the Old Showstoppers.” With its tone similar to The Shins’ “New Slang,” the out-of-the-box percussion including claps and curbside rhythms, the number seems to be the album’s best venue to showcase Calder’s talents in both songwriting and performance.
In this space, I’ll typically describe how some late-cut ballad marks a departure from the rest of the album’s material. However, the real surprise here is found three tracks later in “Day Long Past its Prime,” as hard and driving a number Calder offers. Her rolling piano foundation and a fuzzy guitar part keep the piece humming along through its brisk three minutes, and certainly provides a nice counterpoint to the scattered ballads.
Come for: “Slip Away”
Stay for: “If You Only Knew”
You’ll be surprised by: “Day Long Past its Prime”

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Great Big Sea

The dog days of summer that currently have much of the nation sweltering induce, at best, lethargy and at worst, short tempers. Fortunately, there is no better cure in all the land than the one coming from our northerly neighbors in Newfoundland in the form of Great Big Sea. The sure-sure sea chanties, drinking songs and shoreline lullabies these lads routinely craft have transformed many an eye-rubbing dawn into a hopeful Ordinary Day and many more early evenings nights of dance and merriment. The boys return with more of the same on their 10th release, Safe Upon the Shore, out today.

The Newfoundlanders – at heart, a three-piece but usually accompanied by former Moxy Fruvous bassist Murray Foster and drummer Kris MacFarlane – are at their prime when blending reworkings of traditional Celtic, Acadian and seafaring numbers with their own offerings advancing the practice of those styles. Their mid-90s collections such as 1995’s Up, 1997's Play and 1999’s Turn captured the group’s raucous, yet good-natured spirit – best displayed in their live performances. However, their more recent contributions, like 2004’s Something Beautiful or 2008’s Fortune's Favor focused more on an adult contemporary sound that stripped the uniqueness and excitement out of a distinct outfit. Only 2005’s compilation of traditionals, The Hard & The Easy, reclaimed that energy. There’s plenty of John Mayers and Nicklebacks peddling their non-threatening wares, and too few extolling the virtues of sail-makers and grog-drinkers. Fortunately, Safe Upon the Shore hews much closer to their former approach than the latter. And, as a precaution, I will give an extensive treatment here, in case you’re in need of an urgent Twitter fix or a Facebook update.

They don’t rush into their fast-break, between-the-blues rush right away, however. Instead, they ease back into their trademark sound with hearty harmonies, tin whistles and mid-tempo ballads. Co-lead vocalist Sean McCann leads off with “Long Life (Where Did You Go?),” revealing a slightly different vocal sound somewhere between Gaslight’s Brian Fallon and fellow Canadian Ed Robertson of The Barenaked Ladies. It’s a decently-paced number, but I’m not sure about the electric guitar work supplied by frontman Alan Doyle here. It’s not particularly nimble – unlike so much of the group’s other instrumentalization, and masks a bit too much of McCann’s "Just Pretend"-style acoustic part. Fallon comes through in the verses as McCann phrases “opened the door, I turned on the light, I hope I’ll see you there,” while Robertson emerges as Sean leads the fantastic GBS chorus voices.

From there, more of the telltale GBS sounds return on its successor, the Doyle-sung “Nothing But a Song,” where the soaring tin whistle intro of uber-multi instrumentalist Bob Hallett instantly transports the listener to the shores of Labrador. It’s reminiscent of some of Doyle’s catchy originals from the Up/Play/Turn era like “Consequence Free” or “Sea of No Cares,” albeit a bit more relaxed. Moreover, the wordless, a cappella bridge hovers effortlessly without becoming demure. The lads can never remind us often enough how well they can sing.

It gets better on the third track, the ballad “Yankee Sailor.” In the style of Doyle’s earlier “Boston and St. John’s,” we’re again connected with the story of a young seaman and the trials of love while at sea. But in this narrative, the sailor is resigned to the likelihood that his maiden is transfixed with another, with whom he cannot compete and yet somehow can wish the best for her despite the toll it will take on him, as he knows she is making no error fixing upon his rival, and that realization is far harder to cope with than the consequence of a total lack of judgment. If that alone were not a compelling enough concept, Doyle couches that sense of inferiority – whether perceived or not – in distance between Americans and Canadiens, which the narrator is clearly positioned in the True North and envisioning his love as the sole reason for America’s beauty. Whether the plot reflects any of Doyle’s own perspective on Yankee-Canuck relations and culture is artfully buried in the movement of the story. But as someone who’s spent numerous nights gazing “across the water” (Lake Erie, in my case) towards New York and Pennsylvania from Ontario’s shores and saying “America is beautiful tonight,” Doyle is certainly on to something here and has composed something that connects with me extremely personally in the way perhaps only Aaron Perrino’s "Swan" or "Like A Criminal" have done.

Fortunately, McCann again takes the reins in “Good People,” an uplifting and soothing campfire tune, mixing of the Gordon Lightfoot/Jim Croce/CSN traditions with more warm harmonies at it’s core. It’s extremely close to the bluegrass compositions of the Barenaked Ladies – some of the best work that group ever offered – such as “For You,” but also not foreign to the musical ancestry of the Canadian Maritimes, as much of that foundation stemmed from Celtic influences, and that same background migrated to the hills of Appalachia to form mountain music, bluegrass and, ultimately, country.

Another vein of that tradition continued further south, merged with Creole in the swamps of the Delta to become the Cajun and Zydeco styles. Dolye explores some of this common ancestry in “Dear Home Town,” with its accordions, harmonicas and horns spanning the gap between Newfoundland and New Orleans. Meanwhile, Bob Hallett’s regimental “Over the Hills” speaks to the more limited Queen-and-Country British influence in eastern Canada.

The real treat of the album, though, Doyle’s mid-set barnburner, “Hit the Ground and Run.” Literally the account of a shotgun wedding, your foot will be tapping before the first chorus and you’ll be reaching for that high third harmony by the second go-round. More interesting than all the picking of banjos, fiddles and mandolins is the tune’s co-author, Doyle’s close friend – and fellow Robin Hood actor – Russell Crowe. Close since Crowe caught a GBS show in Australia several years back, and after Doyle produced the actor’s first professional recording, the two-time Academy Award winner has been known to hop on stage with the Newfie boys for a Johnny Cash cover or an Irish reel (the former of which a certain blog author might have witnessed in DC on March 15, 2008). Here, the collaboration produces the best tune on the record.

Its followed by its counterpoint, McCann’s entirely a cappella title track. The presence of bassist Foster here is vital – as his bass vocals ground the McCann’s lyrics that sound as if they could have been penned by hands on the first transatlantic vessels. The proceeding cover of The Kinks’ tongue-in-cheek ode to the iconic British potable, “Have a Cuppa Tea,” is an interesting idea, with is banjo and Celtic drums a new twist on Ray Davies’ snarky original. They continue the classic rock look-back later on in a pretty faithful replication of Led Zeppelin’s “Gallows Pole,” itself a reworking of a traditional medieval arrangement. And while McCann is obviously trying hard here, he doesn’t quite have Robert Plant’s pipes to pull it off. Still, the group always reaches high on its rock cover selections, and its version of “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (and I Feel Fine)” off Play actually is closer to the spirit of Michael Stipe’s vision than the actual R.E.M. track itself, nearly quadrupling its pace to more accurately depict the rapid-fire world of college policy debate of the early 1980’s that Stipe experienced when he joined a fellow University of Georgia student at a debate tournament and found the entire experience absurd. The meaning of lines such as "a tournament, a tournament, a tournament of lies" and "offer me solutions" [the debate plan], "offer me alternatives" [the counter plan] are unmistakable.

Closer to the end, Doyle’s “Road to Ruin” could easily be found amongst GBS fans’ favorites such as “Rant and Roar” and “The Old Black Rum” in the group’s encores as it tours Canada and the states this summer.

Come for: “Hit the Ground and Run”
Stay for: “Safe Upon the Shore”
You’ll be surprised by: “Yankee Sailor”
P.S. The cover art for Safe Upon the Shore is ridiculous. Check it out above.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Telegraph Canyon

Found somewhere along the drifting byways of central Texas is the Fort Worth-based folk rock outfit Telegraph Canyon, offering a Texas-sized approach not only in their number of bandmates (seven) but also in musical scope – blending lush orchestrations with Eagles/CSN-style harmonies and a slew of instruments. The ultimate product is their second full-length release, The Tide and The Current, released in 2009, that responds to the need of each song with an appropriate mix of musicality, listenablity and integrity in a promising debut effort.

Listeners familiar with the subjects of previous reviews here of The Southeast Engine and The Overmountain Men will find musical camaraderie in Telegraph Canyon's approach to linking local narrative with interesting instrumentalization – everything from banjos to string parts are included – in backroads journeys like "Safe on the Outside," "Into the Woods" and "Shake Your Fist." The first is the most driving of the 10-track collection, with its most fully-realized melody and chorus structures, while opener "Into the Woods" eases into its sojourn gently, with frontman Chris Johnson's rusty-sharp intonation layered over a reluctant piano figure before kicking into a more aggressive pace around the two minute mark. It's here that the prowess of the full ensemble is exposed as harmonicas, organs, and multifaceted percussion fueling the project forward. Meanwhile, the latter presents a pretty banjo-and-xylophone foundation before awakening its electric guitars in a track that wouldn't be entirely out of place next to an early Radiohead cut like "Stop Whispering."

The mid-album Americana number, "A Light in the Field," finds a residence in that welcome and comfortable space occupied by the likes of Petty, the Counting Crows and Jakob Dylan, with plenty of Hammond organ and hazy guitar suited for filling the air of a Midwestern summer night. It makes the most of the track's just-under three minutes. Its followed two tracks later by the more quirky "Quirky Assurance," which doesn't settle quite as easily into the heartland groove it aspires to as its predecessor, but is still largely effective in demonstrating some sing-along harmonies as it builds in intensity. Likewise, the penultimate "Dressed in Flight" introduces some nice fiddle work by bandmate Tamara Cauble that later meets up with a corresponding electric guitar harmony by Erik Wolfe. Like "A Light in the Field," I appreciate this track's brevity, which adds some urgency to the waltzy ballad, producing perhaps the finest performances on the record.

I'm not as enamored with Johnson's handful of singer-songwriter type tunes. His voice is a bit stark and grating on its own, without the highlights and flavor provided through his fellow musicians. They're not poor compositions on their own, and include some pleasant accordion and string work, but aren't especially compelling when contrasted with the rest of the work.

Come for: "Safe on the Outside"
Stay for: "A Light in the Field"
You'll be surprised by: "Dressed in Flight"