Saturday, 29 December 2012

20 Best Albums of 2012: #13

13. Japandroids, Celebration Rock
Celebration Rock is as energetic and thrilling as the fireworks that open and close the record. The album rarely stops to take a breath during the course of its eight songs and thirty-five minutes, daring the listener not to sing along with Brian King and David Prowse’s anthemic choruses and wordless chants. Japandroids aren’t merely out to have a good time, though; Celebration Rock taps into deeper and more universal emotions, displaying a maturity that’s impressive given the duo’s youth.

20 Best Albums of 2012: #10

10. Clare and the Reasons, KR-51
Recorded over a period of eight months in Berlin, KR-51 successfully captures the tension between past and future that has characterized the city’s history. This struggle is reflected in Clare Muldaur’s bittersweet vocals and the album’s adventurous instrumentation: beats collide with Weill-esque cabaret piano on “PS” and come together on the album’s dramatic centrepiece, “Colder".


20 Best Albums of 2012: #12

12. Lavender Diamond, Incorruptible Heart
Lavender Diamond owes a great deal of its appeal as a band to its mesmerizing frontwoman Becky Stark. Stark is such a presence that it would be easy to let her incredible soprano dominate the record; instead, she and her bandmates, aided by producer Damian Kulash of OK Go, have crafted a rich and alluring tapestry of sound. "I Don't Recall" glides along, "Light My Way" is euphoric dance pop and "Come Home" is quiet and fragile. Incorruptible Heart may seem innocuous at first, but its songs soon burrow their way into your subconscious, thanks to their charm and effervescent nature.

Wednesday, 26 December 2012

20 Best Albums of 2012: #14

14. Jack White, Blunderbuss
Blunderbuss finds Jack White shooting from the hip. The album is replete with visceral narratives; “Missing Pieces” has White discovering his nose is broken, and “Freedom at 21” positively seethes with anger. White spends much of Blunderbuss declaring himself to be the man wronged, but the album is often preoccupied with self-doubt as well. Moments within songs when White lets his guard down are frequently the most interesting parts of Blunderbuss; the title track, which is at once a romantic ballad and a jaded reminiscence, strikes a nice balance between the two moods. It's an album that's a little bit at odds with itself, but this makes it all the more compelling.

Sunday, 23 December 2012

20 Best Albums of 2012: #15

15. Tori Amos, Gold Dust

For Gold Dust, Tori Amos recorded live with an orchestra for the first time in her twenty-year career. The result is nothing short of stunning, Amos reinterpreting songs from her back catalogue with impressive results: “Snow Cherries from France” is lush and romantic, and the piano-only “Marianne” now packs an orchestral punch. “We’ll see how brave you are,” Amos sings on “Yes, Anastasia” – from 1994’s Under the Pink and given an assertive, horn-led arrangement here – and this statement can be said to sum up her entire career. She’s always been restless, always moving forward, and her commitment to exploring her musicality in new ways makes Gold Dust far more than the vanity project it could have ended up as.

Saturday, 22 December 2012

20 Best Albums of 2012: #17

17. Evening Hymns, Spectral Dusk

Spectral Dusk, written after the death of frontman Jonas Bonnetta’s father three years ago, explores loss, memory and grief without ever becoming too mawkish or precious.
Bonnetta’s richly timbered voice and a gorgeously atmospheric production come together to create an album filled with quiet urgency and power, as such songs as ”Cabin in the Burn” and the intimate “Asleep in the Pews” demonstrate. Spectral Dusk is an intensely personal and entirely relatable work, and this particular quality is what makes it so remarkable.


20 Best Albums of 2012: #18

18. Taylor Swift, Red

There’s no denying that Red is an at-times ungainly mix of styles and genres; without this format, though, we might not have gotten the shrewd observations of “The Lucky One” or the soaring “State of Grace”. Swift is a talented songwriter, evident both in tossed-off single lines (“We’re happy, free, confused, and lonely at the same time,” from “22”) and in full song form (“Sad Beautiful Tragic”, "All Too Well"). Regardless of how awkward Red may feel, it makes up for it with the remarkably consistent quality of its sixteen songs. Anyone expecting Red to be an album’s worth of shallow jabs at former boyfriends might just be surprised.



20 Best Albums of 2012: #19

19. Martha Wainwright, Come Home to Mama
Martha Wainwright had two very potent sources of inspiration available for Come Home to Mama: the birth of her first child and the passing away of her mother. Wainwright’s emotions emerge as a sort of wry candour which surfaces throughout the record. Producer Yuka Honda creates a velvety sonic backdrop on which songs like the astonishing “Radio Star,” which changes tempos and moods at a rapid pace, can unfold.


20 Best Albums of 2012: #20

20. Jets Overhead, Boredom and Joy

Boredom and Joy, by underrated Vancouver alt-rock band Jets Overhead, is an endlessly rewarding album. The title track, with its wistful memories of summer, sets a nostalgic tone, which provides a compelling contrast to the album’s uptempo melodies, dreamy feel and shimmering instrumentation. Adam Kittredge and Antonia Freybe-Smith are effortlessly versatile singers, and songs where they join forces, such as "Your Desire" - on which they murmur to each other, "How can I tell you what I want to say?" - are some of the album's best moments.  


Thursday, 20 December 2012

20 Best Albums of 2012: #16

16. Dala, Best Day
Best Day gives Amanda Walther and Sheila Carabine’s flawless harmonies and knack for relatable yet intelligent songwriting a chance to shine. The best songs on the album let the duo play off each other in unexpected and richly rewarding ways, among them the sublime “Lennon & McCartney,” which shows off their great (and frequently underappreciated) sense of humour, and the sun-filled “Life on Earth".

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Live Review: Erica Iris Huang (Nov. 20th 2011)

I attend a lot of classical music concerts in Winnipeg, many of which I write reviews of. I'm going to post these reviews on here, although first I'll post some older reviews before I post more recent reviews.

Erica Iris Huang
Women's Musical Club of Winnipeg
Winnipeg Art Gallery
November 20th 2011

Reviewed by Paul R. McCulloch

The second concert of the Women’s Musical Club of Winnipeg season was a highly anticipated one, as on Sunday, Nov. 20th the Muriel Richardson Auditorium would be welcoming dramatic mezzo-soprano Erica Iris Huang – winner of the 34th annual Eckhardt-Gramatté National Competition – to its stage. Huang, and accompanist Emily Hamper, appeared before an eager audience at the Winnipeg Art Gallery as part of an E-Gré sponsored national tour. Prior to the concert, the president Dr. John Bulman spoke on behalf of the Foundation, noting its continual efforts to support, and provide exposure for, young Canadian artists and composers.

The concert began with Huang’s passionate interpretation of Schumann’s Liederkreis, op. 24. With Hamper’s expert support, Huang quickly captured the audience’s attention with a voice that was not only technically flawless but sparkled with personality.

Huang’s gift as a vivacious and charismatic storyteller fully revealed itself in Canadian composer Michael Oesterle’s 2011 work Eckhardt Songs, a series of colourful musical vignettes in which she took on a variety of characters and roles, culminating with the stunning “chi pò," much to the amusement of the delighted audience. The programme’s first half came to a close with the marvelous Cinco canziones negras (‘Four Black Songs’) by Xavier Montsalvatge, a collection of pieces infused with both feelings of dramatic desperation and a vivid, off-beat sense of humour that left patrons eager for the rest of what would undoubtedly be a truly outstanding afternoon of music.

The second half opened with Poems of Young People, a multi-movement piece originally written for legendary Canadian contralto Maureen Forrester by the late, Winnipeg-based composer Harry Freedman. Huang showed no difficulty in making its enigmatic lyrics come alive on stage, proving particularly enchanting in the piece’s final movement, “The Role of Canada in the World Today." The following, Chausson’s melancholy, heartbreaking Chanson Perpétuelle, op. 37, showcased both Huang and Hamper’s exceptional sensitivity for classical repertoire.

Nova Scotia-born composer Emily Doolittle’s Airs of Men Long Dead was selected by Huang for its roots in Norse mythology and its innovative utilization of voice and piano. The work cast a hush over the auditorium the moment Hamper began lightly, yet ominously, tapping on the front of her piano, as if knocking on a door. Huang joined in with a voice both rich and evocative; as she filled the listener’s mind with images of dimly-lit cabins and moonlit winter skies, one could only observe in awe as the duo transported an entire audience deep into the past.

It seemed almost a shame to break the spell, but each work that followed was more impressive than the last. “Banquo’s Buried," adapted by Alison Bauld from the famous sleepwalking scene in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, was just as mesmerizing, with Huang inhabiting the character of Lady Macbeth as if it were a second skin, both her talent for portraying complex characters and her richly-hued, expressive voice at full force. The concert proper ended with William Bolcom’s joyous “Amor," which proved a vibrant contrast to Bauld’s chilling dramatics, allowing Huang to give the more sensual facets of her dramatic range much-welcomed exposure and bringing the audience to its feet. With many patrons rapturously calling out for encores, Huang responded with a radiant performance of the iconic habanera from Bizet’s Carmen.

The concert was the first of the 2011-12 WMC season to be recorded live by CBC Radio 2, with a planned airdate of Feb. 19th, 2012 on In Concert with Bill Richardson. Listen here.

Monday, 17 December 2012

20 Best Songs of 2012: #10 to #1

10. Taylor Swift – “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”
“We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” is a great pop song that at the same time treats the cliché of the breakup ballad with a healthy dose of irreverence. Even with its glossy pop surface and Max Martin-helmed production, Swift’s wry and intelligent sense of humour comes through. Although Swift is undeniably petulant at times, she sings most of the song with her tongue firmly planted in her cheek, and it's refreshing to have an artist often seen as pensive to a fault not take herself too seriously.

9. Frank Ocean – “Pyramids”
“Pyramids” has created its own myth and legend, entirely, it would seem, by the sheer fact of its existence. Its idiosyncratic presence in today’s pop landscape – it’s ten minutes long! it’s got an epic narrative! it was released as a single anyways! – deserves a discussion separate from the track itself. As a song, “Pyramids” has many merits – it’s incredibly catchy, and the shift in plot is thrilling and unexpected – but the hypnotic rhythm does occasionally distract from how Ocean’s imagery doesn’t always work. The pros do outweigh the cons in the end, and “Pyramids” makes it clear that Ocean is a daring and talented songwriter unafraid to test his abilities this early on in what looks to be a promising career.

8. Gotye (ft. Kimbra) – “Somebody That I Used to Know”
As with “Call Me Maybe”, the year’s other ubiquitous pop hit, “Somebody That I Used to Know” needs to be approached with a certain degree of objectivity; one needs to dig through the countless parodies and imitations to get at the essence of the song itself. Luckily, Gotye and Kimbra’s stunning vocals – the focus of the track more than anything else – make this work a genuine pleasure. The xylophone-laced melody might be seen as corny in other contexts, but here its brittle and dissonant atmosphere is an ideal fit. Heartbreak rarely sounds this accomplished, and this good, when transformed into music.

7. Dala – “Lennon & McCartney”
“Lennon & McCartney” is nothing short of sublime. The duo’s four-handed piano playing (yes, really: see this live clip) works alongside a string quartet to create a sun-filled, effervescent backdrop for Amanda Walther and Sheila Carabine’s flawless harmonies. Top it all off with lyrics that riff on the age-old ‘opposites attract’ theme in a clever and imaginative way, and you’ve got near-perfection as far as I’m concerned.

6. Evening Hymns – “Asleep in the Pews”
“Asleep in the Pews” is a richly evocative meditation on loss and grief. Jonas Bonnetta’s inspiration for the song, his father’s death three years ago, lends “Asleep in the Pews” an additional potency beyond the quiet power of its melody and lyrics. Bonnetta’s voice, resonant and heavy with emotion, finds the light and shadow behind each word and brings the deep, dark woods the song describes to life.

5. Melody Gardot – “If I Tell You I Love You”
“If I Tell You I Love You” feels and sounds like a lost gem from Tom Waits’ vaults; that it’s actually a Gardot original reinforces her rapid progression to becoming one of the best, and most vital, jazz songwriters of her generation. “If I Tell You I Love You”, with Gardot’s sultry come-ons, murmurs and sighs, has some of the year’s best vocal work in any genre, and, if there’s any justice in the world, deserves to become a standard.

4. Amanda Palmer – “Do It With a Rockstar”
“Do It With a Rockstar” is wonderfully audacious. A send-up of the posturing that accompanies the rock star mentality and depiction of an identity crisis all rolled into one, the song never fails to thrill. The way its atmosphere and constant call of “Do you want to go back home?” transform so quickly from self-assuredness into vulnerability and doubt is just as remarkable.“Do It With a Rockstar” is Theatre is Evil in a nutshell: witty, irreverent and deeply, deeply human.

3. A Fine Frenzy – “Winds of Wander”
“Winds of Wander”, from A Fine Frenzy’s criminally overlooked Pines, envelops the listener with its unabashedly emotional songwriting and Alison Sudol’s yearning vocals. Opening with quietly plucked guitar, bird song and brief flourishes of piano, the song then slips into a slowly building waltz. “Winds of Wander”continues to grow in intensity and volume until both Sudol and the listener are quite literally carried away, and then gently returned to the ground.

2. Fiona Apple – “Every Single Night”
“Every Single Night” feels, appropriately enough, like a transmission directly from Apple’s mind, but with a clarity and immediacy many singer-songwriters spend entire careers trying to achieve. It’s at once both ruthless and delicate, a quality most evident in Apple’s extraordinary voice. Her repeated plea, “I just wanna feel everything,” is a lifetime’s worth of abstract thoughts poured into one single, potent sentence.

1. David Byrne & St. Vincent – “Who”
The horns that announce “Who” seem carried in, as does the rest of the song, from some other universe. Byrne kicks off the song in style, but when Annie Clark comes in, coolly and seductively, with “Who is an honest man?”, the listener knows they’re in for something special. The two have a near-absurd amount of chemistry, practically flirting with each other as Byrne yelps and swaggers and Clark plays hard-to-get. “Who” is bold, brassy, adventurous and just plain fun – there was nothing else like it released this year, and there probably won’t be for some time to come.

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

20 Best Songs of 2012: #20 to #11

11. Jets Overhead – “Boredom and Joy”
With “Boredom and Joy”, B.C.-based group Jets Overhead has created one of the most flawless alt-rock singles of the year. What makes it more than just an immaculately-put-together track, though, is its unconventional narrative, Adam Kittredge's lead vocals and the song's sheer force of personality. "Boredom and Joy" is a song that deserves to be played as loudly as possible, preferably while driving in a car and singing along with each "Hey!". Even in the middle of winter (in Manitoba, no less!), its sunny disposition is infectious.

12. Lavender Diamond – “Everybody’s Heart’s Breaking Now”
"Everybody's Heart's Breaking Now" achieves a perfect, delicate balance between the intimate and universal. It's all due to Becky Stark's incredible voice, both crystal-clear in tone and aching with longing; "Everybody's Heart's Breaking Now", as a result, sounds both effortless and deeply emotional at once. The song itself is just as impressive, starting out as a torch song-style lament before transforming into an urgent, but never maudlin, power ballad. If Stark hasn’t won you over within the first minute, don’t worry; she’ll have your heart in a chokehold by the end.


13. Clare and the Reasons – “The Lake
“The Lake” utilizes nearly every second of its four-minute length to draw the listener into its carefully-constructed sonic landscape. Each new lyric contributes to the anxiety created by the song’s insistent beat, up until the precise moment where its structure breaks apart and, as Clare Muldaur sings, “our world has been annihilated”. The fact that this moment of emotional release never fails to move me is more than remarkable – it’s kind of brilliant.

14. Leonard Cohen – “Darkness”
Given that most casual Cohen fans might base their perception of Cohen’s general demeanor and attitude towards life solely on the lyrics of “Hallelujah” (ie. dark, depressed and tortured), it may come as a surprise that Cohen also has a wicked sense of humour. “Darkness,” with its roiling undercurrent and bluesy vocals, may seem an unlikely example of Cohen’s dry wit, but it works. Sure, singing that he ‘used to love the rainbows’ might be a little much, but the way Cohen treats the subject matter of “Darkness” with both serious intent and self-effacement is a testament to the complexity of his songwriting.

15. Regina Spektor – “Open”
What We Saw from the Cheap Seats felt like Spektor rummaging around in her sonic toolbox so as to reaffirm her talent after the artistically disappointing Far. Unfortunately, the album had more lows than highs, but songs such as “Open” helped to remind the listener of Spektor’s considerable gifts. “Open”, with its ominous imagery, a stunning interlude (you’ll know it when you hear it) and an eerie, ambiguous ending, would be a highlight on any of Spektor's albums. That it ended up on an uneven record like Cheap Seats only helps to emphasize its ingenuity.

16. Carly Rae Jepsen – “Call Me Maybe”
It’s a shame that Carly Rae Jepsen seems to have been labelled as some sort of insubstantial pop starlet. Not only is Jepsen a strong, confident singer both in and outside the studio, but “Call Me Maybe” has better lyrics – and accomplishes more in its three minutes and twenty seconds – than most songs of its kind in 2012 (and it’s not just the proud Canuck in me talking). The song’s endless spoofs and unfortunate association with Justin Bieber have pulled attention away from how good “Call Me Maybe” is, but I find myself hitting repeat, time and time again, and not regretting it once.

17. Kathleen Edwards – “Empty Threat”
“Empty Threat”, the lead-off track on Kathleen Edwards’ excellent Voyageur – a record inspired by a difficult divorce – establishes the album’s emotionally-charged narrative and is a great song in its own right. From its first few hazy, sepia-toned notes onwards, Edwards creates a perfect backdrop to such scene-setting lyrics as “the hottest days of the summer / brought us here together”. "Empty Threat"'s production dilutes the impact of its chorus, but lines as simultaneously defiant and dejected as “I’m moving to America / It’s not an empty threat” are some of the best lyrical moments of the year.

18. Jack White – “Love Interruption”
I didn’t know what to think about “Love Interruption” the first time I heard it; it’s a pop song about love, but it uses metaphors that seem more in line with the poetry of John Donne than a mainstream song. (It’s also the most unusual lead single from any album I’ve heard as of late, with the runner-up being Regina Spektor’s “All the Rowboats".) Both White and backup singer Ruby Amanfu seem to thrive on the song’s atypical nature, though, providing vocals that are tender one moment and bitter the next - vocals, strangely, that make the song catchier than it should be.

19. Haley Reinhart – “Free”
With Listen Up!, Haley Reinhart showed that she could very well evade the curse of having her time on American Idol overshadow her output as an artist. No song on the album better expressed this potential than “Free”, which combines classic pop sensibilities with Reinhart’s remarkably expressive vocals to create one of the most underappreciated singles of 2012. It’s a breezy, assured first step forward, and now that Reinhart has left her major record label, let's hope it’s not the only opportunity she gets.

20. Old Man Luedecke – “I’m Fine (I Am, I Am)”
“I’m Fine (I Am, I Am)”, by Nova Scotia-born singer-songwriter and banjo player Old Man Luedecke, is a real delight. The song is filled with charming images like falling among roses, tinted with just the right amount of melancholy; that nod to the Eagles’ bittersweet “Tequila Sunrise” is no accident. Playful, sober and wistful all at once, it’s a great example of a song that seems straightforward on first listen but reveals its many nuances over time.

Monday, 10 December 2012

Live Review: Allison Cecilia Arends (Oct. 16th 2011)

I attend a lot of classical music concerts in Winnipeg, many of which I write reviews of. I'm going to post these reviews on here, although first I'll post some older reviews before I post more recent reviews.

Allison Cecilia Arends
Women's Musical Club of Winnipeg
Winnipeg Art Gallery
October 16th 2011

Reviewed by Paul R. McCulloch

The 2011-12 season of the Women’s Musical Club began on Sunday, Oct. 16th with a performance by coloratura soprano Allison Cecilia Arends. Accompanied by pianist Rachel Andrist, Arends opened the program with the aria “Dunque i lacci d’un volto… Ah, crudel!” from Handel’s opera Rinaldo. Captivating the audience with a voice as beautiful and stunning as her fresh-faced looks and pale blonde hair, both elegantly offset by her cornflower-blue gown, Arends fully embodied the piece’s multifaceted emotions. In her rendition of the aria, sung by Queen Armida, Arends was a riveting sight, crying out in anger one moment and in vulnerability the next. The aria set an exceptional standard for the afternoon’s program, a standard that remained constant throughout Arends’ compelling and evocative performance.

Taking to the podium after a dramatic interpretation of “Da tempeste” from Giulio Cesare – also by Handel – Arends proved an affable host, noting that, as “prairie girls," both she and Andrist were thrilled to be back in Western Canada. She further explained that the concert’s intended theme was “queens, martyrs and forsaken women”; appropriately, the pieces selected dealt with the struggle of women to comprehend their deep emotions and rise above the oft-oppressive nature of their intricate relationships. Arends’ interludes were a welcome addition to the concert: not only did they allow patrons breathing space between what were often emotionally involving pieces, they provided useful contextualization for works that, despite the handy translations included in the programme, still benefited from her charming commentary.

Rounding out the first half of the program were Schumann’s Mignon Lieder, Op. 98a, the story of a girl kidnapped by a circus troupe and caught in an unceasing conflict between earthly life and eternal salvation, and “Regnava nel silenzio” from Donizetti’s famous opera Lucia di Lammermoor. The artist skillfully captured the inner turmoil of Schumann’s Mignon, but it was her performance as Lucia that truly astonished, ending on a note so pure and expressive that it left all those attending breathless.

Arends displayed a remarkable emotional range in Strauss’ Madchenblumen Lieder, Op. 22, a work that illustrates women’s personalities as romantic flowers. The highlight of the piece was undoubtedly the fourth and final movement, in which Arends gave voice to a water lily: her warm, alluring tone deftly conjured up the glowing blooms and moonlit streams of Strauss’ piece, imagery that left many patrons visibly enchanted.

The enchantment continued with a trio of works linked by the common theme of Shakespeare character Ophelia’s struggle with her fate. La Mort d’Ophélie by Saint-Saëns had Arends relating an account of the character’s death so sorrowfully and powerfully that it was impossible not to turn away. Her delivery was similarly heartbreaking in Chausson’s Chanson d’Ophélie, a sorrow that Arends conveyed with gestures, and a voice, so laden with emotion that one felt at times consumed by the passion of the work.
The piece de resistance of the afternoon was “A vos jeux, mes amis… Pale et blonde” from Ambroise Thomas’ opera Hamlet, in which Arends transformed herself into young Ophelia. Inspiring much awe with her masterful use of staccato to convey the young girl’s anguish, Arends impressed with the visceral intensity of her final notes. Arends and Andrist left the stage amid rapturous applause and calls for an encore, requests the duo fulfilled with a performance of the Canadian folk song “She’s Like the Swallow," with an arrangement by Winnipeg’s John Greer that brought a touching and heartfelt end to the afternoon.