A protest song can take many forms, but in presentation, it’s usually unkempt. It’s a coal miner singing Which Side Are You On, or Woody Guthrie hunched over a guitar with “This Machine Kills Fascists” written on it in big letters. It’s the Clash or Crass howling against the foul dregs of empire, or Anti-Flag and Propagandhi assaulting global capitalism with a barrage of guitar sounds.
But who says a dissenting word must be loud, or raw, or portable enough in its style of delivery to be sung at a protest march?
Laetitia Sadier has a lot of beefs with the current world order, and when she sings and plays them on her new album, they sound like a million bucks.
There Is a Price to Pay For Freedom (And It Isn’t Security) is the most refined and beautiful piece of musical agitprop I’ve ever heard. It’s majestic and sad but also defiant, like a huge wall-of-sound mural that unites the current moment with betrayals on a mythic scale. The title is a slogan, but the dissonances that climb a crystal staircase to nowhere are pop-music poetry of a rare order.
In Rule of the Game, Sadier sings about the vices of the ruling class, in the clear-water soprano familiar from her years as lead singer with Stereolab. That voice seems so much about restrained luxury and detachment, it provokes a kind of cognitive dissonance with her socially engaged lyrics. But Sadier has always been that way, with Stereolab and with her earlier solo incarnation, Monade. Silencio merely sharpens the contrast, throws us back harder against our own expectations, and proves that smashing the state does not preclude a good party.
“Rating agencies, financial markets and the G20 were not elected by the people,” she sings in Ausculation to the Nation. “In the name of what are we letting them control our lives?” It’s a good question, delivered over a rhythm guitar that’s strummed almost as if it were an autoharp. Near the end, the voice drops out, the tempo picks up and the floor is cleared for dancing, while you wonder whether revolution can be this elegant and fun.
Musically, there are abundant traces of Stereolab’s influence – though not so much in Next Time You See Me, the one song by the band’s main writer, Tim Gane. The bubbling waves of synthesizer, the periodic Latin beats, the continual echoes of French 60s pop and the music’s lavish general insistence – all display the pedigree.
But there’s something else going on here, simpler and more magical.
In Silent Spot, Sadier’s wordless white tone, seething keyboard sounds and spaghetti-western guitar set up a delicate balance that seems to pivot on stillness, absence and silence. Merci de M’Avoir Donné la Vie has been boiled down to Satie-like essences, with transparent instrumentals, Sadier’s plain declamatory singing, and a one-tone tonic bass. And yet this minimal scenario supports some amazingly detailed chordal writing, and a feeling of dense irreducibility.
Her English lyrics are often difficult to pick out, even though she sings clearly. The French songs make it clear why: her default notion of musical prosody is French and smoothly syllabic, not English and unevenly stressed. Her singing is always partially sunk in the instrumental values of the sounds around her.
That’s not a problem – in fact, it has always been part of her appeal, and remains so now, on the latest of a strong series of solo albums.
Laetitia Sadier performs at the Drake Hotel in Toronto on Sept. 18, followed by a performance at Pop Montreal on Sept. 19.
OTHER NEW RELEASES
Life Is Good
Def Jam Records
Three and a half stars
As an album title, the words “Life Is Good” are simple and flippant: everything Nas hasn’t really been since the street-life classic Illmatic. He’s proven he can effortlessly paint razor-sharp scenes between 4/4 beats and AABB rhyme schemes when he’s not overthinking everything. So it’s a good thing, oddly, he’s been embroiled in a bitter divorce, because it’s freed him to just write what he knows. When he raps, “I’ve been rich longer than I’ve been broke, I confess,” you somehow feel empathy; on Daughters, when he’s rueful about fatherhood, the thoughts feel unvarnished. Gracing his best beats in a decade, he burns ears like the self-proclaimed God’s Son used to. This is his Here, My Dear, Marvin Gaye’s raw, lovelorn album – and both risks were well made. Yes: Nas is good, again. Adrian Lee
Looks like Edmonton’s curious Hot Panda has bought the big truck – a possible fun-while-it-lasted band, with its considerable third album, tells me it’s in it for the long haul. Lead track One in the Head, One in the Chest is as cheery as it advertises, all black psychedelic mud. Future Markets vamps tensely, in the way of Perry Farrell. Littered Coins strums acoustically; Maybe Now? has a delightful Destroyer lilt to it. The cohesive disc is artfully ominous, sometimes dreamy, and I think the horns are new, yes? See ya on down the road, Hot Panda – keep it coming, please. Brad Wheeler
The Very Best
Moshi Moshi/Cooperative Music
Two and a half stars
Never saw a straw man dance like that. On the uplifting, synthetic and sunny fatalism of We O.K. (co-written by Bruno Mars), the bouncy guest singer K’naan asks something – “Who say we don’t dance no more” – that is more a proclamation than an actual question, knocking down an accusation that never happened. We dance plenty nowadays already, and now a little more so, thanks (I guess) to the club-land seeking second album from the Very Best. Auto-tune happens, as do radiant, psychedelic adventures in reggae, house and electro. Something’s missing here though – the sequel feels more formulaic, the funky Lion King out of the bag. Brad Wheeler
Matchmakers Vol. 2: The Music of Sade
Three and a half stars
Ever try singing with a finger in your mouth? Imagine that finger as a cellphone speaker with a wire hanging from it, and you’re partway to imagining the DIY wonderfulness of the Reveries, a Toronto quartet (Eric Chenaux, Ryan Driver, Doug Tielli and Jean Martin) that plays bent, handmade versions of smooth pop ballads. The mouthspeakers impair the singers’ diction, and spray the background with soft gnashing sounds. They also amplify other players’ instruments, with obvious opportunities for oral wah-wah. The band’s kit includes nose-flute, saw, and a couple of invented instruments, whose collective weirdness becomes very thick indeed at the start of The Sweetest Gift and By Your Side. The results are amusing, imperfect and remarkably touching. Sade’s mellow melancholic oeuvre has never sounded more poignant. Robert Everett-Green