Native Speaker Braids (Flemish Eye)
Braids are four musicians from Calgary who started a band while still in high school. They soon moved to Montreal and began inventing a new form of urban electronic folk music - folk, meaning timeless and irreducible, not some knit-purl confessional strummed on acoustic guitar. The band's debut album is what the early adopters of Arcade Fire and Broken Social Scene are going to be listening to and talking about this year.
Lemonade, the first track and single, begins with a kind of trickling, rustling sound, then a couple of siren-like bass notes usher in a bubbling keyboard pattern that feels like waves carrying something to shore. The simple vocal melody rides those waves till it's tossed up high and flies over your head, like some outdoor work-holler sung while many hands labour in rhythm. Just about when an ordinary pop song would start winding down, a glowing instrumental ferment lifts the music through a jubilant sequence of harmonic changes, the song romps toward its end to the refrain "all we want to do is love," and the darkening waves surge up and return everything to the sea.
This adventure is even more charming when you watch the video (attached to this story, above), which shows the band lashing a ludicrously small amount of gear to their bodies, then performing the song as they wander through some deserted rail-lands. The imagery is more than apt for music that feels very well thought out and yet unpretentious and organic in its growth and movement.
All of these expansive compositions (there are seven, lasting 45 minutes) are built on patterns that repeat and shift until they retrieve some shiny new radiance from the simplest of structures - usually, an unmodulating triad. This method and its shimmering results - the end of Plath Heart is especially moving - have a few genes in common with American minimalism, especially that of West Coast types like Terry Riley and Daniel Lentz. Voices tend to get instrumentalized; in a late section of Glass Deers, named perhaps for another pattern-happy composer, the voices mimic the staccato pulsing of the keyboard patterns.
Lead vocalist Raphaelle Standell-Preston is a real chameleon, who can shift in seconds from an opaque white tone to a full-on strident wail that brings some rock 'n' roll tension to these gleaming environments. Her delivery is playful and her language is often profane, as if you can only get to a point of transcendence by bringing the fair and the foul together.
The later tracks show the band's roots in African music most plainly, in the resonant chiming guitars of Little Hand, and in Standell-Preston's flat-out presentation (in Same Mum) of a plain strong melody that cries out for a whole village to join in. Actually, everything on this pattern-friendly record is melodic. Very little occurs without some kind of melodic variation or added counterpoint that draws the ear further in with each repetition.
Somebody please take this record away from me. I can't stop listening to it.
Braids plays Montreal's La Sala Rossa on Jan. 20, Mavericks in Ottawa on Jan. 21 and the El Mocambo in Toronto on Feb. 19, with other dates in Quebec City; Laval, Que.; and Kingston.
OTHER NEW RELEASES THIS WEEK
The King Is Dead The Decemberists (Capitol)
Something certainly seems to have died since the Decemberists first caught people's attention, five long albums ago. This disc is full of well-made scruffy songs (well, not that scruffy - I hear Auto-Tune all over it) with literate narrative lyrics that want to take us somewhere. But where? Calamity Song foresees the destruction by earthquake of much of California, and by song's end, the dominant emotion is, like, meh. Rox in the Box starts out like some portentous murder ballad, trips over a ghastly Celtic-music bridge, and ends up all portent and no kill. Colin Meloy's lyrics are studded with random puzzles (why an "Andalusian tribe" in California?), but there's little fun in trying to solve them, and bringing in Gillian Welch to sing back-up vocals just distracts the mind with thoughts of the deeper, spookier things she can do with similar musical materials. R.I.P., Decemberists. Robert Everett-Green
Bird Songs Joe Lovano Us Five (Blue Note)
Charlie (Bird) Parker's compositions are jazz classics and generally get played in the classic style, rarely straying from the bebop vocabulary he helped establish. Although that's meant to honour his legacy, it's had the net effect of turning Bird's once-radical music into something of a cliché. What Joe Lovano attempts here is to make Parker's music unpredictable again. Working with his young, double-drummer quintet Us Five, Lovano slows down, splinters, and otherwise rethinks 13 of Bird's songs, illuminating aspects of Parker's relationship to the blues and rhythm that standard jazz practice often overlooks. Even if you prefer your Bird served old school, you'll find something to savour here. J.D. Considine
Showroom of Compassion Cake (Warner)
"And if you feel at all like me/ Just let me know, I'll make it like it used to be."
On its first album of new material since 2004, the in-it-for-the-distance Californian band sticks to its still-fresh version of tried and true - relaxed speak-singing, uncluttered alt-rocking, way-in-the-back Russian folk-dance shouting, trumpet tooting and quirky electro-blooping. The sardonic Federal Funding earns a grant for its psychedelic pop, the sparsely guitared Got to Move travels with an era-less elegance and the slacker's anthem Sick of You nicely works a grungy riff. Nobody's left this Cake out in the rain, have to say. Brad Wheeler
Valhalla Rising British Sea Power (Rough Trade)
The English eccentrics, who are capable of awesome strength and sweep, muscle up on track one of this sonically rich full-length. Who's in Control, which advocates militancy over militarism, rouses like Arcade Fire and rallies in a Hold Steady all-together-now way. Throw in shouted background vocals and rapid E-Street Band drums and you have yourself an anthem - ramparts be damned. There's nothing else near as exhilarating, though, and lyrics such as "Well oh my god did she look cute at the Dame Vera Clay pigeon shoot" are subject to one's taste. It's a proper, dynamic, well-executed record that'll play great live. I'm just not sure anyone needs to hear it more than twice. B.W.