Honeymoon Punch Jenn Grant (Six Shooter Records)
Home has a strong gravitational pull in Jenn Grant's music, and home for her is always near the wind and waves of Halifax and Prince Edward Island. But travel can throw new light on the place where you lay your head the most, and there's a lot of travelling going on in Grant's third album.
Occasionally she makes a literal foray to a strange place, as in All Year, which we discover in the second verse was written or at least sketched in a motel near the coast of New York State. At that moment, a punchy horn section elbows its way to the front of the band, and a whiff of mid-sixties Motown comes into the music, which suddenly feels like it could use some synchronized dance moves and big hairdos. The lyrics tell us she's missing home and the man waiting there for her, but the music is urging: Go, girl, do this thing! And she does, tripping for much of the album through an exciting flux of styles that are at least a day trip away from her rootsy ground-zero.
All Year is exceptionally free-range, starting as it does with a folky acoustic opening, before drums and bass put a soft habanera kick in the beat – sly preparation for that horn invasion later on. In Baby's Been Away, Grant's dreamy melody about sweet separation floats over a glowing arpeggiated guitar line and some tight rim taps, till Grant reaches the line "walked up and hit a nerve" – at which point everything drops out, and a few hard smacks from the whole band delivers that shock in real time.
Getcha Good jumps with both feet into a vintage rockabilly atmosphere, with a touch of reverb in the vocals, guitars jangling and barked interjections from the horns. Grant's beautiful voice and liquid singing style sometimes efface her inner rock grrl (as I recall telling her once over drinks), but here she has it both ways, as also in Parliament of Owls, a breezy rocker that features some of her best lyrics.
How I Met You and Walk Away bring in grainy synthesizers and a more basic style; the latter is essentially a Grant melodic fantasia stapled to a flat-footed harmonic grid. They're not my favourites among her songs, but there's an ear-worm lurking in each one, which could give these tracks ( How I Met You is the first single) some lethal mainstream potential.
Some of her stylistic modulations feel a few steps from ideal. She's been playing Heart of Sticks in concert for years now, and it can be a very touching song, but the mid-sixties urban flavour of the recorded arrangement doesn't quite gel with the home-cooked melodic line. Stars To Waves runs much of its course in an intimate setting with acoustic guitar, then blows up into an extended instrumental coda that almost sounds like a Broken Social Scene picnic. The song would be just fine without it. And I would recommend losing the brief, disconcerting splashes of Radiohead's very distinctive guitar sound, behind a verse of Oh My Heart and in the spacey bridge of Getcha Good.
All in all, this is a very smart and assured album (produced by In-Flight Safety's Daniel Ledwell, with a tight band of seasoned Grant cohorts) from a musician whose career has really blossomed since her Echoes disc of 2009. And did I mention that she's a wonderful singer?
Jenn Grant plays the In the Dead of Winter Festival in Halifax on Jan. 29.
OTHER NEW RELEASES
Red Barked Trees Wire (Pink Flag)
Wire returned to active service in 2002, a good two decades after they slammed the book shut on an uncompromising catalogue of three albums that many other bands spent the intervening years digesting. The British quartet's new music was a sharp, face-slapping reinvention, a Wire 2.0 that thrilled many who hadn't been around for the first version. A few albums later, Wire can still conjure up the blunt and brainy magic of old, but this time it does feel old. The best moments on this disc are, unfortunately, those that recall the driven, ultra-cool tunes they twisted from guitars and drums in the late seventies. Both Clay and Moreover borrow a beat and a feeling from the classic I Am the Fly, and Two Minutes delivers a convincingly Wire-like update on the end of Western civilization. But the title track and the aptly named Down to This sink into a kind of upholstered dream rock that I think the old Wire would have despised. Robert Everett-Green
A Long Dream About Swimming Across the Sea Tyler Ramsey (Fat Possum)
The peaceful Southern singer-songwriter Tyler Ramsey of Band of Horses released this lovely solo album in 2008, to no great acclaim. It's now being re-issued; will it find an audience? One suspects so – its best track alone, Ships, a compassionately fiddled song about a person's own seaworthiness, is worth the price of passage. And yet the disc on the whole is troubled by its lyrics, which often are either inert or, in the case of the nostalgically lamenting waltz No One Goes Out, banal. Ramsey, who might wear the buckskin jacket of Neil Young, suffers in comparison to another troubadour when he covers Jackson Browne's These Days, its introspection strikingly deeper than most anything the weaker Ramsey can offer. "They say that once in your life you're meant to find true love," he sings. Yes, that's what they say. But, Ramsey, what say you? Brad Wheeler
Brahms, Ligeti, Schumann: Trios for Violin, Horn and Piano Jonathan Crow, violin; John Zirbel, horn; Sara Laimon, piano (XXI)
The languorous melody of Robert Schumann's Trio for Violin, Horn and Piano emerges from the silence after Gyorgy Ligeti's Trio on this CD as if the two pieces belonged together, although it is Johannes Brahms's Trio in E flat that is traditionally paired with Ligeti's trio. Subtitled Hommage à Brahms, Ligeti specifically composed this wonderful work – with its deliberately mistuned partials in the horn and the violin's harmonium-like exhalations – as a complement to Brahms's Trio, and indeed they often share the same delicate emotional space. It is given a magical performance here: Horn-player John Zirbel floats through the angular recitatives, and the piano ostinatos thrum with edgy compulsion. But the Brahms is its equal, graced especially by breathtaking detail in violinist Jonathan Crow's phrasing – as if each tiny lift and caesura tracked the ghost of a word. Elissa Poole
Peace, Love, Ukulele Jake Shimabukuro (Hitchhike)
Given its limitations – just four strings and a two-octave range – the ukulele seems an unlikely platform for fretboard virtuosity, but in Jake Shimabukuro's hands it's as versatile and expressive as any guitar. On his 12th album, the 34-year old Hawaiian offers his usual combination of gentle lyricism and jaw-dropping technique, from his almost prayerful take on Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah to the bluegrass fusion dazzle of Bring Your Adz. But the obvious crowd-pleaser – particularly if you've seen the YouTube clip of Shimabukuro playing While My Guitar Gently Weeps – is Bohemian Rhapsody, which delivers all the melodic punch of the original but none of the bombast. J.D. Considine