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Best Albums of 2011

Adam & Violet Miller at Amoeba Records, San Francisco (June 2011)

In January, my wife Cari and I welcomed a daughter, Violet. In the months since, some of my passions – writing being one of them – have fallen by the wayside. Slowly, I am getting back into it but in the case of other things, like going out to shows and movies, we simply have to curb our outings knowing that a babysitter is now part of the equation.

That’s not to say we haven’t been to some great concerts this year. On my birthday I was treated to Paul Simon, who was touring in support of his fantastic So Beautiful Or So What. At the same venue, Massey Hall, we recently saw Wilco and their iconic support act, Nick Lowe.

On the feature film front, Cari and I remained in attendance at the Toronto International Film Festival, taking in the latest offerings from Morgan Spurlock, Sarah Polley and Ian Fitzgibbon. We also had some entertaining outings to the cinema to see Bridesmaids, 50/50, The Muppets and Young Adult, all great films in very different ways. We also caught up on the home video front with Horrible Bosses.

So what am I getting at? Despite having to pare down my other passions, staying up-to-date with recorded music over the past year did not prove a challenge in the slightest. The albums on the below list were my soundtrack while my wife and I first got acquainted with our daughter, my morning and afternoon commutes when I returned to work, playtime with Violet, road trips and vacations. I may not have had the time to write about any of these albums since The King Is Dead in February, but make no mistake – I am still hopelessly devoted to music and albums in particular.

So, consider this list a celebration of the album. This list finds perennial favourites like Wilco and Paul Simon meeting new discoveries like Dawes and The Belle Brigade. Music is the passion that ignites me, and I can’t wait to share it with my daughter.

Violet discovers her dad's vinyl (October 2011)

So without further ado, here’s my list of the Best Albums of 2011.

10. Middle Brother by Middle Brother

Before I discovered the incredible band that is Dawes (you’ll read more about them later), I came about Middle Brother. Having played their first show at SXSW in 2010 (with the name MG&V), Middle Brother took about a year to release their self-titled debut. A supergroup of sorts – featuring John McCauley of Deer Tick, Matt Vasquez of Delta Spirit and Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes – Middle Brother follows the lineage of albums like Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1 and Monsters of Folk in its ability to present each artist’s individuality while allowing them to bring something new to the table. Even “Million Dollar Bill,” which would later turn up on Dawes’ Nothing Is Wrong album, takes on a completely different meaning when its lyrical aspirations are delivered by not one but three different voices. Key cuts: “Portland,” “”Someday,” “Million Dollar Bill”

9. So Beautiful Or So What by Paul Simon

Leading up to the release of Paul Simon’s 10th studio album, it was hard to ignore the buzz. Paul Simon’s Time Out Of Mind? His best since Graceland? Thankfully in this case, the hype was legitimate. Sure, it’s no Graceland. It’s no Paul Simon or There Goes Rhymin’ Simon either. But it’s still a great album, full of the mix of balladry and rhythm we’ve come to expect from one of America’s greatest songwriters. And you’ve got to give props to Simon for starting an album released in spring with a song called “Getting Ready for Christmas Day.” Key cuts: “Getting Ready for Christmas Day,” “The Afterlife,” “Rewrite”

8. The Belle Brigade by The Belle Brigade

Who are these kids? The “fun fact” trivia answer is two of the grandchildren of Academy Award winning composer John Williams. But the real answer is the incredibly talented brother and sister team of Ethan and Barbara Gruska. Whether it’s their strong musical lineage or just an ear for the perfect pop song, The Belle Brigade have delivered one of the strongest debut albums in years. Echoes of Fleetwood Mac and Simon & Garfunkel permeate throughout this delightful record. Speaking of Paul Simon, close your eyes during “Sweet Louise” and you’ll swear you were listening to his debut record and not theirs. Key cuts: “Sweet Louise,” “Losers,” “Fasten You To Me.”

7. Rave On Buddy Holly by Various Artists

Anybody who knows enough about my taste in music knows that I have a soft spot for cover tunes. The only problem is that too many artists either try to hard too deliver note-perfect renditions of classic songs or take the alternate approach of changing the melody and tempo to the point that the song is no longer recognizable. Rave On Buddy Holly does a good job at striking a balance between loyalty and liberty, and the artists on hand for the festivities are top-notch: The Black Keys (“Dearest”), Florence & The Machine (“Not Fade Away”) and Cee-Lo (“(You’re So Square) Baby I Don’t Care”) to name just a few. There are only a few duds, including Paul McCartney’s incredibly over-the-top and borderline offensive version of “It’s So Easy.” And why do they keep putting Kid Rock on tribute albums? The rest of the tracks more than make up for these lesser cuts, and the power of iTunes means you’ll never actually have to listen to them if you choose not to. Key cuts: “Everyday” (Fiona Apple & Jon Brion), “I’m Gonna Love You Too” (Jenny O.), “Changing All Those Changes” (Nick Lowe)

6. Barton Hollow by The Civil Wars

One of the best bands to hit the scene in 2011 are The Civil Wars. I’m not sure whether it was a conscious effort or not, but it’s almost as if the sound Alison Krauss and Robert Plant crafted with T-Bone Burnett on their Raising Sand album sparked an entire musical genre. Elsewhere, it seems like influence is owed to The Swell Season. Barton Hollow is a truly stunning album; folksy, countryish but mainstream enough to potentially attract some mass appeal. Joy Williams and John Paul White have immediately proven themselves to be capable singers, songwriters and performers. I’m looking forward to hearing more from them. Key cuts: “Poison & Wine,” “Barton Hollow,” “Falling”

5. How To Become Clairvoyant by Robbie Robertson

Robbie Robertson is known best for his tenure as leader of The Band and writer of most of their songs (including “The Weight,” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and “Up On Cripple Creek”). As a solo artist, Robertson has released just five albums. Unlike his bandmates Levon Helm, Rick Danko and Richard Manuel, Robertson was never known as a lead singer. His voice is raspy and sounds limited at times. He’s also mostly given up rootsy Americana for something a bit more atmospheric (think Daniel Lanois). But that hasn’t stopped him from trying to push the musical envelope. With How To Become Clairvoyant, Robertson has some pretty high-profile help in Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood, Trent Reznor and Tom Morello. If that list of musicians intrigues you, so will the album. Key cuts: “When The Night Was Young,” “He Don’t Live Here No More,” “Fear of Falling”

4. Helplessness Blues by Fleet Foxes

Fleet Foxes became critical darlings with their self-titled debut in 2008, and anyone who saw them live could attest that their strong vocal harmonies were just as strong in person as they were in the studio. Helplessness Blues is more than a worthwhile sophomore effort. It doesn’t stray very hard from the formula, but has some truly wonderful songs that are almost hypnotic at times. Key cuts: “Bedouin Dress,” “Sim Sala Bim,” “Helplessness Blues”

3. The Whole Love by Wilco

I know, a Wilco album close to the top of this list is predictable for Being There and for me in particular, but for my money The Whole Love is the their best since Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. It seems that the band has finally found the perfect balance between the avant garde, pop and rock ‘n’ roll. Some Wilco purists are a bit critical of the tendency of throwing loud guitars and white noise into the mix, but they seem to have scaled that down – at least in the studio. Most of the time. Key cuts: “Dawned On Me,” “Born Alone,” “One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend)”

2. Nothing Is Wrong by Dawes

Dawes have built up their street cred by backing Jackson Browne and Robbie Robertson on recent live tours and television appearances, but don’t be mistaken – this Los Angeles-based quartet can hold their own against the veterans. Their 2009 debut North Hills attracted quiet acclaim before the 2011 release of Nothing Is Wrong. The songs are fresh and performed well by a competent group of young musicians. As far as I’m concerned, this is the young band to watch. Key cuts: “Time Spent In Los Angeles,” “Coming Back To A Man,” “Fire Away”

1. The King Is Dead by The Decemberists

The Decemberists follow the rich tradition of artists like Neil Young and Beck by offering one album that is about as far removed from its predecessor as possible. In a recent interview, frontman Colin Meloy called 2009’s The Hazards Of Love his favourite album, but critical reception was mixed at best. 2011’s The King Is Dead trades the dense instrumentation and heavy-handed conceptual songwriting of Hazards in for an extremely rootsy blend of songs. The results are immensely satisfying, in large part because of just how simple and catchy the music is. The lyrics are still very much Meloy’s, but the sound is fresh and unlike anything The Decemberists have done before. Cameos from Gillian Welch, David Rawlings and R.E.M.’s Peter Buck work to enhance these songs even further. Key cuts: “Rox in the Box,” “Down By The Water,” “This Is Why We Fight”

Honourable Mentions:

The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams by Various Artists
The Road From Memphis by Booker T. Jones
Volume 2: High and Inside by The Baseball Project
The Harrow & The Harvest by Gillian Welch

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Album Review: The King Is Dead by The Decemberists

The King Is Dead by The Decemberists

Rating: ★★★★★

Is that Chris Funk playing pedal steel, Colin Meloy blowing through a harmonica and Gillian Welch & Dave Rawlings providing backing vocals?  Why, yes it is!

After 2009’s concept (rock opera, even) album The Hazards of Love, The Decemberists have taken a complete left-turn to their folk influences and beyond for The King Is Dead.  Never before have The Decemberists so thoroughly embraced roots music, particular country.  They’ve literally gone to a farm in Oregon to record the album, which plays like one giant breath of fresh air from start to finish.

From the opening notes of “Don’t Carry It All,” the album’s first cut, we know we’re in for something much different with The King Is Dead.  John Moen’s drums don’t sound all that different from the ones Kenny Buttrey played on Neil Young’s Harvest, and we’re quickly given a blast of Meloy’s aforementioned harmonica.  ”Calamity Song” is another early highlight, with R.E.M.’s Peter Buck offering up his distinctive 12-string electric guitar behind lyrics that are Colin Meloy through and through (“And the Andalusian tribes / Setting the lay of Nebraska alight/ ‘Til all that remain is the arms of the angels”).

Fans of Gillian Welch will be delighted to hear that she contributes backing vocals to 7 of the album’s 10 tracks (of these, 3 also feature Welch’s talented collaborator Dave Rawlings).  These backing vocals are far from buried in the mix, as is evidenced on the upbeat “Rox In The Box” and “Down By The Water.”  On these and other tracks, Welch is just as audible as Meloy, and the pair’s voices blend together wonderfully.

Some may argue that a reliance on guest appearances cheapens The Decemberists’ roles as individual contributors.  However, we have never seen band members jump around on instruments like they do on this album.  Guitarist Chris Funk primarily sticks to pedal steel, but also is credited on bouzouki, banjo and electric guitar.  Keyboardist Jenny Conlee plays accordion on four tracks and does so with vigor and passion (her contribution to “Rox In The Box” is worth the price of admission).  On “This Is Why We Fight,” we hear Colin Meloy shining most brightly as a musician, contributing several guitar parts layered together with great skill.  I had never questioned his talents as a singer and songwriter, but this track proves to me that he is also a skilled guitarist to boot.

I’m hesitant to call The King Is Dead the best album The Decemberists have ever done, but it’s definitely my favourite, from the tender ballads to the country rave-ups.

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Best Albums of 2010 – A Year of Collaborations

10.

Le Noise by Neil Young (Reprise)

Neil Young has released more than 30 albums as a solo artist and with his band Crazy Horse, and with eight of them having come out since 2000, he has not become any less prolific. Unfortunately, as had been the case in the 1980s and 1990s, the results have run the gamut from mildly enjoyable (Silver & Gold, Prairie Wind, Living With War) to entirely forgettable (Are You Passionate?, Fork In The Road).

Sure, nobody at this point is going to tell Neil Young to stop releasing so many albums, but it does seem like we have had to wait around for a few duds before hearing another one that is truly inspired. Le Noise is probably the first album since Living With War that doesn’t sound like an afterthought. The irony is that like Living With War, this album was announced very shortly before its release, and the premise is relatively simple: Neil Young and his acoustic and electric guitars sitting in a room with a plethora of sonic enhancers and producer extraordinare Daniel Lanois. I’ve spoken to a number of people about this album; some love it, some hate it, but in the end one thing is definitely clear – for a man who has taken a lot of chances with his albums and has explored many different types of music, Le Noise actually manages to accomplish something wholly different from anything else in the Neil Young catalogue. So even if it proves to be another second or third-rate Neil Young album, it’s got that going for it.

Key cuts: “Walk With Me,” “Love and War,” “Hitchhiker”

9.

National Ransom by Elvis Costello (Hear Music)

The only thing more predictable than me including a Neil Young album on a Best Of list is me including an Elvis Costello album on the same list. Truthfully, I feel like this is an imperfect album. Where Secret, Profane & Sugarcane had a cohesiveness to it, this album seems like more of a compilation. Not that this necessarily makes it a bad album, but I also find it makes listening to it that much more challenging. The album’s best moments are sonically somewhere between Spike, All This Useless Beauty and Brutal Youth. In terms of musical support, Elvis features members of The Impostors, The Sugarcanes as well as Leon Russell and Marc Ribot.

Key cuts: “A Slow Drag With Josephine,” “Five Small Words,” “I Lost You”

8.

I Learned The Hard Way by Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings (Daptone)

It seems like every Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings album leaps forward a few years in the journey through classic soul, R&B and funk. I Learned The Hard Way takes many of its musical cues from the more inventive work that Marvin Gaye, The Supremes, Stevie Wonder and others did in the early 1970s. “The Game Gets Old” and the title track are key examples of this. Elsewhere, it seems to go back even further – “Mama Don’t Like My Man” sounds like it could have been performed by the likes of Ruth Brown or LaVern Baker. Personally, I prefer the rawer, earlier Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings material, but you can’t blame the band for stepping a little more outside their comfort level. From a songwriting perspective, more and more of the band members are having a hand at contributing material. In the long run, this can only help the band’s output stay fresh and varied.

Key cuts: “I Learned The Hard Way,” “She Ain’t A Child No More,” “Money”

7.

El Turista by Josh Rouse (Yep Roc)

When singer-songwriter Josh Rouse moved to Spain, hints of the country’s music started to make its way into his music. El Turista is an even fuller realization of these influences, with Rouse singing as many songs in Spanish as he does English. Just when Rouse’s music started to follow the same patterns, he has managed to deliver a completely fresh sound, but one that doesn’t completely abandon his earlier sensibilities. Pick this one up on vinyl and listen to it on a Sunday morning.

Key cuts: “Lemon Tree,” “Mesie Julian,” “I Will Live On Islands”

6.

Broken Bells by Broken Bells (Columbia Records)

One of the earliest gems in music for 2010 was Broken Bells, a collaboration between producer extraordinaire Danger mouse and Shins frontman James Mercer. Both sonics and songwriting are at the forefront of this solid album, which has been both a commercial and critical success.

Key cuts: “The High Road,” “The Ghost Inside,” “The Mall & Misery”

5.

Interpreting the Masters, Vol. 1: A Tribute to Daryl Hall & John Oates (Blue Note)

This album takes a guilty pleasure and makes it sound really, really cool. From the opening strains of “Heard It On The Radio,” you can tell that The Bird and the Bee are about to take these 80s hits we’ve heard a thousand times and make them sound fresh and exciting. Those who have never heard Inara George sing before are bound to remember her, skipping back a few seconds so they can hear her deliver the line “I’ll do anything you want me to” in “I Can’t Go For That” over and over again, especially when she goes back and hits the high note. Slip “Maneater,” “Kiss On My List” and “Private Eyes” into the playlist at your next at your next party and watch your guests start singing along proudly.

Key cuts: “Maneater,” “Kiss On My List,” “I Can’t Go For That”

4.

Lonely Avenue by Ben Folds & Nick Hornby (Nonesuch)

This collaboration is one of many on the list, but is probably the most unlikely of them all in that it involves a well-known pop musician and a British novelist. Nick Hornby has made his love for music clear, from novels like High Fidelity and Juliet, Naked to his non-fiction volume Songbook. His concepts and words were paired with music in an ill fated stage version of High Fidelity, but Ben Folds has proven a much better collaborator as is evidenced by Lonely Avenue. Just like his novels, Hornby’s lyrics pair humour and the depths of human emotion, sometimes within the space of the same song (as on “Doc Pomus”). “Levi Johnston’s Blues” is probably the best case of topical satire put to music since Randy Newman’s Good Old Boys.

Key cuts: “Levi Johnston’s Blues,” “Claire’s Ninth,” “Belinda”

3.

You Are Not Alone by Mavis Staples (Anti-)

Soul/gospel legend Mavis Staples has been making music for five decades and counting, but she’s proven herself willing to take one of the biggest risks of her career by allowing Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy to produce one of her albums. The results are simply magical, particularly the Tweedy-penned title track which sounds right at home alongside gospel standards like “Don’t Knock” and covers of Creedence Clearwater Revival, Allen Toussaint and Randy Newman. Tweedy was smart to let Staples use her own band, even though he quietly sneaks in on bass and guitar, and brings Neko Case collaborators like Kelly Hogan and Nora O’Connor along for the ride.

Key cuts: “Don’t Knock,” “You Are Not Alone,” “Wrote A Song For Everyone”

2.

Plastic Beach by Gorillaz (EMI/Virgin)

If 2010 was truly a year of unlikely collaborations, then this album plays like a compilation of these collaborations. You’ve got Damon Albarn, the lead singer of Blur, front and centre. A wide array of guests from The Clash’s Mick Jones & Paul Simonon, De La Soul, Little Dragon, Mos Def, Snoop Dogg, Lou Reed, Bobby Womack and Super Furry Animals’ Gruff Rhys make for a pretty wild party. The best songs are the ones fueled by this collaborative nature. “Stylo” starts with Mos Def cryptically rapping over top of a steady groove. Then comes Albarn’s understated vocal performance before soul legend Bobby Womack kicks down the door with his contribution. Elsewhere, “Superfast Jellyfish” models itself after a quirky breakfast cereal commercial that finds De La Soul rapping the verses and Gruff Rhys singing the chorus. Sure, not every moment on this album shines as brightly as the next, but there are enough memorable tracks to make this album one we’ll return to over the years to come.

Key cuts: “Stylo,” “Superfast Jellyfish,” “On Melancholy Hill”

1.

The Suburbs by Arcade Fire (Merge)

It’s been a long time since I’ve heard an hour long album that actually sustains itself over four sides of music. The fact that the incredible “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” is buried in the middle of Side Four speaks to just how solid The Suburbs is. I’ve been aware of Arcade Fire since they first hit it big, but this is the first time I’ve been compelled to buy one of their albums. And I’m glad I did. The Suburbs is probably the most accessible album the band has put out, and therefore a great place to get into their unique style of music that sounds both classic and contemporary at the same time.

Key cuts: “City With No Children,” “We Used To Wait,” “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)

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Album Review: You Are Not Alone by Mavis Staples

You Are Not Alone by Mavis Staples (Anti-, 2010)

Rating: ★★★★★

Soul/gospel legend Mavis Staples has had the distinction of working with three performer/producers in the past decade.  She contributed three songs to Joe Henry’s terrific 2005 compilation I Believe To My Soul, worked with Ry Cooder on 2007’s We’ll Never Turn Back, and now in 2010 finds herself paired with her most unlikely producer yet in Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy.

Indeed, when news first broke that Tweedy would be producing a new Mavis Staples record to be released on Anti-, fans of both artists were probably met either with excitement, intrigue or simple curiosity as to who (in Wilco fans’ case) Mavis Staples is and who (in Mavis Staples’ fans’ case) Jeff Tweedy is.

In reality, the pairing is actually not that unusual.  Jeff Tweedy has long been a student and appreciator of roots music, and soul and gospel play an important part of music’s rich history.  Perhaps even more obvious is a shared appreciation for the music of The Band.  Mavis Staples may not have heard of Wilco or Jeff Tweedy, but when her manager sent her Sky Blue Sky, it had some very familiar qualities to her.  Staples was a good friend to The Band, having participated in The Last Waltz’s glorious retelling of “The Weight,” which featured members of The Band as well as The Staple Singers trading verses.

Tweedy could have taken many approaches in his production of You Are Not Alone, but smartly avoided putting too much of his own stamp on the album.  He even went so far as to let Staples’ touring band provide most of the musical accompaniment. The song selection is inspired, consisting of traditional gospel songs alongside songs that Tweedy undoubtedly brought to the table; some his own, others from artists who he clearly felt had a place on the album.

You Are Not Alone kicks off with a song written by Mavis Staples’ father Pops and popularized by The Staple Singers.  ”Don’t Knock” is delivered in a similar arrangement to versions listeners may have heard before, and the track is highlighted by Mavis’ vocal delivery alongside backing vocals from Neko Case collaborators Kelly Hogan and Nora O’Connor.  Hogan and O’Connor do a marvelous job of complementing Staples’ deep, soulful voice with their bright, angelic accents.

From the old we move into the new.  Jeff Tweedy wrote “You Are Not Alone” specifically for Staples to sing and the testament to how great a song it is, is that we can hear it both as a Mavis Staples song and a Jeff Tweedy song.  Fun fact: Tweedy has put this into his live repertoire at recent solo/acoustic shows and his version sounds terrific.  The perfect contrast to the upbeat “Don’t Knock,” “You Are Not Alone” is a slow ballad with a strong message.

Practically every track on You Are Not Alone is top-notch.  Other highlights include the traditional “In Christ There Is No East or West,” which is arranged by Tweedy to be played very much in the style of something you might hear on Bob Dylan’s John Wesley Harding.  Listeners hungry for more gospel revivals will enjoy “Creep Along Moses” and “I Belong To The Band.”  Tweedy delivers another original composition in “Only The Lord Knows,” more of an upbeat rocker with electric guitar peppered throughout.  There’s also a fantastic version of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Wrote A Song For Everyone” that goes so far as to improve upon the original.

As a listener who appreciates both Jeff Tweedy and Mavis Staples’ contribution to music, I can say this is one of the best albums I’ve had the pleasure of hearing all year.  Whether other Wilco or Staples fans will respond to the album as enthusiastically as I have remains to be seen.  One thing is certain; we love Tweedy for having the courage and respect to give this project his all, and we love Staples for the very same reasons.

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Film Review: Scott Pilgrim vs. The World

Directed by Edgar Wright

Rating: ★★★★★

Scott Pilgrim is not unlike the sorts of indie hipsters you run into on the streets of Toronto, or any other metropolis.

You see him at Bloor Cinema, catching the latest zombie movie.  You see him at Sonic Boom, shopping for records by bands you’ve never heard of.  You see him at Lee’s Palace, seeing those bands live – hoping that one day his band (or her band, for there are many female Scott Pilgrims out there) can gain the amount of respectability to get booked there too.

In many ways, Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) is his generation’s Rob Gordon (the mid-thirtyish protagonist of High Fidelity).  He likes rock music, video games and girls – and as soon as a new one dazzles him, he’s forgotten about everything else in his life.  Pilgrim is happily dating a high school girl and playing in a band, until he meets Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), at which point the only priority in his life is winning her heart.

Unfortunately for Pilgrim, Ramona comes with some baggage.  In order to be with her, she warns him that he must defeat all seven of her evil exes.  This is where the video game motif comes in.  Each time Scott faces one of Ramona’s exes, we are immediately thrust into a world reminiscent of Street Fighter II or Dragonball Z. When Scott defeats Ramona’s first evil ex-boyfriend, Matthew Patel, he bursts into coins – much like a villain in Super Mario Bros. would.  Meanwhile, an old school computer font flashes a large “1,000″ for points scored.  After defeating another evil ex, Scott reaches for a “1 Up” icon of his face, denoting an extra life.

Each face-off with one of Ramona’s evil exes is staged like a video game level, with a different soundtrack, different backdrop and different villain.  All of these villains seem equipped with superhuman strength and some sort of supernatural or metaphysical ability.  Although sleek and agile, he must use his creativity to defeat each one of them, leading up to the group’s mastermind, music promoter Gideon Graves (Jason Schwartzman).

Elsewhere in the film, we get to see Scott interact with a great supporting cast.  His sister (Anna Kendrick) and roommate (Kieran Culkin) in particular try their hardest to keep Scott grounded in reality, even if it never manages to work for very long.  Also entertaining are Pilgrim’s bandmates Stephen Stills (Mark Webber), Young Neil (Johnny Simmons) and Kim Pine (Alison Pill), not to mention his initial girlfriend Knives Chau (Ellen Wong), who he ditches as soon as Ramona comes along.

Scott Pilgrim may be the titular character of the film and the one we find ourselves rooting for (when he’s not being an asshole), but the true hero of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is director Edgar Wright, who has taken visual and musical cues from video games, television and comic books and delivered a well-crafted, widly entertaining feature film.  Even the opening Universal logo and music are done up in the style of an 8-bit video game, and audio and visual cues are all over the rest of the film.

All of the important elements of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s graphic novels have stayed intact, most importantly the uniquely Torontonian references and setting.  Admittedly, as a Torontonian, it’s a unique thrill to see a film produced by an American company and directed by a Brit take place in my city.  There are a few jokes that may be lost on foreign audiences, but I secretly wait in vain until one of my friends visits and requests the “Scott Pilgrim Experience Tour.”

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Cover-to-Cover: “Penny Lane” by David Bowie

\”Penny Lane\” as performed by David Bowie

I don’t have to tell you that David Bowie is a rock ‘n’ roll icon, known for dozens of original compositions in an array of styles – from “Space Oddity” and “Ziggy Stardust” to “Ashes to Ashes” and “I’m Afraid of Americans.”  The list is endless.

Most prolific songwriters wouldn’t bother with covering other people’s songs, let alone frequently; but Bowie has always made a point of it, looking to sources like George Harrison, Jonathan Richman and even Bruce Springsteen and Nina Simone to mix things up a little bit.

From deep in the Bowie archives comes this 1967 version of The Beatles’ “Penny Lane.”  It wasn’t uncommon at the time for emerging British pop stars to tackle songs that were already popular (people like Chris Farlowe pretty much made a point of it).

That’s where this track comes in. Up until this morning, I had no idea this cover version existed – some even deny its authenticity – but to me it sounds pretty much like you’d expect from ‘67-era Bowie, when he was still trying to find his footing and hadn’t quite hit it big yet. I’ll let you be the judge.

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Album Review: American VI: Ain’t No Grave by Johnny Cash

American VI: Ain't No Grave by Johnny Cash

Rating: ★★★★☆

In a recent interview, Bob Dylan discredited the music Johnny Cash made towards the end of his life with producer Rick Rubin, calling it ”notorious low-grade stuff.”

For many, these comments couldn’t be further from the truth and border on the offensive. The music Johnny Cash made with Rick Rubin between 1994 and his death in 2003 are some of the most emotional, personal and earnest the country legend made in his nearly 50-year career.

Country fans and non-country fans alike embraced 1994’s American Recordings, which included solo acoustic renditions of songs by the expected (Kris Kristofferson and Jimmy Driftwood) and the unexpected (Nick Lowe, Tom Waits and Glenn Danzig). The album won Cash the highest critical acclaim he had received in decades, topped off by the Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Folk Album.

Following American Recordings, Cash released more albums with Rick Rubin at the helm – Unchained, American III: Solitary Man and American IV: The Man Comes Around. As the albums went on, so too did Cash’s deteriorating health. He was forced to quit live performance shortly after the release of Unchained and his voice became less boisterous and more strained. What didn’t waver was his determination, and Cash took solace making as much music as possible in the recording studio.

American IV: The Man Comes Around was the last Johnny Cash album to be released during his lifetime. What many of us didn’t realize was that there would be a huge treasure trove of music left to share with fans after his passing. Fitting, then, that the album should close with “We’ll Meet Again.” Cash may no longer be with us, but his music still resonates.

The first posthumous gift from Johnny Cash came in form of Unearthed, a five-disc box set that collected a large number of outtakes from Cash’s recordings during his tenure with Rubin. These are hardly leftover scraps, but rather songs that simply did not fit on any of the released albums. Next came American V: A Hundred Highways, which was released in 2006 and consisted entirely of recordings Cash made after the release of American IV.

We thought that was it, but just as we thought the well of Johnny Cash’s American recordings had been tapped dry, Rubin has overseen the release of American VI: Ain’t No Grave.

Rather than a sequel to American V, American VI should be treated as a companion piece, as the music comes from the same sessions that yielded its predecessor. Nowhere to be found are the unusual sources like Soundgarden, Depeche Mode or Trent Reznor, whose songs had been featured on earlier American albums. Instead, this album sticks mostly to songs that are country through and through. Among the most successful renditions are “For The Good Times,” the last of many Kris Kristofferson songs recorded by Cash, and “Last Night I Had The Strangest Dream,” a hymn to peace composed in the early 1950s by Ed McCurdy.

One of the more unusual song selections comes from Sheryl Crow. Her “Redemption Day” appeared on 1996’s Sheryl Crow and is performed here to great effect.

The album closes with “Aloha Oe,” an age-old Hawaiian folk song that many will recognize. Here it’s performed mostly acoustically with Johnny Cash delivering the Hawaiian and English lyrics in his distinctive baritone. It closes with the line “until we meet again,” closing the circle of farewells that began with American IV: The Man Comes Around. We miss you, Johnny.

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Album Review: El Turista by Josh Rouse

El Turista by Josh Rouse

Rating: ★★★★☆

If music could be mapped out on a temperature scale, Josh Rouse’s albums would be all over the place, with Under Cold Blue Stars and Nashville on the colder, more autumnal end and 1972 and Subtitulo bright and summery by comparison. If you had any doubts about where El Turista falls on the scale, look no further than the cover, which finds Rouse standing on a rocky coast, looking out at the sea while holding his hat to his head.

Josh Rouse’s career has found him slowly journeying from Nebraska to Tennessee and finally Spain. El Turista is his third album since the move abroad and the first one that really allows Spanish influences to take an active role in its overall sound. Of the album’s ten tracks, four are sung in Spanish, and even those that are in English draw on the influence of Rouse’s surroundings.

Just when Rouse was starting to fall into a pattern where much of his music sounded the same, he has managed to shake things up and diversify. The album opens with the bossa nova-tinged, orchestral “Bienvenido.” It is a short track that sounds like a remarkable piece of film music and flows perfectly into “Duerme.” Rouse keeps the laid-back feeling of the album going and sounds very comfortable singing in Spanish, as bright piano and percussion accompany him. Later, Rouse challenges himself even more on the uptempo “Valencia,” sung in the Catalan dialect (lisps and all).

“Lemon Tree,” which initially appeared on the fan only compilation Bedroom Classics, Vol. 3, appears here in a different arrangement with airy flutes and Spanish guitar. “I Will Live On Islands” is among the most upbeat of the album’s English language tracks, kicking off slowly with a jazzy electric guitar lead before breaking into a very danceable arrangement.

The temperature is warm and breezy on El Turista. That is, until you get the closing track “Don’t Act Tough,” which sounds like an outtake from the melancholy Nashville. Rouse has consistently been able to release solid albums that appease his fans. The difference with El Turista is that he’ll likely be able to attract new ones with a new approach.

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RIP Alex Chilton (1950-2010)

Alex Chilton

There are the bands we all know, and those that have somehow been kept a secret to the inner circle of music geeks. Alongside such legendary-but-obscure artists as Nick Drake, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Television and The Modern Lovers was Big Star, a Memphis-based rock band that made three critically acclaimed records for Stax including 1972’s #1 Record and 1974’s Radio City, both of which have been available packaged together, much like Gram Parsons’ first two records. Today’s mainstream music lovers may recognize “In The Street” as the song was used as the theme for TV’s That 70s Show.

Five years before #1 Record, Big Star’s primary singer and songwriter led The Box Tops on their hit single “The Letter.” Even at sixteen years old, Alex Chilton’s voice left a mark on listeners around the world.

Alex Chilton, lead singer and songwriter for Big Star, inspiration to so many – from The Replacements and Yo La Tengo to Wilco and Elliott Smith and so many more – passed away yesterday just as many of the acts he inspired were participating in the South-by-Southwest music festival. He was 59. The tragedy of his untimely passing is that a reunited Big Star were set to grace the SXSW stage this coming Saturday.

Big Star – Thirteen

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Album Review: Plastic Beach by Gorillaz

Plastic Beach by Gorillaz (Virgin Records, 2010)

Rating: ★★★★☆

Everyone’s favorite “virtual” band is back, and they’ve brought a huge slate of guest stars – from De La Soul and Snoop Dogg to Lou Reed and members of The Clash – along for the ride.  I’m speaking, of course, of Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett’s Gorillaz project.  They’ve just released Plastic Beach, another wildly entertaining romp through hip-hop, R&B, electronic music, rock and pop.

The third Gorillaz album seems shrouded in this concept of a plastic reality.  And while it’s arguable as to whether or not Plastic Beach is a concept album,  it certainly starts like one.  “Orchestral Intro” is a short piece that simply sets the mood, much like “I Am The Sea” on The Who’s Quadrophenia or “Overture” on Tommy.  But unlike those albums, it doesn’t really offer the listener any hint of what’s to come.  Gears are shifted completely for “Welcome to the World of the Plastic Beach,” with its funky horns, punchy bass, and the distinctive emceeing of Snoop Dogg.

The album really hits its stride with “Stylo,” which incidentally is also the album’s first single.  The track perfectly illustrates the collaborative potential of the Gorillaz project, beginning with Mos Def’s distorted hip-hop riffing, into Damon Albarn’s melodic vocals and finally soul legend Bobby Womack, sounding every bit as good as he did on such hits as “Across 110th Street.”  Supposedly Womack was encouraged to participate in this project by his daughter, and his flawless contribution to “Stylo” was supposedly improvised on the spot.

The next track, “Superfast Jellyfish,” starts with a 1960s-style breakfast commercial, a fantastic drum part… and De La Soul!  In their classic, distinctive style, the hip-hop heroes excitedly tell us about the latest in unusual breakfast treats.  Gruff Rhys of Super Furry Animals takes over for the catchy chorus.

A big part of what makes Plastic Beach such an interesting listen is the number of lead vocalists featured on the album.  One of the most intriguing of these is Lou Reed, and his contribution – “Some Kind Of Nature” – doesn’t sound out of place at all, apart from a production style that is unusual for him.  Another great voice in more of a conventional sense is Yukimi Nagano, who along with her band Little Dragon, are featured on “To Binge,” another album highlight.

Although most tracks on the album feature guest performers, Damon Albarn has plenty of room to shine.  “On Melancholy Hill” is a gorgeous song and a great showcase for his talents as a singer.

Plastic Beach is available in a variety of formats, including a standard CD edition and an “experience” edition that comes with videos and exclusive online content.  It’s also available on iTunes in a deluxe edition that includes content not available offline, including a storybook and “Making of Stylo” video.

Check out the official video for “Stylo” over at YouTube. Yes, that’s Bruce Willis.

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