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This article was published 16/6/2016 (403 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Pop & rock
The Tragically Hip
Man Machine Poem
This is the Tragically Hip’s 14th studio recording and may well be the band’s last, given last month’s announcement frontman Gord Downie has incurable brain cancer. Unlike David Bowie’s Blackstar, however, this album wasn’t meant to be a final statement, as it was written and recorded before Downie’s glioblastoma was diagnosed.
Nevertheless, it’s likely this record will be parsed for meaning (and ominous portent) like none since the group’s ’90s heyday, when Downie’s lyrics and the quintet’s artful restlessness captivated a demographic thirsty for a cultural identity it could call its own. So, yes, it’s going to be difficult for many to hear these 10 songs as they were intended — which is as a Hip album co-produced by Kevin Drew (former leader of Broken Social Scene) and Dave Hamelin (former singer/guitarist with the Stills).
Bringing in a pair of alt-indie guys a generation younger than they are indicates the Hip were open to an infusion of new sonic ideas and approaches. And they make that clear right off the bat. The first song, Man, opens with Downie’s comically distorted voice repeating "I’m a man, I’m a man. I do what I hate, and I don’t understand," over and over until the tune’s atmospheric, hypnotic guitar line and Gord Sinclair’s moody bass carry the song to its lyrical conclusion, in which Downie declares, "You’re a real machine, and I’m a real machine."
Sonic variations from the band’s norm are found throughout the record. The first single, In a World Possessed by the Human Mind, begins as a relatively traditional Hip song, with Downie’s words propelled by Johnny Fay’s pulsing kick drum but as the song builds, the guitars of Paul Langlois and Rob Baker are layered and layered and layered on top of each other, BSS-style, to create a cacophonous crescendo. The gentle declaration of love on In Sarnia features anguished, softly distorted Downie vocal tracks weaving in and out of each other at various volumes, hinting at the kind of lyrical acrobatics usually only heard during the Hip’s live shows. Ocean Next is not so much a song as a dreamy, atmospheric rumination, based on interwining guitars and Downie’s gently sung repetition of the title.
Man Machine Poem is named for the best song on the band’s excellent previous album, Now for Plan A, and, if there’s a theme here, it’s in Downie’s continued exploration of how mind and body and spirit create what we know as life. It’s heady stuff, and it arrives in arresting sonic form. The singer claims to hear God on a couple of songs but ultimately concludes, in album closer Machine, we are "fed on shadows" and realizes, as he acknowledges in What Blue, "love is the longest thing we do."
The suggestion is we ultimately find meaning in love — which is a fine message to take from a musical collaboration that has yielded a fascinating album.
Now, if only we could hear more...
Man Machine Poem comes out June 17. The Hip play the MTS Centre Aug. 5. ★★★★
Download: Man, What Blue, In Sarnia
— John Kendle
Ginger St. James
One for the Money
(Busted Flat Records)
With the continued calcification of most Nashville-produced contemporary music, the only place to find natural-sounding roots tunes these days seems to be via an independent artist.
On her short and sweet sophomore release, One for the Money, Hamilton Music Award winner Ginger St. James has created a set of songs that should by rights deliver her from obscurity. There is playfulness evident on these nine tracks; even when the subject matter (Honeymoon Stage, Merry Go Round) circles around some sadder feelings, St. James doesn’t sound as if she is trying too hard to get over them. And that’s exactly what turns this from another indie-country record into something else. Chris Altmann’s perfectly aligned pedal steel flourishes, combined with SnowHeel Slim’s twangy guitar fills (Train Whistle, Hair of the Blackdog), definitely cut the proverbial mustard all over this jewel.
For her part, St. James sings her boots off with the attitude and confidence of a professional precisely in her wheelhouse. The slow shuffle Somebody Shot Me further extends her range to a blues that is a style difficult to make sound remarkable. This one deserves your money. ★★★★★
DOWNLOAD: Pour Me, Merry Go Round
— Jeff Monk
While local jazz artists sometimes fly beneath the radar, pianist Will Bonness is making his mark as one of the city’s finest. Bonness has been playing professionally since he was a teenager, when he travelled with Quebec horn player Maynard Ferguson’s big band for a year. Now he is hugely in demand around town, while also teaching at the University of Manitoba’s jazz program. He has backed a number of visiting jazz folks as well as performing with local bands.
His new album has been in the works for years and demonstrates his continuing sophistication and development as player and composer. The material has complexity and a fine variety of moods, from original tunes to Thelonious Monk (Reflections) to a standard that really drives (Too Marvelous for Words). The band features Jon Gordon (saxophones), Derrick Gardner (trumpet), Steve Kirby (bass) and Quincy Davis (drums). The music is melodic, solidly rhythmic (check Adrenaline Rush), and the maturity and confidence of the musicians shines through, with each of the band members given many moments to take centre stage. Hopefully this release will get a wider audience for this talented musician and cement his place in Canada’s jazz scene. ★★★★
DOWNLOAD: Puddles, or The Mystic
— Keith Black
Bach: The French Suites
Richard Egarr (Harmonia Mundi)
Known for his high-spirited recordings, British harpsichordist Richard Egarr performs Bach’s ornate French Suites in this new release.
Composed from 1722 to 1725, the six solo works posthumously named have long lived in the shadow of their more popular cousins, the genteel English Suites. Performing on his 2015 facsimile of a 17th-century Flemish two-manual harpsichord, the musician imbues each dance suite with a sense of fresh discovery, underscored with sparkling ornamentation and rhythmic vitality.
In the best-known French Suite No. 5 in G Major, BWV 816, he tumbles through the courante and proffers a stately allemande. His sprightly gavotte and bouree lead to a penultimate, persuasive loure — the only one of the entire set — before ending with a final, rollicking gigue.
Egarr is particularly deft with his intricate baroque ornamentation, ably balancing his various trills and assorted embellishments with both a sense of control and freedom. A note of caution regarding his slower-paced movements, with several of his sarabandes at times tipping toward romantic lugubriousness. However, he more than makes up for this with the faster and more ebullient dances, and particularly his gigues, which blaze ahead with crystal-clear polyphonic lines and lightning-speed passagework. ★★★★
— Holly Harris