Catspaw (Omnivore Recordings/Sony)
Growing up in Omaha, Neb., in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, power pop-rocker Matthew Sweet’s head was turned by the creative energy emanating from New York and London and then by the burgeoning American college radio scene. In 1983, he headed to Athens, Ga., to attend the University of Georgia and quickly became part of the local original music community, which in turn led to a recording contract of his own.
By the time he was 26, Sweet had released three solo albums of melodic-yet-crunching guitar pop and had a major hit on his hands in the song and album Girlfriend, quickly followed by Altered Beast in 1993 and 100% Fun in ‘95. At the time, it could be convincingly argued that there was no one cooler or catchier, considering he was working with guitarists such as Richard Lloyd (Television), Robert Quine (Richard Hell and the Voidoids) and Ivan Kral (Patti Smith Group, Iggy Pop).
Sweet never quite recaptured the appeal of that trio of records, and his career since has been a rather peripatetic journey, most notable for a trio of ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s cover albums with the Bangles’ Susanna Hoffs.
With Catspaw, Sweet set himself the challenge of making an album on which he was the featured lead guitarist, a role he’d never played on previous records, and it turns out he’s more than up to the task. In fact, he’s returned to the classic sound of his ‘90s records, turning in a dozen crunching, squalling and ringing pop-rock tunes that should thrill his old fans. Between the Crazy Horse-ish bookends of opening tune Blown Away and closer Parade of Lights, he ruminates lusciously and deliciously on love (Give a Little), loss (Come Home) and failed expectations (Best of Me), while also urging listeners to follow their own paths (Challenge the Gods). ★★★★ out of five
STREAM THESE: Blown Away, Give a Little, Stars Explode
— John Kendle
We Will Always Love You (Astralwerks)
THE Avalanches’ classic debut Since I Left You, released in 2000, stitched together thousands of brief, mostly unrecognizable samples into a glorious celebration, including the novelty hit Frontier Psychologist.
Sixteen years then passed before the Australian group, now a duo of Robbie Chater and Tony Di Blasi, followed it up with the solid Wildflower. Now, comparatively quickly, comes another masterclass in blissful, sample-based pop.
We Will Always Love You plays like a seamless mixtape, flowing from song to song with brief interstitial bridges, although it’s loaded with guest vocalists, including Philly’s Kurt Vile, who talk-sings on Gold Sky.
He’s in good company. Also here are soul singers Leon Bridges and Sananda Maitreya, trip-hoppers Tricky and Neneh Cherry, rock stars including the Smiths’ Johnny Marr, the Clash’s Mick Jones and Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo, and rappers such as Sampa the Great and Denzel Curry.
The few prominent, recognizable samples draw on female vocalists: the Carpenters, the Roches, Vashti Bunyan.
The songs often explore cosmic themes — the Avalanches became fascinated with the possibilities of interstellar communications and of voices and sounds transmitted across distances of time and space. The tone is often dreamy and, well, spacey, with hints of disco, trip-hop, nu soul and old-school house music, although it never settles in one place for long.
We Will Always Love You is not as giddy and up-tempo as Since I Left You, but it’s equally satisfying and impressive. ★★★★ out of five
— Steve Klinge, Philadelphia Inquirer
Matty Stecks and Dead Cat Bounce
Lucky & Live in STL (Matty Stecks Music)
SAXOPHONIST and educator Matthew Steckler, a.k.a. Matty Stecks, is a native New Yorker but has had a close link with Manitoba. For about four years he was a professor at Brandon University’s jazz program. As such, he performed and recorded with many local musicians through the WJO and other bands. His list of educational references across the United States is impressive and exhaustive.
Stecks has always struck me as embodying a real sense of humour — something that’s also evident on this album, which has just been released but was recorded in St. Louis in 2003. His bio refers to his "eclectic and humorous musical sensibilities." The band Dead Cat Bounce features Jared Sims, Felipe Salles, Charlie Kohlhase and Steckler on reeds (shades of the World Saxophone Quartet), Gary Wicks on bass and Bill Carbon on drums. While having many gentle moments, this is not on balance quiet or restrained music. In fact, it really comes on strong on most tracks, perhaps because of the overbalanced four-person reed section. This is not a criticism — the music is exuberant and joyous most of the time. (Check out Hot Peas and Butter.)
Steckler’s writing is fairly straight-ahead, but there are very modern dissonances and transitions. His arrangement of Charles Mingus’s Goodbye Porkpie Hat is a standout. The saxophones are all strong and challenging, with solos and tight harmonies throughout.
Matty Stecks has maintained a fascinating balance over the years between teaching and performing. I’m sure his teaching style is full of the enthusiasm his music reflects. This album is a toe-tapping, turn-up-the-volume romp that fits well in this time when smiles are needed. This Dead Cat bounces. ★★★★ out of five
STREAM THESE: Mentes Flexiveis, Goodbye Porkpie Hat
— Keith Black
Shostakovich Symphonies Nos. 9 & 10
London Symphony Orchestra, Gianandrea Noseda (LSO Live)
THIS new release by LSO Live features the London Symphony Orchestra performing two of Shostakovich’s symphonies, nearly at the halfway point in their ongoing cycle of the Soviet composer’s set of 15 symphonic works, which remain as remarkably fresh and raw as when they were first penned in the looming shadows of Stalinism.
Symphony No. 9 in E-flat major, Op. 70, which premièred in then-Leningrad in 1945, was originally intended as a grand choral symphony to celebrate the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany. Instead, it morphed into acerbic commentary on political life, despite its ebullient Allegro opening movement evoking the neoclassicism of Mozart and Haydn.
The LSO, led by principal guest conductor Gianandrea Noseda, sets a keen pace for each of the work’s five movements, with the orchestra’s brass players not holding back during their bursting, belching thrusts into the strings and woodwind themes. A special nod also goes to LSO principal clarinettist Andrew Marriner for his limpid solo, which opens the Moderato second movement, providing welcome contrast.
The second offering, Symphony No. 10 in E minor, Op. 93, was first performed in the aftermath of Stalin’s death in 1953, following the composer’s second denunciation in 1948 that saw his prior symphony banned for seven years. It plunges the listener into even deeper, darker waters with its opening Moderato, while also making brusque stops during the highly syncopated Allegro, replete with crisply executed, rat-a-tat-tat snare drum rolls and strikes. The penultimate movement, Allegretto — Largo — Piu Mosso, provides only a brief measure of brief repose before ultimately steaming ahead into the Andante – Allegro, first beginning in the brooding depths before a final triumphant burst of fire and fury. ★★★★ out of five
STREAM THESE: Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 9 in E-flat major, Op. 70, Allegro
— Holly Harris