Winnipeg’s Vince Fontaine has been a driving force in Manitoba’s — and thus Canada’s — Indigenous and Aboriginal rock scene for nearly 30 years. The Anishinaabe guitarist was a founding member of Eagle & Hawk and, over 16 years and 10 albums, that group went on to tour throughout North America and Europe and won the 2002 best Aboriginal music Juno Award for its On and On album.
Indian City was initially meant to be a side project, a revolving cast of players with Fontaine at its centre, but it has since become his main musical outlet and, over the course of IC’s four albums since 2012, also something of a showcase for up-and-coming singers and songwriters such as Don Amero, Jeremy Koz, William Prince and Sandra Sutter.
Fontaine hasn’t been shy about inviting other musicians aboard, either.
This time out, Indian City treats listeners to vocal performances from Blue Rodeo’s Jim Cuddy — on the powerful album opener Star People, a heartfelt imagining of people as constellations — and Chantal Kreviazuk on Wannabe, which blends Kreviazuk’s voice and piano stylings with the wisdom of the seven sacred teachings and traditional Indigenous drumming and chants.
Those two songs are standouts, naturally, but Code Red’s strongest tunes are its title track, a funky, rocking reflection on the state of Indigenous relations in Canada featuring soaring vocals from Amero and Koz; and The Path, an irresistibly anthemic, stirring cry of hope that was released on Sept. 30, Canada’s first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.
There’s plenty more to like, including Amero’s emotional Forgiving and Sutter’s sweetly soulful vocal on Storyteller. In fact, Code Red’s only shortcoming may be its brevity. At just eight songs, it should leave listeners wanting more… which can only be a good thing. ★★★★ out of five
STREAM THESE: Star People, Wannabe, The Path
— John Kendle
Silk Sonic An Evening With Silk Sonic (Atlantic Records)
If you missed Silk Sonic at the Grammys in March or on the cover of Rolling Stone in August, here’s the rumpus: Pop superstar Bruno Mars, 36, and singer-rapper Anderson Paak, 35, were born too late to catch Soul Train in its prime, so they decided to make a ’70s-like funk album for people who understand Halloween only as a sexual opportunity.
An Evening With Silk Sonic is 31 minutes of make-believe fun, the duo forging a zesty and meaningless horniness out of borrowed memories. There’s lots of dripping bass, lots of groaning organ, lots of guitars that go chicka-chicka-wah.
Vocally, the division of labour is pretty straightforward: Paak rasps through his verses with unrelenting wink-wink, then Mars soars through the refrains. You can hear it best during Fly As Me, a song that aims to create a lusty swirl of James Brown, Curtis Mayfield and Sly Stone but ends up sounding only like a bunch of Target and Old Navy commercials trying to feel each other up.
The only genuinely freaky thing about this music is the inherent weirdness that comes with watching people trying to reanimate an era they didn’t live through. Nostalgia signifies an achy yearning for the past, and this isn’t that. Silk Sonic only cares about the fastest route to pleasure. So maybe it’s this: When you’re playing with pieces of a frozen yesterday, you can edit things down so you’re only dealing with the fun parts — the same way a Renaissance fair has turkey drumsticks, corsets, axe-throwing and no dysentery.
Too bad, then, that Silk Sonic forgot to make its neo-funk funky. It’s a serial problem for Mars who famously took his funk uptown, sanitized it, then won a bunch of Grammys for good hygiene. These new Silk Sonic cuts feel similarly squeaky clean. Even the album’s spoken interludes from funk royalty Bootsy Collins can’t save it. "You smell better than a barbecue," Mars sings flirtatiously on Skate, but everything still reeks of Pine-Sol.
Ultimately, Silk Sonic is too nice to be nasty and too famous to be useful. As a wedding band, they would absolutely kill. ★ out of five
STREAM THIS: Skate
— Chris Richards, Washington Post
Lady Blackbird Black Acid Soul (BMG)
Every now and then an album appears that seems to get everyone hyper-excited. I can almost guarantee that this one will become well known to you very quickly. Even those jazz critics who often disregard many singers outright are shouting "Album of the Year." In the spirit of full disclosure, you may also know that my bar is set very high for anyone who purports to sing jazz.
And so here, after some singles, comes the debut album of a singer now called Lady Blackbird, who until recently was Marley Munroe.
All hype? Pop singer with big hair trying to play with the big dogs? You decide — but know that this album reveals someone who has something special. Last year she apparently told a reporter that she wanted to make music that wasn’t "bubblegum and bulls—-"). That goal is met.
She sings with extraordinary confidence and total mature assurance that is almost astonishing. Her opening track is the Nina Simone tune Blackbird, and she nails it. There are assuredly rock influences, but when she sings a tune called Fix It based (with permission) on the changes of a Bill Evans tune called Peace Piece, she meets my high bar with room to spare. There are shades of Simone here, along with sources as diverse as Billie Holiday or Tina Turner. Laid-back, bluesy tracks with minimal instrumentation, such as Lost and Looking or It Will Never Happen Again show total comfort with a variety of material. There is some string or choral group background on some tracks as well, but her command of the lyrics prevails effortlessly.
My inherent caution about singers leads me to say that her next release will perhaps be important to solidify this talent. But this debut can be considered quite remarkable; no doubt it will cause a continued major stir. ★★★★1/2 out of five
STREAM THESE: Blackbird, Fix It
— Keith Black
Licht der Welt: A Christmas Promenade Christiane Karg Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks, Howard Arman Gerold Huber, piano (Harmonia Mundi)
German operatic soprano Christiane Karg celebrates the festive season with this new release, featuring lesser-known German and Spanish vocal works as well as gems from the Spanish, Basque and Scandinavian traditions.
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Internationally renowned for her Mozart roles at the Salzburg Festival, Karg is joined by collaborative pianist Gerold Huber, as well as the Munich-based Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks (Bavarian Radio Choir) led by Howard Arman.
After her 10-week engagement at the Metropolitan Opera was cancelled last year owing to the global pandemic, the singer, now grounded in Germany, embarked on a journey of exploration leading to her recording two surprises: Weihnachten and Das Licht der Welt, composed by Engelbert Humperdinck, more widely known for his opera Hansel und Gretel. Also featured are three carols by Peter Cornelius, with Die Könige, op.8 3b: Drei Kön’ge wandern aus Morgenland a particular highlight, showcasing Karg’s angelic voice.
For lovers of French music, there’s Faure’s Noël op. 43 n° 1. Le nuit descend du haut des cieux and Ravel’s similarly gentle Noël des jouets. Le troupeau verni des moutons. The Spanish songs bring darker Iberian flair to the program of 24 selections, such as Eduard Toldra’s Cantarcillo. Pues andáis en las palmas, with Joaquín Nin y Castellanos’ Villancico murciano. Esta noche es Nochebuena particularly well suited to the singer’s florid ornamentation. It’s also fascinating to hear Arman’s own arrangement of Rossini’s Nuit de Noël, with the Radio Choir essentially morphing into an opera chorus.
With nary a traditional Silent Night or even Jingle Bells in sight, Karg’s thoughtfully curated musical promenade becomes a welcome and fascinating journey through the art — and heart — songs of Christmas. ★★★★ out of five
STREAM THIS: Villancico murciano. Esta noche es Nochebuena