Friday, May 25, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: VAN MORRISON AND JOEY DEFRANCESCO - YOU'RE DRIVING ME CRAZY

It's pretty interesting that certain musicians, especially Morrison, Willie Nelson, Neil Young and Bob Dylan, have not only continued but actually increased their production of albums in the last few years, as they all advance in age. Not wanting to go quietly, rest much, or get off the road, they have all abandoned the notion of spending long periods in the studio, and instead record quickly, allowing them so many releases. For Morrison, this is his third full album in less than nine months, nothing complicated, but certainly the work of a master performer.

For this release, Morrison partners with the jazz organist/trumpter Joey Defrancesco. Well, I say jazz but like Morrison, he's also a blues/R'n'B/swing/whatever player, and that's where Van the Man has been grooving for the most part the last couple of decades. Defrancesco has become the dominant jazz organist during that time, so it's a partnership that's a natural. And Morrison has always played well with an organist, especially his lengthy stint with Georgie Fame on disc and stage.

Much like jazz recordings of the '50's, the session was set up, the players assembled, the songs picked, no muss, no fuss.  There are some classic covers, including Miss Otis Regrets and Everyday I Have The Blues, and the rest are Morrison originals. Not new ones, but rather tunes from his very lengthy catalog. They go back all the way to Astral Weeks' The Way Young Lovers Do, right up to numbers from this century, including the acerbic Goldfish Bowl, Morrison's declaration that he isn't doing this for fame, and hates all those industry people staring at him and stealing from him. Wisely he stays away from the best-known stuff, no Moondance, Domino, etc., and instead goes for very deep cuts such as Celtic Swing from 1983's Inarticulate Speech Of The Heart.

If you're looking for amazing, insightful reworkings of these numbers, this isn't that kind of exploration. Instead, he's simply jazzing them up a bit, playing them with this combo, letting Defrancesco groove, and having fun deconstructing the melodies for his new vocals. Yeah, jazz. There's no great statement other than making some good music, something different for you to play. Just doing what he does.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: SHERRY RYAN - WRECKHOUSE

Newfoundland's Sherry Ryan kicks off a tour tonight to launch her latest album, called Wreckhouse. The singer-songwriter is a deceptively strong lyricist, her songs uncluttered and spare, and she doesn't throw around complexities and verbage. But the imagery is powerful and the metaphors large. In Cool And Clear, she compares a relationship that has ended to the difference between day and night, weather-wise: "Humid and hazy, loving and lazy days are gone," the break-up like the night, cool and clear. The answer to a Long Awaited Question (we're left to guess what that question might be, but it's a relationship one she's trying to avoid) is left untold, "drifting like a bottle at sea."

The track Stop The Trains, where the album title comes from, is worth a full write-up itself, one of those stories so good it can only be true, and it is. Written with her father Jim, who was familiar with the tale, it tells about the so-called wreckhouse winds in an area of Newfoundland, so strong they could blow the train off the tracks. Only one Lauchie MacDougall, known as the "human weathervane", knew when those mean gusts were coming, and this song, set in the '50's, tells what happens when a smart-arse from away decides Lauchie shouldn't be in charge of stopping the trains. With it's book-chicka-boom country rhythm, it joins the ranks of the classic train numbers.

Ryan's music is that hard-to-classify sound that we reviewers tend to call roots, and it actually fits well here. She has country leanings, singer-songwriter melodies and a band that can rock, with some rich organ and pop harmonies. Vocally she's homespun and real, singing like she's telling you a story over a drink. Catch her over the next few days in Ontario and Quebec at:

May 25, 6:30pm - Burdock - Toronto
May 26, 9pm- The Arlington - Bancroft
May 29, 9pm- Brasserie Beaubien - Montreal
May 31, 8pm- Artword Artbar - Hamilton
June 1, 7pm - House on Queen - Stratford
June 2, 9 pm - Windsor Beer Exchange - Windsor 

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: BARRY WHITE - LOVE'S THEME THE BEST OF THE 20th CENTURY RECORDS SINGLES

I'm on the fence when it comes to Barry White, and always have been. I admire his achievements more than his music, and I can take only small doses. I think that's because it's so syrupy, it's like dessert, best to only have a small portion. So listening through this very lengthy, 21-track compilation is definitely a sugar rush.

But yeah, no shortage of accomplishments in his career, especially in the '70's where this collection is focused. If he didn't outright invent disco, he certainly raised one of its pillars with his smooth, dance-friendly hits in 1973 such as Never, Never Gonna Give You Up. Then came his huge smash instrumental at the end of that year, Love's Theme, produced for his outfit Love Unlimited Orchestra. These were tunes with a relentless beat, but still relaxed, with soaring strings over top. And when White added his atypical vocals, that bass-y, seductive croon, the last element came into place. These songs were one big ad for s-e-x, at least coached in the acceptable language of the day. There was only one theme, told in different words with each new single: You're The First, The Last, My Everything, Can't Get Enough Of Your Love. Babe, and my favourite title, It's Ecstasy When You Lay Down Next To Me.

From '73 to '78 White landed 11 Top 40 hits, and made period comebacks over the years, as he became a camp icon, even appearing as himself on The Simpsons several times. While we might have snickered at him, he sold over one hundred million records, almost all of them as the songwriter, artist and producer, making him filthy rich. Having found a formula White rarely strayed from it, although for those interested in what he sounded like in a different groove, there's his cover of Billy Joel's Just The Way You Are included. It's fun hearing what he sounded like having to be more of a singer on that track, not doing his sexy spoken-word bits or crooning lover's words in the mic. He does a good job, and he might have lengthen his star days if he had stretched more along the way into that kind of material. I don't think he's one of the great soul singers, writers or producers, but he hit at just the right time, and it's fun to slot a cut or two of his into your soul mixtape.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: GREG KEELOR - LAST WINTER

Keelor's bandmate Jim Cuddy has carved out a significant solo career during downtime from Blue Rodeo, with a separate band and long national tours. His albums are actually more commercial in tone than the Blue Rodeo ones, echoing the alt-country tunes he brings to the band, with hooks and that famous voice. Keelor takes a different approach. He uses solo work to experiment, to try out things he really couldn't with Blue Rodeo, and to record some very personal songs. This four-track set at first seems like a small effort, but it isn't at all. At 34 minutes, each cut here is a near-epic, with a lot of thought and emotion throughout.

Keelor has explained that the songs came out of a trying time for a couple of reasons. He was witnessing the passing of several people close to him, including his birth mother, and Gord Downie. Songs directly inspired by those two bookend the collection. The album itself is calm and meditative because that's what he could play at the time. He made it coming off the road from a grueling Blue Rodeo tour, and he was physically beaten up.

Keelor loves mid-to-late '60's pop, especially moody, orchestrated works from the likes of Lee Hazlewood, and each cut here is in that mold. They feature strings played and arranged by Jimmy Bowskill (The Sheepdogs) and the long songs go through several sections, especially City Is A Symphony. That songs builds like a day for city dwellers, calm in the start, more intense and complex as it progresses, with bright and dark periods. On paper, even as I write that, it sounds a little trite, but it's actually quite lovely, and the strings are used to great effect. There's a radical cover of Peter, Paul and Mary's Early In The Morning (heard recently in Mad Men), taken at a much slower tempo, almost a crawl, turning the folk-gospel number into a hymn.

Keelor calls this music "uplifting melancholy," and that's a perfect description. Although they are tinged with sadness for the passing of people, he finds joy in important memories, whether it's a somewhat mystical night with his mother and aunt recalled in Three Coffins, or the experience of watching his friend Downie perform with the Tragically Hip on their final tour. He speaks for most of us I think, with "It was a celebration, the years, the love, the songs/I had to remind myself I'm supposed to be sad." With his absorbing and eloquent vocals, Keelor has created a powerful set of songs, far away from the rock stage.

Monday, May 21, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW/CONCERT PROMO: CHRISTINA MARTIN - IMPOSSIBLE TO HOLD

Nova Scotia's Christina Martin kicks off a spring tour this week with a string of Maritime dates for her brand-new album, Impossible To Hold. Now, I reviewed this release back in March, but it's Victoria Day and I'm taking a bit of a holiday this long weekend, so why not used the time to promote the concerts, and replay the review? Seems like a fair compromise.  Plus, she's excellent live, so come out and see a show if you can, East Coasters.  Here are the dates:

Thursday, May 24 Corked Wine Bar - Fredericton
Friday, May 25  House Concert - Miramichi NB
Saturday, May 26 John Giles Music Room - Woodstock NB
Friday, June 1 Salty Roses & The Periwinkle Cafe - Ingonish NS
Saturday, June 2 Townhouse Brewpub - Antigonish NS
Sunday, June 3 House Concert - French Road NS
Friday, June 8 Glasgow Square Theatre - New Glasgow NS
Saturday, June 9 Petite Riviere Vineyards - Petite Riviere NS
Sunday, June 10 Capitol Theatre - Oxford, NS


There's a wider musical palette on this latest, from one of the most consistently strong Maritime singer-songwriters. Along with producer/guitar player/husband Dale Murray, Dave Rawlings to her Gillian Welch, Martin is ranging into styles you'd never call roots. Always Reminding is bubbly '80's electronic pop, while Foreign features a Euro/Bowie techno chill. Keep Me Calm is catchy with '60's Top 10 touches and the single Lungs Are Burning is everything Stevie Nicks should still be doing with Fleetwood Mac.

That's all very welcome, as it makes the 10-track album widely varied and adventurous. The key though lies in her dramatic delivery of sharp observational lyrics, whether it's a relationship moment or someone's personal crisis. It feels like we're on the knife-edge in each song, when things could go wrong, but love manages to save the day or at least pull us back for now. This album is why the repeat button was invented.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: SAMANTHA MARTIN & DELTA SUGAR - RUN TO ME

Martin's first album with Delta Sugar, 2015's Send The Nightingale, was a showcase for the group's vocal prowess and gospel influences, with not much instrumentation. It sure did the job, bringing their sound to national attention, and establishing Martin as one of the great new voices in the country. Now, the band is expanded to a full outfit for a complete soul sound. It's largely the Stax sound, plus a bit of modern production sounds similar but not copying the Daptone Records updates.

It's still the singing that really blows you away though. Good Trouble (co-written by Martin and blues favourite Suzie Vinnick) starts off with the chorus, Martin and co-vocalists Sherie Marshall and Mwansa Mwansa blending like a triumphant horn section, before Martin takes off on the verses. The arrangements, both vocal and instrumental, are fabulous throughout, with the horn section, electric piano and chugging guitars weaving around the singers, while the whole thing pulses with great energy. It's a party album for sure, until cut nine of ten, when the singers get back to the slow gospel sound on Only So Much, the church harmonies undercut by some rather secular nasty blues playing. It all wraps up with a big groove in All Night Long, all hands on deck for the funkiest number on the album, Martin singing at her grittiest. I think the Toronto-based group just redefined the term "Northern Soul".

Friday, May 18, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: WILLIE NELSON - LAST MAN STANDING

While Bob Dylan's been mumbling the Sinatra songbook the last few years, and we're all supposed to be amazed, Willie, a full nine years older at 85, has reared back the last couple of albums and started writing at a pace he hasn't in a couple of decades. On this new one, he's co-written every one of the 11 cuts, with his producer Buddy Cannon, who seems responsible for the renewed writing streak. I've certainly enjoyed Nelson's albums for years, and I don't think he's put out a weak one since before the '90's. Even his tribute discs to old country pals and heroes have been lots of fun. But boy, is it inspiring to hear all this solid new material.


Sure, Nelson addresses his age, but it's in a light-hearted, what-the-hell way, not pondering about what it all means. If you listen to Willie, it don't mean shit. "Heaven is closed and hell's overcrowded, I think I'll just stay where I am," he tells us, not sounding too worried about where he ends up and when. On the title cut, he namechecks several departed pals, "Waylon and Ray and Merle," while changing his mind about sticking around longer than them: "I don't want to be the last man standing/But wait a minute maybe I do." Most hilariously, apparently on a dare, he wrote a number called Bad Breath: "Bad breath is better than no breath at all."

It's not completely played for laughs though, and Nelson as ever proves he's a master at tearing your heart out. Addressing anyone who has lost a great love in their life, he sings "It's not something you get over, but it's something you get through." As always, plain-spoken lines are the most powerful. So will the writing streak continue? Well, Willie's got another surprise up his sleeve. His next album is going to be a set of Sinatra covers. Take that, Dylan.