Wednesday, January 17, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: THE OLYMPIC SYMPHONIUM - BEAUTY IN THE TENSION

It's time once again for that fantastic Fredericton festival, Shivering Songs. Originally conceived as a one-time fun way for the local group Olympic Symphonium to release a new album, it's grown to a yearly event, featuring friends and fab choices from the group, this year featuring David Myles, Timber Timbre, Hillsburn, Tim Baker and many more.

Few tickets remain, but there are scattered shows open, including the co-presentation Thursday night of Songs of the City, a free event for the United Way featuring Catherine MacLellan, The Symphonium, Josh Bravener and others, presenting songs and stories inspired by positive change in the community. Yours truly is also part of the festival Friday, when I'll be joining Catherine MacLellan for her show If It's Alright With You, which presents the songs and stories of her father, Gene MacLellan. We'll do a Q & A after the performance about the detective work we've both been doing the past few years, tracking down all this information about her dad.

Meanwhile, our hosts are at it again, using Shivering Songs as a platform to launch their latest effort. This is the fifth album for Olympic Symphonium, called Beauty In The Tension. The laid-back quartet are masters at creating big, soft pillows of beautiful sounds, highlighted by soaring harmonies, heart-tugging lyrics, moody mixes, and sweet pedal steel and electric guitar.

There's some glorious interplay throughout the album, especially when the guitars and pedal steel start weaving together. 'The Middle,' a somewhat upbeat number for the group, features some twin guitar lines in harmony, along with the steel sweetening it all, like some cowboy dreamscape. 'Glory of Love' directly references that old Peter Cetera power ballad, but it's a hazy memory from a distant road trip, bittersweet and more America than Chicago. New single 'Comedy' borrows John Lennon's Mellotron from 'Strawberry Fields Forever,' and features lovely harmonies from guest Jennah Barry. 'Lost In The Party' features the nifty trick of making horns sound lush. More beauty than tension, really.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: STEVE SAINAS - SIMPLE AS THIS

Anyone that balances a career in music with a day job as a teacher deserves big kudos right off the bat. B.C.'s Sainas won a 2015 Juno at the MusiCounts Teacher of the Year, passing on his music and recording knowledge to secondary school students. Meanwhile, he's best known leading the blues group Mud Dog, which has been tearing it up for 20 years in Vancouver.

Now, Sainas shows another side, focusing on his songwriting skills for this largely acoustic collection. That doesn't mean it's soft; drummer Kelly Stodola and bassist Chad Matthews are around to add a fine groove throughout, and there's lots of energy in the guitar playing from Sainas as well. For these songs, he moves into more singer-songwriter/roots style than blues, with lots of emotion on display. Not love song-emotion, but rather personal happiness that we all strive for, including concerns about what's happening in our communities and societies.


You could dwell on those topics for a long time and get pretty depressed, but instead Sainas comes at it with a positive message, offering us a glimpse of hope. The title cut sees him wondering why we can't just live a less-complicated, more satisfied life, while My Darkest Days Are Done and Everything's Gonna Be Alright offer good advice to all of us, disguised as personal pep talks. I can see why he's considered such an inspirational teacher.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: RIA MAE - MY LOVE

Catching up with Halifax's Ria Mae has been a hard job the last while, with lots of new music, videos, big tours and future plans rolling out. She released her latest E.P., the seven-track My Love, just before Christmas, and already has another she's working on, planned for this summer.

My Love features the fall hit Bend in two different versions, the regular one and the Thomas Gold remix, which cranks up the dance floor to '80's. Also included is the new single, Red Light, a break-up song with melancholy vibes but still with strength (and a beat). There's a journey through the E.P., a drama that follows relationship ebbs and flows. Guesting on the track Broken is Tegan Quin, Mae getting to sing with her musical influence and now friend, after they toured Europe together this past year, as she opened for Tegan and Sara.

Mae's moving forward with her mix of pop, dance and hip-hop, keeping the lyrics and stories well-crafted and central. It's smart music you can move to, and which moves you back.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: OTIS REDDING - (SITTIN' ON) THE DOCK OF THE BAY 50th Anniversary 45

Stax Records began a year-long celebration of its 60th anniversary last May, which has featured best-of's, reissues of classic albums on vinyl, and coming up in February, a new box set of rare tracks and b-sides. In addition comes this 45, honouring what arguably the label's greatest track, for it's 50th birthday.

There's few sadder stories in modern music than what befell Redding. After making several incredible albums and singles through the '60's, and building his talents to become one of the truly great stage performers as well, he broke out of the Chitlin' Circuit with a festival-stealing performance at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. That was no easy task, as it also boasted the likes of The Who, The Grateful Dead, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Jefferson Airplane, and the first major U.S. appearance of the Jimi Hendrix Experience.

With a new, wider (and whiter) audience, Redding was ready to try some new sounds, away from the Southern soul shouters he was known for. He started writing the track in California, where he was staying on a houseboat after playing San Francisco. The lyrics pretty much describe the scene, someone from Georgia out in San Francisco, watching the ships and the waves come in on the bay. Producer and legendary Stax guitar player Steve Cropper helped him write the rest, and in was recorded in November. Redding was killed in a plane crash Dec. 10, and the song released as a single on Jan. 8, 1968, becoming a number one hit.

It was no mere sentiment, it's a tremendous song, and still sounds as haunting and important as it did five decades ago. And bonus, the B-side, Sweet Lorene, is a keeper too. York University ethnomusicology prof. Rob Bowman, author and leading expert on Stax, argues that the company's B-sides were often better than the A's, so it's wise to flip 'em over.

I find it interesting that the vinyl revival has spread to 45's. That's an offshoot of the ongoing Record Store Day releases, which always included singles for the collector market. This is aimed more at the newcomers though, that new generation still discovering the likes of Redding. It's packaged up to be special, pressed on gold vinyl, although I'd argue with their colour choice. It looks more like the shade of Dijon mustard, edging toward tan, rather than nice bright gold. And as it was a huge hit, it's almost impossible to find a used record store without a copy of the original single, or one of the many represses over the years. But if you want a new, unplayed copy in lovely shape (except for the mustard stain), you can buy this one for 10 bucks, sealed.

Monday, January 8, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: BOB DYLAN - TROUBLE NO MORE: THE BOOTLEG SERIES VOL. 13

Bob Dylan's Bootleg Series is easily the most exceptional and important archival release series, with each volume revealing a treasure-trove of previously unavailable gems, legally at least. Some of these are no-brainers, such as the full issue of the Basement Tapes, or the infamous first electric tour of England ("Judas!"). Others are a shock, a brand-new examination of a period of Dylan's career that had been dismissed, like the amazing revitalization of the 1970-era recordings around the previously reviled Self Portrait album.

This latest release is much like that latter set, this time a chronicle of the controversial Christian period from 1979 to 1981. Over three albums and two lengthy tours, Dylan presented a new fundamentalist faith that came close to derailing his entire career. It was pretty much a total condemnation. Fans hated the unflinching preaching found in the lyrics, most of them Bible-based. On the first tour he did, following the release of 1979's Slow Train Coming album, he refused to do any of his old songs, playing only that album, plus as-yet unreleased material, much of which would end up on the next year's Saved release. Audiences booed, hurled insults at the gospel singers on stage with him, and walked out in disgust. It was hard to find anyone who would stand up for these songs. I knew one other person who thought the way I did, that there was actually some good music being made, no matter the message.

This collection, two CD's (or eight plus a DVD on the pricey deluxe version, filled with lots more live material) looks at the live tours, when these songs really came alive. Dylan always had a tremendous band, such as The Band, and this one was certainly up there. Anchoring it all was the brilliant Jim Keltner (Traveling Wilburys, John Lennon) on drums, along with Tim Drummond (Neil Young) on bass, Fred Tackett (Little Feat) on lead guitar, another Young favorite, Spooner Oldham, as well as Willie Smith on keys, and a troupe of five or six gospel singers, including the great Clydie King. Ahd while some might not have enjoying Dylan asking them When You Gonna Wake Up?, there was a fire coming from the stage. Dylan, always a fan and sponge of all the great forms, had toured with and loved the Staple Singers for instance, and got a great groove going.

The beauty of this set is hearing how the songs worked so well on stage, and how Dylan changed them up. Always tinkering, he led the band through different arrangements in shows and rehearsals. On the two-disc collection, each disc starts with a version of Slow Train, one from '79 and the other from '81, in quite different tempos. New songs were tried out, some of which made the Saved or Shot Of Love albums, while others, such as Ain't No Man Righteous, No Not One, remained unreleased until now.

By 1981, Dylan was backing away from the commitment to his gospel music. That year's tour saw him bringing back several of his greatest hits, after pressure from concert promoters who warned he might not sell enough tickets. The Shot Of Love album had a couple of songs that weren't gospel at all, and he was writing new, tremendous songs that were getting tour play, including The Groom's Still Waiting At The Alter, Caribbean Wind, and Every Grain Of Sand, all included here, the first two with significantly different lyrics. Now that we know he didn't stay there, it's easier to appreciate Dylan's gospel period for what it was, a prolific and intense two-plus years, a wild left turn from the master of surprises. And as a bonus, it features some of his very best and intuitive singing. It's another must-own.

Friday, January 5, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: JACK DE KEYZER - THE BEST OF VOLUME ONE

I spend much of each January catching up with all the albums released the year before that I didn't have time to review. It's simply a matter of having too many choices and not enough time to do them all, but I still feel bad for missing many of them. Umm, not you Sir Ringo, you get enough attention and make the same album year-in, year-out. But there are lots more that still deserve a little love, and January is mostly open, with very few releases on the schedule.

It's never too late to talk about a greatest hits, and in Canada's blues world, Toronto's Jack De Keyzer certainly deserves such a set. He's been making solid music since the late '70's, consistently polished and soulful. I always think of De Keyzer as making tight, melodic and very enjoyable tracks, lively and fun music. Gambler's Blues from 1999 shows he's comfortable in the jump blues style, while 1994's Cotton Candy is a solid, Stones '69 riff rocker, showing his edge.

This is a generous 16-track collection, clocking in over 70 minutes. It concentrates on discs from the '90's and 2000's albums, 12 in total, but there are also four bonus cuts, three unreleased and one guest appearance from a Willie Big Eyes Smith live album. These are no mere add-on's however; My Love Has Gone is a tremendous live cut, De Keyzer turning up the passion. Rock 'n Roll Girl is the oldest cut here, a CBC recording from 1985 when De Keyzer was nearing the end of his rockabilly days (he was in The Bopcats), and sizzles. Good times follow this guy.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: DAVID BOWIE - BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (45)

The new year begins with a new Bowie reissue, signaling that the flow will continue. Every couple of months, something new, or rather, re-worked, appears from Bowieland. This is the latest in the on-going picture disc 45's celebrating the 40th anniversary of each Bowie single.

Beauty And The Beast was the second single from the "Heroes" album, after the title track, which, despite it's enduring classic status, was hardly a hit. This one didn't come close, only barely entering the U.K. charts, and not placing at all in North America. Its negative tone and freaky sounds pretty much secured that fate, but it's a little gem too, just not something for the Top 40. It's a great example of the Bowie-Eno-Fripp-Visconti teamwork on the sessions, Fripp blazing away on a strange guitar sound that kept away the wider audience. Of course, this was also the Bowie period that influenced all the synth and New Wave bands out of Britain for a generation, so the legacy is solid, and it does have a bouncy chorus that makes it more lively than the dirge-like tracks on Low from the year before.

As usual, the original b-side of the single has been replaced by a previously-unreleased cut to entice buyers, thanks very much. This time, it's a live version of the "Heroes" cut Blackout, not the same one on the live Stage album of that tour, but a more rocky take from a Berlin show. The collector in me says thanks, and as always, there are a couple of great photos on the A and B sides, making it a nice visual addition to your collection. He apparently couldn't take a bad photo.