Tuesday, November 14, 2017

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: TEARS FOR FEARS - RULE THE WORLD

Not many bands have weathered the split and subsequent reformation of the two main partners so well. Tears For Fears did in fact rule the world in the '80's, as this best-of so amply shows. Then in the early '90's the rot developed, with their manager caught helping himself to their money, and the pair at odds over that and band development. Smith left, and Orzabal got to keep the name, delivering two decent albums, but with diminishing returns. Then surprisingly in the 2000's, Smith returned, new music was made including the appropriately named Everybody Loves A Happy Ending, and quite a bit of live work has followed, including this year. A new album has been in the works for awhile, including two tracks featured here among the hits.

And hits we got. There's a surprising number of them, given that they only made six albums starting in 1983. The monster, '85's Songs From The Big Chair, had five of them, pretty impressive given the album only had eight cuts. Those five are all here: Shout, Everybody Wants To Rule The Work, I Believe, Mother's Talk and Head Overs Heels. Even with that dominance, there's still room to drop in on each album, including another three from the debut The Hurting: Mad World, Pale Shelter and Change. That's half the hits collection right there, but those were the big albums.

1989's The Seeds Of Love is generally considered the album where they jumped the shark, but I've always liked the grand opulence of it, and the move away from synths to guitars, strings and loads of musicians and a big production. Sowing the Seeds of Love and Woman In Chains both sound great today thanks to that. The Orzabal-only years yielded two albums that didn't match the usual sales marks for the group, but the two cuts included, Break It Down Again and Raoul and the Kings of Spain sound strong beside the better-known hits, as does Closest Thing To Heaven from the the 2005 reformation album.

Now we get the first new music in 13 years (other than some covers that have snuck out in various places), and the two samples bode well for the new album. I Love You But I'm Lost and Stay both have that dramatic feel and instrumental brightness that typifies the Tears For Fears sound, and given the enthusiastic crowd support they've been receiving, it should be a hardy return for the group in 2018.

Monday, November 13, 2017

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: ELTON JOHN - DIAMONDS

Whether the world needs another Elton John best-of is certainly a worthy question, but if you do, at least you have plenty of options. Given the vast number of hits he's created since the late '60's, it's no easy task putting them all in one set. So for this, you have several different choices, given your enthusiasm. You can get either one, two or three discs, or of course, the vinyl option, 2-LPs.

One disc barely covers it. Thirteen of the cuts are from the 1970's, natch, which only leaves room for four more, and one of those is the '90's remake of Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me with George Michael. It's essentially his live concert favourites: Your Song, Tiny Dancer, Crocodile Rock, Philadelphia Freedom, etc. You could pretty much name them without looking, except I doubt too many people would pick Island Girl as a must-have.

At two discs, we get a better look at the '80's which in fact were not a bad decade at all for EJ. Now there's room for Little Jeannie (a #1 in Canada, btw), Sad Songs, Nikita and Sacrifice, all strong ballads, largely his strength at that time. The '90's are a bit more of a problem, but there's Something About The Way You Look Tonight, famous mostly because of its inclusion on the Lady Di tribute single Candle In The Wind 1997 (not here, as per his wishes), and Circle of Life, which every child of the era and every parent will know forever. But in the spirit of inclusion, we then get a run of songs called Electricity, Home Again and Looking Up, none of which I can remember or even attempt to sing along to, from the later albums Peachtree Road, The Diving Board and Wonderful Crazy Night. Hey, why not include a couple of little songs called Border Song and Levon instead? Remember those? I'm betting much of the world does.

For the three disc set, they go back and grab some lesser hits, some vital but some lesser for good reasons. Elton's always loved to do the duet thing, so there's Written In The Stars with LeAnn Rimes, Live Like Horses with Pavarotti, and That's What Friends Are For, with Dionne, Stevie and Gladys. I guess I said lesser hits, but that one was huge, not too many people can stick a #1 single on the bonus disc. Better though are Empty Garden, his tribute to John Lennon, his cover of Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds, another #1, and his soundtrack take on Pinball Wizard, not a single in Canada but it sure got played everywhere.

There is a ton of memorable, fantastic music here, and I don't think you'll go wrong with the three-CD set, but there are pockets of blandness, mostly because of his apparent inability to say no to bad duet songs. Also, a better job could have been done curating the later years, including grabbing a track or two off that fine Leon Russell/Elton John album. Also, even the one-disc version needs a warning sticker: Includes Kiki Dee. I'd still make sure you own Tumbleweed Connection and Madman Across The Water, his true essential albums.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: ROBERT PLANT - CARRY FIRE

Quite a band, the Sensational Space Shifters. They certainly fit the modern Plant well, able to fit in all the various influences he's collected over his many years, except, interestingly, the raw bluesy Zeppelin stuff. They don't go near that, so don't ask. This is the moody, mystical mix of Eastern rhythms, Celtic vibes and even some electronic layers. Plus, the strangest cover of Bluebirds Over The Mountain ever, a duet with Chrissie Hynde of all things.

The songs have rich grooves with multiple percussion elements, and even the quietest moments such as closer Heaven Sent have a deep rumble and slow burn. This bunch works in textures and hues, not chords and solos. Above it all is one of the most famous voices of the last century, and for reason. It's his total command of the song that makes each one work, his ability to add gravitas and a hypnotic presence. And it's so interesting that he now does this without his trademark falsetto wailing and fierce volume, but with just as much power conveyed. It's purely captivating, other than that odd choice of Bluebirds Over The Mountain, which I don't get at all. Yet.

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: BREAD - THE ELEKTRA YEARS

Perhaps the poster boys for soft rock, Bread are often cited and dismissed for belonging to that '70's genre. But they weren't The Carpenters, and had a lot more going on than the hits they are best known for. Most people assume David Gates was the whole band, but he wasn't even the main singer at the start. Gates had joined up with a songwriting team he had produced in Los Angeles, James Griffen and Robb Royer. They formed the group with Griffen as the lead singer, Gates as the ballads guy, and the songwriting split. Griffen and Royer had the rockier side, but their 1969 debut album was a bit of a failure, and Griffen's single didn't chart.

On the next album, they tried a Gates track, and that did the trick. Make It With You shot to #1 in 1970, and the die was cast. For the rest of the group's existence, Gates got all the A-sides, which meant what people heard were soft rocks ballads, his specialty. And the hits kept coming: It Don't Matter To Me, If, Baby I'm-a Want You, Everything I Own, Guitar Man and more. Every album brought another Top 10 hit or two. Meanwhile the albums were full of very well-produced and arranged pop tracks, even some stronger material such as Blue Satin Pillow, which proved Gates could rock when he felt like it too. In the meantime, they were developing into a tight group, touring all the time, and adding a permanent drummer in Mike Botts. While their peers were scoring kudos for their albums and live shows, Bread, who deserved the same, was still stuck in soft-rock limbo.

Royer was the first to bail out, as the inevitable tensions arose, particularly with Gates. He kept writing with Griffen, but the band was becoming a compromise. Gates drafted in an old pal from the L.A. session scene, Larry Knechtel, best known for playing the fantastic piano on Bridge Over Trouble Water, for the fourth album, Baby I'm-a Want You in 1972, and the band got even better. It was quickly followed by the Guitar Man album, with tracks such as Aubrey and the title cut making these pop gems.

But by that point Griffen and Gates were at odds, and the band broke up, Gates figuring solo life had more to over. Except something unexpected happened. The Best of Bread came out and sold an insane amount of copies, and the record label made the band members an offer they couldn't refuse. Bread came back for one last album in 1977, Lost Without Your Love, named after the Gates-written top 10 hit of course. There was touring too, but once again the bond proved fractious, and Gates having a hit with The Goodbye Girl on his own only made it easier for him to leave for good.

The band did solve their issues in the '90's and did a tour, but Griffen, Botts and Knechtel have all passed on now, and Gates is happy in retirement. For those who've only had a greatest hits all these years, there's lots more to discover on these six original albums, repackaged with replica album sleeves but no additions, making for a low-cost box set at around fifty bucks.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: EMILY BURGESS - ARE WE IN LOVE?

Working with her pals in The Weber Brothers, former 24th Street Wailers lead guitarist Burgess steps into the spotlight solo for the first time.  She's always shown excellent skills as a player, and now unveils a whole bunch of talents, as a vocalist, songwriter and a multi-genre performer.  This one's a big winner.

Whereas the Wailers had a blues focus, Burgess has that a lot of other interests. All I Wanna Do Is Love You is a slash-and-burn rocker, garage punk with sizzle, all 1'59" of it.  Only One In Your Dreams is blues-boogie, but tough as nails. Arrested is a groovy little soul number with a nifty vocal arrangement and smart guitar break, lots going on in that one.  For the title track, she pulls off a smooth, jazzy ballad. 

Best of all, it's empowered and sexy too.  It's great to see Burgess flying solo.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: KIM WILSON - BLUES AND BOOGIE VOL. 1

Wilson certainly has the blues pedigree, as a founder of the Fabulous Thunderbirds, and one of the most respected harp players and vocalists working. So when he decides to go back to the well for a set of deep Chicago blues, it's pretty much a given it's going to be done right. Wilson is calling this Vol. 1 with the intention of keeping on this path now, and it certainly seems a smart move. It's the classics, from Jimmy Reed, Little Walter, Elmore James and the like, plus a few of his own that fit right in.

The thing here is that it all sounds exactly right. Using a crew of veterans including pianist Barrelhouse Chuck and drummer Richard Innes, who both passed away after laying down their parts, the recordings have all the growl and grit that's meant to be there. Wilson's harmonica has the perfect amount of distortion, Chuck's piano is off in the distance slightly, like on those Chess recordings, and there are no rock or pop influences sneaking in. It's undiluted, and only people who have been studying this their entire lives could do this.

Almost all the choices are delightfully obscure, at least these days. Little Walter's instrumental Teenage Beat is a guitar and harp showcase, Wilson long ago learning that the key to a great harp solo is not how loud you blow, but how musical you make it. And while the old songs are played right, that doesn't mean the group copies note-for-note. They make John Lee Hooker's Same Old Blues very different from his in fact, with lots more parts, especially Jonny Viau's horn additions. Wilson has now become a classic, with a seasoned voice, gruff but musical, and his own cut Searched All Over sitting fine surrounded by the works of his heroes. He says he has lots in the can, and certainly these albums could keep coming a long time before they get old.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: PATRICK BALLANTYNE - CALENDAR

There are going to be musicians out there cursing and swearing when they hear this latest from Ontario's Ballantyne. A longtime songcrafter who has worked with Big Sugar, Tim Chiasson and The Trews, for his latest, he set a goal of doing a song a month. And while most writers struggle to come up with a few ideas and sounds to come base an album around, Ballantyne came up with a dozen varied numbers, with different styles and wide-ranging lyrics, each one beating the next, in hooks or words or smarts.

There's also an interesting feel to the set, not as basic as demos, but not heavily produced either. Bass, drums, guitars, keys, it's all there but sounding homespun as well. It lets you hear that these could go in any number of directions in the pop/rock/roots field. Also, we're getting a glimpse at the solid foundation and strong frame of a good song, before all the shiny bits are added.

Those envious songwriters will no doubt scream in frustration at their idle keyboards when they hear lines like "even Jesus with a GPS/could only make an education guess," from Mirror Mirror. The dark, Rubber Soul-era sound on 25 Feet of Snow is a lesson in how to borrow and turn it into something new, and Canadian too. Stay In Heaven flat-out rocks, one of several here where Ballantyne plays all the instruments himself, right down to the pseudo-saxes, and it's immediately followed by My Excellent Boy, a tender tribute that comes from the Nillson/Sexsmith school of sentiment. Not a bad year's worth of work.