Thursday, December 29, 2016
Here's a nifty little bonus disc from the recent breakout soul star. It's an eight-cut, half-hour long set of b-sides and bonus cuts from the Stax Records artist, following his label debut in 2015, which went gold in the U.S. and platinum in Canada. It's no mere jumble of leftovers though. Aside from one live cut (Wasting Time from the proper album, recorded at the Stax Museum in Memphis), the rest are solid studio cuts that easily could have fit on the album, or even made a good start on the next one.
For the most part, these are horn-fired, Southern-flavoured soul numbers, with a good bit of boogie in there as well. But Rateliff's folk past does pop up on the track Just To Talk To You, an acoustic slide guitar number. How To Make Friends, is more of a rock number, a laid-back groove with a George Harrison/All Things Must Pass vibe. I can see how these somewhat out-of-character cuts might not feel right for album cuts, but they certainly add to the appreciation of his skills. It's a good little stop-gap set while we wait to see what 2017 brings.
Wednesday, December 28, 2016
Melodic blues from the B.C.-based veteran, who brings a highly developed sense of songwriting to the multiples styles on his latest solo album. On the ten originals here, Crissinger and his band show off their versatility, adjacent songs often greatly different, such as Night Light's jazzy knack to Defeated's harder edge and smoking solo, on to One of These Days' lighthearted country-boogie.
Crissinger works hard on his lyrics, using modern themes and lines instead of getting stuck trying to use yesterday's blues writing. That helps lend an openness to the whole set, with quite different numbers such as Wild Wind Fever, which features dramatic slide guitar through much of the song, but also some easy-going verses, keeping the song catchy. And A Simple Truth is mellow, soulful ballad that again hits home with a winning melody. Add in Marty Howe's strong harp playing throughout, and it's a start-to-finish strong album.
Monday, December 26, 2016
Ah, the box set. How far it has come since the first heady days of Dylan's Biograph and Eric Clapton's Crossroads. Those sets and several others changed the game for veteran artists and collector fans. Previously unreleased music was now a priority, a gold mine for everybody from Springsteen to The Beatles, and as record sales dwindled, box sets got bigger, more elaborate, good money-makers for artists and record companies at a time when there was little else to count on. Fans have proven themselves willing to part with more and more money when you added more and more unreleased material, no matter what it was. Dylan's people have made it an art form with the Bootleg Series, releasing everything from raw studio sessions to the roughest recordings of the Basement Tapes to a whopping 36-disc set of every show on tape from 1966, despite the fact that almost every one has the same exact set list. Just call it a Super Deluxe Edition, and there are fans lining up to shell out.
The latest set from The Who explores one album, the group's debut from 1965, My Generation, or The Who Sings My Generation as it was called in North America. In typical repackaging efforts of today, this 12-track album has been exploded into a five-disc package, using most of the tricks of the trade these days. We get the album twice, first in mono, then in stereo. Then there are all the associated tracks from that year that were either released as non-album singles or simply rejected at the time. Then there are alternate mixes, or different takes of songs. Finally, there's a disc of demos for some of the songs by Pete Townshend, and even some songs that never made it past the drawing board. So a 12-song album becomes a 79-track box.
Sounds cool on paper, but before reaching for that gift certificate from Amazon your Aunt Dorothy sent from Calgary, examine it closely. Discs one and two, do you care if you have the album in stereo and mono? Will you listen closely over and over pick a favourite? If you're a passionate fan, perhaps. Now to discs 3 and 4. Maybe you bought the 2002 Deluxe reissue of the album already, in which case you would already have all the b-sides and singles and out-takes, like the hit Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere or the Motown covers Leaving Here and Heatwave. And do you care about having them in mono or stereo, or getting a variation of a cut with a more prominent french horn part, or an earlier vocal take from Roger?
I'm betting the majority of folks will now say no, and save their $142.34 for the new John Grisham thriller and Green Smoothies For Life, and such. But here's where I'll stand up proudly for these boxes, even though you do get the same songs, repackaged and repurposed, which you might already own. My reasons are thus:
1.) These sets are the new coffee table books.
It's a fabulous thing to hold. A beautiful, hard-cover book with tons of great photos, and an intelligent, informative essay over 80 pages, including notes on each track, lyrics, and special notes from Townshend on the new demos disc. As well, there are replica inserts of flyers, business cards, and posters from the time.
2.) You get to really know the album, and have a great listening experience.
I took Boxing Day to listen to this, a good investment of time given the cash investment. You pay attention, you hear the stereo/mono differences, you read the notes and find out the history of each track. It's pretty cool to hear a different take of the hit My Generation, and then an instrumental version too.
3.) The B-sides and out-takes tell a whole different story
Covers of James Brown, Garnet Mimms and Martha and the Vandellas show the group deep in their early mod phase, a hyper bar band playing soul tunes for rowdy fans, the equivalent of The Beatles at the Cavern Club. They had a whole repertoire to choose from, as well as the growing songwriting talent of Townshend.
4.) The demos are amazing
Townshend has been wowing us for years with his demos, many of them released on his series of double albums called Scoop, and on other box sets. Now, he's ready to unleash more. There are two glorious takes on My Generation, three songs never recorded by the band, some that didn't appear for a couple of years, 11 in total, plus a note saying he's going to release more on further, upcoming volumes of Scoop. Awesome. For me, this is the best disc in the set.
There's all sorts of nitpicky, trainspotter stuff going on as well that's not worth getting into, but you can read about it, and caught up in it if you're a purist. Most big fans agree these are better stereo mixes than the ones from 2002. Many of the alternate cuts are appearing in stereo for the first time on CD here. Townshend and Daltry did some minor overdubbing of missing parts for a handful of the stereo cuts recently, always a sore point for some.
But I don't care about any of that. I love The Who, and I love holding this thing in my hands, it's beautifully made, and a great document of an artistic statement from 1965. I had a great time with this set through the day, in what has become a holiday tradition for me, the "new box set for Christmas" listening party. I'll pull it out from time to time, to check on a fact, to maybe play the full album, and definitely to play the demo disc. I may do the whole box set over another time. You can be cynical and say it's a cash grab, but I wouldn't say that, there's a ton of work that went into this, hours and hours by many people, and they are using high-quality materials in the manufacturing. As I write this, I'm staring at the ever-growing collection of these sets, including the many Dylans, a couple of Claptons, The Beach Boys' Smile and Pet Sounds sets, The Rolling Stones Abkco singles, an Al Green box made to look like a Bible, and previous Who Super Deluxe boxes on Live At Leeds and Tommy. They all make me very happy. So does My Generation. Nothing matches the thrill of a well-made box set for this music collector.
Saturday, December 24, 2016
While the Stones have written and created some of the greatest songs in the rock and roll canon, it's always been true that if you want to hear the heart and soul of the band, it's when they play the blues. Formed as a strict blues group covering Chicago-style electric acts, they started out playing Little Red Rooster and the like, and returned many times to the well along the way. Even the group's debut had already seen them moving into more popular R'n'B sounds by Motown and Stax artists, as well as their own early writing attempts. Now, fifty-plus years later, they have finally done a full blues set.
It came about by accident, as the group was in the studio trying to work on new material, and had hit a roadblock. They decided to do a blues just to get back on track, playing Little Walter's 1959 cut, Blue and Lonesome, a group favourite. Wisely, taped was rolled, and an often-discussed but never attempted full blues album was suddenly on the way. Three days later, it was done, the core four joined by longtime auxiliary members Darryl Jones on bass, and Matt Clifford and Chuck Leavell on keys. Eric Clapton was working in the next studio, and came over to play on two cuts on the second day, and that was it. Instead of struggling to come up with something to interest the fickle modern music buyers, new cuts that could compete with the group's hallowed history, they did the one thing they could do with ease, better than anyone; just play the blues.
This isn't the same old Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters material that everyone has done to death. The Stones show just how deep their knowledge and love goes, able to call up obscure b-sides and non-hits by some of the best, largely forgotten but always great music. There are four Little Walter cuts, including the title track, a couple of Howlin' Wolf numbers, ones by Jimmy Reed, Magic Sam and the likes of Eddie Taylor and Little Johnny Taylor. The one cut that is well-known, Otis Rush's I Can't Quit You Baby, was probably picked to give Clapton something he knew to join in on. They were done quickly, without time to work out parts and overdubs, but to capture the real music, and that's been done with flying colours. There's nothing about this album that sounds contrived. These are not overfed, over-drugged rock stars, but rather incredibly hard-working musicians, huge fans of the songs and style, and players with invaluable experience, pouring all they have into the sessions.
You can easily imagine Charlie Watts shining here, with his great feel and huge sound, and of course Keith Richards and Ron Wood lock in provide excellent leads and rhythm. I'd argue the guitar work on Wolf's Just Like I Treat You is some of the best laid down on a Stones cut, ever. But the most surprising turn comes from Jagger, and not just his fully-engaged and strong vocals. It turns out to be a harmonica album, with the quartet of Little Walter cuts, and Jagger adding significant parts to all the others. His playing in recent years has been incendiary in concert, and now he gets to show just how much of a master he has become over the years. It dominates many of the songs, as the main solo instrument over the guitars, and producer Don Was lets the harp sound cut through louder and sharper than anything else. These are harmonica songs after all, or become them in this setting, and the rock star is replaced by the consummate bluesman, transforming the band.
Blues is all about experience, and perhaps The Rolling Stones, didn't want to, or couldn't have made this album until they got to this point, where they could stand with Wolf and Waters and Reed and Willie Dixon, and make it sound absolutely as good as the originators. It took them six or seven years to become the greatest rock and roll band in the world, but almost six decades to become the best blues band.
Thursday, December 22, 2016
American Idol, The Voice, whatever, the concept has been flogged a dozen different ways, and it still keeps resonating with a significant audience. So, why not an animated version? With singing animals? If you want to see an elephant, a pig, a mouse and a punk rock porcupine sing Jump, Kiss From A Rose, I'm Still Standing and Pennies From Heaven, more power to you.
That's the visual side; for the companion soundtrack album, you're dealing with voice actors getting to sing, always a risky adventure. I guess Reese Witherspoon doing a high-energy version of Venus is harmless, as Bananarama weren't exactly opera singers in the first place. Seth MacFarlane has been using his lounge-singing style in tons of his projects over his career, so he was a natural to play a mouse with a Sinatra voice, doing My Way. Scarlett Johansson is limited at best, but Tori Kelly makes her acting debut as the elephant, coming to film after being an actual Voice and Idol competitor. Of course, they have her sing Hallelujah, yet another unnecessary version, but accurate for such shows at least.
To flesh out the film, the actual original versions of Under Pressure and Gimme Some Lovin' are used, which are typical soundtrack fillers. At least there's a fine new cut from Stevie Wonder and Ariana Grande, Faith, and the final cut here is from real powerhouse singer Jennifer Hudson, who has a small role in the film, doing The Beatles' Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight. It's a killer performance, which leads me to wonder if big-name stars are really needed in such a film, with music such a main part of it.
Wednesday, December 21, 2016
Well, this time, he's done it. Peace Trail is largely about the environmental protests being done by First Nations people across North America, something Young has long identified with and supported. Pipeline fights have increasingly grabbed his interest over the last few years, and the little guy protest against the big company and the state informs several of the 10 songs here. Finally, he's not beating us over the head with the lyrics. Instead, these are stories of people involved, like the decent farmer speaking up for his workers in John Oaks. The title cut, Peace Trail, instead of being negative is forward-looking and positive: "I see the same old signs, but something new is growing." And even the most obvious lyric, Indian Givers, about big industry trying to grab back land given in treaties, features stinging lines about corporations who run disinformation p.r. campaigns, trying to make themselves look like good guys: "Bring back the days when good was good/Lose these imposters in our neighborhood."
There's more exciting news in the music. There's a core sound here, a brand-new one for Young, for anyone. For most of the album, he's on acoustic, there's a young bass player named Paul Bushnell, solid and simple, and the great Jim Keltner on drums. Keltner's percussion is mixed way up, more of an equal than a rhythm holder. Young also drops in some electric guitar lines, but different than his normal proto-grunge. These are echoed, distorted single lines, layered on top. Plus he plays his nastiest harp ever, dirty and even more distorted than anything else. The melodies and acoustic work, plus the style of vocal delivery he's using remind me of the On The Beach album of 1974, one of his very best.
There are other songs than the protest material too, including the surreal Glass Accident, an intriguing number that seems to be about comparing a broken glass to a broken relationship. And the album ends with the hilarious My New Robot, which brings back the controversial robotic voice of the Trans album, only this time it makes much more sense, since his new robot has just been delivered by amazon.com, and he's getting instructions on how to program it, and everything's just peachy. This is a fascinating, different, playful, well-crafted and complex set of songs, which is what I've been hoping for from this singular talent for a long time, and always thought he could still deliver.
Tuesday, December 20, 2016
It was a big idea with big stars, and looked like a sure-fire hit, but the Showtime series Roadies bombed this past summer, and was cancelled after one season. Despite having Cameron Crowe in charge (Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous) and J.J. Abrams overseeing, with Luke Wilson starring, and lots of famous musicians in each show, the plot about the lives of roadies turned out to be about as exciting as the lives of roadies actually are. Sure, they get to see cool moments backstage and awesome soundcheck performances, but that's all that was interesting on the shows as well.
What we're left with is the soundtrack featuring the guests from the 10 episodes, usually appearing truly live, without the normal backing track or lip-synch performances. Given Crowe's A-list contact list, and pretty good taste, he lined up a mix of A-listers to up-and-comers. Lindsey Buckingham does a mean solo version of his Big Love, always a highlight of Fleetwood Mac shows. Jim James appears twice over the 16 cuts, once with My Morning Jacket, and again solo with a surprising choice, a cover of the somewhat obscure Who song, They Are All In Love, a tender cut from the Who By Numbers album, a beautiful acoustic performance. Quirky Brit Robyn Hitchcock, always killer live, does his own Sayonara, Judge. Best of all, Jackson Browne pays tribute to his old pal Lowell George, with the classic Little Feat gem Willin', and Gary Clark Jr. wows with a passionate version of The Healing.
I'm sure Crowe and crew felt they'd have more opportunities to present bigger names, so several of the shows featured new acts, no doubt scouted and touted by music placement people. While there's no denying the quality of Best Coast and The Head and the Heart, the likes of Saskatoon's Reignwolf and Phantogram are the type of acts that you get told are great but don't actually ever prove it. Add in a performance by the past-his-due-date John Mellencamp, it means there are holes in this set. Like the show itself, it makes one wonder how they managed to make this less-than-excellent.
Monday, December 19, 2016
Lots of throaty, sassy blues from this excellent Houston singer. After a lifetime of hard work in the clubs and a dozen albums, she finally got top recognition with a #1 blues album in 2014, Royal Oaks Blues Cafe. This one sees her sifting through the classic writers for just the right tunes to match her grit, and she truly owns the songs she picked from Memphis Minnie, Big Mama Thornton and Lowell Fulsom. Every cut is sung like she means it, and that's the whole key right there, feeling the blues and passing it on.
Each of the ten cuts here also has a solid groove, with a Friday night, forget your troubles energy. Lynn's harp player, Steve Krase, leads his own band as well, with decades of experience too, and they make a perfect pair, as he follows her soulful lines with plenty of expert licks. This is a group I would rush to go see, and stay for each set.
Sunday, December 18, 2016
With his rugged voice and rural leanings, Lucky is channeling old-fashioned values and a country-folk classic style. From the kitchen, my son yelled, "Is that Lightfoot?" and that's a big influence for sure, in sound and spirit. Lucky is looking for values out there in the big world, hitting the road and trying to find the right way, to help and love, to appreciate the country and everybody living in it. After his many trips across the country, the Saskatchewan-raised singer-songwriter is coming to grips with his own traveling Jones, and turning into fodder for his tunes.
There's no question travel dominates the record, with a couple of songs filled with descriptions of the beauty of each province, "Prince Edward (Island)'s copper sand" and the like. But it's no mere "This land is your land" travelogue; Lucky's songs are all soaked in sadness, with pedal steel, fiddle and banjo setting the mood. If he rolls into Jasper after an all-night drive, despite the local beauty, he plays the legion for two or three. Freedom's just another word for loneliness at times, and that's here in spades as well. In other words, what could be gung-ho songs of "Isn't it great outside with all the trees and mountains?" are instead tales of looking everywhere to find yourself.
Saturday, December 17, 2016
The last we heard from this north shore of Nova Scotia singer-songwriter, he'd recruited his two kids into a band called Fresia for a 2012 album. That was just the latest twist in a three decade-long music career, and now he's found another. After spending half of 2015 traveling the globe, from London to Morocco, and time spent living in France and Spain, he returned with inspirations and a stripped-down technique. This album's as simple as can be: One voice, one guitar, one microphone.
There's nothing new in that trick, but when it works, it's very effective; think Springsteen's Nebraska album. Or, that acoustic guitar player at an open mic night who manages to hush the crowd. Fresia has that lonesome blues sound, in a small basement coffee house or bar, and all that's missing is the scattered applause at the end, and the tinkle of ice in the glasses. He's picked up some of the music styles from his travels for sure; African Skies is set under the strange stars he encountered, and includes some lovely work on the high notes of his guitar. Beaujolais Nouveau comes to us in French of course, with Euro jazz.flair. It's an impressive multi-cultural tour, even more so considering the whole one player, one mic approach. To order a ridiculously cheap copy, head to ericfresia.com.
Friday, December 16, 2016
Out of Ottawa comes this tight, groove-oriented blues-rock combo, with a modern sound focused on songcraft. Haneman has a particularly smooth voice, used to great effect on the easy ballad Waiting At Your Door. He can get gritty too, and with Jeff Asselin on drums and Martin Newman on bass, they prove themselves a powerful trio as well, plus Megan Laurence provides some strong backing vocals throughout, plus takes a stand-out turn as lead singer on Firestorm.
Haneman proves himself more than capable as a lyricist as well, and I don't think I heard a single blues cliche in the batch. Instead, we get interesting flows of words, such as "Does she ever wonder about the repercussions of those games she plays," in Storybook Love, more like a Jeff Buckley lyric. Plus, the band-written music is filled with imaginative parts, the songs going off in non-standard sections and interesting asides, places for the group to stretch out. As well, they win the prize for most imaginative cover versions, doing a full-up blues reinterpretation of Bryan Adams' Run To You (hey, it works, really) and an upgrade on Steppenwolf's Magic Carpet Ride that turns it into a cool boogie. This is an inspired set.
Thursday, December 15, 2016
Here's the last of the Christmas releases to come my way this year, and I did have some hopes for it. I thought, Neil Diamond, acoustic guitar, kind of an unplugged Christmas vibe, there might be something there. Unfortunately, that's not exactly what they meant by acoustic. Instead, it's very produced, with strings and horns and Irish instruments, and tons of keyboards. It's not far removed from a Michael Buble or Rod Stewart Christmas album. That's probably what they are hoping for, too. After all, those were huge, multi-million-selling releases, and when you do have a breakthrough Christmas album, it's the gift that keeps on giving for record companies and superstars. That's probably why not one, but two huge "name" producers made this set, Don Was and Jacknife Lee.
On some songs, the acoustic thing does work for Diamond, such as Children Go Where I Send Thee, with its gospel arrangement, backing choir, and Neil getting his groove on. Also, he did some writing too, three originals that aren't too bad at all, including the fun #1 Record For Christmas. But the overwrought carols suffer from the same-old, same-old syndrome, too many instruments, and Diamond in his You Don't Bring Me Flowers-style of dramatic singing. And he's risking the wrath of a nation with his faux-Irish accent on Christmas In Killarney. If there is a Santa Claus, this won't be a #1 record.
Wednesday, December 14, 2016
Musgraves has the right idea, playing it light and fun with her Christmas choices, cheeky but cool too. The sound is bright and poppy, with lots of handclaps and jingle bells, lap steel for that touch of Hawaii on Mele Kalikimaka, and plenty of happy vibes. Plus, she has the personality and peppy voice to pull it off.
The cuts range from familiar ones done up with kicky new production (Let It Snow, Feliz Navidad) to brand-new originals, Musgraves proving she has the knack for novelty writing. A Willie Nice Christmas is a pardonable pun, as Willie Nelson stops by for a guest duet, and Musgraves and Leon Bridges team up to write and sing a cool soul number, Present Without A Bow. And while it sounds impossible, Musgraves does a straight version of The Chipmunk Song, under its parenthetical title, Christmas Don't Be Late, and makes it a pretty decent tune, without Alvin and the boys' sped up voices. This wins the most fun Christmas disc of the year honours, hands down.
Monday, December 12, 2016
The venerable jazz label Verve weighs in with two collections of holiday material from same of the great masters, as well as newer lights on the scene. The discs are split into two categories, instrumentals and vocals. For the most part, these are the usual, well-known tunes, but as with the best of jazz, reinterpreted by the artists to make them all seem fresh and surprising.
While I understand the desire to put the newer names on these sets, promoting today's players, it's a bit unfair to them, as they have to go up against giants. This is very apparent on the instrumental disc, as a middleweight fusion guy such as Tom Scott does a cloying take on Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas, after we've just heard the Ramsay Lewis Trio rework Here Comes Santa Claus with lots of cool phrasing and different paths. Organ great Jimmy Smith goes funky on God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, but poor Kevin Eubanks has nothing new to say in Silver Bells. But old outweighs new on the disc, and the Lionel Hampton Sextet's Swingle Jingle will liven up any tree trimming.
Sunday, December 11, 2016
It's two, two, two albums in one. You get the brand-new Unplugged version of the group's favourites, and then as a bonus, there's a generous, 20-track best of the originals, for you to compare them all. It's worth buying just as a greatest hits.
The unplugged versions are certainly stripped back. It's pretty much keyboards, acoustic guitars, bass, light percussion and hand-claps. That's particularly striking on the group's cover of Many Rivers To Cross, with the desired campfire feel in full effect. Lead singer Ali Campbell still has the exact same voice we've known since the 80's, so these versions sound strong and confident. Included for the first time on a UB40 album is a reggae version of Prince's Purple Rain, which Ali Campbell originally sang on a collection by Radio Riddler from 2014, called Purple Reggae, and it works really well with that beat. Chrissie Hynde's famous part on I Got You Babe is handled by Ali's daughter, Kay Campbell, and she's almost a dead ringer for the Pretenders star. With the ease and warmth of these versions, I'm having a hard time choosing between the originals and this set.
Saturday, December 10, 2016
Man, I love this ongoing series, one that presents old classics, but often with very surprising and rarely-heard choices. There are so many oldies collections that stick with the same top hits, it's great when somebody curates them with the idea of giving you something you might not know, or at least something you haven't heard in ages. This is volume six in the set, and this time the focus is on instrumentals.
There haven't been many instrumental hits over the years, barely any since the 60's, and that means the big ones are very familiar (Green Onions, Telstar, etc.). There are just two somewhat familiar ones on this set, The Marketts' Out Of Limits, a #3 hit in 1964, and Jack Nitzsche's awesome The Lonely Surfer, #39 from 1963. The rest fall into a couple of categories; there are several jazz numbers by top-flight film composers and such, plus numbers by several of the famous Wrecking Crew, the L.A. session players best known for working with Phil Spector, Brian Wilson and on hundreds of other hits.
Since they were the best players in town in the 60's, the Wrecking Crew people were all asked to do instrumental albums, with the hopes of a break-out hit, or maybe some good sales in the hi-fi adult market. The names are now a bit more familiar now, thanks to recent documentaries and belated acknowledgement from collectors. So you get numbers by guiter greats Billy Strange, and Tommy Tedesco, bassist Lyle Ritz, keyboard player Al Delory, sax player Plas Johnson, and the guy the most hit records, drummer Hal Blaine.
Lots of these cuts are fun, but for the first time, the compilers come up a little short. Instead of choosing good songs, they go for names; Michel Rubini played piano for Sinatra, and worked with folks from Sonny & Cher to Ray Charles to Frank Zappa, but his Blues Cha Cha ain't much to write home about. Chuck Berghofer played that great bass line in These Boots Are Made For Walkin', but he's way too jazz to fit well here. And Mike Deasy played for Richie Valens and Eddie Cochran, but his Christian rock cut Lost In The Shuffle is quite awful, and it's not even an instrumental. Some more work was needed pulling good cuts, but still it's worth it for the Wrecking Crew novelties, and that sublime Nitzsche cut.
Wednesday, December 7, 2016
Toronto's multi-talented Kaleb Hikele won't stand still long enough to pin a label on him. Last year, with his outfit known as The Sun Harmonic, he moved from the folk world to lush, orchestrated piano pop music. All the soothing quality found there has been tossed away in this fiery rock band collection. A five-track E.P., Hikele covers the lead vocals on top of a vicious quartet including Alex Walls on lead guitar.
With plenty of slash and thrash, the band falls somewhere between punk and metal, finding a groove and beating the crap out of it. There are no soft moments or breaks for the listener, and certainly no instruments other than guitar, drums and voice - okay, maybe a harmonica, I think that's it. Lead single We Are Not Alone is all about aliens, so it's kind of like if Blue Oyster Cult had been the biggest punk band of all time. And somehow in all that powerhouse explosion Hikele, who produced and engineered the cuts, managed to keep some very catchy tunes at the core. You can find the E.P. and lots of other projects from this arts collective at moonmelodyrecords.com.
Tuesday, December 6, 2016
Guilty. There, I've admitted it. The first part of tackling a problem is acknowledging it, or whatever. My problem is sheer laziness, refusing to deal with the living room. Boxes, piles, papers, projects, magazines. And of course, CD's. I have no good filing system for the newer review copies coming in, and that led to the following problem: I'm really, really late reviewing this album, because I just found it at the bottom of a pile, underneath a magazine from July I haven't read yet. Darn thing came out five months ago, but I love it so much, I must right this wrong, by writing.
CD in question comes from the fertile mind of Chris Collingwood, heretofore the lead singer of the beloved New England pop group Fountains of Wayne. Although ostensibly a solo album, Collingwood didn't want people to consider this a side project, so he stuck a band name on it, also acknowledging the efforts of top players such as Davey Faragher (bass, Elvis Costello, Cracker) and producer Mitchell Froom. F.O.W. were always known for witty and wonderfully catchy pop tracks such as Stacy's Mom, and that hasn't changed here for Collingwood. The biggest difference is the blatant hit-single sound from the 70's has been toned down, in favour of a little more laid-back, songwriter feel.
Certainly there's a classic feel to the songs, and both Froom and Collingwood have cited The Moody Blues as a sonic influence, a particularly cleanly produced bunch, with the rich use of mellotron string effects and keyboards. It's always refreshing to hear so much piano, and I'm one who falls for the light-lush touch. But the key is the crisp writing, Collingwood's ear candy-coated lyrics: "They walk among us, the stars of New York." Breezy is certainly the tone of that particular song, a little summertime ditty that continues Collingwood's position as heir to the Nick Lowe-Squeeze style. As always, he proves a keen proponent of writing songs about songwriting, MInor Is The Lonely Key a melancholy McCartney number. And he loves to turn a cliche upside-down: "The bird in the tree won't shut the hell up," he tells us in You Can Come Round If You Want To.
Anyway, let's pretend I'm not really late, I'm just doing up my "Best albums of the year" list. There, now I'm early. And I don't have to clean up.
Monday, December 5, 2016
In an interesting format, the album is split down the middle, the first half featuring Josephine's songs, the second all coming from Minnikin, although they play and sing on each other's tracks as well. It points to their independence as singer-songwriters, as there are no co-writes, they each have their own material, and aid rather than collaborate for the most part. It does help that they have similar styles, storytellers with a bit of western (as in country and ...) influence, Josephine with more of a voice, Minnikin with more of a twang. They blend well, especially on his songs, a low-high, boy-girl, rough-polished mix that's easy-going and happy.
While Minnikin's numbers fall more into the alt-country world, with pedal steel, desire and bad decisions, Josephine has a sunnier disposition. Her songs are more light-hearted, little celebrations of life, such as I Don't Want To Go Anywhere, or August Man, which announces "I want to hold on to this like a Nova Scotia summer. I know just what she means.
Josephine and Minnikin are launching the album in Halifax, coming up this Saturday, Dec. 10. Featuring the Flower Country Band, the show is at 8 p.m. at the Bus Stop Theatre.
Sunday, December 4, 2016
Has everybody finally done a Christmas album? The flood of annual yuletide releases has eased to a trickle, and some of the biggest names are onto their second holiday collection. McLachlan has long been a seasonal favourite, thanks to her million-selling 2006 album Wintersong, including her much-loved version of Joni Mitchell's River. 10 years on, she's back at it with more carols, classics and silver bells.
Along with old hands producer Pierre Marchand and drummer Ashwin Sood, McLachlan is joined by guests including the Montreal-based group Half Moon Run, singers Emmylou Harris and Martha Wainwright, and the Bulgarian Symphony Orchestra. But despite quite a few folks involved, the power of the record comes from the quietness and simplicity of several of the tracks, which let McLachlan wow us with her familiar, and yes, angelic voice. I always think of empathy when she sings, and her soothing quality is perfect for these songs of healing and rejuvenation.
That's not to downplay the playing, of course. There's a jazz magic to The Christmas Song, the most prominent instrument an acoustic bass. The subdued White Christmas features just a simple electric guitar and a trumpet for the lead. The team isn't afraid to mess with the traditions either, bringing in a brand-new melody for Let It Snow. This isn't the festive, tree trimming or egg nog gathering album, this is the one you play when the snow is falling outside, and you're under a blanket.
Friday, December 2, 2016
This Ontario folk ensemble might be the ultimate melting pot of musical styles, and delights in mixing elements in surprising and fun new concoctions. There's lots of trad folk, but it's turned on its head, with lots of drums and percussion, obvious jazz bass or a rock guitar, a whistle playing a blues, a bouzouki doing whatever it is bouzoukis do. The band keeps bringing in more and more instruments to the mix: fiddle, recorder, accordion, harmonica, mandolin, tabla, a shifting ensemble of core members and guests, and even they lose count; the group photos are of six main musicians, but the credits list seven.
No matter, these are all special players, giving new life and different twists to originals and classic folk covers. Opening medley Hold The Candle starts with lots of effective beats and a near-reggae bass on an Irish number, which then blows up into a fiddle/drum workout. Then they keep heading east: Mi'kmaq Enigma sees them cover two Arsenault writers from P.E.I., An Dro is a visit to Brittany, France, and then Cocktails in the Cabana finds them in Galicia, Spain, The lovely Paper Boats is perhaps the best example of their first-tier ensemble at work, starting as an acoustic guitar/percussion number, before recorder, fiddle and more join, doubling and tripling the lilting melody line, touches of Africa gliding in.
It's three-quarters instrumental, although when there are vocals, again, it's a wonderful sound, especially the crazy folk-scatting on Cocktails in the Cabana. The singers in the group are aided by guests Katherine Wheatley, and Danya Manning and Emm Gryner of Trent Severn. Perhaps the one area the group doesn't excel in is lyric writing, with The Ballad of Old Jack McGraw a bit clumsy, but A Good Western Wind is a soothing way to end, a sailor's tale done well. There's no shortage of new ideas from this forward-thinking band.
Thursday, December 1, 2016
I made a rule this year that I wouldn't review a Christmas release until Dec. 1, and I made it. And after two winter storms the last two days, plus a stupid tree in my backyard crashing down and taking out the phone and cable and power and clothesline, I need a little cheering up. So, it's a fun little holiday EP from my favourite fog-rock band from Halifax, Quiet Parade.
The group does three covers of wildly different tracks, and adds one original to the Christmas hymnbook, the number Heavy Winter, borrowed from the group's last album. Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) is of course the Darlene Love/Phil Spector classic, stood on its head here, with the Parade bypassing the wall of sound and going for a quiet and introspective approach, which actually fits the lyrics really well. Then comes the ancient hymn O Come O Come Emanuel, but now it has a fuzzy punch in the choruses, and dream-world vocals. The third cut comes from The Raveonettes, a duet with Dance Movie's Tara Thorne, a lovely little winter's night tune, like when it's not too cold at all, and it feels great to be out late in December. Heavy Winter fits the mood just fine, with its references to snowstorms, and its easing tone, if just a bit more produced than the other tracks, coming as it is from the group's sessions with Daniel Ledwell.
The group will be celebrating the release of the EP, plus their recent win at Music Nova Scotia for Alternative Recording of the Year, with a launch show Saturday, Dec. 3 in Halifax. It's at Timber Lounge, and the supercool Norma MacDonald is playing too!
Tuesday, November 29, 2016
Despite the fact that it's a huge part of our country, most of us don't have clue about the Arctic, me included. I know it's cold and all that, but imagine if 95 per cent of Americans had never been to, say, Texas. There's lots to discover, and we're on a pretty steep learning curve.
Thankfully, we have Iqaluit-based folk-rockers The Jerry Cans to guide us along. But the award-winning group isn't going to spoon-feed us, the majority of their singing is in Inuktitut, something lead vocalist Andrew Morrison learned as an adult, by the way. There's throat singing from Nancy Mike, traditional but fit into the context of the group's lively tunes, heavily influenced by Celtic folk sounds, which it turns out have been popular in that area as well. So basically you get the band Great Big North.
I joke, but The Jerry Cans have built an exciting live reputation, largely because these are upbeat, energetic and entertaining songs, and while the words may be different to our ears, the music is that to which Canadians coast to coast (to coast) always respond with vigor. Inuktitut is a rhythmic language that's interesting to follow, and the band even provides some basic words to listen for in the liner notes to pick up a lesson or two. It's fun! But mostly, you have fiddle tunes, accordion numbers, thumping, bass-heavy rabble-rousing songs that fit in any concert hall or folk club. Fit? No, more like take over. Then there's Mike's throat singing, which is more like another instrument taking solos in the band's context. All those hot-shot producers looking for ambiance and different sounds to dazzle, well here's one of the world's all-natural and unique forms of communication, adding so much more than some concocted layer of beats.
Just when I thought I was starting to learn some words, I realized Morrison had switched to English for the first time. The song Ukiuq has been translated into Northern Lights, and included twice on the disc, but not to push their way onto radio or because of any pressure to sell out. After all, the band now owns their own label, Nunavut's very first, so they are the boss. It's to give a little more sense of what Iqaluit is like, as it includes lyrics about the area's beauty and ability to lure a certain kind of person. The Jerry Cans are making the Arctic hot.
Monday, November 28, 2016
This is what has been missing for the Prince fan since his death, especially the ones who want to get a lot of hits, more than the basics. It's a 40-track collection from his Warner Bros. years (or "Slave" time, and he once famously wrote on his forehead), from the start of his career as a wonderboy, until '93, when he went on his own, and not coincidentally, pretty much stopped having hits. Then there was that whole symbol-for-a-name thing, but that was later. This is the 1999-Purple Rain-Kiss years.
Oh, and so much more than that. Hopefully you'll stick around for a few more tracks, since he had a glorious run of singles, and shouldn't be remembered for just a handful. As this set shows, Prince had a great way to mix heavy grooves and solid rock, impossible to resist dance floor tracks, and hooks on top of all that. Pretty naughty too; he made Madonna look like a, ahem, virgin.
Amazingly, 40 tracks doesn't even cover all the singles he released although all the big hits are here. I'm a bit miffed that they chose to release the single edits for several cuts, as we miss lots of the best parts of songs. Plus, we all knew the long versions anyway, from the videos, not the radio. Nobody wants a shorter version of Little Red Corvette, that thing can play all night for my money. There will be lots of songs you'll either have forgotten, or not even noticed over the years, especially the pre-1999 (the song, not the year) material, back when he really displayed that dirty mind -- his first single was called Soft and Wet, for goodness sake. Then there are the later tracks you never hear anymore, such as 87's fabulous I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man, from the mostly-amazing Sign O' The Times album. Unfortunately it also included the annoying Sheena Easton duet U Got The Look, also included on this.
Prince made a major misstep in 1986, trying to do another movie to follow Purple Rain's massive success, the dire Under The Cherry Moon. At least the music from it was tremendous, including Kiss. But he jumped the shark with the Batman soundtrack, and the public started to smell weirdness, never a good thing. He had more moments of glory along the way, and I'll argue that his last studio album, Hit n Run Phase Two was one of his very best ever, back to glory years. There's apparently a vault of gold waiting to be shared, and we do get one previously-unreleased cut here, a very interesting 1982 song called Moonbeam Levels, which certainly doesn't sound like the 1999 album stuff made at the same time. It's more like Diamonds and Pearls, which is sequenced next to it on this set. I'm looking forward to more discoveries, but in the meantime, let's enjoy Raspberry Beret again. It's my fave.
Sunday, November 27, 2016
Pop quiz! Quick now, what kind of music does Jethro Tull play? If you said hard rock/metal, then you're a Grammy Awards voter, who infamously gave Tull that award over Metallica the first time it was a category. If you said prog, then you face the wrath of Ian Anderson, who still flinches when the P-word is thrown at him to describe early 70's albums Aqualung and Thick As A Brick. If you said folk-flavoured flute, that was the late 70's. If you said blues, then you're ... ah, old. You remember what Tull was at the start, the late 60's when blues was the thing in England, and everybody wanted to be Fleetwood Mac. When they were old, before the pop hits, and Stevie Nicks and ... oh, never mind. This is kind of a blues album.
Stand Up was the second LP for the group, from 1969, and already the group was changing from the successful debut, This Was of 1968. First off, their blues guitar player, Mick Abrahams, was gone, as Anderson wanted to broaden their sound. That first album had several instrumentals on it, and Anderson wanted to get into a broader sound, so in came the more malleable Martin Barre. While it wasn't a complete retreat from blues, it was a lot more diverse, it's most famous song the flute-jazz rave up on Bach, Bouree. Cuts such as We Used To Know were more hybrids, an electric blues track fused with Anderson's acoustic and introspective lyrics. Meanwhile Anderson and Barre actually played a double-flute part in Reasons For Waiting, a cut Cat Stevens could have performed. With its variety, and other stand-out cuts such as Fat Man and A New Day Yesterday, and a lack of the concept pieces that filled later albums, this is still the favourite Tull album for many, including Anderson himself.
This has been reissued before in 2010 with bonus cuts, a live disc and surround sound DVD even, but what's happened now is that it's joined the hugely popular current reissue series Tull has done since, featuring a six-inch tall hardcover package, huge liner notes, and the marvelous remastering job done by whiz Steven Wilson. The bonus stuff is very different as well; the live show from the first version was Carnegie Hall, but now we get one from Stockholm, as well as some excellent film from that stuff also on the DVD. There's also a previously-unreleased, and very different version of Bouree. In other words, if you own the first reissue, you pretty much have to keep that, and get the new one. Oh well, the more the merrier, and these boxes have been pretty decently priced, so fans will no doubt be happy with the upgrades. Oh, and it's a pop-up book too! Well, just one of the band, but still, that's fun for the kids.
The first place I heard of Gillian Welch, or at least saw her name, wasn't on her own release, but rather on Emmylou Harris's landmark Wrecking Ball. the song Orphan Girl. The old-time sound of that track fit in some nowhere place, ancient yet alive, the way music should be, of the moment but of none as well. On this new set, we get to hear what Harris first heard, passed to her on a home-recorded cassette. Eight months later, it was the lead track on Welch's debut, Revival.
Usually on these anniversary deluxe sets, we get the original album, perhaps with a minor sonic upgrade, and then if we're lucky, another disc of out-takes, b-sides and live tracks, or maybe just a live concert from the time. I love this way: Welch and co. assume, quite correctly, that anyone interested would already own the original, so why make us buy twice? I don't expect major corporate labels to follow suit on eliminating that tried-and-true profit-maker, but cheers to Welch for being generous. Instead, we get a two-CD set of completely new tracks from the Revival sessions, and a promise of more to come, as this is called Boots 1. In total, there are 21 tracks, including eight songs that have never appeared elsewhere.
Welch's name and fame were quick to spread just before Revival came out. Performers were clamouring for her demos, and hotshot producer T Bone Burnett was on board. 455 Rocket became a hit for Kathy Mattea, and the outtake unused for Revival is heard here. It's pretty shocking just how good the songs that weren't used are, not even picked up for her second album. Wichita is another, an uptempo acoustic number with Welch (and of course, partner David Rawlings) picking some fun bluegrass. Some songs were saved, such as Red Clay Halo, which made it on Time (The Revelator), and here we get the version squeezed off the first album for the crime of having too many good songs.
There are some significant differences among the alternate and demo versions from what came out on Revival, including the more rocking take on Pass You By, and certainly no-one's going to say it's too similar. It's a whole new way to hear the songs. Certainly the dreamy version of Paper Wings will be more than enough, with very prominent pedal steel, Welch repurposed as Patsy Cline. She even does a Johnny Cash-inspired cut, Dry Town, another vault gem. This is right up there with the best reissues I know.
Saturday, November 26, 2016
There are two ways to look at this. While it hints at a sense of desperation, trying to sell the old hits in a different way, you can also argue the band are giving fans exactly what they want. Here's the classic set list, the one that still sees fans by the thousands (mostly in far-flung spots in Europe or Australia, etc.) greet them wildly, like 1985 never ended. Acoustic is, as usual, a dubious way to describe what's happening. Let's say they've toned down the synth approach, replaced electric guitar with acoustic, and the booming drum sound is now a lighter, woodier one.
Still, the music is big and grandiose, There's nothing intimate about anthems such as Alive And Kicking and Waterfront. These are songs that all lead to the big, raise your lighter in the air moment (I guess it's cell phones now), and the stripped-down versions still deliver that oomph. Don't You (Forget About Me) still has its slow-burn, big finish format. Promised You A Miracle features a guest vocal from KT Tunstall, another bigger-in-Europe star, and North Americans would probably be pretty shocked to find out just how huge the band still is on their home side of the ocean. They have no problem playing major tours, especially now that they can do one leg in band format, another in acoustic, then switch them around on the next tour. Oh, and the current tour? It's a whole month in Germany, playing with an orchestra. Same songs, different presentation.
Friday, November 25, 2016
Kulnys' messages go down with a spoonful of sugar, thanks to her gorgeous voice with a big range and a great delivery, lots of character. Her music is easy-going acoustic, with plenty of help from pedal steel, keys, and uptempo rhythm sections. Plus, she mixes up the material, so for every message song, we got one from the personal side, such as the sexy I'm On Fire, and another that's positive and life-affirming. And this isn't bang-you-over-the-head socialism, it's thoughtful and inspirational, such as Roaring For A Revolution, about awaking the lion within us all, when the chips get down: "Rustling in the night/something alive and with a will to fight."
Kulnys plays album launch shows at the Queens Place Emera Centre in Liverpool tonight, Nov. 25, and then Saturday, Nov. 26 at Saint John's Anglican Church in Lunenburg, Saturday, Dec. 3 at the Music Room in Halifax, and then she's doing a Rise up residency at The Company House in Halifax, playing each Wednesday in December.
Thursday, November 24, 2016
Here's a wealth of Crowded House material that is going to keep fans busy until well past Christmas at least, and probably much longer as they take in all the new musical information included here. This is one of the most impressive reissue campaigns ever seen, and I'm not being hyperbolic. Every one of the band's studio collections has been reissued with an additional disc of mostly unreleased material, and in each case, that second disc is much longer than the original album it matches.
Then there's the look of them. Instead of throwing the sets out in regular jewel cases, each has been packaged in an enlarged box, with a hard cover, and a bigger picture than ever of the unique artwork created by band bassist Nick Seymour. The visual side of Crowded House was always a delight for fans, a bonus that reflected the group's sense of humour and whimsy. Also included is a full-sized book that features a new essay, info on all the bonus tracks, and lots and lots of pictures of original singles, posters and such, again a visual treat.
For bonus cuts, there's precious little filler, no extended versions or remixes, none needed, and very little live material, only cuts that were out there but very hard to collect now, on fan club issues or long-out-of-print CD singles. There are still many, many live shows in the vault, and the idea of a concert box set is still under serious consideration, the compilers have said. This only covers the initial releases of the band, and in the 2000s the group was reformed, after Hester's sad suicide, releasing two more albums, Time On Earth and Intriguer. Those two have been reissued in this same manor, and hopefully I'll get to those soon. Meanwhile, the band has been on hiatus since the Intriguer tour ended, except that this very evening, they take the stage once more, again at the Sydney Opera House, scene of their greatest concert triumph, for a special two nights honouring the group's 30th anniversary. I'd go, but I gotta work.
Wednesday, November 23, 2016
That means Greg Keelor shifts away from his more experimental side, and he sets the mood with opener Hard To Remember, a cheery-sounding romp with Byrds echoes, organ, a sweet lead guitar solo, and lots of mandolin. That mandolin is back in the fore on the next cut, even taking the big centerpiece solo, on one of Jim Cuddy's happy country-flavoured pieces called I Can't Hide This Anymore, where he hits those heart-tugging high notes. Keelor's Rabbit's Foot has Dylan verses but on pep pills, and a nifty chorus.
The group does lay back a bit in the second half, where we get the moody mystery of Keelor's Dust To Gold, with a western feel, or his Mascara Tears, a bittersweet electric piano, organ and pedal steel ballad. Cuddy brings it back up with a uptempo fun rocker called Superstar. It's a lark about the modern state of the musician: "Start a business, organics door-to-door/because nobody here buys records anymore." Maybe not in the numbers they once enjoyed, but that's not Blue Rodeo's fault, a group that continues to keep up the good work.
Tuesday, November 22, 2016
The fourth full-length for St. Thomas, Ont.'s Gauthier, which looks like a homespun, handmade set on the outside, but is remarkably polished and pleasing. Gauthier is a smooth-as-silk self-producer, with a dreamy, gentle sound and voice, using little or no percussion. The songs float on by, but never too sleepy, there's just enough of a rhythm to form an easy groove, and lots of warm vocal sounds to bring on smiles.
He's growing stronger still as a lyricist, and this one has a positive, thoughtful theme. While we're all passengers as life takes us along, there are plenty of opportunities to make it good, interesting, valuable. From great loves to late parents, there are songs of how we relate, and what we take from each other, what we can mean to different people. And on every song, at some point, Gauthier reaches back and hits a beautiful high note. This is great example of a sound matching a singer matching a lyric, all so soothing, right down to the few minutes of bird songs that quietly finish the vinyl version of the album. Speaking of that, you can pick up the limited edition, hand-signed and numbered clear vinyl copy at his website, www.denigauthier.com.
Monday, November 21, 2016
The main movie is a really good look at those years of intense Beatlemania, from Hamburg to their last tour in 1966. Much of this is so well-known, and the footage so familiar, Howard deserves great praise for making it seem so fresh, with lots of photos, fast cuts, and new interviews. Surprisingly, he does best with the hardest subject matter, the negative end to playing shows, the miserable last tours of 1966. Howard is able to show the frustration of the group over the awful conditions, he lets us hear some examples of bad shows they did due to weak P.A's, and being unable to duplicate the increased sophistication of records such as Paperback Writer, and the burn-out they suffered from overwork. It's well worth it.
The bonuses are plentiful, almost two hours worth, and mostly a series of mini-docs on a variety of break-out topics. There's a piece on Lennon & McCartney as songwriters, another on George's importance as a guitar player, innovator (the whole Indian music thing), and eventually a writer as well. Ringo gets his due as well. During these bits, there are more and more photos and film clips, many of which are rare, probably found buried for decades. In behind, you start to hear more gems, not just live material, but also studio chatter and out-takes, all the stuff producer Giles Martin (son of George) has control over, so his involvement in the film was crucial.
Several of the featured live cuts in the film are presented in their full-length versions, always great for collectors, especially those awesome 1963 colour clips, the incredible She Loves You that opens the film. Then, things really get interesting. There are more interview parts with some of the most interesting voices in the film, including Larry Kane, the lucky journalist who got invited to go on the North American tours, and had top access and is a great witness to everything that went down. There is a segment with three fans we see in some of the original TV footage, and find out how they came to be at shows such as Ed Sullivan or the first full concert in Washington, looking at themselves screaming back then. Ronnie Spector of The Ronettes tells the story of touring England with the group in 1963, befriending them, and then helping them escape the fan-surrounded hotel in New York and taking them to Harlem where they wouldn't be recognized. The official photographer for the Japan tour of 1966 was found, and he talks about covering the visit like a war correspondent, such was the intensity of the security.
You can buy the one-disc version, and save yourself some money, but this is The Beatles, and when there is new, revelatory footage and stories, I don't think it's the time to be cheap.
Friday, November 18, 2016
So this is the thing now, a career compilation to go along with a career autobiography. Elvis Costello did it very well, with a huge 2-disc set you could follow along as his career developed. Springsteen didn't do that great, with some not-too-exciting previously-unreleased songs from his pre-fame days, and then a quick career overview. Robertson does a much better job on his, with just the right amount of everything: A bit of pre-Band material from The Hawks days, some Dylan backing, plenty of Band, including a healthy amount of live stuff, and a decent but not overdone selection of his solo stuff. Also, he mixes it up instead of going chronologically, so you don't have the internal argument about which period was better while listening.
There's nothing new, aside from a remix done on a track from his first, self-titled solo album. Since he called the book Testimony, he had Bob Clearmountain spruce up that very track, and as he points out, where else are you going to find a cut that features jazz giant Gil Evans' horn arrangement, all of U2, Daniel Lanois, Ivan Neville, and Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards of Chic? Heady times. Of course, Robertson was by that time unphased by famous folks, having started out with rocker Ronnie Hawkins recording his songs while he was still a teen, touring the world with Dylan, and rubbing shoulders with pretty much everybody in pop culture. We hear a cut recorded with Hawkins, Come Love from 1961, while the Hawks were still in transition. Then there are a couple of the great R'n'B tracks after the group left Hawkins' employ, He Don't Love You, and the superb I'm Gonna Play The Honky Tonks (heard before on the Band box A Musical History), maybe the best cut out there proving Garth Hudson's claim that the very best Band music was the stuff they made while it was still Levon and the Hawks.
Robertson takes a side trip to his time as Dylan's lead guitar player on call, showcasing his studio work on the Blonde On Blonde track Obviously Five Believers. Then, it's The Band's turn, and instead of turning it into a greatest hits, he mixes up the live and studio tracks, choosing concert recordings for the best-known, including The Weight and The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down. He grabs some great but often ignored cuts, such as the Cahoots track Bessie Smith, and the studio cut Out Of The Blue from The Last Waltz set, which he sang beautifully, for all those who say he never sang on Band songs. Wrapping up with a little solo work here and there, it's a fine job at telling his career story and keeping it fresh, something that's hard to do given the fame of much of this music.
Thursday, November 17, 2016
I love the way this album sounds, which is unlike anything I can easily summon up for comparison. Echo and empty spaces are used to great effect in places, the cut I Can't Help It in particular sounding like it's come from some thick-walled old prison. Then there's the guitar work by a rotating group that features Keith Hallett, Carter Chaplin, Marc Doucet and Christien Belliveau, Producer Mike Trask sets it apart in the sound, with sizzling effects and nasty bites, an altogether fascinating sonic palette.
Volumes Of Beautiful Words has a huge guitar effect throughout, an eerie squall like the wind from an oncoming storm. Meantime, Richard is weaving in some magical words: "Neither volumes of beautiful words or an understanding of the rule of thirds can help you now," the rule of thirds being a photographer's technique to compose a shot by breaking the image into three vertical and horizontal lines.
I Wish You'd Come With Me features soulful horns, a passionate vocal, but again a wild tone and surprising but very effective guitar notes from Marc Doucet, like a blues version of Lindsey Buckingham. Black Church is a tour-de-force which follows a drunkard through the Dublin streets, while more wild, mysterious guitar follows Richard's vocal through the lengthy journey. It features a full confession when the protagonist faces the priest: "He could swear he heard a snicker from the vicar's side of the booth." Nice internal rhyme, that.
I like how the set starts with a somewhat normal cut, I Fall Apart, which features some Hendrix-inspired salvos, and ends on a relatively familiar ballad style with All The Proof I Need, but goes in so many surprising and fulfilling ways throughout. I'm going to have to champion this one.
Wednesday, November 16, 2016
1995's Wrecking Ball was a complete artistic rebirth for Harris, as she abandoned the path of popular country music, and became the first star of what became known as roots or Americana. This was accomplished with the full encouragement of producer Daniel Lanois, who brought his modern soundscapes to her music, as well as his covers of his own songs, and similar writers such as Neil Young, Gillian Welch and Steve Earle.
The last piece of the transformation came five years later. Harris was always known as a great interpreter, who rarely dared bring her own writing forward. But her new style had also brought her lots of new confidence, and the floodgates opened. She chose to make her next solo studio album, 2000's Red Dirt Girl, all her own songs (save one, by pal Patty Griffin). Lanois was unavailable to continue, but his mixer, engineer, and lieutenant Malcolm Burn did return as producer, and the album earned a Grammy award for folk recording of the year, using much the same kind of sound found on Wrecking Ball.
If she had been worried about her own writing not matching that of her famous pals and peers, she needn't have been. The shock here wasn't that she was doing it, but just how great a songwriter she was. There were a couple of co-writes, by notables such as Rodney Crowell and Guy Clark, but on her own, there were stunning, deeply powerful numbers, including The Pearl and Michelangelo, with spiritual qualities. Harris was also a fine storyteller, as the title track showed, about watching a small-town friend grow up into a harsh reality. She could even have fun, with Boy From Tupelo, a break-up song featuring sage advice from the king of rock'n'roll.
The big news with this reissue is that it's the first time the album has come out on vinyl, stretched out over a 2-LP set here. You'd think it would be a natural for the new generation of vinyl collector, but actually the style of production, that murky, mysterious New Orleans vibe Burn and Lanois had developed, doesn't lend itself that well to 33 and a third. I think it would take a significant remix for that, which would actually change the whole idea of the recording. No matter, it's always nice to have the vinyl of a great album.
Tuesday, November 15, 2016
A new bio on the 20th century's favourite harmony act. You can't say pop, or rock and roll, or country, because they got claimed by all the formats, big hits on all the charts. This doc does a great job explaining why, and what made the duo so special, from the brotherly harmonies to Bo Diddley guitar mixed in to the great songs written for them by Felice and Boudleaux Bryant and the ones they came up with as well. There are new interview bits with Don, archive ones from the late Phil, and lots of famous fans as well: Keith Richards, Graham Nash, Art Garfunkel and Dave Edmunds all have strong insights and personal connections and stories, which is a bonus, especially hearing Richards and Nash talk about meeting them in England in the 60s at the start of their careers. Their influence, especially on the Beatles, Hollies and Simon and Garfunkel, was key to all their careers.
Even better are explaining sections from guitar greats and former sidemen to the brothers, Albert Lee and Waddy Wachtel, who give us musician's secrets to the duo's excellence, plus dish a tiny bit of dirt and background tales of the famously feuding siblings. Nicely though, they also talk about the good times, when both would end up in the late-night hotel jams singing old country favourites. Because this was made by the always-excellent Reelin' In The Years company, there's a ton of great clips from early TV shows, and even an aircheck of the boys as part of the family act on radio in 1950.
It flies past, and sadly, it's just an hour long, meaning important moments are skipped over, entire segments of their career missing, and nothing but a mention of their 80s reunion and subsequent tours and albums. To make up for that, there are some bonus extended interviews with several of the stars, including some really good stories, so they are worth a watch. But even better is a second disc, another example of Reelin' digging deep and finding gems. It's a concert from 1968, originally broadcast on Australian TV, from a spot in Sydney called Chequers Nightclub. As explained in the documentary, the mighty had fallen by this time, one of the many American acts in decline after the British Invasion. They were still making great music, as their recent single, Bowling Green, played here shows, but they were by then a club act. A great one mind you, but it really is odd to see Don being a comedian before and sometimes during songs, with Phil as the straight man, sort of like the Smothers Brothers, only with weaker material but a lot better music. To hear the closing encore of the show, the beautiful 1940s number Kentucky, is all the proof you'll ever need they were the very best harmony singers.
Monday, November 14, 2016
Oh what to do when you can do too much? That's always the issue facing Montreal's Dawn Tyler Watson. Fluent in jazz, soul, gospel and all variants of blues (acoustic, electric, rhythm and..., etc.), she moves from project to project, gig to gig, basically just killing them all. This time out, it's a new one for sure, one that incorporates several of her styles, with a big, gutsy backing.
For Jawbreaker, she's enlisted Ben Racine and his band, fellow respected Montrealers. The sextet is known for its heavy 50s/60s R'n'B stylings, and here they let Watson go all out on some of that gospel-flavoured, high-energy material. Shine On has all the power of a revival meeting, with Watson joined by vocalist Patrick Lehman, playing off each other at full throttle. Racine himself joins in for a duet next, this time on the far more soulful and smooth Just A Little Bit More, doing a little Dinah Washington/Brook Benton action.
The Racine group sits out for Tootsie Roll Blues, an acoustic number with upright bass from Morgan Moore, which brings in an equal portion of jazz. In the ultimate Montreal tribute, Watson, and Racine band groove through Smoked Meat, an organ-and-horn workout, on rye with a pickle on the side. That, my friends, is funky.
Sunday, November 13, 2016
Roberts and Co. back off the synth of 2014's Lo-Fantasy a bit and get back to more urgent rock and roll sounds on this latest set, the group's sixth full-length. There's occasionally some bubbliness to tracks such as Lake Effect, but the set is dominating more by ringing rock, a wall of guitars, drums, keys all mashed up and coming fast and tough. On top of it all is Roberts' winning voice, meaning business yet still highly melodic.
There's still just enough of a synth bed to give the album a glossy sheen as well, every once in while reaching the surface to add an 80s air. But the Roberts Band is always more about the songs than style, and while they move back and forth a bit from album to album, you can always count on high-quality, driving numbers with just a big of mystery, such as closer Spring Fever or first single If You Want It.
The group kicks off an East Coast tour over the next week, before heading off to U.S. dates. On Tuesday, Nov. 16 they are at Casino New Brunswick in Moncton, on Wednesday it's the Convention Centre in St. John's, Thursday the Halifax Forum, and Friday Murphy's Community Centre in Charlottetown. Adam Baldwin will be opening all those shows.
Saturday, November 12, 2016
Kim Wilson's sounding even more like those deep-voiced 60's Stax singers such as William Bell, or even King. A little B.B. in there as well. His always nasty harmonica playing leads the way, there's a good amount of added horns, and the rest is tight, in the pocket playing, focused on the groove. There's not much guitar heroics, this is clearly Wilson's band, and the songs are the key. For that, it has a confident, and professional feel, in the very best sense of that word.