Monday, November 12, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: THE HEADSTONES - PICTURE OF HEALTH Remastered

It's the early '90's, and America is all about grunge. While those angsty types are in their parents' basements, moaning about their awful teen years, what do we have in Canada? We have songwriters, of course. Not Lightfoot though, I'm talking about punkish/rock and roll songwriters. Hugh Dillon had lots to say, and it wasn't all woe is me. And the hard-rockin' Headstones weren't about posing, they were the real deal. Sure there was anger, but it was directed at the right sources, not just cries for help. And they could laugh about it all too.

The band built a sizeable following with this debut album, won some awards, broke up and came back, and they still have a loyal fan base. The roots of that are all here, from their high-energy performances to dark but thoughtful lyrics to rebellion to punkish fun. The delightfully twisted Cemetery both shocked and amused: "Went down to the cemetery, looking for love/got there and my baby was buried, I had to dig her up." The tale of poor J-Jude-Judy was definitely an early warning, when people didn't talk about mental health. The group managed to bring out the dark side of The Traveling Wilburys, with their well-known cover of Tweeter and the Monkey Man. And there's even a bit of unabashed sentimentality in When Something Stands For Nothing, with its "rock'n'roll, comic books and bubble gum."

This 25th anniversary reissue adds four bonus tracks. There is a trio of demos for the album, Cemetery, When Something Stands For Nothing, and a very fine song called Sweet Pea that didn't make the album, maybe a little on the cartoonish side. Then there's Skin Me Alive, and interestingly, the current band has re-recorded that original song from their first demo tape for this set. It's darn hard, lots of energy, and it's surprising it didn't make the album 25 years ago. It also shows the band has no problem doing it these days.  The Headstones are currently on tour, playing the entire Picture Of Health at each show.

Friday, November 9, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: JETHRO TULL - THIS WAS 50th ANNIVERSARY EDITION

Jethro Tull, blues band? You mean that flute-wielding, tights-wearing, concept album-making, prog band? And lets not forget, winner of the first-ever Grammy for hard rock/metal album (chortle). But yes, dear reader, this was 1968, and every respectable new band in England was in blues, whether it was Fleetwood Mac or the New Yardbirds/Led Zeppelin. So you had Mr. Anderson and crew appearing on the BBC covering Sonny and Brownie, singing "My baby left me, my mule got lame/Lost all my money in a poker game." Plus, he was playing blues harp.

The thing is, they were a very good blues band, and Anderson did take out the flute and make it sound pretty good in that style. About half the songs on this debut album are instrumental, and the fledgling band had a smooth jazz/blues style, which hinted at interesting things in the future. Vocal numbers such as My Sunday Feeling were more modern and melancholy. Others, including Beggar's Farm, had a Mose Allison-meets-Aqualung mix, and allowed for lots of riffing, from both our favourite flautist and the guitar stylings of Mick Abrahams.

This 50th anniversary edition is actually being used to bring This Was in line with the other reissue boxes in the Tull catalogue. When it was first expanded, it was a smaller package, but over the last few years all the '70's records have come out in these excellent small box packages, with several discs and an excellent on-going book treatment, featuring very comprehensive notes and interviews, including most group members and the ever-pithy Anderson. Fans cried for this one to join the club too, and it's an excellent effort, adding even more bonus material. It's now a three-CD, one-DVD set, with plenty of previously unreleased out-takes, versions and BBC sessions, different mono and singles mixes, and a stereo remix by Steven Wilson, whose work has been featured on all the Tull reissues. The DVD has all the digital sound, except that it's only a 4.1 mix rather than 5.1, which bothers some people, but hey, there were only four musicians playing anyway. And purists get the original stereo and mono album mixes too. Interesting, that Anderson was one heck of a good harp player.  But I'd hate to have had him stick to that course, and miss out on Thick As A Brick.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: SARAH MACDOUGALL - ALL THE HOURS I HAVE LEFT TO TELL YOU ANYTHING

MacDougall is so talented, she has two countries claiming her; Canada, where she now lives, and her birthplace, Sweden, where she's considered one of the country's best songwriters. Too bad, Swedes, as she now lives way up north in Whitehorse. Of course, between Sweden and the Yukon, she's bound to have people searching for icy and isolated themes, but I'd say there's a lot more warmth to her songwriting, certainly an empathy for humanity. The songs on her fourth album go through the ups and downs of life, from years that seem too long, to moments (like the birth of a child) that go past way too fast. She's not afraid of making big statements, such as "I love you like the sky loves a bird," the kind that make you stop and take in the words.

There's an epic, wide-open feel to the music, which I guess is the most northern aspect to find. If left alone, these would be gentle folk songs, but the grand production from Montreal's Marcus Paquin adds a largeness to the music, to counter the intimacy of her interesting voice, slightly quirky in a Jane Siberry way, and tender too. They even manage a Euro-dance beat in the closer Shed No Tears For Me. Give it up Sweden, we're not letting go of her now.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: THE KINKS - ARE THE VILLAGE GREEN PRESERVATION SOCIETY

Village Green has been reissued before, with bonus tracks galore and in mono/stereo, but this is the most meticulous version, sure to excite fans of this classic 1968 release. BMG has released it as a huge, 11-piece super-deluxe box, with 5 CD's, LP's and 45's, housed in a monster package with memorabilia and a hard-bound book, at $170 bucks. We'll look at the more affordable 2-disc set however, and you crazed fans (well, me) can decide to upgrade later if you want.

Like The Beach Boys at roughly the same period, The Kinks started making their best albums as their popularity plummeted, their pop audience not making the transition from hit 45's to art rock with them. Such were the vagaries of success, the album wasn't celebrated like other classics of the time. Still in the same month we'll celebrate the 50th anniversary of the White Album, this birthday party will be much more subdued, even though Village Green stands equal if not higher to that set. So be it, it just means more folks may come across this for the first time and be amazed.

The great irony of this album is that we have Ray Davies singing about an England that was fast disappearing, about steam trains and village greens and other institutions, looking back with sadness at boyhood pals and lost girlfriends, going through old photos, and he was all of 24. But we're not quite sure if he's celebrating the old empire days, mocking them or simply catching on to the sea change that was changing his family and all the others. There's lots of winking going on, and by the time the original album closes, with People Take Pictures Of Each Other, he sounds pretty fed up with nostalgia. By the way, that should be the theme song for the selfie generation.

Davies was writing like crazy during this period, and at one point this was going to be a double album. It was also hauled back from the original release, with different tracks added, so there are a ton of bonus cuts to fill up this double CD. There's also the brilliant single Days, surely one of The Kinks' very best, and other associated cuts, with both mono and stereo mixes, so lots to choose from. Although the bulk have come out in the various reissues and box sets, and made up part of the 1973 Great Lost Kinks Album, fans will find some exciting, brand new things here. There's a cut called Time Song which comes from 1973, when Davies was revisiting the Village Green period, with its logical successor, Preservation Act One, which apparently was supposed to have been started right after Village Green but got delayed. At those same sessions, the band recorded brand-new versions of four Village Green numbers, including the title cut, and Picture Book/People Take Pictures Of Each Other in a medley. These are quite different and very fun, with the band now able to afford real horns and stringss and backing singers, and give the songs more of a theatrical approach. This is a real highlight for us well-familiar with the other bonus cuts. For you comers, let in all soak in, and then start saving that 170 bucks.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: THE SKYLARKS - ON THE BACK OF THE NEW

L.A. veterans The Skylarks have honed their sound over the course of four albums and lineup changes, moving from more of a singer-songwriter project for original member Sam Mellon to the current Americana focus, more of a band approach. With harmonies and occasional lead vocals from Amy Luftig-Viste, there's a solid guy-gal approach right across the album, which helps it stand out from the majority of roots-rock releases. They're also not afraid to have a trumpet do solos on a couple of tracks, trading off with guitar heroics and driving rhythms.

Lyrics still play a big part for the band, especially in helping set the mood of the songs. On The Back Of The New feels unsettled and mysterious, claustrophobic guitar and synth over lines such as "Laughing with a toxic grin," before a dreamy chorus. No Surrender has a Byrds psychedelic feel with that jazz trumpet back.  Songs that start as small life dramas blossom into twangy West Coast productions. In Centipede feels like the band X if they moved out to Joshua Tree. The Skylarks are one of the those bands you love to brag about to like-minded friends.

Monday, October 29, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: KEN TIZZARD - A GOOD DOG IS LOST; A COLLECTION OF RON HYNES SONGS

Lots of musicians can testify to friendship and inspiration from the late Ron Hynes. He was generous with his time and advice, especially for up-and-coming Newfoundland songwriters. Of course, some shared a bit more, including Tizzard who toured with Hynes as his bass player for a time. A member of The Watchmen and Thornley, and now a solo artist, got to know Hynes' songs well, and learn some of what drove their creator.

For the community of musicians, fans, and fellow NL'ers, Hynes' loss is still fresh and keenly felt. It's an album that needed to be made, and heard widely, as Tizzard does Ron right, and does him proud. He's chosen a cross-section of the well-known and lesser-known, but of course they're all gems, every one. He's put his own spin on several of the tracks, nothing too off-kilter, just different arrangements or productions. "Man Of A Thousand Songs" gets a slower take, some are a little more country, and Amelia Curran, another of Hynes' friends, duets on St. John's Waltz. Sonny's Dream is here, how could it not be, and bigger fans will be pleased to hear deep cuts such as 1962 and the title song, as perfect a lyric about the depths of emotion as exists.

Tizzard doesn't overdue anything, nor play it for self-glory. The songs are the stars, he brings the right tone to each one, and lets us sit back and appreciate them once again. The point is to keep the songs in front of audiences, and Tizzard's versions are really worth hearing.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: THE ARKELLS - RALLY CRY

The Arkells take their jobs seriously, and the group is certainly not resting on their now-solid laurels. With album number five, the band is pushing envelopes both lyrically and musically, yet still sounding catchy and exciting.

There's a great deal of empathy across the album, with songs about mental health challenges, people struggling with the crap stuck on them as kids, and friends who are hurting. But there's some new-found anger too, as they found they couldn't hold back from taking aim at what they're witnessing in the U.S. The cut American Screams is like witnessing a nightmare out of the tour bus window: "You keep repeating that wicked catch phrase, painted on the Interstate/All the billboards, they get me lonely/I can't sleep off these American Screams tonight." Later, in People's Champ, they call out Trump for his vanity and worse, and point out we know this ain't going to end well: "I already know how the history books will react."

Even with the heavier topics, the group doesn't let the energy flag, and tries a few new tricks as well. While there's still lots of rock guitar, the beats are bigger this time, and an afro-pop sample drives the single Relentless. Until the final track, the gentle plea to friends who are hurting, the calm Don't Be A Stranger, this is basically a dance party. There's a whole lot of creative confidence going on with Rally Cry, yet it's so fan-friendly, their audience should grow right along with them.