Monday, September 29, 2014


It's acoustic-based pop, with a little folk and a bit more soul, and a lot emotion.  Hayes digs deep to find the truths, how love has affected her and guides her life.  She puts all that into her vocals, expressing for the most part a warmth that she has gained from these experiences.  The four songs here come from her own life stories, and love experiences, but not all romantic ones; there's one that focuses on the love of a child, and another from a dream about being with all the right kind of people who understand you.  Hayes is also a theatre performer, which explains her ability to connect, and her emphasis on communication, without tricks in the way.

The young Toronto singer-songwriter doesn't bother with any hip production or sounds, ironic lyrics or obscure references.  On her debut studio work, a four-track E.P., it's singer-songwriter stuff about love, with basic instruments, and no effects, no layers of ambiance or loops.  Just piano, drums, acoustic guitars, organ, a couple of horns, harmonica, and the singer.  Hayes doesn't even have any echo or electronic presence on her voice that I can hear, it's about as clean as you're going to get, as little between you, the singer and the band as can be. 

Thursday, September 25, 2014


This is Winchester's final statement, after dying from cancer last April.  It wasn't planned that way; he actually wrote the songs in the period when he was first treated, and before the cancer reoccurred.  Most of them come from a good and positive place, and although he certainly was singing about his mortality at times, it was with the best, life-affirming attitude.  He does look back some, with good memories and no regrets, plus he questions what happens next, in Neither Here Nor There:  "I played for the famous, and I worried the neighbours, and I don't expect you to care/This is neither here nor there."

The album opener, All That We Have Is Now, positively beams with a live-in-the-moment message, and could be the theme song for anyone 50-plus, Winchester stating the whole thing has been such fun.  Closing song Just So Much is much more melancholy, as he finally gets to what he's worrying about, his own fate.  Here he questions God about eternity, but then realizes he needs to make peace with the present instead of worrying about a next life:  "Why won't he tell me what it's about/give me some answers, clear up my doubt/But there is just so much, only so much that the Lord can do."

It's incredibly touching, but that's with the knowledge of his passing looming over the album.  Winchester might have written any of these without the illness of his last few years, he's always been capable of touching hearts, and searching his own.  The album isn't really meant to be sad or heavy, there are even fun covers here such as the old Cascades hit, Rhythm Of The Rain.  Nor is it a statement like Warren Zevon's final work, The Wind, or a cathartic need to record, like Johnny Cash's American V and VI albums.  Winchester was writing and recording what he was thinking and feeling, same as always.  He didn't leave a message, he left a present.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014


One of my very favourite Mitchell albums, and while I love the naked and intimate Blue, and equally the pop-jazz joy of Court & Spark, Hejira might be her very best.  It features the full flowering of her jazz explorations, remarkable melodies and chord choices, plus fascinating stories and the great Jaco Pastorius on bass.  The album has now been reissued on 180-gram vinyl, still the best way to enjoy its warmth and rich highs and lows, to my declining ears.

Hejira was one of five Mitchell albums to be voted in the 2007 book The Top 100 Canadian Albums (Goose Lane), compiled from a poll of over 500 Canadian music professionals.  It finished at #52, following Blue at #2, Court and Spark at 18, Ladies of the Canyon at #81 and The Hissing of Summer Lawns at #88.  Here's what I wrote in that book:

In three years, Joni Mitchell recorded three albums  - each a major accomplishment - in completely different styles.  The leaps from Court and Spark to The Hissing of Summer Lawns to Hejira are radical and fully realized.  On Hejira, she focuses on more complete story-songs; musically, she graduates to work with a major collaborator.

Jaco Pastorius was a young and already influential bass player, part of the jazz-fusion group Weather Report.  His fluid playing could dominate a song.  He wasn't there to keep the bottom end - Pastorius's bass was a moaning counterpoint to the melody, and working with him meant Mitchell had crossed a line into more advanced modern jazz.  His four appearances here began a studio and concert partnership that completely altered Mitchell's music for the rest of the seventies.

Hejira is a traveling album, its characters restless and on the move.  The protagonist of Black Crow is even trapped in travel, locked into a cycle of ferry to highway to plane to train, unsure if there's a home and peace to find.  Amelia makes an icon of that mysterious lost pilot, Amelia Earhart.  In this tale, the pilot doesn't crash, she ascends, swallowed by the sky, and the singer dreams of joining her.  Was it a suicidal thought?  We are told it was just a false alarm.

For the first time since Blue, Mitchell settles into a musical mood for the whole album.  Given the lyrics, it's no surprise it's melancholy.  Yet each song has power instead of sadness, and the characters have dignity.  Coyote, Amelia, the ancient bluesman Furry Lewis, Sharon - they are all heroes, and people on the journey.  As much as the singer longs to get home, the trip offers some wonderful stories.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014


So here it is the week of Leonard Cohen's 80th, and the release of his latest album, and what does his kid do?  Copy him and release an album too.  Now, that word, copy.  There's the big question.  Cohen fils has given up trying to sound differently from his father, and for his last couple of albums has deliberately gone the other way, making with the references and the nylon-stringed guitar and a picture of vintage dad on the back cover.  Is it a case of if you can't beat 'em, join 'em?  Or shall we be more cynical?

I think it's all okay.  Adam Cohen's a lot younger of course, and more of a pop guy than his father ever was.  There are plenty of touches you're not going to hear in a Leonard album, such as the driving drums and hand claps of We Go Home, leading into a chorus of voices that is much more Arcade Fire.  Adam has the family voice, but a bit better and stronger, and when he's doing his Leonard style, it's 1971, not from The Future.  And if you judge this by the songwriting, he really is a fine and tight songwriter, and he'd certainly have people gushing over his tracks if we'd never heard of his father.

He does go overboard.  For instance, "So Much To Learn" goes "You gotta carry your father's name," certainly a normal statement from anyone else, but he knows what everyone will think.  If it's not obvious enough, "Uniform" begins "They tried to take Manhattan," and then in "Love Is", he sings "Love is a line from Hallelujah...".  I just don't know what to say about that.  I can say I really like this album though, it's his best yet, and I guess we should just sit back and enjoy any release from the company of L. Cohen and Son.

Monday, September 22, 2014


No longer 17, but still sexy, Brian Setzer continues on the rockabilly train, one of the few but proud who keep the music alive.  It's been 31 years since The Stray Cats bothered the Top 40, 21 since the last album by the band, and 10 since they last toured, but there's still a great love and appreciation for the sizzling sound Setzer makes.  He continues to offer up short, fast and fun numbers such as opening cut Let's Shake, a blazing number at double-speed, with a some major guitar solos from Setzer, and mighty Jerry Lee-piano pounding from Kevin KcKendree.  It's an absolute rip-roaring number that may be too good to open with, it's that hard to beat.

Setzer then mixes it up with more picking, on the semi-autobiographical Rockabilly Blues, and some fun novelty numbers.  That's part of the genre, having some fun, making some puns, keeping it light in the lyrics but crazy in the playing.  Vinyl Records is a perfect update for today, about a woman who has to have her music the classic way:  "She plays vinyl records/45 RPM/Vinyl records/She drops down the needle and spins them again."  Stiletto Cool is about a dangerous femme fatale, straight out of film noire.  The best pun is I Should'a Had a V-8, not the juice but the car, because a V-6 doesn't cut it.  Sprinkle in a couple of slower cuts, and lots and lots of fireworks from the guitar, and this is everything you want from rockabilly, something that just won't die, and here's why.

Friday, September 19, 2014


I figure every album by The New Pornographers is a bonus.  The ad-hoc semi-supergroup could have easily been a one-off, and certainly its the type of collective that flames out after a great first album and a lame second (lookin' at you, Wilburys).  But no, every album is a blessing, and now that the band has six of them since 2000, I guess we can figure the members are committed.  Given that Carl Newman gets a lot more attention for these sets than his (excellent) solo discs, it's a good bet he's going to keep trying hard, same with Destroyer's Dan Bejar, the other writer involved.

There's even a nice, big old tour this fall, although a crack has happened in the ranks since the album came out at the end of August.  Drummer Kurt Dahle has split, and that's a shame, as his powerhouse percussion is one of the driving forces on the album.  He's the kind of player you can concentrate on, picking out great individual performances within the whole.  His work on Brill Bruisers is the source of much of the energy.  As usual, this is an aural delight, music infused with a ton of motivation, an antidote to crabbiness.  Newman delights in pop arrangements, and creates such great parts for himself, Neko Case and the rest.  Hearing his stunning and fun tracks, such as Champions Of Red Wine, with 70's synth lines and ELO effects, and Case just as smooth as can be on the verses, is such a pleasure, as they are just so joyous.  Bejar does himself proud as well on this three cuts, including the lead single, War On The East Coast, with a little more edge and some subtle Joy Division moments in there.  But it's still plenty poppy, with Dahle's dynamite pounding and more synth.  It's quite breathless at the end.  So thanks again gang, I know you have other things to do, but your continued work is greatly appreciated.

Thursday, September 18, 2014


At first it seemed like The Tea Party reunion was for live shows, with successful tours of Canada and Australia (the group's other big market), and a live album and DVD.  But promises were made and kept, and the group is now seemingly in it for the long haul, throwing just as much work into the new album as the road show.  While most bands, after 10 years apart, aren't able to recapture past glories or move on to new ones, The Ocean At The End is more than a strong return.  It actually does the job of tightening up all the little bits of influences The Tea Party had back in the 90's, and streamlines the group's sound in a way that could open up a different and positive second act.

The band always had a Middle-Eastern influence, too much at times, as it overshadowed the rest of the story.  That's been pushed way down for this album, in favour of rock, lots of rock.  You have Jeff Martin's deep vocals, Jeff Burrows' great (rock) rhythms and explosive playing, and Stuart Chatwood's keyboard and bass textures.  The music is never three chords of simplicity; they are still making complex, layered structures, but the music punches all the way through.  I don't remember Martin sounding so devilish before, but maybe that's the hellfire that rears up behind him in places.  There are gentler moments as well, including a faithful remake of Daniel Lanois' The Maker.  But The Black Sea, well, that's near-Death Metal.  And bonus points for getting Ian Anderson (Tull, you know) to the flute honours on the title cut.  A surprisingly welcome return.