Sunday, February 7, 2016
Classic hard rock fans will get a kick out of the fact Leslie West is still sounding bigger and badder than ever. The Great Fatsby, the leader of Mountain, was one of the true heavyweight guitar players of the late '60's/early '70's, renowned for the hit Mississippi Queen, his massive sound and wicked vibrato. West counted the very best among his friends and admirers, including Hendrix, Pete Townshend (he played on the first Who's Next sessions) and Johnny Winter. Then there's the little supergroup he formed with Jack Bruce and Corky Laing, and apparently there are still some ears ringing from that band's gigs back in the day.
West has been on a recording role for the last few years, back in the saddle with the hard stuff, some blues and an occasional acoustic jam. There's no shortage of friends ready to pitch in, including Brian May of Queen, Peter Frampton, Mussel Shoals swamper David Hood on bass and former Domino Bobby Whitlock on organ. Even the late Bruce appears, as West found an old live tape of them playing a crushing version of Spoonful, in the Cream mode.
There's a couple of okay originals, but mostly West relies on covers, to which he can apply his famous signature sound, and this truly is a guitar player's album. It's not about fast, it's about tone, and finding new ways to present classics. There's everything from People Get Ready to Tracy Chapman's Give Me One Reason to a minor-key take on Your Are My Sunshine. As a tribute to his pal Howard Stern, there's the refreshing acoustic piece A Stern Warning.
West's no great vocalist, so the album falters a bit in that regard. Loud, he tries for the same space as AC/DC's Brian Johnson, but without the dynamics. Still, pretty good for a 70-year old. The best track doesn't even have him on it, singing or playing. Instead, he hands a solo cut over to his bass player, Rev Jones, who does a one-man, one-take version of Eleanor Rigby that's kind of mind-blowing. That's a pretty humble move.
Friday, February 5, 2016
Long-lasting Toronto tuneful punksters Broomfiller have let lose the second single, Tears Me Apart, from their 2015 return album, Third Stage Propellor Index. Around since the early 2000's, this is just the group's third album proper, and first in almost a decade. But energetic guitar and a feisty attitude never goes out of style, nor does a catchy song.
Tears Me Apart's a fine example of what the band is about on this album. The melody and vocal stands out even though the punk staples are still in place. And while the music may not be quite hard core, the emotions are. Like other songs on the set (first single How Long, So Long), the raw side of love is being studied, split-ups and those who probably should.
That's not to say Broomfiller can't bring it; Amputake crashes just fine, the guitar riff is nasty and discordant, and the whole thing is pleasantly unpleasant. It's tricky finding a balance between punk and musical, and Broomfiller does it well.
Wednesday, February 3, 2016
One nice thing about the vinyl comeback is that many forgotten or ignored albums are back for another chance. Not every piece of an artist's catalogue was given a deluxe reissue, or any sort of notice on CD, but vinyl doesn't care about bonus tracks or liner notes. In this case, these relatively unheralded albums from Morrison can be judged on their original merits once again.
From the early '80's, these albums are vastly different from each other, at a time when Morrison seemed adrift and searching for a sound. The r'n'b of his most-loved '70's albums had been left behind, replaced by forays into Celtic, jazz, atmospheric new age synth sounds, and spiritual excursions. They can be fascinating, rambling and frustrating, often on the same side of one LP.
Common One comes from 1980, and is a hybrid of Celtic and jazz. It's also a spiritual collection, something that does link all three of the albums. In this case, the songs are epics, just six of them, with the sides coming in at 28 and 26 minutes aside. Haunts of Ancient Peace sets the mood, with lots of single horn parts from sax man Pee Wee Ellis and trumpeter Mark Isham, background singers doing the ooh's, and mythological lyrics. Van the spiritual man, then. His lyrics are influenced by classic poets, with Summertime in England, in its 15 minutes, a celebration of nature and the people who wrote about it, Blake, Elliot, Wordsworth. Joyce and Coleridge all referenced. Moving through different tempos and sections, Morrison riffs and raps, playing with the strings and horns, making this a fun and unique track.
The worst thing about Beautiful Vision is its bland and pointless cover, some half-moon image in front of a star field with a hand coming out. That alone probably cost the album about 200,000 copies in sales. Too bad, as it is his most accessible album from this period. It features solid and uplifting songs such as Vanlose Stairway, Cleaning Windows, Dweller on the Threshold and the title cut. The music is a little too atmospheric at this point, as he continued to edge towards the non-groove side of jazz. It would have been a much better album
with the songs approached in funkier arrangements.
From 1983 comes Inarticulate Speech of the Heart, where Morrison allows the synth and New Age sounds to dominate several songs. There's an annoying sheen to the album, and as producer, he's to blame. The bottom end is flattened out, there's too much echo on his vocals, and what good songs are here are neutered. Four bland instrumentals don't help either. Also, like Beautiful Vision, it features a ghastly cover, both designed by some guy named Rudi Legname. Oh, and Van gives special thanks to L. Ron Hubbard too. It taxes the patience of even the biggest Van fan I'd think.
But there are good songs here, which would blossom in other settings. The title cut, in two different versions has lyrical merit and sounded good live. Irish Heartbeat makes its debut, albeit barely Irish here but would soon great when used as the title cut of his much-loved album with The Chieftains in 1987. Rave On, John Dunne, his spoken-word with instrumental backing poem would be one of the highlight's of the Live at the Grand Opera House Belfast album the next year.
It was a tough period for Morrison, not without its rewards, but not one to dwell to long in. Vinyl is the best friend of these releases as it turns out, as 20 or 25 minutes is about all you need at a time.
Thursday, January 28, 2016
Too hard to find for years, finally reissued, this 1991 compilation has to be in the top ten all-time of box sets. It has everything. There are nine CD's, each one over 70 minutes, stuffed with 244 tracks. There's an incredible booklet, written by Grammy Award-winner Rob Bowman from Toronto (he won for Vol. 3 of this series). It's comprehensive, as it features every A-side of every single released by the company during these years, as well as several important B-sides. And, it's simply awesome musically.
You'll know the big names of course: Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Booker T. & the MG's. If you're a southern soul fan, you'll know some of the secondary acts, or some of their hits: Eddie "Knock On Wood" Floyd, Carla "Gee Whiz" Thomas. If you're a collector, this just knocks your socks off. The brilliant Mable John, once a Raelette with Ray Charles, is featured with her best-known cut, Your Good Thing (Is about to end), but it gets better and better over the collection, with one rich vocal after another. The second-line hits, barely remembered now and never played on radio, pack just as powerful a punch. Floyd's Big Bird is dramatic, killer. Carla Thomas made several appearances on the charts, but it's shocking she didn't have more top hits.
Then there's her dad, Rufus. Often thought of as the clown prince of the label, a disc jockey with a string of early hits based on the dance the Dog, shows his funky grooves each time out, with The Memphis Train maybe the best, without a gimmick in it. One-hit vocal groups the Mad Lads, The Astors and Jeanne & the Darlings prove to be rich in material. Then there are the one-time-only appearances, such as the Four Shells, cuts that can often prove to be great discoveries. Check out their Hot Dog on YouTube.
The story of the label has been well-documented, especially by Bowman in his exhaustive notes and companion book, Soulsville U.S.A. - The Story of Stax Records, a must-read. So it's no secret how this great music happened, an incredible only-in-Memphis blend of white and black, rhythm 'n' blues and country, tremendous musical talent, everyone in the right place at the right time. The players, producers and writers were key, the same as at Motown, only they were better-known than their Detroit competitors, because they were mostly recording artists too: Steve Cropper, Duck Dunn, Booker T., Al Jackson, Isaac Hayes and Dave Porter are responsible for most of the cuts, in some way, which explains the consistent high level of quality from start to finish.
The finish of this set, the first of three boxes, comes at the end of the label's golden era. First, Redding was killed in a plane crash as he was about to become a huge star to white audiences. Then, the label's fruitful partnership with Atlantic Records collapsed, and the owners discovered they'd been screwed by the New Yorkers, who had managed to get them to sign a contract giving Atlantic the rights to all the classic records, forever. There's much more to the story, which is why I also recommend Bowman's book, but in the meantime, there's lots to learn in the notes here, and of course, one of the great collections of the '60's or any other time.
Wednesday, January 27, 2016
The insanely catchy single from the new album by Halifax (er, Enfield) favourite Classified, No Pressure, features a classic guest spot from Snoop Dogg, who happened to be in town last summer shooting a Trailer Park Boys episode. Snoop admits he doesn't really know where he is, some place in Nova Scotia. It's a fun moment in a great song, and a good celeb cameo.
Thing is, musically Classified certainly doesn't need any help from outside, he's still doing just great in his hometown, delivering another set of rich, superior productions, smart lyrics and strong tunes for album 15. And when he wants collaborators, he always has a great list of friends from right in town. David Myles is back after the massive success of Inner Ninja from the last album, joining on the cut Work Away, about flying across the country for jobs. Myles also helped write a couple more, and shows up on horns, guitar and piano too. Another frequent collaborator, Ria Mae helps with some writing and lots of singing, plus there's Josh Van Tassel drumming on one, Classified's brother Mike Boyd doing lots, and tons of real strings, courtesy of Drew Jurecka. That's the thing with these cuts, you're getting musical value for your money on each track, as they are all brimming with sounds and ideas.
On the rap side, the honesty and maturity of Classified's rhymes can be startling and inspiring. Whether he's talking about being a father, a husband, a community member or a performer, he comes at it from a sold moral centre. Snoop Dogg should have learned a little more about where he was, and perhaps picked up a lesson about respect for women while he was at it, that's just one of the themes here.
Monday, January 25, 2016
Henderson's an acoustic storyteller, with that magic touch, the ability to paint a word picture that immediately stands out. In Saturn, we meet the woman with "Cherubim angels tattooed on her arms/Guarding the garden with flaming swords." In Fairy Tale, we find out he's "crossed too many bridges with trolls underneath." In short, the kind of lines that make you look up from Facebook and realize something's going in these songs.
There's some evocative violin gliding through several of the songs, and a couple of times, a full band comes along to lively up the pace through these 10 cuts. Mostly though, we're hear to listen to his fine voice, positive demeanor, and inspiring lyrics.
Sunday, January 24, 2016
As always, our Heroes give us more sounds and energy than should be humanly possible from just a duo. But while they can make a mighty noise with crushing riffs and nuclear drums, the songs are cleverly, sneakily about a lot more than volume and fun. Of course, if that's what you're looking for, there's plenty of that in store too, don't get me wrong. Just consider the other stuff.
First off, the new album just drips with beautiful melodies, every song as tuneful as can be. Then there's Mike Ryan's aching vocals, sung almost completely in falsetto, with a particularly sad and thoughtful manner. That's because the topics are pretty heavy, from the personal to great big world-wide issues. The title cut spells it out, a call to look at the great big mess it all is: "Please, everyone, what have done?" Ryan doesn't point finger at everybody else though, admitting his own failures readily in the cut Baton Rouge: "The only way I've ever learned was through fucking up and getting burned."
With all this melancholy going on, you expect some down numbers, and there are a couple, including the album closer, Soldiers. Really though, the band has mastered the technique of putting a lot of substance into some very energetic, accessible and enjoyable music. It's a perfect night out for everybody then, The Town Heroes make you party, and make you think.