Saturday, June 23, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: SHANNON SHAW - SHANNON IN NASHVILLE

Richly produced at Dan Auerbach's Music City studio, with all his bells and tricks and thickness, Shaw has the big and interesting voice to pull off such lushness. She falls somewhere between early '60's girl group and James Bond theme-singer, natural, compelling but not a show-off or vocal gymnast. She knows how to put a lot of emotion and mystery into the tunes. Auerbach adds all the drama, digging into a ton of production tricks and little treats from his grab-bag of '60's strategies.

It's really a master class in sounds and layers, Auerbach able to take all the early '60's techniques and apply modern effects and depth in the multi-channel pallet. For instance, everything doesn't have to be drenched in the same echo, he can do that to individual parts, in various amounts. Cymbals can come to the front, backing vocalists can be more ethereal, strings can explode on entrance. Spector, Bacharach, Brian Wilson, they'd all nod with appreciation, if not a little jealousy about how their old tricks can get repurposed with such ease. Meanwhile Shaw's characters are in a constant state of upset, heartbroken, confused, rejected, alone, haunted. Leslie Gore would understand.This one's especially made for vinyl fans.

Friday, June 22, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: ALONE WITH CHRISSIE HYNDE (DVD)

A fascinating and very different documentary on Hynde, which instead of the usual talking heads and archival footage, has the camera following her around from city to city, doing what she does. A lot of it involves being alone, something she is not only used to, but has come to realize she prefers. It was also the name of her last album with The Pretenders, so it fits beautifully. Hynde of course has always been an interesting character, and she still is, maybe even more so, with age and wisdom.

Hynde shows us the upside of being solo personally, from being able to spend months on her new interest, painting, to all the quiet time she finds to stroll gardens in London or stores in Paris, shopping for clothes. She goes back to her hometown, Akron, and talks about the her childhood, and the loneliness of middle America. There are laugh moments too, clowning around with her pal Sandra Bernhard on her radio show, and joking with the documentary crew, pretty much a running conversation through the whole 90 minutes. There were probably dozens of hours of footage that got edited, and I have the feeling it was all interesting. I don't think she can have a dull conversation. In the end, you're left with a much better understanding of her, definitely more normal than your usual celebrity. She's very down to earth, and pretty much likes what she likes, and does what she does, and would rather be left alone. Sounds pretty normal.

What about the music then? There are a few songs spread throughout from recent shows, but it doesn't give you the full experience. So wisely this DVD includes a real treat, a full show from the original Pretenders lineup, on the famous German TV show Rockpalast, from 1981. That's just after the release of Pretenders II, with the band at their peak, before the OD deaths of original guitar and bass players James Honeyman Scott and Pete Farndon. I wouldn't call that a bonus, I'd call it a double-feature.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: PAT LEPOIDEVIN - CAPTAIN MYLES & THE SPR

Fun! Pat LePoidevin's new one is a concept sci-fi trip to outer space and the future, as seen through the eyes of two explorer kids. Captain Myles and Lucy are two members of the Society of Planet Research (SPR), a group of future kids who build a space ship out of discarded parts from junkyards, and go on an adventure. It's a deceptive little adventure that seems childlike on the surface but is all about relationships, both childhood and adult, responsibility (adults kind of fail at that one), where we're headed down the road, and all this crazy technology we're getting so used to and dependent on.

That's just my reading of it, LePoidevin probably has a few other tricks up his sleeve embedded in the story and the game. That's right, the game, because there's a video game too, over at www.patlepoidevin.com. I'm no gamer, so I'll stick with the tunes, which are pretty easy-going and easy to follow, which is preferable in a concept album. It's good to have a story that's understandable. Musically, it's your basic indie with a twangy guitar doing much of the talking, along with LePoidevin's plaintive telling of the tale.

It's a tour too, as LePoidevin's taking the rocket ship on the road. He's waltzing through the Maritimes to start, with shows in the following:

Friday, June 22 - Governors' Pub, Sydney, N.S.
Sun., June 24 - Buddha Bear Cafe/Holy Whale Brewery, Alma N.B, 3 PM
Sun., June 24 - Baba's Lounge, Charlottetown, 8 PM
Friday, June 29 - Broad Cove Hall, South Shore, N.S.
Sat., June 30 - The Seahorse, Halifax
Thurs, July 5 - The Commune New Glasgow, N.S.
Friday, July 6 - The Capitol, Fredericton
Sat., July 7 - Red Herring, St. Andrews, N.B.

Monday, June 18, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: THE BARRA MACNEILS - ON THE BRIGHT SIDE

It's been a long time between albums for the MacNeil clan. The last was a Christmas album in 2013, and before that, not counting collaborative releases or live shows, it was All At Once in 2005 when the group last recorded a proper set of new stuff. Not that they haven't been busy of course; touring throughout Canada, the U.S. and Europe has seen them earn their nickname of Canada's music ambassadors, considered one of the top groups in the Celtic scene.  They must have been itching to do it; the new album has kicked off a string of live dates the last few months, partying it up in Toronto this week. Having caught one lately, I can report they're kicking up a storm.

What has always set the group apart has been the flexibility of the family, each member able to bring something different to the table. That means they can be as trad as can be for the purists, but can also throw in a couple of curve balls with some modern pop sounds. Here we get an instrumental jig to start things off, "Welcome To Boston," but by cut three, Living The Dream, it's a track with a funky beat, singing about modern conveniences and overspending, getting their house with "a satellite dish and a couple of cats." Of course it's delivered so fresh and fun, it fits in well with all the lively Celtic stuff. And by the next track, Ribhinn Donn, which Lucy sings entirely in Gaelic, a lovely number able to stir any heart. The men show off their vocal prowess too, on the a cappella The Underachiever, which sounds like some ancient sea shanty but features a modern lyric about the trials of someone who can't get ahead. Daisy could be a standout track on any singer-songwriter record, Lucy shining again, only the slightest trad touch coming from the driving bouzouki line. Clouds Under My Feet is even more surprising, with its Euro-beat and thick bass and drums, Lucy channeling her inner Annie Lennox. Pretty crafty, these MacNeils, yes they're Celtic, but they're Celtic-plus.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: THE LUCKY LOSERS - BLIND SPOT

Gritty and funky, The Lucky Losers come from the Bay Area of California, and are the duo of Cathy Lemons and Phil Berkowitz. Most of their songs are built around their strong vocals, either duet or solo, and a devotion to the '60's/'70's Stax/Volt/Hi Records sound. They do that exceptionally well, including a vein of the psychedelic blues that came along at that point, and lots of modern, electric grooves.

Backed by a team of West Coast all-star players, the duo leave lots of room for those musicians to shine as well, and the album features a ton of stand-out parts, including some blistering solos from guitarist Laura Chavez on Supernatural Blues and fun violin by Annie Staninec (Rod Stewart) on Make A Right Turn. Berkowitz provides a soulful harmonica thoughout as well, a necessary ingredient for the grit. Berkowitz and Lemons have a cool blend, with his smoother, higher range and her gutsy toughness, although she can get sweet too, providing the second part in Bulldogs & Angels. Most importantly though, it's all new material, the two each writing a wide selection of material, with lots of social comment, not just the boy-girl stories that duets albums often get stuck on. It may be based on a retro sound but it still feels fresh and forward-moving.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: EMMYLOU HARRIS - THE BALLAD OF SALLY ROSE (Expanded Edition)

Given Harris's iconic status, it's surprising to realize she had her share of flops too, and fell out of favour in the country world for a long stretch. Now she's Americana, the ultimate roots artist, but back in 1985 she was still considered a Nashville star. That is, until this concept album. She called it a country opera, and it marked her first release after her personal and professional split with producer Brian Ahern. Instead it was made with new partner Paul Kennerley, the songwriter who bequeathed her the hit Born To Run (not the Springsteen one). For the first time since her obscure 1969 folk debut, Harris would write all the songs, quite a departure for an artist who had made her name with striking cover versions, known as the singer's singer.

Harris had a story she wanted to get out, a personal one. Sally Rose was based on herself, and this was a re-imagination of her time with the legendary Gram Parsons. Harris had sung harmonies at his side for a year, and had made it her career goal to continue his music after he died. The story told of Sally Rose wasn't true-to-life, and a lot more than just the names were changed. It had been mythologized, but the point was clear, Sally loved The Singer, as Emmylou had loved Gram.

Country radio had loved Emmylou, but didn't for the singles from this album. They were perhaps a little too involved in the plot, not obvious and easy to digest, and even too smart. That translated into diminished album sales and a lack of tour buzz too. Wouldn't you know it, Harris had made the most substantial album of her career, and also just torpedoed it. She went back to covers soon after, and spent a decade bouncing around stylistically before teaming up with Daniel Lanois for Wrecking Ball, attracting a new audience that became known as Americana, and once again feeling confident in her writing skills.

What everybody realized now is that not only could she write, she was fantastic, and this album was a gem. The story of Sally Rose's climb to fame while The Singer declines is actually more like A Star Is Born rather than the Gram-Emmylou tale, but no matter, the individual songs are tight and the tale fun to follow: "You better move fast 'cause tickets are tight/if you wanna see Sally Rose pick it tonight."

This reissue comes with new liner notes explaining the story and what happened, including Harris's own: "The album was a bust in commercial terms." Now it comes with a second disc of the original acoustic demos of most of the album tracks, and in many cases I like that stripped-down takes just as much if not more. The hope from all involved is now it will find a larger audience, and her new roots fans would be wise to go back and discover it.

Friday, June 15, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: ERIC CLAPTON - LIFE IN 12 BARS (Blu-ray or DVD), LIFE IN 12 BARS (Soundtrack)

While you think you may know everything about Clapton, you'll still find lots to learn in this documentary, made with his blessing and participation, but not his interference. Director Lili Zanuck was given access to all the footage and photos he'd been storing up, and carte blanche for a story line. Clapton doesn't really have much to hide, as he told all, quite painfully, in his autobiography several years back, so the all the booze, drugs, infidelity, obsession and heartache was already on the table. What Zanuck was able to to do was invite more people to give their observations. They don't pull punches, especially exes. A real find was one of his oldest friends, an early bandmate from his first groups, The Roosters, one Ben Palmer, who stayed around as Cream's road manager, and then a friend. He's able to bring us lots of insight into what drove Clapton. Also Clapton's aunt, who witnessed some of the terrible hurt his mother caused in his life, was able to show how that trauma affected him through his adult life. In the end though, it's Clapton himself who has the best perspective, able to sift through all the lies and failings in his life, the wasted years as an addict and alcoholic, and his inability to form a genuine relationship, until conquering all those demons after the death of his son, Conor. The film really ends with the release of the cathartic Tears In Heaven, except for some well-earned accolades and his significant charity work, but that's okay, we get the point that he got his act together and the drama largely ended.

One thing the film fails to do is showcase just what an exceptional guitar player he is, focusing on the life story as it does. That's solved too, with the double-CD soundtrack. There are of course tons of Clapton collections available, from box sets to live-only compilations to blues-only to a dozen or more best-ofs, but this certainly is one of the better overviews. Playing through this mostly-familiar material, the inventiveness and sheer excellence hit home, especially going quickly from style to style, as he did in the late '60's. Going from the Bluesbreaker's All Your Love to Cream's crazy pop of I Feel Free to the power of Sunshine Of Your Love to his historic solo on The Beatles' While My Guitar Gently Weeps, the breadth of it all is spectacular. The film wisely used his guest playing on Aretha Franklin's Good To Me As I Am To You, two giants in their heyday.  There are a few cuts with that "previously unreleased" asterisk beside them, although nothing too important. There's a live version of Cream doing Spoonful, but at over 17 minutes, it feels like you had to be there to enjoy it. A song recorded for the aborted second Derek and the Dominos album, High, gets its first official release here, although it's been well-bootlegged over the years, and isn't much to write home about. Better is a live Little Wing from that same band, and the original, 6'50" version of I Shot The Sheriff is a nice extra treat. The other treat is that there's nothing after 1974 except Tears In Heaven, but that's just me being catty.