Friday, December 6, 2013
With the success of Record Store Day, retailers latched onto Black Friday for a second such event pre-Christmas. While it doesn't have quite the notoriety as its spring counterpart, it is getting pretty exciting for music fans, because of the special releases that come out on that day. And, as opposed to the Record Store Day items, these ones are available to one and all, and you don't need to get down to the local indie store and line up on a Saturday. Most of them stay available too. For instance....
Vinyl is a big part of both the Black Friday and Record Store Day events, and this gem from 1998 wasn't released as an LP back in those digital days. It has certainly kept its stature over the years, and is one that collectors were highly keen on seeing in the vinyl format. For the uninitiated, this project came about when Woody Guthrie's daughter Nora came upon thousands of her father's finished lyrics in his archives, which had never been recorded. If there were melodies, they had been lost with his death. Guthrie's recording career had pretty much ended by the late 40's, as is illness progressed, but his writing didn't stop. Best of all, there were all kinds of great lyrics there, from his well-known socially-conscience numbers to kid's songs, straight love songs and novelty numbers. She decided some of it should be heard, and sought out the right people.
Guthrie selected British folkie Billy Bragg to lead the project, a devotee of Woody's, but a modern writer as well. He got that she wanted the new music and recordings to be current, not a copy of what Guthrie had done fifty years before. To that end, Bragg sought out other collaborators, wanted a rock edge, and brought in Wilco, at that point an Americana roots band. A couple of smaller roles went to Natalie Merchant and blues guitarist Corey Harris. The singing was split between Bragg and Jeff Tweedy, Wilco was the band, and the music writing was split between the camps.
They left much of the political material behind, instead focusing on the high-quality songwriting that rarely seemed dated. Highlights include California Stars, a song still in the Wilco setlist today, given a easy-going modern rock treatment, a simple but beautiful song about lying under the stars, holding hands and resting weary bones. Way Over Yonder In The Minor Key, by Bragg, is more on the folk side, but with the kind of bones that lets a song live for decades. It's a look back at Guthrie's own past, with a wink. And while Ingrid Bergman is a dated reference, it's too irresistible to hear Guthrie's lyrics about wanting to hook up with her for Bragg to have passed that one up. Bragg pretty much handles the acoustic, straight-forward side, Wilco gets to rock it all up, like on the kid's song Hoodoo Voodoo, and the edgy Christ For President, the kind of bold statement Guthrie could make to shake up they way folks thought then (and now).
With the roots-rock production, lots of acoustic guitar and no dated trickery, this is a natural for vinyl, and sounds warm and woody. You get a heavy 180 gram pressing, and the fifty-minute album is split over four sides instead of crammed onto two, so the audio is bold and wide. And there's something about this release that's just right for vinyl, given the history.
Thursday, December 5, 2013
Read all about the trials of being the leader/writer of The Who in 1969 in the excellent hard cover book included in this four disc box. Echoing the previous packages done for Live At Leeds and Quadrophenia, you really get a solid set, the packaging alone probably costs $30 to manufacture. Then you get Tommy four different ways: The album remastered on CD, another with a brand-new Blu-ray mix, then a full live reading taken from various concerts in 1969, and finally the album as heard in Townshend's famous demo recordings, a job at which he was a master.
The live CD is a terrific listen, the band able to recreate this complicated, long work with unflagging energy and full dynamics, considering there were just the four of them. Daltry is front and centre, but Townshend is co-lead singer, taking songs such as The Acid Queen, to promote Daltry as the Tommy character. When they cut through with Pinball Wizard, it's a thrill, even in your living room. As fans of Who lore will know, each Tommy show that year was recorded for a live album, but after listening to hours and hours of shows, Townshend got bored and decided to just record at Leeds instead. The story went that he told the sound man to dump the tapes in the landfill. It turns out that wasn't true, and although they are a little under top fidelity, it's quite listenable and the editing is great, making it seem like one complete concert.
The demos are fun as well, with some variations from the final product, which was altered for late lyric upgrades during the studio sessions. Interestingly, there are almost completely different demos that the ones found on the 2003 double CD reissue, only three of the 25 cuts previously released. This means completists now have to own both versions, but it's a case of the more the merrier in Whoville.
I don't imagine you'll see this set come out cheap for Boxing Day sales. They cost too much to make, from the mixing and mastering, the compilation of the book, and the expensive, thick packaging. However, you won't question its value once you hold it and listen. It took two hours to read the book, four hours to listen, and I'll be playing that live disc more than a few times.
Tuesday, December 3, 2013
The original collection has been reissued, now called The Story and the Music, thanks to the inclusion of a DVD looking at all the good deeds and recording sessions over the years. That's nice, but really, just a one-time watch. It is one of the better rock-era Christmas compilations, featuring lots of exclusive recordings. Now, we are talking 25 years ago, so A-list is a bit different these days; many of you might wonder who Alison Moyet is, and The Pointer Sisters might need an introduction to some younger listeners. But Sting, Stevie Nicks, Madonna, Bon Jovi and U2 are still heavyweights. Bono and the boys do a fine job on the Spector classic Christmas (Baby Please Come Home), while I could probably do without hearing Nicks croak her way through Silent Night once more. Hard to fathom, but at the time of release, Bruce Springsteen's live version of Merry Christmas Baby was a rare treasure to fans; this made it common. Despite the presence of the hated Bon Jovi, I always have a soft spot for this set, and even like Whitney Houston's Do You Hear What I Hear, but she did church good back then. You'll probably know most of these versions, they are now staples of radio and most malls once the holidays arrive.
The other new set is a kind of best-of selection from the various editions of the discs over the years, under the Icon series banner, lower-priced best-of's from Universal. That means less tracks and time, only 11 songs here, and whoever picked them did a rotten job. C'mon, Lennon's Happy Xmas (War Is Over) was only licensed for the series (free I'm sure), not newly recorded, so it should hardly be the lead cut, and it's on every friggin' compilation anyway. Same goes for the Elvis cut, albeit a great version of Blue Christmas. Again, with the Jon Bon Jovi (gag), and Wham!??? Nobody gives a Christmas crap about George Michael anymore, let alone his early days. Carrie Underwood, Josh Groban, Rod Stewart in faux-crooner mode, where are all the great numbers? At least Tom Petty gets included, but give me 20 minutes and I would have put together a better mix tape. Avoid this one.
Joining mainstays Josh Finlayson and Andy Maize for this collection are friends and touring band mates, plus a welcome back to departed but still contributing member Peter Cash, who also did a special anniversary show with the group earlier this year in Fredericton. Bumped up to the top ranks is singer Jessy Bell Smith, more and more a featured performer live and now on disc. Here she handles duet vocals with Maize on all the tracks, and takes the lead on John Prine's Christmas In Prison. She also chimes in nicely behind Maize on the other modern cover here, The Pretenders' favourite, 2000 Miles. Both are strong choices, not often covered so we're not sick to death of them.
Of the traditional songs, Good King Wenceslas is pretty common, but not by the rock/roots crowd, and it's cool to hear it as a guitar song. Maize puts a lot of soul into it, vocally and with a good turn on trumpet too. Bonus marks for picking one of my very favourite carols. This one's been out before, but here has a new mix by Cowboy Junkies' Michael Timmins. Poor Little Jesus is nicely obscure, and the band does a grand job turning it into an Emmylou Harris kind of number.
The wild card is perhaps the only song ever written by two sitting members of Parliament. Church Bells Ringing comes from NDP'ers Charlie Angus and Andrew Cash (Peter's bro). Set in Toronto on Christmas Eve, it's a lonely night on Dundas Street, church bells not helping, another city guy wishing he was home, which could be the church or could be the town he's thinking about. It's a gem and final proof there's soul in the House of Commons, even these days.
Monday, December 2, 2013
The star interview is from Paul McCartney, who does an excellent job explaining Hendrix's explosion on the English scene, and how hip London fell in love with him. McCartney saw it all, from his debut club performance to his first major London theatre gig, and it's rare the Beatle speaks in awe of contemporaries, being as he was pretty much top of the heap. His enthusiasm gives you a great indication of how perfectly Hendrix captured the English scene. His take-over of the U.S. was a bit slower, and the film makes a good point that Monterey Pop only opened the door, but it took months of constant touring to really achieve top star status. By 1969, he was the top concert draw in North America, the key player to make your festival a success.
None of the really touchy stuff is explored here; the drugs are referenced, but only casually. The money, the management, and the messy legacy of legal disputes, overdubs, reissues and such is not even brought up, as the film ends with his death. Even that is not even explored, the cause not mentioned. We're left with this picture of a giant who walked the earth briefly, amazing all. The only negative, and it's a minor one, comes from producer/discoverer Chas Chandler, who split with him over the amount of takes and re-takes he was doing, just because he was bored. Dirt, you won't get, thanks to this official family portrait. Still, their point is simple, the guy was a wonder.
The film itself is a keeper, and you get a ton of bonus footage with the DVD. There are three different concert appearances, four to six songs each: Miami Pop Festival in 1968, New York Pop Festival in 1970, and the newly-found footage from that final Germany show, September 6, 1970. None of it is pristine but in some ways it's more special than professional footage, knowing we're lucky to have it. A final bonus is a Top Of The Pops appearance from 1967, doing Purple Haze, Hendrix as absolutely cool as can be. At three hours in total, this is a prime package.
Sunday, December 1, 2013
The early 90's were the heyday for box sets, and the best ones were bonanzas. Thanks to the Dylan and Clapton examples, boxes came filled with previously-unreleased tracks, many of them wonderful treasures we didn't know existed. The big attraction here were CSNY cuts (of course), and there are several, either different mixes or versions, and even a couple of heretofore unknown ones. Highlight #1 is the cut Horses Through The Rainstorm, a Nash songs written with Terry Reid, that the group deemed too pop for Deja Vu. Balderdash I say, it's a keeper, and wasn't Our House light and breezy too? Then there's the studio version of The Lee Shore, a number previously only found live, on Four Way Street. Not the strongest Crosby number, but as always the vocals our sublime. Man In The Mirror is a live version of the Nash solo cut, on a CSNY tour. See The Changes is a CSNY take from 1973, from one of the several aborted sessions they did, trying to get back together. Best of all those is Homeward Through The Haze, another one-off session in 1974, the track later reclaimed for a Crosby/Nash album. It's just the four of them, voices and acoustic guitars, still with the magic.
There are plenty more previously unreleased tracks here, including different mixes of the group's first two, classic albums (Crosby, Stills & Nash, Deja Vu). For the most part, the compilers did a fine job including all the various other releases over the 70's and 80's, finding the best as the quality diminished. Stills has the best solo work, especially his Stills album, and the Manassas project with Chris Hillman and various others, but also crashed the worst, down to the unlistenable Thoroughfare Gap album of 1978. I especially like the CSN album cuts from 1977, not the album everyone hoped it might be at the time, but there's some nice stuff there, and I always thought Just A Song Before I Go was a great little number. Some box sets have too few cuts or miss some key ones, and others have way too much. This one came out just right. Oh, it's also half the price I paid for it in '91 now.
Thursday, November 28, 2013
Sweet and Hoffs return in their alter-egos of Sid n' Susie, in their ongoing series of pop covers. While the previous two have covered the 60's and 70's, this one is dedicated to 80's new wave and college rock tracks. That means it's straight out of my record collection, made up of music geek tunes from back in the day when you were defined by your playlist. I'm pretty sure most of these ended up on my Walkman mix tapes.As usual, the duo do a bang-up job, with pretty faithful recreations. Much of the fun is just how close they come to sounding like the originals, without being perfect. Lindsey Buckingham's quirky solo hit Trouble is a great example, where they do his breathy vocals, each singer somehow managing to sound like the original. Sometimes they just come close, like on REM's Sitting Still, but mirror the music to great effect. And when they choose a cut that can't be mimicked, like The Smith's How Soon Is Now, then they just prove what talented performers they are.