Monday, September 22, 2014

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: BRIAN SETZER - ROCKABILLY RIOT! ALL ORIGINAL

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

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: THE NEW PORNOGRAPHERS - BRILL BRUISERS

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

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: THE TEA PARTY - THE OCEAN AT THE END

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.

Monday, September 15, 2014

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: ROBYN HITCHCOCK - THE MAN UPSTAIRS

The delightfully eccentric British singer Hitchcock returns rather quickly after last year's successful Love From London.  The reason he could move so fast is the simple production on this album.  It's all-acoustic, all-sparse sounds, featuring guitar and cello, or piano a couple of times, another with harmonica, and some background vocals, that's it.  Normally a bit on the psychedelic side, here Hitchcock strips it back to the basics.  He's done this before, with one-off projects of recording entire Dylan albums, collaborations with fan musicians such as Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings, or being obsessed with bugs.  He's also dabbled plenty in acoustic music, which makes for a tough choice.  Would you like to hear him go on wild adventures with pals such as Peter Buck, or hear his gentle side, with the hypnotic guitar playing and quirky voice wooing and lulling you.

The idea here was warm and woody, with lots of up-close atmosphere.  Working on the project was the illustrious Joe Boyd, he of Nick Drake on the folk side, but the early producer of another of Hitchcock's heroes, Syd Barrett and the very early Pink Floyd.  He brings Hitchcock right into your head, the guitar/cello combo providing the right mellow mood, Robyn dishing up some thoughts on aging gracefully, and how the mysteries of life continue on, nothing seeming any clearer despite the advancing age.  Actually quite a bit of the tales come from covers this time, Hitchcock choosing to re-interpret a few add choices at acoustic numbers.  The disc opens with The Psychedelic Furs' number The Ghost In You, always a lovely song that loses nothing relieved of its 80's production.  The Doors' Crystal Ship is another success, the Morrison bombast replaced by piano and a sensitive reading by Hitchcock:  "Before you slip into unconsciousness, I'd like to have another kiss, another flashing chance at bliss."  Hitchcock describes this as an album with a lot of autumn on it, with nostalgia and middle-age.  Better to embrace it then, as he has done here.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: ROBERT PLANT & the SENSATIONAL SPACE SHIFTERS - LULLABY AND .... THE CEASELESS ROAR

Space shifters, indeed.  Plant and crew move sounds and styles back and forth without a care for the usual genres and rules.  He borrows the traditional Little Maggie, usually a bluegrass number, keeps the banjo, but adds washes of ambiance and drum breaks, making it Celtic-loop music.  The Space Shifters add all sorts of percussion and sound effects, outer space washes and ancient African stringed instruments.  It's kind of a mash-up of everything Plant has dabbled in over the years, from the blues lifts of Zeppelin, the Moroccan roll of the Page-Plant 90's experiment, and the Appalachian feel of the Alison Krauss partnership.

With a suitable amount of mysterioso-echo on his vocals, Plant wanders through some parishes, shires and mountain passes, searching for great beauties, with "red hair, raven hair, gold like the sun."  Sometimes it's a little too precious, such as Embrace Another Fall, with its Welsh verse sung by some mythical Princess, making it seem like the next theme song for Part 3 of The Hobbit.  Plus, there's a lot of little parts flying in and out of most of the songs, which can get a bit overwhelming sometimes, but if you're in the mood, it can also be a grand sonic journey. 

Of special note is the least-adorned number, called Somebody There.  Seems our boy and band had one regular old rock song to present, kind of an orphan from the rest of the material, a grand mid-tempo piece with a sweet chorus and rich guitar throughout.  Man, that one would have made a heck of a late 70's Zeppelin single.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: RYAN ADAMS - (s/t)

Ryan Adams has been a bit of everything over the years.  Since going solo from Whiskeytown in 2000, and making the breakthrough (and still his most popular album), Heartbreaker, he put out an astonishing 13 albums in 11 years, including 3 in 2005.  That doesn't count all the web-only collections, singles, and multi-disc sets on his website.  But the albums finally ground to a halt in 2011, as even he must have realized enough was enough.

Of course, we knew he'd be back, and probably grouchy and difficult as usual.  But as ...what?  He'd broken up The Cardinals in 2009, and who knew what he'd want to explore on a return.  Could it be punk or metal-influenced, or alt-this or Americana-that?  Would it be a band album like he did with The Cardinals, or an acoustic one?  Surprisingly, its the one I really didn't think he would make.  It's the accessible one.  In fact, this is a sound that should be very familiar to lots of folks, not so much from Adams but from many others.  Lots call it heartland rock, meat-and-potatoes (mostly) electric guitar music.  At its most obvious its Mellencamp, at its most mythic its Springsteen, and at its most poetic, Emmylou Harris.  Adams shows some of all three of those traits, leaning a little darker as usual, world-weary. 

I'm concerned about the lean to the mainstream, but it could be as simple as Adams truly feeling he has to reintroduce himself.  Certainly lots of folks have dropped off the train in the years since Heartbreaker.  At the same time, there are several really strong numbers here, if a little less ambitious that some previous incarnations of himself.  Digging into the lyrics, there's some dark stuff, and a lot of "can't's":  I can't sleep, I can't talk, I can't go home.  Put a big beat and big guitar chords along with that, and you have some emotional wallop.  The cut Trouble sounds like the kind that can please a lot of folks, starting with a Petty-ish guitar riff, and then coming in with "Trouble, I can hear the clock tick in the room."  Claustrophobia is certainly a reoccurring feeling here.  Adams doesn't limit himself though; there are a couple of acoustic strummers, including My Wrecking Ball, a pretty but sad love's over but still smouldering number.  WIth a big concert tour scheduled for the fall, it seems Adams is ready to play again, and play ball a little too.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: MOLLY JOHNSON - BECAUSE OF BILLIE

Molly Johnson has been compared to Billie Holiday her whole career.  And that's even before the Toronto singer started doing jazz, even back when she was rocking it out in the group Infidels in the early 90's, and in Alta Moda before that.  Here she was trying to be her own singer, and everybody wanted her to be somebody else.  Not just anybody, but one who was among the very, very best.  But Johnson, having grown up with parents who had played her Holiday, and taken her to meet talents such as Ella Fitzgerald as a kid, knew that she wasn't ready.  "You have to build a life to sing that stuff," Johnson explains, on the line from Toronto.  "You can't sing it when you're 22.  People would say, 'You have to make a jazz record', but I wanted to live out that rock and roll life with the Infidels."

That she did, and of course did turn to jazz, releasing her first solo album in 2000.  Her smoky vocals, filled with her distinct personality, quickly established her as one of the country's favourite vocalists, with jazz-pop numbers such as Diamond In My Hand bringing her a much larger audience than most jazz singers can claim.  If there was a distinguished, and distinct jazz singer in the country, surely it was Johnson.  Yet still, "For years, people would say, 'Oh you're just like Billie," Johnson says.  "But I'm not.  I'd tell them, 'I am because of Billie'.  I get to do what I do because of what she did back then.  That generation of people, like my parents, like her, fought for me to have this life.  That's why I have called this record Because Of Billie.  Because I'm nothing like her.  I know my father, he loved me very much, as did my mother.  Billie never had that, she never had any of the advantages I had.  I've been saying I'm because of Billie for two decades, I'm everything she couldn't be."

Johnson's album is made up of 14 tracks long associated with Holiday, including Body and Soul, God Bless The Child, and Strange Fruit.  Johnson also made sure to include songs written by Holiday, to show that she was a composer as well as an interpreter, such as Don't Explain and Fine and Mellow.  The album was recorded quickly, live from the studio floor with her group, often in first takes, taking only four days to make the entire thing.  Johnson says she wanted to capture that spark of creativity and excitement of working direct to tape.  Plus, she relied on her own, and the group's, ability to switch on the needed intensity and emotion.  "Most artists, I believe, are a bit bipolar," she explains,  "And good artists can use that to their advantage.  So you go in there, get dark, swing it, and get out.  These are jazz guys, everybody comes to the session ready to go."

While she was ready to go in the studio, getting there took a lot longer.  "People have been bugging me to make this record for a long time," she concedes.  "But I always had the feeling Billie was getting ripped off (via whoever owned her publishing rights).  And I didn't want to do it until I found out who had the copyright, and found out if they would donate some money to charity."  It took her two years to track down the business side of venture, finding out that current publisher Casablanca was owned by the giant music corporation Universal, the very company she records for in Canada.  The Canadian branch did some hard work for her, and Johnson was able to arrange for a portion of the sales to go to a deserving, and appropriate charity.  "I chose the Boys and Girls Clubs, because I figured Billie didn't have a childhood.  You're in jail when you're 14 with your mother for prostitution, it doesn't take rocket science to know she didn't have a childhood.  But she wasn't a victim, she was a victim of her time.  I didn't want to talk about this poor victim, I didn't believe she was.  She was a strong woman, who was in tune with the civil rights movement.  The Boys and Girls Clubs are all over North America, so wherever I am playing I can fundraise there, and the money can stay in that community."

Because Of Billie is Johnson's sixth studio album, and is available now on CD, vinyl and as a digital download.