Wednesday, October 22, 2014

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: BIG STAR - #1 RECORD



There are deluxe editions and box sets and such, but sometimes it's better to have a classic album reissued as simply as possible, to hear just the magic the way it was originally. There are demos and alternate versions of Big Star tracks around, but leave them on the other sets, here's the first, wonderful album on its own.


This is the band when everything was still possible. The quartet knew they had a bunch of brilliant songs, and with any luck at all, they'd have a hit album. Alex Chilton was a young veteran, and had picked up tons of tricks and knowledge as the singer in The Box Tops, touring and being friends with smart music-makers. Chris Bell was a songwriter and studio fiend, with great ideas and the ability to get those sounds onto tape. The fact these songs from the early '70's still sound perfect says it all.


This album is a celebration of rock and roll's power. Not power chords or hippy ideals or us against the man; it's the power we all got from hearing music which spoke to us as kids, separated us from our parents, and gave us freedom. There's a reason That 70's Show used In The Street as its theme. Look at the faces of the actors goofing around in the car, it's that power and feeling. Then listen to the defiance in Thirteen, as the singer and his girlfriend bond over a Rolling Stones song and defying parental authority. The whole album is wonderful though, made with love and hope, and slowly, it came to the acclaim it deserved.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: BRYAN ADAMS - TRACKS OF MY YEARS

I suppose it says a lot that even Bryan Adams is asked to make a covers record.  We know he was asked, because he tells us in the liner notes; veteran producer and Vancouver pal David Foster (they worked on Tears Are Not Enough back in '85) is now head of Verve Records, and requested Adams do this set.  Foster even set the rules, requesting Top 10 U.S. hits from the rock era.  In other words, Foster had a concept that he felt could sell some records, not an easy thing for these veteran rockers these days.  You can figure out the thinking on this:  "Rod Stewart has the Great American Songbook covered, Bryan can do the '70's, and we can have different volumes of it if it takes off."

Ironically, the best tune here is a new one, which Adams must have had to negotiate as part of the deal.  She Knows Me is a co-write with his long-standing partner Jim Vallance, a classic Adams mid-tempo number, solid if not spectacular, and would make a fine single if there was still such a system.  So it's not like Adams has to go the covers route, and I'd be interested in a full album with Vallance again.  But he'd probably have to self-finance that, and this was the deal on offer.  It's a strange mix of tunes, and it doesn't even follow the rules.  The opening cut is a cover of The Beatles' Any Time At All, a great song but never a single, let alone Top 10.  Oh well, he does a good job on it.  The mixed bag of cuts continues with everything from Ray Charles' I Can't Stop Loving You to CCR's Down On The Corner to The Beach Boys' God Only Knows.

It all comes down to which songs suit Adams' raspy voice best, and oddly, he doesn't seem to have a good handle on that.  He does well with rock numbers such as Rock And Roll Music, and the old Eddie Cochrane number C'mon Everybody.  Medium-paced ones work too, such as Dylan's Lay Lady Lay and Sunny by Bobby Hebb.  But he has to strain on the slow ones, and it's a little painful to sit through the Ray Charles and Beach Boys numbers, plus Kris Kristofferson's Help Me Make It Through The Night.  Only once does he truly take a sad song and make it better, his cover of The Associations' Never My Love.  It was always a wimpy number from that group, but Adams gives it some well-deserved guts, as it is a good song at heart.

Bryan Adams has always been a pretty good singer, with an easily-identifiable voice.  He'll need a stronger song selection than this to inspire enough buyers to make this a worthwhile project.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY - AWESOME MIX VOL. 1



Never underestimate nostalgia. Even though the Marvel movie takes place in outer space, they managed to connect the film to 70's Earth, and use all these classics. Whenever that magic happens in a film, such as The Big Chill or American Graffiti, you'll have a hit soundtrack on your hands. The mix tape-themed disc has gone to #1 in both Canada and the U.S., filled with fun, mostly well-chosen cuts.


The mix starts with the beloved "Ooga-chaka, ooga-chaka" of Blue Swede's Hooked On A Feeling, guaranteed to bring a smile to those old enough to remember, and a giggle from the kids, laughing at those silly old songs. They should hopefully be blown away by the next number, power-pop giants The Raspberries' Go All The Way. And that's the back-and-forth of the set, from fun pop to more serious rock and soul. The marvelous Five Stairsteps' hit O-O-H Child is one of the cool vocal gems from the soul side, along with Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell's original version of Ain't No Mountain High Enough (a 60's cut, but no matter). More Motown fun comes from I Want You Back, one of the truly great Jackson 5 cuts. Bowie's Moonage Daydream helps toughen things up, as does the non-hit but still cool Cherry Bomb from The Runaways.


There's only one annoying cut on the whole disc, and really they should have known better. Rupert Holmes' Escape (The Pina Colada Song) is not only bad, it's offensive. Boo. Norman Greenbaum's Spirit In The Sky is the only track I'd say is overused in compilations, so we probably could have done without that, too. But overall, it is a pretty good, if not a truly awesome mix.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: JW JONES - BELMONT BOULEVARD

I find blues albums sound best driving around in my car, so that's where I started with JW's latest.  It's rare an album SOUNDS so good that I can't focus on the rest of it at first, but I was quite simply blown away by the overall aural experience.  All the tones, the mix, the soundscape that the team creates, from artist to band to producer to engineer to mastering engineer, all that stuff we mortals only vaguely comprehend, it all works here.  Just to insure I wasn't simply on a caffeine high (that happens a lot), the disc moved from my car to home system to work computer, and each time it was the sound that leaped out first.

That's a great start, but would also be kinda frustrating if the material didn't hold up.  After all the initial listens, I got to the point where the songs came through, and of course, Jones came through.  The Ottawa native has been one of the country's very top artists since his arrival in 2000, and its been a joy to watch his confidence and art grow with each release.  This one puts him up another significant notch though.  Now signed to the respected U.S. blues label and industry leader Blind Pig, Jones worked with producer Tom Hambridge on this album.  The Grammy-winning drummer and songwriter was the producer for the last couple of highly-successful Buddy Guy albums, produced Susan Tedeschi's breakthrough album, and has dozens of equally-impressive writing and production credits.  Lets just say given the dynamic sound I've tried to describe above, it was an inspired choice for Jones.  Plus, if you work with Hambridge, you have access to his pen as well.  Belmont Boulevard features of mix of Jones' originals, Hambridge cuts, some new co-writes, and an older Guy number, What's Inside Of You, where Jones shows his sharp and stinging guitar prowess.  Hambridge brought a new, funky number written with Colin Linden, Love Times Ten, a tight tune that shows off Jones' frontman skills.

The new Jones songs show how he's advanced as a writer.  Thank You turns the tables on the woman-done-me-wrong blues cliches, where the singer admits she was doing him a favour, that the love was gone.  Blue Jean Jacket celebrates that coat we all loved and had our best moments in.  What Would Jimmie Do? tells about a blues hero who does it with style and commitment and all the right motives, and for Jones, that's Jimmy Vaughn.  These are all original, strong ideas, something of a rare commodity in blues writing.  And for those who just want guitar and more guitar, his Magic West Side Boogie brings the instrumental fireworks, just bass, drums and one long sizzling, echo-drenched lead.  A-level stuff across the board from Jones, but what sound!  Just lean back and listen.

Monday, October 6, 2014

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: DAVID BOWIE - SOUND + VISION, KNOCK ON WOOD 7"

It is a great time to be a Bowie fan, and really, who didn't think that train had run its course?  But as 2013's wonderful The Next Day album showed, he always has the ability to surprise with his next move.  And there is one, with a new best-of, Nothing Has Changed coming in November, which includes a brand-new track.  And there's also more worthwhile stuff just out, which should be attractive to both collectors and more casual fans.

Sound + Vision is a box set that first came out way back in 1989, and was quite a hit, selling a quarter-million copies, at a time when those things were still always expensive.  It had a fan's bonanza of tracks, including the original demo version of Space Oddity, and a previously-unknown cover of Bruce Springsteen's It's Hard To Be A Saint In The City.  Bowie by this time own the rights to his back catalogue, and would contract them out for a few years, then go elsewhere.  In 2003, after being unavailable for a few years, Sound + Vision returned with a new deal at EMI Music, and a newly-expanded track list.  It was now four discs long, and included tracks post 1980, again with several rarities.  Then the same thing happened, Bowie pulled the set from the stores as he worked on another reissue plan.

It is here again, this time with no changes from the 2003 edition, except for a major one in size.  Instead of the fancy box, it now comes slimmed down into a basic bulky CD case, housing the four discs and a decent booklet.  This is not a bad thing, as it is now available for $40, which is about half of what it cost way back in 1989, and now has almost twice the music.  The first two-and-a-half discs hold up remarkably well, being the glory years and all, and I especially like how the live tracks are used.  Instead of giving us the usual studio versions of songs such as Ziggy Stardust, Suffragette City and Station To Station, which most fans would own elsewhere, there are live sections built in every few tracks, which also include concert favourites such as White Light/White Heat and Watch That Man.  Now, post-1980 is always a rock road for any fan.  Many find the overt commercial numbers Modern Love and Loving The Alien lesser fare.  But the controversial Tin Machine has many more detractors, and with six tracks from two albums included here, it seems a desperate attempt to say the music was ahead of its time and we should like it now.  We shouldn't.  Tracks from Earthling and Black Tie, White Noise also fail to bring a better rep for those albums.  The box ends there, too bad as there are grand songs to be found on under-appreciated albums such as Heathen (2002) and Reality (2003).  And while the new best-of will include this era, and last year's comeback, I'd rather have it all housed in one place, maybe as a five-disc box.  But of course, it's price that really attracts here, and keeping it unchanged but under forty bucks is a great deal

Also out now is the latest in the wonderful picture disc campaign of original singles, each coming out on the 40th anniversary of its first release.  We are now up to 1974's David Live album, with the single Knock On Wood, a cover of the Eddie Floyd 60's soul hit.  Anyone who owns David Live will have this, and its B-side, Rock 'n' Roll With Me, but the point is more the beautiful photos on the disc, actual collector's pieces in my opinion, worthy of a bookshelf.  I am a bit miffed that there isn't a previously-unreleased B-side, or something a little rare, as earlier singles in the series had included, so hopefully that will change back in the months ahead.  Still, an excellent addition to my growing Bowie section.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: THE MIDNIGHT SPECIAL (DVD)



Previously available only by mail order, the vaults of Midnight Special hold some pretty special performances. Now a six-DVD package picks some of the best moments, plus adds a few interviews and featurettes about the 70's late-night TV show.


Burt Sugarman created the show in 1972, looking for something to fill the midnight slot on Friday nights. Only kids would be watching TV then, his thinking went, so on came the rock and roll singers. Now, Burt wasn't the hippest cat, and his tastes went more to the Top 40 and showbiz side. But he didn't discriminate either, and if you were hitting the charts, you could make the show. So you could have Aerosmith singing Dream On one week, and Rupert Holmes doing the Pina Colada Song the next.


The hosting was just as scattered, with Wolfman Jack along for much of the series, doing his famous, corny act. There were also performer-hosts, from Helen Reddy's ready-for-Vegas approach, to Curtis Mayfield's casually cool presence. We don't get complete shows; instead, there are three or four performances from each one featured here, a piecemeal approach that makes me worry about what wasn't included from say, Tom Petty the night we get a great American Girl and Listen To Her Heart. Really though, in order to get this done to a manageable amount, from the hundreds and hundreds of shows means there is a ton of great footage back in the vaults.


Highlights here include the young Linda Ronstadt doing a powerhouse live vocal on Long Long Time, The Doobie Brothers appearing when Jesus Is Just Alright and Listen To The Music were new, our boy Gord Lightfoot with Sundown and If You Could Read My Mind, and Marvin Gaye's What's Going On and Let's Get It On. There are plenty of one-and-two-hit wonders, such as Redbone, Dobie Gray and Stories. And even the kitsch is fun to watch, including Reddy, Olivia Newton-John and the fabulous Village People. Remembering watching this show through the 70's, there was always something you could enjoy each week. I do hope there's more coming.

Friday, October 3, 2014

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: LEONARD COHEN - POPULAR PROBLEMS

You can tell Cohen is enjoying being a pop star at 80, putting out albums now at the same rate as when he started back in the late 60's.  There seems to be no late-life desperation to complete his work, or stubbornness to concede, like Dylan.  After spending most of his life pulled between the spiritual and physical, it seems he has found his true pleasure in continuing to create, and knowing it's being appreciated at whatever speed he puts it out.

I guess my only concern is whether he's compromising at all, by being so quick to record.  This is a guy who laboured over lyrics for years, and was pretty particular about his tunes as well.  Famous Blue Raincoat, for instance, had its music completed before he started the words.  Now it's paint-by-number Cohen, a gospel song here, a keyboard there, his aged, wise voice delivering the goods, answered by the harmonies of the two women singing back-up.  It is a winning formula, I haven't tired of it, but we might not get a last burst of brilliance, a final Hallelujah as it were.  Cohen's certainly willing to give us solid work though, and even reference his past for fun.  You Got Me Singing includes the winking, "You got me singing the Hallelujah song."

There are more in-jokes at his own expense, harkening back to when he sang, "I was born with the gift of a golden voice," that makes us all laugh in concert.  This time, when he's listing all the awful things in the world, he sings "There's torture and there's killing/There's all my bad reviews," in Almost Like The Blues.  He tears down the 'fourth wall' in the song Slow, with its tortoise-level pace, as he tells us "I'm slowing down the tune/I never liked it fast."  There's the Biblical metaphor of Born In Chains, which is probably the closest to a major Cohen number on this set.  It was the original version of the song I Can't Forget, from 1988's I'm Your Man.  He uses the Biblical theme of escape from bondage in Egypt to sing about his personal escape and fulfillment.  Is Cohen satisfied and happy?  It seems so.  And we are getting very, very good songs out of it.  Maybe not another Hallelujah, but count your blessings.