Friday, December 21, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: KATE BUSH - REMASTERED PART II

In the words of her Christmas track found on this boxed set, December will be magic again, if you're lucky enough to find this under the tree. The companion to Part 1, released and reviewed earlier this month, Part 2 features the later Kate Bush albums, her recent live collection, and a further four CDs that collect 12-inch remixes, assorted b-sides and bonus cuts, and cover versions for charities and the like. For those who've been buying all her albums over the years, those are the big finds in this box, but I'm betting there are lots who have let their interest slide, especially after her long career break from 1993 to 2005. For them, there are more revelations, including full fantastic albums.

Box 2 starts where Bush reappeared, 2005 and the album Aerial. This quirky, playful and sometimes goofy set was split into two discs, the first a series of wildly imaginative tracks, the second devoted to a story about bird songs and nature. As a much-awaited return, it was probably too out there for North America, but proved a smash in England, with the cut King Of The Mountain a hit single. Eccentricity goes over better in her homeland, while here people were scratching their heads over a song about the washing machine (Mrs. Bartolozzi), imitating bird calls with laughter, and then there's Pi, where she sings it to a few dozen decimal places. Once you get used to that, the album is a revelation of beauty and intricate composition, from bare piano to orchestral to flamenco to progressive rock. It's definitely one you need to go back to again and again to capture the whole journey.

Next came another break, not as long, but still six years. However, then came whole mountain of work, at least in her terms, two full albums in 2011. The first was another intriguing surprise, called Director's Cut. Bush chose to revisit songs from two of her old albums, The Red Shoes and Sensual World, to strip them back, add brand-new vocals and in some cases completely redo them. One of the main reasons was because she had initially been refused permission to use James Joyce text in the song Sensual World, but had since been allowed, so it was redone as Flower Of The Mountain. As well, her voice had lowered in the years since, so she changed keys, added new parts and players, and went for it. In most cases, the songs retain and even improve on the originals, with only Rubberband Girl failing to match the bouncy original. Why do it? Why not?

Sadly, the other album from that year, 50 Words For Snow, was a letdown. Once again fixing on a story, and again on nature, this time Bush's long meditations on winter were more dull than intriguing, despite her usual rich production and instrumentation. A lengthy duet with Elton John just plods along, while the title track is an odd piece featuring actor Stephen Fry reading the fifty words Bush made up for snow (stellatundra?) while she goads him on from the side.

The biggest surprise of her career came in 2014, when Bush returned to the stage for her first full shows in 35 years. Instead of touring, she set up in one place, the Hammersmith Apollo in London, and played 22 nights. A huge triumph, the show was released in full two years later, a brilliant collection. Bush didn't do any songs from before Hounds Of Love, but performed most of that landmark set. The show was split in three parts, opening with a set of favourites (Running Up That Hill, King Of The Mountain, Hounds Of Love). Then came the entire second half of the Hounds album, the Ninth Wave suite, featuring dialogue and staging. The show was filmed, but hasn't appeared yet,  still it is a remarkable audio experience. The third act featured the complete second disc of Aerial, called A Sky Of Honey, that one with the bird calls/laughs, and again it's a beautiful, dynamic performance, wrapped up with an encore of Cloudbusting.

That's it for her albums, but with all the stray cuts in her career, it took four CD's to wrap things up. The remixes disc doesn't include the many variations, but certainly has interesting ones, including the very different Orgonon Mix of Cloudbusting. There are two discs of B-sides, and several of these are among her very best tracks, including the beautiful Under The Ivy, the clever single Experiment IV and the very early rocker Passing Through Air, from 1975. The final disc, called In Other's Words, has her doing covers such as Elton John's Rocket Man and Candle In The Wind, Donovan's Lord Of The Reedy River, and most surprisingly, Sexual Healing. A little more detail on where these all appeared would have been nice, as there are no liner notes for the box, but Google works too.

The most popular Kate Bush albums are featured on the first box set, but this is the one where you get more surprises and more rewards. Fans will have Hounds Of Love memorized and The Kick Inside feels like an old friend, whereas these albums are fresh, and will have you going down the rabbit hole. Who knows if we'll see more music from her? It's mightily impressive what is here.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: NAMING THE TWINS - SING THE WINTER AWAY

Here it is still five days until Christmas, and you're already sick of all your usual festive music choices. Why not go a little different with an East Coast winter warmer, from Nova Scotia's popular folk duo Naming The Twins. Kath Glauser and Robbie Smith have put together a collection that will spice up the whole season, as it covers Christmas and has songs that have to do with all winter as well.

Staying away from the same old tunes, this set features 12 brand-new originals, mostly composed by Smith with some help along the way by Glauser and a couple of others. He's tapped into traditional folk, whether it's the '60's feel-good boy-girl vocal style, or jumping in the wayback machine for melodies and arrangements with Elizabethan (the first one) style. These feature harp, whistles, recorders, dulcimer, harpsichord and more, old-school instruments for soothing ballads and winter-warming melodies. But listen closer, and these are have modern lyric themes mixed in as well. Plus there's lots of fun along the way too, with Christmas On The Shrimp Boats and Klondike Christmas making spirits bright.

With snow and cold occupying five months of our lives (or more some years), it makes sense to have music that reflects that. Naming The Twins get us through the holidays and point us toward spring with this Christmas/winter collection.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: JOHN HIATT - THE ECLIPSE SESSIONS

For most artists these days, four years between albums is the norm, but for John Hiatt, it's the longest break in his career. 2014's Terms Of My Surrender gained him the usual good reviews and acclaim, but like most of his albums of the past two decades, it came and went pretty fast. Maybe the break will spur some more fan interest, because he certainly has come back with a strong one.

It's always a bit disorienting to hear Hiatt's voice these days, as he's lost some range and sounds weary. But he's using it too, a shaky voice singing about shaky people. The woman driving through Dirty Nashville in All The Way To The River is doing it "up late with hollowed out eyes." We all might be made in His image, but Hiatt advises "If you love me don't expect a lot, I'm a poor imitation of God." He's not bemoaning his age though. In his Over The Hill, he makes his case for continuing in love's battles, stating there's "still a few peaks and valleys I ain't seen."

So, all good in the lyric department, and the better news is how sharp and catchy the music is. The stripped-down group, basic guitar-bass-drums-keyboards, hits a groove on each track, and Hiatt proves again a master at great choruses and subtle hooks throughout. Just think about his classic Bring The Family track Thing Called Love; this is an album full of that.

Monday, December 17, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: PAUL MCCARTNEY - WILD LIFE & RED ROSE SPEEDWAY REISSUES

It's a bonanza for Beatle/McCartney fans of late, with these reissues following November's tremendous box set for the White Album. I'm not suggesting that these two albums rank alongside that beloved Beatle set, but we do get more bonuses and newly-remastered music. These are part of the ongoing McCartney Archive Collection, with two-CD versions, vinyl and big box set options. I'll stick to the more-affordable two-disc copies, as these aren't thought of as the gems in his catalog, so to speak.

Wild Life, the debut Wings album from 1971, is in fact largely discredited and ignored, with no hit singles or well-known tracks, and you rarely if ever see anything by it on compilations or McCartney setlists. Red Rose Speedway, even though it was a #1 album in 1973, doesn't have much better a reputation, with My Love being its main attraction. Although it's hard to believe now, during these two years McCartney was the underachiever in the solo Beatles stakes, with Lennon, Harrison and even Ringo scoring more hits and better PR.

Big reissues can sometimes improve our opinions on forgotten or misunderstood albums. Dylan's successful remodeling of his maligned Self-Portrait set during the Bootleg Series is a great example of how showing the bare bones and alternates can help change minds. Here we have one such success. I'm very surprised how well Red Rose Speedway sounds now, after hearing it for the first time in many years. With a great second disc of B-sides, period singles, live tracks and unreleased cuts, it's greatly beefed up. But also, it seems the record hasn't been given its due over the years, perhaps due to the backlash over the failed Wild Life set. There are some very good, melodic McCartney numbers, examples of his thoughtful pop stuff from the Abbey Road-McCartney-Ram period. Get On The Right Thing, Little Lamb Dragonfly and Single Pigeon are all really pleasing. It turns out some of these songs pre-dated the Wild Life sessions, and were Ram leftovers, which happens to be my choice for the best-ever McCartney album, so that accounts for it.

Over on disc two, you have lots of singles and b-sides that weren't on albums, most of them pretty good to great. There's also his version of Mary Had A Little Lamb, it had to go somewhere. But we do get Live And Let Die and its underrated flip, I Lie Around, the Hi Hi Hi/C Moon coupling, the rather fun Suzy and the Red Stripes single Seaside Woman (Linda's solo turn), and Country Dreamer, the b-side of Helen Wheels. These are joined by three live cuts from the Wings Over Europe tour, delightfully three unreleased songs, darn good ones too. Red Rose Speedway was originally planned as a double album, and these ones ended up dropped for the single album release. Some of the other studio numbers dropped appear here as well for the first time, and it does prove to have been a fertile period.

The Wild Life collection doesn't fare as well. For some reason McCartney was playing it simple when he put together his first band, and the songs reflect that. There's no great thought in numbers such as Bip Bop and Mumbo, the lyrics reflecting the gravitas of the titles. A cover of Mickey and Sylvia's Love Is Strange is both uninspired and too long, and it really does feel like he was padding out the record with studio jams. The bonus disc hasn't much more to offer. There's some home recordings of silliness such as Bip Bop and Hey Diddle, with the kids running around and Linda singing harmonies, some minor demos, and the "controversial" single Give Ireland Back To The Irish, a cut McCartney has chosen to bury over the years.

In the end, this is a partial win for McCartney, as Red Rose Speedway should be elevated in status, and is one you'd do well to pick up and explore. Wild Life remains one for major fans keen on complete collections.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: VAN MORRISON - THE PROPHET SPEAKS

Morrison continues to do exactly what he's done for the past couple of decades, release yet another new album, alternating between blues, jazz and R'n'B, with lots of '50's and '60's covers with a few originals thrown in as well. This one feels different though, and there's a buzz about it too. Spending a few hours in a Halifax record store last week, the thing actually sold out, and a couple of people came in specifically looking for it. It could just be the eye-catching cover, but it's also a cut above the usual.

I think it has to do with the small jazz combo form he uses on this release, just four other players plus his own harp and sax. It includes one of jazz music's current lights, organ player Joey DeFrancesco, and the last time he teamed up with Van, the album You're Driving Me Crazy, from this past spring, you could feel the magic beginning. For that album, Morrison chose to rework some of his own back catalog, but this time he had six new originals, including the moody title cut, and that seems to have inspired the proceedings further. These aren't just throwaway blues lyrics either. Morrison gets into the mystic with Spirit Will Provide, and goes dark with 5 AM Greenwich Mean Time.

That's all great, it's nice to have some strong originals, but what makes the record special is the hot performances, from DeFrancesco's organ and trumpet, Troy Roberts' sax solos, and Morrison's surprisingly excellent harp work. The band swings, and Morrison is clearly inspired, sounding enthused in his vocals. Then throw in great choices such as Muddy Waters' I Love The Life I Live and John Lee Hooker's Dimples, and you have a thoroughly enjoyable listen. Oh, and if you're counting, it's Van's 40th studio album. He's got this down.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: RODNEY CROWELL - CHRISTMAS EVERYWHERE

You wouldn't expect Rodney Crowell to do a Christmas album that is sentimental and saccharine, and he doesn't disappoint. At times bemused, biting, sad or lovelorn, Crowell calls out the hype and phony ho-ho-ho, and refuses to view the season through holly-coloured glasses. In other words, he approaches it just like a great singer-songwriter should.

Crowell doesn't even sing on the opener, Clement's Lament, but instead lets a couple of angelic voices lull us into a false feeling of Christmas, before hitting us with the payoff, "Peace on Earth, good will to one and all/The season starts in August now, we'll see you in the mall."  His Christmas Everywhere has all the cliches flying in rhyming couplets, a mind-boggling collection of gift hopes from the smallest child (a ball and bat) to the biggest power grabber ("Donald wants to rule the world"), an apt description of Christmas mania. Then there are the songs that look at the dark side, characters pining for great loves lost, Christmas triggering their sad memories. In Merry Christmas From An Empty Bed, the character faces an artificial tree once purchased and left behind by his ex, "The evergreen seems pointless for a tired old fool like me/The fake one more resembles now the man I've come to be."

Happy holiday music it's not, despite some sprightly tunes including When The Fat Guy Tries The Chimney On For Size. This is not for your happy family gatherings. It is however an excellent Rodney Crowell take on Christmas, which is a lot better present than him singing another version of Deck The Halls.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: WHITEHORSE - A WHITEHORSE WINTER CLASSIC

This is definitely one of the best new Christmas albums this year. Whitehorse shows how broad a range the duo has, tackling a bunch of different styles on this holiday offering. Over the nine songs and 30 minutes, there are seven new originals, covering pop, ballad, orchestral and choral, a little of their raw guitar sound, a potential catchy rock hit in Merry Christmas, Baby, and lead vocals from both Melissa McClelland and Luke Doucet. Throughout, lots of sharp, thoughtful lyrics cover universal themes of hope rather than cliched story lines or overblown sentiment.

I like how the duo has approached the season as they do with regular albums, by writing about topics and moods we all go through, rather than resorting to the usual  Christmas tropes. Ho Ho Ho is about getting ho-ho-home in all the usual seasonal chaos: "With all the cancelled flights, I hope you even make it here." Two Snowbirds, which features what might be McClelland's most gorgeous vocal ever in the band, is about getting the heck out of Dodge in the winter cold, and how the season's cheer can follow you somewhere warm too.

Breaking up the new stuff are two familiar numbers, but both very suited to their style. The first is a duet cover of The Pretenders' 2000 Miles, lovely vocals matching the wonderful melody of the original. Blue Christmas is even better-known, here offered as a nicely quirky version with a cheesy organ, drum machine and nasty guitar solo. Most Christmas albums are a quick run-through of the usual songs and styles, fun but of no great consequence. This one sees Whitehorse stretching out of their comfort zone, composing some fine new songs, and using the opportunity to build on their fine body of work.