Monday, November 30, 2015
Cilla Black passed away back in August, barely causing a ripple in the Twitterverse, no great outpouring of grief and nostalgia on Facebook. In the great British Invasion, somehow Cilla only managed a single Top 40 hit, the dramatic You're My World. But in England, she was a huge star of song and TV, with back-to-back number one hits, 17 Top 40 numbers, a long-running variety show, and was the second-most successful client of Brian Epstein, next to you-know-who.
Black wan't riding on her friend's coattails either. She was well-known in Liverpool, pre-1963, getting up onstage and doing sets with most of the local top acts. Famously, she was a coat-check girl at The Cavern, but her pal Lennon was already calling "Cyril" on-stage to sing a number with the band before then. Epstein envisioned her as more sophisticated than the pop bands, and she did have hits with Randy Newman and Bacharach/David cuts, Alfie being written specifically for her, not Dionne Warwick. Newman's I've Been Wrong Before is tragic and beautiful, with a highly-original chord progression in the melody.
Then there are those pals; like others in the Epstein management circle, she got the support of producer George Martin, and the songs of Lennon-McCartney. Love of the Loved was the first, an old Cavern number they'd discarded. It's For You was okay, good enough to make the British Top 10 in the glory year of 1964. There's a great little message from Lennon included on this set, where he says grand things about Black for the benefit of fans and disc jockeys. Best of all was a McCartney number written for a TV show she was in, 1968's Step Inside Love, quite a different style for the Beatle, and another hit overseas.
Black had a grand voice, and was a charmer, much-loved over her career, known always as "Our Cilla". Given that Freddie & the Dreamers managed four Top 40 hits in the U.S., and Peter and Gordon had ten, it's quite a shock that Cilla Black wasn't more accepted.
Canada's favourite band, at Canada's favourite venue, or close enough on both counts. Blue Rodeo now has a ridiculous number of beloved songs to try to fit into one night, let alone the small problem of their most recent album, In Our Nature, being a hit, and having to be represented amidst all those classics.
The 14 cuts here are split well between the hits, new stuff and a couple of deep catalogue surprises. It starts off with a track from the band's beloved Five Days In July album, Head Over Heels, before going back to one of the very early days for Rose Coloured Glasses. Bad Timing has always been a live highlight, but perhaps a little over-represented, having appeared on both the Just Like A Vacation and Blue Road live albums. They pull out a cool one next, with Disappear, from the Tremolo album.
Then there are four cuts from In Our Nature, showing just how strong that set was, surely a pleasure for the veteran band, to be able to have such a positive reception for new work. There's one more from the album, Paradise, later on, as well as another deep cut, Girl of Mine from 1989. The rest of the songs are must-hear numbers at every show, Diamond Mine, After The Rain, 5 Days In May and Lost Together.
I waited on this review to get the vinyl, with the assumption Massey would give the recording some added warmth, and that's certainly the case. It's a double album with heavyweight vinyl, and lots of clarity to the vocals and instruments. This is also one of the most versatile of the Blue Rodeo lineups, now sitting at seven pieces. Colin Cripps' addition on lead guitar has allowed for Jim Cuddy to move to piano or mandolin when he wants, and the old favourites have a more epic feel, especially Lost Together and Diamond Mine. This turned out to be a welcome document of the band at an important career high.
Sunday, November 29, 2015
Before The Beatles, Liverpool was considered a musical backwater by the British music world. But such was the overwhelming success of the band, most of the rest of the city's scene was soon following the Fabs up the chart, many of them thanks to the same team. Billy J. Kramer was a colleague of the band, having played lots of gigs with them pre-fame. He also caught the attention of Brian Epstein, who became his manager, and opened the doors to the kingdom.
The burgeoning songwriting team of Lennon & McCartney were so popular, any of their songs could have been hits. Catchy numbers were being left as album tracks, so some of them were handed around to other acts on the team. Kramer got to record several, with the tracks produced by George Martin. The more Lennon & McCartney wrote, the more extra songs were unused as well, so there were a couple of their compositions only heard as Kramer numbers.
Kramer was able to take Bad To Me into the Top Ten, not a bad Lennon cut, but you can hear why he wasn't worried about handing it over. I Call Your Name was better, and the group did eventually cut that one, after Billy's version. In all, seven of the 14 cuts here are Beatle-written numbers.
But Kramer did prove himself outside the comfort zone of Epstein's empire. His best number and most enduring song is a Mort Shuman number he picked up on, Little Children. It doesn't sound at all like The Beatles, and has a maturity most pop hits of the day didn't, at least in the melody and arrangement. Kramer ran out of steam in 1965, and future plans were curtailed when Epstein died, but he had a solid run in the British Invasion.
Thursday, November 26, 2015
Sporting a lively new remaster, the very familiar tunes are repackaged here with the aforementioned booklet essay, plus a second disc of pretty impressive previously-unreleased material. These are ten demos from that period, none of which have appeared before or became something else. All but one were written with her producer and co-conspirator Glen Ballard, and date from the very first song they wrote together to some weary works that came out after she got off the road from the exhausting tour for Jagged Little Pill.
Like the rest of her songs at that time, these are personal and cathartic numbers, where she examines how she's feeling, what she wants, what is of great concern. With Ballard involved, these demos are certainly not acoustic guitars and voice. These are pretty close to finished products, even including strings on one song. In effect, it's Jagged Little Pill 1.5.
Best tracks include The Bottom Line, that first song they wrote, in the first hour of meeting. At this point, Ballard was still contributing some lyrics, although by Jagged Little Pill. she had taken over all the words, while they shared the music composition. Superstar Wonderful Weirdos is a look at the freak show she had joined, able to stand outside and observe people's perceptions of her. No Avalon is another one with Ballard contributing lyrics, wondering if there's a heaven. King of Intimidation is another whack at jerks in the entertainment game, written after Jagged Little Pill, a good continuation of the theme. Death of Cinderella is a final goodbye to the pop princess we Canadians knew back in her dance days.
Here's the thing though; does anyone still listen to Jagged Little Pill? It was so ubiquitous, and so of its time, that it's not something you go back to, nor is it something new generations pick up on. Twenty years has gone by, and there doesn't seem to be a need for its heroic qualities anymore. Morissette broke down the barriers, and lots of women followed with lots of attitude. But it might be another few years before her songs find a fresh audience. The two-disc set is nicely priced at around $15, while a 4-CD box includes a live concert from the original album tour, and a reissue of the 2005 acoustic re-recording of the original album.
Tuesday, November 24, 2015
Riffing on everything from Sweet Georgia Brown to Chopin is pretty daunting, but Andrews can handle just about anything, plus he makes it swing, and folds it into his unique Newfoundland Gypsy-jazz-guitar oeuvre. Here, fall-back favourites from Django sit happily beside traditional Newfoundland numbers, a clutch of originals, and Stravinsky's Firebird Lullaby.
In a career based on innovation, the new move for this album was making it all with a string quartet. While it seems obvious for the familiar melody of Chopin's Opus 64 No. 2, hearing it delicately, smoothly and quickly picked out on guitar is a testament to Andrews' vast talent. No spotlight-hogger, Andrews lets the strings bring a whole new appreciation to the charms of Let Me Fish Of Cape St. Mary's.
Known for previous albums with fiddler Dwayne Côté or guitarist Craig Young, as well as The Swinging Belles, once again Andrews shows he plays well with others. Catch him Nov. 28 in Saint John, N.B. at The Sanctuary, along with the Saint John String Quartet.
Yates has had quite a career, and you can hear about some of the most interesting parts on this grand alt-country outing, a career highlight. It's her first since 2007's The Book Of Minerva, and a big reminder that she's one of the country's best singers and writers.
Out of the same Toronto cowpunk scene that coalesced around Handsome Ned. Blue Rodeo and Cowboy Junkies, Yates was lead singer for Rang Tango, and swept up to Nashville, Sony Music there looking (rightly) for the next big thing. The conservative town never likes rebels, and after a debut solo album, Yates was back in Canada for a couple of albums for Virgin in the '90's. Next came the sorta-supergroup Hey Stella!, with ace roots guitarist producer David Gavan Baxter, Prairie Oyster drummer Michelle Josef, and Blue Rodeo's Bazil Donovan for an album in the 2001's. She's also become an integral part of the powerful Hamilton music scene.
A gifted storyteller, Yates offers a mix of cautionary tales, life lessons and colourful people and places. Hamilton's full of them you know, and several show up in Corktown, a number about the legendary tavern (Canada's oldest), where you have to prove yourself, something Yates certainly did. Trouble In The Country is about the situation Yates found herself in arriving in Nashville, especially a run-in with the famous producer Billy Sherrill.
Oh, back to Hey Stella!, the band got back together for this one, and they sparkle throughout, with tasty licks from Baxter and a solid country groove to match Yates' natural twang. There's still lots of the punk in her as well. She might be a sweetheart, but she'll kick your ass too. It's a kick-ass record in fact.
Monday, November 23, 2015
Isaak does one thing, but he does it very well. Apart from his last album, Beyond the Sun, a tribute to Sun Records, he makes love-in-trouble songs centered around his Orbison/Elvis pipes. When he does branch out, it's not far, usually with rockabilly numbers with more lighthearted lyrics. Somehow over a 13-album career, he's managed to keep a spark despite the constant theme, mostly by always writing and singing them well.
There are several highlight songs here, including the title cut, a blue (as in bayou) break-up ballad, with a solid lyric ('First comes the heartache darling, it ain't always gonna hurt this way'). Dry Your Eyes is a Latin lover come-on, a little marimba and a little heavy breathing. Don't Break My Heart rocks it up a bit more, a desperate plea from a love-sick fool.
Isaak's still careful not to give us too much of a good thing over the whole album, and the novelty numbers deliver quality as well. The rockabilly tune Down In Flames is a cheery-sounding number about dying spectacularly, burning out before fading away: 'James Dean bought it on a highway, Marilyn found it in a pill/Elvis died, or did he? They're looking for him still.' Insects is weird, in a compelling way: 'Bad ideas are like insects on the windshield of my mine.' I always like forward to an Isaak album; I don't expect big changes, but it's never a let-down either.