Thursday, April 16, 2015


In the folk tradition, the older and more obscure the song, the better. And if you happen to discover a long-lost song, that's a treasure. Imagine finding out about an entire genre, with a century of recordings and a rich, obscure history waiting to be popularized? Man, every Avett brother and Lomax son would be drooling.

That's what Kevin Breit did with his 2012 album Field Recording, introducing us to the ancient and still-active players of the Upper York Mandolin Orchestra, under the guidance of the great Thomas Dooley, third-generation leader of a grand band of mandolin, mandola, and mandocello players. The rich, wonderful sounds of those antique and beautiful wooden works of art rang through the disc, delicious chords and spectacular trills and thrills from the massed strings.

Except not a whit of it was true. The orchestra was all Breit, as was the conceit. But the album was all real, and the real deal too. He had conceived of something new, a special sound of mandolins (and acoustic bass) leaning precipitously on the edge, dipping back and forth between the past and present, history and fact, today's musical smarts and yesterday's beauty.

So that's why one of North America's premiere guitar innovators (think Tom Waits as a guitar player rather than a singer) is still firing away on eight and more strings. This time, it's a double album, two distinct parts, with two different stories to tell. Ernesto is the continuation of the collaboration between Dooley and Breit, but this time on a trip to Rio. Dooley, it seems, has finally succeeded in acquiring the rights to the great Brazilian composer Ernesto Ciari's work. This disc is all instrumental.

Delilah is, surprisingly, all true. It's an album of duets with the similarly-talented Toronto vocalist Rebecca Jenkins, a collaboration much on Breit's mind for some time. Here he pairs his quirky charms with a willing participant. The delightful stories are full of rich tales and characters such as Murderous Dimitri and Henry Marx, playing the marxophone of course. Once again history and present day merge. Then's there's the rather other-worldly sensation caused by listening to two albums of mandolin music. I doubt Breit is bold enough to suggest he's invented new folk music, so I'll do it for him.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015


Kaia Kater is one of the rising stars in traditional folk comes from Toronto via Quebec, playing North American banjo music from both sides of the border. With a mix of old-time and original tunes, it's hard to tell which is 19th century and which is all hers.

Kater is just 21, and has already absorbed the Appalachian style, that haunting and sorrowful form of traditional ballad, with roots as deep as they go. Even her lyrics reflect the old speech patterns, on numbers such as When Sorrows Encompass Me Round. Although she's made a study of the Appalachian style (even going to school in West Virgina), she's one of the few to bring Canada into the equation. Here she sings in french on the traditional Quebec song En filant ma Quenouille,

On her instrumentals, Kater picks and trills along, best at dueling with producer Chris Bartos on fiddle. Other than those instruments and voices, there is just the occasional touch of the modern, a production effect here and there. Kater seems already accomplished; it will be grand to watch her grow over the next few years, to see where her gifts take her.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015


The Sun Harmonic is one of the many projects for Toronto-based Kaleb Hikele. He`s led rock bands, been a folk performer, and helped create an artist collective, as well as solidifying his creative empire by building a downtown studio. Now, he returns to his first instrument, the piano, to create this body of songs on the new set After We Fly.

It`s actually a sampler for a bigger work to come, a wide-ranging double album he`s preparing for 2016, called Winter. So this has the alternate title of 8 Winter Songs. How snowy the whole thing gets remains to be recorded, but for now After We Fly is a tempting treat. Hikele knows full well how to make modern, delicious tracks, rich in melody and intricately composed. What he avoids here is the temptation to chop it all up and dose it in trickery and finery. Instead, each song has as its main instrument the piano, so sadly out of fashion in most genres. Yet here it is in all its glory, chords and triplets and trills and tremolos.

That's not to say he doesn't embellish; there are lots more instruments, even some effects, but those glorious melodies came straight from the old Joanna. He introduces jazz moves, classical ideas, and lush pop, with cello, trumpet, and a grand chorus of voices among the guests. With a fine, soothing voice as well, Hikele has done wonders for the piano player.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015


I have never thought of Ron Sexsmith as particularly glum, just thoughtful and sentimental, bittersweet at times. If you're going to write accurate slices of life, well, a little rain must fall (it's April after all). And there are lots of poppy numbers in his many albums, yet he's saddled with a sad sack reputation, at least in the blogosphere.

So Carousel One has already become known as his attempt to lighten the mood. He even tries a smile on the cover, and it does look painful for him. There's no arguing that the mood is bright throughout, and Sexsmith's somewhat silly sense of humour is even on display. Lead single Saint Bernard is Sexsmith's tribute to what he imagines would be his ideal pet, right down to his famous hangdog expression: "Who else is going to rescue me when I''m face down in the snow/No other dog looks more like me and could fill in when I'm ill and unable to make the show."

Ron rocks! It's true! He's done it before, but check out Getaway Car, where he channels his long-standing McCartney/Wings-era side. And several of the tracks have an easy-going, breezy feel, such as Lucky Penny. What do you know, the sun is shining in that song, and a couple of others. Maybe spring has sprung for Sexsmith, as this does feel like the perfect album to get us out of the winter of our discontent.

Monday, March 30, 2015


The three original Specials albums have received the double-deluxe treatment, each with an added disc of bonus material. The classic debut from 1979, produced by Elvis Costello, was the high point, full of excitement and before tensions ripped apart the members.

Leading the Two-Tone movement, the Specials did more than front a ska revival; they actually took the music into the Top Ten in England, and found a sound that could unite black and white audiences. The multi-racial group was also overtly political, targeting racism, poverty and oppression. All that, while making this dynamic, thrilling and highly danceable set of songs.

Specials includes a great mix of originals and updates of classic Jamaican numbers. They do a mean version of Toots & the Maytals' Monkey Man, with more energy than the original, borrowing the frenetic approach of punk and New Wave. They proved strong lyricists as well, with Concrete Jungle set inside Britain's oppressive class system, and Too Much Too Young about teen pregnancy.

The bonuses include the Gangsters single, not on the original album. Also pleasing is the inclusion of the full-length, six-plus minute version of Too Much Too Young, as Canada was long stuck with a two-minute edit. The second disc is all live, including the three-track Too Much Too Young E.P. tracks, and a 1979 BBC In Concert recording, which shows that the group could match any original Jamaican group on stage.

Sunday, March 29, 2015


Sexton's always been known for his ability to jump from style to style, and here he puts that to good use. He's collected a group of his songs that exemplify that, and put them together much the same way you'd make a mixtape of different artists. The musical gumbo that is the road in America is the theme, and he proves a fine travel guide and DJ for the trip.

Remember That Ride rocks the best, a big groove and catchy chorus about the best-ever amusement part ride, "This ain't your grandmother's tilt-a-whirl." Shut Up And Sing channels The Grateful Dead, with lots of rolling guitar licks. I Believe In You is a warm, sentimental number, real-life touches, a love story that brings up..hey, a mixtape full of Dead songs, what do you know. Sexton's soulful voice fits well in all these roots styles, and like John Hiatt, he knows how to write and sing them all, making this a hell of a ride.

Saturday, March 28, 2015


Producer Haynie has made hits for everyone from Eminem to Lana Del Rey to Bruno Mars, but here he launches his own career in the spotlight. Except, he's no great singer, so most of the vocal duties are handed over to his many connections. It's a celebration of L.A. pop styles, past and present, recorded at the infamous Chateau Marmont, Guest singers include 60's heroes Brian Wilson, Randy Newman and Colin Blunstone of The Zombies, and from today he calls on Del Rey, Andrew Wyatt, Rufus Wainwright, Lykke Li, Father John Misty, Nate Ruess of fun. and others.

This cast of characters helps turn the album into a song arc, with voices cast in various styles. Newman brings his jovial charm to the uplifting (in music anyway), Who To Blame. Wainwright's theatrical singing takes us into some of the sadness, while Wyatt and Ruess are along for the dream pop that permeates most of the collection. The backing vocals are equally rich, as secondary voices such as Wilson and Julie Holter take rich parts of counterpoint to the leads. Moody and lush, this reminds me of an Eels album, only more lovely and less cranky and depressed