Monday, July 21, 2014

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: GRAM PARSONS - GP, GRIEVOUS ANGEL (Vinyl reissues)



Here are a couple of must-owns for the roots fan. Parsons has long been the poster boy for alt.country, Americana, whatever it gets called when rock fans like country. Poor sellers when released, his death has pushed these up to equal status with his lone album with The Byrds (Sweetheart Of The Rodeo) and the debut Flying Burrito Brothers platter. They've been available in a nice CD set for years, but it's oh-so-cool to get them on vinyl again, reissued now in high-quality pressings.


GP was definitely the start of something, but as with all things Parsons, a bit of a shambles. His instincts were right; flush with inheritance money, he hired some of the best, including most of Elvis's TCB band, with James Burton on guitar, Ronnie Tutt on drums and Glen D. Hardin on piano. Then there was his new vocal partner, the unknown Emmylou Harris, whom he was in the process of schooling in classic country (she was a folkie before). Producing was ex-Traffic member Rik Grech, picked up in England after Parsons was booted out of the Rolling Stones orbit. What could go wrong?


Well, lots. Grech was a fellow traveler in the substance abuse sweepstakes, and Parsons was barely holding it together at the best of times. He was more concerned about authenticity than polish, and that meant some shambolic takes on covers We'll Sweep Out The Ashes In The Morning and That's All It Took. Harris wasn't smooth yet, and the poor woman could have used a few more takes at least to get her parts down, but Parsons was rushing things. Still there are grand songwriting gems and tremendous hurt vocals on The New Soft Shoe, A Song For You, and the great She, a doomed love song drenched in the oppressive Southern atmosphere of Parsons' youth. Parsons was getting close to his beloved and hoped-for Cosmic American Music, but it was greeted mostly with a big WTF?

And then, like all good legends, he died.  Look it up, it's crazy, and involves corpse theft and a partial cremation out in the desert.  But he'd already gone on a game-changing tour with Harris and some of the band, and made the follow-up, Grievous Angel.  Parsons had been cleaning up a bit, and the albums has a much-improved sound and cohesion.   The brilliant Return of the Grievous Angel, with its calico bonnet and truckers and kickers and cowboy angels is the key, the song he'd searched for, the one that took the spirit of classic American country and placed it squarely in the now.  The band was working beautifully, with Burton's licks and Emmylou's twang now essential to the sound.  The sorrow of Brass Buttons and $1000 Wedding was heart-wrenching, and the welcome return of Parsons' Byrds-era classic Hickory Wind a masterstroke.  Even the covers were essential, especially the duet with Harris on Love Hurts, perhaps the best-ever version of this song in a field crowded with the likes of The Everly Brothers and Roy Orbison.

Gram Parsons was talented, a visionary, and driven, but he was also lazy, troubled and foolish.  He frittered away every great opportunity he was given, had great respect for the music but little for the talented people around him who helped him reach the greatest heights.  Infuriating, especially when you hear these last two albums he made, and where it could have gone.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: DAVID VEST - ROADHOUSE REVELATION



If you want authenticity, Vest is the kind of blues guy who brings the real deal to the table. He's a boogie-woogie piano player with pedigree, who knows both the blues and early rock and roll styles inside out, being seasoned enough, and playing with some of Canada's best over the years. Vest learned his licks back in Alabama where he was born 71 years ago, but is now based in Victoria, B.C., where he plays with the likes of David Gogo, and wins Maple Blues Awards on his own.


For his latest, Vest has teamed up with Fathead's guitar player (Teddy Leonard), and Downchild's rhythm section (Gary Kendall on bass, Mike Fitzpatrick on drums). With a set full of originals (aside from two covers), Vest shows off several styles, including some barrelhouse, a little country and lots of piano-based storytelling. Streetcar is a number that could have come out of the Dirty Thirties saloons, while Freight Train Rolling is 50's Memphis. The weary-voiced Vest doesn't have a lot of range, so the story-song works best for him, plus you feel like you can believe everything he tells you, because he's seen it all.


He's really here to let his fingers do the talking, and hearing real piano played with that special boogie twinkle is a grand treat. The band is sharp and full behind him, and Leonard gets to chime in with some nice licks as well. These are veterans who know how to do it.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: THE JAYHAWKS - SOUND OF LIES, SMILE, RAINY DAY MUSIC DELUXE EDITIONS





The Jayhawks had, seemingly, everything going for them in the 90's. They were the poster-band of a hot new genre, alt.-country, had a major league contract with Def American, and a buzz-worthy album, Hollywood Town Hall. Then there was the writing team of Marc Olson and Gary Louris, either one liable to come up with a sweet hit, and together the makers of Everly-worthy harmonies. But as Jayhawks fans know, they were the band who never quite made it over the hill.


Excitement was still in the air after the 1995 album Tomorrow The Green Grass, but that's when the big blow happened. Olson was fed up with having his music compromised by the record label and his bandmates, and abruptly left. The rest of the band decided to continue, but things weren't going to be the same.


Since a major reformation in 2011, including the return of Olson, the band's original albums have been receiving the deluxe treatment. Now it's the turn of the post-Olson works, a trio of high-quality discs that continued the familiar pattern. The songs were great, the true fans loved them, the shows were wonderful, but they couldn't break out of cult status. Some bands just aren't meant for it, no matter how good.


Each one comes with several period bonus cuts, and new historical liner notes, and are certainly worthy of an upgrade if you did have the originals. 1997's Sound Of Lies was the first with Gary Louris assuming sole leadership and writing most of the songs. Luckily, he was ready with the goods, although the country influence was on the decline. More rock and experimentation was moving in, the guitars crunched more and a more somber and cynical tone was cast on the album. Even the fun, Petty-like number Big Star was totally ironic, Louris acknowledging he'd probably never leave the club scene. Those who were drawn to the Jayhawks for their Americana/Gram Parsons nods would now need to broaden their horizons to stay fans.


Smile was next in 2000, and featured a big gun producing, hard rock vet Bob Ezrin. The disc started off with one of the band's catchiest singles ever, I'm Gonna Make You Love Me, but then got dramatic and large. The songs were more complicated, and the sonics thick. It's not an easy-breezy listen, although the same heavenly harmonies and major melodies are still in great supply. The words instead felt distinctly uneasy.


2003 saw the group shed a good deal of the darkness, strip back to a trio, bring in producer Ethan Johns and make what was the closest thing to an acoustic album since their formative late 80's work. Rainy Day Music was home to the most concise and accessible set of songs since the Olson days. That includes the should've-been-hits Tailspin, Save It For A Rainy Day and Angelyne. It should have re-energized their career, but once again, whatever needed to click didn't. Go figure. But don't let that stop you enjoying, be hip with the cult!




The bonus tracks come from demo tapes, obscure European b-sides, alternative recordings and a couple of live tracks to show how grand the band was at that time. Each disc has either five or six extras, and none of them are boring throw-aways. Highly recommended, as are all the other Jayhawks albums.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: LOVERBOY - UNFINISHED BUSINESS



There's something very familiar about Loverboy's new single, Countin' The Nights. It sounds like it could have been on one of the group's classic 80's albums, and has the same swagger as Working For The Weekend, or The Kid Is Hot Tonight. Is it deliberate copying, trying to link back to the glory days? As it turns out, it sounds like that because it is from those days. It's an old demo track, that for some reason didn't make the cut way back when. That's the story behind all ten of the cuts here, some of which date back in some form to 1974.


They come from the great pile of tapes collected over the years by founding guitarist and writer Paul Dean. At least one of the cuts, You Play The Star, he had thought lost until it turned up on an unlabeled reel. The demos existed in various states, some more complete than the others, some with original bassist. the late Scott Smith. All of them needed a bit of work, some new parts added, from vocals to keyboards, making this technically and partially a new album. You'd be hard pressed to hear the 2014 additions though, every note here sounds like the 80's, either a good or a bad thing depending on your feelings about red leather pants.


Most of the tracks could or should have made albums back then, and a couple are pretty darn good, including Countin' The Nights. Loverboy never were a lyrics band (see Hot Girls In Love), and there are some howlers. It's hard to take Slave seriously, with its story about some sort of metal horde attempting to rule the planet. Who knew such a battle was going on back in the 80's? The poor hair metal bands, it must have been horrible, they should have said something, we could have got the U.N.involved. But Doin' It The Hard Way is a good update to Workin' For The Weekend, with the taxman wrecking it for everybody: "Don't know how people can raise a family/When they add the GST, it's insult to injury." Hey the GST still sucks! Loverboy's still got it rockin'.

Monday, July 14, 2014

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: MONTY PYTHON - SINGS (AGAIN)



Leading up to the final, sold-out reunion show in London on Sunday, Python have released a handful of artifacts, including this new version of the group's musical numbers. Sings was originally released in 1989, and was quite popular, collecting such favourites as The Lumberjack Song, Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life, and Eric the Half-a-Bee. Most aren't quite the way you know them, from the films or TV shows, as they were re-recorded for Python albums or live shows over the years. But the jokes are still the same, usually just the links are changed a bit, as they are taken from a different skit or introduction.


To beef up the set, six new numbers have been added, out-takes from old sessions, or unused ideas from cancelled productions. These include The Lousy Song, where the late Graham Chapman wanders into the studio to find Eric Idle listening back to a song he's just recording. Chapman finds it repulsive, and declares it bad enough for the album, and years later it finally finds that home.


The bigger bonus is found on disc two, which is actually the old 1970 movie (their first), Monty Python's Flying Circus (live), put out by the BBC as the TV show started to take off. It's a collection of many of their most beloved sketches, including Flying Sheep, Crunchy Frog, Nudge Nudge Wink Wink, and of course, Dead Parrot Sketch. Having vintage and prime versions of these is, for me, better than the entire Sings (Again) album.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: BOB MARLEY - LEGEND 30th ANNIVERSARY DELUXE EDITION

How shall we repackage this time?  This famous best-of, and indeed all of Marley's catalogue, has been offered up a few times in different formats, with extra tracks, extended mixes, live versions, whatever will attract the fans.  For the 30th birthday, add two more to the pile.  You can buy a new vinyl version in a tri-colour pressing (green, orange, red of course) that is quite spiffy.  Or, you can take the audiophile route.  That one is a double-disc set, the first on CD, and the second on Blu-ray in 5.1 surround.

If there's an album that deserves to be heard in the best possible way, it's Legend.  It's a collection that has to be put on loud, and that big bass has to punch through your soul, you need to move to the rhythm.  You want the guitars chords to slice through the air, and the I-Three's to chime to heaven on Three Little Birds.  If there's an album you want to stick on your surround sound and crank, this would be it, even if you're not the biggest audio nerd around.  Turn it up, the neighbours won't complain, it's Bob Marley.  Ev'ry little thing gonna be alright.

Friday, July 11, 2014

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: DAVE & PHIL ALVIN - COMMON GROUND



The battling Blaster Brothers reunite to bond over Big Bill Broonzy. It's a great story, and a great album. Phil and Dave Alvin have had problems over the years, and haven't made an album together in almost 30 years, since the heyday of LA's The Blasters. But after Phil had a serious illness in 2012, they put things aside to get back to music-making. They'd loved Big Bill since discovering him as young teens, and that became the project.


It's so much more than just a basic tribute disc. The Alvins know these songs inside and out, and do a lot more than just cover them. They truly do make them their own. It's not done by updating them, nor by adhering to the absolute original version. Instead, they play them like they own them, like they wrote the numbers themselves. You can hear the love in their versions, not for the songs as museum pieces, but as living, breathing gigantic pieces of art. Sometimes they rough up Broonzy's numbers with gritty electric edge, sometimes with intricate acoustic guitar, but always with the idea of serving the song, rather than presenting the Alvin Brothers.


Broonzy's best-known number is here, Key To The Highway, but unless you're a big fan, you won't be familiar with the other tracks. He wrote so many (over 300) that, unlike Robert Johnson with only a couple of dozen, his numbers haven't been over-recorded. He was a grand story-teller, with tall tales, mistreatin' blues, or social history. Southern Flood Blues is a scary, first-person account of the river rising and no help coming for a neighbourhood, the residents sure to drown. Somehow Phil And Dave Alvin have made these songs a totally new experience.