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

Thursday, March 26, 2015


Brandi Carlile is hard to pin down stylistically. There's roots-Americana at the core, but she easily moves back and forth from folk to country to rock to noisy and somewhat experimental. That's more the case than ever on this, her fourth, and most powerful to date. It's an album bursting at the seems, lots of ideas and paths to go down.

There's a reason for this. Carlile is the voice, but this is really a band. When she started ten years back, it was with twin brothers Tim and Phil Hanseroth. They came out of Seattle, with an agreement that they would all write, equally share the publishing (like Lennon-McCartney, U2, etc.) but Carlile would take the front role and all the lead singing. Good plan, as she has an amazing voice, haunting and timeless on The Stranger At My Door, a Western film noir number, rockin' and fun on Alibi, sad and hurt on Heroes And Songs. They are all her, but we don't know which pen or part did what, and that's fine, we don't need to. It's a group effort, that's all.

This road-tested group has been growing stronger, and building a loyal following, plus learning from some good ones. In the past they've had Rick Rubin and T Bone Burnett guiding them, and streamlining the overall package into something more easily identifiable. The diversity found here may mean Carlile and crew have to sacrifice some sales and fame, but it's going to be a more fulfilling ride for them and the fans.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015


There are household names, and then there are secret weapons. Ballantyne has so far been the latter, but that should change some day. After all, audiences country-wide have been screaming along to his co-written hits for a decade, whether it's The Trews' Poor Ol' Broken Hearted Me, or Big Sugar's If I Had My Way and All Hell For A Basement. A gifted writer, he has made just two albums in that time, including this, which was released first last summer, and now upgraded with a new cut for larger distribution.

This collection is more introspective than those fist-pumpers he's helped write for others. Days Of Rain has a theme of dealing with loss and moving on, delivered with a lot of depth and an ambitious palette of styles. Rich and moody acoustic tracks such as Roll With It sit alongside big pop numbers, opener King Of The Road the most infectious. The harmony-rich I Follow You adds a Neil Young harmonica break to its campfire singalong feel. Throughout it all, Ballantyne proves himself a master of melody and the turn of a phrase. New track Try Love Instead adds a bit more crunch to the disc, a bluesy turn that would go well for his buddies in Big Sugar.

Ballantyne has lately been working with PEI's Tim Chaisson, no doubt a good move for that rising star. If he can save enough time for his own solo work, Ballantyne certainly deserves a wide audience.

Monday, March 23, 2015


Ron Hawkins has a bit of a disclaimer for folks.  Even though the veteran Canadian singer-songwriter's latest album features more acoustic and calmer versions of his songs than normal, he is not mellowing.  "I've read some reviews of the album, and that's what people have picked up on, because I turned 50 in November, and they think I'm calming down with this album," explains Hawkins from home in Toronto.

In fact, the situation leading to the recording of Garden Songs by Ron Hawkins and the Do Good Assassins was anything but an excess of calmness.  Hawkins has been exploding with songs with this new band, ever since the recording of the 2012 double-CD debut, Rome.  In his mind, the next album was going to be more of the same.  "It was a bit of a left turn, we had another record ready to make, another double album of raucous rock and roll, cinematic pop,  all set to go," says Hawkins.  "But this is my manager's idea, we had these four extra songs that didn't fit, more introspective.  I thought, maybe we'll make a four or five track EP, bid farewell to the country-soul aspect of the band right now.  But he said, 'Why don't you do this as a one-off, instead of making the next album a triple?'"

Next, manager William "Skinny" Tenn suggested going back to older material, and finding songs that might lend themselves to more laid-back arrangements, in new interpretations.  That meant Hawkins and the band tried out material from his previous solo work, as well as albums from his groups Lowest of the Low and The Rusty Nails.  Even Rome, recorded the most recently, saw two of its songs re-worked in this fashion.  "There's a song Propellors that was on the last album, and I never thought we got that quite right sonically," he admits.  "So this is more like I'd envisioned it I think."

Ironically, and happily, after releasing thirteen different albums in his 20-plus year career, Garden Songs is gaining him some of the best attention he's had since the Canadian classic debut from Lowest of the Low, Shakespeare My Butt.  Single Peace and Quiet (originally from 2007's Chemical Sounds) has made the CBC Radio 2 Top Ten.  It's quite a change for a guy who has faithfully toiled away while others have described him as one of the country's hidden gems.  "It's been a great thing," he says of the disc's acceptance.  "I come across this a lot, and it's hard for me to feel under-appreciated, I feel quite blessed in fact to be doing this for twenty years, I'm pretty damned pleased with how it came out.  But I've definitely seen a bump in album sales and audience attendance, with CBC playing a couple of singles.  People are calling me that I had to chase around before.  Incremental things, but I can notice the change."

Part of the attraction is the stripped-down delivery of the songs.  Hawkins' long-standing ability to spin a tale is now upfront in the mix, with his voice and lyrics gaining most of the attention.  He writes most of these in the first person, slices of life, mostly not his own, but full of moments with which we can relate.  "It's just the writer's thing," he says.  "You develop your ear to find the universal in all the little details.  You look at it a little different than other people.  I just look at the world, and think, what's to be learned from this story.  Some of them are a bit closer to me though.  There's a song on there called Saskia Begins, about a friend of mine, Mick Thomas from the Australian band Weddings Parties Anything.  He and his wife Jen had a baby but three months early.  The baby, Saskia, was in an incubator, and when I heard about it, I just had to sit down and write, I felt like I had to help, it was almost like fight or flight to me.  And later Jen told me they used to listen to it when they drove to see Saskia in the incubator."

It's also one of the songs that would have been out of place on that proposed raucous double-album.  It's still in the cards, of course, ready for the next go-round.  For now, Hawkins has the enjoyable problem of having to play more shows and work this collection, an album that wasn't even in the cards.  Ron Hawkins will be at The Carleton in Halifax Friday, March 27.

Sunday, March 22, 2015


Paxton is one of those guys whose songs have been with you a long time, whether you knew it was him or not. "Bottle of wine, fruit of the vine, when you gonna let me get sober," is a classic, and The Last Thing On My Mind is a folk song standard now. He had a great way with kids' songs: "It went zip when it moved and bop when it stopped and whirr when it stood still," is from The Marvelous Toy. He was writing his own material in Greenwich Village before Dylan came along, and has now released a stunning 62 albums in his career, which includes a Lifetime Achievement Grammy.

That's the history; the impressive current album sees him present thirteen new originals along with a traditional number, with his usual mix of topical, political, personal and fun. John Prine joins to sing a verse of Skeeters'll Gitcha (that would be the fun one). From the heart of the protest era that he helped create comes If The Poor Don't Matter, the answer to which is "then neither do I." Charmingly, he has a tune to celebrate his old pal Dave Van Ronk, hanging out in the Gaslight back in the day, in The Mayor Of Macdougal Street. Van Ronk, one of the best observers of the Great Folk Scare of the late '50's and early '60's, considered Paxton the guy who really got it all going, once he started writing new songs instead of singing the same old ones. He's still got it going, almost 60 years later.

Friday, March 20, 2015


From the Juno-winning Winnipeg alt-country group Nathan comes this side project, headed by singer Keri Latimer, along with her band mate/spouse/bassist Devin Latimer.  She's the driving force here, with off-kilter lyrics and other-worldly country and pop sounds, plus a sweetheart voice singing not-so-sweet subject matter.  Vultures circle overhead, squirrels are in the attic, there's a kiss in the toxic rain, and a town that hits 40-below at 4 AM.  Stuff is going on here.

Meanwhile, more stuff is happening in the music.  In the producer's chair was the formidable Steve Dawson, a master performer and sound-steward.  Dawson has no problem with the roots side of course, handling all the guitar, slide, pedal steel, etc., but also stretching everyone's perceptions of what the genre can offer.  Beds of mystery sounds back up Latimer's vocals at times, some doctored guitars, and even some theremin playing from the singer.  There's a sense of space throughout, all matching those enigmatic lyrics.  The most traditional song is actually a cover of The Handsome Family's Don't Be Scared.  The biggest surprise is a spacey cover of Bowie's The Man Who Sold The World.  Everything else comes from Latimer, including Healing Feeling, with it's plea, "Is there a doctor in the house?  Is there a poet in the crowd?  I think I'm dying but the bleeding is deep inside where reason hides."  Stuff is going on here.