Tuesday, November 21, 2017


Oh, he's a bright one, that Kevin Breit. The flash Toronto guitarist (Norah Jones, k.d. lang, Serena Ryder et al) has fooled us before, posing as The Upper York Mandolin Orchestra while in truth playing all the parts himself. Here, he creates the persona of Johnny Goldtooth, an old-school guitar slinger from the early rock 'n' roll days when they were still inventing the form, and the guitar players were inventing their own gear too. You know the type, only one hit single ever, a legend for his prototype sound, licks that continue to show up six decades later, a hero to all the later guitar gods.

It's an all-instrumental album, with great twangy riffs and wild excursions on guitar. The songs come from the era when the guitars played the melodies, spawning all the surf music bands, Duane Eddy and The Ventures, British groups such as The Shadows and the Tornados, and of course everyone learning their innovation from Les Paul. Breit can, and does, play every variation on these and more, and music archeologists will delight on the bits and pieces he hints at, the techniques he uses, the accurate sounds and the attention to the very last detail. Then they'll shake their heads when he goes left-field a few seconds later, somewhere that could only come from the most fertile six-string imagination.

Then, he does it all over in the arrangements and recordings. Breit estimates he played about 90 per cent of the music here, painstakingly adding all extra touches such as bass clarinet and melodica, fed through all his vintage gear. And never once does it feel recycled or a mere replica. This is instead inspired by a time, but as the saying doesn't go, 50 per cent imagination and the other 50 per cent perspiration.

Monday, November 20, 2017


Nova Scotia's Queen of swingin' blues comes through with more horn-filled fun. Jackson's big arrangements use the whole horn section on the up-tempo cuts, which makes it just as enjoyable to listen close as to dance to them. She knows the down and dark side too, as on He Won't Be Coming Back, the tale of a man who talked a good game but then got mean. The swamp blues number sees him get his in the end.

Jackson keeps it mostly good-time though, with numbers such as Hot Rod Special, one of the album's several instrumentals including lots of those boppin' horns,and room for a sweet jive guitar solo from Tom Crilley, who finds lots of room even with the three horns. But hearing all the harmony horn parts and sharp leads, straight out of the '50's playbook is the big attraction here, and whether it's swing, jump or straight blues, this is the sound that doesn't let you down.

Sunday, November 19, 2017


Queen's 1977 album marked a big shift for the band, after five albums of complex, "baroque" pop, as they called it. While England had loved them all along, there were some rumblings about the group being out of step with the new rawness of punk. Meanwhile, in the U.S., the audience was still on the fence. 1976's A Day At The Races had done well, and the single Somebody To Love was a hit, but further singles were a little too complex for the Top 40. This was a driven group however, and they were more than willing to change and progress, plus confident enough that they believed in themselves to pull it off. Cocky even.

They decided to go back to band basics, just the core instruments and not spend so much time layering parts in the studio. So, no Bohemian Rhapsody then. However, they had something even catchier up their sleeves, in We Will Rock You. Brief but incredibly catchy, it was basically the perfect statement for a band, and it did the trick of making the group viable at home at a time when old-school rock was being rejected, and it caught fire on the U.S. charts. That was backed up by another of their immense anthems, We Are The Champions, making for a huge double-sided hit. The album eventually sold four million copies in the U.S., and they had become a superstar band around the world.

Forty years on, big super deluxe boxed sets are now in vogue, and if any group is made for that treatment, it's Queen. Bigger always means better with them, and fans will love this gorgeous set. The hard-box edition includes the original album on vinyl, and they've gone back to the original master tapes for a newly-mastered pressing. The three CD's included feature the album again, and two discs worth of previously unreleased material from that era. The second disc is one of those sets where they present an alternative version of the album, each track a totally different version taken from the album sessions or demos. This includes some notable differences, including guitar openings that got cut out, Freddie Mercury's original vocals original vocals on the cut All Dead, All Dead, which didn't make the album, and a couple of Roger Taylor numbers that he did on his own before the studio versions. Disc three is packed with live cuts, BBC sessions, more studio work, and a true out-take that didn't make the album, a good cut called Feelings Feelings. While the backing tracks and instrumentals are merely that, for you karaoke fans, for once the BBC sessions are incredibly different. The band used the opportunity to experiment rather than mirror the studio takes. That includes doing the fast version of We Will Rock You, the part two of the song that they did live. Roger's punkish Sheer Heart Attack sounds especially good in its live version.

There's a documentary DVD as well, called Queen: The American Dream. That title is a bit misleading, as the doc also covers the band back home, changing their sound, but the bulk was shot back in the day while the group was starting the U.S. tour that really broke the group. Luckily there was lots of great footage and interviews, and as usual, they were confident enough to be themselves and trust the fans to accept their personalities. They admit to their collective ego, but you can't argue the results of course, they simply were a huge band, able to sing We Are The Champions and know what that sounded like. They allowed an audio tape of a nasty fight to be used, the stuff most bands would rush to hide. And while they sound ridiculously posh, and look smug, they weren't from the streets, so at least they aren't pretending.

There's a high-quality, hard-bound book of essays, photos and stats, and lots of memorabilia replicated, including a poster, promotional newspaper, photos, even a back-stage pass. Queen fans are the kind that don't mind spending an extra few dollars on more Freddie, and this set delivers a lot more than you would have thought was left in the vaults.

Saturday, November 18, 2017


Many people that pick up a guitar rush headlong into performing, writing and even recording, but Holly Blazina had far more patience. The Calgary instrumentalist spent over a decade studying the traditions and intricacies of the flamenco form, learning from some the form's masters, before finally committing to this debut album. The result is a bold and ground-breaking album, which sees her confidently joining the ranks, while being one of the very few female nylon-string players in the genre.

While she studied with Spanish, U.S. and Canadian experts, Blazina also brought her own flair and interest in adding to the traditional sounds to the set. Here such different instruments as violin, piano and saxophone are featured, and broader hints of jazz and world music influence the selections as well. Still at the core are her own skills on the nylon strings, bringing out all the subtleties, allowing the instrument to move from quiet moments to whirlwind intensity. Meanwhile, there are plenty of vocal numbers featuring two gifted singers, lots of ensemble playing, and both the percussive handclaps and dancing that is such a distinct feature of the form. Often rousing, other times intimate, Transcendencia offers a full look at what flamenco music offers.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017


Not many bands have weathered the split and subsequent reformation of the two main partners so well. Tears For Fears did in fact rule the world in the '80's, as this best-of so amply shows. Then in the early '90's the rot developed, with their manager caught helping himself to their money, and the pair at odds over that and band development. Smith left, and Orzabal got to keep the name, delivering two decent albums, but with diminishing returns. Then surprisingly in the 2000's, Smith returned, new music was made including the appropriately named Everybody Loves A Happy Ending, and quite a bit of live work has followed, including this year. A new album has been in the works for awhile, including two tracks featured here among the hits.

And hits we got. There's a surprising number of them, given that they only made six albums starting in 1983. The monster, '85's Songs From The Big Chair, had five of them, pretty impressive given the album only had eight cuts. Those five are all here: Shout, Everybody Wants To Rule The Work, I Believe, Mother's Talk and Head Overs Heels. Even with that dominance, there's still room to drop in on each album, including another three from the debut The Hurting: Mad World, Pale Shelter and Change. That's half the hits collection right there, but those were the big albums.

1989's The Seeds Of Love is generally considered the album where they jumped the shark, but I've always liked the grand opulence of it, and the move away from synths to guitars, strings and loads of musicians and a big production. Sowing the Seeds of Love and Woman In Chains both sound great today thanks to that. The Orzabal-only years yielded two albums that didn't match the usual sales marks for the group, but the two cuts included, Break It Down Again and Raoul and the Kings of Spain sound strong beside the better-known hits, as does Closest Thing To Heaven from the the 2005 reformation album.

Now we get the first new music in 13 years (other than some covers that have snuck out in various places), and the two samples bode well for the new album. I Love You But I'm Lost and Stay both have that dramatic feel and instrumental brightness that typifies the Tears For Fears sound, and given the enthusiastic crowd support they've been receiving, it should be a hardy return for the group in 2018.

Monday, November 13, 2017


Whether the world needs another Elton John best-of is certainly a worthy question, but if you do, at least you have plenty of options. Given the vast number of hits he's created since the late '60's, it's no easy task putting them all in one set. So for this, you have several different choices, given your enthusiasm. You can get either one, two or three discs, or of course, the vinyl option, 2-LPs.

One disc barely covers it. Thirteen of the cuts are from the 1970's, natch, which only leaves room for four more, and one of those is the '90's remake of Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me with George Michael. It's essentially his live concert favourites: Your Song, Tiny Dancer, Crocodile Rock, Philadelphia Freedom, etc. You could pretty much name them without looking, except I doubt too many people would pick Island Girl as a must-have.

At two discs, we get a better look at the '80's which in fact were not a bad decade at all for EJ. Now there's room for Little Jeannie (a #1 in Canada, btw), Sad Songs, Nikita and Sacrifice, all strong ballads, largely his strength at that time. The '90's are a bit more of a problem, but there's Something About The Way You Look Tonight, famous mostly because of its inclusion on the Lady Di tribute single Candle In The Wind 1997 (not here, as per his wishes), and Circle of Life, which every child of the era and every parent will know forever. But in the spirit of inclusion, we then get a run of songs called Electricity, Home Again and Looking Up, none of which I can remember or even attempt to sing along to, from the later albums Peachtree Road, The Diving Board and Wonderful Crazy Night. Hey, why not include a couple of little songs called Border Song and Levon instead? Remember those? I'm betting much of the world does.

For the three disc set, they go back and grab some lesser hits, some vital but some lesser for good reasons. Elton's always loved to do the duet thing, so there's Written In The Stars with LeAnn Rimes, Live Like Horses with Pavarotti, and That's What Friends Are For, with Dionne, Stevie and Gladys. I guess I said lesser hits, but that one was huge, not too many people can stick a #1 single on the bonus disc. Better though are Empty Garden, his tribute to John Lennon, his cover of Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds, another #1, and his soundtrack take on Pinball Wizard, not a single in Canada but it sure got played everywhere.

There is a ton of memorable, fantastic music here, and I don't think you'll go wrong with the three-CD set, but there are pockets of blandness, mostly because of his apparent inability to say no to bad duet songs. Also, a better job could have been done curating the later years, including grabbing a track or two off that fine Leon Russell/Elton John album. Also, even the one-disc version needs a warning sticker: Includes Kiki Dee. I'd still make sure you own Tumbleweed Connection and Madman Across The Water, his true essential albums.

Sunday, November 12, 2017


Quite a band, the Sensational Space Shifters. They certainly fit the modern Plant well, able to fit in all the various influences he's collected over his many years, except, interestingly, the raw bluesy Zeppelin stuff. They don't go near that, so don't ask. This is the moody, mystical mix of Eastern rhythms, Celtic vibes and even some electronic layers. Plus, the strangest cover of Bluebirds Over The Mountain ever, a duet with Chrissie Hynde of all things.

The songs have rich grooves with multiple percussion elements, and even the quietest moments such as closer Heaven Sent have a deep rumble and slow burn. This bunch works in textures and hues, not chords and solos. Above it all is one of the most famous voices of the last century, and for reason. It's his total command of the song that makes each one work, his ability to add gravitas and a hypnotic presence. And it's so interesting that he now does this without his trademark falsetto wailing and fierce volume, but with just as much power conveyed. It's purely captivating, other than that odd choice of Bluebirds Over The Mountain, which I don't get at all. Yet.