Monday, January 16, 2017

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: JULIAN TAYLOR BAND - DESERT STAR



After 2015's delightful soul workout Tech Noir, Taylor returns with this bigger, funkier and wide-ranging collection. A sprawling, 22-cut set spread over a double album (or one CD, but it comes in at 77 minutes), it's actually four individual sessions (one on each side, natch), some of which first appeared earlier in 2016. And while there were certain differences in how the cuts were laid down, it all comes together in a hugely successful release.


Taylor is both a lively rocker and a soaring ballad singer, with the killer Take Me (Stay) highlighting his sweet side. While that number is smooth, Glass House is stripped back to just acoustic, and still drips with passion. With this much length to play with, Taylor also has lots of room to take off and soar, with cuts such as Just A Little Bit, Bobbi Champagne and Desert Star harder-edged and lots of fun.


Leading off side three is the brilliant Coke Bottle Candy, where Taylor unleashes a mighty falsetto over verses taken at a funky reggae pace. Grooves highlight the other cuts on the side, the most modern R'n'B of the album. Side four comes crashing in with the extremely groovy Fever, a dance floor-filler if there was ever one, and the entire last quarter is a party, including the crunching rock of closers Never Too Late and In My Life. There's not a loser among the 22 songs, from a terrific Toronto group.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: MANITOBA HAL - LIVE IN GHENT



For all those (me included) who complain that too many blues players who do the old stuff sound the same, here's a guy doing it all his own way. Manitoba Hal may do a bunch of Robert Johnson in his live set, plus Baby Please Don't Go, St .James Infirmary and The Thrill Is Gone, but you haven't heard them like this. Hal's main ax is the ukulele, and we're not talking happy Hawaiian sounds. Instead, he's doing mean blues riffs, and the result is a higher but still nasty tone, a rich ring that fits the classics just fine. Then, he thickens it up more but using looping gear to repeating bass lines, etc.


The end result is a set of attention-holding numbers, a mix of the well-known (Sweet Home Chicago, Who Do You Love, some Mississippi John Hurt) and his spicy originals. This two-disc set comes from a show last year in a Belgium club, recorded on a European tour where Hal (Mr. Manitoba?) proves himself a machine, going from one high-energy number to the next, exuding a lot of warmth while offering plenty of whiz-bang licks. It's a strong twist on the acoustic blues tradition.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: TIM BUCKLEY - WINGS: THE COMPLETE SINGLES 1966-1974

Impossible to categorize, the hippy songwriter, and father to Jeff had exactly no hit singles, so this collection of his A and B-sides over his ten-year career seems an odd idea. But as compilations go, it is a pretty interesting way to hear him, and truth be told, he could be pretty catchy, especially for an avant-garde folk/jazz/soul/funk crooner.


Initially signed to Jac Holzman's ground-breaking Elektra label, it was a perfect match of ideologies, with Elektra willing to bankroll experiments, and Buckley inspired by the open season that was the mid-60's. Wings was a strong debut single, and predicted the rise of the singer-songwriters in a few years. The guy was deep. From a time when it was cool to write sad songs, he was one of the heaviest.


Buckley went through a few phases, including experimental jazz/rock that left his fans confused. Under pressure to record hits, he would craft singles that were, in his mind, parodies of pop music, but were actually quite good. Luckily, his long-time friend and lyricist Larry Beckett is on hand here to provide insight into this in the liner notes. Several singles came out from the last three albums of his career, when he was in a pop/soul phase, which Beckett explains was Buckley being consciously over the top. The thing was, he could do that sound just fine.


Too little, too late of course, and as fans know, he died in 1975 from an accidental heroin overdose, being experimental and reckless just as he was with his music. The big excitement here is the first-ever release of a shelved b-side from his early career, called Lady Give Me Your Key, a fine cut that was another example of Buckley trying to write a pop hit on demand for his label, with lots of wink-wink drug references. It's the ultimate tribute for the ultimate cult artist, a greatest hits set for someone without a hit.

Friday, January 13, 2017

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: JONT & the INFINITE POSSIBILITY - AN OLD INNOCENCE



Halifax's crafty pop composer gets a little introspective on his latest full-length, with some life-affirming tales from his own remarkable life. In particular, there's Here To Stay, his promise to his surprise daughter that brought the British talent to Nova Scotia back in 2012. More lush and rich ballads and stories fill in the picture of this unique troubadour, including very-much sincere cuts titled Life Is So Good and Big Open Heart ("It could never be broken, it's a motor for love").


There's an epic quality to many of the songs, with strings, backing vocals, synth washes and thundering drums filling up the soundscape. But he can strip it back as well, with more acoustic tracks and quiet moments on the second half of the disc. An Old Innocence has the baroque touches of early Bee Gees, with a haunting vocal. He's not so sunny on these cuts, but he vows to try to wake up feeling happy, even with fear and doubt in his life. It's a brave, and positive outlook.


Jont's on another of his occasional jaunts, with tour dates over the next week. There's a show in Fredericton Friday the 13th at the Capital, a late start there, then it's up to Toronto on Tuesday the 17th for a night at the legendary Horseshoe. Plus there's another one on Friday, Jan. 20 in Rothesay, NB, a house concert advertised on Jont's Facebook site.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: ELLIOTT and the AUDIO KINGS



Ah, the first new release of the year to reach my mailbox. It's always a good feeling to start fresh, looking for the new best thing, cleanse the pallet of all those miserable 2016 trends, and throw out all those Top Ten Records of the Year lists. It's all about the new now.


What better way to advance then, as somebody wisely said, get back to where you once belonged. Here's a stripped-down, classic, no frills, real deal blues release from a new combo out of Waterloo, Ontario. From the late Daddy Long Legs group, guitar player Mike Elliot leads this outfit, which is your basic bass-guitar-drums bunch, nothing more (except a harmonica once). The only effect is the reverb, and everything post-50s is ignored. This is blues and boogie, as developed once electric guitars, amps and drums were added.


The group knows how to crank it out or take it easy, doing a few jump blues in between the excitement. And while you can imagine them easily sitting in some bar 60 years ago, this works just fine for today as well, styles that haven't been improved on. After all, barroom wisdom is still the same; as Elliott sings in Friday Night, "When you pick up the tab, everybody is your friend." And when you don't try to be smarter than the good stuff, blues fans will be your friend too.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: JOHNNY MAX BAND - ROADHOUSE SOUL



Sometimes all it takes is one line to make an album fun. In this case, it's when Johnny Max sings, "She makes John Lee Hooker go boom, boom, boom." There are plenty more like that on the new Johnny Max Band album, but that gives you an idea of the good-time feel the group doles out. Max has a warm, jovial voice, with some Leon Redbone lowness, but still very tuneful. The music's upbeat, with Rob Gusevs' keyboards and Kevin Vienneau's mandolin adding lots of brightness.


They can rock as well, again heavy on the good times, as the title track shows. Co-producer Vienneau proves to be a big and brash lead guitar player on this track that echoes classic B.T.O. But they can turn it around and get introspective and soulful too, on Lend A Helping Hand. As usual, Max is playing all over Southern Ontario in all his various groups and gigs, but there are some special album launches with the JMB coming up, all listed at the johnnymaxband.com site.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: THE HUMAN LEAGUE - A VERY BRITISH SYNTHESIZER GROUP Super deluxe edition



Has there ever been a luckier band? For almost 40 years, this group has basically been a guy who can't play an instrument, and two women he met dancing in a club, who can barely sing. The sound the group is known for was inspired by people who formed and then quickly left the group, and a subsequent producer who polished it up into something genre-busting, and then he buggered off as well. Yet The Human League, comprised of Phil Oakey, Susan Sulley and Joanne Catherall, are considered one of the ground-breaking synth bands, and perhaps the biggest synth-pop act ever.


You have to hand it to them though, especially Oakey. He certainly stuck to his guns, and played his cards to the maximum of his talents. More importantly, he had the idea and plan, and has never claimed to be anything more than a decent singer in a simple band. He was part of an initial wave of British acts that saw that old-tech synths could be used by even non-musicians to create songs, one note at a time. Inspired by Germany's Kraftwerk and Bowie's Low, he wanted to take those sounds onto Top Of The Pops, and realised being a star was more about attitude and fashion.


After Oakey's initial, more musical bandmates quit to go further out into synths (eventually becoming Heaven 17), Oakey did in fact meet the other two dancing at a club in their hometown of Sheffield. They looked right. Meantime, his record label, Virgin, was suddenly stuck with the remains of a one-promising act. So they recruited Martin Rushent, a producer who also wanted to make big-sounding synth music. With Rushent's impressive studio talents, they came up with the glossy, insanely catchy album Dare in 1981, which immediately started to produce those hits. There was The Sound of the Crowd, Love Action, Open Your Heart, and finally, Don't You Want Me, which amazingly even gave them a #1 single in Canada and the U.S. Heady times indeed in the North American music scene, as strange haircuts and that dance the two women did, standing still but swinging their arms up high to the beat became acceptable instead of weird. Within months, Culture Club and A Flock Of Seagulls were getting big hits too, because of colourful looks and catchy pop songs.


The Human League did keep to the plot though, which was making great-sounding, electronically based music. That's not to say the group didn't have lots of help along the way, from musicians that came and went, and producers that did most of the work. The group's other #1, 1986's Human (also a gold single in Canada), was written, produced and completely played by hot-shot producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, with Oakey's only involvement doing the vocal, and that took a month. But Oakey could write too, and there is a pretty impressive list of hits over the years (The Lebanon, Tell Me When, Mirror Man), although nothing even in England since the new millennium.


Three discs in this box set is stretching it a bit for this group, especially since the third is completely made up of early, working versions of these songs, and synth groups don't sound that different from demo to finished version. And even early on, most fans got excited about seeing the band's latest video or TV appearance to find out what the girls were wearing or what Oakey's latest haircut would be, as is pointed out in the liner notes. What's most fun here is the four disc, a DVD that collects their videos, and their many BBC appearances, a whopping 46 cuts in all. They did, and still do have some nifty outfits and wild hair. The songs are still catchy, if lightweight, but that was always the point. They were lucky, they knew it, but they were clever too.