Tuesday, January 27, 2015
Wiffen bounced around the country in the '60's, playing folk and rock and country. It was a move to Ottawa that put him on the map, as he joined in with the scene there, making friends with folks such as Bruce Cockburn and Sneezy Waters. That led to him joining the group Three's A Crowd in 1966, along with Brent Titcomb. Mama Cass loved them, got them a record deal and co-produced their album Christopher's Movie Matinee, and the group toured all over North America. Eventually Cockburn and Colleen Peterson joined (among others) but the group never did break through. Wiffen was certainly noticed though, and released the solo album David Wiffen in 1971. It included his best-known song, the evergreen Driving Wheel. That tune became a favourite for folk rockers of the day, with Tom Rush and the The Byrds making it well-known. Its popularity has stayed strong to this day, with Cowboy Junkies, The Jayhawks, The Chris Robinson Brotherhood and even Rumer covering it. Wiffen became a go-to guy for material, with many others raiding his catalogue, including Jerry Jeff Walker, Ian & Sylvia, Harry Belafonte, Anne Murray and Blackie and the Rodeo Kings.
Coast To Coast Fever is his classic album. Co-produced by Bruce Cockburn and Brian (Anne Murray/Emmylou Harris) Ahern, it featured Wiffen originals and numbers by friends Cockburn, Murray McLauchlan and Willie P. Bennett. That says it all, it has all the right players, producers and songs, but frustratingly could not punch through to a wider audience. It is, however, the kind of album that singer-songwriter fans speak of with reverence, Wiffen a peer to great Canadian songwriters such as Cockburn, McLauchlan, Valdy and Gordon Lightfoot (all were nominated for the JUNO award that year for best folk album, with Lightfoot winning.)
Fans of that album will certainly find lots familiar in this new collection. There is his rich storyteller voice, deep and wise, road-weary and hurt. Some of them are full band production, bolstered by Ottawa pals such as drummer Richard Patterson and guitar player Gary Comeau, both from '60's group The Esquires. Several are more spare productions, where there's no unnecessary cluttering of his acoustic sound. For the most part any additions to his guitar and vocals are background touches, harmonies and spare keyboards, second guitar parts. Most importantly, here are new words, new melodies, shot through with a blues that wasn't heard among those other contemporaries. Minor keys are common, the songs touching and striking. Your Room is about a crushed lover, with a stirring and beautiful melody, and tremendous guitar work from Frank Koller and Wiffen. Rivers feature in several of the songs, a source of hope and escape from those blues. Cool Green River, with its relaxed lope and pedal steel cheer, has a the titular river as the place where he'll take his love, to express himself in almost classic verse: "So give me your heart dear, say we'll never part. I'll put it in an envelope with all my greatest hopes." Add in a couple of fine covers, one by the young Ottawa folk writer Lynn Miles, and a classic Rolling Stones number, No Expectations, Wiffen somehow able to turn it into something tender. For anyone who ever thought they'd like to have another album to follow Coast To Coast Fever, I think it just happened.
Wednesday, January 21, 2015
Michael Jerome Browne knows his classic blues, and knows how to make them sing today too. The Montreal-living, Indiana-born player has proven his skills over and over, a master of guitar, banjo, fiddle and more, a consummate roots performer who searches out the original fountain of songs from each genre for inspiration. But he's never gone this deep into the catalogs of the greats. Instead of the usual suspects in the covers department (Crossroads by Robert Johnson, heck ANY Robert Johnson), Browne has dug around for near-forgotten gems and lesser-known but equally-talented originators. Barbecue Bob, anyone? A 12-string guitar player from Atlanta in the '20's, Browne updates his Motherless Chile Blues. But instead of imitating the rough style of Bob and the others, Browne plays the heck out of the tune, letting his talent on guitar loose. It's a salty number anyway, so it's still going to have lots of edge.
You'll know most of the others covered here, from Memphis Minnie to Charley Patton to Fred McDowell, and at times some of these were better-known than they are now. The rock era seems to have shrunk the huge blues canon down to a couple of dozen well-known numbers out of this era. Browne instead plays the Bull Doze Blues on banjo, by Ragtime Texas, a/k/a Henry Thomas. Bless Browne for his plaintive vocals, digit dexterity, and attention to history and detail here, down to the history lessons in the liner notes.
Friday, January 16, 2015
There are several best-of Yes collections around, with more superior track listings, but this does cover the basics: Roundabout, Starship Trooper, Long Distance Runaround, and of course, Owner of a Lonely Heart. But throw in the uncommon DVD, and at 16 bucks you have good car ride home and something fun to watch when you get there.
Tuesday, January 13, 2015
Pretty good only, because there are a couple of tracks that push the annoying button, especially Maniac by Michael Sembello, Extreme's More Than Words and Closing Time by Semisonic. I know you have to have some big hits in the mix, but nobody needs to hear those again for at least another generation. There probably is a new generation now that needs to be introduced to many of the other tracks though, such as Video Killed The Radio Star, Walking On Sunshine and Funkytown. Enjoy, young folks, welcome to my early 20's. There are even some lesser-known cuts included, obviously by folks who remember when radio could still be fun AND good. So hats off for delivering Wall Of Voodoo's Mexican Radio and The Future's So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades. The New Radicals' You Get What You Give and Joan Osborne's One Of Us show up on a few too many compilations, but they are still worthy cuts. And no matter how many times I hear it, I never tire of Concrete Blonde's Joey. I guess we're in the '90's Revival now.
Monday, January 5, 2015
MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: ERIC CLAPTON & FRIENDS - THE BREEZE AN APPRECIATION OF J.J. CALE (Deluxe Edition)
Now months later, we get the deluxe box version, a box set already for a virtually-new album. Actually, there's not a a wild amount of music here, just two CD's worth, but it comes in a box to house photos, a big booklet, and a special USB of the music, and to show the artist deserves the recognition. The bonus music is a CD of all the Cale original tracks that mirror the tribute CD versions, plus an important extra, the very early and first version of After Midnight, recording way back in 1966. With such favourites as Call Me The Breeze and Magnolia on the disc, it's a fine single-CD collection of prime Cale.
The USB is a classy thing as well. Pictured on the box cover is the back of Cale's trademark acoustic, where he got much of his sound. In the cut-away vantage point, you can see that the guitar is held together with a series of turnbuckle clamps, required after Cale's tinkering to keep it from collapsing. The USB is a replica of one of those clamps; pull it open and you find the connection. A novelty, but nice nonetheless. Really this is for the big Cale and Clapton fans, who want to join in the tribute. The rest can be happy with the single-disc version, where guests such as Mark Knopfler, John Mayer, Tom Petty and Willie Nelson join Clapton. It's remarkable how little they change the songs, and how much they still sound like Cale. I guess that's the ultimate compliment; oft-covered, never bettered.
Monday, December 22, 2014
The band's '80's comeback started with the album Long Distance Voyageur, which reached #1 in both Canada and the U.S. It featured the hits The Voice and Gemini Dream, and saw the group embrace a new, synth-heavy 80's sound. Next came The Present in 1983, which failed to come anywhere close the success of its predecessor. 1986 saw them switch to Polydor, and retool once again. The focus was now even stronger on the synth, with the group's orchestral past buried. They were now closer to Simple Minds than the British prog groups of the '70's, or the R'n'B of the '60's. It was quite a tale of perseverance and adaptability.
The first album featured here is The Other Side Of Life, which took them back to the Top Ten, and includes the hit Your Wildest Dreams. The group was now doing better in North America than in Europe, and found themselves in an enviable position; they had status as a heritage band, with a collection of songs to win over concert crowds, but also lots of buzz for their recent albums. They had a bit of ELO excitement to them on disc, and still offered up nice vocal numbers such as the title cut of the album. But it there were clunkers in the running order as well, such as Rock 'n' Roll All Over You, with its KISS-worthy lyric on top of a lifeless attempt at a fist-pumper.
The second studio album was 1988's Sur La Mer, continuing the trick of offering up a smooth hit, somewhere between a power ballad and a synthpop dance track. In this case it was I Know You're Out There Somewhere, again a good showing but there wasn't much to back it up on the rest of the album. No More Lies, the follow-up, only scored on adult contemporary radio, and the album barely made the Top 40. 1991's Keys To The Kingdom saw the group lay off the synths for the most part, and flute player Ray Thomas even got to trot out one of his numbers, recalling the old days. There were no hits, although Bless the Wings (That Bring You Back) was a nice mellow number, and the album barely made the Top 100.
Efforts then switched to greatest hits albums and live concerts, which was pretty darn lucrative at least. Officially released in 1993, A Night At Red Rocks was a special show made at the titular Colorado venue, with an orchestra among the rocks and fires, and a celebration of the iconic Days of Future Passed album. There was an orchestral overture, lots of old faves such as Tuesday Afternoon and Question, the recent hits, and of course, Nights in White Satin. We get an expanded version of the concert here, filling up a full two CD's, plus another DVD of an edited-for-broadcast set, with almost all the cuts. If that isn't enough, another DVD has a full documentary on the show, a career highlight for the band, but perhaps more than enough of the same show, as half this box is centered around it, on the two CD's and two DVD's.
A final CD here is a live show from 1986, on The Other Side Of Life tour, in the far less-impressive locale of Cleveland. Really, it's much the same set list, with the old hits mixed around the new ones, but much less fussy without the orchestra. I prefer this one, it's more meat-and-potatoes, less chat about Our Beloved Royal '60's Hit Album (okay, those are my words, but they are a bit British and pompous on stage). It's a never-before released show, although some of the cuts were included as B-sides of singles around then, and show up on the other CD's. There are a few more odds and ends thrown in to make the discs last over an hour each, including live cuts, B-sides and BBC sessions, all of worth. It's a strong package too, with a hard-bound book, lots of colour and strong visuals. These sets work best for huge fans, especially given the price tag and the repeating tracks from albums to live discs, but they also have some value for any casual fan and collector, for the knowledge and history presented.
Friday, December 19, 2014
Obsessive credit-readers will recognize the names of go-to singers over the years from England and the U.S. I remember being fascinated by Lesley Duncan, who I learned about from early Elton John albums. Sheryl Crow got her start as a back-up, for Michael Jackson most famously. There are Canadians who have popped up often as well, one of them being Vancouver's Dawn Pemberton. She's been the go-to singer for all West Coast soul, funk and jazz material, spending years helping others, while getting her own ideas and songs together. New blues stars The Harpoonist and the Axemurderer and veteran singers The Sojourners and Dutch Robinson know who to call. Pemberton also directs the choirs at the Sarah McLachlan School of Music. Finally, her own name is on an album, her debut called Say Somethin'. It's a soul album, with Pemberton writing the songs, mixing in moments of jazz and funk, putting the tunes part-way between classic and modern soul styles.
Jam-packed with grooves, Say Somethin' has more than just vocals going for it. There are sharp horn parts, tight rhythm sections, chopping guitar chords, proof that Vancouver has the great soul players as well. On Do It To It, Pemberton and the band hit a groove that goes on for the whole song, with a killer bass line and thick layers of electric piano and organ, plus Pemberton exhorting everybody on. Wisely, she knows to hold back on the histrionics, and she wins us over with her flowing, rich lines instead of vocal calisthenics. Pemberton has good taste in covers too, coming up with a more jazzy arrangement of Hall & Oates I Can't Go For That. That last twenty feet to the lead singer's microphone might be the hardest part of the journey, but Pemberton sure was ready for it.