Wednesday, August 26, 2015

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: TRUE DETECTIVE - MUSIC FROM THE HBO SERIES



The popular HBO series is known for its music, as supervised by the one and only T Bone Burnett, soundtrack wiz (O Brother Where Art Thou, Nashville, etc.). Each episode is packed with mood-appropriate music, causing fans to rush to their computers to find out just who that was singing. There can be as much talk about which songs are used as there is about plot points.


It's surprising it took this long for a soundtrack to come out, given the clamor by fans, and the amount used in each show. They could have had a half-dozen volumes by now. Since there was so much to choose from, this collection will polarize fans as well, just as much as the debate over the quality of season two.


Everybody loved season one's theme song, from The Handsome Family, Far From Any Road, and it's here, as is the more controversial choice for the second season, Leonard Cohen's Nevermind. A lot of the disc is given over to cast member Lera Lynn, five songs. She's also a recording artist, and Burnett chose her as a co-writer for the series, along with Rosanne Cash, to come up with these tunes. Some are very powerful, including A Church In Ruins, but she's not the most striking performer, I'm surprised at her choice. There's probably a ton of available talent who would die for the gig, even established stars, and a more evocative voice would have left a stronger mark.


By using all these original songs, there's not a lot of room for the many strong choices from the series. At least the real score Burnett arranged does find a home here. Back in 1963, Bob Dylan made a last-minute line-up change to his second album, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan. Just before it came out, four songs were dropped, in favour of stronger, newer material including Masters of War and Girl From the North Country. The song Rocks and Gravel has stayed in the archives until it was used in the first-ever episode of True Detective last year, and now finally shows up in a place we can buy it. That alone is reason enough to grab this, and with other strong material from Nick Cave, Father John Misty and Cassandra Wilson, it's a worthy set. Still, it could have been much better. Vol. 2 anyone?

Monday, August 24, 2015

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: GRACE POTTER - MIDNIGHT

A first solo album without the Nocturnals, but did anyone ever consider the group anything but a Grace Potter vehicle?  Perhaps she felt the band named tied her to the soul/blues/jam crowd which originally turned her into a festival star, but that same group has been seeing her change over the past couple of albums for better or worse.  Here's the full transition now, with lots of pop and dance beats, and enough hooks to make Carly Rae proud.

Now, I'm not saying she's gone teeny-bop here, but certainly those fans who followed her ripping blues riffs on guitar or big soul chords on organ are going to be confused by the funky bass line and synth burble on Your Girl.  It is actually a nice little Prince-styled number, and Potter sings this stuff with lots of energy and conviction.  But when it's sitting on the album beside a killer track such as Empty Heart, with its stompin' R'n'B and Rolling Stones grooves and gospel choir, it's hard for the old fans to let go of the old direction.  We're just going to have to accept that there's now a bigger part of her that wants to chase a modern pop dream for now, and maybe we should loosen up a little and accept her dance moves too.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: KIM ERICKSON - THE RAVEN'S WING



Erickson is a mezzo soprano, composer and pianist from Thunder Bay, where she teaches music at Lakehead University. Her interests range from classical to traditional styles, world music, cabaret and folk. While most accomplished vocalists pursue that specialty, Erickson writes the majority of the collection here, and provides the grand piano, the lead instrument in the small orchestra on The Raven's Wing.


Poetic and romantic, the songs feature a nod to grand Gaelic ballads. The emotional path introduces us to characters fair and tender, with hearts strong enough to make sorrows drop away. Love is equal to, and another element here, standing strong in the wind, traveling long journeys on the sea, growing new with springtime. The language is modern, but the form is that of centuries past; "Dark is the raven's wing/My love is darker still."


Erickson is joined by double-bassist Joe Phillips, who also arranged the string section of Drew Jurecka (violin) and Amy Laing (cello), and in yeoman service, provides the inspired classical guitar in the middle of the collection, for Woman of Valour and Come All Your Fair Ones, the latter a new arrangement of the traditional song. These two songs share more than the guitar; they are the plucky centerpiece to the album, songs of great strength amidst the swirling emotions, letting us know these are not lightweight hearts or songs, just beautiful ones, the strongest ones of course.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: JAY AYMAR - THE CHICKEN CAME FIRST (book and CD)



Talk about your extensive liner notes! Aymar's latest, a live one, doesn't have a booklet, it has a book. Yes, a real, full-length, full-sized book. Actually, it's more of a case of the book also including a CD, but whatever. It's the best way to take in everything Aymar does. He's a storyteller, writing, singing, or in person.


The collection came about as an extension of what Aymar has been doing the past while, writing down his stories and observations in blog postings. The project took on a bigger scope earlier this year when friends found a great-sounding church where he could record with an audience. Everything was in place.


As a songwriter, Aymar shines best when he's telling you tale soaked in big truths. He's learned these the hard way, touring the country endlessly, playing off the beaten path on purpose, and finding the best people that way. In fact, he's even given up any idea of a home, other than the road. He's become the modern troubadour, at home everywhere and nowhere officially.


With the book, you get even more insight into what makes him tick, and what Canada is about. When Aymar inevitably runs into a deer on the highway, a series of great-hearted people come to his aid, just because they are decent, and because they are in a position to help. We drop into every province and territory with him, and start to understand what it is that drives Aymar and his fellow touring musicians to keep going, to bring their talents to the people who appreciate them.


If you're one of the many semi-pros that share some of the spirit, Aymar even includes the sheet music to the album tunes. And there are guests, both in print and on disc. The terrific young Toronto singer Jadea Kelly takes the lead on Always In Her Dreams, while legendary promoter and publicist Richard Flohil contributes a chapter on the realities of Canada's music biz, and the true spirit of it all as found in these independent musicians. Aymar and company have done more than entertain here; this will give you insight, and a new respect for anyone who chooses this profession, and it gives you a little bit more national pride as well.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: RONNIE EARL & the BROADCASTERS - FATHER'S DAY

There's a touching and powerful back story to the title cut on Earl's new album.  He'd been estranged from his own father over the years, an Auschwitz survivor named Jerry Horvath.  But they made their amends on Father's Day of 2014, shortly before Horvath passed away. 

That inspired Earl to write the cut, which advises everyone that time is getting short, and asks if you can be the generous one to make peace.  The slow blues doesn't say much more, and doesn't need to, it's a powerful statement about the importance of healing.

Elsewhere on the new album, Earl pays tribute to his other fathers, blues greats who have inspired him to continue the tradition.  There are a couple of Otis Rush, two more from Magic Sam, and one from B.B., along with the three originals from Earl.  He takes care of the guitar work; in the vocal booth are two strong guest singers for the album, Diane Blue and Michael Ledbetter.  Both have classic voices along the soul line, and the songs are divided up for each ones' strengths, Ledbetter getting perhaps the grittier numbers, although both can belt.  This is a terrific move.  Let the talented singers take the microphone, while Earl can concentrate on the best guitar lines.

As always with an album from Earl, that's the big highlight.  His soloing is never an exercise in playing fast, with too many notes, he's always precise and in control.  But what sting, what tone.  He's putting everything into each note, and is the embodiment of the guitar player's maxim that it's not how many notes you play, but which ones.

It's a wide-ranging collection as well.  Earl's take on the Art Blakey jazz instrumental Moanin' shows the band knows how to swing with style.  Both Earl and B3 player Dave Limina carry off tasty solos, Earl cheekily quoting from Fever at one point.  The gang brings the same touch to the spiritual Precious Lord, a showcase for Diane Blue's gospel roots, with more dramatic, ringing notes from Earl.  Father would have been proud.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: IRIS DEMENT - THE TRACKLESS WOODS

I've said it before, it's no secret, I have Iris Dementia.  The not-too prolific singer and writer has been making some of the most emotionally powerful roots music over the last 20-plus years, but often with huge breaks in between albums, a couple of eight year gaps in there.  It's only been three years since the last, Sing The Delta, so that's a good sign.

Often highly personal, and known for laying bare aspects of her life, and themes such as small-town and religious upbringing, this time her muse was a surprising choice, but one that becomes more obvious as the back story is explained.  Dement found some of the poems of a 20th century Russian writer in a book given to her by a friend.  Anna Akhmatova suffered until the turbulence of revolution, two World Wars and Communist persecution during her life.  She wrote about the terror under Stalin that saw many of her contemporaries banished to Gulags or murdered, and she herself was censored and condemned, but somehow survived and kept writing and witnessing.  Much of her work remained unpublished until after her death in 1966.

Dement's tie to the material comes from her daughter.  She and her husband (singer-songwriter Greg Brown) adopted a girl from Siberia in 2005, and Dement decided this would be part of her efforts to help her daughter know more about her original culture.

It's easy to understand Dement's artistic connection as well.  As translated, Anna Akhmatova's poetry is plain-spoken, powerful and uses a slightly-antiquated vocabulary.  It feels like old church language, perfect for Dement, who has often used that form, even recording an album of hymns.  While it's a strange mix on paper, this somewhat radical Russian intellectual, and the voice of rural, conservative, Christian Americana, Dement sounds as if she was working her life to this set of songs.

Recording sparsely over a few days in her own living room, the main instrument is Dement's parlor piano and of course, her distinctive, Appalachian-inspired voice.  It is a collection of mostly sadness, given the topics, but it's broken up a bit by Dement's way with melodies, and ear for knowing when a little bit of honky-tonk could spice up a dour Russian tale.  And when Dement sings Anna Akhmatova's words about her country, which she refused to leave despite all its many ills and dangers, you realize it's the poet's spirit that is the connection: "I knew it is all mine, and nothing can divide us, it is my soul, it is my body too."  This is a slow-builder, but one that keeps delivering more each listen.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: HEAVEN ADORES YOU - THE LIFE & MUSIC OF ELLIOT SMITH



If you're looking for superstars rushing out to say how great Smith was, in the typical deceased rock star bio, this ain't it. You'd have to be a pretty big music fan to recognize more than a couple of the names here. Instead, these are the real friends, old colleagues from Smith's indie days, and back-stage people who really knew and meant something to the fated singer-songwriter.


The basic story is pretty much known. He had a tough time dealing with the star system he found himself in, after the fluke Oscar nomination for his work on Good Will Hunting. Then he got this rep as a really depressed guy with the saddest lyrics and sound ever, and eventually got into drugs and took his own live. What the filmmakers have done, and very successfully, is show that tiny little snapshots of people's lives are never the whole story, and in this case, not even close to it.


Bit by bit, we find out the surprises. Smith was mostly a punk rocker instead of the introspective acoustic dude we mostly know, until his songwriting simply overtook the limits of the genre. He never lost that indie, D.I.Y. spirit. He was far from a quiet, reclusive, mopey type. He was actually the leader of the Portland, Oregon music scene in the '90's, an obvious talent that couldn't stay locked in one town. He was a fun, interesting guy, with lots of friends. He himself admitted he probably wasn't cut out for attention, and didn't even realize the level of his talent, but mostly he was humble, not flummoxed by the spotlight. He certainly saw the irony of his appearance at the Oscars, the supreme joke of being given advice on nerves from Celine Dion.


The film doesn't try to say what might have helped Smith in his battle. He'd actually cleaned himself up at the time of his death, and had mended a few fences. There wasn't any great villain in the story, no evil record company exploiting a troubled soul. He went willingly, always interested in having people enjoy his music. The film lets you come away with a better description of Smith, and a deeper appreciation of his talent. It's a sad story, but now, the more people who get to hear him the better, and this will only help.