Sunday, October 23, 2016
The woman with the golden voice returns with the album she so obviously needed to make. Not since Dionne Warwick has there been a singer with the emotional range needed to convey the range in the Bacharach/David catalogue. Bacharach has been the English singer's biggest supporter, and shows up here with a sentimental introduction cameo to This Girl's In Love With You.
While there are plenty of well-known hits in the set, including One Less Bell To Answer, The Look of Love and What The World Needs Now Is Love, smartly Rumer goes a lot deeper into the famed duo's songbook. The Balance of Nature is prime B&D, but was only an album cut for Warwick. Land Of Make Believe was one of the best cuts on the Dusty In Memphis album by Dusty Springfield, and The Last One To Be Loved was cut by the sadly-forgotten Bacharach/David interpreter Lou Johnson, a great soul voice of the early 60's. Volume 2 anyone? Rumer?
Friday, October 21, 2016
Nelson has been knocking off the pet projects like crazy of late, doing Gershwin songs, recording with pals, pretty much whatever he wants. He's 83, you know. He's just showing off now. Nelson's mentor and friend, the late, great Ray Price is the focus here, and nobody can do Price justice like Willie. Price put so much emotion into his vocals, and Nelson has that in spades, using his own killer phrasing. In fact, I'd say Willie's version here of the great, sad classic For The Good Times (written by another pal, Kristofferson) might just be the best-ever version.
Price, although a country legend, just doesn't get the respect he deserves, and isn't as celebrated as George Jones. Patsy Cline or Johnny Cash. But Price had huge hits (Crazy Arms, Heartaches By The Number, and the Nelson-written Night Life), was king of the rock precursor honky tonk, and smoothly made the transition to ballad music of the 60s, predating the countrypolitan sound. Nelson knows all this, having played bass in Price's group in the early 60s, and here he offers up a bit of both styles. He's joined by the Time Jumpers, Vince Gill's honky tonk outfit for the fast numbers, and for the ballads Nelson uses some grand strings and nifty vocal arrangements, managing to make it all seem undated. It's both a fine tribute, and another fine Willie album, to add to the oh, 200 he's already done.
Thursday, October 20, 2016
While the trio have come from a folk place since starting, with a nod to modern songwriting (Leonard Cohen covers next to traditional Newfoundland songs such as The Valley of Kilbride), as they have developed as songwriters they have explored new sonic and harmonic places. With this release, they've pushed the boundaries further than ever. It's no surprise that ground-breaking East Coast producer Daniel Ledwell was a fine match for the songs, having already helped shepherd albums by explorers Jenn Grant and Gabrielle Papillon. On five studio tracks here (there are also two live versions), traditional lyrics and arrangements are swapped for echoed keyboards and vibes, airy textures, and above all, grand sweeping and ringing vocals. Lead singer Geraldine Hollett, already widely acclaimed, has never sounded so, well, heavenly. From her double-tracked vocal on the opening track The Blood Inside Your Heart to the choral highs of Tell Me Something I Don't Know, Hollett's singing is soul-warming. The harmonies and arrangements are just as special, and the boys join in more than normal, giving the cut Last Lemonade lots of playfulness, a merry-go-round of vocal interplay helped along by banjo, oboe and who knows what else.
Lyrically the songs (all originals these days) are equally compelling, and come from a pretty elevated emotional place. Gonna Get Good is a growing older pep talk, "it never gets easy, but baby, it's gonna get good." It even has unveils a piece of wisdom: "Go and free the boy you used to be/He knows all broken bottles become sand at the sea." Not bad at all. In We Are Love, this time the partner provides the positive words: "I don't believe you're a liar, I never cared what you think you are." I'm glad these tracks didn't get diluted in an attempt to fill a full album, there's so much to explore in them, that having some less-powerful work would take away from the listening experience. The two live versions at the end add nicely as well, showing that other strength of the group, the stage. This E.P. is as substantial as any album you'll hear any time soon
Wednesday, October 19, 2016
My Sweet Rosetta is a stand out, a haunted ballad with Mulholland's eerie ache and a guest-star duet vocal from MacLellan, in the Emmylou role. Wasted Ways has the boldness and strength of a fine outlaw country number, with that undercurrent of sadness: "When the wine tastes like water, then you'll know/and the whiskey's just not doing what it's been told." More carefree on the surface is Wasting My Time With You, a reminiscence of better times in a romance, a sneaky number where the upbeat tune covers up the hard truth in the lyric. I really like the mix of honest, classic music and thoughtful lyrics, and the strong ensemble at work on this set.
Monday, October 17, 2016
Leaning left? Looking for the band to soundtrack your protest march/pipeline blockade/yoga class? Perhaps you're a Green Party candidate in need of a theme song? Here's your band. Actually, you don't have to be a full-time activist to love Communism. Anybody with a love of brilliant, fun guitar rock, happy harmonies and crazy chord changes will want to burn their draft cards, or whatever we do in Canada these days, and dance like crazy to this New Deal.
Communism is the project of beloved drummer/producer Don Kerr (Ron Sexsmith/Rheostatics), teamed up with fun-loving fellow travelers Kevin Lacroix (bass) and Paul Linklater (guitar), currently tearing up certain southern Ontario clubs and public broadcasting airwaves. Kerr's harmony/beauty credentials were firmly established in 2005 when he and Sexsmith did the duo album Destination Unknown, northern Everly Brothers. Here, with his own pen, Kerr creates an entire sub-genre of his own, basically a bunch of songs that say what all the sane people have been thinking for a long time: Be nice, for God's sake! Be better to each other, the planet, stop being so greedy, and come on, quit killing all the bees.
Kerr and co. use the vocals as the lead instrument, and the rest of the playing is crafty and quick, bobbing and weaving, with huge HPM numbers (hooks per minute, I invented that, thanks). There's so much great power pop and smarty-pants rock going on, the message goes down smoothly, mixed with so many spoonfuls of sugar.
Sunday, October 16, 2016
It's been hard following Norah Jones, what with her various side projects and style forays. If you haven't been able to keep track of the Little Willies or El Madmo or Puss n Boots records, or whether she's playing country, rock or Danger Mouse-produced pop. You can argue she's tried hard to throw off the jazz tag she got when she started at the acoustic piano, and sold mega-millions with Come Away With Me. At least, she's tried to follow her muse rather than walk a straight line.
Patient fans of that first album will feel rewarded with this set, which sees her return to the piano and straightforward songwriting for the first time in a decade. If anything, this edges a bit closer to jazz territory, but the beauty of Jones' music is that it is a heady, singular mix of so much. Carry On has a mix of country lyric, gospel soul and jazz structure, a cousin of Makin' Whoopee. While the album is filled with her own strong songs, she also sets aside room for a fascinating cover, a version of Neil Young's biographical number Don't Be Denied. She changes the gender and lyrics to make it less, well, Neil-ish, and brings out the fascinating melody that was always there, as well as adding some subtle, Band-like horns. And as always, her exquisite vocals and phrasing are the highlight. I've actually enjoyed all her forays, but there is something about her piano-based music that is so satisfying.
Wednesday, October 12, 2016
Here's the inevitable follow-up album, the obvious part two, the sequel, the no-brainer. Sometimes, you get The Godfather Part Two, sometimes it's Cannonball Run 2. Fear not Blackie fans, this one continues a fine idea.
To recap, we first had the Kings And Queens album in 2011, where the fine gentlemen of the Rodeo surrounded themselves with female singing royalty. Thanks to active friendships, and Colin Linden's large rolodex, the band was able to call on illustrious voices including Rosanne Cash, Lucinda Williams, Emmylou Harris and Serena Ryder. That worked so well, they've now flipped the gender, and brought in the guys. It's an equally impressive roll call, and once again heavy on the country and alt-country: Raul Malo, Eric Church, Rodney Crowell, Buddy Miller, Jason Isbell and Vince Gill. But Blackie has always been more about roots and branches, so there's also City and Colour (Dallas Green), Keb'Mo', their old buddy Bruce Cockburn, and a living legend to some of us, U.K. charmer Nick Lowe. Stephen Fearing, chatting backstage before a recent performance in Fredericton, mentioned that upon meeting Lowe for the session, Tom Wilson was rendered speechless for the first time in anyone's memory.
Not ones to go the easy route with cover versions of classics, or dips into their guest's catalogues, instead the Blackie songwriters do what they do, and came up with newly written tracks, which were then doled out to the best vocal matches. And as usual for their albums, each of them (Linden, Fearing, Wilson) contributed equally, each taking a lead vocal in turn. Oh, and of course, they always do a Willie P. Bennett song, in honour of their spiritual founder, and this time it's This Lonesome Feeling, featuring Gill.
Sometimes the guest would get the lead, sometimes they would share verses, and sometimes they'd just join on the chorus, again, the song dictated what was needed. The Nick Lowe-featured number turned out to be so much in his style, it's basically all him, with writer Fearing just doing some harmony. For A Woman Gets More Beautiful, Cockburn does one of his favourite things, and sings some French verses. Linden and Miller, two producers and band leaders with deep knowledge and musical integrity, trade off lines for the fun of it all on Playing By Heart, and you can feel the common bond.
These sets can be tricky though, and there are moments that probably seemed like great choices that don't quite have the results promised. Malo, one of the great voices of our day, fails to spark the somber Fearing ballad High Wire, which doesn't allow his guest to go into his full dramatic style. And many of us love the role Linden has in the country music soap Nashville, and his mentoring of the actors for their performing parts, so it seemed fun to have the "men of Nashville" join him for a cut, but it's just a bunch of indistinct voices belonging to the actors who play Deacon, Avery Barkley, Gunnar and Will. Stunt casting that, but hey, when Van Morrison invited people to sing with him, he got Michael Buble, so I guess having your friends on the record is not so bad.