Tuesday, January 27, 2015

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: DAVID WIFFEN - SONGS FROM THE LOST & FOUND

For years, fans have been clamoring for more from Wiffen, but he's refused, retired from recording and performing since 1999's South of Somewhere.  And it had been 26 years before that he had recorded his last album, 1973's landmark Coast To Coast Fever.  So this should be welcomed with joy, although it's not really a return.  Instead, it's a series of cuts recorded from the mid-70's to mid-80's, twelve of them completely unheard before, and another five alternate versions of cuts from South of Somewhere.  Even better is the news that these were supposedly long-lost tapes, believed to have been destroyed in a flood.  Best of all, it's fantastic stuff.

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

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: MICHAEL JEROME BROWNE - SLIDING DELTA

Listen to a first generation punk rock song, circa 1977, with today's ears.  Perhaps the Sex Pistols, maybe God Save The Queen, "and her fascist regime."  What was once scandalous, noisy, irritating to many, is now mild and mostly comical.  Now listen to a vintage blues number from the Delta or another rural area, 20's or 30's, maybe Skip James with Special Rider Blues.  I tell you what, that stuff is the real deal, scary and moving.  These musicians weren't trying to shock, they were just trying to live.  The blues was real and it still sounds great today.

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

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: YES - THE VERY BEST OF

By the looks of this, it would seem to be a crappy, knock-off best-of set, cheaply manufactured, like you used to see for sale at gas stations, for travelers or truckers sick of the radio on some long trip.  It has one CD of hits and misses, and a DVD of tracks with no explanation of the source of the video.  Inside, there was even less information, the lousiest booklet ever.  What a surprise to find out the DVD is actually a copy of the European set The Lost Broadcasts, which compiled some rare early band TV appearances.  The first three date back to the group's debut album, and are pre-Steve Howe, with Pete Banks on guitar.  That includes No Opportunity Necessary, No Experience Required, Looking Around, and Survival, shot in black and white for Germany's Beat-Club program.  Then comes Time and a Word in colour from a Belgian broadcast, before heading back to Beat-Club, now with Howe on board, but still no Rick Wakeman.  This is actually the preferred line-up for some, Tony Banks a fine keyboard man without Wakeman's pomp.  The unique bit of this footage is three different takes of All Good People, as the tech crew play with the psychedelic effects.  Howe especially does much different work on each.

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

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: VARIOUS ARTISTS -- RARE & BRILLIANT: HITS + GEMS

I'd disagree with the title; these tracks aren't rare, and only a couple approach brilliance, but that's marketing.  It's a collection of cuts from the late '70's to the '90's, all pop hits or well-known cuts that had an edge to them, at least for the time.  In other words, a pretty good mix tape, with cuts with similarities.

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)

When this album came out in the summer, it was called the best thing Clapton's done in many a year.  Of course, that simply means that J.J. Cale songs always stand out, whether he's doing them, or his most-appreciative musical colleague.  Clapton of course reworked his entire career after hearing Cale in the early 70's, covering his After Midnight and Cocaine, and taking his laid-back approach to music-making.  And when Cale died in 2013, Clapton was fast off the mark to arrange for this tribute.

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

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: THE MOODY BLUES - THE POLYDOR YEARS

The Moody Blues are considered a classic rock band for the hits made in the '60's, especially Nights In White Satin.  But they were just as successful in the '80's, with a string of albums that surprisingly kept giving them hits and selling in big numbers world-wide.  Even as a touring group, the band filled all the sheds of the day.  Much of that has been collected here in a big box called The Polydor Years.  The group made just three studio albums for that imprint from 1986 to 1992, but as with these all-inclusive sets, they've managed to stretch that to six CD's and two DVD's.  Although it should be noted that four of the discs are from live shows, and one is a DVD repeat of a concert featured in the CD's.

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

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: DAWN PEMBERTON - SAY SOMETHIN'

You may have caught the Oscar-winning documentary Twenty Feet From Stardom, about the lives and importance of back-up singers in the pop music world.   The film features such great talents as Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, The Waters Family and many others who make the difference between a good song and a hit.  Often the last bit added to a recording, these super pros come in and nail a part that raises the song to the next level.  Or, they provide the punch and perfection on stage that makes up for a lead singer who might not be the best.  And harmonies, that crucial and difficult role, good back-up singers do that at the drop of a hat, but try teaching them to your bass player.

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.