Friday, December 19, 2014


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.

Thursday, December 18, 2014


Now this is what an alternative Christmas collection should be:  Not the same old same old, but new, varied, often irreverent, listenable and with at least some tunes of higher grade.  Oh, and on vinyl is a nice bonus as well.  Put together by the fine folks at reissue specialists Rhino Records, it features a mixed bag of folks, from the twisted veterans Devo to Calgary hit makers Tegan and Sara to merry pranksters The Flaming Lips.

Some do play it straight, or at least give us a normal song.  Regina Spektor offers the somewhat dark December, no tree-trimming number, and The Spill Canvas do a nearly-normal It Came Upon A Midnight Clear.  The Flaming Lips, you'd think, would be vicious, but instead give us a hopeful, and upbeat A Change At Christmas (Say It Isn't So).  Devo, of course, do something to point out the de-evolution of society, with Merry Something To You, the irony of conflicting religious beliefs leaving us mired in political correctness.  It's Tegan and Sara who leave us laughing, with their take on The Chipmunk Song, speeding up their voices and playing the roles, Sara as Alvin.  Most bizarre award goes to Soul Coughing, for singing Suzy Snowflake.  For those of you sick of the Boney M Christmas album, and a little cynical about the whole thing, try this.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014


How nice, a short but sweet bilingual Christmas card from everyone's favourite bilingual Winnipeg folk/pop group, Chic Gamine. Regulars on Stuart McLean's Vinyl Cafe, the five-member group mixes it up, with different lead singers, male and female, different styles and two in French, three in English.

Last Christmas slides along with a slinky disco bass, tinsel-like harmonies and a cautionary tale about holiday romance. Throw Another Log (On The Fire) is a new tune by the band, a relaxed country number that highlights the vocal blend of the group, what everyone loves about them. The Friendly Beasts is the beloved traditional tune, every singer getting to play one of the animals who witnessed the Christmas miracle. It's a nice way to get to know the vocal textures of each band member. At five cuts, this leaves us waiting for Vol.'s 2 and 3 and, well, let's just say Christmas comes once a year.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014


1984 saw Toronto's Martha and the Muffins shake things up and become virtually a new band. The name was shortened to M+M, to reflect the new reality; Mark Gane and Martha Johnson were the founders and leaders, and had decided to cut the payroll, since they didn't play many gigs anyway. Also, the pair were expanding their sound, building on their New Wave past with more rhythm and grooves.

Along for the ride was producer Daniel Lanois, still building his reputation, but U2 was just around the corner for him. The trio headed to New York's famed Power Station for initial tracks, and grabbed some hotshot session pros, such as the funky Yogi Horton on drums. They then proceeded to make an album greatly different than anything previous, including their hit Echo Beach.

There were two big dance tracks, Black Stations/White Stations and Cooling The Medium, but they weren't disco-era hedonist stuff. This was partying with a message. Black Stations/White Stations was an outsider's shock at the continued segregation of music in the U.S., with playlists decided by ethnicity. The Canadians put it bluntly: "Stand up and face the music, this is 1984!" It actually worked on the dance stations at least, rising to #2 in the States, the duo's biggest U.S. hit (Echo Beach had inexplicably missed the charts there, despite being a hit in England, Australia, etc.)

There were more treasures inside, including Nation Of Followers, with Gane handling the vocals on this smack-down of the Canadian tendency to play it safe, and follow instead of lead. There were other bands that started using big rhythms in their music at the time, but M+M was a leader for sure, especially with its direct messages.

This 30th anniversary edition adds five cuts from the sessions; the instrumental B-side X0A 0H0, and two remixes each of Black Stations/White Stations and Cooling The Medium. There's also a good little essay that puts it all in perspective for this often overlooked Canadian gem.

Monday, December 15, 2014


In 1968, Lou Reed staged a coup in his own band, and ousted co-founder John Cale. The two had been the salt and pepper of the band, with Cale providing the unique drones from his cello, and important experimental music knowledge from his classical, avant-garde training. But Reed wanted to shake things up, and he explained to band mates Sterling Morrison and Maureen Tucker he felt the band would become stale if the sound remained the same.  It should be noted that all the forceful personalities from the start of the group had been removed, with the singer Nico and producer/supporter Andy Warhol preceding Cale. Reed now had full control.

The reinvention came fast. A band friend, Doug Yule from Boston came in, giving them more depth, especially with keyboard skills, but certainly less of Cale's caustic edge. Reed now had a harmony singer, and even handed Yule the lead vocals on his Candy Says, to kick off the band's new album, called just Velvet Underground. Yule's pretty voice and lighter touch would show up all over the record, which was, of all things, a pop album. Playing 12-string guitars and singing close harmonies, all of a sudden the Velvets weren't far away from The Byrds, especially on the jaunty Beginning To See The Light. Reed sounded happy, and remarkably, the overall feeling is positive.

I'm Set Free isn't far off from the San Francisco bands of the day, and That's The Story Of My Life has a jug band feel. For a band that had been singing about waiting for a dealer with $26 bucks in their hand, and NYC transvestites, this was quite a turnaround. But that was the a big part of Reed, who had started with a love of early rock and doo-wop. He knew how to flirt with the mainstream.

Thank goodness it didn't work, who knows what a hit single would have done to Reed and the band at that point. The album actually did worse than its predecessor, White Heat/White Light. It's quite strong though, with the lovesick Pale Blue Eyes a highlight, and Reed's oddly sincere Jesus, a kind of acceptance of a higher form. The cute, Mo Tucker-sung After Hours ends the album, a celebration song for those who prefer night over day. It's slyly subversive, which I suppose describes the whole album.

This anniversary edition (45th, not usually celebrated, but oh well) is beefed up to a remarkable six CD's, although not without significant repetition. The first three discs are the original album, just in three different mixes. The original is the first, then comes the so-called Closet mix, done by Reed with the vocals pushed forward, and the third disc is all in mono, only sent out in a promo version for radio back in 1968. You'll have to have good ears and a lot of familiarity with the album before you can notice the difference. It gets a lot more interesting on Disc Four though, which is a collection of all the cuts that were also recorded around that time, for a supposed fourth album. But that didn't happen, as label problems delayed another disc until 1970, when Loaded came out. There are fourteen full songs here, with only Rock & Roll re-recorded for Loaded. The rest eventually did get released on Reed albums or reissue albums such as the Velvet's box set, but it is great to get them all collected in one place, and in the correct historical setting.

The final two CD's capture club dates at The Matrix in San Francisco in 1969, again some of which has appeared before, but most is previously unreleased. I'm surprised how good it sounds, and how tight the band is. I guess I had the believe that V.U. were always confrontational and chaotic. Heck, they sound like they are enjoying it, and so does the crowd. Now, it does become pretty intense, especially when Lou sings Heroin, and it really does take you right inside a junkie's life. But this was a far different group than when Cale was involved. Forty-five years later, it's still a debate whether Reed made a good move, but certainly the music this band made is strong as well.

Sunday, December 14, 2014


MTV loved R.E.M., and for some reason, R.E.M. was okay with that.  The band that didn't want to play the game used the channel for the greater good of the group, and somehow managed to appear constantly on the channel without losing any dignity.  Mostly, they ignored the medium and spoke to the fans, by playing live shows.  Also, Stipe loved the film-making side, so the video channel was another part of the art to him, even if he had to endure the interviews.  Surprisingly, even those went down well, with the band members refusing to talk down to the medium, and always answering questions honestly.  They tried to be anti-rock stars, even as they continued to grow more and more famous.

With all those appearances over the years, this huge box has been compiled, a six-DVD set, each one running between two and three hours long.  The bulk of it is live performance, various concert specials aired by the network, and none of the previous R.E.M. concert material has been duplicated (save for the Unplugged sets, recently earlier this year on CD).  Sadly, not much of this comes from the '80's, when they were raw and growing, but there's no use crying over spilled milk, enjoy what you get.

Disc one captures the two Unplugged sessions, in 1991 and 2001, R.E.M. being the only band to be granted two complete shows on the influential series.  With these things huge sellers for Clapton, Nirvana, etc., it's surprising the band didn't put them out before, jewels that they are.  The 1991 set especially was important, as the group had refused to tour for the Out Of Time album, which then became their biggest ever.  They were simply burned out on the touring cycle, and Buck had wanted to make acoustic music, so TV was perfect for his mandolin, and the soft and pop songs that made up the album.  That mandolin opening to Losing My Religion was a crowd thriller, and the band went back into its catalogue for softer cuts that made a great impact in the acoustic format, including Fall On Me and Swan Swan H.  The 2001 appearance feels like a statement is being made to the MTV viewers, which would include much of the fan club.  The band had nearly broken up when Bill Berry had left and the recording of the album Up went poorly, but now they had a new album (Reveal) and were determined to show they were still a powerful unit.  Sitting alongside classic cuts So. Central Rain and The One I Love, new songs such as All The Way To Reno and Imitation Of Life did offer a new kind of energy, Stipe especially now no longer the reticent front man.  Nicely, both appearances include a bevy of outtakes, adding significantly to the show lengths.

Disc two is an interesting hodgepodge of appearances, including 1998's VH1 Storytellers, with a few choice Stipe comments, and again, a bunch of outtakes.  Then we do get to go back to the early days of the band, with a couple of (sadly) short appearances, a mini-documentary on The Cutting Edge, which includes some partial versions of tracks, and another song called Livewire which does have two full cuts, So. Central Rain and Carnival Of Sorts.  Then come some one-off live cuts, from various MTV award shows and such, all worthy.  The band's induction into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 2007 appears, with them doing three cuts for the crowd, with Bill Berry back in the drum stool for the night.

The next three discs feature live concerts broadcast between the years 1995 - 2008, either in the U.S. or in Europe.  During this time, the long slump that led to their ultimate demise started to take hold.  While the excitement over new R.E.M. albums dwindled, especially in North America, in Europe they continued to be a major concert draw, and its very interesting to watch how great these shows are.  In places such as Athens (Greece) and Milan, there was little of the snobbery that greated the new albums, not many calls for the old indie-80's songs.  This was a crowd still excited by Losing My Religion, still in love with Man On The Moon, and enjoying (quite excellent) later material such as Electrolite, What's The Frequency, Kenneth? and Supernatural Superserious.  There's a whole post-Berry career that will have to be reconsidered at some point, and this DVD set will be a valuable research tool, plus a darn fine viewing every so often.  Disc six is an interesting career documentary running over two hours that MTV put together, using the many interviews done over the years.  What strikes you most is how refreshingly decent they all seem, and I think they can hold their heads up and know they did it all as best they could.

Saturday, December 13, 2014


Here's a little-discussed fact. Crime Of The Century, Supertramp's breakthrough from 1974, and probably best-loved release, found its biggest success right here in Canada. While it was a big hit in England, and a decent one in the U.S., in Canada we went nuts for it. It sold over a million copies in Canada, twice as much as the U.S. I didn't even own the album, yet listening to this Deluxe Edition released forty years later, I know every note. Not just the hits, I mean the album tracks too, that's how often my friends played it.

The album came out of nowhere, the band having released two uninspired previously albums in 1970 and 1971. But somehow the songwriting clicked in Rick Davies and Roger Hodgson, and they came up with a new sound, somewhere between prog and pop. They used searching lyrics, and a keyboard sound that was different for radio, the Wurlitzer electric piano. The big tracks were School, Bloody Well Right and Dreamer, each moody and dramatic, and exciting. I don't think they ever wrote better, even though the hits kept coming, especially with the world-wide #1, Breakfast In America.

This deluxe edition isn't as packed as some others, offering up only a live concert on the second disc, from 1975. The entire album is played, along with some newly-written tunes that would come out on the follow-up, Crisis? What Crisis? Fans who have complained about the too-loud mix on the earlier compact discs will be pleased to know the audio has been restored to original levels, so that's a major plus. But the biggest bonus might possibly be rediscovering this gem, one of those albums that was so big (in Canada) that we couldn't enjoy the subtleties at the time.