Wednesday, July 18, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: THE GALPINES - SORRY MOM

Baby-hating, foul-mouthed liquor pigs, mired in debt and often in jail, even their mothers have denounced The Galpines. Well, not their real mothers I'm sure, and New Brunswick festival-goers and party animals have taken these four Moncton women to their hearts. The comedy country outfit sends up our redneck ways, from online shopping addiction (Visa Bill Blues) to living via Instagram (Hashtag Blessed). And sometimes, it's just for the shock value ("My dog is better than your baby.")

Fans will know many of the songs on the group's second release and first long-player, as they've been playing them to great reaction for months, and pretty much every song they write is instantly memorable. Go To Sleep has served as a lovely opening number, with those old-timey harmonies, like something that could have been on the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack. Except that movie didn't feature some drug-and-booze addled festival goers trying to have a three-way but the baby wakes up and ruins everything.

If you shock easily, you don't want to go here, but if you have a sense of humour about four-letter words and questionable morals, and like comedy with your harmonies, The Galpines are absolutely entertaining. Plus, they don't like litterbugs, so there's a good lesson in here. One at least. 

The group is launching the album this Saturday, July 21, at the Parkindale Hall in Elgin, N.B., and are promising surprise musical guests, so I'm sure it's going to be a party. Then the band is continuing a busy summer of tour dates, including (gasp!) their first shows in Ontario and Quebec, including one at the Dakota in Toronto Aug. 31. That oughta show them stuck-up Upper Canadians.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: JENNIFER IRVING - LET 'EM IN

Formerly of the Nova Scotia group Drift a few years back, Jennifer Irving did drift away for a bit, into a photography career, kids, a move to Saint John and other adulting. Music was just on the back burner though, and now she returns with a debut solo EP, four cuts from three different sessions. It's an interesting variety from the singer-songwriter, thoughtful lyrics across the board but some dramatic style shifts.

The first two cuts, Weight and Well Enough, were made with Halifax producer Daniel Ledwell, and feature his well-known layers and textures. Irving adds to that a level of mystery, and intriguingly, a Spaghetti Western flavour. The third cut, Lines, was done with Charles Austin, another Halifax mainstay. While still featuring a rich sound, that track highlights the acoustic guitar sound of Irving's music, along with a bit of atmosphere. The final cut, Someday, is less spacious, Irving's vocals echoed and less prominent, brushed percussion joining the acoustic guitar along with a few bells and a haunted vibe. Toronto producer Snappy Homefry is the collaborator on this bit of electronic folk.

Irving proves a bit of a chameleon on the EP, adapting her voice to each atmosphere. On the mystery movie cuts at the start, she's moody and distant, while the acoustic tracks feel more warm and transparent. In each song though, her singing is compelling, and I like that she has these different sides.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: AL BASILE - ME & THE ORIGINATOR

My biggest complaint about modern blues artists is that a lot of the run-of-the-mill ones put such little effort into their lyrics. You know the ones, singing about being done wrong by their baby, or waiting for the weekend to let loose. Then comes the guitar solo. Ones who work hard on their lyrics stand out, and Al Basile is certainly one of the best. No surprise, since his other career is as a well-respected poet. While those two aspects always meet in his music, his new album is something special, a true combination of poetry and the blues.

The album is made up of spoken word pieces before each song. Some are part of a narrative, while others are true poems. The story is about a fictional musician, who has a stroke of blues luck. In drastic need of inspiration to help him write songs, but not being good at words, he deserves an old trunk filled with writings, author unknown. The journals are easily adapted into lyrics, and they help his band become stars. We here about how that all goes down, how the musician notices the lyrics mirror his own life, and how, in true blues fashion, fame and fortune doesn't mean happiness. His band mates and friends turn out to be not so trustworthy, his marriage fails, but life's ups and downs bring his strength.

The songs relate to the narrative, and were made to follow the arc of the story. They were recorded with the musicians knowing the spoken section each was following. Produced by the redoubtable Duke Robillard, the mood is right for each one, and it's one of the most engrossing listens I've enjoyed. Basile, already a strong performer, is an equally captivating narrator. His plan almost backfires, as the stories are so engrossing I found myself waiting for the songs to end to hear the next bit of reading. That was just the first listen though, and the music proves strong as well, giving me renewed appreciation for his lyrical abilities. I can't think of a similar blues/story album before, and it's certainly a fascinating listening experience, half-audio book, half-cruising music.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: CHARLES LLOYD & THE MARVELS + LUCINDA WILLIAMS - VANISHED GARDENS

Here's a pleasant-plus surprise. Veteran jazz sax and flute player Lloyd fronts a group of consummate players, including guitar maestro Bill Frisell and pedal steel and dobro giant Greg Leisz. They also play with Lucinda Williams, and Lloyd and Williams met and developed a mutual admiration. First she asked him to guest at a show, then he asked her, and then this collaboration was born. Lloyd and the Marves do five jazz instrumentals, and Williams takes the lead vocals on the other five songs. Four of them are her compositions, three older ones, one brand-new, and the last a cover of the Hendrix classic Angel.

Jazz fans will find lots to enjoy, as the genre-bending Lloyd has quite a team in the Marvels. The rhythm section is made up of Lloyd's longtime team of Reuben Rogers on bass and drummer Eric Harland. Frisell and Leisz help Lloyd veer off in every direction, from blues to country to free-form squonking. It's adventurous, mostly melodic, and fun, hearing players who can work in so many styles.

For Lucinda fans, it's a revelation. Here she stretches past her usual roots style, and adds a whole new level to her vocal style, with extra notes and nuances. On her own robust albums, there isn't a whole lot of room for such vocal subtlety, but here there's more pacing and less volume, allowing her to shine. She clearly enjoys the changes made to her material by this group. She's also chosen songs that are from her more poetic side, and that brings extra strength to the verses. Match that with the exceptional performances from Lloyd and the group, and it will lead the listener to a whole new appreciation of Williams.

Monday, July 9, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: WANG CHUNG - ICON

Come on, we all know it ... Everybody have fun tonight, everybody Wang Chung tonight. There. Don't you feel better getting that out of the way? Darn catchy though, and a pretty brilliant move, putting the band name in the hook of the song. We'll never, ever forget it.

The bigger question is whether there's anything else to remember. And you know, they actually aren't a one-hit wonder. If you'll remember, Dance Hall Days was a pretty decent-sized hit, a couple of years before Everybody Have Fun Tonight. And the follow-up to that monster, Let's Go!, was also hit the Top 10, and it's a quite good track. Then there was the soundtrack to the film To Live and Die in L.A., which produced a decent title cut. So there's a few things there, and if you skip over the ubiquitous you-know-what, this isn't a bad listen, even with that glossy 80's production. A version of the group still tours the oldies circuit, with pals Cutting Crew. Oh by the way, Wang Chung is the Chinese phrase for yellow bell, the first note in their classical music scale. Which makes no sense, "everybody yellow bell tonight." Go figure.

Saturday, July 7, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: MOLLY JOHNSON - MEANING TO TELL YA

The Halifax Jazz Festival gets underway this coming week, has a stellar lineup, and opening night features a fantastic free show. It's starring none other than Canada's premiere jazz-soul singer, Molly Johnson. And wouldn't you know, she's got a killer new album out too.

It's produced by none other than Larry Klein, who has managed to do a decent job in the same role for Joni Mitchell, Tracy Chapman and Norah Jones over the years. He knows how to showcase the finest female singers, and that's just what you want with Johnson. She has one of those voices, the kind that you want to enjoy every syllable she sings, the last faded "sss..." on the end of a line. This is a particularly punchy, upbeat set for her, mostly originals, and some well-chosen covers. There aren't too many singers who can bring out the groove in Leonard Cohen's Boogie Street, and make a classy version of Marvin Gaye's Inner City Blues as well.

Her previous release was her tribute to Billie Holiday, Because Of Billie, so Johnson had a bunch of her own songs saved up for this one. Gone has a big groove, almost a rocker, while Stop, written with Klein and David Baerwald (David & David) is a jazzy modern ballad, with an emotional lead from Johnson at her smokiest.

See Molly Johnson at the free show Tuesday, July 10 at the Waterfront Stage at 8:30 pm, along with the Halifax All-Star Jazz Revue. That features the city's top players, including drummer Dave Burton, Jamie Gatti on bass, Geordie Haley on guitar, keyboard player Sylvio Pupo and Chris Mitchell on sax. There are plenty of other tempting shows throughout the week as well, including sets from Chaka Khan, The War On Drugs, Alvvays, Matt Andersen and the Mellotones, Whitehorse, Daniel Caesar, Charlotte Day Wilson and lots more.

Friday, July 6, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: GRAHAM NASH - OVER THE YEARS

I like this format quite a bit. Disc one is a basic best-of, all the hits written by Nash for CSN, Crosby-Nash, and his solo albums, while disc two is all demos, most of them previously unreleased. Some of the demos are those favourite hit tracks, while others are lesser-known but really charming stripped down. It's two very different ways of going through Nash's career, both of them worthy.

You can argue who was the better writer in CSN until the cows come home, but certainly Nash was the best commercial writer. His melodies were always catchy and his lyrics easily digested. Those delightful ditties, such as Marrakesh Express, Our House and Teach Your Children, were the singalong favourites that cleared the way for Crosby's hippie trips and Stills' guitar workouts. And he pretty much saved the band by writing the hits Just A Song Before I Go and Wasted On The Way, which propped up middling efforts later in the group's career. When pushed, he could get angry too, and Chicago, Immigration Man and Military Madness gave him an another dimension rather than just being a softy. No question though, of his colleagues (not including Young), he has been most consistent and deserving of a hits collection. It also allows folks unfamiliar with his solo or duo efforts to hear fine songs such as I Used To Be King.

The demos collection is more exciting, since it's almost all new, and quite interesting. We hear him putting down solo versions of Marrakesh Express and Horses Through A Rainstorm back in London, the former famously rejected by The Hollies, a final straw for Nash as he quit the band and fled to L.A. Horses was supposed to be a CSN track, and was first heard on that group's '90's box set, fully recorded, but here we get the acoustic treatment. Marrakesh is obviously a quality number even in its raw state, but the CSN treatment was magic. Teach Your Children was pretty bare-boned as a demo, again one that came alive with the band. Nash moved to piano writing shortly after that, and his demos became more vibrant at that point, more melodic. Simple Man is gorgeous, and could have been released just like that. Wind On The Water, a little bit more advanced of a demo, with piano and guitar, is a clear blueprint for that solid Crosby/Nash cut. Just A Song Before I Go, with piano and harmonica and none of the layered harmonies, is more haunting. And Wasted On The Way is far less jaunty, which makes this easily the better version. This set could have been another ho-hum best-of, but instead is really a must-own for CSN and Nash fans.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: SUGAR BROWN - IT'S A BLUES WORLD ... CALLING ALL BLUES!

I submit, for your consideration, the next hero for the Marvel Universe. Real name: Ken Kawashima, born to a Japanese father and a Korean mother, who immigrated to the U.S. in the 1960's. Raised in Bowling Green, then moved to Chicago. Day job: Associate Professor of East Asian Studies at the University of Toronto. Avengers name: Sugar Brown. Nighttime job: Blues superhero. While going through his studies in Chicago, Kawashima became immersed in the famous blues scene, and began a tutelage under some of the local legends with names such as Taildragger, Rockin' Johnny and Willie "Big Eyes" Smith. He walked away from it all to get that Ph.D., but after establishing himself in the rarefied air of Upper Canadian academia, found himself unable to resist the call of the wild. In 2014, he reclaimed the Sugar Brown name, and now has issued his third LP, all of them stellar.

Brown has that gritty, real sound that every blues player wishes they could get, but seldom can. It's authentic, and authoritative too. Seems our scholar was studying up on a few subjects in Chicago, as he deftly moves from style to style, including the good-time jump blues of Dew On The Grass, the acoustic country blues of Brothers to the low-down, hard times cut Lousy Dime. He's aided by some superior players, including Toronto roots guitarist Nichol Robertson, stalwart drummer Michelle Josef, classy piano man Julian Fauth, and even his old Chicago mentor, Rockin' Johnny Burgin on guitar. Brown's a deft writer, able to hit classic themes, and is doing all original material, fresh and articulate, but still sounding like all those classic influences.

The final piece of the puzzle comes in the overall sound, captured on two-track analog tape, and vocals recorded using a vintage 1930's microphone pre-amp. It adds that special bit of low-fi, and makes it easy to compare Sugar Brown to the greats. He's definitely got the stuff. Somebody call Stan Lee.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: EL COYOTE - EL COYOTE

Now here's some Canadiana. Folks from Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Ontario, Alberta and B.C. end up living in Montreal and making a country album. Well, alt-country, or in other words, old school country with folk melodies and thoughtful lyrics, and in this case, a beautiful sound and haunting vocals and harmonies. The six-member group came together from Friday night kitchen singalongs. There are three singer-writers; Katie Moore, Michelle Tompkins and Angela Desveaux, and players Joe Grass (dobro, pedal steel), Mike O'Brien (guitar) and Andrew Horton (bass). All are experienced performers in various Montreal groups, and this is their first release under the El Coyote banner.

Each of the singers has a true, classic roots voice, natural and easy to enjoy. The harmonies are gorgeous, soothing even, so comfortable do they blend. Mostly these are country ballads, with 19th century folk touches, and even some Western influences. But there's still that little alt- edge, so it's never a homage to old timey sounds. The best I've come up with as a description is Cowboy Junkies visiting the McGarrigle family for a parlour session. The language is certainly older rather than modern; they sing of time and tide, and a false-hearted lover. But even cuts like Lighten up Diane and the uptempo cut Tip Jar feel more like they are set in the 1950's than today. Delicate acoustic picking and Grass's hypnotic pedal steel and dobro dominate the instrument sounds, while wisely never getting in the way of the voices. I haven't heard a combo like this since the Trio recordings of Emmylou, Linda and Dolly.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: DENIS PARKER - BEEN SO LONG

There are certain musicians that are crucial members of a music scene. Their work, not just the art they create, but the service they do, is what makes a scene vibrant. This is done via support, camaraderie, influence and leadership. I think I'll call them "backbone" musicians, for lack of a better term. Denis Parker is certainly one of them. The blues singer has weathered the changing scenes of the music industry for 50 years, and is the dean of the scene in St. John's, NL. He's put out his share of albums, and for almost 20 years was head of the Music Industry Association of NL. He's celebrating that 50 years with a new album, and a launch party Saturday, July 7.

Interestingly, his recording career actually began in England, where he's from. Parker was part of the British blues scene in the '60's, and eventually got his recording start in, wow, Abbey Road Studio. He even recorded his debut around the same time as The Beatles were recording their Abbey Road album. Parker was in a group called Panama Limited Jug Band, the chief songwriter, and that group's two albums on the hip Harvest label are hugely collectable this days. But he soon after cross the pond for Newfoundland, and has served as a player, educator and organizer since. So hats off to a remarkable career.

Meanwhile, the new album is just what Parker knows best, acoustic blues, just him, his guitar, a little accompaniment when called for, and something special, harmony vocals from his daughter Sarah Parker-Charles on a few cuts. It's a grab-bag of 19 tracks, recorded intimately, which is the perfect way to hear Parker. He owns this style, his vocals are mesmerizing, and the simplicity captivating. You can hear every bit of that 50 years' experience, on old favourites Trouble In Mind, Kokomo Blues, Canned Heat, or on his own material in that vein, some of them numbers he had composed and set aside years back, only to be rediscovered for this.

Like the best blues performers, Parker has improved with age. You can join the birthday bash Saturday at Fred's Music in St. John's with Parker doing a full set at 5 PM.

Monday, July 2, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: MARK FOSSEN - RESTLESS

A relatively new recruit to the East Coast, Mark Fossen has spent a decade busking and gigging the country and beyond, playing festivals and releasing single tracks and videos. Now the B.C. native has landed in Antigonish, N.S., and has celebrated with his first full-length, called Restless. Produced by Jim Bryson, who's been quietly doing novel things for Canadian folk acts, this set has Fossen's emotional and searching tunes given a whole bunch of cool levels and shifting soundscapes. Like he's done on P.E.I. singer Meaghan Blanchard's upcoming release The Great Escape, Bryson has emphasized the mood in each of Fossen's cuts. It's not with unnecessary noises but rather with moments of quiet and calm, beautiful tones, mystery, and just the right bit of volume at the right time.

That leaves lots of room for Fossen's warm delivery and searching lyrics. Rocky Mountain Kiss looks back at an old West Coast love, thinking about it at a vulnerable time, and realizing it wasn't aching for the person, but missing that feeling of being in love. The cut Sometimes gets into intense territory, Fossen clearly one able to tap into his feelings, such as when he has to "..search for you in bottles of wine/when my heart is beating overtime." Songs with such heart on display could be mushy, but Fossen and Bryson add lots of power throughout, from gutsy guitar to some sneaky banjo to subtle strings. Or in Ghost, Fossen adds a falsetto harmony to a couple of lines, sounding a bit like Robbie Robertson in Somewhere Down The Crazy River. That's a good vibe, and this album has lots of that kind of warmth.