Tuesday, September 18, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: MORRISSEY - THIS IS MORRISSEY

Morrissey in North America remains an acquired taste, and polarizing. You either revere him, hate him, or have never heard of him. In the U.K., he's royalty, which explains the constant flow of best-of's and catalogue reworking. This one's an odd duck, but of course so is he, which means he probably picked the tracks himself.

It leans almost completely on earlier solo works, late '80's to mid-'90's, and largely on non-album singles and b-sides (Jack the Ripper, Have-A-Go Merchant). That might make sense if they were rare, but they've been on some of the various collections over the years. And why nothing later? There's one lone album cut, but again, it's older, from 1991's Kill Uncle album, The Harsh Truth of the Camera Eye. And it's not a very good one at that, rather dull and whiny. The A-sides are uniformly excellent, especially The Last of the International Playboys and Ouija Board, Ouija Board. But trying to include rarer tracks, two better singles Suedehead and You're The One For Me, Fatty are diluted by alternative takes. The former is a remix by Sparks which will attract some buyers, as it does not appear on any other albums, while Fatty is taken from the Beethoven Was Deaf live album. One other live track, another non-album track and the only modern cut here, is Morrissey's cover of the Lou Reed classic Satellite Of Love, marking its first album appearance.

So it's a strange collection, sometimes exciting, other times dull, even frustrating, and a tough listen, with the mood never settling between the peaks and valleys. And just 10 cuts? Morrissey is hardly concerned with modesty. Confusion has always been one of his tactics, and I'm not sure whether this is aimed at the completist fan, or the rookie.

Friday, September 14, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: JOHN WORT HANNAM - ACRES OF ELBOW ROOM

Sometimes its hard to describe certain musicians, and other times, it's pretty obvious. Veteran Alberta folk singer John Wort Hannam makes it really easy. He took the time to explain himself on his latest album, in the cut I Believe. He rattles off a few things, saying he believes in a good pair of boots, post and beam construction, love at first sight, words on a page. "That's me in a nutshell. Really not a whole lot to tell."

Well, that's a modest statement, pretty simple. But simple is often the best when it comes to songwriting, especially in the folk genre. Make your case, make it plain, get out. Of course, it takes ages to get to that point for a writer, if they ever get there. Hannam gets there over and over on his latest. Part of that is the recognition he's hit 50, and he pauses to take stock in the song That's Life: "Lessons I should have learned. New leaves I should have overturned, and oh all the money I have burned." But age also helps him recognize the good things more clearly, such as the positive effects of his relationship with his child in Song For A Young Son. And in Acres Of Elbow Room, he sings the praises of nightlife before admitting the whole time he misses family and rural life.

Effective writing is often at its most powerful in a live setting, and lucky Maritimers, Mr. Hannam is on his way for a lengthy stay. Check him out at the following:

September 21 - Canning, NS - Sea-Esta
September 22 - Mount Stewart, PEI - Trailside Cafe
September 26 - Halifax - The Carleton
September 27 - Fredericton - Wilser's Room
September 28 - Fredericton - Landsdowne Concert Series
September 29 - Saint John, NB - Dancing Tree Concert Series
September 30 - Annapolis Royal, NS - Strong Will Barn

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: LED ZEPPELIN - THE SONG REMAINS THE SAME (Blu-Ray)

For decades, this was the official document of the great juggernaut of the '70's, Zeppelin in its arena-conquering days. But it was supplanted and ignored when Jimmy Page brought the band into this century with his catalogue overhaul, beginning with his How The West Was Won box, making it the priority and go-to place for concert Zep. It's understandable, as this original beast had a bad rap, and it wasn't going to shake it.

Part of that was the film from which it came, a so-so production marred by those ridiculous fantasy sequences. The band was also less than enthusiastic about it, so over the years the lingering negativity attached itself to the album too. That finally got somewhat fixed in 2007, when Page remixed the whole thing, and added a whole bunch of tunes, some of which had been in the movie but not the film, and vice-versa. In addition to vastly improving the sound, the original double-album was now beefed up to a full concert length, recreating a typical 1973 night, arguably the peak of Zeppelin popularity.

Now comes this edition, ostensibly to celebrate the group's 50th anniversary. It gives it another audio step-up, now making it to Blu-Ray audio for the first time with a new remastering. There are some new additions, although nothing as major as the 2007 additions. The video portion includes footage of four songs you won't find in the film: Celebration Day, Over The Hills and Far Away, Misty Mountain Hop and The Ocean. Some edits to the lengthy Dazed and Confused, and already-long Moby Dick drum solo have been removed, perhaps not really a bonus.

Of course, it sounds massive now, more regal, befitting these dark princes of rock excess. I'd say it matches up to How The West Was Won, perhaps not the best performances, but as a full document of a Zeppelin show. I'll always argue the best live shows would be way before this, from the first few tours when the group was suffering from so much bloat. Here, favourites like Black Dog and Rock and Roll are dealt with quickly, while lengthy and moody numbers such as No Quarter and The Song Remains The Same dominate. The parlour tricks, Page's bowing and Plant's awkward scatting don't work well outside the venue. That's wishful thinking though, as Page has a tight grip on the catalogue, and has shown a preference of keeping the vaults closed for the most part. Despite its shaky past and excesses, this is a valuable document that now sounds a whole lot better thanks to Page's tinkering and polishing.

Monday, September 10, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: DAVID VEST - DAVID VEST

Here's another act appearing at my hometown festival this week, the beloved Harvest Jazz and Blues Festival. The festival can rightly brag about bringing in some the best, and some of the hottest acts on the continent each year, a mix that includes Sturgill Simpson, Mavis Staples and The Magpie Salute this time. But it never fails to promote Canadian talent too, and why not, when some of the best current blues and jazz players hail from all over this fair land. For example, the awesome piano player/performer David Vest is taking the stage Saturday.

Vest is Canadian by choice, which kinda makes me like him even more. He was born in Alabama way back in the 40's, but he's no heritage act. He's the 2018 Maple Blues Award winner for piano/keyboard player of the year, an award he's grabbed a few times. His most recent album, self-titled, shows why. It's filled with rollicking boogie and New Orleans-flavoured tunes, most by the man himself, along with a couple of tasty covers and a great instrumental around the old country hit Gotta Travel On.

Vest has a easy-going feel, with a good-time mood to most of the material, but he and the band can toughen it up when needed too. Renoviction Man is old-school nasty and deep, with sharp acoustic bass from Ryan Tandy. And he really brings the blues up-to-date with the excellent lyric in Decolonize Yourself, a little social activism for the mix. Lomax, the album closer, is a mood piece, piano only, a sad torch tale that shows another side to Vest's talents.

Check out this unique Canadian talent at the Harvest Jazz and Blues Festival Saturday, Sept. 15, 9 o'clock at the Cox and Palmer Blues Court, along with the Kendra Gale Band, Buck Tingley and Ross Neilsen.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: THE MAGPIE SALUTE - HIGH WATER I

Here's the true studio debut from the band of former Black Crowes and sundry pals of Rich Robinson, after a live album last year announced the new group. And what do you know, the group is in my very own hometown this Wednesday, Sept. 12, headlining that night at the Harvest Jazz and Blues Festival. So if any of my homies are on the fence about it, here's a big plug.

The group includes three ex-Crowes, with guitarist Marc Ford and bass player Sven Pipien back with Robinson. Two others, Matt Slocum on keys and drummer Joe Magistro have done time in Robinson's solo groups. So you would expect those classic rock influences and Faces/Stones/Southern soul sounds to continue. But, that doesn't take into account the sixth member, singer and chief songwriter John Hogg. The least-known member is arguably the most important in defining the group's sound, and adds a whole new twist to the continuing Crowes & family story. This band has, yes, lots of golden-era rock influences, but forges a more independent sound. With Hogg at the mic, the singing is less about show and more about nuance, mood to go along with the intricate rock jams happening in the songs. Of course, with the band filled with seasoned pros, there are lots of grooves explored, and interplay to enjoy. In short, this is something new instead of trotting out what they've done before, and an exciting band to watch.

You can watch them Wednesday night at the Harvest Jazz and Blues Festival in Fredericton, at the Blues Tent, with festival favourites The Record Company on board to open.

Friday, September 7, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: A TREE WITH ROOTS - FAIRPORT CONVENTION & FRIENDS - THE SONGS OF BOB DYLAN

When it comes to artists associated with Dylan covers, the ones that spring to mind are Joan Baez, The Byrds, The Band of course, Jimi Hendrix, and then lots and lots of hits such as Manfred Mann's The Might Quinn. But England's Fairport Convention had one of the most successful runs with Dylan songs, starting at the group's formation in 1967, and continuing to this day with the latest incarnations of the band. The group were one of the lucky ones to hear the first copy of the soon-to-be-infamous Basement Tapes songs as publisher's demos, and allowed to pick a couple of these unreleased gems to record.

Seventeen Dylan covers have been included here, 70-some minutes worth, from various Fairport ensembles in the '60's and '70's. These come from their albums, some live shows, and rare BBC recordings. Earliest ones feature the original group singer, Judy Dyble, including a John Peel BBC recording of Lay Down Your Weary Tune. The more famous Sandy Denny then took over the mic, and she famously loved Dylan. There are a host of tracks here, from her first group appearances, including another Peel session featuring the unreleased Dylan gem Percy's Tune, which he didn't put out until the Biograph set in 1985. Denny and group are able to highlight the traditional English folk sound that Dylan often leaned on, those old melodies and themes they shared. Denny is heard right up until her final show in 1977, just before her death which included a version of Tomorrow Is A Long Time found here.

Then there's the surprising and only hit single the group had, 1969's Si Tu Dois Partir, which was If You Gotta Go, Go Now sung in French. Richard Thompson thought it would make a cool Cajun song. After Thompson and Denny's departure, other Fairport leaders took on the Dylan mantle, including Trevor Lucas, who sings a fine live version of Days Of '49 here from 1973, and at the same gig Denny returned to guest on Down In The Flood, which rocks just as much as the Dylan/Band version. Any Dylan fan will appreciate getting all these fine covers under one roof, and Fairport fans will already know this is some of the very best work the group recorded over the years.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: JEREMY NAIL - LIVE OAK

People do stupid stuff all the time, including this particular act: Back in 1989, a man in Austin, Texas, tried to kill a 600-year old Treaty Oak tree, by poisoning it, for no explainable reason. Thanks to much hard work and care, the tree was saved, thankfully. That's something to which Texan Nail can relate, having battled a rare cancer and lost a leg. His last album, My Mountain, dealt with that, whereas this one is about getting on with live, and growing strong again. "Dead leaves falling  underneath as I come back new again/ Strong as a Live Oak," he sings in the title cut.

This isn't your stereotypical Austin album, even though Nail's a singer-songwriter. It's more meditative and relaxed, and all the more striking for it. With it's calmer, slower pace, both the words and guitars ring out, along with echoes of Nail's healing journey. One song references stillness, the next a quiet night and a mind at ease. Lap steel and smooth electric piano sweeten the latter cut, Rolling Dice, moody in a positive way. The most dramatic statement is saved for the end, in Till' Kingdom Come, where first Nail questions fate, with "Was it karma from another life?/Or was it just a roll of the dice?", before letting us know he's moving forward with strength, "From a body ridden with disease/To this new life I live and breath." With the subtle music and overall warmth, Nail isn't trying to be a poster boy for conquering adversity; this is about finding modest peace and growth, and passing on that it's possible.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: NEIL DIAMOND - HOT AUGUST NIGHT III

I have to admit an odd fascination with Neil Diamond, an artist I both love and loathe, depending on the material. Here's someone who is arguably among the very best songwriters and also the most appalling at times. He's been willing to embrace the shlockiest parts of showbiz, taking over from Elvis in the glittery suit spectacles. At the same time, there's a reason for his huge popularity, and why  Boston Red Sox fans sing Sweet Caroline in the tens of thousands; he's written wonderfully catchy pop and folk-rock songs.

I'm not alone in my semi-fandom. Both Robbie Robertson and Rick Rubin have tried (and pretty much failed) to make Diamond more appealing for hip audiences. But as late as 2008, he wrote an tremendous track, Pretty Amazing Grace, giving some hope for a late-career bloom. Then he followed that up with A Cherry Cherry Christmas, where he covered Adam Sandler's The Chanukah Song.

Diamond was known as a hit songwriter and singles artist until 1972, when the original Hot August Night album became a massive success. He had lots of other big albums after that, but that live set was a personal favourite for him, and he's celebrated it a few times. Hot August Night 2 came out in 1987, then there was a Hot August Night/NYC DVD. Back in 2012, he returned to the original venue, L.A.'s Greek Theater, to celebrate the 40th anniversary, and it's just now getting issued. That's quite possibly due to his unforeseen retirement from performing earlier this year after receiving a diagnosis of Parkinson's disease.

You can't fault his cheerfulness on this anniversary gig, reliving some of the songs from the original Hot August Night (Crunchy Granola Suite, I Am ... I Said), and stuffing the rest of the night with hit after hit. On stage, Diamond is all polish and no edge, which softens the show too much. Songs such as Solitary Man, Kentucky Woman and Cracklin' Rosie are played too slick, September Morn and You Don't Bring Me Flowers are painful, and the whole Sweet Caroline singalong wrecks the song. But then you get Holly Holy retaining some mystique, and that Pretty Amazing Grace quietly steals the show, a then-current song most of his fans wouldn't even know.

There are always enough great songs on a Diamond collection to keep me listening, yet there are always moments that set my teeth on edge. I've come to accept that conundrum, and happily own up to this guilty pleasure.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: DAVID BOWIE - ZEROES (7-inch Picture Disc)

Here's the first salvo from the new Bowie box set, Loving The Alien, coming out in October. This is another of the 7" picture discs, a series that has been following the 40th anniversary of original singles, but this is something different. Instead, it's a "new" Bowie single, as this features brand-new versions of two songs from the Never Let Me Down (2018) album that is the highlight of the upcoming box.

What's happened is that the entire 1987 album has been remade, using Bowie's original vocals but adding mostly new instrumental parts. Bowie hated the original album, and most of fans agreed, as it was made with drum machines and synths and was a blatantly commercial effort. It's a little hard to judge the final efforts, as picture discs don't have the best fidelity, but listening to the new versions of Zeroes and the flip, Beat Of Your Drum, these are more stripped-down, punchier tracks  now. They are quite radical remakes, a pretty rare move, but given Bowie's oft-stated wish to redo the tracks, it feels okay. These still aren't the best songs Bowie wrote, but it does bode well for the full album. Me, I like these picture discs, as usual the photos are great, and as a little bonus, these are edited versions of the new album mixes, so there's collector interest as well.

Monday, September 3, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: MILLER MACDONALD CORMIER - SOUTH HAVEN

Ben Miller and Anita MacDonald have been pushing the boundaries of their styles, his Scottish Highlands, and hers Cape Breton, in their ongoing partnership. Now they take it one big step further, inviting in Acadian guitar player and foot-percussionist Zakk Cormier from P.E.I. Largely instrumental (with one song in Gaelic), these are medleys that allow Miller and MacDonald to explore their usual interplay with some extra driving rhythm courtesy of Cormier.

MacDonald's fiddle and Miller's pipes sound so connected at times, it's as if there's only one person playing, or better yet, a brand-new instrument has been created. Their versions of this traditional material is full of spark, the tempos largely quick, and the interplay exciting. Cormier's addition is mostly subtle (until the feet get going), but very effective, adding an almost bluesy harmony that both supports and thickens. Traditional sounds but most definitely a modern Maritime mix.

Saturday, September 1, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: THE BAND - MUSIC FROM BIG PINK 50th ANNIVERSARY SUPER DELUXE EDITION

As far as reissues, Band fans have certainly been treated well over the years, with box sets and deluxe editions galore. There's not much to add to the story of the group's debut, it's a story that's been told at length in books (by both Robbie Robertson and Levon Helm), as part of the Dylan narrative by countless biographers and journalists, and by the many essays pointing to it as the birthplace of roots (or Americana) music. But here we are at the 50th anniversary of this hugely important album, and a celebration is certainly in order. What's a record company to do?

A super deluxe edition was certainly called for in today's consumer climate, but what could they put in it that was new for fans? Studio outtakes have already helped fill two box sets, and the 2000 reissue collected nine of them. There were no live concerts to add, as the group didn't do any playing until their second album came out. They've been selling new 180-gram vinyl editions of the album for several years, alone, and as part of the widely available Band box of albums. So it took a bold move to freshen up this package. They changed the whole sound.

Famed engineer Bob Clearmountain (Springsteen, Bowie, Rolling Stones) was brought in to provide a brand new remix of the well-known tracks. That's pretty risky, opening up the decision to criticism from fans for messing with a classic. Already some reviewers are complaining about the bright new mix, but I'm not one of them. I found the new sound spectacular. The vocals stand out more than ever, as do Garth Hudson's battery of keyboards, all the wonderful, strange sounds he coaxed out of vintage and obscure organs and electronics. We all know The Weight of course, but you've never heard the booming bass and drums like this before.

I agree that the remix, which separates the sounds from the rather murky original mix, goes against the original idea of the album sound. Famously, the group insisted on sitting in a circle facing each other to record, rather than hiding behind baffles and sitting apart, to prevent the instruments bleeding into the other mics. But here's the thing; it's not most people don't already own that original mix in some form. This is new, and an alternative, and really does inspire new interest.

The only other "new" addition to the package is another piece of studio manipulation, stripping away the instruments to offer up an a cappella version of I Shall Be Released, perhaps the loveliest vocal on the record, with Richard Manuel's plaintive falsetto. The Clearmountain mix is spread across all the formats here, vinyl, CD and Blu-ray, where it shows up as stereo and 5.1. It's most effective on the always-temperamental but ultimately rewarding vinyl, and that's where the other "new" product is found. It has been pressed at 45 RPM over two albums, even better fidelity, and it provided a deeply satisfying listen.

The box packaging matches up to the name super deluxe, starting with Bob Dylan's famous commissioned painting. The box is textured to feel like a canvas. The booklet contains a decent new essay from Rolling Stone regular David Fricke, which goes over the main points, but since the story is well-told elsewhere, it's kept tight. Instead, lots of the great Elliot Landy photos are used, as iconic as the album itself. There are also three photos enlarged on harder paper stock included, and a repressing of the original 45 for The Weight/I Shall Be Released, issued before The Band had even been named,with the five members' names used instead.

So, there's nothing exactly new in this box, and not even all the bonus tracks from the past are included, just five of them. But in other ways, it's all new, at least that's how it seemed to my ears, and it looks and sounds great. It's one of those boxes that feels very satisfying to own, and it's going to be the way I listen to the album now, certainly for some time.