Sunday, December 16, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: VAN MORRISON - THE PROPHET SPEAKS

Morrison continues to do exactly what he's done for the past couple of decades, release yet another new album, alternating between blues, jazz and R'n'B, with lots of '50's and '60's covers with a few originals thrown in as well. This one feels different though, and there's a buzz about it too. Spending a few hours in a Halifax record store last week, the thing actually sold out, and a couple of people came in specifically looking for it. It could just be the eye-catching cover, but it's also a cut above the usual.

I think it has to do with the small jazz combo form he uses on this release, just four other players plus his own harp and sax. It includes one of jazz music's current lights, organ player Joey DeFrancesco, and the last time he teamed up with Van, the album You're Driving Me Crazy, from this past spring, you could feel the magic beginning. For that album, Morrison chose to rework some of his own back catalog, but this time he had six new originals, including the moody title cut, and that seems to have inspired the proceedings further. These aren't just throwaway blues lyrics either. Morrison gets into the mystic with Spirit Will Provide, and goes dark with 5 AM Greenwich Mean Time.

That's all great, it's nice to have some strong originals, but what makes the record special is the hot performances, from DeFrancesco's organ and trumpet, Troy Roberts' sax solos, and Morrison's surprisingly excellent harp work. The band swings, and Morrison is clearly inspired, sounding enthused in his vocals. Then throw in great choices such as Muddy Waters' I Love The Life I Live and John Lee Hooker's Dimples, and you have a thoroughly enjoyable listen. Oh, and if you're counting, it's Van's 40th studio album. He's got this down.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: RODNEY CROWELL - CHRISTMAS EVERYWHERE

You wouldn't expect Rodney Crowell to do a Christmas album that is sentimental and saccharine, and he doesn't disappoint. At times bemused, biting, sad or lovelorn, Crowell calls out the hype and phony ho-ho-ho, and refuses to view the season through holly-coloured glasses. In other words, he approaches it just like a great singer-songwriter should.

Crowell doesn't even sing on the opener, Clement's Lament, but instead lets a couple of angelic voices lull us into a false feeling of Christmas, before hitting us with the payoff, "Peace on Earth, good will to one and all/The season starts in August now, we'll see you in the mall."  His Christmas Everywhere has all the cliches flying in rhyming couplets, a mind-boggling collection of gift hopes from the smallest child (a ball and bat) to the biggest power grabber ("Donald wants to rule the world"), an apt description of Christmas mania. Then there are the songs that look at the dark side, characters pining for great loves lost, Christmas triggering their sad memories. In Merry Christmas From An Empty Bed, the character faces an artificial tree once purchased and left behind by his ex, "The evergreen seems pointless for a tired old fool like me/The fake one more resembles now the man I've come to be."

Happy holiday music it's not, despite some sprightly tunes including When The Fat Guy Tries The Chimney On For Size. This is not for your happy family gatherings. It is however an excellent Rodney Crowell take on Christmas, which is a lot better present than him singing another version of Deck The Halls.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: WHITEHORSE - A WHITEHORSE WINTER CLASSIC

This is definitely one of the best new Christmas albums this year. Whitehorse shows how broad a range the duo has, tackling a bunch of different styles on this holiday offering. Over the nine songs and 30 minutes, there are seven new originals, covering pop, ballad, orchestral and choral, a little of their raw guitar sound, a potential catchy rock hit in Merry Christmas, Baby, and lead vocals from both Melissa McClelland and Luke Doucet. Throughout, lots of sharp, thoughtful lyrics cover universal themes of hope rather than cliched story lines or overblown sentiment.

I like how the duo has approached the season as they do with regular albums, by writing about topics and moods we all go through, rather than resorting to the usual  Christmas tropes. Ho Ho Ho is about getting ho-ho-home in all the usual seasonal chaos: "With all the cancelled flights, I hope you even make it here." Two Snowbirds, which features what might be McClelland's most gorgeous vocal ever in the band, is about getting the heck out of Dodge in the winter cold, and how the season's cheer can follow you somewhere warm too.

Breaking up the new stuff are two familiar numbers, but both very suited to their style. The first is a duet cover of The Pretenders' 2000 Miles, lovely vocals matching the wonderful melody of the original. Blue Christmas is even better-known, here offered as a nicely quirky version with a cheesy organ, drum machine and nasty guitar solo. Most Christmas albums are a quick run-through of the usual songs and styles, fun but of no great consequence. This one sees Whitehorse stretching out of their comfort zone, composing some fine new songs, and using the opportunity to build on their fine body of work.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: MURRAY KINSLEY & WICKED GRIN - MURDER CREEK

Here's the latest from the hard-working, hard-grooving Ottawa group, its fourth album since 2011, pretty remarkable given their constant touring regime. The four-piece group is a well-oiled machine, with Kinsley handling vocals and all the stinging guitar, with Rod Williams on harp, Leigh-Anne Stanton on bass and Bruce Saunders in the drum chair. It's hard-boiled, rough 'n' ready electric blues, with more than a few serious themes and well-spoken messages. There's as much bite in the lyrics as there is in the music.

There's a dark current running through some of the songs, part of which stems from a trip to the U.S. leading up to recording. The group was nearby during the Parkland school shooting in Florida this past February, and Trouble Coming resulted, Kinsley telling us "The streets are filled with angry people, no one wants to give an inch." Murder Creek comes from that southern journey as well, this time Kinsley telling an older tale about a robbery in deep woods Alabama, a gang of crooks that ended up getting hanged, and mystery woman behind the plan. There's also a cover of the old Colin James number Freedom that's a lot darker than the original. The blues is out there, and this is music for uneasy times.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: CASSIE JOSEPHINE - ONLY HALF BLUE

The songs! The voice! The dresses! The Halifax (via New Waterford) modern folk songwriter, one-half of the fine duo Cassie Josephine and Gabriel Minnikin, might do her own songs with calm and quiet, but the effect is powerful and bold. With just guitar, some piano and violin, and voices, she presents a batch of songs that define her identity and character, her state of independence at an important life juncture. As she tells us in Dear Cassie, a birthday letter to herself, she's hit the big 4-0, and she's doing it with no regrets, and lots of interest for the next 40.

Cassie Josephine's voice verges on old-timey, with a little twang and a lovely high warble, all the better for these gentle, contemplative songs. In the title track, a sad/happy number about a sundering, she can't be bothered to waste all those tears, so she'll go on, only half-blue. Alone again, she faces each day the same way, with coffee at Tim's, in Large One Cream And A Honey Cruller. But is that heaven or hell she wonders, the existential crisis not really all that bad. Dear Cassie traces all her deeds and misdeeds, opportunities taken and missed. All this looking back and contemplation is done in a refreshing and kind-hearted way, as if the singer is given the person absolution for being, well, human. It's hard to be good to yourself, and very healthy if you can, and in its calm way it's very much a feel-good album.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

THE MOODY BLUES - IN SEARCH OF THE LOST CHORD

Here's an album most definitely of its time, and that time was 50 years ago. Psychedelia was all the rage, prog rock was awakening, and the Moodies were riding high on the strength of the hits Nights In White Satin and Tuesday Afternoon from their previous album, Days Of Future Past. So off they went on this flight of fancy, about space travel, time travel, and mind travel. It's the album that features the memorable chorus of "Timothy Leary's dead..." (from Legend Of A Mind), and the lost chord turns out to be the mantra Om. All that, plus flutes and Mellotrons.

As a concept album, it's a head scratcher, and a bit of a laugh, with a couple of spoken-word sections. including one stupid poem, the penultimate track, The Word. But as just an album, it ain't half-bad, and the bulk of the songs stand up nicely. It includes the modest hits Ride My See-Saw and Voices In The Sky, and even though Om features overused Indian instruments and a lengthy sitar solo, it's quite lovely. Just don't study the lyrics too closely, they might induce snickering.

There are a few 50th anniversary options, including a big box with a new stereo mix, BBC cuts, out-takes, DVD audio and a DVD of TV appearances, and there's a 2-LP version as well. This single disc version includes the original stereo mix, plus mono 45 versions, probably enough unless you took the trip back in the day.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: BEND THE RIVER - THROUGH THE LONG NIGHT

The latest from Halifax collective Bend The River has arrived, a four-track E.P. this time. The group revolves around songwriter Ronok Sarkar, and his rich, detailed stories. Remnants is rocky romance tune, a relationship imagined as a boat that once sailed, now caught up on shore, and breaking up. As the boat goes, so goes our singer's heart. In the title cut, we're on a train late at night with Jenny, who hasn't slept in days. Her hands are shaking, and she's just trying to get through that all-night journey, and maybe find some peace in the morning. Sarkar often writes these cinematic scenes, putting the listener in a setting, showing us the characters and unveiling their dilemmas.

Meanwhile the band, produced this time by Joel Plaskett, continues to evolve, able to put just about anything into their roots melting pot. Opening cut White Line has some country touches and Mexican horns, while Remnants swings with some soul and 70's pop rock. Another Shade Of Blue and Through The Long Night have interesting, jazzy moments alongside more sharply focused sections, each time pushed back into control with a brief, gnarly guitar solo. You get the feeling the band can go anywhere it wants.

See where they go Thursday, Dec. 6, as the new E.P. gets an official Halifax launch show. They'll be at the Seahorse Tavern, with these four new cuts and material from their previous two albums.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: THE TESKEY BROTHERS - HALF MILE HARVEST

What the heck?!? The most exciting new soul release of the year comes from a group from ... Australia? Just who/what are these Teskey Brothers, who sound like they should come from Georgia, and record at Stax? Just a year ago they were an obscure group out of Melbourne who'd been playing tiny gigs for 10 years but hadn't even recorded or toured. Now they are stars at home, and getting a world-wide launch, on the strength of this debut.

You can safely say these guys like their retro sounds, it doesn't insult them. The band, two brothers named Josh and Sam Teskey, and two pals, want to make southern soul and authentic rhythm and blues music, and they found the more they played it old-school, the better audiences liked them. Josh handles lead vocals, and he's mastered that plaintive sound that puts so much emotion into '60's soul. Sam's the lead guitar player, and has more of an affinity for blues players, but it all fits together nicely. They do a wicked straight blues on Reason Why, which will help them build a broader fan base. The greatest strength though comes from the group's mid-tempo soul numbers, with those aching, Otis-styled vocals and two-man horn parts, just like Stax always did it.

For those missing Charles Bradley and Sharon Jones, soul lives on of course, but who would have predicted the next great ones might be Australian? Could be the Teskeys.

Monday, December 3, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: JAY AYMAR - YOUR PERFECT MATADOR

The veteran singer-songwriter adds some drama and some muscle to his latest. Desiring a fuller production, Aymar brought on the esteemed Michael Phillip Wojewoda, and the results are exciting. The songs, rich stories in themselves, are beefed up with mysterious guitars, deep drums, strings, and lots of cool vocals. Aymar even delivers some spoken-word parts to heighten the book-on-tape feel. Elsewhere, guest singers Chloe Charles, Alejandra Ribera and Shakura S'aida do what they do very well, standout vocal parts.

Even the acoustic tracks get a boost. The Greatest Story Never Told starts out with Aymar and guitar, always a good thing in itself, but takes off by the second verse. The one-man orchestra, string arranger Drew Jurecka, brings in the atmosphere, and Charles duets, adding a touch of sadness. Us Wild Dogs is another half-spoken number, with barest guitar, but now turned into a campfire Western, with warbled voices joining in. The darker duet with Ribera, Alive In The Shadows, starts like a Leonard Cohen song and builds to a huge climax, with the strings and singers raising in volume in a thrilling conclusion. Then out of nowhere comes a funky groove with a synth and distorted guitar called Always Had You, which might get Aymar kicked out of the folk collective.

I've always felt Aymar was a darn fine singer-songwriter who didn't need to change what he did. That's why this is such a surprise, and a delight. Hearing him stretch so successfully is a reminder that artists are always at their best when they challenge themselves and our expectations.

Saturday, December 1, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: MARK KNOPFLER - DOWN THE ROAD WHEREVER

Knopfler's managed to be about as low-key a superstar as possible, while still releasing new albums at steady rate. The big knock is that his post Dire Straits material is too laid-back, but the records are always rich and well-crafted. And the guy can tell a story; he always has fresh ideas and interesting tales, full of character studies. Then there's the always-fine guitar work.

This new one includes all those specialties, and a few new tricks.  Jammed at over 70 minutes (if you get the 16-track deluxe version), Knopfler sounds like he's having lots of fun moving back and forth between styles, plus has hit a very productive songwriting patch. There's the jazzy R'n'B of Rear View Mirror, an organ number that feels like Georgie Fame. Trapper Man is a catchy opener with lots of drums and a couple of his classic guitar solos. And Back On The Dance Floor is a standout, with an irresistible groove, telling the tale of getting the gang back together, but you're not sure if its a band or a bunch of bank robbers.

It all sounds great, has a good flow of uptempo cuts and his moody ballads, and has you glued to every word. These are among the best story-songs Knopfler has written, of small lives made glorious, reflective moments and universal truths, of people on the move. There's even a rare autobiographical number, looking back at the early days of Dire Straits, pre-fame. The album's up a notch on all counts, and it's one to play for Dire Straits fans to show them Knopfler's still got it going.