Monday, June 18, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: THE BARRA MACNEILS - ON THE BRIGHT SIDE

It's been a long time between albums for the MacNeil clan. The last was a Christmas album in 2013, and before that, not counting collaborative releases or live shows, it was All At Once in 2005 when the group last recorded a proper set of new stuff. Not that they haven't been busy of course; touring throughout Canada, the U.S. and Europe has seen them earn their nickname of Canada's music ambassadors, considered one of the top groups in the Celtic scene.  They must have been itching to do it; the new album has kicked off a string of live dates the last few months, partying it up in Toronto this week. Having caught one lately, I can report they're kicking up a storm.

What has always set the group apart has been the flexibility of the family, each member able to bring something different to the table. That means they can be as trad as can be for the purists, but can also throw in a couple of curve balls with some modern pop sounds. Here we get an instrumental jig to start things off, "Welcome To Boston," but by cut three, Living The Dream, it's a track with a funky beat, singing about modern conveniences and overspending, getting their house with "a satellite dish and a couple of cats." Of course it's delivered so fresh and fun, it fits in well with all the lively Celtic stuff. And by the next track, Ribhinn Donn, which Lucy sings entirely in Gaelic, a lovely number able to stir any heart. The men show off their vocal prowess too, on the a cappella The Underachiever, which sounds like some ancient sea shanty but features a modern lyric about the trials of someone who can't get ahead. Daisy could be a standout track on any singer-songwriter record, Lucy shining again, only the slightest trad touch coming from the driving bouzouki line. Clouds Under My Feet is even more surprising, with its Euro-beat and thick bass and drums, Lucy channeling her inner Annie Lennox. Pretty crafty, these MacNeils, yes they're Celtic, but they're Celtic-plus.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: THE LUCKY LOSERS - BLIND SPOT

Gritty and funky, The Lucky Losers come from the Bay Area of California, and are the duo of Cathy Lemons and Phil Berkowitz. Most of their songs are built around their strong vocals, either duet or solo, and a devotion to the '60's/'70's Stax/Volt/Hi Records sound. They do that exceptionally well, including a vein of the psychedelic blues that came along at that point, and lots of modern, electric grooves.

Backed by a team of West Coast all-star players, the duo leave lots of room for those musicians to shine as well, and the album features a ton of stand-out parts, including some blistering solos from guitarist Laura Chavez on Supernatural Blues and fun violin by Annie Staninec (Rod Stewart) on Make A Right Turn. Berkowitz provides a soulful harmonica thoughout as well, a necessary ingredient for the grit. Berkowitz and Lemons have a cool blend, with his smoother, higher range and her gutsy toughness, although she can get sweet too, providing the second part in Bulldogs & Angels. Most importantly though, it's all new material, the two each writing a wide selection of material, with lots of social comment, not just the boy-girl stories that duets albums often get stuck on. It may be based on a retro sound but it still feels fresh and forward-moving.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: EMMYLOU HARRIS - THE BALLAD OF SALLY ROSE (Expanded Edition)

Given Harris's iconic status, it's surprising to realize she had her share of flops too, and fell out of favour in the country world for a long stretch. Now she's Americana, the ultimate roots artist, but back in 1985 she was still considered a Nashville star. That is, until this concept album. She called it a country opera, and it marked her first release after her personal and professional split with producer Brian Ahern. Instead it was made with new partner Paul Kennerley, the songwriter who bequeathed her the hit Born To Run (not the Springsteen one). For the first time since her obscure 1969 folk debut, Harris would write all the songs, quite a departure for an artist who had made her name with striking cover versions, known as the singer's singer.

Harris had a story she wanted to get out, a personal one. Sally Rose was based on herself, and this was a re-imagination of her time with the legendary Gram Parsons. Harris had sung harmonies at his side for a year, and had made it her career goal to continue his music after he died. The story told of Sally Rose wasn't true-to-life, and a lot more than just the names were changed. It had been mythologized, but the point was clear, Sally loved The Singer, as Emmylou had loved Gram.

Country radio had loved Emmylou, but didn't for the singles from this album. They were perhaps a little too involved in the plot, not obvious and easy to digest, and even too smart. That translated into diminished album sales and a lack of tour buzz too. Wouldn't you know it, Harris had made the most substantial album of her career, and also just torpedoed it. She went back to covers soon after, and spent a decade bouncing around stylistically before teaming up with Daniel Lanois for Wrecking Ball, attracting a new audience that became known as Americana, and once again feeling confident in her writing skills.

What everybody realized now is that not only could she write, she was fantastic, and this album was a gem. The story of Sally Rose's climb to fame while The Singer declines is actually more like A Star Is Born rather than the Gram-Emmylou tale, but no matter, the individual songs are tight and the tale fun to follow: "You better move fast 'cause tickets are tight/if you wanna see Sally Rose pick it tonight."

This reissue comes with new liner notes explaining the story and what happened, including Harris's own: "The album was a bust in commercial terms." Now it comes with a second disc of the original acoustic demos of most of the album tracks, and in many cases I like that stripped-down takes just as much if not more. The hope from all involved is now it will find a larger audience, and her new roots fans would be wise to go back and discover it.

Friday, June 15, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: ERIC CLAPTON - LIFE IN 12 BARS (Blu-ray or DVD), LIFE IN 12 BARS (Soundtrack)

While you think you may know everything about Clapton, you'll still find lots to learn in this documentary, made with his blessing and participation, but not his interference. Director Lili Zanuck was given access to all the footage and photos he'd been storing up, and carte blanche for a story line. Clapton doesn't really have much to hide, as he told all, quite painfully, in his autobiography several years back, so the all the booze, drugs, infidelity, obsession and heartache was already on the table. What Zanuck was able to to do was invite more people to give their observations. They don't pull punches, especially exes. A real find was one of his oldest friends, an early bandmate from his first groups, The Roosters, one Ben Palmer, who stayed around as Cream's road manager, and then a friend. He's able to bring us lots of insight into what drove Clapton. Also Clapton's aunt, who witnessed some of the terrible hurt his mother caused in his life, was able to show how that trauma affected him through his adult life. In the end though, it's Clapton himself who has the best perspective, able to sift through all the lies and failings in his life, the wasted years as an addict and alcoholic, and his inability to form a genuine relationship, until conquering all those demons after the death of his son, Conor. The film really ends with the release of the cathartic Tears In Heaven, except for some well-earned accolades and his significant charity work, but that's okay, we get the point that he got his act together and the drama largely ended.

One thing the film fails to do is showcase just what an exceptional guitar player he is, focusing on the life story as it does. That's solved too, with the double-CD soundtrack. There are of course tons of Clapton collections available, from box sets to live-only compilations to blues-only to a dozen or more best-ofs, but this certainly is one of the better overviews. Playing through this mostly-familiar material, the inventiveness and sheer excellence hit home, especially going quickly from style to style, as he did in the late '60's. Going from the Bluesbreaker's All Your Love to Cream's crazy pop of I Feel Free to the power of Sunshine Of Your Love to his historic solo on The Beatles' While My Guitar Gently Weeps, the breadth of it all is spectacular. The film wisely used his guest playing on Aretha Franklin's Good To Me As I Am To You, two giants in their heyday.  There are a few cuts with that "previously unreleased" asterisk beside them, although nothing too important. There's a live version of Cream doing Spoonful, but at over 17 minutes, it feels like you had to be there to enjoy it. A song recorded for the aborted second Derek and the Dominos album, High, gets its first official release here, although it's been well-bootlegged over the years, and isn't much to write home about. Better is a live Little Wing from that same band, and the original, 6'50" version of I Shot The Sheriff is a nice extra treat. The other treat is that there's nothing after 1974 except Tears In Heaven, but that's just me being catty.

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: DANA SIPOS - TRICK OF THE LIGHT

Dana Sipos likes being outdoors, in the woods or biking and canoeing around, so it's fitting she's playing tonight (June 15) on Ministers Island in St. Andrews, N.B. It's an outdoor show at the amazing Bath House on the historic Van Horne property, only accessible during low tide. No doubt it will be a wonderful evening experience, starting at 7 p.m.

That's just the start of the East Coast tour though, as Sipos promotes her new Trick Of The Light album. Always keen on pushing the boundaries of folk, it's unclear where and when her songs are set, both musically and lyrically. Both Shenandoah and the Blue Ridge Mountains show up, but are they places or states of mind, those iconic folk spots? The language and references are equally blurry. The hurricanes approaching in Lily In The Window could be today's bad weather or last century's, as the singer thinks they are payback for wicked ways: "Too much moonshine, not enough God-fearing," she sings. But in another weather number, Windsong, drivers notice the glow of the nearby power plant. There's more great observation later in that song, as they drive by "under the watchful eyes of the bovine, chewing hard and staring us down."

The music is based around Sipos' haunting, 19th century voice, a tremendously evocative instrument in itself. She lingers over words, "walking in the rain" becoming a slow stroll over several notes. Producer Sandro Perri, equally adventurous, puts a combination of old instruments and new sounds around her, including violin, which matches her voice -- or vice-versa. Her own gentle picking is matched with piano or keyboards and light percussion, and the occasional eerie bits of electronics surprisingly make it feel more ancient that modern. To put a final ribbon on it, everyone's favourite eccentric, Mary Margaret O'Hara, joins to add vocal calisthenics on When The Body Breaks.

In addition to Ministers Island, Sipos plays Saturday, June 16 at the Arts and Culture Centre in Sussex, N.B., Monday June 18 in Antigonish, N.S. at the Townhouse Brewpub, plus a few house concerts in N.S. Then she's at the Full Circle Festival in Windsor, N.S. from June 22- 24, and the Oakdene Centre in Bear River, N.S. on Monday, June 25.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: THOMAS STAJCER - WILL I LEARN TO LOVE AGAIN?

Poor Thomas Stajcer. Joel Plaskett's had him locked up inside of the bunker that is his New Scotland Yard studio, where Stajcer's the in-house engineer. Wouldn't you know thought, that anyone with such good ears would be a musician as well. While he's been slaving away on Plaskett's various projects (and his own, he's also produced albums for others), he's not just been working on his studio tan. Stajcer's debut has arrived, and it's a full country opus. Looks like we got us another country outlaw here, with some rough-and-ready real stuff, like those Waylon and Willie hits of back in the day.

Stajcer's album is a song cycle about the Sad Cowboy, one with a broken heart, who's faced with the titular question. "Now there's a million pieces of me, is there someone out there who can make me complete?" he wonders, and there's no clear answer, only hope for the desperate. He takes us through all the stages of hurt, from anger to hope of reconciliation to despair, each one in a different shade of country. There are weepers and barroom ballads, twangy rockers and one old-fashioned shit-kicker, How Long Could I Wait?, which hints that our cowboy may be coming through all right in the end.

The album doesn't land until July 6, but now's the time to catch Stajcer, as it looks like he's taking a few weekends off from the studio for some live gigs. He's at the Union St. Cafe in Berwick, N.S. on Friday, June 15, then at The Well in Miramichi, N.B. on Saturday, June 16. On Thursday, June 21 he's at the Trailside Music Cafe in Mt. Stewart, P.E.I., then the next night at the Sportsman's in Charlottetown. June 26 sees him in Antigonish, N.S. at the Townhouse, July 5 is the Carleton in Halifax, and July 6 catch Stajcer at the Trellis Cafe in Hubbards, N.S.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: THE ENNIS SISTERS - KEEPING TIME

The unmistakable family harmonies will always be the highlight of the Ennis Sisters' albums, but this is one to watch for the songwriting especially. Maureen is the writer, and responsible for 10 of 11 cuts here, with a theme of time passing, and using it wisely. Much of that was inspired by the recent passing of their father to dementia, and is partially in honour of him, and partially about transitions we all go through.

Produced by NL countryman Alan Doyle (two co-writes as well), the album has all the trad music bells and whistles (quite literally) but feels far more contemporary thanks to the subject matter, Maureen's way with melodies, and the vocal arrangements, which show the group's pop sensibilities as well. While many of the songs are poignant, none are sad, but more reflective. Of particular grace is the title cut, written for Karen's wedding day, and her dance with her father, with lots of mentions of past waltzes and places and times shared. The album wraps up with the lone cover, the CSN hit Wasted On The Way, with a new arrangement for their voices rather than those other harmony guys. With its message about time wasted on the way, it wraps up the theme well.