Monday, November 30, 2020

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: ALAN DOYLE/THE ONCE/THE ENNIS SISTERS/FORTUNATE ONES/RACHEL COUSINS - SONGS FROM HOME


Nobody that I know has a stronger sense of community than people from Newfoundland. Maybe it's that Island thing, because I certainly feel it in P.E.I. and Cape Breton as well. But Newfoundlanders in particular never lose that visceral need to feel connected to their home. 

Maybe that's why Alan Doyle and company felt compelled to take strength from their friends and fellow musicians from Newfoundland in this new six track E.P. A road warrior by any definition of the term, Doyle has spent the best part of the past quarter century either on tour or getting ready for the next one, so Covid put him off-kilter. He couldn't even hang with his musical friends at home thanks to the virus. He needed to rekindle that sense of community, to strengthen the bonds rather than let them slip away.

The result is this all-star set, featuring a track each from all five: Doyle, Fortunate Ones, The Ennis Sisters, Rachel Cousins and The Once. Plus, there's a final tune that features all of them, "It's OK," a reworking Doyle song from his last release, Rough Side Out. That was the only time the artists saw each during the process, working in a socially-distant recording session. Instead they formed a community around the common goal of this release, proving that there's always a way to connect.

These are some of the best singers from NL, whether it's solo, duo or trio, and all of the songs here reflect that, rich ballads with emotional vocals shining through each cut. Home comes into play often, mostly through missing it, or the spirit of it. It seems these travelling musicians all share that, whether it's the dreamy folk of The Once on "Lost Are Found," or Doyle's lonely hotel number from Nashvillle, "A Tennessee Whisky and a Newfoundland Song," which evokes Ron Hynes and "Sonny's Dream." It's going to be a long winter, and if any record can help you get through it, it's this one.


Thursday, November 26, 2020

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: MELANIE PETERSON - WE GOT THIS

 


The Toronto singer-songwriter adds some new dimensions to her sound, as her acoustic music gives way to more and more pop production and adornments. There are lots of strings and bigger arrangements, and a more upbeat feel to several cuts on her latest, six-song EP. As usual, she explores themes of love and relationships, with as many questions as answers, but stays positive throughout.

That topic, and the new layers of production are best heard on the recent single "Tightrope," where she's walking the thin line between fun for now and the real deal. Meanwhile, clipped percussion and rich strings move the tune to dizzying effect. A chill but sweet synth line leads toward the big question, "Are we falling in love, do you want to be loved?" She continues to seek hard truths in the most gentle song here, the title cut, where she asks "If you don't care, why are you still here? If I'm not the one for you, why hold me like you do?" These examinations make the songs a lot more powerful than your basic lovey-dovey tales.

Catch Melanie Peterson's album launch, a Facebook Live Event, on Monday, Nov. 30 at 8 PM ET.

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: THE STYLE COUNCIL - LONG HOT SUMMERS/THE STORY OF THE STYLE COUNCIL

 


One of the most interesting '80's bands made barely a ripple in North America, while plenty of its British contemporaries ruled the airwaves. Maybe Paul Weller's post-Jam band was too smart for its own good. While the colourful likes of Culture Club and Bananarama had no trouble crossing oceans, The Style Council was about style and content, with much more substance than most of those other post-punk groups.

Weller was only 24 when he killed the golden goose that was The Jam, but he was already sick of that pub-punk sound and its trio limits. He envisioned a new way to mix his pop and politics, and instead of being young and snotty, the new band was cool and clever, shot through with left wing thinking. Youth culture was taking on Thatcherism in England, and Weller was going to make it hip and fun. In the best British tradition, clothes would be important, the same as they were for punk and mods before them. Rather than haranguing the audience with musical lectures, the band always looked like they were enjoying life, the way it should be. While it was a pop sound in the end, the records went from '50's and '60's cool jazz to northern soul to rap with ease, stretching into deep grooves and the burgeoning house music scene. Horns would be featured, then strings, some wistful, bucolic ballads and Cafe Society chill all on one album.

So yeah, there was a lot going on, certainly more than your usual synth-and-haircut MTV hit. Plus, it was hard to market the band in North America, since most of the hit singles weren't released on the albums, in that old British style. Not that Weller gave a toss, of course. He let the band run its course, before returning as the Godfather of Britpop, a mantle he still wears for better or for worse, a most English pop star.

Our loss, when reexamining the band on this crammed, two-disc set. The singles blast out with hooks and rich sounds: "Long Hot Summer," "My Ever Changing Moods," "Wall Come Tumbling Down!" and "Shout To The Top!" were the ones that made some impact on my '80's ears, but there are plenty of others that make the set go from peak to peak. The albums were equally well-crafted affairs, making this compilation a rich listen and great discovery for all of us who passed them by back in the day.

Monday, November 23, 2020

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: MAXIM & GERVAIS CORMIER - LIVE AT THE FORTRESS OF LOUISBOURG


 
Is a fiddle tune still a fiddle tune if it's played on guitar? That's just the latest intriguing musical question and adventure from Maxim Cormier, Cape Breton's genre-defying guitar virtuoso. In the past he's rewritten the rules on how to play classical guitar, flat-picking his way through Bach, and made his own melting pot, mixing Acadian, Celtic, classical, jazz, bluegrass and whatever else tickled his fancy. This time, playing live during the Celtic Colours International Festival, with his father on second guitar, he makes all the fiddlers stand back while he takes the lead.

The six song E.P. features four different sets of Cape Breton fiddle favourites, flawless transpositions of the tunes from four strings to six. For much of it Cormier keeps up a relentless pace; you know how fast those Celtic fiddlers fly, and it may sound even more impressive on guitar. On the other two selections, Cormier reaches into his bag of tricks for a bell-like bluegrass set, "Blackberry Blossom/Big Mon," and the atmospheric Parisienne gypsy jazz of "Nuages." It may not be the music the French soldiers heard in Fortress Louisbourg in the 18th century, but there sure is a lot of history and culture packed into this charming concert disc.

 

Friday, November 20, 2020

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: THE REPLACEMENTS - PLEASED TO MEET ME DELUXE EDITION

 


"One foot in the door, the other foot in the gutter," sang Paul Westerberg on "I Don't Know," fully aware of his situation. In 1987, his band teetered on the edge. One little push and The Replacements might implode, as Westerberg had assumed they would in the lead-up to recording their fifth album. Or they just might score a big hit, given the interest their label Sire was showing in them, even throwing decent money at them. That lyric also spoke to the group's image, a bunch of screw-up indie punks now ensconced on a major label, taking the cash but hoping not to sell out. And as always, Westerberg and his mates were personally teetering, all booze and neuroses.

The major dilemma was the firing of lead guitar player Bob Stinson, who was acting out more than the rest of them, uninterested in growing past punk as Westerberg's writing matured. But instead of ripping them apart, the rest grew tighter, drummer Chris Mars and Stinson's brother Tommy more determined to continue. Management and Sire decided to up the ante and find a name producer, plus get them out of Minnesota They settled on Jim Dickinson who worked out of the famed Ardent Studios in Memphis, one-time cohort of The Rolling Stones, producer of Big Star, and a noted character himself.

Surprisingly, it all came together, with only some minor hiccups along the way. Without Bob Stinson in the camp, the 'Mats allowed Dickinson to add some big league tricks to their sound, with some Memphis horns and even strings getting added. While there were moments of mayhem, including "I.O.U." and "Red Red Wine," Westerberg was writing even better pop songs with great melodies, "Can't Hardly Wait" and the grand "Alex Chilton" among his very best. He even tried lounge jazz on "Nightclub Jitters" and gentle balladeering with "Skyway."

This deluxe box features three CD's, one LP and a coverful, full telling of the whole story in a lengthy booklet. Disc one features a new remaster of the album, plus the associated b-sides, most of them quite hard to find. Disc two has the original demo sessions for the album, which saw Bob Stinson show up for the first day but not for the rest, which led to his ouster. Disc three includes very different rough mixes of the sessions, before Dickinson did more cleaning and tidying, plus a bunch of outtakes, some for fun, others serious tryouts. Most of discs two and three feature never-before released stuff, great finds for fans. And in a very smart move, the album included isn't the original vinyl release, which you can get elsewhere, but rather the rough mix versions, so fans won't have vinyl duplication.

In the end, neither of the dramatic results happened. The band stayed afloat, but there was no major breakthrough either. The album did okay, wowing critics and the cult, but found few new fans. The hoped-for buzz stalled when the single "The Ledge" got rejected by MTV due to its subject, suicide. Instead, The Replacements did what they always did, and teetered forward, at least for another year. Pleased To Meet Me remains one of their best, given a thorough and loving repackaging here.

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: TERRA SPENCER - CHASING RABBITS

 


Everything comes together beautifully on Spencer's new album: words, melodies, sounds, arrangements, instruments, it just keeps going from one shining moment to the next, and usually two or three together. Gleaned from winter writing sessions over the past three years, the songs have that reflective quality we all know from the shorter days and deeper moods. Winter and nature shows up often, and they almost all offer observed stories, personal and those of friends, that touch our own deepest feelings.

Spencer's own production, captured by engineer Lil Thomas (Mike Hastings on "In The City"), is warm and cozy, usually centered around her vocals, piano and light drums and brushes from Jordi Comstock. It's uncluttered and clear, allowing each sound to stand out. Wonderful choices were made for the solo instruments, such as Luke Fraser's mandolin in "Lunenburg Moon," the heart-touching French horn from Sarah Kasprzak, and David Campbell's pedal steel on Coyote. When background and harmony vocals are used, they lift the songs to new heights.

The emotional heart of the album can be found in cuts four and five, "In The City" and "Training To Fly." Spencer's descriptions in the former recall the vivid writing of Rufus Wainwright in his songs such as "Art Teacher," as she tells about moving from home to the city (in this case, Halifax), going from warm memories to sad events, highlights to youthful mistakes: "My mom cried, and Lady Di died the day I left for college/Where I stayed up too late writing papers and faking my knowledge." "Training To Fly" makes the easy and welcome comparison of young Canada Geese learning their flight to mothers seeing their children leave the nest: "Sometimes I can't tell if I'm still in my shell/or I've started stretching my wings.

She's not all bunnies and hearts and flowers either; "Coyote" falls in the 'nature can be cruel' category, as a cross-country skier meets a grisly fate in the woods. But even that is an affirmation of nature's way, how we fit in and how it rules our hearts.

Sunday, November 15, 2020

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: DIRE STRAITS - THE STUDIO ALBUMS 1978-1991

 


Let's go back to that crucial year in Dire Straits' career, 1985. The band's new album, Brothers In Arms, was coming out, and dates were announced for a North American tour. To give you an idea of their popularity outside of the U.K., the tour featured a string of Canadian dates, where the group was much bigger than the U.S. That included my once and future hometown of Fredericton, where they were booked to play the 3,500-seat hockey rink.

Well, that all changed with a little guest vocal by Sting, singing "I want my MTV," and the huge success of the album, the band's fifth studio set. Dire Straits finally broke through world-wide, Brothers In Arms became the first huge hit of the CD era, for a time the biggest-selling album in U.K. history, and all of a sudden that date in Fredericton was unceremoniously cancelled due to scheduling difficulties. In other words, they booked some much bigger and better dates in the States.

So what happened? Basically, leader Mark Knopfler went back to tighter, singable numbers. After filling up album sides with lengthy, moody pieces, including the epic "Telegraph Road," 14 minutes worth of 1982's Love Over Gold,  Knopfler offered up actual hit-length favorites, including "So Far Away" and "Walk Of Life." But Knopfler proved a reluctant rock star, and allowed only one further studio set, 1991's On Every Street. Since then, it's been a low-key career of roots and country-styled solo albums by Knopfler, steering far away from hooks and hits.

So that leaves us a legacy of just six studio albums, all packaged in this convenient box, CD or LP. 1980's Making Movies has long been my favourite. While there were some lengthier numbers, they weren't stretched out, slow-boiling numbers. Instead they featured intriguing stories and a true cinematic feel. Knopfler had a unique lyric style, letting us watch characters such as the Roller Girl in "Skateaway," living inside her headphones as she speeds through the city.

Brothers In Arms is so familiar, it's almost difficult to listen to these days, kind of like Paul Simon's Graceland. Maybe it's because we only had a few CD's early on, and they got played to death, but it feels like there's nothing left to learn from Brothers. The album I loved reliving was the debut, Dire Straits, from 1978. Sure, "Sultans" was the anchor, but there's not a bum track on it, and it's perhaps the most varied of their records. You have the chicken-pickin' country of  "Setting Me Up," the moody voyeurism of "Wild West End," and plenty of Dylan influences throughout. And very few players have ever introduced their own guitar sound so thoroughly. It's still a marvellous thing.

The rest? Communique was that classic difficult second album, underwhelming compared to what preceded it and what would come next. Love Over Gold remains a snore, even with the witty "Industrial Disease" kicking off side two. On Every Street has some fun, including "Calling Elvis," "Heavy Fuel" and "The Bug," but it suffered from the early CD mistake of including too many songs, about 15 minutes worth. There's some tremendous music across these six albums, but you're also left wondering if Knopfler was holding back. Oh, and that bloody '80's drum sound, I'd love somebody to remix that some day.