Monday, September 27, 2021

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: CAROLINE MARIE BROOKS - EVERYTHING AT THE SAME TIME


"Look how beautiful it is outside but I'm stuck on the inside," is not just a pandemic reference. Like many of us, Caroline Marie Brooks found herself in deep reflection during the past year and a half of isolation. That line in "Birdsong" refers to being stuck emotionally, thoughts and feelings caging us up as much as Covid. Brooks, one of the three members of folk favourites Good Lovelies, found herself flowing with new material but nowhere to share it, kept off the road and away from her partners. The perfect time then, for a first solo album.

Moving from one-third responsibility to handling all the leads herself might have been daunting, but she makes it sound effortless. Brooks has a tremendously pleasing tone, gentle and soothing, easy-going, like a mandolin. It's perfect combined with stringed instruments, and co-producer Jim Bryson underscores her good and lovely vocals rather than overwhelming with anything near loud. Mostly its things like baritone and tenor guitars, a dobro and a tiple, a symphony of soft. There's even an instrumental, two guitars, just Brooks and her dad, called appropriately "Song For Fred."

She had no shortage of inspiration even under lockdown. It was time to take stock of a few memories, a few current realities, and to not forget singing and playing for the simple pleasure of it. Family and children feature prominently, Brooks smack in the middle of life, young people to care for, watch grow older, and parents and partners fitting in there too. It's past, present and future all there under one family, great memories, a few fears, some melancholy and lots of contemplation. But don't forget the joy. A poignant and pleasing last note is a surprising cover of an old Roger Miller song taken from the soundtrack to the '70's Disney movie Robin Hood, "Oo-De-Lally." On the surface you could let this album wash over you as a pleasing and uplifting set, but it doesn't take long for the lyrical weight to sink in.

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: ARKELLS - BLINK ONCE


Arkells walk a tricky tightrope. Somehow they manage to be dance-y and trance-y, but still come across as rock as well. They have lots of pop elements, big and bold and joyous tunes that lift you up, but also handle lots of heavy issues. In a blind taste-test, they'd probably score well with teens and hipsters and even some Dad Rock fans.

If that sounds accusatory, like the music was purposely a hybrid created by committee, it's not meant to be. It's more a wide-open attitude, ample influences and lots of creativity on tap in the production. The group has a lead singer in Max Kerman with lots of big rock ability, and being from Hamilton, they have history and pedigree and tons of heroes to emulate. 

Anyway, that's why they have had big success and manage to show up in pop, rock and alt-rock charts and playlists. The new album Blink Once, is more poppy and bright than ever, and ridiculously catchy. It's certainly not the group's blah-blah-stuck-inside-Covid album. It's more like a (slightly premature) celebratory get out and have fun collection. Or at least it sounds like that. "Swing Swing Swing" is about as punchy and bouncy as they've ever done, but, classic, it's sung by a dumped guy finally coming to grips with his situation. "Liberation" feels like people breaking free, hitting the road for excitement, but the back story is someone going through cancer and needing to celebrate rather than suffer. "Arm In Arm" is another one where grief is acknowledged but moving forward is the goal. 

Of course, you can ignore all the words and just pump your fist in the air. There are few albums that come close to being this energetic and upbeat. But there's lots to chew over as well.

Monday, September 20, 2021

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: CHARLIE A'COURT & WITCHITAW - WHEN COUNTRY GETS THE BLUES


Here's a project delayed for a year by Covid but no less potent, and ready to roll. A'Court is the fiery blues and soul guitar slinger originally from Truro, N.S., and Witchitaw is the outlaw country band from the nearby Annapolis Valley. They crossed paths enough at awards shows that Witchitaw singer Jason Spinney realized A'Court would sound great singing their style of country, and the band figured they wouldn't mind getting bluesy too. They approached A'Court with the plan, and he loved the idea too. 

The first gigs included a showcase at the annual, huge Cavendish Beach Music Festival in 2019, and was a hit with the crowd. They planned to tour the show last year, but then, you know, pandemic. So now they're ready to get going, and with a bonus. The Cavendish show was recorded, and is coming out in connection with the fall tour. The ten-track set gives a full picture of what the collaboration offers, with vocals shared by A'Court and the band, some originals, a couple of covers that fit the sound, and everything a bit bluesy, a bit country-rock.

It's an interesting mix. When A'Court isn't singing, he's playing some wicked lead guitar on the more countrified tracks. There's no hint of conflict between the two genres, A'Court happy to twang, and the Witchitaw troupe smooth in the groove. You can hear that best in the Creedence hit "Down On The Corner," when they hit the centre of that swamp classic. Meanwhile Witchaw makes sure there's a local flavour in there as well, with "East Coast Country Side Roads." 

Witchaw and A'Court are finally able to hit the road, with a series of Maritime dates. Catch them at: 

  1. Sept. 25 - Digby Pines Resort, Digby, N.S.
  2. Oct. 1 - Harbourfront Theatre, Summerside, P.E.I.
  3. Oct. 2 - Kings Playhouse, Georgetown, P.E.I.
  4. Oct. 8 - Marigold Theatre, Truro, N.S.
  5. Oct. 9 - Imperial Theatre, Saint John, N.B.
  6. Oct. 16 - Astor Theatre, Liverpool, N.S.
  7. Oct. 22 - The Union Street, Berwick, N.S.
  8. Oct. 23 - The Union Street, Berwick, N.S.

Saturday, September 18, 2021

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: ADRIAN SUTHERLAND - WHEN THE MAGIC HITS


From Attawapiskat on James Bay, this is roots-rocker Sutherland's first solo album after four with the band Midnight Shine. Smooth-voiced and sensitive, he's tapped into a prevailing mood that many will recognize and understand. Between Covid and all the strident voices of politics, the sad realities of colonial past, it's been a rough couple of years on everyone's psyche. Sutherland was left with one big question: Where's all the love?

The album, Sutherland says, is about all the personal thoughts he hasn't been able to put down in song before. Some are bigger and universal, like dealing with all the chaos out there right now, while others dig up some of his demons from the past. Mostly though, it's a call for us to help each other, walk with each other. Lord knows the guy would have lots to rail about, from his work with young people in the North, watching all the shortages that affect the communities so much, from clean water to mental health care. But instead he uses his voice and words to reach out and connect, by sharing his fears and feelings.

In "Scared," which is actually an upbeat tune with a fine groove, he lets us see inside with words straight from the heart: "I think of all the words that people say/Why we gotta hate so much today?/And it hurts me." The song "Walk With Me," written with Serena Ryder, is about Reconciliation, not why it's important but how to do it, letting ourselves see through other's eyes. 

The album features nine cuts that range from tender ballads with strings to atmospheric productions to poppy roots, all delivered with an emotional honesty. In addition to Ryder, other names present include co-writers Jay Semko from The Northern Pikes, Colin Cripps of Blue Rodeo and Chris Gormley of The Trews. Production is handled mostly by the always-remarkable Colin Linden, with Tim Vesely (Rheostatics) handling two cuts. It's the sound of a very good heart.

Sunday, September 12, 2021

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: THOMAS STAJCER - MIDWESTERN STATES


The in-house engineer at Joel Plaskett's New Scotland Yard studio in Dartmouth continues with his hardcore country alternate career, serving up real-deal honky tonk and badass lyrics. In his "Heading To The Bar To Do Bad Again," his protagonist has no illusions about his evening's fate: "I'm willing to make poor decisions/I'm fine with the consequences/I've got a thirst to quench." In "Who Will Listen To Country Music When Trucks Drive Themselves" he asks the question nobody's thought about yet, but the real story here is the scariness of technology vs. culture, and what should be left behind in the race for progress.

But Stajcer is not all booze and country philosophy, not by a long shot. The twang leads the way, but also conceals a deep literary bent, and a lot of the soul searching we go through trying to find the right path.. The title cut has him reading Hemingway, musing on the historic opening of the continent in the 19th century, and longing for a far-off love, a lot to pack into  three verses. That track is about as powerful Americana as I've heard, full of heartland soul and a melange of various roots music sounds. As for an overall style, Stajcer and Co. seem like eleven different bands over the eleven cuts, from fast and furious to heartache, Western swing to Spaghetti Western to Bluegrass to Appalachian folk. Smart, strong, catchy. 

Monday, September 6, 2021

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: SEAN MCCANN - SHANTYMAN


If you're still scratching your head over the whole sea shanty resurgence on TikTok a few months back, you're not alone. What started out as a joke meme created an honest-to-goodness resurgence, and a career boost for more than a few East Coast musicians. And half of Newfoundland went, 'See? We told ya so.'

It let Sean McCann return to his roots too. Not that the Great Big Sea founding member wasn't about to do that anyway at some point, but the timing was great. Using his Covid downtime, he hit the wayback machine to dig out some trad gems and rework them with new arrangements and instrumentation. Not that shanties don't already rock, but McCann (in his guise as The Shantyman) gives them a big boost of drums and bass, and sings them with great gusto. 

It's a delicate balance for sure, giving the songs a new coat of paint without making them too shiny. For that he assembled some equally-seasoned musicians from both the trad and rock worlds. East Coast string master J.P. Cormier is on board, as well as Hawksley Workman, Jeremy Fisher  and Ken Friesen. So a song like "Shantyman's Life" has a sweet whistle in the verses, but a scorching lead guitar answering back. Meanwhile, tales of brave cabin boys, parson's daughters, rebellious crews and hard and tragic lives spin by, "Go To Sea No More" the most ribald and memorable. That one'll shock the little TikTokkers.

Among all the old tales, McCann gives us one new one, his own song, "On The Water." In it, he makes the connection between the old ways and his current job: "I am just a lowly Shantyman, a servant to the song/I've sailed the wide-world over, on the water I belong." Turns out sea shanties are alive and well, and always have been, internet trends or not. McCann is selling the album on his website only, so no streaming for now, either as a digital collection, or a limited (1.000) edition signed CD. That port of call is seanmccannsings.com.

Tuesday, August 31, 2021

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: DAVID MYLES - THAT TALL DISTANCE


You've certainly never heard David Myles like this before. In fact, you won't hear him at all. Sing, that is. This all-instrumental jazzy album is a labour of love project that takes Myles all the way back to his high school band days, and his ongoing love and exploration of rich grooves, funk, rhythms, horns, world music and wherever his ears take him. 

Myles picks up the trumpet again, his early instrument, but that is just one element in this wide-ranging set. He combo'd up with a group of friends/players in various spots, and made the album remotely in Covid times. He'd start the tunes off with trumpet and guitar, and then send the cuts out as each musician filled in their parts, drums and bass. Then came the colour, solos and parts from lead guitar, pedal steel, trombone and keyboards. 

Although it's jazzy, to call it a jazz album is incorrect. It ranges far and wide. "Motion" has a country gospel sound, with pedal steel from Asa Brosius. "Hacksaw" has great soul parts, Leith Fleming-Smith's organ underpinned by melody lines from the tight horns. A rockin' guitar solo takes over, hands it back to the organ, and a left-field appearance by pedal steel at the end gives it a spacey ending. Opener "Bird Song" trips along on beats from Joshua Van Tassel, an atmospheric groove. It's certainly an ensemble album, the troupe taking Myles' melodic ideas to surprising and wonderful places. It's a perfect chill-out album, smooth but never too smooth, lots of excellent performances and even as an all-instrumental affair, far too catchy to slip into the background.