Sunday, December 27, 2020

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: PRINCE - SIGN 'O' THE TIMES Super Deluxe Edition


This has been a banner year for boxed sets and super deluxe reissues. For so-called heritage artists, even the biggest names, it's become one of the only sure-fire ways to sell physical products. For record labels, the deluxe packaging means bigger price tags. And they sell themselves, based on long-standing artist support among fans and collectors. Artists such as  The Rolling Stones and Paul McCartney now sell super deluxe versions of middling catalogue albums like Goats Head Soup and Flaming Pie for $150 - $250, a far cry from the $3.99 or so consumers first shelled out for them.

If you're paying out that kind of money, you want value and volume. Vinyl is nice, so are great big books and informative notes. I'm not a fan of photos and trinkets, and I could care less about posters and postcards. Give me extra cuts, out-takes, unreleased live shows, the more the merrier. Dig deep in the vaults, remaster, remix, and keep 'em coming.

Under that set of criteria, the box set reissue of the year award has to go to Sign 'O' The Times. The Prince estate obviously gets it. After an excellent job on the 1999 album, they have truly outdone themselves on this set. The super deluxe version features a whopping eight CD's, plus another two-hour DVD of a live concert. It's pretty much exhaustive. We get the original double LP, a CD full of 12-inch mixes, b-sides, extended cuts and edits, and then the real glory, a full three CD's of completely unreleased out-takes and alternates, almost four hours of unheard Prince music. Then there's a full two-hour concert from June of that year, in Utrecht. Other boxed sets might include a DVD of the same show, but instead the DVD here is another complete concert, a famous New Years Eve gig at Paisley Park, which included a cameo by Miles Davis.

Sign 'O' The Times may not be the very best Prince album, but it is the most varied, and it is still very good. The hits were the title cut, a dark tale that recalls Marvin Gaye protest and Curtis Mayfield movie edge, the Sheena Easton-vehicle "U Got The Look," and the joyous "I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man." They don't sound much alike, because they came from a very big pot of different projects and shifting styles. Prince worked on at least three different albums at this point. There was Dream Factory, which was to feature Wendy and Lisa, but that project collapsed and the duo bolted. Then there was Camille, which was to feature funky cuts and Prince's phase-shifted vocals. Then came Crystal Ball which was originally meant to be a triple album, but Warner made/convinced Prince to scale it back to two LP's, at which point it gained its final title. Fans will know that a Crystal Ball album did come out in the '90's, made of a few of the tracks from these sessions, but that's not what we get here. 

There are highlights galore. The original version of "I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man" dates back to 1979, and while it's rougher and less sophisticated, it plain rocks, and how he held it back from any of his albums for the next eight years tells you a lot about his productivity. There are studio jams which take off in special moments, "Power Fantastic" still including Prince walking the band through the changes, telling them "bridge" and "chorus". There are three versions of the song "A Place In Heaven," including the original with a Lisa Coleman vocal, which got dumped after The Revolution disbanded. 

Putting together a new group made Sign 'O' The Times come alive, and Prince was justifiably proud of this unnamed ensemble. Only Dr. Fink on keyboards remained from the original Revolution, although some of the extra players (horns, dancers, etc.) were upgraded to full membership, and opening act/protege Sheila E. became a central member. The DVD is particularly revealing, as Prince spends lots of time dancing in well-choreographed segments with all the singers.  But it was much more than a stage show, as the band takes off in great jams, including a massive, half-hour final encore where Prince boldly and proudly claims it's the funkiest band in the world, and who could argue. He had become James Brown, Hendrix and Smokey Robinson all rolled into one, the best band leader, musician and songwriter on the planet. 

You can easily go down the Prince rabbit hole with this collection, going back and forth in archive websites, piecing together all the various track versions, songs that would later show up on Lovesexy, The Black Album and the '90's Crystal Ball. That's a ton of fun, something else I truly appreciate with a great boxed set release. You can spend hours learning more about the artist, and that's when these mega-boxes truly deserve the big price tags.

Friday, December 18, 2020

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: JACK DE KEYZER - TRIBUTE


Not actually a tribute to de Keyzer, but that would certainly be valid. Nor is it his tribute to one artist. Instead it's a homage to various styles of blues and soul, all of which the veteran Toronto axeman attacks with expertise. He stays in his comfort zone, more modern and electric stuff, no acoustic or country blues for instance, but that leaves lots to tackle. Oh, and these aren't covers, de Keyzer wrote every track here, in the spirit of the classics.


Whether it's the smooth groove of "Just For The Funk," or the raw Chicago of "If My Baby Left Me," de Keyzer sounds like 12 different guitar players on this set, each one a master. Some are more obvious tributes than others. "Supernatural" is pure Santana, although he manages to reference two eras in the one track. It has a bit of the "Smooth" sound in the verses, while the guitar solos go back to late '60's Latin jams of the early Santana band. Throw in Stax ("On The Money"), Yardbirds/Mayall British ("Let's Do It") and even some reggae-fied blues on "Keep The Fire Burning," and this disc keeps shifting and surprising. Another smokin' effort from the wily Canadian blues star.

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: PoLe- CHESTNUTS ROASTING ON A DUMPSTER FIRE


Well that sucked. Yeah, 2020, I'm looking at you. All that's left to salvage from this year is Christmas, and let's hope it's a good one, to quote Lennon. 

PoLe, a new project made up of Hamilton artist NLX and producer Rick Coluccio, took refuge from this dumpster fire of a year by getting into a Christmas vibe. The duo took some old favourites and reimagined them, the results being this five-song alternative Christmas E.P. You'll know the titles, but not like this. It's chill-out, wintery music, soothing but delightfully fractured. 

Auld Lang Syne, Jingle Bells, 12 Days Of Christmas, and the like all start with NLX at her piano, but instead of the usual holly-jolly versions, we get moody takes, slowed down and soft. Then the trickery comes in, beats added, synths burbling, some FX to go with your NLX. But throughout, her calm and caring vocals make this a balm for our world-weariness. Take a deep breath, relax, put on repeat, and kiss 2020 goodbye.

Friday, December 11, 2020

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: NEIL YOUNG - AFTER THE GOLD RUSH 50th ANNIVERSARY


So Young's long-delayed second volume of his archives series has finally arrived, albeit only for super deluxe, website orders right now. The retail edition comes in the spring, in a cheaper, less deluxe box. That should be enough, 10 cd's of classic and unreleased material, from 1972 - 1976, right? Right? 

Of course not. There are anniversaries to honour as well. This is the 50th birthday for the classic After The Gold Rush, one of the very best sets in his career. It featured a hybrid group of Crazy Horse players (Danny Whitten, Ralph Molina), CSNY types (Stills, bassist Greg Reeves) and wild cards (Jack Nitzsche, Nils Lofgren). It was a purple patch for great songwriting from Young, coming off the huge success of CSNY's Deja Vu, and about to blow the roof off with his Harvest album. This album had a grand mix of folkie acoustic ("Tell Me Why," "Birds") and sizzling electric ("Southern Man," "When You Dance I Can Really Love") plus of course, the immortal title cut, a sci-fi anthem. 

The carrot for buying this version of the album is the addition of two cuts. They are both of the same song, very different versions of the delightful trifle "Wonderin'." That was a song Young cut several times, trying to find a home and arrangement for it, and was an acoustic concert favourite. It finally did get put out on the rockabilly-styled Everybody's Rockin' in 1983, but like the rest of the album, it was done as a cheesy throwaway. Here we get the original folkie-styled version with Crazy Horse that could have fit on After The Gold Rush, which first appeared on his first Archives box, and an out-take that makes it more country, with Lofgren on the session. This newly-found second version has never been released, so it's a bonus for collectors and fans. 

Speaking of Young's archives, the real goldmine can be found on his website, www.NeilYoungArchives.com, which is a fan site you have to subscribe to, 20 bucks a year. Young has now made it completely free for the rest of December, so you can stream all his music in Hi-Res, including the new Archives box, and also get exclusive concert films, videos, and all sorts of info and mayhem. It's truly worth it just for the reading and instant access to the tons and tons of material you won't get on Spotify.

Thursday, December 10, 2020

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: THE WHO - WHO

Last year's new Who album, simply called Who, was greeted with a very large yawn by the public, no surprise for heritage bands in the streaming era. And it's been a very long time (decades) since there's been a good Who album, so that didn't help. 
 
Well, it was actually pretty darn good. It features some of Pete Townshend's best songwriting in ages, and passionate, later-life vocals from the still-inspired Roger Daltry. It's a shame it stalled then, but now it's been reissued with a bonus live disc to try to drum up some new interest. 

There are several songs that touch on The Who's legacy, Townshend writing directly about the band's earlier days and what it all means now. Some of that is navel-gazing, but it also speaks to the artist's dilemma, to keep creating or to relive past glories and hits. Also, the group has always been wise to the fact they speak for their audience, from the Mods when they started to the boomers who embraced them through adulthood. Pete's still trying to keep connected, and it's a more successful effort here. That's not to say it's full of top-level Who. A song about the Guantanamo Bay U.S. prison, "Ball And Chain," falls flat, a rare topical song in Townshend's catalog and basically preachy. Sometimes it sounds like Pete did a little bit too much production at home before overdubbing Roger and the guest players, and I'd rather they had crafted this with a band in the studio, but that's only occasionally. All-in-all, in my ranking of Who albums, I'd put this ahead of even some original group albums, certainly it's better than The Who By Numbers. 

The bonus disc is a good listen too. Yes, there have been tons of live Who discs, seemingly every time they go on a Tommy or Quadrophenia or Anniversary tour. This one is a bit different, a stripped-down acoustic show for charity. It's a half-hour, seven-song outing, with a couple of the news ones and some of the usual classics: "Substitute," "Squeeze Box," and "Won't Get Fooled Again" among them. Best of all is a rare outing for "Tattoo," and the light-hearted stage banter between Daltry and Townshend. They both seem at peace with the role their band plays these days.

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: GOOD LOVELIES - CHRISTMAS TIME'S A COMIN' & VIRTUAL TOUR DATES


If you're missing the usual holiday concerts and feel like it's the year of No Christmas, take heart. The Good Lovelies have you covered. Since you can't go see them this year, they're coming to see you, with their Virtual Christmas Tour. For 15 years the Lovelies have been getting festive this time of year, and they were determined to not let the tradition fail. The group has teamed up with venues and charities across the country and internationally to present 10 virtual shows. The whole thing starts Thursday, focusing on different areas each night. London, Ontario gets the honour of the first night, Friday sees a show for Atlantic Canada, and so on.

Each show features a special, secret guest, announced just a couple of days before the event. So far, we know that Jenn Grant & Family will be hooked up for the London concert, and now word is out that the Atlantic show will feature local favourite Ria Mae. For that Atlantic Canadian show, my particular area, the show is being presented by the venerable Indian River Festival in P.E.I., and part of the proceeds will go to the Chief May Bernard Women's Memorial Shelter on the Island.

If you want to invite the group into your home for one of these shows, you can find all the details here:  https://goodlovelies.com/frequently-asked-questions-virtual-christmas-tour-2020/  . Also, check out the group's brand-new holiday song, the old country classic "Christmas Time's A-Comin'." The trio charm it up with their usual high and sweet harmonies, old-time feel and bluegrass liveliness. If the concert is this much fun, Christmas is saved!

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: TOM PETTY - WILDFLOWERS & ALL THE REST (Deluxe)


Wildflowers is an album that has continually increased in stature since its release in 1994. Technically it was Petty's second solo album, after 1989's smash Full Moon Fever, but most of the Heartbreakers showed up, all over the tracks, especially co-producer Mike Campbell. What distinguished it as a solo project was the type of songs Petty wrote, all for him rather than with an ear to the band's style. And what really set it apart were the emotionally-charged lyrics, Petty looking inside, trying to figure it all out. It's the bare heart of an adult, who still identifies with that kid he was, and all the other kids out there, older and younger. "I'll be the boy in the corduroy pants/you be the girl at the high school dance."

Shortly after Wildflowers came out, word spread about the original plans for the album. Producer Rick Rubin and Petty had made enough tracks for a double album, but that was whittled down to a single in the end. So there were a bunch of tracks complete and left over, Most of them stayed that way. "Leave Virginia Alone" was given to Rod Stewart, several others were re-done for the She's The One movie soundtrack, and another popped up in a film in 2015, but fans have long clamoured for the full sessions. They get that and more here. Over four CD's, there's the original album, the completed tracks that weren't released (called All The Rest here), a disc of home recordings that feature even more songs that didn't get recorded, and then a full live CD of Wildflowers tracks live. 

I'm a pretty big fan of demos, alternate takes, out-takes and the like, but this is above and beyond that. As Benmont Tench shares in the notes, songs were pouring out of Petty at the time, and there's little to nothing to distinguish between the original album and all the others presented here. And as Mike Campbell also tells us, the songs seemed about other people, but they were all about Petty. Newly divorced and at a mid-life crossroads, Petty was trying to figure out love, life, himself. These questions came out in relatively simple vignettes, but ones that packed a great emotional punch. He offers each of his humble characters great empathy, of course being kind to himself in the process. They are confused, restless souls, so keen on getting it right, but so often the cause of their own failures.

Working with Rubin, and without the restrictions of the Heartbreakers name, Petty made the studio a playground. Nothing was out of bounds, from his beloved '60's garage sounds to his early Heartbreakers folk rock, to lush string accompaniment to nasty blues. Tench got to try out a bunch of different keyboards and synths, even a Mellotron. There's no one description, although many of the moody songs feature acoustic guitar cores. Yet "You Wreck Me" is one of the biggest rockers in his catalog. Several of the cuts became concert favourites right up until his last tour: "You Don't Know How It Feels," "It's Good To Be King," "Crawling Back To You," there's not a song to be dismissed over the 15 tracks on the original.

Now there's another 10 songs to add to that from the All The Rest disc, including the Byrds-like "Confusion Wheel," the original "Leave Virginia Alone," and "Harry Green," another of Petty's remarkable character studies about a troubled soul/hero. These ten tracks were actually chosen and planned as an album before he died, so we are definitely getting a definitive version, rather than some trolling through the vaults. Also, don't be fooled by the  title of Home Recordings for the third disc. Petty was perfectly capable of making an album by himself at home if he wanted, The intimacy of these recordings, matched by the open-hearted warmth makes this another rewarding listen. 

Then there's the live set, which as any fan knows, is gonna be great no matter what. What's so impressive is how well these tracks fit into the Heartbreakers' world, and how well they went over with fans. By the 2000's, much of his audience was there to hear the old hits, the sad but true world of the classic rock band. But these songs earned their way, and won over crowds every night. They own important spots in his hits collections and live albums now. There's a couple of rare gems added from Wallflowers era, including the humorous "Girl On LSD," but really, I can listen to any Petty live album any time, and this is as good as any of them. 

Wildflowers affects me like no other Petty album. Most of them excite me, and his music never fails to have me singing along, it's perhaps my very favourite car-driving music. This one though makes me think and feel, turn introspective and even melancholy. But it also tells me I'm not alone, and lets me know that Petty cared about every last person who listened to the records he made. What a legacy.