Sunday, June 24, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: STILL ON THE RUN - THE JEFF BECK STORY (Blu-ray)

"There's everybody else and then there's Jeff Beck." That's a pretty great statement, especially coming from a well-known guitar player, Joe Perry. "I don't even know what he's doing half the time." That's a pretty stunning statement, considering it's Eric Clapton talking. There's a whole lot of other stars ready to praise Beck through this documentary, from Jimmy Page to Rod Stewart to Dave Gilmour, but more importantly over the course of the film we are able to understand what sets him apart. That's a tough thing in music, showing what makes someone great and different, especially when we're up at that level of expertise. Clapton, Page, Gilmour, the late George Martin and various band mates from over the years, famous or not, point out the characteristics and inquisitive nature that makes him tick. Martin points out that more than anyone else, the guitar is Beck's voice, and that's the way to listen to him. Our eyes and ears do the rest.

Just as remarkable is the steadfast way he kept going for the music rather than the fame. Hearing his story from The Yardbirds til today, it's obvious he only ever made decisions based on integrity instead of money and applause. He quit The Yardbirds two dates into a North American package tour that had the band doing three songs on a bill with lightweight pop stars. He broke up the famed Jeff Beck Group (with Rod Stewart and Ron Wood) two weeks before Woodstock. He'd start new groups to learn and advance, and generally follow his muse. He sat out great stretches of the '80's and beyond, not for lack of offers but because he didn't feel he fit in the button-pushing technology of the day. The last decade, the guitar player who could join any band or have the most famous people back him, instead chooses to play with relative unknowns but excellent musicians he's met, often women who excel equally as their male peers.

He seems remarkably humble and even-keeled, although since he's not interested in show biz gossip and star worship, the documentary doesn't dwell on any of that. All we really learn about him personally is that he loves working on cars just as much as playing music. Fair enough, In biographies you generally, and rightly, look for important clues from an artist's personal life that have affected their art, but Beck does seem to be that singular person who is exactly as he seems. The big emotional highlight of the story is a memory of being taken to the Hollywood Bowl during The Yardbird's first American tour, and thinking what an honour it would be to play it, and then having that happen finally like, 45 years later, long after it was due, and still being so proud and awestruck over it. It's probably a really good thing that he's not over-the-top famous like those other stars singing his praises, because it's kept him refreshingly humble.

Bonus features: Not much, a five-song excerpt from a 2007 show in Montreux, but of course, he's awesome.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: SHANNON SHAW - SHANNON IN NASHVILLE

Richly produced at Dan Auerbach's Music City studio, with all his bells and tricks and thickness, Shaw has the big and interesting voice to pull off such lushness. She falls somewhere between early '60's girl group and James Bond theme-singer, natural, compelling but not a show-off or vocal gymnast. She knows how to put a lot of emotion and mystery into the tunes. Auerbach adds all the drama, digging into a ton of production tricks and little treats from his grab-bag of '60's strategies.

It's really a master class in sounds and layers, Auerbach able to take all the early '60's techniques and apply modern effects and depth in the multi-channel pallet. For instance, everything doesn't have to be drenched in the same echo, he can do that to individual parts, in various amounts. Cymbals can come to the front, backing vocalists can be more ethereal, strings can explode on entrance. Spector, Bacharach, Brian Wilson, they'd all nod with appreciation, if not a little jealousy about how their old tricks can get repurposed with such ease. Meanwhile Shaw's characters are in a constant state of upset, heartbroken, confused, rejected, alone, haunted. Leslie Gore would understand.This one's especially made for vinyl fans.

Friday, June 22, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: ALONE WITH CHRISSIE HYNDE (DVD)

A fascinating and very different documentary on Hynde, which instead of the usual talking heads and archival footage, has the camera following her around from city to city, doing what she does. A lot of it involves being alone, something she is not only used to, but has come to realize she prefers. It was also the name of her last album with The Pretenders, so it fits beautifully. Hynde of course has always been an interesting character, and she still is, maybe even more so, with age and wisdom.

Hynde shows us the upside of being solo personally, from being able to spend months on her new interest, painting, to all the quiet time she finds to stroll gardens in London or stores in Paris, shopping for clothes. She goes back to her hometown, Akron, and talks about the her childhood, and the loneliness of middle America. There are laugh moments too, clowning around with her pal Sandra Bernhard on her radio show, and joking with the documentary crew, pretty much a running conversation through the whole 90 minutes. There were probably dozens of hours of footage that got edited, and I have the feeling it was all interesting. I don't think she can have a dull conversation. In the end, you're left with a much better understanding of her, definitely more normal than your usual celebrity. She's very down to earth, and pretty much likes what she likes, and does what she does, and would rather be left alone. Sounds pretty normal.

What about the music then? There are a few songs spread throughout from recent shows, but it doesn't give you the full experience. So wisely this DVD includes a real treat, a full show from the original Pretenders lineup, on the famous German TV show Rockpalast, from 1981. That's just after the release of Pretenders II, with the band at their peak, before the OD deaths of original guitar and bass players James Honeyman Scott and Pete Farndon. I wouldn't call that a bonus, I'd call it a double-feature.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: PAT LEPOIDEVIN - CAPTAIN MYLES & THE SPR

Fun! Pat LePoidevin's new one is a concept sci-fi trip to outer space and the future, as seen through the eyes of two explorer kids. Captain Myles and Lucy are two members of the Society of Planet Research (SPR), a group of future kids who build a space ship out of discarded parts from junkyards, and go on an adventure. It's a deceptive little adventure that seems childlike on the surface but is all about relationships, both childhood and adult, responsibility (adults kind of fail at that one), where we're headed down the road, and all this crazy technology we're getting so used to and dependent on.

That's just my reading of it, LePoidevin probably has a few other tricks up his sleeve embedded in the story and the game. That's right, the game, because there's a video game too, over at www.patlepoidevin.com. I'm no gamer, so I'll stick with the tunes, which are pretty easy-going and easy to follow, which is preferable in a concept album. It's good to have a story that's understandable. Musically, it's your basic indie with a twangy guitar doing much of the talking, along with LePoidevin's plaintive telling of the tale.

It's a tour too, as LePoidevin's taking the rocket ship on the road. He's waltzing through the Maritimes to start, with shows in the following:

Friday, June 22 - Governors' Pub, Sydney, N.S.
Sun., June 24 - Buddha Bear Cafe/Holy Whale Brewery, Alma N.B, 3 PM
Sun., June 24 - Baba's Lounge, Charlottetown, 8 PM
Friday, June 29 - Broad Cove Hall, South Shore, N.S.
Sat., June 30 - The Seahorse, Halifax
Thurs, July 5 - The Commune New Glasgow, N.S.
Friday, July 6 - The Capitol, Fredericton
Sat., July 7 - Red Herring, St. Andrews, N.B.

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.