Friday, October 19, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: T. BUCKLEY - MILES WE PUT BEHIND

Easy-going. That's the feel of Alberta singer-songwriter T. Buckley's fourth album. Not easy listening, no, not that derogatory term for old-style popular crooners. Easy-going, as in friendly, pleasant, easy to enjoy, good-natured and natural. Buckley straddles all the roots genres, a little bit country, a little bit rock 'n' roll, the songs coming at you with toe-tapping tempos and singalong melodies, making you relax and feel just fine.

There's nothing light about what he's doing though. Songs this easy to understand and enjoy are crafted and polished, every thought precise and each line a little gem. Take this scene at the local hangout, from Twilight Diner: "Shining up the counter, the coffee starts to flow, a nightly congregation gathers in the glow." Already you can picture the characters and setting. You don't know what's coming, but you're ready to hang on every word. Or how about this admission, from rural life: "I'm just a rock stuck in the country, trying to be a rolling stone."

Buckley has the catchy melodies of the '70's era singer-songwriters, when writers like James Taylor and Cat Stevens ruled, and the succinct writing of the later Texas school, Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt. But the one he really reminds me of on this record is Jesse Winchester, who also never failed to put the song in songwriter.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: LINDSAY BEAVER - TOUGH AS LOVE

From the ashes of the much-loved 24th Street Wailers comes the debut from lead singer/drummer Lindsay Beaver. The Halifax native has now departed for Austin, and tapped into the rich roots there, resulting in this dramatic and sizzling set. It features a nasty '50's deep R'n'B vibe, along with a little bit rockabilly, and on opener You're Evil, some Howlin' Wolf, albeit with one truly raunchy guitar solo.

Beaver does much of the writing, along with some choice covers including Art Neville's Let's Rock. The Little Willie John number You Hurt Me proves a great showcase for her rich voice, and when she's not drumming too wildly, she can put tons of emotion into a deep blues like that. This album sees her signed to the esteemed Alligator label, and they've put a lot of faith in her, letting her produce this label debut herself, using her new band for most of the music.  Guitar player Brad Stivers proofs quite a weapon, with lots of strong Texas licks and a good-time duet vocal on Don't Be Afraid Of Love. Beaver has put her own vocals in '50's setting, with a bit of echo and a bit off-mic, the better to let her wail.

She has lots of room to show off her drumming as well, with many of the songs driving hard, including the blistering Oh Yeah, a punkish rockabilly number that comes in at under two minutes. She counters that with a cover of Angela Strehli's down and pitiful blues Lost Cause, another tune where Beaver connects sorrow with passionate vocals. It's hard to pick favourites here, as every track is a stand-out.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: KEITH MULLINS - ONWARD & UPWARD

Oh, what to do if you're Cape Breton's Mullins, and feel comfortable in so many songwriting styles? Pop, folk, country, a little hip-hop, heck, even a children's choir shows up in his music. The solution is this double album collection, loosely separated into one pop set (Onward) and the other (Upward) more on the folk/country side, although there's plenty of blending back and forth.

The pop set has a more beats, bells and whistles, for the most part supplied by Halifax producer Jason Mingo (Meaghan Smith). This sounds completely in character for Mullins, with his smooth, higher-pitched vocals and lots of great harmonies. Songs such as For Tonight have excellent melodies, and lots of upbeat warmth. Lightning Strikes moves into some R'n'B, and grooves along enough to hit the dance floor. And the collaboration king, Classified himself, takes the producer chair for Free Falling On A Feeling. It's one of those hybrid country/hip-hop tracks, complete with Duane "D.O." Gibson's bridge raps, but still with room for harmonica bites.

So it's already a programmer's nightmare, but who cares except them? It all sounds great no matter what genre you try to stuff it into. Free Falling On A Feeling alone would sit well on pop, country and urban playlists. And that's just the first half. Over on the Upward side, you get Mullins' more story-telling material, and a whole different kind of production. This is roots-oriented, starting out with the fiddle-driven cut Love Will Conquer All, but with a rock 'n' roll organ and rhythm, a barn-burner. You get more life snapshots here, like Howlin' At The Moon, a true tale of young Mr. Mullins and his crew painting a Sydney train bridge one wild night (rotten kids). And more kids, these ones good, show up on Where The Rivers Meet The Ocean, this time the school choir from Tatamagouche, who help explain that's the translation of their town's name. That one comes out as a gorgeous folk anthem.

Onward & Upward are going out to fans now digitally on his website at a special price, or you can pre-order a double-vinyl copy now, for when they become available at shows and stores in November. You early birds get the honour of getting your name in the thank-you credits.

Monday, October 15, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: DAVID BOWIE - LOVING THE ALIEN (1983 - 1988)

It was great having Bowie become a huge star in 1983 with Let's Dance, the biggest he'd ever been, at least in North America. It was very catchy music but still retained some of the edge and smarts of his adventurous, late '70's music. It was great, yes, but also it was about the worst thing for artistic output. After nearly two decades of struggling with the financial side, even during the Ziggy years, he finally had a huge album and tour bringing in lots of wealth, and that must have felt good So good, he spend the rest of the decade trying to give those new pop fans more of the same. It's an old story, but it felt even more disappointing coming from Bowie, who had always been an innovator first, not someone trying to stay at the top of the pops.

If you're keen to write off the entire decade, first I'd suggest going back to Let's Dance, enjoy the groove of the first side of the album, then hit Ricochet, which contains all the experimental wordplay and off-kilter music of anything on Scary Monsters, but still has a great groove courtesy of the production work of Nile Rodgers. It did truly feel like Bowie had found the magic formula to combine success with art. Turns out it was part poison, and he drank deeply.

So it falls to this boxed set to try to reclaim the rest of the '80's music, and make it seem as valuable as the previous three box sets that covered the glorious '70's. Times had changed in the music industry, which meant that instead of an album a year, Bowie only did three studio albums, plus lots of soundtrack cuts and a couple of tour videos (on VHS, remember that?). Tonight, the too-hasty followup to Let's Dance, is just too troubled to rehabilitate, so the compilers have attempted to change our opinions on the other set, 1987's Never Let Me Down.

That album sold a bunch, which initially pleased Bowie, and led to his year-long, massive world tour called Glass Spider. But it wasn't long before he echoed the poor reviews, and started trash-talking the album, ultimately using it as an example of how he'd lost his way. His dissatisfaction led to the formation of Tin Machine, a complete left turn from the synth-pop he'd been doing.

Bowie blamed himself for not caring or being involved enough in the production, and that he'd let the songs down, that they weren't the problem. To partially prove his point, he had engineer Mario McNulty remix a track in 2008 for a compilation, liking it much better, and wishing he could do the whole album. So with that pre-posthumous blessing, McNulty was brought back for that, and more. Instead of simply remixing the tracks, he jettisoned much of the original music, and brought in players from later in Bowie's career, such as Reeves Gabrels from Tin Machine, and his long-time drummer Sterling Campbell. Using Bowie's original vocals and some of the original parts, brand-new versions of the songs were made, usually quite different. As well some buried parts were brought to the front, and the biggest change was removing the dated synth sounds, replacing them with real strings.

Without getting into the morality of this, there's little question that the end result is better. They do make it easy for you, including both versions of the album. In short, the tracks are a lot less shrill and oppressive, there's more space in them, and the mix is far livelier. I'd disagree that these are great songs, but such tracks as Beat Of The Drum, Zeroes, Time Will Crawl and Day-in, Day-Out have their charms. Shining Star (Makin' My Love) still isn't much of a toe-tapper, even though the horrid rap by Bowie and actor Mickey Rourke has been tossed, replaced by a new spoken word bit by friend Laurie Anderson.

Still, the whole Glass Spider concept was overblown, part Bowie cliche (umm, spiders again?) and the rest cheesy, narration always a bad idea on rock albums. It was conceived to fit the huge stage show he designed, which was certainly adventurous. There was a dance troupe, acting lines, narration, a spider several floors tall, one of the very first uses of wireless headset mics, a flying Bowie, and all performed in massive outdoor stadiums and giant indoor bowls. I've seen the video, it was still hokey live too, and the emphasis on the theatrics, costumes and set took away from the songs themselves.

Included in this box is the live concert, two CD's worth recorded at Montreal's Olympic Stadium. Having just audio makes some of it confusing (the talky bits), and like the album, the music is too glossy, even the old favourites such as Fame and The Jean Genie. Better is the other live set here, two discs from the Let's Dance show, Bowie at the height of his success. In addition to the obvious hits from that album (China Girl, Modern Love), there's a full set of greatest hits, plus some edgier material just to keep the crowds honest. It's head-and-shoulders more enjoyable than Glass Spider.

Like the previous three Bowie boxes, there are also discs that collect the various off-album cuts, from singles, soundtracks and the like. These have been disappointing in the past, as they've been filled with minutiae such as radio edits of 45's. This time, while those are there, also included are cuts from the soundtracks to Absolute Beginners and Labyrinth, where Bowie did several non-single tracks, and a couple of very rare b-sides not included in other compilations.

I admit I originally felt this box would be tough to enjoy, given the two spotty studio albums, but really, they've done the trick, turned it into something worthy. For all its flaws, there are highlights to the Bowie story in the '80's. And despite the sacrilege, maybe more albums need to be saved in the manner of Never Let Me Down.

Friday, October 12, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: KAT DANSER - GOIN' GONE

The Alberta blues singer/songwriter gets deep and rich on her fifth album, with a set of songs that reach back decades for their Southern feel, yet feature a solid, modern smartness. Working with producer Steve Dawson and his cast of roots stalwarts, the ensemble swings throughout, while letting Danser's rich, smooth voice shine. She has a really mellow tone in a lower register, which works very well with the woody grooves the band cooks up.

Some of her tunes are in homage to classic styles, including Memphis, Tennessee, which could be a theme song or travelogue anthem for the city, with Dawson's slide and Jim Hoke's harp leading the way. Her cover of Sam McGhee' Chevrolet Blues has a great country blues swing to it, with fiddle from Matt Combs. But she also offers her own modern takes, Kansas City Blues set in a snowstorm, our singer "broke, worn and tired", but definitely in the 21st century. For all the rich history Danser calls on, her other foot is equally planted in today's melting pot of blues and roots.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: JERRY LEGER - YOU, ME AND THE HORSE

Well this is a nice birthday present. Not mine, it's for one of Jerry's kids. His debut album, You, Me And The Horse, has just turned ten, and he's celebrating in a couple of ways. His touring through the Maritimes, and he's reissued the album digitally with a previously-unreleased bonus cut.

The track is called Beating The Storm, and features Jerry's vivid scene-setting, and warm vocals, an outtake from the album sessions that never got past the acoustic guitar point, but sounds all the more authentic for it, a touch on the Dylan-Blood On The Tracks era quality. You, Me and The Horse helped Jerry break out of the Toronto scene to a national audience. It was produced by Josh Finlayson of Skydiggers and Tim Bovaconti (Ron Sexsmith, Burton Cummings), and was part of the wave of acoustic/roots Toronto music that caught my attention at that time. Jerry's come through every album since, one of the best young troubadours in the land. His most recent is Nonsense And Heartache, produced by Cowboy Junkies' Michael Timmins.

Jerry's hitting the road with drummer Kyle Sullivan in tow for a couple of weeks in the Maritimes, before heading overseas for a few European dates. Catch him before his continental excursion at:

Oct. 12 - Grimross, Fredericton
Oct. 13 - Townhouse Brewpub, Antigonish, N.S.
Oct. 16 - The Carleton, Halifax
Oct. 17 - The Port Grocer, Port Medway, N.S.
Oct. 18 - Five and Dime, Saint John, N.B.
Oct. 19 - Union Street, Berwick, N.S.
Oct. 20 - Trailside Cafe, Mount Stewart, P.E.I.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: JOHN LENNON - IMAGINE DELUXE, JOHN & YOKO - IMAGINE/GIMME SOME TRUTH (Blu-ray)

While the big excitement of Beatle fans this fall is the upcoming reissue of the White Album, all done up in Super Deluxe ways, this Lennon number will please a lot of fans too. The 1971 album includes his most-loved solo song, a bona fide classic, and certainly gets some votes as his best. It's a good cross-section of everything he did; there's protest, anger, love songs and unflinching self-examination. In addition to the title cut, it includes the lovely Jealous Guy, the raging Gimme Some Truth, and the bitter How Do You Sleep?, his scathing attack on ex-pal Paul, its pettiness saying more about the singer than the subject. Such was Lennon in the '70's, all raw nerves and honesty, warts (lots of them) and all.

A ton of work has gone into this major excavation of the tape vaults and sessions for Imagine, and the many hours of film shot at the same time. The Super Deluxe box has four CD's and two Blu-ray discs of audio, brand-new transfers from the master tapes, newly mixed to improve the clarity and separation, and highlight Lennon's voice. These "Ultimate" mixes are warm and close, one of the best examples of giving the impression you're right in the studio. There are no unheard out-takes from the sessions, but for bonus cuts, associated single cuts from the time period are here, including Power To The People, and a new mix of Happy Xmas (War Is Over) that is much less muddy that the version we're used to hearing each Christmas.

The rest of the music, whether it's the multi-disc box or the two-disc version, features various takes of the evolution of each song, from demos to early studio attempts to highlighted parts. That last feature is especially nice on the "Elements Mix" versions, which have such gems as just John's vocals for Oh My Love, only the wonderful strings for Imagine, and a piano-bass-drums track for Jealous Guy. There are some striking demos, including the first--ever Imagine, just John on piano, and Lennon and Yoko singing Oh Yoko! on holiday in Bahamas in 1969. The biggest fans will love all these insights, but there's several versions of each song, so you'll have to decide how much of a fan you are, and spend accordingly.

Also brand new is a Blu-ray (sold separately) that includes both films made from the footage collected during the sessions. Originally intending just to make a proto-video of the recordings, John and Yoko kept shooting little ideas each day, and released they had enough for what became the 70-minute movie Imagine. It featured no dialogue, just scenes with the two of them doing silly things, set to songs from his album, and Ono's current one, Fly. Like the great majority of folks, I'm no fan of Ono's music, so that's a distraction. So is the overall avant-garde approach, with scenes stretched out to fill the length of songs, including a segment of the two of them playing chess with all white pieces, an anti-war statement apparently, why do we fight when we're all the same? Being famous, the couple managed to convince Fred Astaire, Jack Palance and Dick Cavett to do cameos. George Harrison looks less impressed.

No wonder the footage was reclaimed into something far more interesting in the Andrew Solt-directed Gimme Some Truth, a Grammy-winner from 2000. This is a much better use of the film, as a straight-forward making-of about the Imagine album. And there is good stuff here, including the famous shot of Lennon singing Imagine at the white piano, and lots of really good studio performances. Even Phil Spector looks normal here, modestly producing instead of his notorious personality on display. It's actually Lennon with the bad behaviour, snapping at a confused, slow-acting engineer, letting that infamous prickly side get out. But the scene of him teaching session pianist Nicky Hopkins how Imagine goes, hearing him admit he likes that song the best of his new ones, well, that's history right there. Watch the original Imagine film once to remind yourself how off-putting the couple often were, and watch Gimme Some Truth a couple of times to soak in this unique time.