Tuesday, August 4, 2020


Best-known as the home of one of David Bowie's better soundtrack songs, Absolute Beginners was a 1986 British film that looked at racial and cultural challenges of late 1950's London. Directed by Julien Temple, who had previously collaborated with Bowie on the "Jazzin' For Blue Jean" video, the movie saw several musicians cast in roles, including Bowie, Ray Davies, Sade, and, quite poorly, co-lead Patsy Kensit. The movie was a bust, lost a ton of money, but the soundtrack proved a much more worthy project.

Bowie was commissioned to write the theme song and really came through, presenting a cut that was much, much superior to his most recent material on the Tonight album. It was lost in North America, coming from a film that got no box office traction here, but the single was a huge hit elsewhere, hitting #2 in England, and going top ten in several other countries. He contributed two other songs to the double album (reissued now as two CD's), but neither are essential for fans. His "That's Motivation" is character-driven for his part in the film, and if you've ever thought you had to hear his version of the classic Italian crooner "Volare," you're dead wrong.

However, the rest of the soundtrack is quite a fine listen. The film looks at jazz culture in England, and uses a lot of cool vocals and brassy orchestrated numbers. On board was the great Gil Evans, in one of his final projects. The famous Miles Davis collaborator arranged several cuts, and composed all the instrumental music. It is rich, detailed, sometimes curious and always arresting, It's probably better not to see the film, but rather imagine what it hints at.

There were more hits on the album, including The Style Council's "Have you Ever Had It Blue?" and Ray Davies' first-ever solo single, "Quiet Life". Sade turns in a fine non-album cut, "Killer Blow" and reggae great Laurel Aitken provided the lively "Landlords & Tenants" for that element of the movie's cultural mix. Two really intriguing pieces close each disc. The Specials' Jerry Dammers was brought in to score a fight sequence, and handed in a brilliant, eight-minute montage that saw him embrace film music tropes with some of his zaniness. And Evans put together a closing number with British reggae singer Smiley Culture with new lyrics to his classic Kind Of Blue number "So What." If it wasn't such a lark, it might have been sacrilege to fans of Miles Davis, but clearly Evans was telling us to open our ears to music, not keep it in closets. If the movie had been any good at all, this soundtrack might be far more renowned today.

Friday, July 24, 2020


With Covid restrictions in place, many of us have been finding pleasure in touring our own areas in stay-cations, or just getting out for walks and drives to new or favourite places. I'm one of those, and these day trips have led to lots of discoveries. Many of these involve historic spots, and I've found myself reading up on New Brunswick history a few times. I'll admit, and I'm sure I'm not alone, to a woefully limited knowledge of our past.

Fredericton musician Mike Bravener has been helping people learn our history as a musician at King's Landing, the historic village that recreates 19th century New Brunswick. To take on the role, Bravener researched the traditional folk songs unique to the area. He used the scarce few resources in print, and even learned a couple handed down through generations of local families.

These are the songs of English New Brunswick, and the bulk of them Miramichi folk songs, celebrating that area and its rich logging history. Best known is "The Lumberman's Alphabet" ("A's for the axes..."), perhaps the only one a few of us could sing along to. There are history lessons, such as "The Miramichi Fire," the gigantic 1825 conflagration that killed hundreds and destroyed a fifth of the province's forests, regarded as one of the three biggest forest fires ever in North America. Others give the flavour of the times, such as "The Scow On Cowden Shore," which calls out the towns where the workers have come from, and "Peter Emberley" who watches the big ships sail majestically.

Bravener sticks to the traditional arrangements and instruments for the songs, with mostly acoustic guitar, fiddle, accordion and lots of gang vocals. He sings out the lyrics clearly, in the story-telling way these would have first been heard in lumber camps and around campfires. We're lucky in New Brunswick where we can still see remnants of these days in historic sites such as the Fundy Trail or the Woodman's Museum, and a history lesson goes a long way in helping build cultural pride (and the tourism economy) of a region. Kudos to Bravener for his important work.

There's an album launch concert happening at King's Landing on Sunday, Aug. 2 at 5:30 PM.

Friday, July 10, 2020


Given its legendary status in the Neil Young world, it's surprising this wasn't the very first release in his Archive series. But perhaps Young has been dickering with the track list all along, as it has a shifting target for fans since the album was first mentioned (and discarded) back in 1975. For those unfamiliar, Homegrown was to have been the follow-up to On The Beach that year, but at a listening party for it, his pals then heard the then-unreleased Tonight's The Night album after. Some listeners were adamant that Young needed to release that album, and the mystery of Homegrown was launched.

It was around this time that Young acquired his reputation for stockpiling great songs for a later date. Frequent tours with Crazy Horse, CSNY or solo would feature unreleased gems, and where and when they would appear was anyone's guess. The Homegrown sessions were first mined for release on American Stars 'n' Bars, There he placed one of its best songs, "Star Of Bethlehem," featuring harmonies from EmmyLou Harris. Also present was the title cut, but recorded by Crazy Horse. The original "Homegrown" here is much different,
faster and funkier, more of a country groove number. Also that year, Young's Decade collection, career highlights to that point, included the brilliant "Love Is A Rose," which had been handed to Linda Ronstadt back in 1975.

Young went back to Homegrown time and again for songs, either on tour or for albums. "Little Wing," a classic Young acoustic/harmonica track, made Hawks & Doves, while the mellow "White Line" showed up on Ragged Glory. Here though it just has Young and fellow Canuck Robbie Robertson, the Band leader, picking on acoustic lead lines to mirror Young's harp.

Most of the rest showed up on tour, and there are lots of other tracks from this series of '74-'75 period that Young has considered Homegrown numbers over the years. But he's finally settled on this 12-track version, and the ones he has picked include more stellar tracks, and only a couple of clunkers. "Vacancy" is a full-band stomp with cohorts Ben Keith on slide, Tim Drummond on bass and Karl Himmel drumming, plus Canuck/Band associate Stan Szelest on piano. It features some great interplay and Young electric soloing, plus the blue vibe of his "Ditch Trilogy" period. There are two tracks famous among Young acolytes, "Separate Ways" and "Try," which address his crumbling marriage with Carrie Snodgrass, the overall theme of the album. That day Levon Helm was behind the drums along with Keith and Drummond, and these feel most like the On The Beach vibe, intimate and bittersweet, lines about trying but really Young sounds more like he's given up on the relationship.

There are a trio of tunes named after U.S. states. "Mexico" and "Kansas" are somewhat slight, just Young on either piano or guitar, more interludes and partial ideas than fully-formed. Still they are nice enough, although not as catchy as, say, the similarly brief "Cripple Creek Ferry" from After The Gold Rush. But "Florida" is just odd, either a stoned-out studio chat or a bizarre poem, accompanied by spooky noises made on a wine glass. It's kind of funny once or twice, but wrecks the album flow. Worse though is a sloppy studio jam called "We Don't Smoke It No More," which seems like the kind of thing best wiped from the tape before you get down to the real business. At best, it's lesser Tonight's The Night material.

Of course it's impossible to say what would have happened to this album if it had been released instead of Tonight's The Night back in 1975. Young calls it the missing link between Harvest and Comes A Time, but it doesn't really have any of the good vibes of either of those albums, with only "Love Is A Rose" a potential hit in the "Heart Of Gold" vein. It doesn't really come together as an album, which may have been Young's problem with it in the first place. But as a collection of very good tracks from a fertile period, it's a must-own set for Young enthusiasts, and makes one long for the rest of the tracks of that period to arrive. When that happens is, of course, at Young's whim.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020


Jont always has a big message, finding a place of peace in a crazy world. As things have got bigger and crazier, the Halifax-based British troubadour has reacted appropriately, making that message bigger and clearer, for those searching for personal peace in dramatic times. His acoustic music has exploded in all manner of ways. There are big choirs of voices, beats, strings, textures, and a bunch more joy infused throughout.

It's hard to resist the synth burbles and big choral hugs of "Surrounded By Love," Jont and the gang reminding us "Surrounded by love, it's such a simple recipe." But he doesn't have blinders on, acknowledging all the heavy feelings and failures to overcome: "We're going to be told a load of lies/how to be scared and how to close our eyes/we've been led by villains and fools/it's time to leave 'em behind, there's work to do." There are a couple of string-and-piano numbers about the individual power of love, but the bulk of the album is devoted to pumping you up, on both a personal and global citizen level. They do the trick; if we ever get back to live shows, this is festival rave material.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020


Toronto's Taylor isn't sitting still, even in these Covid times. Scheduled for the fall, Taylor has bumped up release of his latest in case we need some musical inspiration. And he's taken a sharp left turn stylistically too. The hook-heavy r'n'b of his Julian Taylor Band albums has been replaced by an acoustic-based roots sound that showcases his songwriting chops.

Recorded at Blue Rodeo's Woodshed studio, the eight-song set certainly feels more rural than urban, farm over funk. In fact, the title cut is a tribute to summers spent on his grandparents B.C. farm. Personal lyrics and snapshots fill the collection, with Taylor writing about family, memories and emotions. Country flourishes from Burke Carroll's pedal steel and Miranda Mulholland's fiddle sweeten the tunes, while Taylor unveils a low croon for these intimate numbers. While the pictures are personal, the themes are universal; "We all feel out of place/in this Human Race."

Given his multiple talents, Taylor can't help but broaden the sound later on in the album. "Love Enough" sees him in more of a Tex-Mex/Mavericks mode, while "Ola, Let's Dance" is mostly a spoken word over music piece, a la Bruce Cockburn. Direct and simple (as in well-communicated), Taylor's lyrics hold up to the scrutiny this music allows. I was already a fan of his soul music, and now he's added a whole new and welcome dimension.

Friday, June 12, 2020


P.E.I.'s Beck returns with a second set of shimmering pop, produced with East Coast atmosphere by Daniel Ledwell. This one leans a little more into the pop side than her self-titled debut, her mellow and moody vocals wrapped around electro keyboards and beats on cuts such as "Dancin'." But it's not about partying; "We take and take and take and take," she warns, "We're dancin' on our grave."  The message, gracefully delivered throughout the six-track E.P., is that together we can make a difference, and given what's happened in the past few months since the songs were written and recorded, it seems timely and prophetic.

There's an empowering tone to the songs, especially lead track "Warrior," inspired by the strength Beck sees in her young daughter. It's both a celebration and a hope for the future: "Lift up your voice, cut through the noise." The title cut connects those hopes to nature, our best source of strength when we embrace it: "Just breathe in and let it go, you're stronger than you."

The set closed with Beck back at the piano for the quiet, intimate "Tonight," intense and romantic in its calm beauty. The real strings, from Islanders Kinley Dowling and Natalie Williams Calhoun perfectly soar into that nighttime, and show the Beck-Ledwell team work old-school magic as well. The E.P. is ethereal, uplifting, and even a tiny bit mystical.

Wednesday, June 10, 2020


Two blues-rock lifers here, Maritime favourites, team up for the first time on this fiery tribute to slide master Elmore James. James was loud, loud, and his songs lend themselves to the rock side of the equation, and these two fit that bill. Nicholson long been regarded as having one of the best sets of pipes to fill the bars and halls of the East Coast, from his days in Horse and Oakley and through his solo years. Campbelljohn is a multiple award-winner for his guitar prowess, and a festival favourite. It's an inspired match.

The James songs have lost none of their power over the years, and never seem dated. The duo keep all the grit the songs require, and bring in a few surprises to the arrangements. "I Believe" gets a reggae groove, powered by Kim Dunn's organ (another East Coast all-star there). "Rollin' and Tumblin'" gets even deeper and nastier than most versions, Nicholson and Campbelljohn growling at each other, duelling in voice and slide. "Shake Your Money Maker" turns into a showcase for the band, with shout-out solos for bassist Bruce Dixon, drummer Neil Robertson and pianist Barry Cooke.

The pair goes for some deeper cuts from the James catalog, including "Sunnyland" and "Knocking At Your Door," while avoiding adding another cover of "Dust My Broom" to the overstuffed pile. With 12 James songs in the can, they couldn't pass up an opportunity to write a couple themselves, and both "If I Was Blue" and "Dancin' With The Blues" feel right at home. Simply put, blues fans: Great singing, great guitar playing.