Monday, March 1, 2021

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: MO KENNEY - COVERS


When Mo Kenney first appeared on the East Coast music scene about a decade ago, one of the songs that made her stand out was her striking solo cover of Bowie's Ziggy-era "Five Years." Stripped of its camp and swagger, Kenney's version brought a chilling humanity to the song, allowing the end-times lyrics to stand out. Kenney has always enjoyed throwing a curve-ball cover into her live show, and for her fourth album she delivers a full set of them.

The album was recorded simply at New Scotland Yard studio with the usual crew, producer Joel Plaskett and engineer Thomas Stajcer. Mostly it's one instrument, guitar or keyboard, and Kenney's vocals. That's key because it lets us focus on her emotional readings of songs that feature thoughtful and sensitive lyrics. Also, we get to hear what it was like for Kenney starting out, learning her favourite songs and adapting them to her interpretations.

The opening track, Big Star's beloved "Thirteen," gives a good sense of the type of song Kenney admires, Alex Chilton's tribute to teenage passion all heart and sentimentality. Kenney has curated a fine bunch of surprises as well, everything from fellow Haligonians Dog Day's "Slow Death" to Guided By Voices' "Game Of Pricks" to Magnetic Fields' "Strange Powers." Her version of "Sour Girl" by Stone Temple Pilots manages to put Scott Weiland as close as possible to Carly Simon. Of the better known songs, Patsy Cline's "You Belong To Me" is a strong reminder of the power of classic songwriting. Her remodeling of The Kinks' "I'm Not Like Everybody Else" featuring one-note spacey organ by Plaskett is more a statement than a pop song. Only the best-known number here, Tom Petty's "Yer So Bad," fails. Slowed down, it's too plodding, and it's supposed to be fun. But without question, Kenney's a singer who owns a song, and inhabits them as well as she does her own writing.

Friday, February 26, 2021

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: STEVE HILL - DESERT TRIP


He may be from Montreal, but the desert fits Steve Hill just fine too. Inspired by a trip to Coachella in California, the ace guitarist went off-road in some iconic spots such as Death Valley and Yosemite, toured around and came up with a bunch of tunes that captured the vibe. It was a side trip musically as well, with Hill expanding his blues-rock into some wild western and alt-country too.

Songs "Rain" and "Judgement Day" have the feel of desperado movies, open skies and danger, with moody tones and lots of atmosphere. "Cold Heart" starts out as an acoustic confessional, and then blossoms into an alt-rocker when he hits the chorus. Renegades and loners appear, and that gives Hill a good opportunity to wow us with fast acoustic licks, like on the bluesy "Gotta Be Strong." In these shut-in days, this album feels like freedom.

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: DAVID BOWIE - MOTHER b/w TRYIN' TO GET TO HEAVEN / BOWIE & MORRISSEY - COSMIC DANCER


I have to admit I am fascinated and more than a little obsessed with the non-stop reissue and archive program for Bowie. Barely a month goes by without some new product. I've had to draw the line at some of them. I won't search out all the coloured vinyl reissues of his regular albums, that seems just repetitive. And there are now so many concert albums I've actually lost track of them. They all seem very good of course, and he did drastically change with each tour, but at some point you have to realize you're spending way too much time listening to one artist.

Each time you think the vaults must be empty of truly unreleased songs, they prove you wrong, The latest new material is featured on two 7-inch 45 rpm releases, cover versions of some famous material, by artists who were strong influences on Bowie. The first features two studio tracks recorded in 1998, for different projects .Bowie did a version of John Lennon's "Mother" for a tribute album, but that ended up shelved. Also that same year, when he was in the studio mixing some live tracks for his Bowie.net site, he recorded a version of Bob Dylan's recent song, "Tryin' To Get To Heaven," and that too has sat on the shelf until now. 


The version of "Mother" is pretty straight-forward, certainly no out-there '90's Bowie experimentation going on. Instead he lets his voice and emotion rule the track, the band really not much of a presence. As such, he doesn't add much to the song's legacy. Lennon's own version was so raw and claustrophobic, it seemed straight from one of his primal scream therapy sessions, so Bowie was never going to touch that. He should have messed with it more. That's what he did with the Dylan song, to better effect, creating a new opening with a prominent synth, and changing the melody and mood of the song. It's certainly odd and different lined up against the original, and I'm not sure it does the lyric any favours, but it's interesting and deserves to be out and heard.

Marc Bolan's spectacular rise and fall has relegated him to the second tier of rock fame, but without Bolan there certainly would have been no Ziggy Stardust, and for while Bowie seemed like the junior partner in their friendship. So when Bowie guested at a Morrissey show in 1991, a T. Rex cover seemed like a natural. The two of them sing together, Bowie doing his low voice for the first bit, and only an acoustic guitar behind them, so it must have been a quick decision. It's cool, but hardly a special moment. This has been on YouTube for ages, so it's no surprise, but the fact Morrissey has allowed its release is more interesting. He's had spotty relations with his former idol over the years, but then again, it's Morrissey, so who knows. It may be more of a question of him trying to get some good publicity for a change. Since this is technically a Morrissey single, not a Bowie, the b-side doesn't feature Dave. It's a cover of The Jam's "That's Entertainment," which Morrissey has already released once before. This is a new version though, recorded last year, much calmer than the original, but quite perfect for Morrissey. Funny, of all the covers here, it's the most successful. 

Monday, February 8, 2021

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: JEFF TWEEDY - LOVE IS THE KING


Pandemic, schmandemic. Wilco's leader Tweedy has kept going at his usual heavy pace despite being stuck at home. He's been putting out an album a year or more much of the last decade, between solo and band works. There's been an on-going reissue series of classic Wilco albums, with plenty of unreleased bonus material to organize.  Oh, and he wrote his second book, released in 2020 as well.

Of course being at home is not really an inconvenience for him. When he doesn't have Wilco around, he's got his kids Spencer and Sammy. In effect, he grew his own band. During Covid, the Tweedy family gave us an Instagram series called The Tweedy Show, with dad and the kids doing originals and covers, Spencer the drummer and Sammy helping on vocals. 

Love Is The King isn't a thick and rich album, in the Wilco style. It's lighter, more light-hearted, easily-digested as opposed to the sonically dense group material. However, that doesn't make it any less rewarding, and offers a more accessible way to enjoy Tweedy. He has a great sense of humour, and the pressure's off. If Tweedy wants to write a country song, he just does it, and there are a few here. The lyrics are upfront and uncomplicated, but bang-on with Tweedy's warmhearted sincerity. In "Guess Again," he sings of eating tomatoes right off the vine, "and if you think that's the best thing/That I ever knew/Guess again/My Love/It's you." And "Natural Disaster" is another one to make you smile: "I've never been blown by the winds of a hurricane/Never been in a flood/I've never been buried up to my neck in mud/But I have fallen in love/And that's enough/Of a natural disaster for me." What's fun for Tweedy and his kids is just as fun for us. Vinyl enthusiasts can look for the clear vinyl version.

Monday, January 25, 2021

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: THE KINKS - PART 1. LOLA VERSUS POWERMAN AND THE MONEYGOROUND


Best known for delicious hits and brotherly feuds, The Kinks remain more famous than popular. Despite chart-topping singles in three decades, The Kinks haven't maintained the sales status of their closest contemporaries, The Who, The Beatles and The Stones. And several of the group's very best albums continue to suffer ridiculous neglect. And don't say that they were too British; they didn't sell there either.

Fifty years ago, case in point: The band had a hit single on both sides of the Atlantic, the saucy "Lola," somehow bending genders into the Top 10, #1 in England. The jokey "Apeman" did pretty good as a follow-up too, but still the album stalled out in the mid-'30's in the U.S., and didn't chart at all in England. It seems the band was stuck between two worlds; pop hits and concept albums, and the concepts were a little too hard for the kids to fathom. Starting with 1968's The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society, and continuing with '69's Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire), this album featured a full concept to rival The Who's Tommy, and lots of Ray Davies' growing theatrical flair. 

This two-disc reissue is edited down from the new mega-box issued for the 50th anniversary, and is no doubt a better and cheaper introduction to the album. Disc one features the original, plus some mono single mixes of the hits. Disc two sees the album repeated in alternate versions, some demos, some alternates, some live and a couple of complete tracks dropped from the album back in the day. The story is pretty much about all the garbage and trickery a rock band goes through, thanks to the lawyers, agents, managers, groupies and all the other people trying to take a bit of your soul and a lot of your money. This was very much on Davies' mind at the time, as he was nearing the end of a crushing lawsuit with original management, and had seen his money tied up in proceedings and the spoils divided by countless greedy hands around the world.

That's best described in "The Moneygoround," which names names involved in the suit, and how publishing gets split and split among companies around the world doing not that much other than signing cheques to themselves. "Top Of The Pops" is a very cynical look at success, and how the fame game works as you climb the charts. There are more reflective numbers as well, among the best cuts. "This Time Tomorrow" sees our narrator looking down from another trans-Atlantic flight, taking stock while he can, the trip the only quiet time. "Strangers" is one of the great Kinks album tracks, an almost hopeful song about unity, but at that point in the album, the divide-and-conquer people hadn't entered. The set does end in a positive light though. Our hero, despite all the ill treatment done in the name of commerce, retains his humanity and protects his art, things more precious than cash.

The Lola album is the last great Kinks release. After that, Davies got too enamoured by his concepts, and throughout the mid-'70's delivered a run of increasingly difficult sets, slaves to the story rather than the songs, especially the ones developed around theatrical scripts. Muswell Hillbillies was quite good. Soap Opera was a mess. But the three albums ending with Lola match the great periods of The Who, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, those glory years of the late '60's and early '70's, and deserve to be heralded as such. Me, I think I'm going to go back and buy those Super Deluxe sets.

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.