Saturday, October 12, 2019

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: THE RAMONES - IT'S ALIVE 40th Anniversary Deluxe Edition

Twenty-eight cuts in 53 minutes, it can only be The Ramones. What's crazy is that this live album, recorded on New Year's Eve of 1977, arguably the peak of The Ramones' career, wasn't even released in North America until 1995, and then only on CD. Back in the day, we all sought out highly-prized (and priced) import copies of the double album. It's possible that if it had come out back then, it would have truly broken the band, as live albums were huge then (Frampton, Cheap Trick, etc.).

Since many of the group's best and best-loved songs come from their first three albums, The Ramones were touring what was a non-stop hit parade. Songs would last two minutes, then Dee Dee would belt out another ONE-TWO-THREE-FOUR with no pause in between, and another would crash out. "Rockaway Beach," "Teenage Lobotomy," and "Blitzkrieg Bop" started things off, and in what seemed a blink of an eye, they slammed their way through to closers "Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue" and "We're A Happy Family," leaving everyone breathless. Some of their great covers are here as well; "Surfin' Bird," "California Sun," "Do You Wanna Dance" and "Let's Dance" show where punk came from, that '60's garage band ideal that said anyone could form a band. Even these oddball outcasts were stars, at least to all the other oddball outcasts.

This show comes from London's Rainbow Theatre, at that point the group's biggest-ever audience. England loved them more than back home, mostly because punk was almost mainstream in that country by then. Three previous shows at three previous nights were also recorded as back-ups, and for this 40th anniversary deluxe edition, they have all been newly mixed and issued for the first time. Now, that's not as exciting as, say, three other shows from different years. Leading up to the big night, the band played virtually identical shows each night. They replaced one song ("I Can't Give You Anything") with another ("Havana Affair") and added "Judy Is A Punk" for the final night only. Other than that, the only differences are the occasional three or four words from Joey, and a threat that they would leave if the punks didn't stop spitting on them.

Each show is great though, if almost identical. The deluxe package is a classy hard-cover package, with the four CD's and YAY! Vinyl! The double-album at last, for those who've never found an import. Now, allow me to quote my favourite Ramones lyric, from "Teenage Lobotomy":  "Now I guess I'll have to tell 'em/That I got no cerebellum."

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: WILCO - ODE TO JOY

It should come as no surprise that if Jeff Tweedy is going to title an album Ode To Joy, it's not going to sound much like it. His road to get there has been way too rocky, and he has too fine a sense of irony. Even on the most positive-sounding song, "Love Is Everywhere," he has to add the parenthetical warning, "Beware." If you're looking for joy, there's a lot of bleak and ton of confusion you have to get past.

Considering Wilco is one of the most explosive groups around, Tweedy sure likes to keep that under control, and this one may be the least adorned of the last half-dozen or so. Uptempo offering "Everyone Hides" bounces along on an acoustic guitar groove, only the drums allowed to pound a little. And when guitar whiz Nels Cline is unleashed, his contribution is abruptly ended, leaving the impression there's another half of the song left out, containing his freak-out.

So it's left for us to explore the album through its subtleties, and to that end, it delivers. The inventiveness is in how the instruments sound, and how they mix with Tweedy's vocals and melodies. Listening to all the contributions in the cut "Citizens" is a great pleasure, a painstaking production. Then comes "We Were Lucky," and this time Cline is allowed to fill the spaces and go off the rails, while the rest deliver a White Album-worthy moodiness. Joy, it turns out, isn't delivered on a plate here, you have to put in some close listening first. You will be rewarded soon though.

Monday, October 7, 2019

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: KRIS + DEE - BROWSE LINE

Gorgeous melodies and heart-tugging harmonies may be what your ears hear first, but this strong fourth album from the Kingston couple holds some powerful truths too. Kris Abbott (The Pursuit Of Happiness) and Dee McNeil make pleasing pop-folk sounds but those calming melodies hold sharp observances. These are socially-charged lyrics, taking stabs at repression big and small.

There's the lout who cares more about his politics than his family ("Politics Are Thicker Than Blood") to the woman forced to settle for a reduced lot in life rather than flying free ("Settled Down"). These are songs that champion the best in people, calling out what holds us down. Plus, it's smart and satisfying Canadiana pop all the way through.

I keep running into new favourite lines on each listen, another song jumping up to become a new champion. "Don't Get The Universe" looks at the everyday ridiculousness that frustrates us all: "There's a woman, she's got bills to pay, works a double every day/while her boss complains they have raised minimum wage."  They can get some old-school folkie venom going as well, as found on the closer "Simple Little Sheep": "The meek shall rule the earth is just a lie/so we don't take what we deserve in this life." Can I vote for Kris and Dee in this election?

Saturday, October 5, 2019

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: DAWN TYLER WATSON - MAD LOVE

If you want more proof that Canadians do blues very, very well, look no further than Montreal's sensational singer Dawn Tyler Watson. Her latest, Mad Love, has just won her Female Artist of the Year from the Blues Blast Music Awards, beating out such vets as Maria Muldaur in that U.S. mag's annual plaudits.

It's easy to hear why on Mad Love. The album explodes right away, with the sizzling "Alligator," which features extended harp action from Steve Marriner (MonkeyJunk) on a fast-paced driving track. Think "Radar Love" as an electric blues cut. Always soulful on her albums, Watson gets deep and rich on the Gospel-influenced "Feels Good To Watch You Go," as piano and organ weave around her singing, the tune building to a mighty finish. It's a good time to mention the bulk of the playing comes from the Ben Racine Band, with whom she usually tours. Together they won the group category at the 2017 Memphis International Blues Challenge.

The Racine band is just as multi-faceted as Watson, able to follow her into New Orleans for "You're The Only One For Me," with Racine adding duet vocals. The horn section of the group stars throughout, punctuating "Masochistic Heart." That's one of several originals on the disc, another strong side for Watson. Her lyrics are fresh, cliche-free and smart, not stuck in yesterday's blues forms. Mad Love is a disc that shows the way forward for the blues.

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: ROXY & THE UNDERGROUND SOUL SOUND - STAND UP

The explosive Halifax soul group are a highlight live act, and here the show translates wonderfully to the studio. Lead singer Roxy Mercier is upbeat, dramatic and fun as always, with the savvy of Amy Winehouse and the spirit of '60's girl groups. The horn-fired funk tracks show allegiance to the DapTone Records revival sound, and there's plenty of red-hot playing from the rhythm section to let you know there is some serious talent in the band.

The new songs on this latest album show the group doesn't have to rely on the usual Stax covers to survive either. Whether they are soul celebration numbers such as lead single "He's Alright," or social justice messages like "Helpless," there's plenty to engage with, and to groove to. Even without Roxy's sparkling presence, the USS provide lots of spark on a pair of instrumentals, including the sizzling "Fuse Box."

All this, and they are one of the best live acts on the East Coast as well, with several upcoming dates to celebrate the new album. Catch them at the Capitol Complex in Fredericton on release day, Friday, Oct. 4, at Moncton's Mud City Meltdown festival on Saturday the 5th, and at The Seahorse in Halifax Thursday, Oct. 17.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: TEENAGE HEAD - TORNADO

The heroes of Hamilton continue as a primal force in Canadian rock 'n' roll, nearing their fifth decade. There's even more excitement these days, with the group's music getting tasty reissues, led by 2017's Fun Comes Fast career best-of. Now the runt of the litter, 1983's mini-LP Tornado gets new life, and a serious upgrading.

The disc is now more than triple the original size, bulked up to 21 tracks instead of the original six. This accomplished by doing a full remix of the cuts, and giving us both the old and new versions. Plus the group was able to locate nine band demos for the set, those same six plus another three in contention. The remixes were a smart idea. Some of the '80's sheen is gone, while vocals, guitar and overall thump is increased, making them tougher. This was supposed to be the record to break them in the U.S., so some nods to commercial sounds were made in the production. While the remix can't change all of that, it does improve them.

These are good songs, and they fit in with the group's punkish party/early rock'n'roll style, particularly the fun, danceable "Tornado" and "Blood Boogie," even with the gloss. That's even more apparent from the demos, which were fully-crafted and show that the group knew what they were after. Better still, the three cuts that didn't make the album are prime as well, and make this collection stronger than the original. Perhaps they left their version of The Beach Boys' "Drive-In" off to avoid comparisons to The Ramones in their cover choices, but they do a bang-up job. That shows their true early r'n'r roots better than anything.

Extra kudos for the packaging, which features great liner notes, explaining the situation the band were in at the time. This was originally released as by Teenage Heads, the name changed as part of a new U.S. deal, to appease DJ's in small American towns. It was also those U.S. brains that demanded this be a mini-LP as well, thinking that would help break the band in the States. The irony was that a regime change in the U.S. saw the group dropped before they even got released there. The memorabilia is great as well, and vinyl may be the best way to go, in a delightful two-tone green.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: MONKEY HOUSE - FRIDAY

Another gem from the talented Toronto jazz-soul outfit, lead by keyboardist/singer/composer Don Breithaupt, the group's fifth. His love of Steely Dan is no secret (mine either) and he continues to move that group's precision-with-swing sound along nicely, with catchy words and melodies, every tune impressive. Smooth but with lots of guts and glory, it hits the exact right mix of clever and skillful.

This set's a little more soulful than the previous Monkey House releases, so in Dan terms, more Gaucho than Aja. Breithaupt shows his writing chops on "I'll Drive, You Chill," a story-song about a woman who owns a pet-friendly pharmacy but steps out on her husband for a wild ride. "When The Mudmen Come" features a survivalist with a panic room who hears and knows what we don't, ready for the inevitable worst-case scenario: "You stand there just smiling, you should be stockpiling." For every line that makes you smile, there's a solo or part that tickles your musical brain as well.

Dan fans will appreciated guest soloists Drew Zingg on guitar, from the '90's era Steely band, and trumpeter Michael Leonhart, another longtime collaborator of Becker and Fagan. Also, there's a sly nod in the lyrics, "So there's money in your pocket, but you can't buy a thrill." The best guest award goes to Manhattan Transfer, who do their trademark thing in "The Jazz Life." But the Monkey House band is topnotch on its own, handling this hybrid sound that's such a joy when done right.