Thursday, May 16, 2019

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: MARVIN GAYE - YOU'RE THE MAN

In 1971, Marvin Gaye changed pop music forever with the landmark What's Going On album. Considered too risky with its political content, Berry Gordy Jr. didn't want to release it, but Gaye insisted, and it became a massive hit both at radio and most surprisingly, in the albums chart. That was a place Motown hadn't conquered before, and now Gordy was rolling in new-found dough, all thanks to Marvin's vision.

By 1972, it was time for something new, and the pressure was on Gaye to deliver. But he was a mercurial talent, and not one to worry about feeding the mill for Motown. Gaye wanted to make another big statement, akin to his ecology/economy/anti-war opus of the year before. This time, he created an anti-Nixon song for the '72 election, You're The Man. While a hit on the R'n'B charts, this time he'd crossed the line Gordy had worried about, and the record stalled at 50 on the charts. Too bad, it's another gem from this important period in Gaye's career.

With this relative failure, Gaye retreated to regroup, and find a different concept. Motown kept knocking on the door, and several different staff producers offered up tracks, which Gaye dug into with his typical huge talent. But they sat in the vaults, and eventually Gaye found his footing again. He followed Isaac Hayes's example and success with Shaft, and did the soundtrack to the Trouble Man film.

Those other tracks languished in the vaults for years, Gaye not interested in returning to them. After his death, Motown haphazardly added them to several different reissue projects over the years, including boxed sets, greatest hits and deluxe editions. So there is actually nothing truly new among these 17 cuts, all from '72 era sessions, it's just that you had to have all these different compilations before to have them.

It's being marketed as a "lost" album, but there was never a plan to make an album out of the songs. Truly, it doesn't flow as one, it feels like what it is, a disjointed bunch of trial runs. However, this is Marvin Gaye at the height of his powers, and he could turn any material into something special. You get to hear his early fun with a Moog synthesizer, a gift from Stevie Wonder, on a couple of Christmas tunes, predictably fantastic but not exactly festive. The World Is Rated X was another hard-hitting topical tune, and again would have made a fine single, but Gaye put it away. There isn't a weak track among these numbers, and even a studio jam, Checking Out (Double Clutch) featuring Hamilton Bohannon, is a solid funk groove.

No, there's no lost masterpiece here, but this set rights a typical Motown wrong of the past, shoddy handling of am important artist's legacy. Any Marvin fan will love hearing these classic-era tracks all in one place.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: STEVE POLTZ - SHINE ON

Eclectic, eccentric and awesome, Steve Poltz left Halifax for California when he was a kid, but continues to bless us with his presence in the Maritimes at least a couple of times a year. His shows are legendary, his wit unmatched and his positivity infectious. You can forget trying to get tickets to his shows at The Carleton in Halifax, he always sells out, three different nights on this upcoming tour. But nicely, he's spreading the joy around the region this time with a bunch of different locales, and I'd advise snapping up seats ASAP.

Poltz's latest has just arrived, and it marks his first since moving to Nashville from his long-standing San Diego home. While California was good to him (he co-wrote Jewel's massive You Were Met For Me there, for instance), he is settling into Nashville just fine. Teaming up with producer Will Kimbrough (Shemekia Copeland, Rodney Crowell), Poltz highlights his wide-ranging roots, a hodge-podge of acoustic numbers from story-songs to bluegrass, gentle picking on ballads to quirky sounds for quirky tales. Windows Of Halifax starts off as a meditation on snow before Christmas, and turns into a conversation between windows (yes, windows), about flunking out of Dalhousie University and the Halifax Explosion.

Poltz can crank out a catchy country-rocker like The Pickup Song that most of Nashville would die for, and a moment later turn to a gentle mandolin ballad, 4th Of July. He can write a song about a guy having a crush on his pharmacist: "You can tell me that my prescription is only for my lower lumber/And I could ask you if you have something for a chronic emotional fumbler/And could I have your number?" Then, he breaks your heart with the tender Furthest Star: "I cried in front of you in bed the other night/You said, 'Come here' then you held me tight." And only Poltz could write a feel-better song featuring a mass shooting and a terrorist bombing. That's part of the magic.

Catch the magic at the following:

Tuesday, May 14 - The Vogue, Miramichi, NB
Weds. May 15 - Dolan's, Fredericton
Thursday, May 16 - The Carleton, Halifax (sold out)
Friday, May 17 - The Carleton, Halifax (sold out)
Sat., May 18 - The Union Street, Berwick, NS
Sun. May 19 - The Frolic & Folk, Iona, NS (sold out)
Mon., May 20 - The Cellar Cafe & Bar, North Sydney, NS (sold out)
Tues, May 21 - The Carleton, Halifax (sold out)
Weds., May 22 - Strathspey Performing Arts Centre, Mabou NS
Thurs. May 23 - The Frolic & Folk, Iona, NS

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: TEENAGE HEAD - TEENAGE HEAD

Hamilton's heroes have been enjoying a victory lap of late, with a career retrospective last year, and now this Record Store Day reissue of the group's classic 1979 debut. Originally released on the IGM it's now come out on heavyweight vinyl through Warner with cool memorabilia and creation stories on the inner sleeve. As well, there's a copy of the group's single for Picture My Face/Tearin' Me Apart, different versions than were featured on the album, nicely also on heavyweight vinyl.

Still largely unheralded, this was both a landmark album for Canadian music and hugely important for the nascent alternative scene in the country. Punk had only grabbed a toehold in major centers, New Wave wasn't faring a whole lot better, and there were precious few Canadian groups the underground could call its own. All of a sudden there was a Great Northern Hope in the playlists of college radio and the few discos that allowed the odd New Wave night for those odd New Wavers. From the iconic graphic design of the band's name to their obvious middle finger-salute to star status on the cover, those outside the Toronto-Hamilton axis had hope that Canada finally had someone to play alongside The Ramones and The Clash.

As for the tunes, well, they had those too. Picture My Face and Top Down were full of energy, and had roots going back to rockabilly and '60's garage sounds. If you wondered about their bona fides as actual punks, check out Frankie Venom's party anti-anthem, Kissin' The Carpet. You should also pay special attention to Gord Lewis's guitar, which actually does cut like a knife.

Teenage Head were, like other great bands, well-rehearsed, huge music fans who knew what they were doing and what they wanted. Unlike later '80's Canadian acts they never sold a million copies or conquered international charts, but I'd argue their importance (and music) outranks a whole lot of much-honoured stars of the decade. It's not too late to love this album, especially in this nice new package.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: THE ROLLING STONES - HONK

This compilation was supposed to compliment the group's No Filter tour, but Mick's heart surgery cancelled those plans. But since it was in the pipeline already, it's arrived anyway. I'm sure you know how these work by now. Since the Stones don't own their '60's catalog (Allen Klein walked away with that), the "very best" of the band doesn't include Satisfaction, Jumpin' Jack Flash, 19th Nervous Breakdown, Paint It Black and a bunch of other classics.

Of course, there's more than enough to amply cram this collection, starting at Brown Sugar. Every album from Sticky Fingers on has at least one cut featured, for better or worse, but of course they give extra to the real hits, the '70's and into the '80's. It feels odd to see all these brilliant numbers, such as Wild Horses, It's Only Rock 'N' Roll and Happy broken up by numbers that most of us can't remember. Quick, what album was Don't Stop on? How about Streets Of Love?

There are some decent later cuts included, and I think Rock And A Hard Place and You Got Me Rocking have earned a spot in the hits package. Plus, I'm glad that the group's most recent album, the all-blues covers Blue and Lonesome gets four cuts, because it's the best studio disc they've done in decades. And to add some extras for fans who already have two or three or seven Stones' hits albums, there's a generous bonus disc if you get the deluxe version, featuring 10 live tracks from the last decade. This helps get them around the '60's problem, with versions of Under My Thumb and Get Off My Cloud, and features some guest stars, including Florence Welch, Brad Paisley and Ed Sheeran. None of it is must-own, especially since the Stones have released tons of live albums from all over their career, but if you feel the need of Stones collection, this works as well as most of them.

Monday, May 6, 2019

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: STEVIE NICKS - STAND BACK: 1981 - 2017

For a newly-minted Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame'r, Stevie Nicks has surprisingly few recognizable hit songs to her credit, at least solo. Of course, the bulk of her fame comes from her Fleetwood Mac membership. But she's also now in the Hall a second time, as a solo artist. On her own, Nicks amped up the lace-and-mystery image she'd developed with Rhiannon, and her videos from the '80's really solidified her individual star status. The first thing that comes to mind are those billowing shawls and a white-winged dove.

Available as an album-length best-of, or a triple-length career set, the solo hits do seem a little slim on the smaller collection. Edge Of Seventeen is the big one, Stand Back a close second, If Anyone Falls, Talk To Me and I Can't Wait among the "oh yeah" remembrances. Even the triple set ignores failed 90's single Sometimes It's A Bitch.

Interestingly, the triple set comes across much better, thanks to the inclusion of her many guest appearances, duets, soundtrack cuts and some live Mac hits. That goes to show that her greatest claim to fame is her unique voice, which stands out on any track. It first became a hit-assuring weapon shortly after she broke through in the mid-'70's with Mac. Guesting on John Stewart's Gold and Walter Egan's Magnet & Steel, she brought those rather obscure artists huge hits. It worked for stars too, such as Kenny Loggins on Whenever I Call You "Friend". It became obvious in 1981 she would have to have a solo career, after that year brought her massive hits with Tom Petty (Stop Draggin' My Heart Around) and Don Henley (Leather And Lace). Duets have continued to be an important part of her career, and disc two of this set includes the above hits, plus more with Lady Antebellum, Sheryl Crow, Chris Isaak, right up to Lana Del Rey's Beautiful People Beautiful Problems.

The third disc features her solo tour versions of iconic hits she wrote for Fleetwood Mac, including Dreams, Rhiannon and Gold Dust Woman. She even shows off a harder edge, with a more-than-decent cover of Led Zep's Rock And Roll. She gets to stretch on Landslide as well, on a version with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. I've never been too keen on any of her individual studio albums, and the '80's have especially dated production and overbearing synth. The triple version of this set proves a much better career overview, making a strong case for Nicks being among the elite vocalists.

Sunday, May 5, 2019

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: TOM PETTY AND THE HEARTBREAKERS - THE BEST OF EVERYTHING

Thoughts on Tom Petty:  I find it impossible to feel bad when I play a Petty collection. Whether it's the old classics, the mid-period hits such as Free Fallin', or later, lesser-known material, it doesn't matter, the quality roars through. It's all in retrospect now, shot through with sadness and a huge sense of loss, but my first feeling, and the enduring one is simply, this is great stuff.

There are several Petty collections now, but what artist doesn't have a few best-of's these days? This one is thankfully a complete overview, not split by record company contracts, so all the early hits owned by Universal are joined by the Warner years for the first time. The 2.5 hours of music is billed as covering his full career, from The Heartbreakers to solo to Mudcrutch, and that's almost correct, with just the Wilburys missing. I'm okay with that, those fun cuts don't fit the plot anyway. I'm more interested in having the later, less commercially successful material such as Walls (Circus), Wildflowers and The Last DJ sitting alongside the well-known greatest hits, so their status can be raised. These are some of Petty's best, and slowly but surely they are climbing in fan appreciation.

The compilers here have done a masterful job at sequencing the tracks. Rather than going by chronology, or top-loading the hits, this builds and flows, pacing well-known numbers with deep cuts, rockers to medium tempo to ballads. Placing You Wreck Me between the big hits Mary Jane's Last Dance and I Won't Back Down shows what a strong rocker that 1994 track is, while 2002's Dreamville becomes a dramatic, gentle pause sitting before a return to old favourites Refugee and American Girl.

The attraction for collector fans here is an unreleased track, For Real, a 1994 outtake. It's a darn good one too, one of Petty's strongest statements about refusing to sell out. That's why we loved him, he always, always had the best moral compass in rock. Sure, you might have most of the big hits in your collection already, but this will no doubt make you appreciate many of his other songs as well, and it's one heck of a great road trip sets you'll ever get.

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: MIKE BIGGAR & BAND - LIVE AT THE BMO THEATRE

It's East Coast Music Award week, this year in Charlottetown, and I'm on my way. It's always an exciting time for music, and not just because of the shows. There are always new albums being released as well, musicians using the event to grab a little more attention for their projects. I always come back with several new ones, and the promise of more soon.

Saint John's Mike Biggar is launching his latest, his first-ever live disc. For some performers, the live album is simply a standard move, to bridge a gap between their latest releases. In Biggar's case though, it's a much-needed introduction to his stage talents for those who haven't seen him in concert. He has three major talents that come across clearly live: 1.) That big voice he offers on record is even more effective in person, intense and heartfelt, with a great command of higher notes that tear through the atmosphere of the room. 2.) He's funny as all get out, and here you get a taste of some of his lighthearted moments in between songs, plus a mom story that almost everybody will relate to. 3.) His story-songs work really well in a show context, and it lets the listener appreciate how fine a writer he's become.

Recorded in his hometown, the audience is made up of supporters who recognize some previous favourites, such as Hero, an inspirational number that could easily be a Mellancamp or Bon Jovi anthem. There are some originals, and even a bit of fun with Bonnie Raitt's Love Sneakin' Up On You, where Grant Heckman stands out on slide. Biggar clearly loves playing with his full group, as he often performs in duo or solo shows, and they add a lot to his already-enviable energy.

Mike Biggar's playing the ECMA festival if you're in Charlottetown. The day to catch him is Saturday, when he'll be playing the Blues Matinees, at the John Brown Richmond St. Grille, starting at 1:45 PM.