Friday, December 6, 2019

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: CòIG - CAROLS TOO

Alright, it's time to get serious about Christmas and the holidays. Parties are happening, gatherings planned, and if you don't want to get stuck listening to the Kenny and Dolly album over and over, you'd better have some new tunes ready to go.  There are always a few new festive releases each December, and here's some Maritime flavour for your fireside chats.

I submit to you that Celtic is perfect for Christmas. First of all it's got the trad covered, and everybody wants a traditional Christmas. One of Cape Breton's finest, Còig always does lively and fun music, able to give us the traditional as well as a new spin on old favourites. That's just what works great with the beloved Christmas canon of songs, whether carols or popular numbers; give us the songs we love, but make them fresh.

The trad players normally do "sets,", essentially medleys of three or four tunes with unique arrangements, and that's another element that works really well for Christmas instrumentals. The lively "The Spree We Had At Christmas" for instance moves into "Good King Winceslas" in its middle section. "Have A Bari Merry Christmas" turns "O Christmas Tree" into a bluesy guitar piece, then sends it into "Go Tell It On The Mountain."

Those Celtic-flavoured instrumentals are lovely for listening, and bonus, you can sing along since the words are familiar. When they do a few vocals, well, there's no problem there, as the group boasts the voice of fiddler Rachel Davis, who was just nominated as Traditional Singer of the Year at the upcoming Canadian Folk Music Awards. She handles the heartstring numbers, "Silent Night" and "The Christmas Song." Multi-instrumentalist Darren McMullen gets to sing the more modern and fun numbers. "Daddy's Beer," written by Nova Scotian pals Dave Gunning and Jaime Robinson, is a laugher about a Christmas morning hangover with the kids getting the noisiest toys possible, while Ron Sexsmith's "Maybe This Christmas" is a thoughtful tune that deserves to become a classic.

Còig now have two holiday albums, and put on a very popular Christmas tour each year. Folks in Ontario can catch them the next three nights, at the Delta Old Town Hall tonight (Friday, Dec. 6), Manotick United Church Saturday the 7th, and Sunday, Dec. 8 they will be at St. Andrews United Church in Pakenham, all part of the Ontario Festival of Small Halls. Then they spend the rest of the time leading up to Christmas touring through New England, where the band is very popular.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: JONI 75 - A BIRTHDAY CELEBRATION

Tribute concerts rarely pack the punch this one does, emotionally and in performance. Of course, with Joni the honoree, the very best turned up, and ready to give it all. There are several truly stunning moments, thanks in part to the material, as you can tell the performers truly relish digging in to it. Diana Krall brings all her jazz talent to "Amelia," able to play fascinating piano around the unique and haunting melody. Seal puts great feeling into "Both Sides Now," finding new power in the well-known song. Emmylou Harris tackles latter-day Joni, showing the gut-wrenching truth in "The Magdalen Laundries." But it's Brandi Carlile who steals the show, first playing the beauty to Kris Kristofferson's aged wisdom in "A Case Of You," then offering a fabulous "Down To You," a surprising and very worthy choice to include.

Of all things though, it's sentiment that wins the night, something a younger Mitchell might have mocked. James Taylor, always a great friend, takes on two of her best-loved numbers, "River" and "Woodstock," with warmth and joy. And Graham Nash chooses to pay her tribute with the beloved "Our House," the song he wrote for her 50 years before, an unbelievably personal moment with Joni there to hear it once again. All this, and Rufus Wainwright, Norah Jones, Los Lobos, Chaka Khan and more.

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: PRINCE - 1999 (Deluxe Edition)

The Prince reissue campaign is bearing some significant fruit for collectors, and surprisingly, it's being done with an eye to the consumer's pocketbook. As opposed to, for instance, the endless stream of very expensive David Bowie reissues, the Prince releases have been kept to a modest number, and marketed in a value-for-your-dollar way. This latest box set is the most expansive, but even it has a medium level price tag, and an emphasis on content over frills and pricey packaging.

If you have the bucks and interest, you can go for the 10-album, one DVD version of this at close to $300.00, but it's much more accessible at under $100 for five CD's and the DVD. The 50-page booklet may not be hardcover or coffee table sized, but it's packed with all the info and images you need. And best of all, the music is great from start to finish, and the bonus stuff is all very much worthy and welcome, and worth repeated play.

1999 was where it all changed for Prince, moving from funk freak and rising cult star to the mainstream. He was all attitude and act leading up to that album, but then he scored with actual hit songs, the title track and of course "Little Red Corvette." And it wasn't just those two. He was exploding with music, and would continue that way for years. This was a double album, there are a further two CDs of over an hour each of unreleased music, plus he had started producing and writing for other artists as well. What this box does wonderfully is show the full picture of that explosion.

Disc 1 holds the original, near 80-minute album, which in addition to the big hits held several more favourites such as "Delirious," "Let's Pretend We're Married" and "Automatic." Disc 2 has all the edits, 12-inch versions and a few tasty b-sides, including the concert favourite "How Come U Don't Call Me Anymore?" and the typically suggestive "Horny Toad." Discs 3 and 4 are the packed vault collections, while Disc 5 and the DVD are two different live concerts from 1982, valuable visions of Prince's talent blooming.

If you look to these sets for the previously unreleased material, woah baby, it's hard to think of another album with so much to offer. Prince didn't make demos really, these were basically finished studio cuts, some of which he'd use, some of which he'd earmark for his other pals and projects, and seemed to have no end of song ideas. Most of these could easily have ended up on 1999 with no drop in quality. As he said at the time, he had enough material for a 1999 sequel, but didn't want to repeat himself. Since his next album was Purple Rain, it's hard to argue that logic.  What a bonanza that gives us now, as we hear him trying out different styles and possible routes. "Teacher, Teacher" is more of a rock song than he was doing in those years. "Yah, You Know" is the embryonic version of "Let's Go Crazy," developed  later for Purple Rain."Purple Music" is his explanation of important music was to his life, a manifesto, and it's surprising he left it off 1999. Then there's all the usual highly suggestive material, from a musician who'd learned the importance of shock value already. "Vagina" was apparently the original name for Vanity of Vanity Six, so at some point this was going to be that group's theme song. Title apart, it's a killer.

The live concerts are more proof of what a monster the guy was as a player and performer. His concerts were events, choreographed and visually rich, each musician in part an actor, and Prince a true showman. He dances, he struts, he shows off, he jokes, he whirls and twirls. To top it all off, he simulates sex on a bed (albeit with no partner). Some of the 1999 tracks have become set pieces of the show, such as "International Lover," where we're flying Purple Airlines or some such silliness. It all works, and was all aimed at building the Purple mythology, which it did to a T. The DVD is from a mediocre source, but thank goodness it survived, you have to see Prince in action to get the whole picture.

This is one of those good old box sets where you can dig in and spend hours enjoying. Best of all, at no point will you say, "Well, it's not his best." It's all grand.

Friday, November 29, 2019

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: EMILY BURGESS and the EMBURYS - NEVER-ENDING FLING

Here's album #2 for Peterborough's Burgess, after exiting the late 24th Street Wailers. A whiz guitar player, she's now developed a great big stew of roots and rock sounds, underpinned with groove and heart. Here she's joined by her traveling pals in the Emburys, as well as the talented folks from her other band, The Weber Brothers.

There is great warmth and soul in all these tracks, and an wonderful smoothness to the music and production. I hate making comparisons, but trying to define the sound is failing me, so think of this: That warm, somewhat bluesy but extremely catchy Fleetwood Mac sound on Christine McVie's songs. They could be touching or downright poppy, along with great playing, and that's what you get here.

There are tons of great moments, like the uplifting bridge on "Excuses," one of those big melodic moments you can feel in your chest when they arrive. The ragged-but-right harmonies throughout are endearing, friendly voices from a club in which you'd love to belong. That's another part of the great vibe here, this clubhouse of musicians crafting little jewels, some songs from Burgess, a trio from the Webers. On one of those, the whimsical "The Lion and the Lamb," drummer Marcus Browne takes the spotlight on lead vocals, a nice touch that again points out the collective work going on. Burgess and the Emburys have a busy month touring around Ontario, so take a well-deserved shopping break and check 'em out.

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: COCO LOVE ALCORN - REBIRTH

Let's leave no doubt here. Coco Love Alcorn's voice is a majestic instrument, and she's equally adept at soul, r'n'b, jazz, pop, soul jams, wherever she travels. With just that voice, she's able to dig deep into your soul with one song, for instance the stirring, gospel-flavoured opener here "Rebirth."

So that's a given, the voice. What's even more stunning here is the lineup of personal and positive songs, a collection of inspiring messages, to herself mainly, but certainly for all of us. On the infectious "Ain't No Friend," she's speaking to that negative inner voice we all know so well: "Hey Mr. Self-doubt, you got a lot to say/but every word is getting in my way." The quiet piano number "I Forgive Myself," is as powerful a message as you'd get at any 12-step meeting, and I'm not being insincere. If your ears are open, there are some serious healing songs here.

Then go back to the voice, the songs, the great mix of fun and funk and anything goes, with all sorts of production ideas and insanely catchy tunes. It's just quirky enough, showcasing her distinct personality, musically and lyrically. Comparing herself to a sweet treat, "My Noughatty Centre" sees her describe her inner self as a warrior and a dancer who wants to make the world better, all over slow beats and layers of vocals.

Catch this dynamo back in her old Nova Scotia stomping grounds the next couple of nights, playing the Al Whittle Theatre in Wolfville Tuesday, Nov. 26, and The Carleton on Wednesday, the 27th in Halifax.

Friday, November 22, 2019

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: SKYDIGGERS - LET'S GET FRIENDSHIP RIGHT

Faced with the loss of friends and a bunch of sadness to deal with, Skydiggers Andy Maize and Josh Finlayson started working on an album about the stages of grief. But then they flipped that on its head, instead coming up with this life-affirming collection. Friendship is the theme, how to nurture and cherish it, and it is offered up as one of the few truly important treasures with which we can be blessed.

And with that, the pair came up with this set of moving and warm songs, all of which uplift and bless the listener. Maize, with his slightly gruff and always charming voice, sounds absolutely sincere as he pays tribute to tremendous relationships. It's not maudlin or overtly personal, they don't name names, but you know how important these people are. "Five Cold Canadians" is what the band drinks, a brothers-and-sisters in arms song, the message being it was the best of times. "Always and Forever" is one of those songs that started as grief, but has become a monumental outpouring: "I will love you, always and forever."  The group takes a moment to groove as well, on the funky "Questions Of Love," that sees the subject "back on your feet, problems all behind you... you can face the world once more." The shortish (under 30 minutes) but emotionally packed collection ends with a cover of a Sinatra standard "It Was A Very Good Year," Maize proving himself a capable crooner and moody trumpet player as well.

The album is intimate throughout, made of echo and close-up instruments, spare but full. There are just four musicians here, Finlayson and Maize along with drummer Peter von Althen and band multi-instrumentalist Aaron Comeau. There are layers of sounds, but all there for a purpose, to help with the mood, rather than following a fad. If an album ever could be described as a close friend, this is it.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: MUSIC FROM SEASON 2 OF BIG LITTLE LIES

This soundtrack from the HBO series is actually an excellent mix tape of chill-out soul, both vintage and current. Big soul names from the past, including The Spinners, Brenton Wood and Anne Peebles mix with current faves Leon Bridges and the late, lamented Charles Bradley and a few little-known but fine new talents. Some left-field choices round this out to make it an excellent hour of cuts.

For the most part, these are obscure choices, the only hit being "I'll Be Around" by The Spinners. Well, the only original hit that is. There are a couple of very cool covers. Jazz vocalist Cassandra Wilson contributes her brilliant version of Neil Young's "Harvest Moon," which reminds us that he can be an excellent lyricist when he's trying. Willie Nelson and his sister Paula deliver an excellent, laid-back duet on the old CCR number "Have You Ever Seen The Rain," and the stripped-down version of F. Mac's "Dreams" by POP ETC is another cool one. Newer names Elle King and Phoebe Killdeer fill out the track list, and this is certainly one of those rare soundtracks that works great from start to finish.