Friday, May 14, 2021

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: IAN JANES - EPISODE 5


Even before the pandemic, musicians were struggling with finding new ways to connect with audiences. Many have sensed that the personal connection a listener builds with a recording has been weakened in the streaming era. To bridge that gap, Nova Scotia's acclaimed Ian Janes has put together a concept package that takes you away from the screen and helps you focus on his new album. It's a book, but it's not that simple.

When you order the disc (with download), it comes packaged not with the usual skimpy liner notes, but rather an 8 1/2" x 8 1/2" glossy booklet, filled with photos, lyrics and notes. The idea is to give you something to read, not on a screen, that lets you relate to the songs on a more personal level. You hear from Janes what the songs are about, and how they were made. Some artists don't like to give these kinds of hints, but I love it as a listener. Where does a writer come up with the idea of longing for amnesia, as he does in the same-named opening cut? Was there a sleepless night that inspired "Sleepless?" The explanations are just enough to give us a connection with the person behind the songs.

Oh, and the songs, well, they are the usual top-drawer creations from Janes, an adept writer with lots of love for soul and r'n'b sounds. He takes great care in finding the right instrument and the right arrangement, and has a love and flair for both vintage and modern techniques. You get beats mixed with real drums, keyboard swells and actual horns. To enjoy the book-album combo, head on over to his website.

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: JEFFERY STRAKER


Saskatchewan roots artist Jeffery Straker takes a moment or ten to pause and reflect on his latest, after the death of his mother in 2019. Most of the songs look back at great memories, growing up on the Prairies, and lots of love and strength that was passed on to him. It's also about taking stock of the things that matter: "Counting treasure when we're old/Won't be coins of silver and gold." And if there's a better song about growing up in a small town and coming back for visits than "One Foot On Main Street," I haven't heard it. Nashville needs to hear this song right away.

That one leans on the country side, but Straker moves easily in all the roots songwriter styles. That's because he's a classically trained pianist, and his songs all have rich melodies, and lots of fresh chord changes. He's happy to have country dobro weaving around a string section, or piano playing alongside banjo and fiddle. Single "Where I Belong" is full of all those elements, and an infectious joy.

Straker is in the middle of a virtual album release tour, playing streaming shows organized by various folk, festival and collective groups across the country. There's one a week, with ticket info at www.jeffstraker.com, and the one I will highlight in my area is coming up May 27 for the Maritimes. It's being organized by fine folks who usually put on in-person performances, and will again soon. The presenters are Lansdowne House Concerts of Fredericton, Patchwork Concerts out of Bedford, N.S., and the Second Wind Music Centre of Florenceville, N.B., with tickets available here.

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: VAN MORRISON - LATEST RECORD PROJECT Volume 1


Bit of a tough one, this. Van looked pretty selfish and cranky complaining about Covid restrictions keeping him from touring. Of course, he's always been a curmudgeon at best, and his self-focus has crept into his lyrics over the years ("copycats ripped off my words..."). A psychiatrist could have a field day analyzing the level of his paranoia here, but he's already told us what he thinks of that industry in track 3, "Psychoanalyst's Ball," where he says "Keep coming back every week/For the rest of your life/Will it ever make any difference at all?"

For a good deal of the three-album set, it's kind of like getting trapped by your co-worker's spouse at the office picnic, while they rail on about what's wrong with people today. The media, Facebook, greedy people, those in power, and people bitching but doing nothing. Funny though, he doesn't go deep in any of the songs, mostly he just puts the complaint out there and doesn't offer up any further arguments or ideas. And by printing the lyrics in a great big book, it's like he's inviting people to criticize and get upset. I sense a little Irish mischievousness at work.

In an album with titles such as "The Long Con" and "Big Lie," the real con here may be coming from Morrison himself. After all, it's not like he's spouting off on songs about anti-fax conspiracies. There's actually so little substance here, it's hard to disagree with much that he's saying. Who hasn't complained about Facebook? Who hasn't uttered the phrase, "Stop bitching, do something?" Courting controversy may simply be a way to attract attention and boost sales. The key could be in the title cut, where he asked "Have you got my latest record project? Not something from so long ago." Are you really listening or do you just love "Moondance?"

When you strip away the controversy-courting song titles, there's a good album in here, probably not one worth three albums of material, but still a good one. The band is tight, the songs groove, and Morrison for the most part remains in fine form vocally. It's certainly going to be a flashpoint album in his career in years to come, but I don't think you can write it off as the ramblings of an old crank.

Monday, May 10, 2021

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: HALCYON PHASE - TENDRILS


Big themes and big sounds make up the debut of Ottawa's Halcyon Phase, a meeting of songwriter Frank Smith and writer/producer Phillip Victor Bova. Written before Covid, it still matches the times, kicking off with the track "Emergency," a run-down of all the duplicity at work while we face no end of crises. It's all around us, troubles both global and personal, and it seems like they're gaining on us, as we're "checking the rearview mirror for what's yet to come," in "Disquiet." Elsewhere "Time, it marches on, it imperils our sons and our daughters," Smith reminds us, "imprisoning children on the border." Jolly times, these aren't. There's some optimism at least, but it's realistic, not pie-in-the-sky: "It's going to take some time to heal."

Bova provides much-needed musical healing to ease the burden. He brought together a grand group of players working remotely through the pandemic, adding statements of empathy and beauty to the songs. There are bold rock moments, and some heavy sounds, but more often it's rich and melodic ensemble playing, with tasteful guitar lines and some rich keyboards. Best addition of all is harmony singer Rebecca Campbell, a great counter to Smith's leads. The final effect is to counter the downs of the woes and reality in the lyrics with strength and a certain hopefulness from the music. 

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: ROB LUTES - COME AROUND


Lutes excels at easy-going songwriting that sounds effortless but is of the finest quality. In fact, he makes it all sound easy. He's a masterful singer and guitar player, and gracefully moves across all the roots genres, equal parts folk, blues and rock. And all these tracks just slide on by, each one a little gem, leaving you feeling grand. Here he's supported by a solid, largely acoustic combo, including his longtime guitar buddy Rob MacDonald, tasty keyboards from Bob Stagg, and smooth, understated harmonies from Annabelle Chvostek.

That doesn't mean the songs are light. "That Bird Has My Wings" is inspired by a book by a death row inmate where hope is found imagining freedom in a bird's flight. In "Lightning," it takes bright flashes of realization to let someone see the truth. It's thoughtful stuff, personal but egoless, life-affirming and above all, full of satisfying songcraft.

Monday, April 26, 2021

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: DANIEL LANOIS - HEAVY SUN


Although best known for his star-power productions, for the past decade Lanois has spent more time on his own projects. They've been wildly different, from his dub-rock set Black Dub, to his 2018 pedal steel-synth-beats collaboration with Venetian Snares. You just never know. 

This time out, Lanois formed a group of some of his close friends, with a purpose in mind. He had a sound in his head, something old, and something new. He wanted to make a vocal album, with lots and lots of harmonies. He wanted it to be soulful, not just in name and style, but in real, gospel-based soul. He wanted it to be modern too, and of course, Lanois knows how to make anything forward-thinking, with his unlimited studio skills and sounds in his head.

It would also need a unified sound, something that can only come from a core group of like-minded souls, who could play and sing like angels. He already had long-time bassist Jim Wilson ready, plus guitarist Rocco DeLuca. But it still needed gospel authenticity. For that, Lanois turned to another connection that he had made through his drummer friend, the great Brian Blade. Blade came from the church, as did his father, Pastor Brady Blade, whom he had met when he had his studio in New Orleans.

"The Blade family certainly introduced me to another dimension of culture in Louisiana," says Lanois, currently in his Toronto studio. "I was introduced to their Pops, who runs the Zion Baptist Church in Shreveport, Louisiana, and I've sat in with the church band and choir a good many times, and that's how I met Johnny Sheppard, who was the choir director and organist. So that's it, we always wanted a harmony singing group, and I heard Johnny and thought maybe he could be that member of the orchestra we've been looking for."

Lanois doesn't choose his projects on a whim, and he pours his heart and effort into each one. Record-making, to him, has important rules. "It's always been my criteria to pay respect to tradition. We all came into this loving something that was already made. But then I have a responsibility to take it into the future. I managed to do it with Bob Dylan and a lot of folks.. We had such an eclectic group, everybody brought something to the table. Johnny had never sung outside a church, how rare is that? Such a pure form. Then me with all my record-making experience, to try and harness the magic as best I can, and then to write songs with these mates. Overall it was a very good setting for making something that will live on."

What leaps out is music full of joy. It's a positive sound, built on the harmony singing and spiritual vibes. It's not Gospel music, religion doesn't feature in the lyrics, but the positivity certainly does, much like the sound of Curtis Mayfield & the Impressions. "That's a good point of reference, because his music always had joy in its spine," says Lanois. "And no matter what the subject matter was, you got the impression he was on the pulse of something. If we could be in that club in any way, that's a big compliment."

Given how we've all been feeling, it could be the tonic you've been craving. Lanois felt it was important to make a positive record right now. "I felt that way before the pandemic," he says. "And so off we went, and Johnny Sheppard said, please make sure that every song has a good message. I said, alright Johnny, no problem, let's go. Then the pandemic came, and apparently the record is being called the Sonic Vaccine."

You don't have to overthink this album, just enjoy this mix of new and old, and simply beautiful melodies and harmonies. 

"I think that if there's any truth that artists feel the wave of the future in the present day, let that apply to this, says Lanois. "I felt something in the air. Nobody's occupying the centre stage in this, it's group singing in most places, and I think people feel that we left our egos hanging at the door. Isn't that why people sing in choirs? They want to harmonize, they want to blend. And there's a lot of harmony and blended singing on this record."

Thursday, April 22, 2021

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: WILLIE DUNN - CREATION NEVER SLEEPS, CREATION NEVER DIES: THE WILLIE DUNN ANTHOLOGY


Long before this generation heard about residential schools, Charlie Wenjack, colonial privilege and environmental protests, Willie Dunn was trying to wake people up with his music. A product of the folk singer movement of the early 1960's, grew up in Montreal, where his Mi'gmaq mother from Restigouche and Liverpool-born father had settled. He became one of the core young leaders and creators in an artistic and political movement of First Nations artists, and his music was just part of his make-up. He was a member of the Canadian Armed Forces, a filmmaker with the NFB, a politician, a visual artist, a poet, and a protestor. His inspiring life story would fill a book or two, certainly the lengthy essays in this new collection, and all of it influenced the stunning working collected here.

It's the latest project from the Light In The Attic label, the same group that released the groundbreaking and Grammy-nominated collection Native North America in 2014, which featured three of Dunn's tracks. Dunn died just before the release of that collection, which helped increase his profile, and producer Kevin Howes has brought the same level of excellence to this set. This goes beyond any casual statement that maybe there were a few decent performers found in the First Nations that might have been unjustly ignored. One listen to the music shows that Dunn was a writer and performer of the highest calibre for decades, his songs as powerful and affecting today as they were when first recorded.

There are two reasons Willie Dunn isn't spoken of alongside Joni Mitchell and Gordon Lightfoot in this country, and the first one is obvious. Gatekeepers weren't about to play and promote his music in the past, and most Canadians didn't want to hear it anyway. Dunn himself didn't help matters, since he had no interest in commercializing himself other than the bare essentials of survival. There was no compromise, he was not for sale. Institutions such as the NFB and CBC were supportive in the '60's and '70's, and thankfully Dunn was able to work on lots of productions and recording sessions, and even put out a couple of albums with small commercial companies. For the small audience that did find Dunn's music and film, his work was monumental. 

Much of the music on this two-disc set is either topical or historical, Dunn fully invested in telling the truths about the Native experience under colonial rule. His landmark "The Ballad Of Crowfoot" was turned into a ten-minute NFB film in 1968 which he directed, essentially one of the very first long-form music videos. It takes the listener from 1821 to 1967 (Centennial year), showing the horrible impact felt by the Indigenous peoples. It is the flipside of Lightfoot's Centennial song, "Canadian Railroad Trilogy," and should have been played right after it. It's impossible to listen to this song and not come away changed.

There are lots of others of equal power, especially "I Pity The Country," his condemnation of bureaucracy and bigotry: "I pity the country, I pity the state/And the mind of a man, who thrives on hate." Respect to Gord Downie, but Dunn told Charlie Wenjack's story on his 1971 album, in the song "Charlie." And his spoken-word new version of "O Canada!" is undeniable: "O Canada, once glorious and free/O Canada, we sympathize with thee." 

Not everything is sadness and righteous anger. There are celebrations like "The Carver," who takes the nature and stories of his people, and puts it all in the totem poles and canoes. In "Sonnet 33 and 55/Friendship Dance," he combines the words of Shakespeare with drums and chants, a stunning and brave artistic statement. I've spent decades immersed in the career highlights of rock, pop and folk heroes, many of them ensconced in various Halls of Fame, usually for one or two highlights and then varying levels of achievement. There are precious few, only a handful, who have created at such a pure and powerful level, and with such a true artistic vision, as Willie Dunn.