Thursday, October 21, 2021

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: THE FRETLESS - OPEN HOUSE




Canada's progressive string quartet The Fretless aren't the first such group to do an album of modern covers, or add guest vocalists. But often those sets are larks, a bit of fun, and a way to draw attention from the pop audience. You're not going to find such stunts here, no novelty string arrangements of "Highway To Hell" or a set of beloved Fleetwood Mac classics. Instead, the singers are interesting experimenters, and the songs are for the most part somewhat obscure. They were chosen from a list the group had of works they felt would benefit from their particular style of arrangement, and a strings and vocals-only treatment.

Even if you do know the song, you'll barely recognize it, which is a great thing. Feist's "My Moon My Man" has an otherworldly quality here, with Scottish folkie Rachel Sermanni accompanied by some delightful swirls. Nashville couple Freddie & Francine match the beauty of the moody melody from Steely Dan's "Dirty Work" with their fine vocals. And the group, along with Lady Phyl, turn "Wondering Where The Lions Are" into something unrecognizable but wonderful, retaining only the lyrics as the strings sail into eternity. 

Both Dan Mangan and the Bros. Landreth got to work with the group on reimagined versions of their own songs, Mangan on "Troubled Mind" and the Bros. with "Let It Lie." For my ears, it's great to hear songs stripped of beats and 2020 cliches, and brought back to a more musical place; witness the version of Alessia Cara's "Stay" with Nuela Charles for that. There's a little bit of me wishing The Fretless would remake, like, everything. 



Monday, October 18, 2021

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: JACLYN REINHART - SLEEP WITH GHOSTS


A significant step forward for this New Brunswick singer-songwriter, who put out an album and an E.P. in the 2010's. Now with a lot more confidence and development, Reinhart has worked hard finding the right framing for her personal lyrics. The result is a rootsier sound with tighter arrangements and some fine hooks and catchy choruses.

The songs on this five-cut E.P. tell of bad, regretful relationships and coming out the other side stronger. No tears needed now, she's got this covered: "You'll only see one finger when I say goodbye, in my rearview," she sings goodbye to a loser in lead single "Rearview." In "Last Disaster," she adds this bit of muscle to the same topic: "This story's over, I can close this chapter/you should know you'll be my last disaster." And she saves her most heartfelt words for her own healing, in "Apology": "Now I'm sorry -- this apology is for me."

Recorded and mixed by fellow N.B.-er John McLaggan of East Coast favourites Tomato/Tomato, this feels like a whole new start for Reinhart.

Friday, October 15, 2021

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: CAROLINE WILES - GRATEFUL


From the fertile Hamilton music scene, Wiles is a strong singer-songwriter who has the added blessing of a killer voice, emotive and rich. The leads and harmonies here are exceptional, and are wisely highlighted in the mix throughout. She has a voice you want to hear.

Her pop-folk material is lyrically strong as well, straight to the point, emotional and empowering, and the upbeat numbers like "Make A Memory With Me" are tailor-made with big hooks. They do tend towards '70's and '80's clean production, somewhat dated at times, but no problem if that's your era. Some more country-ish numbers later in the album, "Lovey Dovey" and "Old Country Song," benefit more from that approach, good ol' throwback country with a big voice and lots of fiddle. 

Catch her Saturday, Oct. 16 at the Moonshine Cafe in Oakville, ON.

Friday, October 1, 2021

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: JOHN WORT HANNAM - LONG HAUL


I haven't heard an album like this in awhile. Each song is simple, easy to take in, and utterly charming. They're built on clever lines, great humour, touching moments, worldly wisdom and sentimentality. Life, in all its beauty, confusion and irony. It's just the kind of record we loved John Prine for.

Hannam of course is no slouch as a writer. The Alberta troubadour has two decades worth of carefully-honed roots albums, but this one stands out. Not that he's reinvented the wheel, it's just that each song is bang-on, a collection where you go "Now that's a good one" with every new song. And you don't get used to them. Each time I've played this, the same thing has happened, where every one of the eleven tracks grabs my attention is some way.

It starts out that way with a great couplet, on lead track "Long Haul": "I ain't in it for the short term/I'm in it for the slow burn." In "Beautiful Mess," a duet with Shaela Miller, is a classic "We can't break up, who else would have us?" tune: "Oo wee baby, you and me are a tragedy/a shipwreck and a house ablaze/an earthquake and a tidal wave." And lines that might be too much like a Hallmark greeting card in a lesser writer's hands come out sincere and important from Hannam: "May you die young at heart at a ripe old age." Ain't life something? Don't overthink it.

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: THE BEACH BOYS - FEEL FLOWS THE SUNFLOWER AND SURF'S UP SESSIONS 1969 - 1971


Truth. I've been trying to get people to listen to this period of The Beach Boys' music since I was in high school. And that was indeed a very, very long time ago. I could never understand why it wasn't considered brilliant then, and I'd like to say to all those doubters over the years that indeed I feel vindicated in my life-long obsession and devotion. This boxed set is being hailed as containing the group's long-lost masterpieces, a must for anyone who takes them more seriously than "Barbara Ann" or "Surfin' U.S.A."

Well, if these albums were lost, they were hiding in plain sight. Both 1970's Sunflower and 1971's Surf's Up, the records from that period, have been easily available and reissued several ways since the '80's. There's simply never been a concerted push for them until now. That's been handled now by expanding the 1969-1971 time period into a five-disc collection, filled with outtakes, different versions, live cuts, works-in-progress and the ever-popular a cappella sections where you can hear the glorious vocals. 

It's a pretty good story too. With leader Brian Wilson going through more and more withdrawal due to his mental health, the band decided to build a recording studio in his house, in order to entice him downstairs. That worked on some days, but not always. Or he'd start a production, then leave it for others to finish. Meanwhile the rest of the group had to step up in production and songwriting, as their resident genius could no longer work at his usual, stunning pace. And surprise surprise, the rest of them showed they all had the skills needed, if not at Brian levels, then combined, they could come close.

Not that Wilson was totally missing. In fact some of his very best songs come from this period, just not in the same numbers. "'til I Die" from Surf's Up is the calm opposite of "Good Vibrations," an impossibly beautiful melody and vocal arrangement with a bittersweet look at mortality: "I'm a leaf on a windy day/pretty soon I'll be blown away."  Whatever thoughts were going through Brian's head, this was "In My Room" all grown up. "This Whole World" is another masterpiece, the song shifting moods and keys several times in two minutes, the vocal arrangement breathtaking. There was no-one else in the world who could conceive of that track, and since then, people have learned to copy the style but not truly create something so fresh and fierce. 

It's notable that Carl Wilson co-produced that cut with Brian, because he had to take the reins most of the time for the next while. The baby of the family had by then learned much of the studio language and could get the needed work from the other members and the session pros who usually looked to Brian. The rest describe this period as among the best for the group, since they were all excited to contribute, bringing in new songs and getting to add their own ideas, solo or collaboratively. Bruce Johnston, who had joined in '66, surprised all with touching piano numbers "Deirdre" and "Disney Girls." Al Jardine, the resident folkie, brought some quirky numbers and a big interest in hippie environmentalism ("Don't Go Near The Water," "Lookin' At Tomorrow") which sounds completely cool in these days of global warming concerns. Even the much-despised Mike Love was hard at work co-writing lyrics with all of them, including the should-have-been-huge singled "Add Some Music," now rightfully regarded as a classic. 

But it was Dennis Wilson who surprised the most with his songs and production. Previously the hot drummer and not much more, he had learned piano in the late '60's and was composing beautiful, dark, atmospheric love songs that were becoming an important part of the early '70's band. Working often with Beach Boys sideman Darryl Dragon (aka the Captain of Captain & Tennille), intense songs such as "Forever" were initially meant for solo records, but got drafted into band tracks in Brian's absence.

Not that they lacked material. As the boxed set shows, there were more than a dozen other tracks complete or near that were rejected, set aside, used as b-sides or saved for later. Some have surfaced over time ("Susie Cincinnati," "San Miguel"), others presented in other boxed sets, but several more are here for the first time, other than notorious bootleg and YouTube clips. Some rank among their best, including Love's "Big Sur," later reshaped as part of a medley on 1973's Holland, but here in its original time signature, a head-scratching drop from Surf's Up. Dennis's European-only solo single "Sound Of Free/Lady" could have easily made Sunflower. However it was Brian who proved the most troublesome writer as his mental state grew worse. Mostly he was childish, silly and inappropriate. "Good Time" was a fun track but nobody wants to hear lyrics like "My girlfriend Penny, she's kind of skinny, and so she needs her falsies on." Makes me cringe every time.

So lots to love here, a couple of things to scratch your head over, but if you don't have these albums you'll probably be shocked they aren't better known. Surf's Up did okay but Sunflower was a complete bomb, at least in North America. England hailed it as the group's best after Pet Sounds, and it probably is. Even the repetitive takes on discs three and four that have the instrumental or a cappella sections are well worth hearing, as the productions are so rich and complicated. The book essay is a bit myth-making, as it wasn't quite the joyous time they make it sound. And while this creative period lasted a couple more years, America discovered nostalgia after that thanks to American Graffiti and Happy Days, and the public demanded they return to their '60's surfin' and cars songs. Unlike The Beatles, you have to pick and choose Beach Boys albums carefully, but this is absolutely one to enjoy.

Monday, September 27, 2021

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: CAROLINE MARIE BROOKS - EVERYTHING AT THE SAME TIME


"Look how beautiful it is outside but I'm stuck on the inside," is not just a pandemic reference. Like many of us, Caroline Marie Brooks found herself in deep reflection during the past year and a half of isolation. That line in "Birdsong" refers to being stuck emotionally, thoughts and feelings caging us up as much as Covid. Brooks, one of the three members of folk favourites Good Lovelies, found herself flowing with new material but nowhere to share it, kept off the road and away from her partners. The perfect time then, for a first solo album.

Moving from one-third responsibility to handling all the leads herself might have been daunting, but she makes it sound effortless. Brooks has a tremendously pleasing tone, gentle and soothing, easy-going, like a mandolin. It's perfect combined with stringed instruments, and co-producer Jim Bryson underscores her good and lovely vocals rather than overwhelming with anything near loud. Mostly its things like baritone and tenor guitars, a dobro and a tiple, a symphony of soft. There's even an instrumental, two guitars, just Brooks and her dad, called appropriately "Song For Fred."

She had no shortage of inspiration even under lockdown. It was time to take stock of a few memories, a few current realities, and to not forget singing and playing for the simple pleasure of it. Family and children feature prominently, Brooks smack in the middle of life, young people to care for, watch grow older, and parents and partners fitting in there too. It's past, present and future all there under one family, great memories, a few fears, some melancholy and lots of contemplation. But don't forget the joy. A poignant and pleasing last note is a surprising cover of an old Roger Miller song taken from the soundtrack to the '70's Disney movie Robin Hood, "Oo-De-Lally." On the surface you could let this album wash over you as a pleasing and uplifting set, but it doesn't take long for the lyrical weight to sink in.

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: ARKELLS - BLINK ONCE


Arkells walk a tricky tightrope. Somehow they manage to be dance-y and trance-y, but still come across as rock as well. They have lots of pop elements, big and bold and joyous tunes that lift you up, but also handle lots of heavy issues. In a blind taste-test, they'd probably score well with teens and hipsters and even some Dad Rock fans.

If that sounds accusatory, like the music was purposely a hybrid created by committee, it's not meant to be. It's more a wide-open attitude, ample influences and lots of creativity on tap in the production. The group has a lead singer in Max Kerman with lots of big rock ability, and being from Hamilton, they have history and pedigree and tons of heroes to emulate. 

Anyway, that's why they have had big success and manage to show up in pop, rock and alt-rock charts and playlists. The new album Blink Once, is more poppy and bright than ever, and ridiculously catchy. It's certainly not the group's blah-blah-stuck-inside-Covid album. It's more like a (slightly premature) celebratory get out and have fun collection. Or at least it sounds like that. "Swing Swing Swing" is about as punchy and bouncy as they've ever done, but, classic, it's sung by a dumped guy finally coming to grips with his situation. "Liberation" feels like people breaking free, hitting the road for excitement, but the back story is someone going through cancer and needing to celebrate rather than suffer. "Arm In Arm" is another one where grief is acknowledged but moving forward is the goal. 

Of course, you can ignore all the words and just pump your fist in the air. There are few albums that come close to being this energetic and upbeat. But there's lots to chew over as well.