Friday, October 23, 2020

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: PETER KATZ - CITY OF OUR LIVES

 

Peter Katz's music has expanded greatly since his acoustic guitar, singer-songwriter debut back in 2007. Now bathed in the best new rhythms and rich pop production courtesy of Derek Hoffman (The Trews, Caveboy), the big sound matches his mood. It's an album about embracing change, and life, no matter what gets thrown at you.

The back story is a big one, involving Katz falling off a cliff, breaking bones and being warned he might never walk again. There's also a break-up and a house gone. But rather than a pity party, the songs are about what can come next. The ones that address that topic include bits of his story, such as "Everything Is Different," where "I loved that house, every corner of it." But it's about what comes next, and how to look forward to it: "Everything is different than it was/There's no way to recover what was lost/Everything is changing cause it does/Let the colours bleed out in the wash."

With plenty of glittery synth sounds and charming melodies, Katz is certainly offering up the best of current pop sounds. What sets him further apart is his always-wonderful, emotive voice and his excellent, clear way with lyrics. He knows what he wants to get across, he says it concisely, it all makes sense and it all hits home. That's a grand skill in any kind of writing.

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

TOURING RESUMES IN THE ATLANTIC BUBBLE, AS P.E.I. MUSICIANS VISIT N.B.


Thanks to the Atlantic Bubble, East Coast musicians are getting a few more opportunities to play around the region of late, as touring returns in a reduced way. For some, that means finally getting to perform around new releases.The pandemic struck at a particularly poor time for P.E.I.'s Rachel Beck, who was just finishing up her latest, Stronger Than You Know, when the touring world shut down for her. 

Now, Beck is back on the road, part of a show called Saltwater Songs, featuring three P.E.I. singer-songwriters. They play Friday night in Saint John at The Imperial and Saturday night in Fredericton at the Playhouse, in suiitably-social distancing settings (reduced capacity, seating bubbles). Joining Beck are a couple of Juno winners, Catherine MacLellan and Tim Chaisson (The East Pointers), sharing their music and backing each other up. So it's a hot new band, with MacLellan on guitar, Beck on keys and Chaisson on guitar.

Here's a look back at Beck's latest release, which I initially reviewed in June.

P.E.I.'s Beck returns with a second set of shimmering pop, produced with East Coast atmosphere by Daniel Ledwell. This one leans a little more into the pop side than her self-titled debut, her mellow and moody vocals wrapped around electro keyboards and beats on cuts such as "Dancin'." But it's not about partying; "We take and take and take and take," she warns, "We're dancin' on our grave."  The message, gracefully delivered throughout the six-track E.P., is that together we can make a difference, and given what's happened in the past few months since the songs were written and recorded, it seems timely and prophetic.

There's an empowering tone to the songs, especially lead track "Warrior," inspired by the strength Beck sees in her young daughter. It's both a celebration and a hope for the future: "Lift up your voice, cut through the noise." The title cut connects those hopes to nature, our best source of strength when we embrace it: "Just breathe in and let it go, you're stronger than you."

The set closed with Beck back at the piano for the quiet, intimate "Tonight," intense and romantic in its calm beauty. The real strings, from Islanders Kinley Dowling and Natalie Williams Calhoun perfectly soar into that nighttime, and show the Beck-Ledwell team work old-school magic as well. The E.P. is ethereal, uplifting, and even a tiny bit mystical.



Monday, October 19, 2020

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: RICK FINES - SOLAR POWERED TOO

 


Life and its lemons haven't stopped Fines. As the gigs dried up in the pandemic, the veteran roots troubadour did the other thing he does very well, and crafted us a bunch of new songs. Picking up on the back-to-basics vibe many of us have employed during these strange times, Fines headed to his Kawartha, Ontario cabin to make some back-to-basics music. This meant some mostly guitar-and-voice roots/blues songs, using a set-up he's employed before, recording using solar power, lots of fresh air and a few crickets for ambiance. That's about half the material; the rest needed some rhythm, backing vocals and a few more touches, so those were done back in Toronto.

Either way, the songs have Fines' relaxed warmth, highlighted by his storyteller vocals and guitar ease. His playing, especially his ringing resonator licks and bright picking, seems to flow effortlessly as he spins his solo tales. Meanwhile, "You Only Want Me When You Need Me," written with Matt Andersen, sizzles along with full band fun, lots of Fines' guitar solos and soulful vocals from Samantha Martin and Delta Sugar. "Yellow Moon, Indigo Sky" is a country-Cajun romp with Jimmy Bowskill's fiddle and Fines' long-time recording and touring pal Suzie Vinnick supplying the duet vocals. I like the mix of solo and accompanied tracks, and as always with Fines, the overall top quality of singing, writing and playing.

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: NEIL YOUNG - THE TIMES

 


Neil Young was one of the first stars to jump on the internet to stream mini-concerts after the collapse of touring due to the pandemic. No stranger to acoustic performances, Young recorded several shows around his ranch, strolling around outside or nestled by a fire. There were plenty of classics, a few surprises, and some inspired covers during the so-called Fireside Sessions. Seven of them have been issued on this mini-album, and it's clear where Neil's head was at, as it includes some of his best-known protest songs, the theme of the set.

With the death of George Floyd, the Black Lives Matter protests and the ongoing Trump Wars occupying the headlines, Young was certainly going to voice his opinions. He's a veteran of course, his pointed statements about race relations in the south, "Southern Man" and "Alabama" are both featured. His outcry against the crackdown on student protests at Kent St. University, "Ohio," is also highly appropriate, as it is important to draw the parallels between those times and today. Violence against peaceful protests was wrong then, history has proved it, and it's still wrong.

Neil's never been known for his subtlety, but this time he's letting the lessons of the past do most of the talking. The inclusion of Dylan's epic "The Times They Are A-Changin'" is a great message to the grey set, reminding them to pay attention to young voices. The only fresh statement Young makes is a rewrite of his anti-Bush number "Looking For A Leader," now called "Looking For A Leader 2020." It's actually subdued in its message, a surprise for Young, but it's actually a good idea. Of late he's been bashing us over the head with his political views, a case of preaching to the converted. This rewrite features more thoughtful lyrics: "America is beautiful, but she has an ugly side/We're looking for a leader in this country far and wide."

The set closes with a nod to Young's recent release of his 1970's scrapped album Homegrown, with him noodling away on "Little Wing." It's a bit of a waste, since it's interrupted at one point, not a complete performance. But the rest of the selections have a warm, campfire vibe to them, on a set that hits home with the U.S. election so near.

Sunday, October 11, 2020

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: KYLIE FOX - GREEN

 


Kylie Fox is one of the artists up for this year's Music New Brunswick Awards, being handed out as part of the annual Festival 506. This year it's online, being held from Oct. 22 to Oct. 25. Apart from the conference, fans can listen to the nominees and vote for their favourites at https://www.musicnb.org/en/programs/prix-mnb-awards/2020-nominees. Fox is up for the SOCAN Song Of The Year award for "Cradle Me" and for the Fan's Choice Award as well.

"Cradle Me" comes from her brand-new album, called Green. It's her first full-length release, after the 2017 EP Balcony. That set introduced her refreshing, wide-open songwriting, disarmingly plain-spoken about her life and the folks and friends around her. She was still an emerging artist at that point, but now has a fully-developed sound, and a fully-produced album thanks to ECMA Award-winner Dale Murray. Smartly, Fox's vocals dominate, as she is a confident and strong singer, with a quirky warble that sets her apart. Murray adds lots of subtle percussion, strings and pauses to her folk-acoustic music, leaving lots of room for her voice to soar.

What makes Fox such a stand-out writer is her ability to write about normal events and feelings in a completely fresh way. "Avocado" is about a friend's pregnancy, when the baby-to-be reaches a stage where they are roughly the size of the titular fruit."Cool Feet" is a love song composed for two friends, what the guy misses about his g-friend when she's not there. "This Beer" is about the Moosehead always offered to anyone from Saint John when they are somewhere else in Canada. And she's especially frank about her own life, where not much is sacred, as heard in "Horny and Bored."

You can catch Kylie Fox in concert (if Covid restrictions stay the same) in Fredericton at the Charlotte Street Arts Centre, on Oct. 30. Opening will be Jerry-Faye, with limited, social-distanced seating available.

Monday, October 5, 2020

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: THE ROLLING STONES - GOATS HEAD SOUP (Super deluxe edition)

 


Goats Head Soup is usually considered a disappointment in the Stones discography, not so much for what it holds, but rather for what it followed. Coming hot on the heels of 1972's Exile On Main Street, it clearly doesn't match up to that double album, considered by many the best of their LP's. Also, most Stones fans consider the band's best albums are found in the run from 1968 to 1972, beginning with Beggars Banquet and ending with Exile. I can't argue that; Goats Head Soup is certainly no Sticky Fingers or Let It Bleed.

So, one must look at it on its own merits, and there's lots to enjoy. First, the dark ballad and hit single "Angie," as close to singer-songwriter as the Stones got, is underrated among their hits. It's a throwback to '60's numbers such as "Play With Fire" and "Lady Jane," but without the ornate touches, instead more influenced by U.S. country. "Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)" is another underappreciated gem, catchy and devious, a song you'll get stuck in your head for days. It may not be the strongest lyric, but the band took it up three levels in the production.

Lyrics were the biggest problem, with no great and memorable images, no crossfire hurricanes or tumbling dice for fans to shout. The next level of tracks on the disc, better-known numbers "Dancing With Mr. D." and "Star Star" were weak ideas that relied on old standby shock, the devil and sex. Of course, "Star Star" did have plenty of shock value for the time, and it is plenty catchy too, but that mild controversy seems eye-rolling typical misogyny now, like an out-take from a Trump tape.

Those are the big cuts on the album (the anchor songs, I like to call them), but the secondary numbers in between get little acknowledgement as well. I think that's because the album doesn't get played too much, in favour of bigger ones or compilations. There are good numbers there though, including "100 Years Ago" and "Silver Train." I've always loved hearing Jagger sing "lazy bones" in the former tune. Stones filler tracks are miles above most people's hits, and while side 2 loses some momentum before the "Star Star" finale, there's nothing to damn the album over.

Apparently the sessions in Jamaica, L.A. and England yielded some 30 tracks in various levels of completion, and were mined for other albums right up to 1981's Tattoo You, where outtake "Waiting On A Friend" finally found a home. The Stones have opened up their famously tight vaults a little for this deluxe box, including three previously unreleased outtakes. I can see why they never were further developed, or put out on the band's next album (It's Only Rock 'n' Roll) like "Short And Curlies." Again though, they are decent tunes, the most notable being "Scarlet," featuring Jimmy Page on guitar, subbing for Mick Taylor who missed the session. Instead of presenting more of the outtakes, disc two on the box is filled with instrumental versions and alternate mixes of the regular album cuts. Some of these are quite illuminating, especially the piano demo version of "100 Year Ago." and hearing "Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo' as an instrumental really hammers home are tight these productions are, how solid the groove is.

Disc three is the real bonus here, a fantastic live show from the tour celebrating the album release. Known as The Brussels Affair," the disc first came out in 2011, but only as a crazy-expensive box available from the Stones website. It's considered one of their best, a 75-minute set compiled from two shows in Belgium in October of '73. It features the four anchor songs from Goats Head Soup (see above), bookended by songs only from '68 on. Exile gets a still-heavy presence, with "Happy," "Tumbling Dice," "All Down The Line" and "Rip This Joint" included. The rest are all mid-period classics, "Brown Sugar," "Gimme Shelter," etc., featuring perhaps the best Stones live band, with Mick Taylor and Billy Preston major contributors.

There's a good hardbound book included, with long essays and tons of great photos, a Blu-ray with hi-res audio, four period tour posters, and a recipe for goat's head soup, for the daring. Most previous Stones boxes have been short on content and long on photos and packaging, but this set does deliver with both. Also available as a much-cheaper two-disc set with the demos/outtake disc.

Thursday, September 24, 2020

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: PAUL RANDY MINGO - STOP TAKING OFFENCE

 


Nova Scotia country-rocker Paul Randy Mingo has been itching to get back to playing, and a couple of weeks back came up with a unique stage, mindful of social distancing. Mingo set up outdoors, on the Port Greville beach, just down from his home along the north shore of Minas Basin. All went grand, says the veteran performer, as a few dozen folks were able to come out, not get too close, and still enjoy a show.

Mingo's been busy on the recording side during the Covid downtime as well, and has just issued his latest, a six-track E.P. It features what he calls an upgrade to his sound, which means a whole lot more instruments on some of the tracks. Opener "Another Round" has a great big, rocking band backing him, with loud guitars, piano fills and huge drums, Waylon on steroids. "You Know What I Mean" is another track with country cahones, an affirmation of Saturday night, drinks with friends and the back roads around Seal Brook.

In just six tracks Mingo shows lots of songwriting range, with "I Loved You Most Of All" a piano ballad with some grand synth-string orchestral touches. "The Way" could have been from your favourite '70's rock band, and the title cut is a honky-tonk reminder to not get so worked up about everything on the internet. Mingo's small-town Nova Scotia is sounding plenty big.