Monday, December 17, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: PAUL MCCARTNEY - WILD LIFE & RED ROSE SPEEDWAY REISSUES

It's a bonanza for Beatle/McCartney fans of late, with these reissues following November's tremendous box set for the White Album. I'm not suggesting that these two albums rank alongside that beloved Beatle set, but we do get more bonuses and newly-remastered music. These are part of the ongoing McCartney Archive Collection, with two-CD versions, vinyl and big box set options. I'll stick to the more-affordable two-disc copies, as these aren't thought of as the gems in his catalog, so to speak.

Wild Life, the debut Wings album from 1971, is in fact largely discredited and ignored, with no hit singles or well-known tracks, and you rarely if ever see anything by it on compilations or McCartney setlists. Red Rose Speedway, even though it was a #1 album in 1973, doesn't have much better a reputation, with My Love being its main attraction. Although it's hard to believe now, during these two years McCartney was the underachiever in the solo Beatles stakes, with Lennon, Harrison and even Ringo scoring more hits and better PR.

Big reissues can sometimes improve our opinions on forgotten or misunderstood albums. Dylan's successful remodeling of his maligned Self-Portrait set during the Bootleg Series is a great example of how showing the bare bones and alternates can help change minds. Here we have one such success. I'm very surprised how well Red Rose Speedway sounds now, after hearing it for the first time in many years. With a great second disc of B-sides, period singles, live tracks and unreleased cuts, it's greatly beefed up. But also, it seems the record hasn't been given its due over the years, perhaps due to the backlash over the failed Wild Life set. There are some very good, melodic McCartney numbers, examples of his thoughtful pop stuff from the Abbey Road-McCartney-Ram period. Get On The Right Thing, Little Lamb Dragonfly and Single Pigeon are all really pleasing. It turns out some of these songs pre-dated the Wild Life sessions, and were Ram leftovers, which happens to be my choice for the best-ever McCartney album, so that accounts for it.

Over on disc two, you have lots of singles and b-sides that weren't on albums, most of them pretty good to great. There's also his version of Mary Had A Little Lamb, it had to go somewhere. But we do get Live And Let Die and its underrated flip, I Lie Around, the Hi Hi Hi/C Moon coupling, the rather fun Suzy and the Red Stripes single Seaside Woman (Linda's solo turn), and Country Dreamer, the b-side of Helen Wheels. These are joined by three live cuts from the Wings Over Europe tour, delightfully three unreleased songs, darn good ones too. Red Rose Speedway was originally planned as a double album, and these ones ended up dropped for the single album release. Some of the other studio numbers dropped appear here as well for the first time, and it does prove to have been a fertile period.

The Wild Life collection doesn't fare as well. For some reason McCartney was playing it simple when he put together his first band, and the songs reflect that. There's no great thought in numbers such as Bip Bop and Mumbo, the lyrics reflecting the gravitas of the titles. A cover of Mickey and Sylvia's Love Is Strange is both uninspired and too long, and it really does feel like he was padding out the record with studio jams. The bonus disc hasn't much more to offer. There's some home recordings of silliness such as Bip Bop and Hey Diddle, with the kids running around and Linda singing harmonies, some minor demos, and the "controversial" single Give Ireland Back To The Irish, a cut McCartney has chosen to bury over the years.

In the end, this is a partial win for McCartney, as Red Rose Speedway should be elevated in status, and is one you'd do well to pick up and explore. Wild Life remains one for major fans keen on complete collections.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: VAN MORRISON - THE PROPHET SPEAKS

Morrison continues to do exactly what he's done for the past couple of decades, release yet another new album, alternating between blues, jazz and R'n'B, with lots of '50's and '60's covers with a few originals thrown in as well. This one feels different though, and there's a buzz about it too. Spending a few hours in a Halifax record store last week, the thing actually sold out, and a couple of people came in specifically looking for it. It could just be the eye-catching cover, but it's also a cut above the usual.

I think it has to do with the small jazz combo form he uses on this release, just four other players plus his own harp and sax. It includes one of jazz music's current lights, organ player Joey DeFrancesco, and the last time he teamed up with Van, the album You're Driving Me Crazy, from this past spring, you could feel the magic beginning. For that album, Morrison chose to rework some of his own back catalog, but this time he had six new originals, including the moody title cut, and that seems to have inspired the proceedings further. These aren't just throwaway blues lyrics either. Morrison gets into the mystic with Spirit Will Provide, and goes dark with 5 AM Greenwich Mean Time.

That's all great, it's nice to have some strong originals, but what makes the record special is the hot performances, from DeFrancesco's organ and trumpet, Troy Roberts' sax solos, and Morrison's surprisingly excellent harp work. The band swings, and Morrison is clearly inspired, sounding enthused in his vocals. Then throw in great choices such as Muddy Waters' I Love The Life I Live and John Lee Hooker's Dimples, and you have a thoroughly enjoyable listen. Oh, and if you're counting, it's Van's 40th studio album. He's got this down.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: RODNEY CROWELL - CHRISTMAS EVERYWHERE

You wouldn't expect Rodney Crowell to do a Christmas album that is sentimental and saccharine, and he doesn't disappoint. At times bemused, biting, sad or lovelorn, Crowell calls out the hype and phony ho-ho-ho, and refuses to view the season through holly-coloured glasses. In other words, he approaches it just like a great singer-songwriter should.

Crowell doesn't even sing on the opener, Clement's Lament, but instead lets a couple of angelic voices lull us into a false feeling of Christmas, before hitting us with the payoff, "Peace on Earth, good will to one and all/The season starts in August now, we'll see you in the mall."  His Christmas Everywhere has all the cliches flying in rhyming couplets, a mind-boggling collection of gift hopes from the smallest child (a ball and bat) to the biggest power grabber ("Donald wants to rule the world"), an apt description of Christmas mania. Then there are the songs that look at the dark side, characters pining for great loves lost, Christmas triggering their sad memories. In Merry Christmas From An Empty Bed, the character faces an artificial tree once purchased and left behind by his ex, "The evergreen seems pointless for a tired old fool like me/The fake one more resembles now the man I've come to be."

Happy holiday music it's not, despite some sprightly tunes including When The Fat Guy Tries The Chimney On For Size. This is not for your happy family gatherings. It is however an excellent Rodney Crowell take on Christmas, which is a lot better present than him singing another version of Deck The Halls.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: WHITEHORSE - A WHITEHORSE WINTER CLASSIC

This is definitely one of the best new Christmas albums this year. Whitehorse shows how broad a range the duo has, tackling a bunch of different styles on this holiday offering. Over the nine songs and 30 minutes, there are seven new originals, covering pop, ballad, orchestral and choral, a little of their raw guitar sound, a potential catchy rock hit in Merry Christmas, Baby, and lead vocals from both Melissa McClelland and Luke Doucet. Throughout, lots of sharp, thoughtful lyrics cover universal themes of hope rather than cliched story lines or overblown sentiment.

I like how the duo has approached the season as they do with regular albums, by writing about topics and moods we all go through, rather than resorting to the usual  Christmas tropes. Ho Ho Ho is about getting ho-ho-home in all the usual seasonal chaos: "With all the cancelled flights, I hope you even make it here." Two Snowbirds, which features what might be McClelland's most gorgeous vocal ever in the band, is about getting the heck out of Dodge in the winter cold, and how the season's cheer can follow you somewhere warm too.

Breaking up the new stuff are two familiar numbers, but both very suited to their style. The first is a duet cover of The Pretenders' 2000 Miles, lovely vocals matching the wonderful melody of the original. Blue Christmas is even better-known, here offered as a nicely quirky version with a cheesy organ, drum machine and nasty guitar solo. Most Christmas albums are a quick run-through of the usual songs and styles, fun but of no great consequence. This one sees Whitehorse stretching out of their comfort zone, composing some fine new songs, and using the opportunity to build on their fine body of work.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: MURRAY KINSLEY & WICKED GRIN - MURDER CREEK

Here's the latest from the hard-working, hard-grooving Ottawa group, its fourth album since 2011, pretty remarkable given their constant touring regime. The four-piece group is a well-oiled machine, with Kinsley handling vocals and all the stinging guitar, with Rod Williams on harp, Leigh-Anne Stanton on bass and Bruce Saunders in the drum chair. It's hard-boiled, rough 'n' ready electric blues, with more than a few serious themes and well-spoken messages. There's as much bite in the lyrics as there is in the music.

There's a dark current running through some of the songs, part of which stems from a trip to the U.S. leading up to recording. The group was nearby during the Parkland school shooting in Florida this past February, and Trouble Coming resulted, Kinsley telling us "The streets are filled with angry people, no one wants to give an inch." Murder Creek comes from that southern journey as well, this time Kinsley telling an older tale about a robbery in deep woods Alabama, a gang of crooks that ended up getting hanged, and mystery woman behind the plan. There's also a cover of the old Colin James number Freedom that's a lot darker than the original. The blues is out there, and this is music for uneasy times.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: CASSIE JOSEPHINE - ONLY HALF BLUE

The songs! The voice! The dresses! The Halifax (via New Waterford) modern folk songwriter, one-half of the fine duo Cassie Josephine and Gabriel Minnikin, might do her own songs with calm and quiet, but the effect is powerful and bold. With just guitar, some piano and violin, and voices, she presents a batch of songs that define her identity and character, her state of independence at an important life juncture. As she tells us in Dear Cassie, a birthday letter to herself, she's hit the big 4-0, and she's doing it with no regrets, and lots of interest for the next 40.

Cassie Josephine's voice verges on old-timey, with a little twang and a lovely high warble, all the better for these gentle, contemplative songs. In the title track, a sad/happy number about a sundering, she can't be bothered to waste all those tears, so she'll go on, only half-blue. Alone again, she faces each day the same way, with coffee at Tim's, in Large One Cream And A Honey Cruller. But is that heaven or hell she wonders, the existential crisis not really all that bad. Dear Cassie traces all her deeds and misdeeds, opportunities taken and missed. All this looking back and contemplation is done in a refreshing and kind-hearted way, as if the singer is given the person absolution for being, well, human. It's hard to be good to yourself, and very healthy if you can, and in its calm way it's very much a feel-good album.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

THE MOODY BLUES - IN SEARCH OF THE LOST CHORD

Here's an album most definitely of its time, and that time was 50 years ago. Psychedelia was all the rage, prog rock was awakening, and the Moodies were riding high on the strength of the hits Nights In White Satin and Tuesday Afternoon from their previous album, Days Of Future Past. So off they went on this flight of fancy, about space travel, time travel, and mind travel. It's the album that features the memorable chorus of "Timothy Leary's dead..." (from Legend Of A Mind), and the lost chord turns out to be the mantra Om. All that, plus flutes and Mellotrons.

As a concept album, it's a head scratcher, and a bit of a laugh, with a couple of spoken-word sections. including one stupid poem, the penultimate track, The Word. But as just an album, it ain't half-bad, and the bulk of the songs stand up nicely. It includes the modest hits Ride My See-Saw and Voices In The Sky, and even though Om features overused Indian instruments and a lengthy sitar solo, it's quite lovely. Just don't study the lyrics too closely, they might induce snickering.

There are a few 50th anniversary options, including a big box with a new stereo mix, BBC cuts, out-takes, DVD audio and a DVD of TV appearances, and there's a 2-LP version as well. This single disc version includes the original stereo mix, plus mono 45 versions, probably enough unless you took the trip back in the day.