Tuesday, July 20, 2021

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: JONI MITCHELL - THE REPRISE ALBUMS (1968-1971)


This is a special box of the first four Mitchell albums reissued on vinyl, part of the new Archives series that debuted last fall. It's a chronological march through her career, which began with a boxed set of previously unreleased live, broadcast and demo recordings from the mid-60's. Now we get the start of the official stuff, and next will be another batch of unreleased material from the late '60's-early '70's, coming this fall.

The first four albums are '68's Song To A Seagull, followed by Clouds, Ladies Of The Canyon and '71's Blue. They went like this: Good, better, great, GOAT. When she had her debut, everybody knew she was a great new talent, tearing up the folk circuit with her different and delicate originals, and championed by erstwhile producer David Crosby. As early as 1966, wise artists Tom Rush and George Hamilton IV had covered her, followed quickly by Ian & Sylvia, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Judy Collins and Dave Van Ronk. She basically had a greatest hits already, with her songs "Circle Game," "Both Sides, Now," "Urge For Going" and "Chelsea Morning" already well-known thanks to the various covers. 

So what does she do for her debut? For some strange reason, she ignored all these gems, perhaps thinking they didn't need more exposure. Instead the songs on Seagull were divided into a concept, side 1 called I Came To The City and the flip titled Out Of The City And Down To The Seaside. These were pretty but odd songs about people and places such as "Michael From Mountains" and "Nathan La Franeer." There was little adornment, just Joni and her strange chords and confident vocals. This album has been given a new mix for this release, basically to take down a couple of odd effects when there was a bit of overdubbing or an extra instrument, but it's nothing that truly improves the album. There are just too many fussy, airy tunes and few memorable ones, other than "Night In The City" and the title cut.

The next year, Mitchell's career was more in focus, and she took control of her own production, along with sympathetic engineer Henry Lewy. Stephen Stills was on hand to flesh the music out more, and she went back to proven favourites "Both Sides, Now" and "Chelsea Morning" to anchor the album. The rest of the songs were certainly serious compositions, Mitchell touching on war, depression, and adult relationships. Her unique arrangements, both vocally and melodically, pointed to a prolonged period of excellence, which was just around the corner.

Ladies Of The Canyon saw both new and older material again, a new palette of colours for the instrumentation featuring lots of her piano, Milt Holland's percussion, some strings, sax and woodwinds, and more focused and clear lyrics. Mitchell was getting more personal in her writing, or at least less ambiguous, and was spearheading the movement of so-called confessional singer-songwriters. It doesn't seem to have been a conscious shift. Instead her writing took another leap, and her images and places became so rich they instantly formed great scenes in the listener's imagination. Whether it's the family home in "Rainy Night House" or the street where the musician is playing clarinet in "For Free," we are effortlessly transported. These are her stories, she's there and now so are we, voyeurs in the scene. Yes, her famous lovers are here, "Willy" is Graham Nash, It's probably Leonard Cohen's mother's house in "Rainy Night House," but the subject isn't gossip, it's emotion. If she's wondering "Who in the world you might be," we're supposed to examine ourselves, not make a flow chart of all her partners (something Rolling Stone magazine did, as it proved over and over again it was no friend to female artists). Mitchell reclaimed her old coffee house favourites "Morning Morgantown" and "The Circle Game," two of her finest (and clearest) early compositions, which she had neglected to record before, and made the whole album even stronger. She took back "Woodstock" from her strutting pals in CSNY, reclaiming it as a cautionary moment about '60's hopefulness rather than an anthem for electric guitar. And she capped it all off with the incredibly infectious "Big Yellow Taxi," disguising her most serious message with her most catchy tune. 

Which brings us to Blue. Mitchell, trying to come to grips with all the chaos and demands surrounding her as her fame and profitability grew, did a runner to Europe to recharge. The resulting songs were (with one notable exception) all new and left little to speculation. They all feature her singing "I" to let us know this is the truth, her life, her heart on display. She has many questions, few answers, lots of experiences, and a fragile heart. Deal with it. Mitchell has enough sense to laugh at herself, describing the brief romance with "Carey" and the excitement of her homecoming in "California" and even adding a brief laugh in the emotionally intense title cut. As for matters of the heart, are there two more remarkable songs than "River" and "A Case Of You?" The old tune she did bring back was perhaps the most personal one she ever wrote, although its true meaning was revealed until years later. "Little Green" was about the daughter she gave up for adoption back in Toronto, and it's easy to see why it found a home among these other revealing songs. It also sounds like no other album, with the heavy use of the dulcimer as the lead instrument.

So that's the package, the original albums are left as is, bonus cuts and out-takes saved for the coming box this fall. The upgrades here feature the new mix of Seagull, heavy-vinyl pressings which sound great, and heavy stock cardboard for the gatefold jackets. Oh, and there's a one-sheet essay from Brandi Carlisle, who has become the official spokesperson for Joni Worship, explaining why these albums not only stand the test of time, they continue to claim the pinnacle. I'd have to agree. 

Friday, July 16, 2021

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: DENIS PARKER - COUNTRY BLUE


Newfoundland's Denis Parker is doing what bluesmen do best, getting better with age and experience. He's been at it since the late '60's, when he recorded two albums at Abbey Road in London with Panama Limited Jug Band, and more albums have come steadily since moving to NL in 1971.  On this latest, he handles almost everything himself, an acoustic album of 14 cuts, all but one self-composed. That includes three instrumentals that show his prowess at picking hasn't diminished a bit. 

Although he's no stranger to group sounds, this time he chose to write solely in open D tuning, making the songs particularly mellow and rich. The instrumental "Daybreak" is a beautiful piece that's soaked in a good mood like a perfect sunrise, a sound that makes you glad to be alive. "The Golden Years" will make you smile for different reasons, as Parker sings about being a man of a certain age, who may or may not be him; "I got a cane when I walk too far/I smoke the odd marijuana cigar." Age comes up a few times in the album, but he's not complaining at all. Instead he's embracing it, and reminding us you don't stop loving someone with laughing eyes, or waxing poetic about a full moon. Oh, and millennials take note: If you want to know what sexy sounds like, check out his "Love Rushed In." Experience is everything.

Thursday, July 8, 2021

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: THE SUN HARMONIC - COAST TO COAST


Here's a labour of love, a love of travel, and a travail to put together in trying Covid times. The Sun Harmonic is the band project of Kaleb Hikele, who does all sorts of styles awesomely. This album was a road trip, quite literally recorded as he crossed from the Pacific to the Atlantic in 2018, indoors and out, onstage and off. While the recordings proper happened in Vancouver Island, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and Halifax, bits and pieces were collected, added, and inspired by spots large and small. "Flying Over Saskatchewan" takes its title from the obvious, while some ocean waves were recorded on Cape Breton Island to give the true coast-to-coast flavour. 


At the same time, Hikele avoided the obvious cliches, and didn't get bogged down in naming-checking lots of places or writing about Canada. Instead, the inspirations are more personal and subtle, with love for family being the larger theme. "Ocean"may mention on island on the west coast, but it's about a much-loved child. "Build A Boat" is a metaphor for finding a way past troubles, sailing on positivity. As a whole, the album is about the people and the places we hold in our hearts.

"Flying Over Saskatchewan" is an acoustic rave-up, with some fine riffs and gang vocals in the chorus, fast and fun. But for the most part, these are lovely, touching songs, gently performed, highlighted by Hikele's tender voice. The highlight is the closing track, "The Grand Old Lady Sails Away," apparently the last performance on the stage of Massey Hall before its major reno. Recorded with one mic in front of a small group of people, the fitting tribute to the hall is quite beautiful, and shows just how pure his voice is.

The album is being launched in stages; You can buy an early copy now on vinyl and CD, and digital downloads and streaming will arrive Oct. 1. All the info is at https://thesunharmonic.bandcamp.com/

Tuesday, July 6, 2021

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: TOM PETTY & THE HEARTBREAKERS - ANGEL DREAM


Last year's fantastic Wildflowers and All the Rest compilation, a grand total of five discs of songs from those early '90's sessions, was a welcome collection for Petty fans. But it did leave a bit of a problem with his catalogue. The 1996 soundtrack for She's The One had included several of the leftover tracks from those sessions, which now sit properly in the Wildflowers collection. So instead of doubling up on the cuts, the Petty Estate has refashioned She's The One into this new LP, by finding a few new tracks for inclusion. 

The idea was to make the new Angel Dream a coherent album, rather than just a hodgepodge of leftover cuts. Of course, with Petty, his cast-aways are almost always of such quality that this becomes an easier task. Rather than take the approach of a soundtrack, which was how She's The One was assembled, this set is meant to present a normal 12-cut Heartbreakers LP. So we only get one version "Walls," instead of the two versions found on the soundtrack. That's a fantastic song of course, and the same can be said of "Angel Dream" and "Climb That Hill" plus his covers of Lucinda Williams' "Change The Locks" and Beck's "Asshole." Really, being on a soundtrack to a poorly-received movie did these songs no favours, and it sales and chart success suffered for it. Hopefully they'll find a wider audience here.

There are four brand-new songs added here, plus an extended version of "Supernatural Radio." Best of all is another cover, this one a J.J. Cale number called "Thirteen Days," a Southern Gothic piece that could have easily come from Petty's pen. "105 Degrees" may be lyrically slight ("What do you want? Perfection?") but is a classic Heartbreakers jam, one of the last recorded with outgoing drummer/trouble-maker Stan Lynch. "One Of Life's Little Mysteries" is a bit of grin, done in a vaudevillian style. The final new one is actually familiar, as it's an acoustic guitar and organ instrumental version of "Angel Dream," now called "French Disconnection." While there's no major new tracks on this reimagined album, it's probably now a more cohesive and digestable listen than the lengthier and scattered She's The One.

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: EDGAR BREAU - SHADOWS OF ECSTASY


There's no more intriguing story in Canadian rock circles than that of Hamilton's cult classic group Simply Saucer, and it's leader, Edgar Breau. Now it's become even more interesting, with this set, Breau's previously unreleased first solo album, from 1990. The group started out in the '70's as a no-hit wonder, with a failed single to its credit and a smattering of interest in the southern Ontario punk scene. But they had done some demos in the Lanois brothers studio (Bob recorded them, Daniel says he was away for the sessions), and a live show was taped. Over a decade after the band split, a local writer released an album called Cyborgs Revisited, and over time it became an underground favourite, with press raves in North America and Europe. It was a unique, missing link album that fit somewhere into between prog and art rock bands such as The Velvet Underground and Barrett-era Pink Floyd, and later visionary acts Talking Heads and Television. 

Meantime, Breau had reconsidered his place in music and become an acoustic folk performer, albeit a quirky one. He had mad skills on acoustic guitar and admired British players. But here he was in a quandary, with a growing rep for Simply Saucer. By the 2000's, Breau had come to grips with past and present, reformed the group and embarked on a career both solo and with the band, which continues with aplomb.

One part of the story remained unresolved though, those 1990 sessions he recorded. Breau had basically given up on music as a career at that time, and shelved the project. Eventually he reworked some of them over a decade later when he revived his career, but this set remained a full, unheard piece.  

It's a gem, no surprise, and finds Breau at an intriguing crossroads in his writing. While they are acoustic based, the cuts are full-band numbers, with old Saucer bandmate Kevin Christoff on bass, plus drums and electric guitar. Breau's quirky vocals are augmented with harmonies from Compton Roberts, and his acoustic licks weave gently with the electric instruments. It's somewhere between his future solo folk and his previous Saucer psyche, but like all his work, utterly unique. The melodies are dreamy and quite beautiful, a contrast with Breau's warble. The lyrics are equally eclectic, mesmerizing stories that seem like fiction from an unknown country or a parallel world. Nothing bizarre, just nothing we've heard before. 

If you're new to the Saucer world, this isn't a bad place to fall into the rabbit hole. For fans it's a great joy, the best of both worlds Breau solo and Saucer-shaped.

Monday, June 28, 2021

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: CROSBY, STILLS, NASH & YOUNG - DEJA VU (50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition)


The album that made CSNY superstars sounds as great as ever, certainly the pinnacle of the band's many iterations and reformations. It's also the best of the first three letters of the bunch, but not of course Young, who always held back his best for his own albums. While this is the album that gave us "Helpless," one of Young's most famous cuts, there's not much else to speak of from him (I've never thought much of the "Country Girl" suite), and the other three really provide the bulk of the greatness. "Carry On," "Teach Your Children," "Our House," "Almost Cut My Hair," these would have been just as good if it was another CSN album, so credit should go to that trio. I've often wondered if Young's presence hijacked and ultimately destroyed the band, rather than made it better.

The big surprise here is how much alternative material was left in the can to beef up this fine box set. It's now a full four-CD set, which also includes a vinyl pressing of the original album, with sets of demos, outtakes and alternate mixes making up the new CDs. While a few of these tracks have slipped out over the years, on the career-spanning CSN box and Young's many historical releases, the vast bulk, 29 cuts, are new to us. As always, some are diamonds in the rough, some were deservedly rejected, some are cool as historical documents, and some leave you wondering why they didn't release them in the first place. 

The demo disc shows all four writers working on their own on the songs they brought to the album, those that made the cut and others that got rejected. There are two versions of Nash's "Our House," the second the most compelling, as it features Joni Mitchell, the object of the song, trying out some home harmonies on the beloved classic, a moment to treasure. Crosby tries out his controversial "Triad," given to the Jefferson Airplane after the Byrds rejected it, Crosby still itching to do his own version. Stills, dripping with songs, offered several that never made it to the studio sessions, although his embryonic work was hit-and-miss at best, vehicles for licks and jams. The big surprise here is Young trying out a demo of his "Birds" featuring Nash on harmonies. Ultimately he pulled it back for "After The Goldrush," but if it had been included on Deja Vu, it's presence would certainly have made it a better album, as a replacement for "Country Girl."

The outtakes group of songs is dominated by Stilla, with a few more of his works-in-progress that sound pretty good but don't really take off. He was tinkering with a couple of songs that would show up on his later albums, including the fine "Change Partners" and "Bluebird Revisited" but they weren't ready. There are some great CSN moments, featuring the classic vocal mix that still amazes, especially on one called "Ivory Tower." The best is "Horses Through A Rainstorm" which came out on the CSN box, and if you don't know it, you should. It's another cut. lead by Nash, that could have fit nicely on the original album, a good closer instead of "Everybody I Love You," the other weak track on the disc.

The alternates disc is another fun set, with some significant differences to the well-known originals. It's quite surprising to hear the changes in arrangements in "Woodstock," for instance, in the vocals and timing. Crosby's "Almost Cut My Hair" features completely different singing, and you can hear him striving to get the right attitude into the song. This one is too cocky, and wisely they chose the other take. Clearly, as heard on "Carry On," "Deja Vu" and "Teach Your Children," the key to this album is the famous vocal blend, and that they worked hard to get just the right take.

The big takeaway from the box set is that Stills really was doing all the heavy lifting. He brought the most songs and was the musical and recording leader. He wasn't holding anything back, and neither were Crosby and Nash. All their best songs were considered, and a fine, equal blend of them made up the bulk of the album. Young's addition probably put them over the top, getting them more press and public interest, but his focus remained as a solo artist. As for a listening experience, it's fun. These are such iconic songs that demos and different takes are surprising to hear. The outtakes and rejects pile isn't that interesting, with a couple too many similar Stills songs, but there are more than enough moments to make this a great start-to-finish listen

Thursday, June 10, 2021

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: COLIN FOWLIE - EAST OF NOWHERE


Fredericton troubadour Fowlie has been patiently trying to launch his latest album with a live show, having already been through a Covid-caused postponement. But things are looking good for June 19 now at the Playhouse. Tickets are available now, and the opening act is N.B. blues songwriter Kendra Gale.

East Of Nowhere is Fowlie's second full album, after 2019's Party Music, and a series of EP's. Produced by Winnipeg's rising roots star Ariel Posen, the songs have a warm and subtle feel, the focus on Fowlie's story-teller vocals. Over 12 tracks, he takes us on a tour from town to town, in private homes, a couple of bars, behind the wheel, and down familiar streets. These are normal folks, in good times and bad, dealing with all the crap life throws at us.

That means Fowlie drops a bunch of emotional bombshells on us, about premature deaths in families, small towns drying up, bigotry handed down through generations, times changing faster than we'd like and not fast enough. There are some personal moments here too, including the single "To Mend," for his daughter. Rather than hearts and flowers, he's there for strength:  "When it hurts you can't help but feel like you're broken/but I know just how far you can bend in the wind." We also get a glimpse of life on the road, which is all about travelling in bad weather, coffee at the same gas station stops, and being on stage: "I've weathered the storm and I can't wait to see my family/But up here tonight I'm singing someone's favourite song." For more on the launch show and new album, visit www.colinfowlie.com.