Sunday, September 12, 2021

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: THOMAS STAJCER - MIDWESTERN STATES


The in-house engineer at Joel Plaskett's New Scotland Yard studio in Dartmouth continues with his hardcore country alternate career, serving up real-deal honky tonk and badass lyrics. In his "Heading To The Bar To Do Bad Again," his protagonist has no illusions about his evening's fate: "I'm willing to make poor decisions/I'm fine with the consequences/I've got a thirst to quench." In "Who Will Listen To Country Music When Trucks Drive Themselves" he asks the question nobody's thought about yet, but the real story here is the scariness of technology vs. culture, and what should be left behind in the race for progress.

But Stajcer is not all booze and country philosophy, not by a long shot. The twang leads the way, but also conceals a deep literary bent, and a lot of the soul searching we go through trying to find the right path.. The title cut has him reading Hemingway, musing on the historic opening of the continent in the 19th century, and longing for a far-off love, a lot to pack into  three verses. That track is about as powerful Americana as I've heard, full of heartland soul and a melange of various roots music sounds. As for an overall style, Stajcer and Co. seem like eleven different bands over the eleven cuts, from fast and furious to heartache, Western swing to Spaghetti Western to Bluegrass to Appalachian folk. Smart, strong, catchy. 

Monday, September 6, 2021

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: SEAN MCCANN - SHANTYMAN


If you're still scratching your head over the whole sea shanty resurgence on TikTok a few months back, you're not alone. What started out as a joke meme created an honest-to-goodness resurgence, and a career boost for more than a few East Coast musicians. And half of Newfoundland went, 'See? We told ya so.'

It let Sean McCann return to his roots too. Not that the Great Big Sea founding member wasn't about to do that anyway at some point, but the timing was great. Using his Covid downtime, he hit the wayback machine to dig out some trad gems and rework them with new arrangements and instrumentation. Not that shanties don't already rock, but McCann (in his guise as The Shantyman) gives them a big boost of drums and bass, and sings them with great gusto. 

It's a delicate balance for sure, giving the songs a new coat of paint without making them too shiny. For that he assembled some equally-seasoned musicians from both the trad and rock worlds. East Coast string master J.P. Cormier is on board, as well as Hawksley Workman, Jeremy Fisher  and Ken Friesen. So a song like "Shantyman's Life" has a sweet whistle in the verses, but a scorching lead guitar answering back. Meanwhile, tales of brave cabin boys, parson's daughters, rebellious crews and hard and tragic lives spin by, "Go To Sea No More" the most ribald and memorable. That one'll shock the little TikTokkers.

Among all the old tales, McCann gives us one new one, his own song, "On The Water." In it, he makes the connection between the old ways and his current job: "I am just a lowly Shantyman, a servant to the song/I've sailed the wide-world over, on the water I belong." Turns out sea shanties are alive and well, and always have been, internet trends or not. McCann is selling the album on his website only, so no streaming for now, either as a digital collection, or a limited (1.000) edition signed CD. That port of call is seanmccannsings.com.

Tuesday, August 31, 2021

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: DAVID MYLES - THAT TALL DISTANCE


You've certainly never heard David Myles like this before. In fact, you won't hear him at all. Sing, that is. This all-instrumental jazzy album is a labour of love project that takes Myles all the way back to his high school band days, and his ongoing love and exploration of rich grooves, funk, rhythms, horns, world music and wherever his ears take him. 

Myles picks up the trumpet again, his early instrument, but that is just one element in this wide-ranging set. He combo'd up with a group of friends/players in various spots, and made the album remotely in Covid times. He'd start the tunes off with trumpet and guitar, and then send the cuts out as each musician filled in their parts, drums and bass. Then came the colour, solos and parts from lead guitar, pedal steel, trombone and keyboards. 

Although it's jazzy, to call it a jazz album is incorrect. It ranges far and wide. "Motion" has a country gospel sound, with pedal steel from Asa Brosius. "Hacksaw" has great soul parts, Leith Fleming-Smith's organ underpinned by melody lines from the tight horns. A rockin' guitar solo takes over, hands it back to the organ, and a left-field appearance by pedal steel at the end gives it a spacey ending. Opener "Bird Song" trips along on beats from Joshua Van Tassel, an atmospheric groove. It's certainly an ensemble album, the troupe taking Myles' melodic ideas to surprising and wonderful places. It's a perfect chill-out album, smooth but never too smooth, lots of excellent performances and even as an all-instrumental affair, far too catchy to slip into the background.

Monday, August 30, 2021

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: MARSHALL CRENSHAW - THE WILD, EXCITING SOUNDS OF MARSHALL CRENSHAW: LIVE IN THE 20th and 21st CENTURY


On the surface of it, Crenshaw's a one-hit wonder who peaked with his first album, and didn't live up to the hype. 1982's self-titled debut hit the charts, "Someday, Someway" made the Top 40, and every publication and reviewer loved his retro-pop mashup and glorious hooks. But the followup, Field Day, didn't have another hit single, there were complaints about producer Steve Lillywhite's colossal sound and Warner Brothers lost interest as the 80's closed.

However... that's the surface story. In reality, the fans who stuck with Crenshaw were still rapidly in love with his records, and have followed him with cultish devotion, giving him a solid life on the road and in the studio ever since. Crenshaw's an expert on classic rockabilly, rock 'n' roll and '60's radio hits, and has fused all the best of American guitar rock, British beat music and studio production into his individual style. Every song he makes is filled beginning to end with glorious chord changes, fantastic harmonies and catchy, memorable choruses. Each album he's made has more of the magic for those on the lifelong quest for the perfect pop song. 

It really is music for those who like to both rock and enjoy the songwriting craft. Take for example this gem from "Cynical Girl": "I can tell right away from the look in her eyes/She harbours no illusions and she's wordly wise." 

This generous two-disc live collection features a batch of cuts from his original band, featuring his brother Robert on drums and Chris Donato on bass, from those early exciting showcases. It has all the favourites from his first two albums, plus some dynamite covers that showed the group's versatility. Two Elvis covers (when nobody was covering Elvis), "Got A Lot Of Livin' To Do" and "Big Hunk O' Love" prove his fan smarts, and his version of Al Green's "Here I Am (Come and Take Me)" is a left-field surprise. There's a ton of energy, lots of guitar (from the lead singer no less), and as Crenshaw says, "It sounds like kids having fun."

The second part is a Crenshaw-curated crawl through the rest of his career, deep cuts from various periods and bands. The also-revered Bottle Rockets appear as the band on six of the songs, fellow believers in the beauty of dynamically-arranged rock. And stripped down to solo with guitar on "Passing Through," you get to hear how gorgeous those melodies are. The only time I've seen him live was solo, and it was just as rewarding. Heck of a guitar player too. There have been a couple of other Crenshaw live albums, but this one's the winner, for scope and overall excitement.

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: NATHAN WILEY - MODERN MAGIC


As more tentative reopening steps take place in the music world, one of Atlantic Canada's best festivals is back with a smaller but still impressive lineup. The Halifax Urban Folk Festival (HUFF) goes from Aug. 29 to Sept. 6, presenting some of the finest established and new performers from the East Coast. There aren't as many shows this time, nor any of the expertly-chosen cross-Canada and international acts that have graced the stages before (think Alejandro Escovedo, Lloyd Cole and Lily Hiatt to name but three), but when you can brag up Matt Mays, Erin Costelo and Reeny Smith for intimate shows, you're a class event for sure.

One of the hallmarks of the festival is its Songwriters Circle series, featuring three nightly artists in an acoustic setting. P.E.I.'s Nathan Wiley will do one of those sets on Saturday, Sept. 4 at Brightwood Brewery, as well as a full-band gig the next night at the Carleton. Wiley is launching his new six-track E.P., Modern Magic. The Summerside songwriter and producer, best known for his 2002 breakout hit "Bottom Dollar Baby," only releases things when he's darn good and ready, but they are always most welcome and solid, start to finish.

This set kicks off with "Heatseeker," a dark and funky track fueled by horns and dramatic stabs of strings plus a mysterious vibe. A tale of a femme fatale, I'd call it soul noire. The horns are especially rich and well-recorded, and it has the glow of real instruments, real playing to it. The horns return for the groove-ier "Nobody's Lookin' At You," this time with organ and backing vocals adding richness to the cool, Bill Withers-type simmering number. Somehow Wiley manages to make a synth sound funky on "Love Through the Eyes of a Shark," real soul instead of plastic soul.

I love the dark and funky late-night mood through all six tracks, and the fantastic arrangements, especially the choices of instruments. Where guitar would suffice for many, with his producer's ears Wiley has used the horns, singers, keys and lots more to make these songs extra-deep with ear candy. As for hooks, he's fully stocked, with "Moneymaker" an especially catchy one. Top notch, this one.

Monday, August 16, 2021

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: SUZIE UNGERLEIDER - MY NAME IS SUZIE UNGERLEIDER


No longer Oh Susanna, the singer-songwriter has stripped down to the essentials, with concise and clear portraits of friends, family and loves, hers and others. The songs are tender and uncluttered, with her warm, emotional voice in command, graced with guitar and subtle touches of atmosphere and percussion from producer Jim Bryson. 

These are the best and worst of situations. "Disappear" is about a child trying to hide, both literally and figuratively, from an abusive father. Meanwhile, "Baby Blues" features a woman struggling with the moment of decision: "Please don't leave us alone, please don't break up our home." At the other end of the spectrum, "Summerbaby" is a celebration of Ungerleider's own daughter, all joy and love and amazement: "You had my  heart wrapped up in your tiny fingers."

There's a song about the high school rebel hero, half-good, half-bad girl, "North Star Sneakers," which sees her now in a conventional home, two kids and a yard. It's a simple question, was it what she wanted? But it's the stuff of life, is that all there is? Sweet and sad memories, halcyon days, tragedies big and small, Suzie Ungerleider documents those moments with grace and beauty.

Wednesday, August 11, 2021

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: PAUL RANDY MINGO - COUNTRYFIED REDNECK LOVESONG


More unabashed redneck country from Nova Scotia's Mingo. Of course, that's the genre, not the politics, and I'd say Mingo has more rural Maritime values, and appreciation for small towns and all they offer. "I don't say it enough but I love my country girl," he sings in the new single "Country Girl Ways," and it seems pretty darn respectful.  As for kick-ass country, he's all on board, and writing some fine additions to the songbook.

Mingo is that rare country bird, a lead singer/piano and keyboard player, and his songs stand out for it. There are chord changes and different melodies that you just don't find in your normal country fare. Ballads, sure, it makes them a touch more poignant, but it's the rockers where it really stands out. This isn't Jerry Lee Lewis-pumping piano style, it's the chief instrument driving the song, so melodies, the vocals, it all goes to places your ears aren't expecting. It's basically more musical. 

There's a good team that's been behind Mingo's music for the past decade. Tim Feswick produces at his studio, and handles a bunch of instruments, Kris Richards (Clay Walker's guitar player) does all the lead guitar, and the fantastic Ray Legere adds the fiddle. With Mingo adding the keys, he's really developed a strong and joyous sound from countryfied Nova Scotia.