Monday, January 31, 2011


                                  - TOMORROW THE GREEN GRASS

It was with great joy that Jayhawks fans greeted the news the group was reforming. And it's not just the last version of the group; this time co-founder Mark Olson is back in the folding for the first time since 1995. He'd quit after Tomorrow The Green Grass, the group's fourth, failed to break them to a new level. Gary Louris kept the flag flying into the 2000's, but clearly the best version of the band was found on these two albums. Now with the group back in business, these have been reissued with plenty of bonus cuts, as fans enjoy the live shows, and wait for a new disc this year.

Hollywood Town Hall came out in 1992, the group's first major label release, and really set the American movement ablaze. For many people, it was the way in to discovering Uncle Tupelo, Son Volt, and others. Olson and Louris's Everly Brothers' harmonies rang rich and true on the gorgeous Waiting For The Sun, and full disc revealed they could write as well as they could sing. The trademark sound is the two of them in unison, then breaking out into harmonies for the choruses and following verses. There was drama in each number, the sadness behind love or the darkness behind each small life. For this reissue, we get five bonus cuts, from European b-sides, a promotional disc, and two session out-takes. It's one of those rare reissues where the bonus cuts are equal to the rest of the disc.

Given the breakthrough of Hollywood Town Hall, it was widely felt the follow-up would propel the group into the big leagues. It certainly had the tunes. Lead track Blue is another stunning ballad, an awesome track that is to the Jayhawks what Try is to Blue Rodeo. The disc continues on with classic after classic, mixing in rockers with softer sing-alongs, and ringing guitar solos that put the alt in alt-country. There's even a brilliant cover, a reclamation of the old Grand Funk hit Bad Time. While the album was an even bigger favourite with the fans that band had gathered, it couldn't find that elusive bigger audience, as the country twang kept them off mainstream airplay.

This album is given the deluxe treatment, with a full second disc of bonuses, plus five b-sides and out-takes filling up disc one. We finally get the rare title track of the album, which was relegated to the ignomy of the soundtrack of National Lampoon's Senior Vacation, but it's disc two that has everyone excited. A few years ago, collectors were stunned when a few dozen demos showed up on the 'net, from the early 90's. Dubbed "The Mystery Demos", the mystery is cleared up here. Olson and Louris recorded them in two sessions between Hollywood Town Hall and Tomorrow The Green Grass, aided only by a fiddle on the first few. It was obviously a heady time for the two as writers, with so many quality songs spilling out, and only so much room to make use of them. Some of them did show up on Tomorrow, but the duo also mined this treasure for years, taking the songs to side project Golden Smog, and even revisiting some just a couple of years back for the reunion Olson-Louris disc Ready For The Flood. While it's not all A-list stuff, most of it is, and it's proof that when a songwriting partnership is clicking, you better take advantage of that blessed time. Let's hope there's more to come in the reunion.

Friday, January 28, 2011



Will Kidman in The Top 100 Canadian Albums - #83 w/Constantines - Shine A Light
Julie Doiron in The Top 100 Canadian Albums - #40 w/Eric's Trip - Love, Tara

Indie darlings Julie Doiron (Eric's Trip, solo) and Will Kidman (Constantines) are planning to record a duet album of classic covers in the near future. That word comes from Doiron's long-time manager, Peter Rowan. The duo are currently on tour under Doiron's name, playing club dates on the East Coast, Doiron on electric guitar and vocals, and Kidman handling either drums or guitar, and acting as her duets partner on certain cuts. They did U.S. and Canadian dates a year ago as well.

While no titles have been set in stone, at a Fredericton gig on Wednesday, the pair rolled out a face-to-face, one mic. version of The Everly Brothers/Gram and Emmy Lou favourite Love Hurts, a lively take on Sam Cooke's Bring It On Home To Me, and the Merle Haggard-Willie Nelson number Reasons To Quit. The rest of the show came from Doiron's bulky catalogue, but with a much louder and boisterous sound than usually associated with her. Aside from the covers and a couple of other numbers, most of the night she played with her black Hagstrom turned up loud, and Kidman wailing away on his kit. Doiron just got off the road from a lengthy cross-country tour as a member of Gord Downie's County of Miracles band, where she served as his on-stage vocal partner. She clearly is enjoyed this louder part of her career, although her most recent album was the ancient folk offering Daniel, Fred and Julie, featuring Daniel Romano and Fred Squire.

Rowan couldn't offer a time-table as to when the disc would be recorded. The duo play Halifax's Seahorse Pub tonight (Friday), and Doiron's former home town of Sackville N.B. on Saturday, with Baby Eagle opening. Ontario and Quebec club dates are coming in February. For details see

Wednesday, January 26, 2011



You can have a regular old album launch or, what the heck, you can have a great big old party, invite lots of your musical friends, make it last a whole weekend, and have a real celebration. That's just what Olympic Symphonium have decided to do this coming weekend. Their new disc, The City Won't Have Time To Fight, hit the stores this past Tuesday, and the gang from Fredericton is taking over parts of the downtown. Because it's January, they figured people needed a music festival that time of year, since normally it's so quiet. And, since it's January, they have a unique name for it: Shivering Songs.

As well as the official launch of the new album, you get a bunch of other excellent East Coast artists. The Symphonium have brought in their buddies: Isaac and Blewett, who often share the stage with the Symphonium and make a mighty mellow sound, Catherine MacLellan, again someone they often play with, serving as her full band, and Mr. ECMA-nomination-hog himself, David Myles. It was announced last week the Fredericton homie had snapped up five of the noms this year.

It's a jam-packed Saturday starting off with a songwriters circle of some of the invited guests. It's going to held at the beautiful Wilmot Church, one of the city's historic buildings with wonderful acoustics, and hosted by Mr. Myles, featuring Snailhouse, Gianna Lauren and Heat and Lights. There's also a twist on the usual songwriters circle, with a story-teller element too. It's none other than Grant Lawrence, the CBC Radio 3 broadcaster, one of the excellent music voices in the country, and a brand-new author. He released his first book last fall, called Adventures in Solitude, all about his growing up and going to a cabin on a remote area of B.C.'s coastline each summer. I read it recently, it's funny and poignant and I highly recommend it.

Later at Wilmot Church, you get the actual Olympic Symphonium release show at 8 PM, featuring the band of course, plus guests Catherine MacClellan and Isaac and Blewett. I'm sure the gang will all be onstage together at various times. After that, there's the after-party at the Capitol, with The Belle Comedians, John McKiel and Olenka Krakus. Now we head into Sunday, for another unique event. It's 11 am at the Snooty Fox, it's Alan Jeffrie's' Bluegrass Brunch, which means food and bluegrass, which sounds great to me.

Okay that's the Shivering Songs festival, but there's an album to consider too. The City Won't Have Time To Fight continues the excellent string of songs the group has put out. It's their third disc, of largely acoustic music, a soft and gentle base which can grow to a nice full intensity. Usually there's an atmospheric electric guitar weaving thru the tracks, light drums and loads of sweet harmonies. The group really woos you with these yearning vocals and laid-back grooves, and benefits from the different singers. It all works to create a bed of sound you just sink into. Having seen them perform a lot of these songs live already, they are some of their very best, and the recording is so bright all the notes ring and the vocals blend. I always smile broadly when I hear these guys, it's feel-good music.

Monday, January 24, 2011



Considering Wanda Jackson was a rockbilly queen IN THE 1950'S, it's pretty remarkable this album got made at all. There aren't many of her contemporaries left. You can't credit producer Jack White for resurrecting her career though. She had a major disc out in 2003, and despite some gaps, has been at it all along. But she was never a big star like Jerry Lee or Little Richard, so White's participation is actually giving her the most exposure she's had since she dated Elvis. Skinny Elvis. Pre-army Elvis.

The trick here was to make Wanda sound strong and vital and tough, like rockabilly should be. So full credit to both Jack and Jackson. While her voice has never been that strong, and she had more billy than rock in her twang, they've picked a bunch of great tracks for her, mostly classics that haven't been over-covered. White also gives them a big, rockin' modern sound, lots of drums and shredding guitar, so it's rockbilly-on-studio steroids. It's classic Jackson material, including a scorching version of Shakin' All Over (The Who, Guess Who), plus some Jimmie Rodgers and Little Richard.

The biggest and best track is modern however. Jackson and White tear into Bob Dylan's 2006 song Thunder On The Mountain, and she rips through it at an even faster pace than Dylan. Of course, he was channelling old blues tracks to write it, so that fits her style and delivery. Another success is an Amy Whitehouse cover, You Know I'm No Good. Despite being 73, or maybe because of it, these songs sound tough and world-wise with Jackson's gravelly delivery. Bringing a kicking horn section to the party was a pretty bright move too. It's actually just as much an R'n'B album as rockabilly or anything else.

There's even an old country weeper for good measure, Dust On The Bible, a reminder that Jackson spent much of her post-50's career working the country charts, again like Jerry Lee and even Elvis. Given today's love and interest in roots music, it's no surprise that these early masters appeal to White and his fans. They could do it all, and still do.

Sunday, January 23, 2011



I like the concept here, a 5-track disc that presents a selection of love songs, from overtly sexual to familial to devotional.  In these days of downloads and the blurred definitions of what albums and singles have become, why not put out shorter, thematic discs.  You have an idea for something only five tracks long?  Get it out there, why not?

In this case, Bailey Rae has chosen to do five cover versions of wildly different styles and concepts of love.  It starts with the funky, early Prince track, I Wanna Be Your Lover, a bit of a clunker really, marred by a cheesy synth line, way too wimpy a tone for doin' the nasty.  Things pick up next with an old Belly/Tanya Donelly cut, Low Red Moon, surprising for this singer, a rock-out much stronger than anything else in her catalogue.  This disc is getting interesting.

The next track is the best, and bravest.  Bailey Rae turns a well-known Bob Marley track on its head, with her version of Is This Love.  We all know it, but you've probably never thought of it as a mature love song, since Marley's spirituality usually overwhelms all his songs.  But she dumps the reggae groove (sacrilege!) and makes it sexy. 

A straight-up cover of McCartney's My Love is a good one, a good choice for her fine pipes.  The disc is rounded out by a really fine live number, the chestnut Que Sera Sera, done Aretha style, again a showcase for her vocals.  Corinne Bailey Rae's own writing has been okay so far, but this set shows she's a performer and interpreter of high quality.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011



Featured in The Top 100 Canadian Albums, with Barenaked Ladies:  #27 - Gordon
Featured in The Top 100 Canadian Singles, with Barenaked Ladies: #30 - If I Had $1000000

Andy Creeggan was one of the original Barenaked Ladies, the keyboard guy for If I Had A Million Dollars, Brian Wilson, Be My Yoko Ono, all the early big hits for the band. But he chucked it all in in 1995 to follow his own path. You see, Andy is a composer at heart, a music experimentalist, a gear and instrument enthusiast, an all-round creative guy, and really, the confines of a pop band were just going to hold him back. Since he left the Ladies, he's released albums on his own, and as The Brothers Creeggan, with brother Jim who stayed in the band. But the big question is: What is he doing in Moncton?

Well, he lives there now.  He laughs "I'm just following the wife." Turns out she's a doctor, and originally from Moncton. They had always hoped she would get back to the city, and it happened last fall. So Andy has packed up all his gear and Moncton is now his musical home.

It turns out he needs quite a lot of room in that home.  Andy had a lot of gear to bring.  He had never really had them all in one place until his last home in Sherbrooke, Quebec. "I've been collecting instruments over the years," he says, "and I finally had a space where I could set them all up."   When they were all in one place, he got inspired to put them all to use. The results, over some time of recording, ended up as his new disc, called Andiwork 3. It is pretty much all Andy, except for some minimal outside help on selected specialist instruments like harps and horns, and of course, brother Jim on double bass. It's almost entirely instrumental, except for some backing vocals by guests, ooos and aaas. That leaves Andy messing about with his gear, lots of keyboards and lots of interesting percussion stuff that often formed the basis of the more rhythmic tracks:  kalimba, vibraphone, African and Mexican percussion pieces.

Creeggan lets his muse fly in various directions, but the key to this one was to play with the instruments in front of him, often looking around his collection for just the right thing to spice up a piece. "I've done my composition degree, now I just want to have fun" he admits. First,  he'd work out an interesting percussion part:  "With the instrument that started everything, I'd want to see what I could do with it.  I'd try everything out.  Then I'd look around the room, and see what else would work."   Because he can move so easily from jazz to funk to pop and all over, you get a huge variety here.  A lot of it is very funky, some of it lounge music inspired. Perhaps the most interesting influence on the collection is from the extreme sports world.  "I was doing a lot of sports, hanging out with those people, so I ended up writing themes, soundtracks for how they played and partied.  Ultimate Frisbee, squash - hearing loops, electronica, I was fascinated."

Creeggan loves the creative process he's developed in his musical workshop: "When I'm creating I have to be discovering.  I don't like to repeat.  Recording this, trying it, see how it works, get ideas.  When you listen back, add this abandon that.  I have a good time with it.  I hear what it's pointing to.  I want to try to screw with the systems.  That's always something I need to do."

He's also kept up his ties with this brother and the rest of the Ladies.  In February he's hitting the seas with them again, for their annual Ships N Dip cruise.  This year it features Great Big Sea, Guster, Jenn Grant, and of course The Brothers Creeggan.  Also along is another of Andy's frequent collaborators, Montreal's Mike Evan.  The two of them are dong a joint CD release show in Moncton on February 21st, at Cafe Aberdeen.

Monday, January 17, 2011



With 2010 quickly becoming a fleeting memory, I have once again managed to avoid doing a Top Ten Albums of the Year list.  I used to do them religiously, and I get requests each year for them.  Inevitably, I'm always disappointed by mine about a month after making them.  First off, I don't hear everything.  Lots of it, but not everything, and by the time I get around to hearing something later, I'm annoyed I didn't get to put it on my list.  Then there's the second-guessing.  I remember one year putting an Edie Brickell disc on my Ten list.  Listening back, I don't know what I was thinking or hearing.  Finally, I can't take all the abuse.  You stick your list out there, and immediately you get a torrent of mockery.  Geez, who knew you could be attacked for liking U2?

Top ten lists are a good way to find out about something you might have missed though.  So while perusing other people's lists, I've seen a few I want to hear, and some I want to give another listen to.  One Facebook friend posted that his favourite was the recent Jenny and Johnny disc, so back it went in the player, and I'm glad I did.  It is one excellent power-pop gem.  Jenny is Jenny Lewis of critically-loved Rilo Kiley, and Johnny is her b-friend, solo artist Johnathan Rice.  Both are serious songwriters, but I've never really cottoned on to either before, at least not with reservations.  Lewis has always seemed too serious and self-confident about her talent, making music we're supposed to get and love, while Rice has belonged to the great pack of young male singer-songwriters, not really rising above many of the rest.

Here, the title says it all.  This is one fun modern pop album, with guy-girl vocals and harmonies, sweet melodies and big production.  Everything rings; the guitars, the voices, the words.  Like the recent team of Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs, the duo's goal is to make feel-good songs the way they used to do them.  There's a whole bunch of old pop styles here, and little tricks such as echo-drenched twangy guitar, breathy vocals akin to Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood duets, and ultra-clever lyrics that deliver smiles on each song.  Here's a few bon mots:  "You'd make bedroom eyes at a test tube", "For God and for country/for Michael Jackson's monkey", "like a cold sore at a kissing booth".

Rice has a decent voice, but Lewis has a real killer instrument, and it's probably the key to all the success here.  Her singing is perfectly suited for this fun pop, and she's also a brilliant harmony singer, so she puts a kick into Rice's lead vocals as well.  Maybe I've been missing something about these two in their respective careers before, but I'm really hoping they stick with the duo.

Saturday, January 15, 2011


Feist in The Top 100 Canadian Albums -  #43 - Let It Die
Feist in The Top 100 Canadian Singles -   #54 - 1234

The centerpiece of this DVD-CD combo is a 90-minute making-of documentary, but certainly one of the better ones, and quite different than any other music one I've seen.  It's a document of the behind-the-scenes creation of The Reminder disc, and its accompanying tours.  But instead of focusing on Feist, it's an explanation of the larger creative process of all the collaborators:  the producer, musicians, photographer, video director, etc.

Like Daniel Lanois and Gord Downie have done recently on their tours and creative projects, Feist desired to make her concert more that just a band on stage, and album presentation something artistic.  She makes the creative element another performer.  Or as one band member says, "This isn't a concert, it's an art project."  Live, the new member of the band was a shadow puppeteer, using 30-foot projection backdrop to do real creations each night, from finger-painting with mud to fireworks to silhouettes of legs.  It's a visual treat, and yes, much more than just a band on a stage. You feel you are part of a broader artistic evening than simply "a show".

This is the same idea Feist uses to make her songs, her CD jacket, her videos.  She involves equally creative people to craft a bigger piece.  As she explains, "It's more exciting to bring it to life with people."  Sometimes the film works that way too.  Instead of giving us one live take of I Feel It All, we get a montage that cuts between the video, several live versions, and the work of the shadow puppeteers on stage.  We get to see the full concept of the audio and visual elements of I Feel It All.  It's a particularly strong piece of film making.

Now, if you've ever been around artists, they can be a little ...well...precious sometimes about their work.  I say this with great respect of course, but it does get a bit much hearing them talk about how special it all was, instead of simply enjoying it.  Watching somebody crunch a bowl a dry leaves for percussion isn't as interesting as hearing the final results, for instance.  Care to hear the video choreographer talk about the ideas of chaos and unison and Darwinian theories within 1234, anyone?  We don't really have to hear from the truck driver either.  Mostly though, it's a well-paced and interesting look.

We don't hear much from Feist herself, just a few interview comments.  This isn't about her as much as it is about the whole artistic collective involved in making a tour and an album.
I like that there isn't any personal glimpses here, it's exactly what you do want, the artistic side.  As much as I'm interested in her as a person too, it's none of my business, or at least nothing I need to look at the body of work that is The Reminder and appreciate it.

The whole set comes with a more-than-generous amount of bonus material, including several live tracks, videos, shorts films, and a full audio discs of previously unreleased live cuts and duets.  That stuff alone would make this something for the average Feist fan, but the film should be required viewing for anyone interested in a creative career.

Friday, January 14, 2011



You have to wait until the end of the disc for the spoken word definition of bitch to know this disc is all about strength, and the fit part is all about mental energy.  The title aside, it pulses with strength.

NLX is the work of Hamilton's Natasha Alexandra, and this is another of the discs I picked up on my most recent visit to the city.  NLX is based in New York City, although comes back to Hamilton and Toronto all the time, for work and family.   This disc came out in 2009, and she's been working it well, including landing a prime piece of exposure, with one of songs, Find Love, featured on the ABC-TV show Brothers And Sisters.  Plus, she did it the old-fashioned way, without a publisher pushing her and cash and favours changing hands.  Instead, a producer heard her at her usual hotel bar gig, loved her stuff, came back other times, and simply wanted to use the song somewhere.  Nice.

Natasha Alexandra could be a sensitive singer-songwriter if she wanted.  I know because I've heard her play her songs stripped down at solo piano.  However, as NLX, it's the beats, effects, electronica, and imagination driving the songs.  In fact, I don't know if I've ever heard a more powerful or prominent use of percussive noise on a disc, and all great.  These tracks leap out of the speakers and grab you with that intensity.  At the core though is her piano melodies, haunting and rich.

Back to the words, and the strength.  The disc is a collection of songs that wade deep into the complexity of emotions, embracing them all, from sad to hurt to angry to thrilled, as positive.  It comes across as almost a personal battle against negativity, despite how deep the wound.  In other words, bring it on, life, the singer here is ready for all the experiences.  Alexander owns her songs, as she has taken ownership of the B word, letting us know it means strong-minded, passionate, intelligent.  And quite happily, she goes out of her way to invite the boys along for these discoveries.  Equal-opportunity life affirmation, right here.  Rockin' tunes, too.

Find out more about Bitch Get Fit at

Tuesday, January 11, 2011



Like so many of you music fans out there, there's nothing I enjoy more than flipping through the bins at a favourite store, looking for that treasure. Usually this involves fruitless searches lasting upwards of a couple of hours, but patience is rewarding. Every once in awhile, you walk away with something you didn't know about, for a cheap price. My plan is to tell you about the good ones I find in my shopping trips, and maybe you'd like to add some of yours in the comments section as well.

We start in one of my all-time favourite stores, Taz Records in Halifax. The store has been around since I was a kid shopper in the 70's, run for years by the remarkable curmudgeon Bob Switzer, until his passing a couple of years back. New owners have made it a fine-looking spot, and I almost always pull something out of the bins, whether its some fun 7-inch picture sleeve 45's, or a CD I've had on my want list for awhile. This time though, it was something I hadn't seen before, or had least forgotten.

Flipping through the Nick Lowe section, this was a used disc marked "Rare Nick Song", which was enough to grab my attention, as well as it's cheap $7.99 tag. The disc is a charity release from Toronto's Q107 station, dated 1996. There are plenty of such collections, often released only in the market where the station exists, and if you're lucky, they are like this one. It's made up of 18 tracks taken from the station's live concert program of the day, when artists would drop by and play "Concerts In The Sky", from the station's 15th floor. Usually this involved stripped-down arrangements, often just a singer and an acoustic, occaisionally some more instruments, and of course, making these instant collectables. This one has a great track listing. Yes, Mr. Lowe was there, performing his time-honoured greatest hit, What's So Funny 'Bout Peace, Love and Understanding, a far darker take on the tune than the boisterous Elvis Costello arrangement of fame, the author bringing out all the irony in his downbeat acoustic version.

One such track alone is often reason enough for me to buy one of these, but on inspection, it was a goldmine for rare cut enthusiasts and completist collectors. First off, it's chock full of artists included in The Top 100 Singles and Top 100 Albums books. Tom Cochrane delivers Good Times, with typical passion. Our Lady Peace gets all acoustic for Naveed. Jim and Greg do a rare duo version of Is It You. My favourite though is a Burton Cummings performance at the keys, of the poignant and meaningful Sour Suite, a great glimpse into the successful musician's world, and a reminder that we're all human. The track reminded me of how fine a singer he really is, and how connected he is to the material.

There's more good Canadian material too, from Rusty, The Watchmen, Gowan, and David Wilcox. And if that ain't enough, the rest of the performers are a drool-list of mid-90's songwriter favourites, including John Hiatt (Perfectly Good Guitar), The Jayhawks (Waiting For The Sun), Matthew Sweet, Sheryl Crow, Pete Droge, and Charlie Sexton. This is the kind of package that has kept me flipping in the bins my whole life.

Monday, January 10, 2011



Listening through this two-disc collection, it dawned on me I should have much more sympathy for the pure folkies of 1965 who viciously complained when Dylan went electric. Sure, they might not have liked the volume, and given the rudimentary P.A. systems of the day, they probably had good reason. But Dylan's move had just as much to do with a seismic shift in his songwriting. He'd also recently given up writing about events and currrent affairs, in essence turning his back on the position the folk community had thrust apon him. In a couple of brief years, he had eclipsed the entire scene, writing songs of such power and impact that it was obvious he was a voice of a generation, a century. He'd moved from being a self-mythologizing Woody Guthrie copyist to a prolific composer of the highest quality, able to condemn the greatest of 20th century wrongs with unarguable logic and brilliant poetry. Greed, racism, murder, conservatism, paranoia, if there was a topic to skewer, he could do it with humour or horror, his very words one of the great strengths of the 60's movement. Plus, he could write blues, country and traditional folk with ease, almost at rote, while most others struggled in his wake, now desperate to follow Dylan, since he had changed the game.

So let's forgive Pete Seeger's anger at Newport, the booers at British and American concerts, and instead focus on this latest addition of the ongoing Bootleg Series, which collects all known songwriting demos Dylan recorded for his first pair of music publishers. Over 27 recordings, we hear him go from mimicking Guthrie's rural accent and borrowing old folk melodies, to the transcendant shift to Beat-fuelled imagery on Mr. Tambourine Man. Along the way, seemingly out of the blue came these remarkable songs, as if Dylan had followed Robert Johnson to the crossroads and made the same deal with the devil. Seriously, as much fun as Talking Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues is, with its humour slightly obscuring the true message of the song, which is simply to chastise greedy businessmen, there is no hint that this callow youth would soon write Blowin' In The Wind and A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall. If that wasn't enough, the bittersweet love song Tomorrow Is A Long Time came next. Then he boldly tackled the racism, segregation and violence of the day with The Death Of Emmett Till.

Demos of the day weren't as sophisticated a process as now. Tape and time was more valuable, and Dylan was simply doing one take of each, for the lucrative songwriting market. If he made a mistake, he'd stop and repeat the line correctly, or add the right words at the end. This was so his publisher could pitch the song to others. Witmark did a fabulous job of this, with Joan Baez, Ian and Sylvia, Peter, Paul and Mary, The Byrds, Sonny and Cher, and so many others making all parties involved good money. Quality didn't matter much for these performances, as they were never to be aired or released, and some of them have either decayed with time or were of limited fidelity in the first place. But the strength of Dylan's commitment to the material and passion in the performance more than makes up for it. These were often the first run-through's of these songs, Dylan itching to get his latest piece of brilliance recorded for posterity.

By 1965, Dylan had refocused his career and writing, and the demo dates for his publisher ceased, the emphasis now on his own albums. Dylan did return to demos in a couple of years, as he and The Hawks would camp out in Woodstock recording day after day for fun and potential cover versions by others. Fans have been screaming for these well-documented sessions to be officially released on the Bootleg Series, and hopefully that might be next in this most fascinating and important ongoing documentation.

Thursday, January 6, 2011



The JSB, Halifax's jammy electro-rockers, have been moving more and more to the fx dept. of your music collection.  The group's latest sees them jumping wholeheartedly into the electronic world.  Led by keyboardist Aaron Collier into the brave new world, he takes the producer chair and turns up the twiddles and knobs.  The disc features a few new tracks, but also some old JSB favourites reworked and remixed.
The result is interesting and different because JSB make pretty concise and tuneful songs normally, so they are coming at the electronic thing with the tunes intact, and as the first priority.   I think they take a much different approach to the electronica because they do come out of the basic band tradition.  The strengths are still here, including Craig Mercer's vocals, a belter in the fine Bono tradition.  The band can rock out like a good Halifax alt-pop act too, so you're always going to get a solid song even remixed.  It's just taking them into unexpected areas, with the core unharmed. 
Not everything here works, because it is experimentation.  Some tracks go on too long, and there's some at the end of the disc that are just goofing about, and don't deserve to be here.  They are sullying a decent effort.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011



It's been quite a while since you could predict what a new Elvis Costello disc would sound like. Yes, he's still rocked when he desired, usually with his group The Imposters. But he's just as likely to lead them on a tour to a specific genre and region, such as New Orleans with Allen Toussaint or rootsy Tennessee on The Delivery Man. Many fans blanch when he goes further afield, into opera or vocal jazz. But they are just as likely to shrug their shoulders at basic rock discs (Momofuku). 2009's Secret, Profane and Sugarcane saw more favour, as Costello brought in some of the finest acoustic country players under the guidance of producer T-Bone Burnett, a style and partnership that has always worked will for the two.

Burnett is back for National Ransom, along with the core musicians, but instead of repeating themselves, the team has given us a kitchen-sink approach, throwing in a little of pretty much everything Costell's been about for the past two decades. Working with some of the acoustic players on mandolin, fiddle and double-bass, Imposters Steve Nieve and Pete Thomas on keys and drums, horns and strings and whatever else is needed, the disc is all over the map stylistically. The title cut is a raucous rampage tackling bankers and bad morals, the most understandable track on the disc. Then things, typically, get complicated. Jimmie Standing In The Rain is 1930's jazz vocal, complete with muted trumpet and fiddle.

Now, it all sounds great. These are wonderful productions, mood and instruments and tricks all combining to create an aural pleasure. When you try to listen to it, that's when it gets complicated. One of the classic criticisms of Costello is how he attempts to shoehorn as many words as possible into his melodies, and how relatable the stories actually are. Honestly there are few here I can even begin to describe. He often chooses antique words for effect, such as slattern to rhyme with flatten, or the opening line of "Running pell-mell and harum-scarum". The references and original inspirations are mostly hidden and obscure. He gives cryptic clues to the location and time period of each song (Five Small Words takes place in Tucson, Arizona, 1978), but you'll have to do some pretty serious detective work to find out more. Whether they are personal reference points for him, or historical events, at least you know there are complicated and dark stories lurking. Whether you want or need to know more, that's your choice. It drives me a bit nuts at times. Anyway, if you don't worry about such things, you will probably find this one of the most accessible Costello discs in awhile, thanks to its wide collection of styles and excellence of performance.
A Slow Drag With Josephine is a light dance from the 1920's, featuring zither, accordian and a whistling solo, possibly a hit song for a vaudevile show. You Hung The Moon is sentimental ballad, an attempt at a jazz standard style, and a good one. Costello's in his full crooner voice, the serious vocal style he uses for his forays into classical and jazz. I Lost You is a country-cajun hoedown. Bullets For The New-Born King is another slow, quiet one, this time a folk-political essay, with just double-bass and acoustic guitar. With all this playing around, when Costello returns to the more mainstream confines of rock, whether mid-tempo (Five Small Words) or go-for-it (The Spell That You Cast), the familiarity is a relief. All this challenging music can be a bit exhausting.

Sunday, January 2, 2011



I guess I've developed a special relationship with the far-flung utopia that is Hamilton, Ontario.  Being a small-town lad from the remote wilderness of New Brunswick, the excitement and glamour of the Steel City is something I've grown to cherish in the past few years during my annual November pilgrimage for the Hamilton Music Awards.

Actually, as I've blogged before, The Hammer has one of the best scenes anywhere, thanks to the vibrancy and loyalty of the musical community.  Also, you can find excellence in just about every genre going, plus a great cross-fertilization, with little or no snobbishness.  Everybody pulls for each other.  The clubs and venues are fun, and I always come away with some new finds.

I first met Kim Koren three years ago, and was pleased to find out about this latest CD, her third.  Kim's a fixture in Hamilton, regularly gigs in Toronto, and tours England in acoustic mode.  She's a singer-songwriter, but the kind who can rock out nicely with a band behind her.  For Raven Heart, it's a mix of acoustic tracks with some harder-edged alt-country.  Her voice is not pure, and that's good here, because these tunes are meant to be world-wise and a little weary.  There's a sadness that creeps in, the kind that comes from experience, and the realization that bad and sad things can happen to good people.  This is real life.  Yet there's just as much hope there too, some strength, and contentment.  Yes, she can pack a lot into that voice.

The nursery rhyme-based lyric of Spiders and Snails is a little too precious, but the rest of the disc does that nifty trick; it makes you rock and it makes you think.  With two of the cuts written about the homeless in Hamilton, and another in the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti, Koren mixes power with empathy.  Also check out the title cut, co-authored by Mr. Hamilton himself, Tom Wilson.

Saturday, January 1, 2011



If you've lost track of the constant flow of Hendrix releases, it's no surprise.  Lawsuits, labels and family business have muddied the waters for years.  Now with half-sister Janie firmly in control, the vaults are open like never before.  Every outtake and live show is being examined, and the Experience Hendrix team says there's still plenty to come.

This latest set had all the prospects of being classic overkill.  After all, there's already been a 4-disc boxed set, a BBC collection, and several full cd's of outtakes, etc., of various interest.  What could be left?  It turns out there's not that much in terms of actual new songs, but as for different versions and interesting obscurities, this set goes a long way.  First off, the story begins with a full disc of tracks Hendrix did as a sideman, for the Isley Brothers, Little Richard and King Curtis.  That's smart, this stuff hasn't been on any of the reissues.  The other three discs are full of favourites in various forms of completion, whether it's Are You Experienced in its basic first version, without the psychedelic effects, or a hotel version of Dylan and The Band's Tears Of Rage, a magic moment of intimacy and never available in any form before.  Even if you've previously felt saturated by the stream of releases, most fans and even casual listeners will find this a rewarding box.

The set also comes in stripped-down and cheaper packages, including a one-CD highlights version, and another that includes the 90-minute DVD from the box.  That's the version I picked up, in a half-price bin at Future Shop, such is the value of CD's these days.  So it cost me, get this, nine bucks.  Now this is a great value, because the DVD is wonderfully made, a full history of Jimi that deserves to be a documentary on the History Channel.  Filled with tons of unseen photos from family archives, vintage film clips, and period interviews, the piece is narrated by Hendrix himself, as voiced by Bootsy Collins.  Using letters to his father and friends, interview transcripts, and other sources, we hear Jimi's words throughout his life.  Done by Bob Smeaton, the man behind The Beatles Anthology, I'm surprised this excellent film isn't receiving more attention.