Friday, July 29, 2011


Country-roots band The Heartbroken have a new motto: Every day is a work day.
As they roam from town-to-town on their first tour of the East Coast, the group is more than familiar with the ups and downs of being a hard-working band in Canada. "Yesterday was the weirdest day," reflects drummer Blake Manning. "We had a bad experience with a club the night before, and then woke up to the Canadian County Music Association Group Of The Year nomination. That's just how it goes with us. The highs and the lows of The Heartbroken. And then Stuart (Cameron) and Dav (Doyle) ran out of gas on the highway, about half an hour outside of town. Pete (Fusco) and I were having a day off yesterday, and our day off got squarely taken away from us. It turned into a work day."

"Every day is a work day boys, every day," singer Damhnait Doyle reminds them.

Doyle knows perhaps a little better than the three guys about life on the road, and being in a band. She's done the solo thing, and then was in the group Shaye for several years. A star in her own right, she's more than happy to be one-quarter of an up-and-coming act. "It wasn't where I thought I would be, because it's actually a much more noble pursuit than anything I ever thought, to be honest. It's four of us fully committed together, believing in ourselves and each other, and it's the most incredible feeling musically and as a family I've ever experienced."

Stuart Cameron has lots of stage and recording experience, first appearing as a kid with his father John Allen Cameron. Over the years he became the go-to guitarist for many Canadian artists, from Ashley MacIsaac to Matthew Good. "Three of us, out of the four, it's our first experience being in a band," says Cameron. "It's always been playing for other people. I think out of all those experiences of playing for others, and watching their careers rise, or fall, you learn from all that. I've never been happier, this is where I'm supposed to be."

The four of them didn't have to look hard to find suitable band mates. Cameron, Fusco and Manning are much in-demand studio pros in Toronto, who also played for fun together, often with Doyle. The idea of committing to a band wasn't a hard sell. "It was really easy, all of us are great friends, so it was an easy decision to be in a band with them," acknowledges Fusco. "We know how to be friends, and it's easy to be in a band with your friends."

The plans were hatched almost two years ago, at what was originally just another day hanging out. "We didn't even know we were writing a song," remembers Manning. "We always hang out together anyways, for years and years. We were all sitting around Stuart's kitchen with guitars, and I think we got half-way through the song before we released we were writing a really good song. There was no real idea of how the sound was going to form, it just kinda happened. By the third or fourth song, we were like, 'this is great, we should make a record, we should start a band!' And it took us so many years to figure that out, which was so stupid. Because we'd been sitting in that kitchen or other kitchens for years, and it took us that long to go hey, wow, this is really good."
Once the decision was made, the debut album Tonight Tonight came about. That's the disc that got them the CCMA nomination, a big one for a rookie band. Just like the kitchen sessions, everybody is credited with the songwriting. For four people who have spent so long working on their individual careers, they certainly are playing well with others.

"I'm very happy people are noticing," says Doyle. "With the CCMA, that makes a big difference, because it's very difficult to be a beginning band in the music industry right now. It's difficult to be an established band in the music industry right now. We're fighting for every nook and cranny and edge we can find."

It's hard work every day for The Heartbroken, because as they say, every day is a work day.

Thursday, July 28, 2011


What's the best music festival in Canada?  Hey, there's a can of worms.  Every community thinks theirs is great, and it probably is.  It's all about going or volunteering, making music part of your life, in your city or town.  Now, having said that, certain ones do stand out for a number of reasons, depending on what you like, whether it's the outdoor camping kind, the style of music, the setting, the high quality of the acts, it really is an individual taste question.

I will give a shout-out to a tiny little festival that in a few short years has managed to make a name for itself right across the country, at least in the alternative world.  SappyFest takes place in the small New Brunswick town of Sackville, home of Mount Allison University, and a pretty cool little arts place.  This is the sixth year for Sappy, which starts tomorrow and runs until Sunday.  Now, I haven't been, I must admit, despite living just 2 hours away.  It's a rough weekend for somebody with three kids, that's my only excuse.  Oh, this year my sister is getting married during it, too.  Someday I'll get there.

Sappy was started by the then-backbone of Sackville's music scene:  Canadian indie icon Julie Doiron, photographer Jon Claytor and label boss Paul Henderson, the folks behind Sappy Records.  The idea was simple, to get a few of their music pals from the area and abroad, and have fun.  It turned out that Sackville was a great place to throw up a couple of tents and play cool music.  The vibe has always been very small and very friendly and everybody be cool, and this will be great, and that's what people say it is.  There are some musicians and broadcasters and such that call SappyFest their very favourite music event of the year.  Oh, it's a lovely pretty place too, that helps.

This year's lineup includes The Acorn, Chad Vangaalen, Daniel Romano, Jim Bryson, John K. Samson, Jon Langford, The Sadies, Ladyhawk, Little Scream, Owen Pallett, and many more, including Ms. Doiron of course.  I could write a book about every one of these acts, but just for fun I grabbed the new disc from Newfoundland's, The Burning Hell to see what they're about.  Led by Mathias Kom, the group certainly singular, there's no mistaking them or writing them off as copycats.  First off, the album title Flux Capacitor refers to that gizmo that let Michael J. Fox time-travel in the Back To The Future movies.  Kom refers to a lot of 80's iconic moments, because they were so important to him as a kid.  Yes, there's a ton of humour and irony involved in that, especially a guy basically wrapping about actor John Stamos guest-drumming for the the Kokomo-era Beach Boys.

There's a bit of Klezmer in the sound, lots of basic instruments and lots of emphasis on Kom lead ukulele playing (!) and cool sounds from trombone, violin, clarinet and sax.  But really, we're there to hear Kom's stories, which on the disc center around the theme of returning to his childhood, so that Back To The Future equipment comes into play on a couple of songs.  He has a cool sense of humour, quite a bit philosophical, has a lot to say about death and how shit happens in life, best just to role with it.  I like it when he tells the little kids that sometimes the witches win in the classic fairy tales, and the kids get eaten and that's alright, he came out okay reading them.

Anyway, I'd love to see The Burning Hell sometime, I wish I could see them at SappyFest, but not this year.  You could still go though.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011


When I listen to a new Gordie Sampson album, I have a hard time deciding whether I'm listening to an artistic statement from him, or the next batch of good songs he's hoping will get covered in Nashville or elsewhere.  Ever since the Cape Breton songwriter relocated to Nashville, the writing has been the precedent, for good reason.  He's a Grammy winner for God's sake, for that Carrie Underwood song.  But with each number here, I find myself wondering which artist would sound best doing a version.

The Other Side Of Letting Go could be handed straight over to Nickelback for their next hit power ballad.  Or, it could go to Keith Urban.  Such is the state of pop music, where the difference between country and rock is whether the singer is wearing a hat or not.  Now, this is supposed to be Sampson's country disc, as opposed to his others in the roots-rock field.  Again, I don't hear much of a difference.  What I do hear is some gems, and some generic work, slick touches that mean he's learned how to appeal to the masses a little too much.

On the positive side, Fear Of Flying is a real heart-tugger, stripped back to basically Sampson, acoustic and an uncredited but excellent female vocalist.  There's a few of these mellow numbers here, Crazy Holdin' On is another sad but pretty duet which could find a country home but has a little Paul Simon in it as well.  Hurricane Jane is a fun uptempo one that's worthy of John Hiatt's pen ("she's a perfect storm").  Sampson's now four albums into a solo career that still holds the potential of making him a big star, but in the meantime you know there's dozens of big-name producers and artists checking out these offerings.

Monday, July 25, 2011


One of the bigger surprises when the numbers were crunched for both The Top 100 Canadian Singles, and Top 100 Canadian Albums books was the success of the Toronto 60's band The Ugly Ducklings.  The group's debut single from 1966, Nothin', was voted #33 of all time in the country, while the album Somewhere Outside grabbed the #72 spot in that poll.  Compared to other '60's bands, they had little exposure outside Toronto, and certainly haven't received much airplay since on classic rock radio formats.

The reason the Ducks have so many current fans is because of their connection with the late '70's punk crowd, and later, with fans of garage rock and authentic 1960's sounds.  Today The Ugly Ducklings are considered ahead of their time, and one of the best R'n'B groups to come along in the country.  Somewhere Outside is still a consistent seller, and now our knowledge of the group's sound is going to grow by leaps and bounds thanks to this new series of previously-unreleased music.

Compiled by band leader, singer and writer Dave Bingham, these rediscovered tapes fill in the gaps in the band history.  Subtitled The Lost Jams Series, Bingham has worked hard finding and trying to restore these vintage recordings.  First released for sale on eBay four years ago, now Bingham has raised enough funds and interest to make them widely available. 

From January of 1967 comes the cleverly-titled Somewhere Inside, which is a radio broadcast from legendary Toronto station CHUM-AM.  The band was featured on the program Talent In Toronto, with interviews by DJ Bob MacAdorey and band cuts from the studio.  Now, your patience is required for this set, as the tapes aren't in great shape, even after the restoration.  The sound is thin on the music, and the interview segments have all sorts of background noise and interference.  Of course, it's a miracle any copy still exists.  Despite the problems, fans will instantly recognize its historical importance.  We hear about the realities of band life in the those days, get a taste of vintage broadcasting, and even get to listen to a commercial for the Confederation Train that was about to cross the country to celebrate Canada's 100th birthday.  But what truly blew my musical mind was hearing the group do Bo Diddley's I'm A Man.  It is incendiary, psychedelic, and groundbreaking.  Remember, it's January of '67, and The Ducklings are blowing the lid off this blues number, in the same fashion as The Who soon would for Magic Bus.  These guys could see the future of rock.

Unfortunately, their record label, Yorkville, couldn't or didn't want to.  On the new set Thump & Twang, we hear the demos the band recorded to present to the label as the new direction they wanted.  The late '67-early '68 recordings were improvisational and psychedelic blues, but the label wanted more pop hits like the #1 Gaslight in Toronto.  Again, the sound isn't the best on several of the cuts, basic 2-track demos.  But after the band left the label, they had gone into storage, forgotten until Bingham brought them out in 2002.  History saved.  Padding out the set are two very interesting cuts from a CBC TV show in 1968, called Through The Eyes Of Tomorrow.  Both are spooky blues, their own Hangman, and another Bo Diddley number, You Can't Judge A Book By It's Cover.  The Ugly Ducklings were doing what like-minded groups in England and the U.S. were doing, making the blues modern and exciting, for the new FM and album rock audience about to make stars of Led Zeppelin, Ten Years After, and so many others.  Unfortunately, the band never got a chance to make that record.

Friday, July 22, 2011


Gillian Welch, where the hell have you been?  After virtually making us all folk fans again with four brilliant albums, it's been bloody eight years since you've released something.  Geez, you even made partner Dave Rawlings actually released his own excellent disc.  Welch admits there was some writer's block involved in the delay, and some problems with early recording attempts.  But still, that's a long time to wait for ten tracks.  This better be worth it.

It takes a while to get back in to the quiet beauty of Welch and Rawlings work.  Nobody makes better two-guitar, two-voices music.  Heck, nobody is that brave to do pretty much only that.  Plus, it's all new songs, they don't fall back on cute reworked covers of pop songs or rediscovered music from decades past.  While there is no song that jumps out like Look At Miss Ohio, the opener from 2003's Soul Journey, it eventually sinks in that you're listening to music timeless, unique and important.

It's back to basics for this disc, with no other musicians, no covers, no looser feel that was offered on Soul Journey.  There are numbers that are truly 19th century attempts, such as Six White Horses, where Rawlings picks up the banjo, and Welch puts on the old-time accent.  That kind of number almost seems like a party trick for them now, we know they can take us back to that century.  I go for the ones that seem old, but have lots of modern touches, words and portions of melodies that make us go from old to modern in seconds, and there are indeed lots of thos moments here.

The song Tennessee is the centerpiece number, a soft and blue number, that could be an old Civil War number, or could be something off Neil Young's first solo album.  Of course, this being our favourite duo, they confound you with surprising chord choices, including one of their most beautiful and haunting choruses ever.  Rawlings sneaks in this tasty little licks as well.  That one will be great to hear live.  Thank goodness they are in the middle of their biggest tour in a decade, stopping by Toronto's Phoenix Concert Hall on Monday, July 25.  The rest of us will have to make due with an upcoming Austin City Limits show this coming season.

Thursday, July 21, 2011


Glossy and poppy, kinda retro and sort of alternative, but really more mainstream, The Midway State is pretty slick.  Drenched in keys and effects, the music is big and important-sounding, worked over into a huge production.  The band spent a year holed up, crafting the followup to their 2008 debut Holes, and hearing the meticulous results I'm starting to understand what takes so long.  This isn't a bunch of guys pounding out tunes on bass, drums, guitars and keys.  Every note sounds like its been put through filters and flanges and valves and whistles.

With everything awash in this sheen, it's like we're stepping back into the synth-80's for 40 minutes.  I couldn't pick it out at first, it wasn't the New Wavers or New Romantics or the other synth bands.  Then it hit me.  With the combination of keys and effects with rock drive and pop accessibility, the album was reminding me of the 80's Moody Blues, with Your Wildest Dreams and The Voice.  That, and singer Nathan Ferraro's high-pitched, yearning vocals. 

Now, I'm pretty sure these Midway kids wouldn't have a clue about Moody Blues or much about the 80's at all, I just find it fascinating these big keyboard and effects productions are back in the rock world.  Epic numbers are cool, young bands are allowed to be serious instead of snotty.  I guess its the success of The Arcade Fire, who've managed to take those big, intelligent productions to the Grammy Awards.  It's all a bit too earnest, but you can't knock The Midway State's success rate so far with the MuchMusic crowd.  Maybe it gets a little looser and louder on stage when the fans get to take part.  It just feels so confined.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011


What's the matter with young musicians these days?  Why, back in the good old days, when a band had downtime, the members would simply trash hotel rooms or drive their Rolls-Royce into the swimming pool.  Nowadays, everybody's doing side projects, teaming up with players from other bands, trying on new styles, or going solo but staying in the main band.  Often, its simply the financial need:  Players can't get enough work in one band, so they, like other people, are working two jobs or freelancing.  And in some cases, it's all about the art.

The Express did come together for the music.  Liam Corcoran had more music, and different themes than he could expore in the power-pop setting of PEI's Two Hours Traffic.  It was acoustic, quiet and more personal then much of what has been suitable for the peppy group.  And if you're going to expose your most personal music, who are you going to trust more than family?  Corcoran found the ideal partner at the dinner table.  First cousin Kinley Dowling plays violin with everybody, I mean everybody on the East Coast, from Buck 65 to Jenn Grant to Matt Mays, but most notably and often with Hey Rosetta!  This collaboration has been discussed at various points, including shared tours and Christmas gatherings.

Initially, it was Corcoran who needed the outlet, but when it started to come together, Dowling brought her own similar quiet songs in, and it ended up she played an even larger role as vocalist on three of those.  The rest feature Liam, on acoustic, joined by Kinley's sympathetic harmonies and major string parts.  It's wonderful to hear violin and viola play such a major role, especially on relatively calm recordings.  The instruments stand out, and make the whole project sound very different from all the acoustic work right now.

Another great addition to the team is producer Dale Murray of Cuff The Duke, who put it all together at his studio in Dartmouth.  The multi-instrumentalist added the next layer of guitar, pedal steel and the like, providing much of the atmosphere.

So, you get intimate lyrics, calm and lovely harmonies, acoustic guitar, plenty of strings played in non-typical roles, and two interesting personalities.  Sorry I can't give you a handy comparison, I can't think of another duo to say "for fans of....", but if you like beauty in a laid-back setting, I'd take The Express.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011


The 1986 album best remembered for everyone suddenly being able to understand what Stipe was singing.  After three albums spent invented mumble-pop, all of a sudden you could pick out actual entire lines.  Now, what they meant, that was another story.  Blame it all on a Top 40 hit-making producer.  The band was ready to progress to a bigger rock sound, and hired Don Gehman, best known for a steady stream of hits with John "Then-Cougar" Mellancamp.  Gehman turned up the vocals, punched up the drums, and helped send them on their journey to the charts.  Pageant was the group's first gold record.

R.E.M. didn't really have to sell out to make the slow move to mass popularity over the next few years.  Now that you could hear more words, you found out there was some pretty interesting writing going down.  Cuyahoga tackles what seems to be environmental concerns, advising "Let's put our heads together/And start a new country up".  The major song on the album, Fall On Me, sees Stipe heeding Chicken Little:  "Buy the sky and sell the sky/and bleed the sky and tell the sky/don't fall on me."  And while that's going on, Mike Mills is singing a whole second melody line of lyrics, in this complicated and superior song, one of the numbers that set alternative music apart from your John Cougar's in the 80's.  Pageant is home to several other important numbers in the early R.E.M. canon, including Begin The Begin, the beautiful Swan Swan H, and the light-hearted I Am Superman, a rare cover on an R.E.M. album proper.

The bonuses here include a complete, 19-track demo CD, featuring most of the songs that made the album, a bunch of instrumental work, and a couple of out-takes.  As with previous demos, we find the group had a distinct sound that stayed pretty much the same through the whole process, so it's not the most revelatory set of songs.  I'd rather hear a live concert from the time.  The deluxe packaging is pretty attractive, with an over-sized box, insert photos and a big poster, so it's a bit arty.  A for the album, B for the bonuses, C for the cash you might want to save by not upgrading if you already have the disc.

Monday, July 18, 2011


It is, of course, the address of Chess Records in Chicago, as previously referenced in a Rolling Stones song recorded there in the 60's.  Now Mr. Thorogood is paying tribute as well.  Sadly, the Chess studios were closed at that address in 1967, so George had to make due with that equally-important landmark, the ...ummm....  House Of Blues in Encino, Ca. 

If you're going to do a blues tribute, and not do one about either Robert Johnson or Stevie Ray Vaughn, the usual suspects, Chess Records would and should be the place to honour.  How entire generations have no idea who Bo Diddley and Howlin' Wolf are is beyond me, and why we have to constantly remind people about the legacy of Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry, yet Eric Clapton remains "god" is even more a mystery.  Even to Clapton.  So, hats off to Thorogood.

Now, George may have hit on part of the problem himself.  In one of two tribute numbers he co-wrote for this set, during his name check of blues greats, he jokingly throws in "Jake and Elwood".  Crap, we're still getting our blues history from Dan Aykroyd, from the deltas of the Ottawa River?  Thorogood also sings about how South Michigan Ave. had Cadillacs lined up on the block.  Umm, they certainly didn't belong to the musicians.  Except for perhaps the notorious Berry, none got the money or status they deserved.

We can't blame Thorogood for that, and he does his best to drum up new interest in the likes of Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson II, and Willie Dixon.  When he lets his raunchy, revved-up guitar do the talking, that's the best, and Thorogood really does have his own sound.  But somehow he sounds too cartoon-like on this disc.  He's always had a bit of an act going, larger than life, a cheerleader and an eager kid.  Although he's covered Chess numbers often in his career, faced with a whole album's worth, the total toughness of these original artists makes him seem pale by comparison, if you get my drift.

Thursday, July 14, 2011


Gosh, there's a lot of Jeff Healey albums around these days, and more promised.  Since he passed in 2008, there have been live albums and final studio recordings, greatest hits, DVD's, reissued old studio albums, some of them jazz and some of them blues. The ones that have arrived from Stony Plain, his last label, were planned productions from Healey.  Others, including this one, are archival projects controlled by others, so you have this flurry of activity.  There are lots of questions and problems when that happens.  How much is too much?  Will the quality diminish?  Will fans get burned by some releases and therefore turned off any or all the rest?  Is everything being done with the right motivation?

This set is the first of what's being called JHB The Live Series, promising future concerts " a great deal of previously unreleased content has been unearthed from the band's audio and video archives."  Obviously lots of tape was rolled over the years when the Healey bands played, and for good reason.  I've yet to hear any set that didn't include one or two incredible moments.  Healey could explode at any given moment with something truly amazing, and his concerts were never routine.  He just couldn't help connecting to the music, and when he lost himself in a solo, it could rival the greats.

This night, Grossman's, in 1994, was a bit special, a return to the small haven Toronto blues fans called home, the right kind of grungy place for this music.  The band was getting ready to go into the studio, so it was rehearsal time, getting into game-shape.  That meant favourites and covers, including the usual ones and some surprises only a music historian like Healey could dig out.  No doubt there was a band playing Dust My Broom, Crossroads, and Killing Floor that night in cities all over North America, but probably not as well.  However, it's doubtful there was another group who could also drop The Beatles' Yer Blues into the set, which they were about to record for the Cover To Cover album.

The sound is thickened out that night, as guitar player Pat Rush and harmonica ace Michael Pickett join in, so that's a plus for this set.  Eventually we're going to say enough is enough when we get yet another live version of All Along The Watchtower, but Healey had a huge storehouse of blues knowledge to call on.  We also get Ten Years After's I'm Going Home, Howlin' Wolf's Who's Been Talking, and his mentor Albert King's As The Years Go Passing By, also tracked for Cover To Cover.  I first saw Healey play, guesting at an Albert King gig in Albert's Hall, and I'm still blown away every time.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011


You have your big, soulful-voiced singers, the kind blessed with amazing pipes, who are a joy to hear, a sight to see.  Then you have the songwriter, the person who can turn a phrase, find a hook, create art of of air.  Two different types at the top of their game.  Each one is a rare beast, but when one person has both of these high level-talents, there's magic happening.

Micah Barnes of Toronto used to be in The Nylons, so you know he can sing.  It turns out he can write brilliant blue-eyed soul, centered around his piano and of course, the voice.  He's had a long recording, performing and vocal coaching career, moving between L.A. and Toronto, battled some personal grief and demons, and most importantly, survived and become known by insiders as one of the great talents in the country.  His six-track EP Domesticated, is joyful and polished.  It's ear candy, Top 40 for sure, but the kind even the most cynical punk or shoe-gazing indie fan can acknowledge as expert-league.

I hear strong soul-pop here, crossed with smart, 80's New Wave crispness.  Barnes works with full respect for the art of making a hit, or at least that definition of a hit we grew up with, a song that would sound great on the radio, and of course pumping out of the stereo at a party.  Economies and trends have moved people away from precision, perfection and of course, pricey productions, but with such a enjoyable voice, radiant melodies and strong stories, what else would you want than this polished gem?

Monday, July 11, 2011

Music Review: Matthew Barber

Now with a few years and albums under his belt, Barber strips it back it basics with this home-recorded, wholly self-written and performed, and basically self-contained collection.  That's not to say it's raw or acoustic or low-fi.  With lots of keyboards, drums, and a good deal of soul in the tracks, it's probably not all that different than what might come up in an expensive studio with lots of sidefolk involved.  In today's musical economy, why bother, if home works out just fine?

In its simplicity, the album presents Barber as more of a singer-songwriter than ever before.  That's part of the function of less instruments, and perhaps a desire to have the vocals more upfront.  There are some tracks that come bare-bones, such as Let Me Go Home, with just Barber and his acoustic, getting mellow about his family and his girl.  Others see him taking on the troubadour role, uptempo young acoustic folkie, such as his mid-60's Dylan-by-numbers cut Dust On My Collar.  There's nothing wrong with that, it's a vibrant blues form that ain't nearly as overplayed as electric guitar Chicago blues.  My favourites though are his piano or organ numbers, a couple of jaunty numbers, a couple of mournful ones as well.  All together, a strong mix that doesn't tire, and zips by under 40 minutes.

Two decades ago, Barber would be signed to a major label, and handed tens or perhaps hundreds of thousands of dollars to record, in the hopes he'd be the lucky one-in-twenty to sell well.  But if he didn't, big whoop, Springsteen or Prince would make that money back in a week.  With today's realities, it's the song that matters, and the ability to tour and connect in small ways, unless you have the word GaGa in your name.  Albums such as Barber's new one make me feel a lot better about the state of the biz.

Sunday, July 10, 2011


We've had lots of 70's covers albums of late, so of course the 80's aren't far behind.  There's this desperate need for people to attempt to prove the decade was not so bad after all.  I'm not sold on that theory.  Some of my favourite artists made their worst music that decade (Elvis Costello, Dylan), and even worse, wore terrible clothes.  I blame trendy production styles and MTV turning everyone into a model.  If you want more prove, watch Live Aid sometime, and see what holds up. Certainly not The Thompson Twins, and definitely not Bono's boots.

Duncan Sheik goes bravely into the days of synthesizers and bad hairstyles.  While their certainly were good artists making excellent music back then, he's chosen to zero in on the British electro-pop of that time.  So it's Howard Jones, Japan, Psychedelic Furs, The Cure, Tears For Fears, The Smiths, New Order and yes, The Thompson Twins.  Sheik has stripped back these big productions to try to reveal the song underneath.  Instead of layers of keyboards, exploding drums, and waves of vocals, we get Sheik playing almost all the instruments, and helped out mostly by Rachel Yamagata on co-vocals.  Notably this means the synths are gone, replaced by such organic instruments as harmonium, glockenspiel and marimba, plus piano and acoustic guitar doing the main work.

The effect is somewhat unsettling, as these songs are so frozen in time, and in that sound.  To hear the words out of that context throws you off, and familiar melody lines at first confuse you, as you strain to remember what it's supposed to sound like.  As soon as you confirm the song, say the Furs' The Ghost In You, you can enjoy what is a pretty tune without the clutter.  However, there are several that prove to be more style than substance, as befits the whole decade.  Have you ever listened to the lyrics of New Order's Love Vigilantes?  It amazing what a good beat will cover up.  And Shout by Tears For Fears drags without the booming production.  For every song Sheik saves (Hold Me Now, What Is Love), another is unveiled as more machine than music.

Saturday, July 9, 2011


Fred's been a busy boy.  After being a band guy for years (Shotgun and Jaybird, Daniel, Fred and Julie), he's released his second album in a year, following last year's March 12.  That one made it as far as the Polaris Prize long list, proving his aching, ancient style has captured significant interest.  Quickly he follows it up with another home-made haunting one.  It feature Fred with just guitar, voice, and pump organ, mic'ed close.  And while it's indie, it ain't indie rock, nope, this is as quiet as it gets, Squire writing for pre-electricity times.

Shenandoah is the famous folk song, associated with the U.S. Civil War era and the Missouri River.  It gives you an idea of what Squire is after in mood and music, with the other eight tracks being his own compositions.  Aside from a couple of non-typical chords and words, these songs could be more popular hits of that day, but instead are Squire's.  There's a suicide, a burial, a cheating lover, a violent fighter, all the stuff of those times.  Squire finds a neutral voice, that could be old, and could be new, and is quite successful at making the songs timeless.

I quite like the pump organ, which is played subtly, but has a huge effect.  First off, it makes the music feel old immediately.  It also reminds you of old hymns, so that sets the mood.  And, it gives us a different sound than just the acoustic guitar, which gets old fast.  Also, it doesn't feel like a gimmick on the album, as he's not overplaying the thing.  Hats off, Fred.

Squire says the album is about forgiveness, and nobody on the album is judged.  Instead there's a lot of sympathy for these characters, and it's a noble little album, ultimately uplifting in its antique approach.

Friday, July 8, 2011


Quietly wowing the folk and singer-songwriter world nationally, especially the new, young acoustic fans, MacLellan's dropped the big one here.  It's all come together for her, starting with a set of word-perfect songs.  You could examine every lyric here, and grab great quotes, lines to make you smile, melt, nod in agreement, or wonder.  This is an album of personal intensity, someone getting in touch with heartbreak and desire and past baggage, and you'll find one of more situations you know very, very well.  There are songs where you'll think 'that's exactly how I feel', and read your own situation into it, probably forever.  She sings of past loves coming back to haunt new ones:  "They send their regards/With every brand new start/I think of love dead and gone".

Too intense, or mellow for you?  Actually you can groove along to much of the disc, with its often upbeat acoustic sound.  MacLellan's teamed up with a perfect co-producer, Toronto vet David Baxter, who brings his strong knowledge of what these instruments can do for the songs, the moods and moments that can be added, the subtle touches and timing that make it all so sweet.  Of course, MacLellan's own voice is so well matched to her material, sad but solid, sweet at times, laconic and dreamy at other paces.  Joining her on this album is Baxter's cohort, young Toronto singer Jadea Kelly, matching MacLellan in near-sibling harmonies.

Dropped into this rock-solid collection is the touching remake of her late father's classic, Snowbird.  In concert for the past couple of years, MacLellan's been reclaiming the family business, returning the radio middle-of-the-road staple to its simplicity.  Nothing against Anne Murray of course, the song just took on a reputation over the years.  Now, in this gentle version with can focus on the lyrics Gene MacLellan crafted, and what drew everyone from Murray to Elvis to the song in the first place.  When Jim Cuddy shows up to sing the harmony on it, well, we have an event.  Somehow Catherine manages to keep it classy and without a whiff of calculation on her part.  It is what it is, a tribute to her father, and a great song, from a superb album.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011


One of my all-time favourites is playing Saint John Thursday night, thanks to the good folks at Salty Jam. The city's long-running festival is bringing in the excellent singer-songwriter Rosanne Cash, in a relatively intimate performance. It's at the Moose Light Tent, uptown on Water Street, the big kick-off event of the three-day festival. A bit more about Rosanne in a second, but first I'll do a background check on Salty Jam.

The festival came about when the old Saint John Jazz and Blues Festival felt it needed an update. As most J and B festivals have discovered along the way, fans wanted to continue the city excitement in the summer, but also wanted to see more of their favourite music invited in. After all, the same people interested in jazz and blues also had lots of folk, rock, country, roots, virtually any genre in their collections, and there was a need to expand the horizons. So Salty Jam was born, not really tied to anything except having a good time. It's been growing ever since, and drawing from outside the city. I know people were keen on getting another chance to see Matt Andersen last year for instance, and willing to make the drive.
That's what I'll be doing Thursday, as a Rosanne Cash show is a great reason to go. I've seen her before, a few years back when she was just starting out on a project called The List. Playing with a full band, she did a couple of cover versions, telling the crowd she was going to do a whole album of classic country songs her father Johnny, who had recently passed, had told her about when she was a kid. Well, that eventually became her hit album The List, 12 songs from the list of 100 Johnny had given her, classics all such as Sea Of Heartbreak, Long Black Veil and Heartaches By The Number. It became a big hit for her, and she's been much indemand since.

This time, you and I will see her in a stripped-down way, acoustic, just her and husband John Levanthal on guitar and vocals. The tent only holds about 700, so that's a nice size, it will feel friendly and close. It's funny that this mature hitmaker, who has been making records since 1979, is still referred to as Johnny's daughter and country star. She's far more of a roots-folk performer now, but that's just a label. She has had plenty of hits on the country charts of course, including a huge 11 Number Ones on the Billboard country chart. But such is the legacy of her father that her own career does get unjustly overshadowed in brief writeups. Not this one! As I say, I'm a huge fan.

Her latest album, since The List, is actually just out, a career-long retrospective which I'm sure will give us many of the songs in the live set. It's called The Essential Rosanne Cash, 36 cuts over 2 CD's with all the hits and a couple of real rareties. Cash worked on the song list herself. Disc one has those early hit country tracks from the 80's mostly, when she had such number ones as Seven Year Ache, Tennessee Flat Top Box, and Runaway Train. Disc 2, which covers 1990 on, sees a dramatic shift, as Cash started to make more introspective records, and took over the great majority of songwriting. The material was more challenging, and probably ages better than the lighter 80's fare, which also had that dated hitmaking production of the day. However, the hits are awfully good, so I tend to forget about the production after a few seconds and get back into the fun. I bet hearing them acoustic will make them all the better.

And don't forget about the rest of Salty Jam, it's three days after all. The excellent bluegrass player A.G. Olmstead is kicking off the event Thursday at 6 PM at the Brigatine Lounge, a nice start. And opening the show for Cash are local, long-standing country-bluegrass favourites Shanklin Road, and Nova Scotia roots singer Ryan Cook. Friday is one of the hot new festival acts, called The Jam Stampede, made of some allstar players from the Jam scene, plus the really hot Cape Breton group Slowcoaster, burning up the charts nationally. And on Saturday, Canadian blues legends Downchild are back, in a rare performance. Donny Walsh has been doing select shows for the group's 40th anniversary, and this is one. The man who brought us Flip, Flop and Fly, immortalized in The Blues Brothers movie, with the full band, Saturday night.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011


The Halifax-based music blog Herohill has become one of the most important sites in the country, a place where new bands hope to get mentioned, and where up-and-comers hope to become favourites. A nod from Herohill is more than a pat on the back for artists; inevitably it gets mentioned in any band P.R., in that section where they put the positive review quotes. It's known as a taste-maker site, able to pick the next cool group. I've even seen mainstream media using it as proof of quality; The Globe and Mail ran a piece on a band which mentioned it first broke on the Herohill blog.

One of the reasons people go there for their Canadian music news is the liveliness of the site. Run by big fans, they know what their fellow listeners want, which is something different and fun. There's always lots of actual music to hear, and great links. Now, Herohill is even coming up with its own unique and exclusive content. It started last year, when the gang realized they had an embarrassing secret to share: They loved old Hall & Oates. They inquired of some musical pals if it was also a hidden shame shared by them, and in fact it was easy to find like-minded musicians. So Herohill asked several to record their favourite H&O songs. The results ended up on the site, for free, in a special blog called Herohall & Oates.  It's still up by the way, at  It features such artists as Rae Spoon, Gianna Lauren and The Provincial Archive doing all those 70's and 80's hits.

Fast-forward to the preparations for this year's Canada Day, and Herohill all of a sudden got all patriotic on us. Wanting to do another of these cover compilations, they sent word out to dozens of like-minded Canucksters, asking them to pay tribute this July 1st to one of our iconic songwriters. Bryan Acker of Herohill explains the choice: "Lightfoot is never mentioned - at least by the younger crowd - in the discussion of great Canadian artists, so we thought this would be a great way to put a modern spin on some timeless classics, and hopefully keep his music relevant for people that only download what the cool Brooklyn blogs pump out."

This time, they couldn't move for submissions from bands. Although a couple had to turn it down, in the end there are 36 different cuts, by such acts as The Warped 45's, Shotgun Jimmie, The Wheat Pool, Andrew Sisk, Clinton Charlton, Jerry Leger, Lorrie Matheson and more. Some are completely different arrangements and feature backing that's far from the original acoustic folk style Lightfoot uses. Others keep it pretty close to normal, but all are enjoyable, especially at the price. Bring us more, Herohill! Who's next? The Guess Who? April Wine? How about The Tragicall Hip? Anyway, check out the download-only fun at

Monday, July 4, 2011


Another series of deluxe reissues, with bonus tracks and special packaging and different variations aimed at every level of fan, from starter to collector.  McCartney has put out his stuff with bonus tracks in the past, but these are significantly upgraded.  The campaign began last year with Band On The Run, the all-time favourite, and now we'll get the rest of the story, dribbled out every few months.

With McCartney, that's going to mean huge swings in quality and interest.  These two prove the point well.  Thematically they are linked, a decade apart.  McCartney was recorded immediately post-Beatles, alone and searching, with no band and everything to prove on his own.  Tired of the studio chaos and increasingly big productions, he used a simple system of recording directly into the tape machine, bypassing consoles and effects, producers and band mates.  While some of these tracks were just for fun and even instrumental snippets, others were leftover Beatles tracks (Junk, Teddy Boy), and some were new works with the Master of Melody still at the top of his powers (Every Night, Maybe I'm Amazed).  Even in this limited recording session, McCartney could still find just the right sound for his bass, drums, keys, and had an immaculate sense of how particular instruments would work together.  Best of all, he had, and still has, an amazing sense of timing as an arranger.  In a classic McCartney song, individual sounds, whether from the instruments or the voices happen at the perfect time.  Whether it's as simple as a cymbal fill or as complex as vocal harmonies in the chorus, they arrive at exactly the point where you go, "wow, what a great idea."  Although often dismissed as slight, McCartney is actually chock-full of gems, even the slightest instrumental holding one of these special moments.

Now McCartney II, there's a piece of crap.  As the nearly decade-long Wings period drew to a close, with the band losing members every couple of years, a frustrated McCartney returned to the system, once again trying to get past the problem of working with others.  This time, he claims it was simply for his own edification, and he was talked into releasing it as a full album.  Whoever did that needed his head examined.  What McCartney was experimenting with was new technology, specifically synths, and what he could do with the bells and burbles.  He had almost no songs, and was just fooling around with bare ideas.  For lyrics, often silliness and repeated phrases were dropped in, with even the vocals put through effects or sped up.  Plus, he wanted to be funky.  Paul, you wrote Yesterday.  It ain't funky.  As much as he wanted to be, it always came out goofy and smug too.  Unfortunately, some disc jockey had the bright idea to play the flip side of Coming Up, which featured a live version of the track.  It's one of McCartney's worst songs, but it was still a time when people wanted his music, and it was a huge hit.  The actual version found here is a robotic disco number, with what sounds like an electric kazoo and Paul and Linda's chirping vocals sped up to near-Chipmunk speed.  The effect of the live version becoming a hit meant that the album as well became something of a sales hit, but I've never met anyone in my life who actually plays this.  I'll never play it again, if I can help it.

The bonuses found on these two sets are of varied quality.  The less-expensive package is the two-CD set.  The much more expensive deluxe versions come with hard-bound booklets and a DVD.  I'd say there's nothing too special on the DVDs that you'll miss if you choose the cheaper option, but the books are nice.  The first McCartney album bonus CD includes some live versions of the tunes from the decade, plus three out-takes, none of which comes close to being a complete or essential number.  There's a good nine minute mini-documentary on the DVD which explains the time and the concept of the album, plus some more live versions, but it's all worthy of only one viewing. 

The bonus stuff on McCartney II is of the same quality as the regular songs, that is to say more of the same awful synth experiments.  Originally this album was submitted as a double album, and this is what would have constituted the rest of the songs for that.  Certainly the director's cut of this might have been historically interesting if he had chosen to release it in that format, but only to show us the original plan.  There's nothing here that would have improved the project.  The DVD includes the video for the studio version of Coming Up, which was notable for McCartney playing all the different musicians himself, dressing up as Beatle Paul on bass, the guy from Sparks on keys, etc.  But even including the Making of the Video only makes us sit through it twice.  A 25-minute interview done at the time of release again explains the ideas he had, but who cares when it sucks so bad.  The Christmas hit Wonderful Christmastime is also here, the only time these synth experiments actually resulted in a listenable song.  Buy McCartney 1, ban McCartney II.

Sunday, July 3, 2011


First off, let me say I've never been a Pearl Jam fan.  I don't like that mumbly-grungy thing they do.  This greatly influences my review of this CD.  Oddly enough, my two favourite releases involving Eddie Vedder are this new one, and his previous solo soundtrack for Into The Wild.  That one was simple and folksy too.  I like Vedder and his baritone when there's not much for him to groan over.  Here, with the only a ukulele, it's downright melodic.

For yes, this is one album that is exactly as advertised.  Vedder plays only ukulele here, and not from lack of ability.  He does play guitar in P.J., after all.  Like a few fans, most notably George Harrison, Vedder appreciates the simplicity of the four-stringed uke.  You get basic chords, all pretty and shimmering, making it sweet and simple, rich in the melody.  When you mix that with the sonorous sounds of Vedder's deep pipes, it's a unique effect.  Also, stripping away everything but the chords makes the words so much more important, and there's some good and powerful lyrics here.  I have no idea of Vedder's marital situation these days, nor do I feel like Googling the on-line tabloids, but the song Sleeping By Myself is a pretty strong break-up song.  In the bare-bones state, there's certainly an album full of demos here that could have made a fine Pearl Jam album.  I think it's an even better solo disc.

Also included are a few cover versions, Vedder showing the fun side of the ukulele experiment.  Joining him are Glen "Oscar-winner" Hansard, for harmonies on the old Everly Brothers/Gram and Emmylou weeper Sleepless Nights, and Chan "Cat Power" Marshall on Tonight You Belong To Me.  The latter was done by Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters in The Jerk, so Vedder does have a sense of fun.  He ends with the Mama Cass/Louis Armstrong number Dream A Little Dream Of Me, completing the nice vibes.  It could have been a whole album of such covers, with guest harmony singers, but that would be a novelty.  The new songs make it very strong.