Wednesday, May 30, 2012


I know I'm going against accepted opinion here, but Ram is my favourite McCartney solo disc, not Band On The Run.  I find that while said disc rocks, with Jet, Let Me Roll It and others, he'd by that time lost a lot of the whimsy and studio trickery of the late Beatles period.  Ram, however, has McCartney at the height of his production and studio prowess, some zany moments, and it's oh so brave.  Critics at the time were ready to take potshots at him, but he was still acting like he was infallible, and was making records to please himself, not trying for hits as he later would.

It's true that while Lennon was going harder, with tracks such as Cold Turkey and Instant Karma, McCartney was going soft, with songs such as Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey, a surprise hit.  But gosh, shouldn't we celebrate both sides?  Why the need to choose?  After all, if it was a Beatles album with these disparate cuts, everyone would have hailed the mixture, as they had with Abbey Road, with Lennon's Come Together and McCartney's medley numbers.  And of course, Ram isn't all Cheez Whiz, as usual there are heavier touches from him.

Back to my thesis though, why it's his best.  It is a production triumph, with each song unfolding with surprises.   Twists and turns, new layers, clever tricks, multiple parts, this is the man let loose, with no George Martin or other Beatles to limit what he could do.  That doesn't mean its a masterpiece;  while each song sounds great, lyrically there's some light-weight novelty numbers here.  Nothing as bad as would come on future albums (the entirety of Wings Wildlife for instance), but I don't find it above criticism.  Some of you will no doubt find the mouth-trumpet solo on Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey annoying; I think it makes the whole thing.  Sonically, it is a marvel, with McCartney's ear for the sound of guitars, drums, bass the very best.  Remember, he had to do it all now, and really shows how much he learned watching Martin and the EMI engineers.

I think there are a couple of classics on here, that match and surpass Band On The Run and Jet.  Two Many People is a bass-heavy rocker, probably a comment about The Beatles split ("that was your first mistake/you took your lucky break and broke it in two"), and features a raw and excellent guitar solo.  Back Seat Of My Car is one of those numbers where he throws everything at you, with new section after new section, tempo changes, strings flying in, and somehow it all comes out great.  Along the way, even the filler is first-class; Ram On is a breezy ukelele number (way before George H. started going on about them, by the way) that somehow turns into a Brian Wilson-styled production/homage.  The remastering on this deluxe version is tops of course, and I love having it on CD because I don't have to change sides anymore.  It's one album that I only ever listen to completely through, from start to finish.

There are several versions available of the reissue, including a new 180-gram vinyl copy, and a multi-disc edition that includes a DVD documentary, and the instrumental versions McCartney recorded of the album a few years later with an orchestra, under the name Percy "Thrills" Thrillington.  I kid you not.  The best buy is probably the two-disc set, with the second CD a set of outtakes and non-album single sides, including the hit Another Day, but no real surprise gems.  Hopefully a whole lot of people will listen to this with new ears, and not buy into the old prejudice against Ram.

Monday, May 28, 2012


Andre Williams' bio, on the surface, reads like one of those guys getting inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame:  Top 10 R'n'B hits in the 50's, producer and/or songwriter for legendary 60's and 70's hit makers such as Stevie Wonder, Parliament, Edwin Starr, and Ike and Tina Turner.  Years of obscurity follow, and then a 90's comeback that continues to this day.  But his music was mostly too nasty or explicit for wide consumption, and his tale was much darker than almost everyone else.

Booze and drugs took their toll, and Williams wound up begging, in poverty.  Even his comeback years saw him mired in trouble and addiction, and when these sessions were begun in 2006, Williams was fresh out of jail, and still messed up on rum.  But it also marked the end of his drinking, and since then, he's been sober, although no less spirited.

Those who have discovered him worship Williams for his true-to-life lyrics and ability to give a real picture of life in the U.S., if you're African-American and poor.  Or, they just like the fact he's a dirty, funky old guy, who's forgotten more about R'n'B than most will ever know.  I get the feeling The Sadies fall into both camps.  Longtime admirers and occasional collaborators, the band took the plunge and went in the studio those fateful few days with Williams in 2006, and the results have finally appeared.

While Williams still performs and records his greasy R'n'B, which earned him the nicknames Mr. Rhythm and The Black Godfather, and has added near-punk elements to his work at times, with The Sadies, it's a different kettle of fish.  With their classic mix of surf, twang, rockabilly and Byrds, aided by guests from The Mekons, Jon Spencer and such, the music is more guitar-oriented than funky.  Williams is served up as a grizzled story-teller, telling it like it is, more rapping than singing.  Except rappers brag.  Williams ain't bragging, and neither are the characters in the songs, although it's tough to know where his life ends and some others begins.  Nothing's pretty in these tales, whether its the rummie who talks about killing a store clerk to get money to bail his friend out of jail, or the calling-out of the entire state of Mississippi, and the city of Joliet, as being places no-one would want to go if they aren't white.

At the same time, Williams injects humour into several songs, through his delivery at times, and good old irony.  After spending much of the song America saying how bad it is, he admits, "it's better than being in Africa".  And in One-Eyed Jack ("a bad mothersucker"), we get a new anti-hero, Shaft meets Mack The Knife.

There's a hypnotic quality to the album, no doubt helped out by the stellar backing of The Sadies and pals.  But it's also the fascinating vocal style of Williams, and the mild shock of the reality check in his words.  Quite powerful, actually.

Saturday, May 26, 2012


A two-CD live set from Gabriel's most recent project, which sees him take the usual guitar, drums, keys and bass out of his band, and instead work with a symphony.  Here he delves into his back catalogue for dynamic new versions, plus has a run at some of the cuts from his Scratch My Back project, which saw him cover different songwriters (he's still waiting for finished tracks of his cuts from the same folks, to finish that cycle).  Gabriel has toured a lot more of late than he's released studio albums, and each one usually features a live DVD, so we've seen an awful lot of his old hits.  Luckily, he knows how to change the stage show around, usually involving elaborate sets and costumes.  This time though, the music speaks for itself.

Now I'm as much of a fan of the basic rock lineup as anyone, but I don't quite buy into the need to always make rock music that way.  That form gathered a mythology thanks to the embrace of The Beatles and Stones, through to garage bands, punks, and latter-day punks, and the critics that hailed them.  Any use of strings and such was, for a long time, considered too fancy.  Thankfully, tons of indie artists these days bring in any kind of instrument, and it's a lot easier to record them now as well, and cheaper.  Having said that, you still have to have deep pockets to take a real orchestra on stage, but Gabriel of course does, so why not?  It's certainly a winning result here.

The Gabriel-Orchestra project started with studio versions on the 2011 album New Blood, and it was a good effort, but I'll argue it works much better live.  There's nothing quite as exciting as a full orchestra playing live, and hearing Gabriel adapt his singing to work in the concert setting is thrilling.  The arrangements stick closely to the originals melodies, but that's okay, we (okay, me) already love the songs, and the big difference is hearing a string section replace what a synth was doing before, and dynamic reeds and percussion take the place of bass and drums.  There are some dramatic differences, such as the tremendous new arrangement of The Rhythm Of The Heat, and its often the oldest Gabriel material that receives the new tricks.  Of course, those early songs of his tending toward the dramatic, a holdover from his Genesis days.  But there's still a freshness with the warhorses from the So album, such as Red Rain and Mercy Street, which we get to hear with new ears.  There's also subtlety when needed; his version of Paul Simon's Boy In The Bubble, as first heard on Scratch My Back, has a bare accompaniment, slowed down so we can focus on the lyrics, something Simon never did.  And Gabriel's take on Lou Reed's The Power Of The Heart shows it to be a remarkable song, truly one of the most accomplished love songs I've ever heard, in this version.

Quibbles:  only one really, and that's the other vocalists.  His daughter Melanie and Ane Brun are featured prominently, and I find both of them weak and distracting.  In other settings they are no doubt fine singers, but they don't seem to have the oomph for orchestra work.  But at well over two hours, I found I never tired of the treatments.  Now, who else could afford to do this, where it would add some new blood to old tunes?  Bowie perhaps, if he ever comes out of retirement.  U2?  Hmm...  It's getting me thinking.

Thursday, May 24, 2012


Miss Quincy's a bit of trouble, for sure.  The B.C. roots-and-blueswoman could have been found in some honky-tonk out west a hundred years ago, taunting the cowboys, the best singer and best-looking, too.  Oh, except that they hadn't invented the electric guitar then, so half her tunes would have been a little less raunchy.  She's definitely taking inspiration from the belters of the past, and mixing it with the roots sound of today.  Blues for sure, some Western influences, rockabilly at time, a couple of more modern ballads, she has a lot going on.  It's a smart blend that makes sure she isn't just retro, and she's carved out her own sound.

The disc has quite a bit of fun to it, getting into the occasional innuendo and some good yarns.  The title cut, Love Me Like The Devil Does, is a nasty bit of deep south blues, with a scandalous lyric (if we were indeed in 1930).  Impressively, on the next cut, Going Down, she slows it down and you realize what a fine voice she has, like Norah Jones with some more toughness.  Meanwhile, rich old electric guitar straight out of the Sun Studio is keeping everything rocking and vintage. 

Miss Quincy wrote everything here, except for the double entendre Nina Simone song, I Want A Little Sugar In My Bowl, a perfect choice for this set.  The word is her new, all-woman backing band The Showdown is just as smokin', and hopefully I (and you) will get the chance to check 'em out soon.  They are on a huge, months-long country-wide tour, that stops by my little village of Fredericton for the next two days, including tonight (Thursday, May 24) at the Snooty Fox and tomorrow at Fusion.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012


The covers album is still somewhat rare since Dylan and The Beatles made songwriting a must for serious pop musicians.  You write your songs for your first album, and then you better keep writing them, or forget it.  It doesn't matter how good a band you have, or how good a singer you are, or guitar player, if you don't write the songs, you're not good enough.  It's ridiculous of course.  How many mediocre albums have come out, and dutifully made it into our hands by bands struggling through writer's block?  Or maybe they really just had one or two good self-written songs.  Why push more out?  There are plenty of great songs that haven't been recorded more than once, go ahead, see what you can do with them.  I tell ya, if we didn't have this writer-is-king prejudice, lots of albums would be much better.

It seems you have to earn the right to do a covers disc.  Stick with it long enough, write several albums and at least some decent songs, and only then will we talk about it.  Bowie Pin-Ups?  After Hunky Dory, Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane.  John Lennon's Rock And Roll?  He'd paid his dues by then.  Even Dylan didn't do covers until Self-Portrait, after his first folk album.  The point is, fans and critics demanded these people write more and more.

After Mr. Jones and a big-selling, T Bone Burnett-produced debut disc, Counting Crows have stuck around, surviving on the hit-and-miss success of Adam Duritz's writing.  I've not been a fan, although I like their sound.  I think they are a solid band.  That's why I applaud the group's new Underwater Sunshine disc, which is a twist on the usual covers collection.  Mercifully, no Motown covers.  Heck, there's hardly a famous song on it.  What the group has done is found songs they really like, no matter who the original artist was.  There are several here that are by their old friends in the San Francisco scene, unknowns outside.  There are some by brand-new writers trying to make a mark, that have caught the Crows' ears.  And of the better-known folks, they picked cuts they love and wanted to play, not something they hope will get them attention.

I hadn't thought of Pure Prairie League's Amie in years.  The minor 70's hit is a fine example of the early fruits of the country rock era, back when the band was making strides in the wake of The Eagles and Poco.  Duritz doesn't have a good reason for doing it other than loving to sing it, and I can see why, it's a campfire kind of tune.  It points to a love of early alt-country, as the group also covers Gram Parsons' Return Of The Grievous Angel and The Byrds take on You Ain't Going Nowhere.  Hearing them in mandolin mode is a treat, and certainly not what you normally get on their albums.  And who knew they were closet fans of British folk legends Fairport Convention, represented here by Meet On The Ledge?  I suppose Big Star are a typical choice for muso types, and there's nothing special about the take on The Ballad Of El Goodo here, but they do a nice version of The Faces' Ooh La La.

But then we get numbers from such non-stars as The Romany Rye, Tender Mercies, Kasey Anderson, and Sordid Humor.  Duritz (who seems to have led the way in the choices) is right on in his lengthy liner notes for each song.  These are good, they do deserve to be heard by lots more people.  And I'll add that Counting Crows is an excellent band, adept at switching sounds and making each number their own.  I'll also suggest they do this more often, because not all their own songs come close to these.  Not to pick on them, of course, many many big bands are guilty of that.  Stop being so scared of covers, musicians, don't give in to the pressure to be a full-time writer.  We'll all be better off.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012


Over the years, Putumayo has put out excellent sampler collections of virtually every genre and region imaginable, specializing in identifying all the major forms of world music.  There's even been Acadian, Newfoundland and Celtic music from our region represented.  How then the label has managed to go this long without a bluegrass collection is a surprise.  But here it is, a prime primer for those looking to learn, or just find a good cross-section.

Now, you might quibble that this is hardly strictly bluegrass.  You won't find any Bill Monroe here, the man who invented the sound.  Instead, it's the modern stuff that's largely featured, with its most bankable star, Alison Krauss, leading things off.  "But Bob," I hear you question, "Isn't Krauss, like, a bluegrass star?"  Sure, but the Newgrass revival changed all the hard-and-fast rules of bluegrass, and Krauss and most others of the past two decades have incorporated popular lyrics, jazz changes, and sometimes instruments into the blend.  All I'm saying here is don't look for much old-timey stuff.

Instead, newbies such as Uncle Earl and Railroad Earth get a plug, along with beloved vets Peter Rowan, Sam Bush and Seldom Scene, all delivering updates of Monroe's child.  Some choose to go into the classic canon, such as James Alan Shelton with Shady Groves, and Rowan's Man Of Constant Sorrow, which does give us the link back.  That balances off Seldom Scene's cover of Dylan's Boots Of Spanish Leather, and the near-pop of Andrea Zonn's New Night Dawning.  As with any set on this label, it's all high quality right through; I just prefer my bluegrass less adorned and sweet.

Monday, May 21, 2012


The HBO documentary, directed by Martin Scorsese, is as good as billed.  It's one of those videos you'll want to own a copy of, to pull out and enjoy again every couple of years.  Produced with the Harrison family blessings, everybody is involved, from Ringo and Paul, to all his pals, (Clapton, Pythons, car racers, Shankars and swamis), to his son Dhani, his widow Olivia and even his ex, Pattie.  Really, the only person not interviewed of importance would be Dylan, but no surprise there.

Presented in two parts, as originally broadcast, its four hours in total, and like Peter Bogdanovich's Tom Petty bio, you could still watch a couple of hours more.  Part one is more or less birth and The Beatles, and part two covers his solo career and final years.  You'd think The Beatles era would be a rehash of the same old stories, but Scorsese turns the very familiar tale inside out; now we're living it through George's eyes, instead of the others.  We learn what is was like to be the youngest, the more thoughtful, and the one who blossomed later as a writer.  His perspective, told from archival interviews, and the stories of intimates such as Klaus Voorman, Astrid Kirchherr, John and Ringo, Pattie, Ravi Shankar, and others, may not include any bombshells, but it gives us a much greater appreciation and understanding of the changes he went through, especially as the group came to an end.

That's the magic of this film.  This complex, talented, fascinating man was one of the most famous people on the planet, but somehow he was mysterious, misunderstood ("the quiet one"), and private.  While the world watched the Lennon and McCartney antics, Harrison developed into someone just as interesting, and important.  Scorsese is able to explain how this happened, and how he developed a unique vision for his life, based on his spiritual search and his rejection of much of the trappings of fame.  Yes, he was famous and wealthy, and certainly enjoyed the fruits of his labour and luck, but it was with humility, and with a passion for helping others. 

We see the flourishing of this in the second part of the film.  The experiences start to pile up.  The great solo album, All Things Must Pass, and then The Concert For Bangladesh, to help his friend Shankar and his people, the first all-star benefit concert.  His patronage of his loves and friends, producing Monty Python films, recording Indian music, taking it on tour, backing Formula One drivers, and above all, gardening.  You can feel him growing mightier as a spiritual person, although Scorsese allows for some faults as well.  Voorman talks about drug period in the 70's, we see some footage of the sore throat tour of '74, critically ravaged.  Olivia pretty much admits he was a philandering husband at times.  But his flaws, including a famous temper, were part of what made him even more fascinating.  By the time he reemerged in music with The Traveling Wilburys, he had reached a state of positivity that amazed fellow musicians such as Tom Petty, clearly still in awe of his friend.  The devotion of the famous and not-so-famous folks found here is remarkable, even in a tribute doc.

The footage is grand throughout, including some rarer Beatles stuff, lots of George's private photography and home videos.  The editing is seamless, with the tale told without narration, only interview clips, and it's all perfectly explained.  McCartney is very good, humble and obviously someone who loved his friend.  Clapton is able to open the door into what Harrison's life of fame was like, to explain his talents as a musician, and, remarkably, to talk about the situation which led Pattie to leave George for him, and how they still remained friends.  But above all, you'll marvel as Olivia recounts what happened when an intruder broke into their home and stabbing Harrison multiple times, and how she fought him off and saved her husband's life.  As much as his music has meant to people, you'll come away with a greater respect for the man.

Saturday, May 19, 2012


Many people try to do a vintage blues album and inject their own style into it, but it rarely works so well.  A testament to Browne's writing is that you really do have to check the liner notes to see which ones he wrote, and which ones come from the 20's, 30's and such.  Yet there's also nothing to suggest this isn't brand-new and happening music.

Mostly a solo guitar album, apart from a handful of well-chosen guests spots, Browne's full guitar sound is all the instrumentation we need.  He's a busy player in the good sense, lots of complicated picking, slides, and solos on the top strings with the rhythm on the bottom.  He finds a different great sound for each tune, using a variety of vintage instruments and amps, echo and tone a big part of it all.  Another aspect of the disc sees him following the connections between blues and bluegrass on several songs, adding old-time elements such as banjo, mandolin and a fine bluesy fiddle from Michael Ball on the 1929 cut Right Now Blues.

The covers are juicy, an obscure Flatt and Scruggs number, a J.B Lenoir I didn't know (The Whale Has Swallowed Me), and none of the usual suspects.  Plus, Browne's ability to conjure (with lyricist Bee Markus) classic-flavoured originals, such as Sinner's Plea and Graveyard Blues, makes each song on the album a discovery;  there's not a track here that feels like the same old blues everybody is doing, and that is a rare treat.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012


Steven Page returns to BNL, sorta.  This collection is a dozen rare numbers, live tracks, demos, and previously unreleased cuts from all over the group's career, dating back to 1992, and as recent as 2003, all well before Page's 2009 departure.  It's meant as a companion piece to the most recent hits collection, Hits From Yesterday And The Day Before, which came out last fall.

It's a grab-bag for sure, with the mood and styles switching wildly from cut to cut.  Among the fun tunes are early '90's concert recordings of Teenage Wasteland and Same Thing, complete with the screaming teenage fans from a time when they were the hottest band in Canada.  And make no mistake, they were.  The pure joy coming off their stage in those days was phenomenal, with Page and Ed Robertson able to ad-lib and joke and get everyone (even me) dancing.  I never dance.  Ever.  Just that once.  Just check out their word-perfect version of The Beastie Boys' Shake Your Rump to hear how much energy they put into their shows.

A couple of other familiar numbers turn up in different forms.  A demo version of Old Apartment is really early, just Page and guitar, not far from the moment of conception.  On the other end of the scale, the remix of One Week is a blast, lots of drop-in effects but still with the full verses and such, making this overly-familiar number seem new again.  It's pretty obscure, I'd never heard it before, and was only included on some European and Australian CD singles. 

The unreleased tracks and demos are largely from the more serious side of the Ladies, always a tougher sell for them.  Of them all, I'd pick the unreleased Page/Robertson composition Half A Heart, from 2000.  You'd swear it could have been written after, and about, the "troubles" of 2008, Page's very public and embarrassing bust.  It's soaked with shame and regret, begging for sympathy, and you have to sympathize with the guy.  There are also a couple of good jaunty numbers that add to the collection, Yes! Yes!! Yes!!! and I Can, I Will, I Do, both with the group's classic crisp writing, and a bit more fun than most of their music of that decade.  Overall, there's nothing here that needed to be released back in the day, no hidden genius gems, but it's all worthy too, and a no-harm set to add to your BNL collection.

Monday, May 14, 2012


Tagged as a hot prospect half a decade ago, the B.C. native has been nurtured back and forth from Canada to L.A., working hard and crafting his songs and future.  Everything fell into place when teamed up with producer Jon Levine (Philosopher Kings, Nelly Furtado), who worked up the pop-electro sound with Hook for this debut.  It's meant to showcase his fine voice and songwriting talents, but the dance beats are very big, noticeably on first single, Every Red Light.  But at its heart this is happy pop music; that's where you gotta go these days for Top 40, big programmed productions that almost overwhelm the song.

He certainly has the voice and range, able to leap the highest falsetto without an autotune in sight.  There's a sincere heart here as well, somebody who wants to write and sing and perform, and that's obvious from his video and TV hits.  On the songwriting front, on the plus side, he's a fountain of ideas, and hardly any of the usual boy-girl tumult.  Instead, he goes for topics such as his sci-fi, with lead track Planet Earth giving us the album title.  Rockstaria, with a darker vibe and techno beats, is a clever take on a girlfriend who makes him feel like he's the biggest star on the planet.   Plus, it has all these aria elements in it, altogether a big piece of theatre.  Middle Finger, the toughest track here, recalls The Cars, and is his manifesto, advising everybody to go for it, especially in the face of doubters.

The beats are endless though.  Every one of the ten cuts explodes with heavy thumps, not giving us a break.  That is, until the bonus cut, that old classic, the acoustic version.  In this case, it's just the voice and piano take of Every Red Light, and that's when Hook finally feels exposed to the listener.  It's a nice, simple pop tune, showcasing his strengths as a singer-songwriter, and maybe his future, after the dance.

Sunday, May 13, 2012


Here's the good news, Willie fans:  Every two or three discs, Willie gets the right combo of producer, songs, and mood, and comes up with a good one.  This is one of those times.  While it's all over the stylistic map, that's great, because like a good Willie show, you want to have some Texas Swing, something heartfelt, and some songwriting gems is a thoughtful mood, along with his usual good-time chug-along tunes.  And there isn't a bad song choice on the disc.

The title just credits Willie, but this is one where Willie and Family and Friends would fit.  No stranger to duets, almost every song here is done in partnership.  There's the usual cohorts, including Ray Price, Kris Kristofferson, Merle Haggard and Sheryl Crow, but then there are some surprises, too.  Like, umm, Snoop Dogg.  He joins in the gang singalong of a new Willie joint (hahahhhah), called Roll Me Up, which seems to take its inspiration from the famous Keith Richards story about snorting his old man's remains.  Here, Willie asks his friends to "Roll me up and smoke me when I'm gone", and it's as fun as it sounds. 

The main guest is Willie's young kid, Lukas.  Just 22, he's been showing a lot of promise, and here, typically, Willie gives him a large platform.  He's a featured vocalist on a full 9 of the 14 cuts, sharing lines, sometimes doing full verses, to the point it's almost a full duet album.   Plus, he's the writer of three of the cuts, including the excellent No Place To Fly, which shows he picked up a lot from Dad, apparently including his, urm, blunt history; there's a line about "Every day I get stoned/I sit and try to write a song."  Like father, like son.  Lukas also picked up a nasal delivery, although he's missing the gravitas Willie has, and instead has a bit of a reedy sound that takes a little getting used to.   Really, he's overused on the disc, even showing up on tunes where there are already guest singers, like Come On Up To The House, with Sheryl Crow.  She and Willie were doing just fine on this gospel-flavoured Tom Waits number, and Lukas adds nothing.

Producer Buddy Cannon and Nelson obviously put a lot of work into this one, Willie doing some new writing, and finding some strong covers.  There's the overdone trick of having the old dog get hip to the kids' music though, with covers of Pearl Jam and Coldplay.  Actually, Just Breathe from the pen of the esteemed Vedder turns out to be a fine choice, and sounds natural for Willie, but The Scientist is really not a lyric that works, especially since Nelson sounds pretty ancient on that particular track.  It's not a failure, but only because it's so interesting.  It's an excellent late-life album in the end, and with all the Lukas love, feels somewhat like Willie passing on the torch.  Is that another dope joke?

Thursday, May 10, 2012


That the venerable and iconic Canadian actor Gordon Pinsent is a poet comes as a bit of surprise; that he's a good one even more.  But the biggest thrill of all is how nicely the words became songs, as prepared by craftsmen Travis Good (The Sadies) and Greg Keelor (Blue Rodeo, duh).  The result is a fine, very listenable album that only adds another superlative to the admirable careers of all three.

Pinsent wrote the poems over the years, some inspired by his home province of Newfoundland and Labrador, and some others about his late wife.  Good was involved next, asked to look at the lyrics by a filmmaker doing a bio of Pinsent.  Keelor, a long-time Good buddy, nosed his way in when he saw what Travis was working on.   Of course, they make a good team, Keelor bringing a soulful voice to the party, and his classic feel.

The double-disc presents the songs/poems in two ways, and it's a smart concept.  Disc one is just Good and Keelor, singing them as full tunes.  Disc two has Pinsent reading them as poems, over acoustic backing by the duo, far more sparse than the singing versions.  I like 'em both.  Pinsent has an expert's cadence and timing, and the stories are quite enjoyable.  Over on disc one, the boys share vocals, although Greg gets a bit more, while Good rips it up on acoustic, sending out sizzling licks in the bluegrass-flavoured numbers, and coming on as smooth as silk on the ballads.  Keelor sounds as rough and ready as Pinsent's Newfoundland characters.

The pair plan to tour the songs this fall, and the chance to see them in a largely acoustic setting will be a joy.  Meantime, I suggest strapping on the headphones, putting on disc two for a half-hour, and enjoying the poetry of Pinsent, as you would a book-on-tape.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012


Hey, Steve Strongman could use a little East Coast love.  Not widely known in these parts, he really should be, given all the blues festivals and fans and venues.  The Hamilton, ON, singer-songwriter-guitarist is one of the country's best solo blues guys, and don't just take my word for it.  At the recent Maple Blues Awards, the one where Matt Andersen grabbed a couple, including Entertainer of the Year, Strongman took home the Guitar Player of the Year honours, ahead of some pretty awesome company.

Now, being an excellent guitar player is worthy enough in the blues, but that's just one part of Strongman's make-up.  He's a strong songwriter, who comes up with numbers that sound as if they are already established classics.  His new work, the acoustic-guitar workout A Natural Fact, features songs you'd swear you've heard before, because they have the feel of Delta classics, or Chicago standards.  I looked for famous names in the writing credits, but just found Strongman.  He's no copycat; I can't think of another song that includes the theme of You Do It To Yourself, a fast finger-picked number here, but it has all the qualities that will attract any blues fan.  My favourite is Can't Go Back, about the dumb things we say sometimes:  "Have you ever thought now, why'd I go and say that?  And as soon as the words leave your mouth, you wanna take 'em back."

I've seen him live a couple of times, both solo and with a band, and he's a winner either way, with a fine voice, and a sneaky command of the stage that builds up until you realize you're fixed on him.  With all this going on, it's time for the playing to shine.  The new disc showcases his acoustic work, with lots of picking, skillful slide, and a driving rhythm style.  There's also lots of his smooth harp playing included, and with him already proving himself in so many areas on the disc, I'd accuse him of showing off by adding that skill to the mix, but I've met the guy and he's humble, too. 

About half the tracks on A Natural Fact are solo, and the rest feature a tight backing group of just bass, drums and piano, so it's not a busy album, nor a show-off festival; it's all class.  Speaking of class, the wonderful Suzie Vinnick shows up for a duet on the cut Leaving, a great sparring number.  And a hats off to producer Rob Szabo, keeping it, in the best sense, real, and letting this all-around talent shine.

Monday, May 7, 2012


Do we get a White Stripes album?  The Dead Weather?  Raconteurs?  Or did White reinvent himself again, this time as a solo guy?  The latter, of course.  Moving and dodging, a musical rope-a-dope, that's been part of White's game from the start.  For his first solo disc, White comes up with a new sound, or rather builds on his old blocks, making sure nobody mistakes this for the Stripes or anything else.

There's no muddy or loud blues, unless you count his spot-on cover of Little Willie John's I'm Shakin', more of a R'n'B number anyway.  What's more surprising is the melding of his previous work with a much larger pallet of sounds.  Now happily settled in Nashville, he teams with several players from that scene, as well as some friends from other projects (no Meg though).  The Nashville influence, or at least his new framework, is heard in his acceptance of all sorts of instruments into the blend.  There's nothing too surprising, just more of them, like lots of piano, violin, mandolin and peddle steel, and there's more of a band vibe going on, at least a bigger band.  Odd that for his first with just his name on the sleeve, the sound far outstrips any of the other group projects he's worked on.

You get lots of his guitar on some songs, but it's certainly not an electric guitar album.  Some songs feature acoustic primarily, the lead taken by the piano or violin.  There's loud ones, and softer ones too;  surprisingly diverse it has the big blues-rock guitar workouts you might expect, but lots of not-heavy, melodic numbers, such as the jaunty shuffle of Hip (Eponymous) Poor Boy, with its baroque piano intro and extro.  His high-pitched voice on the quiet songs can sound a bit like Robert Plant, and with the folk and old-time references White has, plus the mix of really loud and more melodic, Zep becomes a good reference point, another band that ripped open the borders of the blues in their time.

Lyrically, this is a study in girl-and-guy dynamics, at their most polarized.  There are some downright nasty moments, lots of rancor between the sexes, White defying the idea that we can all be friends in this show.  Friendly perhaps, but his characters at least are engaged in a blood sport.  Throughout, both have their cruel moments, and nobody is winning, only surviving.

Already one of the most interesting and elusive personalities of the century, White continues to move forward with energy, and interesting ideas.  The most enjoyable part of this record is how different it is through the thirteen tracks, White now willing to throw all his tricks into an album, rather than working within the limits of whatever band he's fronting.  For those missing the White Stripes, you'll need to grow a bit for this disc, but it's all good.

Sunday, May 6, 2012


Is there a straight-ahead normal Norah Jones piano on this disc?  Not that I can remember.  From first listen to at least the tenth, where I'm at now, the surprise of just how different this is continues.  Produced by Danger Mouse, and co-written by him, this is pretty much a completely new sound for Jones, and I'm liking it.  But don't think she's copping anyone else's grooves here; it's a whole new stew, parts funky, chilled and sultry.

Jones has been chomping at the bit to break out of her piano-lite jazz image, long hung-over from her improbably popular debut.  Forays into country, secret sidebands where she got to rock out on guitar, and her secondary group The Little Willies haven't really done the trick, but this will.  That is, if it finds an audience.  It might have to be a new one, given the radical makeover.  Big, echo-y bass, great twangy reverb'ed guitar, clip-clops of rhythm, burbling synths, empty spaces and sombre atmospheres mark many of the songs.  Intimate vocals over the sparse arrangements make it even more ghostly, and Jones sounds a lot more like Neko Case than her old self.

It's also a devastating break-up album.  Now, I haven't read too much about her life, but I know she went through one awhile back, so she's got some knowledge on the subject, but I'm betting there are a lot of characters informing the little broken hearts here.  Emotions to the fore, there are several different reactions to a split found here, although a cheating seemed to happen in most of them.  Revenge, jealousy, hurt, victimization, and lots of anger abound.  Some sounds are about escape and enjoying it; others about wishing to dump the heartbreak, but the guy won't leave her (their) heart.  Most shocking is Miriam, the name of the girl who was the third party, who our narrator admits has such a pretty name, but that she is plotting to kill.  It's virtually a murder ballad.

The album is intense but beautiful, with the rich sounds and big echo such a cool production.  There are a couple of up-tempo ones later on, Out On The Road and Happy Pills, which spice up the flow, but also fit into the song-cycle of leaving a lover.  The highs and the lows of the break-up, they are all here, and it's quite a remarkable disc.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012


This has been mooted as a comeback for the good Doctor, a return to his gumbo-voodoo heyday of the late 60's and early 70's.  It follows the formula of late-career resurrection projects, as exemplified by Rick Rubin.  Take a star who still has some hip cache, but no hits of late, and match him with a cool name producer.  In this case, it's The Black Keys' Dan Auerbach who wanted the job.  But there's a difference here.  What Auerbach promised was something as good as those earlier Dr. John albums.  He didn't say it would be like them.

So, unlike what Rubin did for Cash and Neil Diamond, and Joe Henry did for Solomon Burke, or T Bone Burnett furnished for Leon Russell with Elton John, Auerbach took a different course than finding suitable modern material in the Dr. John style.  Instead, what we have here is more a pairing of Mac Rebennack and Dan Auerbach.  There are plenty of moments on this release which have Black Keys written all over them.  Auerbach is doing what he does, and knows.  It has that murky blues quality all through, the dark and rural sound of the Fat Possum label of artists, such an influence on modern electric blues.  There are deep, deep grooves, and sloppy guitar solos, distorted to needle-bending levels on the old-fashioned analogue board that surely was used to record this.  In case you're expecting a Right Place, Wrong Time funky number, it's not here.

Not to say the disc isn't dripping with funk, or rather, FONK, as Dr. John makes it.  It's greasy and slippery stuff, dirty grooves all the way.  But where Dr. John has always been about the inner-city New Orleans danger, here he's out in the Louisiana swamp. 

It wouldn't be a proper Dr. John disc without lots of self-mythologizing.  Here the duo make reference to the old voodoo stuff that Rebennack incorporated into his act when he started to break out of Los Angelese in the late 60's, the so-called Tricknology that incorporated the very strong beliefs in spirits and curses that he brought from the mysterious streets of New Orleans.  It's supposedly the sound they were after, or at least the reference, but really it's the aura that has always surrounded Dr. John the Night Tripper.  It helps the hype, of course, as much as the headdresses.  There are some lyrical references, but then there's the number God's Sure Good, where he acknowledges a lot of favours granted along the way.  The spookiness is really all in the mix.

In the end, it's a great pairing, and the Doctor does come off better than he has in years.  It took me awhile to get through the layers, and honestly, I'd like to hear the songs less murky, especially the vocals.  But it has been a long time since Dr. John was as important on the stereo as he still is on the stage, and it is a success.  There are some really good new songs here, no clinkers, and thank goodness Auerbach didn't have him covering Nine Inch Nails or Tom Petty tunes.  This is the sound of a career revived.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012


Sure, we all think Johnny Cash was the coolest thing going, and his classic Sun records, his late-life renewal with Rick Rubin, and his prison albums are all as hip as can be.  But for long years, Cash was out of favour, not just among the general music fans, but even from mainstream country.  Much of this time, say the mid-70's through the 80's, he couldn't buy a hit.  As for the rock audience, Cash was far too square.  One of the main reasons was that after Folsom Prison Blues and I Walk The Line, he'd trot out a gospel number, in concert or on TV, complete with corny back-up vocals from the Carter Family and the Statlers, and that rebel image would melt away.  His friendship with Billy Graham and appearances on those Crusade shows didn't help.  Gospel and contemporary Christian numbers didn't sit well with most music buyers.

But Cash would always return to religious songs, and in fact always saw himself in that light, even in the midst of his rebellious, pill-popping days.  Such was the complexity of his character, The Man In Black had someone watching his back, and he wanted to sing about that, too.  Like Elvis, his favourite music was found in the hymnal.

The fourth installment of the Bootleg series focuses entirely on his religious output, but unfortunately only touches on the period from 1975 to 1982, and sessions for three albums.  Most of the songs are rare as can be now, the albums barely distributed and long out-of-print, so that fits the Bootleg concept of getting rare Cash songs out to the public today.  But sadly, a full half of this material, from 1979 sessions, is substandard.  Comprising the first disc of the set, the songs are mired in sickly production and horrible backing vocals, with guilt going equally to producer Cowboy Jack Clement, the chorale of singers including almost every Carter and Cash to be found, and Johnny himself, who wrote many of the tracks.  Even when he goes for some classics, such as the great Gospel singers Dorothy Love Coates and Rosetta Tharpe, the sappy arrangements take the life out of the music.  White Southern Gospel can be dreary, cliched stuff.

Disc two is much better, with the 1975 sessions produced in the classic Cash boom-chicka-boom style, the song selection much sharper.  The 1982 songs are even better, thanks to then son-in-law Marty Stuart's smart, stripped-down work.  It includes the Cash favourite Belshazzar, a song he would record a few times, including  with Rubin, one of the better Bible stories he wrote.  There are good story songs, albeit with the obvious moral lessons that come with the territory.

Gospel is always going to be a tough sell, especially when the quality is so hit-and-miss.  I'd argue a much better set could have been presented by cherry-picking some other time periods and dumping the worst of the 1979 set.  This would give people a much better idea of what Cash could do when the spirit hit him, because most of the people who buy this are going to be Johnny fans, not Gospel fans.