Saturday, June 30, 2012


The cult favourites of the 80's return for the first time since the group disbanded in 1988, although leaders Peter Holsapple and Chris Stamey have maintained solid, though quiet careers since.  They are both go-too guys for anyone looking for the classic power pop sound, having come out of the early scene that spawned R.E.M. and the like.  Holsapple's credits include time in the group The Continental Drifters, and auxiliary roles with acts such as Hootie and the Blowfish, John Hiatt, and being a major help with R.E.M. during their breakthrough Out Of Time period.  Stamey, as well as playing, is an in-demand producer/engineer, with his name appearing on discs by Yo La Tengo, Big Star, Alejandro Escovedo, Matthew Sweet, and dozens of underground acts looking for that magic jangle the duo helped pioneer.  The best news is that this is the original four-piece, with bass player Gene Holder and drummer Will Rigby from the classic line-up.

Putting this new album out must have felt like walking into their old high school for the group.  They return to the rich guitar-pop with ease, coming up with harmony and hooks galore over the dozen tracks.  What distinguishes this kind of alt-pop, the bookish cousin of punk, is adding exactly the right amount of underground edge (like, a pinch), to basic 60's Top 40.  So such studio chefs as these boys take all they learned listening to The Byrds and The Beatles, and instead of making it big and celebratory like Springsteen and Tom Petty, they turn it inward, back to the studio, and go for introspective.

That doesn't mean it can't rock.  In fact, they groove and pound, just not in a grandiose way.  That Time Is Gone is a mid-60's Stones rave, crossed with Sir Douglas Quintet organ.  Before We Were Born has T. Rex strut in the verses, with a nasty guitar solo too, but with a pretty-as-a-picture chorus and a dreamy bridge.  That's a great formula; hard cut with soft, akin to the loud-quiet-loud that worked so well for The Pixies and Nirvana.

When they aren't finding these sweet chords and supple melodies to wrap their pipes and guitars around, they've drafted some killer ballads, which linger with melancholy.  She Won't Drive In The Rain Anymore draws you in with a sad story of a single mom trapped, by the weather sometimes, but mostly fear.  That's another hallmark of the band, and the genre, wonderful sounds with thoughtful lyrics.  With all this, it's no wonder dB's 2012 sounds as fresh as dB's 1982, and how well the group, now and then, has stood the test of time.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012


I'm pretty stoked to be living in a time when a basic guitar-folk song album like this can get put out, after years being shunned.  Jon Middleton and Roy Vizer are a guitar and drums duo, with the emphasis on the song - the guitar is acoustic and the drums are there for rhythm, not pounding.  Add in an equally mild bass, and that's pretty much it.  They can make it a bit bigger at times, but on the Spinal Tap scale, they'd only be at 3 out of 10. 

The B.C. duo has had a couple of discs out before, and has been around since the middle of the 2000's, slowly (and quietly) building a buzz for their coffee house vibe.  It's not so much the fact they are doing stripped-down stuff, it's what they are doing with it.  Breezily moving from style to style, here you get some jazzy stuff, sleek instrumentals with a classical flair, lots of world beat touches, a reggae number, whatever is brewing.  And while sometimes the guitar and drums work themselves up, Middleton's vocals never leave the mellow zone.

I suppose there's a bit of the Jack Johnson thing happening, but it's much more adventurous music, with only a slight jammy feel.  However, as much as this would be ideal in small, funky halls, I could easily see them become festival favourites with this disc.  I smell a breakthrough disc!

Tuesday, June 26, 2012


It's her first album in seven years, so it takes awhile to get used to her particular, peculiar style again.  Ah, who am I kidding?  I can never get used to Apple's eccentricities, and this one is as out there as anything else she's done, more so perhaps.  It's mostly lots and lots of words, her piano, and some percussion.  Verging on jazz poetry, Apple's melodies are slippery things, sounding almost improvised over the rambling keys, the structure far away from traditional verse-chorus-verse format.   She sticks to the lower registers on the piano, adding her voice an octave above, giving the whole disc a rather grave sound, or as she sings, "Nothing wrong when a song ends in a minor key".

There's an intensity throughout the album, even in its relative calmness.  It's all those moody notes and strong words.  Like some of your better poets, she knows that its the sound of a word as much as the meaning that creates the power.  In the near-scat of Hot Knife, her delivery of the phrase "If I'm butter" is rhythmic treat, more ba-dah-ba than "butter".  The jungle beat behind it takes us back to a 40's jazz number, which is quite cool.  I can't tell you what's up in the song Periphery, except that the words sound strong:  "Oh, the periphery/they throw good parties there/those peripheral idiots/always have a bite to bear."

Okay, it's heady and headstrong stuff, and you'll just as likely be turned off as impressed with an initial listen.  Apple's an acquired taste for sure, and is making no attempts to woo the Rolling Stone Magazine crowd that brought her to fame a decade and more back.  This frustratingly-titled disc holds many quirks, and reveals its qualities only with a bit of patience, but there will be a small percentage of folks that will be looking for just that kind of experience.  Others will downright hate it.  Me, I appreciate it, but won't be throwing it on again anytime soon.

Saturday, June 23, 2012


Album number, umm, fifteen sees James pursuing the rock-blues side of his stuff, rather than the Little Big Band or old-school blues at which he excels.  No complaints though; as much as I like his roots movements, the guy has a way with the modern side, too.  Plus, you can hear little touches of all his music sprinkled through the album, from the smart horn section gracing Fool For You to the acoustic blues singer behind Shed A Little Light.

Part of what keeps the styles and material moving around is the nice mix of co-writers James worked with.  There's a couple of harder rockers with Gordie "Big Sugar" Johnson, a full five from the rootsy pen of Tom Wilson (Blackie & the Rodeo Kings, Lee Harvey Osmond), and a couple of softies with the king of melodic melancholy, Ron Sexsmith.  The covers couldn't be wider-distanced either.  John Lennon's confessional Jealous Guy, Allan Toussaint's bouncy hit for Robert Palmer, Sneakin' Sally Through The Alley, and classic British blues number Oh Well, from Peter Green's Fleetwood Mac.  Again, James proves adept at all these styles.  I'm appreciating it, because lord knows too many people make too many long CD's that barely change tempo.

Still, there's good, better, best, and meh along the way.  The raw electric of both Johnson co-writes, Sweets Gone Sour and I Need You Bad, works very well, as does the smart Stones riffin' of the Wilson partnership I'm Diggin', and you can hear the usual Junkhouse-Wilson chords in it.  But Love for Life is just too nice, and kinda sounds like a Bryan Adams album track.  The reggae lilt used on Jealous Guy is a good idea, and gives the song some musical guts, better than the croony, Roxy Music cover.

Another strong point is that the album sounds great from start to finish.  The crisp production lets us hear all the instruments cleanly and with a good deal of warmth.  Everybody is up-close and personal, especially James' vocals, and it's simply a pleasing listen.  Fifteen could be the type of disc to reactivate some delinquent fans who haven't been on board for awhile.

Friday, June 22, 2012


Can we take Tom Jones seriously?  And that's a serious question.  His career was long based on the histrionic over-singing found on Delilah, What's New Pussycat, It's Not Unusual and the like.  That put him on TV, sent him to Vegas, and gave him a huge audience along the lines of Neil Diamond and Barbra Streisand, an older crowd shall we say.  There's nothing wrong with any of this of course, and his hip-shaking antics and ridiculously catchy hits were fun if nothing else.

But he always wanted to be taken seriously, too.  Watch old episodes of his TV show, and there he is jamming out with Janis Joplin, Wilson Pickett, CSNY, matching them note for note.  Then came modern collaborations with everyone from Pet Shop Boys to Portishead.  For the past few years he's slowly been working his way into senior statesman of blues and soul status, with U.K. festival headline slots, and hipster appearances with hot star Jessie J, and important TV shows such as the Jools Holland program and even the Queen's Diamond Jubilee.  His last album, 2010's Praise And Blame saw him a roots artist, singing blues, gospel, traditional and country songs, under the production of the very hot Ethan Johns, and it was received very well.  The campaign towards seriousness seems to have worked.

Now comes the new Spirit In The Room, again produced by Johns, and with songs in the same categories.  It's the now-familiar method of doing these aging-stars albums (see Cash, Diamond, Rick Rubin), rummaging through modern songwriter's catalogs, looking for surprises that will grab attention, as well as good songs of course.  This time we get Jones interpreting the modern masters:  songs from Dylan, Cohen, McCartney and Simon are here.  Then there are the next layer of writers, known as brilliant but not quite household names:  Richard Thompson, Joe Henry, Tom Waits, even The Low Anthem's Charlie Darwin is included, plus there's some old blues.

Now, to answer my question about taking him seriously.  I'm sure lots are, and he's certainly earned the beloved entertainer status, plus his OBE from Her Majesty.  Why I'm going to pass is because of what is normally thought of as his number one asset, his powerful pipes.  Man, the guy can belt 'em.  And you can hear him power up the blues from deep down.  But you know what I hear?  Acting.  I hear him forcing it out, over-singing it all, even on the ballads and slow numbers.  Maybe he can't control it, but the man's singing voice dominates every song, so that all you're hearing is him.  Not the words, not the melody, not the instruments, just Tom Jones.  So it's not the brilliant lyric of Tower Of Song from Cohen's pen, it's Tom Jones singing Tower Of Song, and there's no power in the words.

Some of this may be the choice of material.  It has to be a special kind of song, and he has to either back off or have fun with it, I figure.  While he emotes all over blues classic Soul Of A Man, Jones backs off on Thompson's Dimming Of The Day, to better effect.  Same goes for Dylan's recent When The Deal Goes Down, as Jones scores with that, and we can finally get the fact it's a gospel number.  But most of the album sees him in full voice, overwhelming delicate material.  The best song here is actually when he returns to what he's done so well through his whole career, which is have fun.  He covers the old Kenny Rogers and the First Edition hit Just Dropped In (to see what condition my condition is in).  It's a spoof to begin with, writer Mickey Newbury mocking hippie culture.  For the only time on the disc, Johns and Jones relax, have some fun with the production, camp it up a bit, and remind us of Jones' excellent version of Prince's Kiss with Art Of Noise.  Did anybody take that seriously?  No.  Was it fantastic?  Yes.  You know, I think I take Tom Jones more seriously when he's not being serious, if you get my drift.  Come to think of it, I kinda like Delilah.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012


The great king of the dobro does the star turn here, with an album full of stars, friends and admirers.  Usually these things are overblown, and merely attempts at grabbing attention for sales.  But there's the rare one that shines, and this is one of them.  The luminaries include Eric Clapton, Dr. John, Paul Simon, Keb' Mo, Bela Fleck, Mumford & Sons, and of course his band mates in Alison Krauss & Union Station.  It's pure class all the way through, and as you'd expect, chalk full of tasty licks from Douglas himself, with some good sparring with the other players.

Clapton does a great, laid-back guest vocal on Something You Got, the old Chris Kenner hit done by everybody from B.B. King to Springsteen, but usually as a flamboyant number.  Here the duo pour on the honey instead.  The big attention track will no doubt be the version of The Boxer, featuring both Mumford & Sons, and the songs' author, Paul Simon.  Simon's a big Douglas fan, and has had him open tours for him of late, and even snuck onstage at a Douglas show three nights ago in New York.  Simon's barely noticeable on the track though, but its a nice Mumford vocal, and again, another cool solo from Douglas.

Really, I can listen to the guy play all day, such is the fluidity and charm of his stuff.  And while all the stars are cool, the instrumentals work just as well.  These things smoke.  Douglas on his own is a treat whether you like bluegrass or not, and really this disc is more blues and folk than his gig with Union Station.  And there's a big surprise waiting for long-time fans; for the first time in his career, Douglas steps to the mic, singing the lead track, Leadbelly's On A Monday.  Turns out he's got a pretty good voice, too.  First class stuff.

Sunday, June 17, 2012


A lotta Tosh.  Six full CD's, covering the last decade of his career, before his murder in 1987.  This is one of these new budget boxes EMI have been releasing out of the U.K for some of their artists with a larger following there.  EMI Canada has imported the titles here, a nice bonus for fans, although I'm not sure how many Kevin Ayers collectors exist in this country.  The Hollies was cool though.

What you get is everything Tosh did from 1978 on, every album and single track, lots of extended and dub versions, a handful of non-LP discoveries, and a full, previously unreleased BBC In Concert show from 1983.  The bulk is from five official studio and one live album during this period.  Unfortunately, that doesn't include his best two solo albums, recorded after leaving The Wailers, Legalize It and Equal Rights.  Instead it picks up when Tosh signed with Rolling Stones Records, distributed by EMI, thanks to his friendship with Mick and Keith.

The first album, Bush Doctor, featured both Stones in supporting role, Jagger doing his famous cameo on the cover of The Temptations' Don't Look Back.  Oddly, this somewhat odd cover choice became his biggest solo hit, hardly representative of his career, but it did point to a sad truth; Tosh wanted success, sales, and notice.  He battled with his record labels over perceived lack of support, and compromised his music with choices made for commercial reasons.  Examples litter these albums, including the annoying cover of Johnny B. Goode, and the reggae-disco number Nothing But Love, a deserved bomb.

Trouble is, Tosh could really sing, and was an excellent songwriter, plus he was a hardcore political writer, tackling apartheid, nuclear weapons, equal rights, and of course, legalizing marijuana.  He was aware people didn't know he was responsible for lots of the politics and some of the songs that made Marley famous while he was still in the band, including Get Up, Stand Up, and Stop That Train.  Too bad he tried to gain a wider audience with junk instead of his good stuff.  On each album there are more good songs than poor, but they all feel marred.  Another problem is the production, way too studio-perfect for reggae, with lots of annoying synths and syndrums and such.

The live albums showcase a much better side of him, as always leading a crack band and displaying his excellent pipes.  Although a slick synth is still there on some keyboard parts, hearing a big band and lots of vocalists puts a lot more power in these songs, especially as he reclaims Get Up, Stand Up on both the hour-long concerts found here.

So, it's a bit of overkill here, and an argument can be made for chopping out a lot of crap here, leaving the full live concerts and the hard-to-find stuff, making it a four-disc box, and including a decent book instead of the lousy one-page essay and bare-bones credits.  However, you can't argue with the price, $36.39 at Amazon right now, and that they used 2002 Abbey Road remasters.  You probably want to be a big reggae fan though, rather than somebody who only owns Marley's Legend.

Saturday, June 16, 2012


Funky, low-down blues is featured on this second album from the Toronto quartet.  Featuring Halifax-born singer/drummer Lindsay Beaver, it's nasty and raw, with honking sax and distorted (on purpose) vocals, and tough and sexy lyrics.  Guitar solos are knife-sharp, and the whole thing might even be a bit sinister if it was so darn danceable.

You'd think it was the work of seasoned and toughened bar-band veterans, but these Wailers are actually fresh-faced music school products, all young but obviously getting the right seasoning fast.  They've been climbing the Toronto bar and club seen, and now touring the country in all the right spots, plus becoming festival favourites.  It's easy to hear why;  Beaver belts with authority, and the songs move great.  With Emily Burgess on lead guitar, the group also holds the distinction of being a rare thing in the blues world, two women and two men, and everybody with superior chops.  I didn't think it was possible to go to school to learn the blues, and maybe they had it down before, but the formula sure works here.

Friday, June 15, 2012


 A little more rocking than the last couple of roots-solid albums from Reddick, this one sees him teamed up with producer/guitarist Colin Cripps (Junkhouse/Jim Cuddy).  That means the fire burns a bit more, but still the spotlight remains on Reddick's top-flight songwriting.  The guy has only gotten better since his days fronting award-winning blues team The Sidemen, and remains one of the few who can truly come up with a full set of new and different tunes in the old genre.

Well, really Reddick doesn't even sound like most typical blues people, as you'll never find a cliche or the same old same old, unless he's quoting on purpose.  Luna Moth and Butterfly references juke joint danger and gambling den lingo ("Forty-Four and 32-20" and "Who bet Seven, who bet Nine?"), and sounds spooky and swampy, but certainly modern.  Devil's Load is revved-up rockabilly, with you-know-who hot on his trail.  I Ain't Sentimental sees Stones riffs being spat out all over, a powerhouse number that just got added to my list of great mix-tape songs.

Reddick's lived-in and husky voice is totally believable, completely him.  He's not trying to emulate classic singers, this is just him, singing about life the way he lives it.  So strong is his presence in the songs, you sometimes forget his main axe is the harp, and he's one of the best in the country.  But Reddick rarely plays it with bluster, and does comparatively few solos.  It's not a show-off instrument the way many use it.  Instead, his harp playing is part of the whole, more often used to give another shade to the picture, making a number sparkle or become spooky.  But when he does let loose, get out of the way.  Take Me Ruby is a tremendous workout.

So, Wishbone is a bit more electric and nasty than previous solo stuff, Sugarbird and Villanelle, and as much as I love the roots-and-crafts feel of those albums, it's great to hear him blow off the hinges here.  There's too many groups trying to do it who can't come close to this combination of power and talent.

Thursday, June 14, 2012


Hey, I haven't done a shout-out to my adopted musical home of Hamilton, Ontario lately.  Hi, musical pals in The Hammer!  Long-time readers will remember that I travel to this hotbed of music every November for their music awards, and I like to put the spotlight on the many fine musicians I've met and seen on my travels.  This Saturday night there's an excellent music event happening, so I'll give a pitch for it here, hopefully you folks in the area can take it in.

Christopher Clause is a Hamilton performer and recording artist who loves, I mean loves, The Beatles.  So much so that he likes to pay tribute when he can.  He's organized several tribute concerts over the years, to individual Beatles, and full albums, such as Sgt. Pepper.  The shows have actually won awards, including Event of the Year at the Hamilton Music Awards.  This week sees an important milestone marked.  Paul McCartney turns 70 on June 18th, so Clause has organized a show called, of course, Birthday, featuring several artists from the region.  It's happening at James St. Baptist Church at 8 PM, where Clause is a pastor, and stars Spider Costello, Kim and Frank Koren, Chris and Christa, Sonny del Rio, Jennifer Beehler, Dawn and Marra, VooDoo Chicken, Clause of course, and more.  All of the proceeds go towards FERMATA, a program designed to assist local artists in need.  Beatles, Macca solo, you love the music already, it's a win-win.

Clause is an interesting artist himself.  A couple of years back he released the album Round, which I've been enjoying more and more with each listen.  Every city has a guy like Clause.  They are the true, obsessed music fans, people who live and breath the glorious sounds of pop music, as made by the experts of the 60's and 70's.  Not just the songs and the playing, but how they all go together in the studio, that painstaking process.  Beatles, The Who, Beach Boys, Todd Rundgren, Phil Spector, Motown, up through Big Star, XTC, R.E.M. and the like.  They love the master craftspeople, and want to pay that back with their own work.

Clause's Round is a fun house ride of all this and more.  He isn't a copy-cat, but rather someone who soaks up a bunch of influences and puts together his own fun and games.  Here's how it sounds:  The album starts with, of all things, banjo, coming across all country on Sunrise Of Your Life.  But halfway through, in bursts the rock band, and you know it's not going to be a normal experience.  The next track, Surreal But Beautiful, is an orchestral number, real strings, in the XTC pastoral vein.  Next up comes the brass-fused Under The Weather, kind of like mild version of a Sloan song, complete with a touch of sitar, and shout-outs to Dylan and Costello.  Music nerds rejoice.  Then there's a George Harrison-inspired tune, in the music and the philosophy, I Just Want To Be Loved, that also features some Byrds jangle.  The song Freedom sounds like he's getting his Santana on.  And who else is going to write a song dedicated to the perils of playing too much tambourine?  It's called Tambourine Bruise.

The key track to my ears is Spinning Round, a homage to vinyl, and the whole act of playing records, including the turntable, the cartridge, the favourite album, and of course, the beauty in the classic music.  It's a power pop song, and I think it may be the song that best represents him.  The track even samples those iconic Sam the Record Man commercials ("I said it, I did it").

Is it a perfect pop album? Oh gosh no, and it's not supposed to be.  That's part of the charm of these under-sung heroes.  They add their own quirks and charms, something that perhaps only they will fully appreciate.  The more the merrier, I say.  Find the Christopher Clause in your hometown.


We haven't heard much of Colvin for a bit, but now we get a bonanza, with a new album and a recent autobiography, if you want to find out about the hard travels an artist endures on the way to a career.  While depression and addiction are hardly new topics for musicians, coming out the other end okay is rarer.  If you are a fan from back a bit, you've probably felt some of the darker times as you've listened.  Not that she's a downer, but she's someone who can examine deeper topics.

Colvin always knows how to pack an emotional punch, with her own songs or when choosing work by others.  Part of that is her voice and delivery.  She saves the belting for her very rare, and biggest numbers, and most of the time she's at about half-volume, where she can add a lot of drama and inflection.  On this collection, falling is the big image, as things around crumble, whether they are relationships or cities or society.  The title track is the lead cut, the big number on the album, a single if such a thing exists for her.  It's one of her rare uptempo ones, almost a rocker, with an infectious chorus, and a big production built surprisingly around a single hand clap.  Songwriter Rod MacDonald contributes the next one, American Jerusalem, about the collapse of morality in today's modern marketplace, New York City substituting for the temple where Jesus kicked out the money-lenders.  Later, in Fall Of Rome, the city is crumbling, the Titanic is sinking, and there's nothing anyone can do except hope there's a morning after, all this a metaphor for a relationship ending. 

Fall Of Rome features a killer harmony from Jakob Dylan, one of several strong guest spots on the disc.  Emmy Lou Harris shows up for a couple, as does Alison Krauss, and Buddy and Julie Miller both contribute.  No surprise on the latter, as Buddy expertly produced the disc, assembling a dream team, and an uncluttered sound that perfectly compliments her voice.  The redoubtable Viktor Krauss handles bass, and both Miller and whiz Bill Frisell take guitar duties.  Best sounding of all perhaps is drummer Brian Blade, the secret weapon in Daniel Lanois' sound.  Listen for the incredible rolls in Anne Of The Thousand Days.

I haven't read the book, I don't know what's happening in her private life, or how biographical she likes to be in her writing.  I usually don't want to know this stuff anyway, I like to put some distance between the song and the creator.  It feels like she wants to pass on some hope for those who have to go through the end of something, with another falling reference in Change Is On The Way:  "The sky will fall/Peace will come/I'll get over you/And I guess even the sun/Will burn itself out one day/And I feel like a change in on the way."  As I said earlier, emotional punch.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012


Well God bless the old BBC.  They weren't really that cool in the 60's, but they were first-class broadcasters, and they certainly knew how to record and present musicians.  Confusing, left-over union rules meant only so much "needle time" (playing records) was allowed, so bands had to perform in the studios.  This didn't mean live, however; the bands went into BBC studios all over Great Britain, and recorded new versions of their songs under the supervision of Beeb engineers.

There still was a lack of understanding of the cultural importance of the pop acts they were bringing in.  Even The Beatles had some performances erased after airing, a disastrous corporate decision to re-use tape to save money.  But lots did survive, and since the BBC was at that point the only legal broadcaster in the country, they had their pick of them all.

This Hollies collection is jammed with 32 cuts on a 78-minute CD, with songs spanning three lineups of the group, from 1964 to 1971.  The bulk come from the glory years, '64-'68, with Graham Nash still in the band.  Most of the hits are here, plus as was the norm for bands that performed a lot on the shows, several cover versions so they wouldn't repeat themselves.  There are even some rare moments, such as early and different lyrics to the 1968 track Wings.  The covers are early R'n'B from the U.S., the staple tunes that every Beat group was doing, including Sam Cooke's Shake, and Lawdy Miss Clawdy by Lloyd Price.  None of the covers are particularly inspiring.  Even though they did start out as a covers band, their trademark harmonies really sounded much better on pop tunes, rather than the rawer stuff that more suited the Stones and Beatles.  That choirboy high-end from Nash didn't really imply sexy either.  One interesting cover is a George Harrison number, If I Needed Someone, a Rubber Soul album track that had been given to The Hollies as a single.  Oddly, even thought they were in the middle of a string of hits, a Beatles cut failed for them, but this version is good.

Always a solid live group, the band do solid and faithful recreations of their hits and album cuts, and the vocals sound especially good.  There was a bit of multi-tracking going on, but for the most part, these are recordings of how the live band would have sounded, minus the audience of course.  It's actually quite surprising how well they mirror the originals of classics such as Jennifer Eccles, Bus Stop, I Can't Let Go and He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother.  Maybe too good in fact, because if you aren't that big a fan, the studio hits will be all that's needed.  British Invasion fans will, however, find lots to celebrate, especially in the many album cuts found here.

Monday, June 11, 2012


Okay, pop fans, can you name the British soul and R'n'B singer currently topping the U.K. charts with her new album, has already had a couple of chart-topping singles, and won the Critic's Choice Award for 2012 at the BRIT's.  Alicia Keys is writing songs with her for her next album, Coldplay got her to open up for them on their last tour, and Simon Cowell calls her his favourite songwriter of the moment.  Hell, even Susan Boyle has recorded one of her songs.

You guessed Adele, didn't you?  Geez, so behind the times.  Remember, these Brits usually take a year or so to break over here.  No, this new household name belongs to Emeli Sande, who hails from Scotland, and is winning over audiences and critics with her sound.  Relatively young at 24, for the past couple of years she's been impressing the right people by writing a bunch of tunes that have gone on the charts for soul singers and rappers, plus dropping in for guest vocals and TV shows, working the wow factor.  She certainly seems like the real package.  Co-writing each song on this debut, its mature and diverse, and sounds like somebody well into a career, instead of just starting.

She can go from the big beats and dance-soul of the #2 U.K. single Heaven, which opens this album, to the acoustic guitar-with-strings tracks Suitcase and Breaking The Law, which see her reach for raw intimacy, as a devotee of Joni Mitchell.  There are two versions of Next To Me, a huge hit earlier this year in England, the first with pounding drums making it a big dance floor number, whereas the second recasts it as a ballad, becoming a hymn to, gasp!, a faithful lover. 

I gotta be honest, it's a little too glossy, and heavily produced, influenced by all the usual pop trends of the last decade, but its miles ahead of the banality of Beyonce, for instance.  She can sing for sure, and write even better.  And guess what?  Her real first name?  Adele.

Sunday, June 10, 2012


A well-stocked Deluxe Edition of the 1991 mega-hit for Kravitz.  This, his second album, solidified his success, after the breakthrough of Let Love Rule, and proved he was going to be a big star.  The album featured a full seven singles, including the smash hits It Ain't Over 'Til It's Over and the ballad Stand By My Woman.  All the variety proved he was in capable of switching gears, from hard rock tunes with Slash on the disc, to funk and fun, plus a liberal dose of sexiness.

Of course, he wore his influences on his sleeve, but there were so many of them, it boiled down to his own style.  Certainly Prince must have raised an eyebrow, with all the frilly scarves on display, as well as the lead guitar heroics.  But Kravitz took just as much from The Beatles, Hendrix, Stevie Wonder, etc., etc.  It became a knock against him, but still he was a master at mixing it all up, plus a great singer and producer.  Really the only problem here was a couple of mediocre tracks along the way, but this was in the day when 14 cuts was the norm, musicians being required to fill up all that space on the CD.  He made more fans on radio than in the review columns though, and never was a critical favourite, although he had the numbers and profits to ignore that.

For the (ahem..) 21st Anniversary Edition (I guess they didn't have it ready for last year), there's a bundle of new stuff.  Three B-sides are included, which probably weren't widely owned, given the limited sales of CD singles then.  All are good, a couple even better than some album tracks, and I liked hearing the instrumental of Always On The Run, which gives you a better feel for his studio prowess.  Likewise the two 12" single mixes of It Ain't Over, although at eight minutes, the extended version outlives its welcome.  Disc Two starts with a bunch of demos, both at home in the studio, including a couple of unfinished numbers, but they don't add much to set, as they are undeveloped, Kravitz tunes better consumed once all the parts are added.  In other words, his songs are more about the riffs than the lyrics and melodies, but that's okay.  A better time is had with the rest of the disc, as it visits two different live concerts at the time.  He had a crack band, and obviously the guy's a dynamic performer.  He had the fans locked in by then, with lots of audience singing.

I've never been a huge Kravitzer, but I'll give him his due;  the hits hold up, it's timeless, quality rock, well-made, just not that deep.


I assume you don't need me to tell you anything about the album proper;  indeed a friend mentioned he'd had three or four copies of it since it came out 25 years ago.  Let's just say it was a game-changer, opening the ears of millions to World music, and becoming the favourite all-time album for many (ya, I'm looking at you, Oprah).  So let's concentrate on the bonus stuff here on the 25th anniversary edition.  Oh, and if you're wondering if it's worth the price, I saw a great deal on the CD-DVD package at Chapters, where if you buy twenty dollars worth of other stuff, you can get the Simon set for $9.99.

On the CD side, there are six bonus cuts, three of which originally appeared on the expanded 2004 edition.  These are demos and slightly alternate versions that give an indication of how the songs progressed, including a sparse start of the circular Homeless theme, as Ladysmith Black Mambazo started to add their distinct vocals to Simon's starting phrase.  Crazy Love is the studio jam recorded with South African band Stimela, before it got taken back to New York, edited, Adrian Belew added, and lyrics written to become Crazy Love, Vol. 2.  There's always a spoken word piece, normally a very bad idea on CD's, but in this case it's a revelatory explanation of the creation of the Graceland song.  Simon explains how he heard a Sun Records feel in the South African beat, and when writing the words, "I'm going To Graceland" popped into his head and wouldn't leave.  So he actually went to Graceland, which inspired the famous descriptive opening, "The Mississippi Delta is shining like a National guitar."  Edited with bits of the song, it's the way a miniature audio documentary should be done.

The accompanying DVD is called Under African Skies, and is a totally new 2-hour film created for this edition.  It follows Simon as he returns to South Africa in 2011, to reunite with some of the musicians, and to once again face his critics.  Graceland was embroiled in controversy after its release, for possibly violating the UN's cultural boycott of the embattled country, then at the height of the violence surrounding Apartheid.  It's still a grey area, and Simon would dispute any crime, pointing out that the musicians were thrilled to be involved, and paid triple-scale.  His biggest critics of the time are interviewed again, including the head of the African National Congress, who sits with Simon as they discuss their different opinions.  As in the past, they agree to disagree, although it's now a moot point, and Simon gets praise for creating such a remarkable collaboration featuring African musicians.  Much period footage is used, including original studio recordings, as well as new shots of the principals playing the grooves again for the first time in 25 years.   It's all about the African side of the disc though; there's no mention of the tracks recorded in Louisiana (That Was Your Mother) or in L.A. with Los Lobos (All Around The World).  But the African part of Graceland has always made the better story, so that's the one we get.  It's still fascinating, and I'd recommend getting this set just for the documentary.  Consider the CD an extra present.  Also included are the music videos for You Can Call Me Al, The Boy In The Bubble, Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes, and the Saturday Night Live premiere of that last song, which showcased Ladysmith and excited everyone who saw it, a full six months before the album came out.

Saturday, June 9, 2012


The great Ivan Doroschuk still has that wonderfully grizzly voice, and an ability to find fun and fantastic synth lines to power his pop.  Funny how he hasn't had to change one bit to fit in today, 29 years after we all did the Safety Dance.  Witness the use of Pop Goes The World in a current TV ad for Tide, of all things.  I think it just goes to show synths got a bad name back in the day because too many people used them who didn't know what they doing.  Ivan always has, and this disc is made up of 10 seriously cool tracks, each one with a driving, fun synth sound.

It's the first Men album in a decade, and comes after a successful 2011 tour that saw the band properly acknowledged as an exciting live act.  Falling somewhere between dance and New Wave, it's true there's a lot of retro love and re-evaluation for the mid-80's these days, but for full albums, this might be the best Doroschuk's ever made.  Each cut is a concise and solid piece of pop.  It's extremely danceable of course, but smart as all get out, too.  This War, moving at top gear with some unimaginable BPM rate, would fill any dance floor, impossible to resist.  Mid-tempo charmer Your Beautiful Heart is soul-gone-synth, with a great lyric, Ivan giving support to someone searching for love.  The Girl With The Silicon Eyes has that touch of sci-fi that always goes well with electronics.

Men Without Hats has always been about finding joy and love in the face of those who want to deny it.  That goes right back to Safety Dance, inspired by club bouncers threatening his crowd when they tried to enjoy New Wave music ("Is it safe to dance?").  That's what set Doroschuk above the pack back in the day, the intelligence he brought to the table.  It's all still there, plus he's a master craftsman in the now more appreciate synth arts.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012


I imagine most people were pretty confused to hear that the new Young/Crazy Horse album would be covers of old folk tunes, really old folk tunes, such as Oh Susannah.  I mean, the first real Crazy Horse record in years, a chance for another Like A Hurricane or Cinnamon Girl, and instead we get This Land Is Your Land?  I mean, the man is always messin' with expectations, but this one came close to absurdity.

Of course, the bugger has pulled it off.  These aren't cut-and-dry remakes, nor gussied-up big band versions like Springsteen did on The Seeger Sessions.  Instead, they are radical reinterpretations, with the Crazy Horse sound, that take the songs back to their roots, and show us what they are really about.  Oh, and there are some that are just sloppy fun, which is the other part of playing with The Horse.

What's amazing is how well the lyrics work with the classic Crazy Horse plod.  In fact, if in some parallel universe, you didn't know any of these famous songs, but were familiar with Young, you could believe he wrote them.  Hearing him get into the vocal on Oh Susannah, head back and moaning "Don't you crrrryyy for me", and telling us "I come from Alabama with my B-A-N-J-O on my knee", you realize where he got his simple but potent lyric style, from classic writing.  Next up comes the well-known tale of Clementine, but with now with a dangerous, deep groove that puts the sorrow back in this song that's really about a drowned love or daughter (depending on your interpretation).  This take is not far removed from famous story-songs of Young's such as Powderfinger, where not everything is spelled out but you get the picture.

Young's extensive liner notes help us as well, as he explains the history of each song, and where he's borrowed or updated some arrangements.  It's worth noting he also gives full credit; Odetta gets the credit (and royalties) for the version of Gallows Pole, for instance.  We find out that the song Tom Dooley is actually a 19th century murder ballad, about a guy named Tom Dula (as Young names it), and it's slowed here to a mournful, menacing tempo, as befits the lyrics.  It certainly makes the chirpy Kingston Trio version seem ridiculous now.  It also shows why so many folk singers, such as Ian Tyson, were somewhat appalled by the commercialization of folk in the early 60's, what he likes to call the "Folk Scare".  This version makes you stop and realize why Dula (Dooley) should hang down his head.  He killed her!

As usual, Young goes for feel over polish.  The odd bum note is left in, in favour of a good groove.  Some tracks are too similar, basically the same chords and feel as others.  But as Young so famously explained about his whole career, "It's all one song".   And not everything works; This Land Is Your Land has a country hoe-down lick added, but sticks to the original pretty closely, with guest vocals from Pegi Young, Stephen Stills and a choir, but really it just sounds like every other singalong version, plus some Young guitar.  For the most part though, it's very listenable Horse, and a revelation.  It's a lot freakin' better than Greendale, too, the last Crazy Horse go-round.

Monday, June 4, 2012


Against all odds, The Beach Boys 50th anniversary reunion tour has been going very well.  I've seen quite a bit of YouTube footage, and it's actually enjoyable, even touching to see these 70-year old's, with so much baggage and hurt behind them, getting late-life appreciation.  Now, let's not make too much of it; most of the heavy lifting is being done by the crack backing band, including a good part of the trademark harmonies.  And marginal players Bruce Johnston and David Marks don't make up for the late Dennis and Carl Wilson.

Right from the start, a new album was part of the plan.  The Beach Boys haven't made one since 1996, but having Brian Wilson on board meant it was possible, as he's put out several in the past decade.  The good news?  Looks like Brian was handed complete control, as producer, main songwriter, and lead singer on half the cuts.  Or rather, you'd think that's good news.  Unfortunately, he came to the plate without much good material.  An old collaborator, Joe Thomas, who worked with Wilson on his 1998 Imagination album, came back as his co-writer, and the guy has never impressed me too much, he's too middle-of-the-road.  His contributions here don't sound like Beach Boys songs, or much like Brian Wilson songs either, which would be fine if they were special.  Unfortunately, the tunes aren't, especially The Private Life Of Bill And Sue, a commentary on reality TV stars.

There's little great vocal magic either, which is more surprising.  When the harmonies get added, you do feel a bit of the old fun, but the songs don't always lend themselves to rich vocals.  I'd say Brian had a limited amount of material, and simply went with what he had in the bank, which means nobody was standing up to him to say it wasn't good enough.  Certainly not Mike Love, who is no doubt thrilled that it happened at all, as The Beach Boys brand (which he controls) has been steadily losing steam the past decade.  Love actually takes less lead vocals than I thought he would, given that he sang so many of the classic hits, and he wrote less than I'd imagined he would.  Umm, that's probably good though;  what he does contribute are simple variations on the "Do It Again" theme, so obvious and painful. A sample:  "Spring vacation/Good vibrations/Summer weather/We're back together."

It's not a total loss.  I like the lead single, the title cut, one of the few times the vocals soar, the lyrics don't suck, and Wilson brings in some interesting melodic shifts along the way.  The real gem is called From There To Back Again, where Wilson rekindles his spark, something he usually can do a couple of time each solo album.  This, and the two songs that follow, which are linked and also quite good, recall the environmental and spiritual music the group did in the early 70's, a well-performed suite of songs that deserves a better fate than ending a weak effort.  Given Wilson's age, and his very active last decade, plus the major commitment of this months-long anniversary tour, I think he simply bit off more than he could chew, and was willing to settle for whatever could be done.

Sunday, June 3, 2012


It might seem like an awfully quick time between albums for this new English singer, but that's only because her debut was delayed by over a year for release here, coming out just after Christmas here.  That excellent disc made a few ripples here, but home in Britain she's already a star.  The jury is out whether she'll find a big following for her retro-smooth pop here.

For her second disc, Rumer has chosen an ambitious project.  She wanted to tackle vintage songs by male songwriters, largely about their sensitive side.  She was out to prove the point that boys indeed do cry, and have a deep well of emotion.  So this time, it was all covers, a brave choice in a pop world that still insists you have to write your own to be taken seriously.  Since she wrote a bunch of fine ones on her first disc, the point should already be moot, but still, some will deem it too early for an all-covers collection.

Anyway, the project:  Great idea, faulty execution.  There's no denying the beauty of Rumer's voice, and her commitment to mellow pop from the 60's and 70's.  The thing is, there were thousands and thousands of songs to choose from.  It's the songs that don't quite match up.  Now, kudos for not picking the obvious examples, and largely staying away from well-known writers and hits.  But I don't quite know why the always-saccharine Paul Williams had to be here.  Same goes for a lesser-known Gilbert O'Sullivan song, We Will, not much of a choice.  And there are several that are stripped of any life.  Both Todd Rundgren's Be Nice To Me and Richie Havens' It Could Be The First Day are treated to bland arrangements and glossy productions.  There's certainly no drive for listeners to find the emotion here, which is the point of the disc.  I'd argue that at least half of the songs chosen simply aren't all that great to begin with, obscure or not.

When it works, it's great.  One of the few truly excellent examples of songwriting here is Townes Van Zandt's Flying Shoes, and she delivers a tremendous version, piano and harmonica the chief sounds, along with her aching vocal.  Jimmy Webb's tune P.F. Sloan, about the reclusive 60's songwriter, is another, as it's one with some oomph to it, plus a fine melody, and when she has that, Rumer soars.  That works for Isaac Hayes' Soulsville from the Shaft soundtrack, even though the lyrics are completely inappropriate both for her, and for this supposed-love song collection.

As for the really well-known stuff, hats off for a decent version of A Man Needs A Maid, and a passable Sara Smile (Hall & Oates), although it doesn't really cut the original, and it's nowhere near as soulful.  And not everything is sung in her Karen Carpenter-style.  That isn't good actually;  Bob Marley's Soul Rebel looses any connection to reggae, and just gets bland.  Worse still is Leon Russell's My Cricket, a lovely and mournful song he did as an old country number.  Rumer turns it into Patti Page singing Tennessee Waltz.  I like her voice so much I'm going to enjoy the ones I like here, and skip over the rest.  But unfortunately, this concept album didn't fly.

Saturday, June 2, 2012


If you are keeping track, this is the third major reissue of the Bowie classic, plus there have been basic repacking jobs done when he's switched labels several times.  There was a deluxe 20th anniversary set on Rykodisc, and then an even better one for the 30th anniversary from EMI.  This time, there are competing versions depending on your pocket book.  Annoyingly, you don't get all the bonus cuts offered on the 30th edition; you also don't get the very cool booklet from the Ryko set.  This time you get improved sound, and the more you spend the more of that you get.  You need a bloody map to get through the variations.

This time, you have two choices:  You can get the basic CD, which there's a good chance you already have.  What will be different is the sound, polished up with a new remastering.  Okay, you ask, what can they possibly improve this time that makes it any better than, say the 30th anniversary edition?  Well, the technology keeps getting better, and they do manage to find a little more to perk up the audio.  Not a whole lot, but I know this album pretty well, and I heard such interesting moments as the subtle string parts in opener Five Years, boosted to more prominence.

But that's it, none of the bonus cuts, just the basic original disc.  If you're looking for extras, you'll have to go to the more expensive ($25 - $30 bucks) vinyl edition.  That's cool right there, it's 180-gram, plus you get a DVD with some interesting alternatives.  You get a new 5.1 mix and the new stereo mix, plus four bonus cuts remixed in 2003 but never issued, also in 5.1 and stereo.  So, that's kinda cool, but again, it's for those interested in high quality audio and subtle variations. 

Oh, the music you ask?  It's just one of the great rock 'n' roll albums, duh.

Friday, June 1, 2012


Nothing new here, but this collection is being reissued to coincide with the new version of the movie, coming out on DVD and Blu-Ray.  Back in 1999, the old soundtrack album was turfed in favour of this collection, which replaced the old George Martin orchestral score tracks with more actual period Beatles tunes used in the film.  So what you have is a 15-track set of some hits (Eleanor Rigby, All You Need Is Love, Yellow Submarine), some all-time favourites (Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds, With A Little Help From My Friends), and some relative obscurities (Only A Northern Song, It's All Too Much).

This disc actually completes the remastered Beatles collection of 2009, as its home to such toss-offs as Hey Bulldog and All Together Now.  While they have their charms, they (along with Only A Northern Song and It's All Too Much) are among the weakest tracks in The Beatles collection, so you don't really need to own them, unless you are OCD about the B's.  As an album however, restored and revamped with all the extra stuff, it's an enjoyable listen, but this is The Beatles we're talking about.  But you probably have all the good stuff on your other discs.  No comment on the wacky film.