Wednesday, October 31, 2012


There's barely any difference between a Donald Fagen solo disc and a proper Steely Dan one.  Fagen always does the vocals with the Dan, and since he and Walter Becker are of such like minds about the music they want to make these past decades, taking Becker out of the mix isn't a big deal.  Here he's replaced by co-producer and trumpet/synth/keyboard guy Michael Leonhart, but it doesn't do a thing to alter the usual Dan sound.  Which is grand, of course.

Really, not much has changed in Fagen's musical world since Gaucho in 1980.  It's smooth, groovy jazz, extremely clean and expertly played, with witty observations on modern life and slightly twisted tales of less reputable folks, our singer included.  The only thematic shift is out of necessity, as Fagen has grown older.  Now he speaks to younger generations, whether as a skirt-chaser everyone knows is too old (Slinky Thing), or a has-been in the eyes of the dot-com generation (The New Breed).  There's a little bitterness there, as he loses the girl to someone younger and stronger, but also he's holding on to the last laugh, knowing tough times are ahead for the youngster that he's already survived.  Anyway, as always his lyrics are fun, full of shady characters and words you won't find elsewhere.  Lithe, for instance.

Sunken Condos is one of the most rewarding listens since Gaucho as well, and perhaps its because it's more funky.  It's got a more soulful selection, including the gangster number Good Stuff, with its choppy rhythm guitar and classic Fagen horns.  As always, there are the female voices grooving along with The Donald on the choruses.  The big surprise is an actual cover, a rare thing indeed in Dan land.  They did a Duke Ellington number way back in the 70's, and now we get an old Isaac Hayes number, Out Of The Ghetto, all clavinet and funky bass.  Hey, and there's even one of those really killer guitar solos you used to get back in the day with Steely Dan albums, in the song Weather In My Head.  So I guess what I'm saying here is:  Like Steely Dan?  You should pick this up.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012


An old parlour piano starts the album off, soon joined by Dement's oh-so-rural, classic voice, just like she was singing to you from your great-grandmother's living room in the 40's.  Nobody has ever sounded so Appalachian, at least in the last 40 years.  It's a voice that aches with such sadness, such personal hurt, channeling what it must have been like for those people living in grinding poverty, their only hope found in a deep religious conviction, one based in fear of damnation as much as the knowledge of salvation.  Well, I don't have a clue how much of that she knows, feels, or is trying to emote, but that's the source I imagine.

Dement's been largely silent for several years, after releasing a trio of albums in the 90's that established her as one of the dominate voices of the new Americana, as well as one of the most stunning writers of the day.  I've missed her.  She released a gospel album eight years back, did some film work, helped out her mentor John Prine, but hasn't released an original album in 16 years.  The spark wasn't there, she's said.  Thank you-know-who it came flowing back last year.  The title track here is a tribute to the south, the music and feeling she knows from growing up in Arkansas.  It's half soul, half country, a slowed-down Stax number with mournful horns, Dement finding a little Etta James somewhere.  There are all her familiar themes; strong family ties (she's the youngest of 14 kids), strong values, and religion.  Except that Dement has never feared strong examination of that faith she grew up with.  The questions she asks are the ones that are scariest for those who were taught never to question.  She states it flat-out at one point, "I don't even know if I believe in God."  Most striking is the story found in The Night I Learned How Not To Pray.  The singer watches as her baby brother accidentally falls down the stairs, suffering a serious head injury.  As her parents rush the child to the hospital, she falls on the floor to pray, but the baby dies.  Her faith is shaken, and a lifetime of doubt follows.  Clearly, this isn't country-gospel for mainstream America, although it should be.  Dement is fearless in the way she tackles these questions in songs.

Nobody has sung quite so well about home in ages either.  It's almost like she's taken Merle Haggard's Sing Me Back Home and created an entire genre around it.  Makin' My Way Back Home evokes the sweet feeling of walking back in a childhood house, a beloved place, for the first time in many years.  Fathers and mothers show up in these spots and songs, flawed but wise characters, such as Mama Was Always Tellin' Her Truth.  In this world, clotheslines sag, household chores are unending, and so is familial love.

All these themes and sounds come together in the song There's A Whole Lot Of Heaven, one of her very best ever.  With an uptempo gospel groove, her piano combined with a rocking church organ, and her singing defiant, Dement states flatly that they don't need a prophet coming around to her small community/family, they don't even need to try to get to heaven:  "I've been saved by the blood of the people living right here/There's a whole lot of Heaven shining in this river of tears."  Wow.  Growing up Baptist myself, the lyric strikes me to the core.  And no words I could write would come close to doing justice to her celebratory vocal here.  Thank goodness Gillian Welch was around, I'm not sure how else I could have got through these sixteen dry years.

Monday, October 29, 2012


Lynne's often the whipping boy for music snobs, considered a wanna-be in the rock hall, the hanger-on in the Wilburys fraternity.  Well, when your peers accept you, the Petty-Dylan-Harrison types, that should be a clue the guy has the goods.  I suppose it's that ELO were never considered in the elite, but rather plastic hit makers.  And when Lynne entered into the sphere of those Wilbury types, the music they made did get glossy.  But it also got very nearly perfect pop.  Think Handle With Care, or Petty's I Won't Back Down or Free Fallin'.  Lynne knows what he's doing when you hand him the ball.

He takes classic sounds, and puts his own spin on them.  What were ELO, but The Beatles stringed and zinged?  No matter what style, Lynne delivers, but there's always a touch of air-brushed brilliance on top.  When he's working, that is.  There's been precious little evidence of that lately, but the floodgates are about to open.  A new album of originals is coming next year, and he also has re-recorded much of the ELO catalogue for a new Best-Of, now out as well.  This, however, is not the new stuff, but rather a curious covers album.  Seems he's always wanted to go back, way back, to the pre-rock era, to do some of the songs popular when he was little and Elvis was still driving a truck.  So we get some show tunes, some Tin Pan Alley, popular songs from the era of the popular song.  We're talking Charles Aznavour's She, Charlie Chaplin's Smile, and such chestnuts as Love Is A Many Splendored Thing and Bewitched, Bothered And Bewildered.  There are also some forays into 50's and 60's rock, again early heroes of Lynne's he heard on the radio, such as the Everly Brothers (So Sad), Orbison (Running Scared), and even Chuck Berry's Let It Rock.

It's a mixed bag, as you can imagine, and a bit slight, just 27 minutes long.  But you know what?  Damned if he doesn't make each one interesting; perfectly produced, of course, with great mimicry on some bits, imaginative updates at other points.  Lynne obsessively overdubs layers of guitar and keys to copy the old sonics, and yet gives it a bit of his own sound, too.  He's paying absolute attention to detail, and you can't help but be impressed with the final results.  And hey, they are classics, so it's listenable as well.  Lynne never reinvents the wheel, instead he drives the whole car in a different direction.

Sunday, October 28, 2012


An interesting documentary, in that it looks at a very specific point in Mercury's career, his solo years in the 80's.  That's because the rest of it has been covered well in previous DVD's, and as this is from the official folks, the band and management, it's stuff that's been hived off from the other docs that just dealt with things Queen.  It's the same cast of talkers that spoke about him in the previous one, but since it's all the right ones, including the group, old managers, his last partner, etc., you're getting the proper picture.

Now, in case you think you don't have much interest in Mercury's spotty solo work, there's actually some interesting stories with it, and also it goes far more in-depth into his off-stage life, plus his AIDS-related passing.  There's film footage of his infamous 1985 birthday party, a near Roman orgy that would make Elton John blush.  We see him in the discos of New York and Munich in the early 80's, when he living life to its largest.  At the same time, we're told the other side of his personality showed that he was a shy, private person for the most part, driven by art and work.  It was that side of him that drove him to search out the solo projects that were quite different than the Queen work.

The centerpiece of the 90-minute doc is the unlikely partnership he forged with opera diva Montserrat Caballe of Barcelona.  The famous soprano was his favourite singer, and when word got back to her, she happily agreed to a project that saw Mercury writing an entire album for them, and bravely creating a rock-opera hybrid.  Caballe, interviewed at length, clearly loved her friend, and the fact the project became a success of sorts is a grand part of the story. 

What moves this along though, is the storyline tracing his illness and eventual death.  Using available interviews, and recollections of his intimate friends, we get a much broader picture of the stoic and brave journey he went  through in the decade, and how his determination to live life to the fullest made him truly happy.  In the end, it also made him face his passing with great dignity.  As he hoped in statements to friends, he was never boring, and because of that, this part of his life is just as interesting as his time with Queen.

Saturday, October 27, 2012


I can't think of another situation like that of Cummings and his once, and still occasional band mate Randy Bachman.  Usually, when you have a classic hit-making band like The Guess Who, the sum is always greater than the parts.  Yet when you look at their respective careers, each has done wonderfully with, or without the other.  And even today, both do a great job on their own.  Bachman's recent reunion with Fred Turner was a grand return to the BTO classics.  When the duo has joined up over the past decade, once as The Guess Who, and a few times as Bachman-Cummings, it's an excellent show.  Cummings last solo album was very strong; now comes this document of live shows from 2010 and 2011, and it proves he has just as powerful a set list, and performance, by himself.

It's hit after hit after hit.  As the lead singer for all them, Cummings has the strong 70's material to draw on, songs you normally don't hear a lot of, since the late 60's cuts get more attention these days.  Aside from the relative lightweight Clap For The Wolfman (still, rather catchy), there's real quality to Star Baby, Albert Flasher, Running Back To Saskatoon, and even Guns Guns Guns is a good surprise here.  Cummings also represents his solo hits well.  Stand Tall is a little soft, but what a great vocal.  I'm Scared comes over very well, and Timeless Love is an underrated gem. 

He also has a crack band with him, in the past referred to as The Carpet Frogs, and featuring Ron Sexsmith regular Tim Bovaconti on lead guitar.  And Cummings hasn't lost a note in range, somehow still exactly the same tremendous singer he's been since the start.  Speaking of which, all those favourites are here as well:  These Eyes, Undun, Laughing, No Sugar Tonight/New Mother Nature, and of course, American Woman.  Never once does Cummings sound like he's going through the motions on these nearly fifty-year-old hits, getting close to half the age of the venerable hall the shows come from.  There are only two cuts from that most recent disc, Above The Ground, but they sound really good here, and I would happily go see those show live.

Friday, October 26, 2012


Geez, Winwood was big again for awhile there in the 80's.  This album, from the start of the decade, brought him back to star status, after a short time in the wilderness.  It was also the first time he was a star in his own right.  He'd always been a band guy, whether it was The Spencer Davis Group, Traffic, Blind Faith, Traffic again, or any of the short-term projects he'd done along the way.  A 1977 solo disc hadn't done much, but everybody knew he was the real deal, always the best singer and musician in any group.  A multi-instrumentalist, he could do it all, from keys to guitars to drums.  And of course, he had the best, most soulful voice of any (white) singer around.

So for Arc Of A Diver, he decided he would do it all.  As he admitted, he wasn't the first to play all the instruments on an album, but the guy who really liked to be with others had to chuck all that out and brave the solo world.  He probably didn't expect all the success that would come.  However, he did go for it.  A huge R'n'B and folk fan, Winwood left most of that out, instead draping on the synths and clean production, becoming a smooth, hi-tech 80's guy.  It was an odd move for the voice behind Gimme Some Lovin', or John Barleycorn Must Die, but a shrewd observation on what was needed for stardom in that era.

Honestly, it's never sat well with who he really is as a musician, although it's certainly now what's he's best known for.  The hits here, While You See A Chance, and the title cut, lead to his biggest one, Higher Love, in 1986.  While you can hear the quality of the basic melody in there, and the singing is great, oh those synths and that 80's production.  It's such a diametrically opposed synthesis:  a soulful tune, with soulless manufacturing of the track.  The album, really, has not aged well, with the rest of the cuts so much of the same style, and the hits no more than nice memories.

It would have been fun to hear demo versions, or live takes of these songs, to get a sense of their quality without the studio adornments.  Instead, the bonus tracks on the Deluxe Edition include only an edited version of Arc for the radio, an instrumental of Night Train, and a 2010 version of Spanish Dancer.  The rest of disc 2 is made up of a near-hour long BBC 2 documentary on his whole career.  It is a decent listen, although it confusingly meanders back and forth from the 60's to 80's and back again.  It is great to hear his brother Muff, and old band mates weigh in.  Really though, the best he's been of late has been getting back into the R'n'B he was born to play, touring with old pal Eric Clapton, and showing what a giant he really is.  Arc Of A Diver only hints at his true calling.

Thursday, October 25, 2012


Tongue-in-cheek real rock that riffs on metal, prog, a little dance, and a lot of on-purpose inane lyrics.  You can look at this Toronto duo two ways; either as a laugh factory, or a return to simpler, even stupid rock values.  Pounding out the cartoon sounds, Uncle Father gives you a package tour of the stuff kids loved when I was a 70's teen.  Sleep All Night is full of heavy keyboard number, featuring big organ in the Jon Lord-Deep Purple style, and they found Keith Emerson's ELP synth in the back room, too.  Queen Of The Slaves 1 is a full-on machine gun guitar songs, all Sabbath vocals and pounding.  Then there's a power ballad called Queen Of The Slaves 2 - Hey, it's the same damn song, now just sung in falsetto in Journey style!  Clever buggers.

I'm mostly impressed by the group's audacity.  Queen Of The Slaves 1 and 2 include absolutely no other lyrics than the title, repeated over and over again.  It just shows that it actually doesn't matter what the singer sings, it's how he sings it.  Oh, and it's a he for sure, as the songs are filled with testosterone, and more take-offs on the classic lead singer.  Rock And Roll Saturday Night has all the right references, including cocaine, getting wasted, and the immortal line "my balls look huge because my pants so tight".  The less said about the next track, Sloppy, the better, but it would make Frank Zappa smile at it's filth.  The singer's testicular problem continues, as apparently they are abnormally large;  instead of seeking medical help for this affliction, he is very proud of this fact. 

The thing about this seven-song mini-album is that past the topics and schtick, these guys can really play it well.  Sloppy is a great groove, and I'm sure they can fill a dance floor.  Uncle Father knows why this is called classic rock, and what makes it appealing still.  No, they don't take it completely seriously, but who does?

Tuesday, October 23, 2012


Carl Newman's bright pop comes stitched with a gentle melancholy that resembles some of the smarter Top 40 of the 70's.  There are hints of 10cc, pre-dance Bee Gees, a little ELO, some lighter prog, and edging into the Dolby 80's with synth lines.  But his productions never mimic; instead they mine a smart vein that went out of style too soon, tuneful numbers that had tap-along rhythms but were hiding ballad blues.  He lays his own lyrical twists on it all, so it's not retro, but Newman's own.

As has been the case with his solo albums, he's a little less ..what?  Alternative, I guess, then when he's fronting The New Pornographers.  The songs seem more dreamy, less edgy, rowdiness replaced with an emphasis on melody.  The most rockin' number here, Encyclopedia Of Classic Takedowns, sounds like Sloan at their most cleaned-up, and features a breezy instrumental section that drops the drums completely.  It's insanely catchy.  So's the strikingly-titled There's Money In New Wave, all harmonies and harpsichord-like keyboards.

Speaking of harmonies, Newman wisely invites his fellow Pornographer Neko Case along for the ride, and as always their voices together are a wonderful contrast.  I think it has to do with the fact hers is the stronger one, yet takes the colouring role, sort of the opposite of the norm.  He's an acoustic guitar, she's a trumpet.  Then there's all the other grand instrument choices throughout, lots of types of keys, usually in organ, harmonium, some sort of ringing setting.  And there's a lot of banjo; now, banjo has become ubiquitous and over-used post-Mumford's, but Newman's has all the twang taken out, so it's more sweet, and I love it here.  Now don't you dare ask me what any of the songs are actually about, I've been reading the lyrics and it's mostly just clues, but the images are very evocative, such as the closer They Should Have Shut Down The Streets, where something momentous has happened, but we're not let in on why our narrator and friend(s) deserve a tribute parade.  Anyway, there's lots to ponder and love, good show, A.C.

Saturday, October 20, 2012


 It's not the worst film ever made, but it's been vilified for years as the worst thing The Beatles did.  It certainly wasn't a roaring success, and therein lay the problem, as everything the group had done up to that point had been.  The Beatles weren't supposed to do something mediocre, and this was really just a lark, a piece of fun made as much to entertain themselves as much as the TV audience when it aired on Boxing Day, 1967 in England.  Paul, and to an extent, the others, had an interest in film, with some avant-garde ideas, and wanted to do something fast, without all the fuss of a real production.  Or a script.

Critics were brutal at the time, and apart from its songs, released as an EP in England and fleshed out to a full album in North America, the work has been largely ignored since.  Now, as with all things Beatles, it finally gets a major reissue, with plenty of bonus features, commentary, and a lovely boxed edition for those willing to shell out for deluxe treatment.  It's a super package, with the film done in both DVD and Blu-Ray, a sumptuous book, and even a reproduction of the original British vinyl double-EP, a collector's joy.  But, all the add-on features in the world can't make the original better; so the real question is, was it really that bad?

My answer is no, it's certainly not as poor as its reputation would have it.  Although I've seen lots of the parts in the past, as they've been hived for videos and documentaries along the way, I've never sat through the whole 53-minute movie.  Of course, new viewers have the luxury of not expecting much, whereas original viewers were psyched for the newest project from their heroes.  And as any Beatles fan has long known, this was largely created on the spot, with improvised scenes and bare hints of a plot.  We also know that the group had no grand ambitions for it, it was just what it was; something for British Christmas TV viewing, to put in between holiday specials and movies.  It would reflect their young, artistic drive, with splashes of surrealism, New Wave film, and psychedelia, but also have nods to old school British comedy, theatrics, and show business. 

The set pieces in the film are the best moments, including the costumed performance of I Am The Walrus, and especially the closer, the ballroom dancing scene for Your Mother Should Know, with the group in white tuxedos descending a grand staircase.  Less successful was McCartney's Fool On The Hill, really just shots of him ...umm... fooling around on a hill.  They had a song called Flying they decided to use, but no footage to go with it, so they borrowed a bunch of out-takes from the classic Dr. Strangelove, cloud shots.  That's a better story that we learn from the McCartney commentary that the actual scene itself.  But hey, it must have also been cool for the audience to be introduced to these new Beatles tracks in this way, and it was a completely new and untried vehicle for pop music.  More props for them.

I kinda like the bus concept, the cast of silly characters traveling around with them, especially the odd group of character actors that felt more like a circus troupe than a theatre group.  Really, it's too bad there wasn't a script for them, as they'd chosen well, especially Ringo's rotund Aunt Jessie, her paramour Buster Bloodvessel, played by the cult hero, poet and performer Ivor Cutler (I could write a whole book on his albums, but we'll talk of him another time), and the delightful Victor Spinetti, a veteran of A Hard Day's Night, doing his nutty Army Officer routine, surely stolen by the Pythons later.  But it never gels, mostly because they simply didn't film enough, or enough with a sensible shooting script. 

What truly stands out, and The Beatles had nothing to do with this, is the absolute beauty of the film.  The colours are amazing, the set design (when there is one) and the costumes stand out.  So there was some planning, and some professionalism, and these are the best moments.  Though Paul was nominally the director, and Ringo supposedly Director of Photography, a small group of real pros helped make certain scenes glorious.  It makes it even more surprising that the BBC decided to show it first in black and white that Boxing Day, and not in colour until the next week.  It might have helped the reviews.

As McCartney tells us, the fast and easy film they wanted to do made for a nightmare in the edit suite, with no proper sync track to work from.  The editing ended up to take months not days.  The commentary, and the rest of the bonus material adds greatly to our knowledge of this bit of Beatle history.  There are whole scenes that didn't make the cut, mostly with the character actors expanding their roles.  Lots of out-takes are used to create new videos to accompany Your Mother Should Know, Blue Jay Way and Fool On The Hill.  There's even a complete song and section with the band Traffic, doing their song Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush, that was commissioned for the movie, but dropped.  McCartney's pretty open and honest in the commentary, admitting they did the segment with the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band just so they could film a stripper.  And why are the women often in their underwear through the movie?  Seems they discovered if they asked actresses to take their tops off, they would. 

One nice thing about all these bonus features is that it gets you into the story of the movie, and this bit of Beatles history.  It's more of an event, and lets you accept the flaws in the film more.  For all its flaws, it's still worthy a watch, and a fine package for film fans and Beatle buffs.

Thursday, October 18, 2012


A totally different album for Krall, as she steps back in time to the 20's and 30's for everything from blues to Tin Pan Alley to barrel house numbers.  The songs are quite obscure, the stuff of 78 RPM collectors, the writers mostly faded to obscurity.  Mostly, these are what you'd call tunes;  a nice melody, a clever lyric, and a singer entertaining the crowd.  Instead of a jazz interpreter, here she's mostly a crooner.

The other major difference is that this is not a piano album.  Krall's working with the guru of old-time, T Bone Burnett, who brings his crack team of players, and vintage sound-making machine to the project.  Yes, she does play on most songs, but it's part of a larger ensemble of acoustic musicians, dominated by guitars by the unique Marc Ribot and others, stand-up bass, and interesting percussion.  It's not historical accuracy Burnett goes for; the songs are right, the instruments are the correct ones, but the people playing and singing bring their own distinct styles.  Then there's the matter of how it's all recorded, which I guess is the big Burnett secret, however he gets the big, open sound, and rumbling, haunted bass and percussion parts.  It's the sound of a semi-sleazy saloon in the daytime, with only a couple of customers, but the band doing the set anyway.

The best-known song here is also the best, but it also falls outside the format, so I'll single it out.  It's from a later period, the 50's, the Doc Pomus classic Lonely Avenue, the Ray Charles hit.  Led by the sonic adventurer Ribot, this time some very modern parts get added, as he gets atmospheric on electric, acoustic and banjo.  Burnett adds some squalling guitar too (although down in the mix), and Krall goes a little crazy on the keys, with some clanking discordant notes.  Their lonely avenue is creepy and dangerous.

Krall and Burnett are on the same mindset here; these are good songs from a very good period of music, one that should be revisited.  But not covered; this isn't about doing these songs like they used to be done.  Instead, it's about doing them with the core values intact, but as they would be done today, were the performers and writers around.   It's also nice to have Krall step outside her usual mid-century jazz zone.  Like most Burnett productions, this is its own animal, and a very interesting listen.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012


Well, I'm confused.  I've been enjoying Jakob Dylan's recent two-album stretch as an acoustic troubadour, and I thought The Wallflowers was kaput.  But here he is back in the fold, doing the lead singer stuff, writing the words, but seemingly being a collaborator on it all with the rest of the band.  Well, all's fair of course, and really it's not much different from when Tom Petty was doing that solo vs. Heartbreakers thing.  I guess that comparison came up because I hear a little Petty in this latest rock band sound of the group, heavy on the organ and big ensemble sound.  The band certainly wanted to make some noise and cut loose, and the tracks were done live in the studio in short order, with no trickery, just the basic instruments.

There are several high-quality rockers here, one of those sneaky albums without big stand-out tracks, no One Headlight for instance, but numbers that have been growing on me each play.  Constellation Blues drives along with a Springsteen storyline, a basic Joe, third generation gun-owning U.S. citizen, but someone with a secret.  But The Wallflowers keep the mystery in it, letting it fade out with a big obvious ending; makes me wanna play it again.  A trio of heartland numbers open the disc, all with a groove and hooks, guitar-and-organ the way rock bands used to be.  At first listen, Reboot The Mission sounds a bit like a like a lark, with its punk reggae straight out of The Clash songbook.  But then you find out that's completely on purpose, as Mick Jones guests on guitar and vocals, and the lyrics make mention of "the mighty Joe Strummer".

At the heart of it all are Dylan's lyrics, and the solo sojourn has done him well.  Now back in the rock band field, you realize how rich the images and story lines are, and how much that adds to a band.  While the music grows on you, you also get to take in the depth of the writing.  Love Is A Country barely talks about love at all, describing the area he's in, all its pitfalls in the town and country, until he gets to the point of the metaphor:  Love is a country better crossed when you're young.  I.E., it's a tough journey.  Ponder that one.  Despite my reticence after a first listen, I'm now pretty convinced Dylan does belong in a band setting, and I think I'll be going back to this more than the acoustic albums over time.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012


Jarvis Church is one of the best soul singers the country has produced, with his own recordings, and reaching back to his days in the Philosopher Kings.  With this new release, the first in a planned series celebrating the giants of soul, Church tackles the daunting catalogue of the original master himself, Sam Cooke.  Over the years, everybody with a soul yearning has wanted to cover Cooke, usually falling victim to various crimes.  Often they want to over-sing, wailing over lines where Cooke showed restraint is the key.  Then there are those who think the material needs to sound modern.  Cooke was pop as often as not, nice and easy and never too concerned with being hip.  Church smartly avoids these errors from start to finish.

Steal Away is a good example of that; with gospel-style singers behind him, the song clips along at a breezy pace, more of a 50's feel, not a drop of rock in it.  Bring It On Home To Me is slow on purpose, letting the words do the work, until virtuoso pianist Michael Kaeshammer comes in to tinkle sublimely.  Then Church calls for the band to "bring it down", and we really go to church, no pun intended.  This is how Cooke did it.

The songs never feel like a copycat job though.  They have their own different arrangements, totally in the right period and mood, but not like the originals.  Cupid is much richer and fuller than Cooke's, with a bigger beat and a New Orleans touch.  And Church uses the harmony singers a lot more, again giving the songs his own touch. 

Church is calling his series The Soul Station, and promises similar discs looking at the works of Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson and Otis Redding to start.  Bring 'em on home, Jarvis, I'm digging the plan.

Monday, October 15, 2012


Mumford & Sons made a big splash with their debut, Sigh No More, crafting a unique sound that combined folk instruments with big, epic chords and a rock beat.  All you really need to know is that big sound is back with Babel.  Acoustic guitars are strummed with ferocity.  The banjo is plucked close to the point of breaking strings, in machine gun fashion.  Drums and bass pound and thud, to create that huge presence.  Singer Marcus Mumford bellows above it all.  Those are the louder ones, anyway.  First single I Will Wait is a perfect example, a fine song but one that has already become so well known in a few weeks that I keep forgetting if it's on the new album or the first one.  It is awfully similar to other ones on that disc.

It's actually the middle part of the new album that reveals the most about the band, and Mumford's songwriting.  There are a group of ballads in a row that let us here more than just the banjo and acoustics at full volume.  There are nice harmonies and a subtle mix of other instruments.  Strings and horns get added in, and the lyrics are bigger stories, with a touch of the mystic.  Yet even these get a little overwrought in the closing minute, as the group falls for the trap that making the song louder in some way makes it more important.  Don't get me wrong, they do it well, and it makes for some exciting listening, but we've now had two albums with the same style being repeated.

It still has some pretty stunning songs though.  Both Hopeless Wanderer and Broken Crown are full of drama and tension, with the intensity building throughout.  Yet the banjo and the vocal also add in a certain bit of joy, so that the end result is exhilaration.  It's no wonder the band is such a popular live act right now.

You have two choices for Babel, the basic edition, or the deluxe which adds three tracks.  Hmm, there's a five buck difference for that privilege, at least at, which seems steep, $12.99 or $17.99.  The big draw of the extra three is the group's cover of The Boxer, which they do with Paul Simon, although you'd never know the author is there unless you read the credits.  Actually, I like the cut For Those Below better, because it's one of the rare, non-bombastic tracks they do.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012


There have been roughly 10,000 Beach Boys best-of's over the years, the most famous being the #1 album from 1974, Endless Summer.  The most recent, Sounds Of Summer, was just certified triple-platinum last month in a big ceremony at the Grammy Museum, so why in the world would we need yet another?  Well, they deserve it I guess, and of course there was the whole 50th anniversary celebration and tour.  This celebration of the 50th, with 50 tracks, is an excellent collection, and if there is anyone left who needs one...

The double-disc pretty much mirrors the set list of the recent tour, which was heavy on the oldies (natch), but had a decent and somewhat surprising number of lesser-known gems for the fans of their more progressive material.  To call the album track All This Is That from the terrible-selling Carl & The Passions - So Tough album of 1972 a hit is beyond stretching the point; it wasn't even a single, nor the favourite from that disc, but it was a cool choice, and it's bound to turn some heads of those who've never heard of it.

Of course, you get the impressive parade of hits, the bulk of them from the surfin'/cars era, piled deep on disc one.  The second disc is where the Brian Wilson Is A Genius stuff flows, with the Pet Sounds tracks (Wouldn't It Be Nice, God Only Knows, etc.), the Smile era of Heroes & Villains and Surf's Up, and assorted gems such as Friends, Add Some Music To Your Day and This Whole World.  As opposed to the usual Beach Boys hits packages, this one really is inclusive of the non-hit but brilliant stuff, and it's a tip of the hat to the huge fans who have kept the flame burning for that material, as well as the Fun, Fun, Fun era.  Knowing the group's litigious nature, I'm sure the track list was put together with a battery of lawyers and accountants, but even Mike Love seems willing to acknowledge there was tremendous beauty in Brian's "ego music", as he supposedly once referred to it.

If you don't have a lot of the later Beach Boys albums, this is a pretty fine way to get a lot of the great stuff, and there's even two tracks from the new album which you probably don't have either.  It's the best of the best-of's.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012


Ever wonder what Rod Stewart would have been like if he sang rock songs instead of turning everything into a wimpy ballad?  Ever tried to figure out why Ron Wood is considered an important guy even though he barely does anything in the Stones?  Just slap on the very first cut of this excellent two-disc retrospective, Stay With Me, and hear a band in full flight, every member playing a brilliant part, the best boogie you could hope for.  Sometimes they didn't have the best material, but they had a great sound, great players.  It's no wonder 35 years later people are still trying to convince Rod to take that stick out and get back on the road with this bunch.

It was far from just Ronnie and Rod.  Kenney Jones was so solid, and sounded so great, he was always way up in the mix, his pounding just a joy to follow.  Ian McLagan was the perfect old-school r' n' b keyboard guy, barroom piano or rich organ.  Ronnie Lane was melodic and the secret weapon, the other lead singer to bring the British folk into the mix.  It was never Rod's band, and that was the trouble, because it was a pittance compared to the riches awaiting him after his Atlantic Crossing.  At least we can always go back to this.

The two-disc set collects lots from the group's four studio albums, some scattered single-only tracks, and for this set they've come up with three previously-unissued live tracks from 1970.  It doesn't have the full scope of the big ol' five-disc set, Five Guys Walk Into A Bar, from the last decade, but really, The Faces need more of an introduction to more people, and this is the right price and a nice edit of their career.  Rod was still at his gravel-voiced best, the Maggie May sound, and willing to work at quite a grueling pace really, writing and recording with both the band and solo, touring to support both careers.  I have an equal love for his solo material then, it's just a pity he had to give up this sound completely.

Lane will be the surprise if you're not familiar, and his track Debris is a beautiful number, as he further moved from the pub-style music of the Small Faces (the Rod-less predecessor to this group, for you youngsters) to a more outdoors, organic setting.  There's not many groups that can claim two such distinct yet appealing voices.  Plus, this was such a group effort, with the songs co-written, cross-fertilized and seemingly democratic.  Wood and Stewart really had a copacetic writing arrangement then, riff-rockers that let Rod spit out stories in the verses, and the rest of the band go for grand excursions during the breaks.  Numbers such as Too Bad don't get a lot of talk, but sit nicely on the same shelf as better-known Stewart songs like Every Picture Tells A Story.

Did they ever have a great album?  Nope, darn solid ones, but there needed to be one or two bigger songs on each album.  Stay With Me and Ooh La La are the best-known, and best, and kick off discs 1 and 2.  There's plenty of other great stuff, don't get me wrong, just no more break-throughs.  This set should make you a fan if you are a 70's rock fan.  Those already familiar, and you desperate collectors, the live version of Robert Johnson's Love In Vain is breathtaking.

Monday, October 8, 2012


The only thing I don't like about this disc is the title; it makes it sound like another typical alt-country album by the newest singer to discover Gram Parsons and Emmylou.  This one's special.  The Toronto singer has a captivating voice with echoes of Loretta Lynn, and what sounds like a pretty natural twang, or at least well-intentioned and true to the genre.  Even better, she has a parcel of excellent and very different songs, plus a great sound supplied by producer Colin Linden.

Let's start with the sound, where Linden steps outside his usual, more roots & wood feel, and makes it classic country, with an additional layer of echo.  That latter trick means there's a slightly detached feel through the album, in a good way, like Ortega's not quite in the same time zone or even decade we are, that this is coming over the speakers to us from a different place.  But sonics aside, she is a very different character.

In The Day You Die, Ortega admits that when her man says he'll love her until that time, she starts to imagine ways for him to meet that early demise.  Don't Want To Hear It is a big rockabilly number, tough and dangerous, not so much 50's as say, later cow punk.  Murder Of Crows goes for it all:  swampy, rockabilly, huge echo, with Ortega giving her most passionate vocal on a murder ballad, one where she did the killing.  Retro sounds abound, but certainly nobody was singing about committing murder and all the bad stuff back in the day, not even tough gals like Wanda Jackson.  In Heaven Has No Vacancy, it's no room for her, at least.  In High, she's looking to medicate her pain away, with something strong.   "I just want to fly/like the clouds in the sky/I've been down for some time/so I'm gonna fly/get a little bit high."  The whole thing echoes Leon Payne's serial killer classic Psycho, and sounds like Daniel Lanois might have walked past the studio door at some point.  in Use Me, she holds out hope for an addict:  "Don't use opium/don't use LSD/don't use magic mushrooms/please don't use ecstasy/If you wanna use something, I got what you need/If you wanna get your fix/darling use me."

It should be noted none of this is played for laughs, and it never seems like a role, either.  Ortega's serious about these songs, and it's a captivating listen from start to finish.

Sunday, October 7, 2012


A classic case of the need to be careful what you wish for.  Seemingly out of nowhere in 1979, The Knack knocked the socks out of radio, giving them the number one song of the year with My Sharona, and selling six million copies of the band's debut, Get The Knack.  You youngsters out there, you may pooh-pooh this, but it had much the same effect as Nirvana's Smells Like Teen Spirit had, completely opening up the airwaves for alternative music.  Yes, My Sharona was considered alternative by the mainstream world.

Few bands have ever suffered the level of backlash shoved at The Knack.  The song just got played too much, and that makes any band open season for sniping critics.  Two years and two albums later, the dream collapsed in crappy sales and internal fighting, leader Doug Fieger quitting on New Year's Eve, 1981.  He'd rejoin, and lead lots of reunion appearances over the years, but usually all with the Whatever Happened To... tag.  Fieger died from cancer in 2010.

As is almost always the case, The Knack didn't come from nowhere, they came from Los Angeles, and Fieger had been working on his songs for a decade.  His late 60's band, Sky, had been under the wing of Stones producer Jimmy Miller, but couldn't break through.  By the mid-70's, Fieger was one of thousands of hard-working club musicians, shaping and shopping his songs in demo form.  After meeting guitarist Berton Averre, the pair developed a peppy, updated version of classic Top 40, certainly what would become known as power pop by the end of the decade, but this was way earlier, 1973 - 75.  After shopping and gigging for years, the pair finally found the other two band members that would make the transition in The Knack in 1978, and an overnight sensation was born.

This 16-track collection features high quality demos recorded by Fieger and Averre in two sessions in '73 and '75, fully-formed songs that wouldn't need much once they got to the studio.  You'll find some of the Get The Knack album here, including second single (and decent hit) Good Girls Don't, in a basic guitar-bass-drums take, but exactly the same song.  Actually, it's a bit better in this form, and all the songs here feel better than the over-produced, and somewhat shrill Get The Knack album.  Fieger was a good songwriter, and a bit of a visionary.  There weren't many people writing short, sharp, pop songs in those Elton John days, with disco about to knock the rock band back in the garage for a few years.  It would take Fieger and The Knack to burst the doors open again, but ultimately it would be a sacrificial and sad success, especially for the hard-working songwriter.

Saturday, October 6, 2012


There's certainly no sharp-dressed men involved here.  Guided by the equally big-bearded Rick Rubin, the Top trio instead stick with the serious boogie of their 70's days, albeit given lots of modern oomph.  Nobody makes this sound like them, each instrument sharp and huge, and tight to the groove.  Billy Gibbons chokes the notes out of his guitar so tight there's not a chance one will escape without being blues-perfect.

Yet the album, for all its strength in playing and volume, never rises to anything truly memorable.  Mostly its because the cuts are basic, band-written numbers in their usual style.  Gibbons continues to grumble his way through them, and even when there's some fun in the lyrics, such as Chartreuse, surely the first use of that colour as a woman's name, it's followed by filler lines such as "when you got the blues baby I got the juice".  I'm not advocating a return to their cartoon-MTV days material, but something has to stand out with this group, or its just the same-old same-old, even if they do it better than anyone else.  The one time they go outside the familiar, covering the Gillian Welch/Dave Rawlings song It's Too Easy Manana, the point is missed that the number is supposed to be delivered hushed, or it's just a drag.  A great blues band, yes, but sorely in need of some diversity.

Thursday, October 4, 2012


I never could figure out why Ian Hunter didn't become a bigger star.  He had great songs, including stadium-ready rockers Just Another Night, Once Bitten Twice Shy and Cleveland Rocks.  He had the whole Mott the Hoople legacy to pull from, including All The Young Dudes.  He had Mick Ronson as his best buddy and stage foil too, the original Spiders From Mars guitarist.

Seeing the band at their best from 1980, I still don't get it.  The only thing I can figure is that he wasn't flashy enough, just too working-class, with out the athleticism and drama of Springsteen. Simply, he just made rock records.  No flash, no gimmicks.  Heck, he made good ballads, too, love songs with or without irony, such as Ships, a song so sentimental Barry Manilow had a hit with it.  He was cool, just not very noticeable.

This is another in the new series of DVD's from the vaults of German television's Rockpalast series, an all-time show beamed across Europe.  It's greatly appreciated, as it features uncut live sets with a real audience.  The sound's okay, the video is a bit grainy at times, but nothing you or I can't live with.  It's far more important to get these unabridged snapshots available.

It's a classic set from the group, featuring all the songs mentioned in the first paragraph, as well as the fine All The Way From Memphis.  The nice surprise is a cover of the old Sonny Bono solo semi-hit Laugh At Me.  It was serious Sonny, and pretty good, and Hunter does a fine job.  Point of interest, it was a #1 in some Canadian markets in 1965, so maybe that's why I like it, it got implanted in my five-year old brain.  Anyway, after a spirited encore of Dudes, I'm left thinking exactly what I thought before watching this:  Why wasn't Hunter a bigger star?  That was a grand 74-minute show.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012


The title is a double-edged sword.  Morrison proudly swipes at those who would stand in his way (critics, professional and otherwise, one presumes), singing "Don't you think I know who my enemies are/their slip is showing and the door is ajar".  But his very sameness, making largely identical albums for the past twenty years, has seriously dented interest.  Unlike, say, Dylan and Cohen, contemporaries with whom he can surely rub shoulders, his work on a long run of retro R'n'B albums goes almost unnoticed with each release.  Not that it isn't wonderful; it's just the same wonderful I heard on the album Days Like These in 1995.

After putting out discs at a rate of once every year or two for ages, Morrison took a four-year break for this, so we're going to get lots of "a return to form" publicity for this, but of course he's never lost it.  This all sounds rather negative, doesn't it?  Well, forget that, because if you want anyone to keep on doing what he does, it's Morrison.  Rich horns, swinging beats, jazz changes, lots of room for the band to show off their chops, and of course, classic Morrison comments on fame, the music business, and the Mystic.  There's even a couple of 50's country-styled numbers, Morrison always a fan of those singers (he once walked out of Halifax's vintage vinyl store Taz Records with some Eddie Arnold platters under his arm).

The highlight for me is the heavy horn play, including lots of Morrison's own alto sax, plus trumpet, trombone and tenor.  With his voice still in fine form, its easy to glide along in the grooves, tuneful as they are, cool as ever.  Keep the lyric book handy, too.  Those bon mots come fast.  If In Money We Trust is his indictment of the current (and yet constant) greed of the one per cent, as well as the worry most of us have about finances.  "Where's God?" he asks us, "In what do you trust/When it's (money) not enough."  If anything's new, it's his focus here on greed and the world's economic focus, with theme recurring several times in the songs.  Perhaps most surprising is the closer, Educating Archie, which references, oddly, TV's Archie Bunker character:  "They filled his head with so much propaganda/Entertainment on TV and all kinds of shite/What happened to the individual/When he gave up all of his rights?"  Stay the same forever, Van.  You are definitely still an individual talent.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012


The deluge is upon us, and no, I don't mean all the rain, at least in these here Maritimes.  It's the onslaught of albums, as Christmas is still considered the most important buying time of the year, so there are a ton of new releases out.  Lots of Canadian ones, including many of our favourites, such as T. Hip and D. Krall, and lots of international as well.  Yes, yes, I'll get to them, but before everything gets swamped, I thought I'd take a step back, catch some fresh air, and review some cool Canadian jazz before it gets lost in the flood.

Vancouver's Brandi Disterheft is building a serious rep as both a bass player and composer.  On this, her third release, she gives us a wide-ranging collection of originals and covers, old school and improvisation, instrumentals and vocals, French and English, and plucked and bowed stand-up, all with a serious streak of emotion.  She leads an adept sextet that includes fellow North Van resident Renee Rosnes on piano, and an interesting mix of two horns and flute.  It's the variety that keeps us glued.

Disterheft knows her way around bebop and post-bop, composing some intricate new tunes with liveliness and fun arrangements.  Her cut Open starts with a great trumpet and sax start, then has a madly-swinging middle for Rosnes to show her chops.  When Disterheft herself moves out front, it's her and the drums, with Rosnes dropping in the odd chord, and the Oscar Peterson Trio influence comes out.  Blues For Nelson Mandela is another basic swinger, opening the disc and letting us get into the upbeat mood. 

Lots of players and fans would be happy with this, and an album of it would be fine indeed, but she's got lots more up her sleeve.  If you want a standard, get ready for the bass-only version of the Gershwin's The Man I Love, in which she plays with our memory, sometimes following the melody, sometimes messing with it and us, with fantastic technique.  Compared to What is a contemporary funk social protest song, cut here as a cool version with only drums beside her  bass and vocals, a stripped-down hot soul number.  Gratitude (For David Jahns) is probably the most radical thing here, with its opening horn fanfare, and distinct classical movements with flute.  Deep, controlled drum rolls make the transition from the horns to the flutes, and in its quick three minutes, suggests the ambitious suites from Ellington and Peterson.  With all its layers and changes, this is an album that can stay a favourite for a good long time.