Friday, December 28, 2012


Now this is a rare thing:  An American Idol winner that I like.  Well, like may be too strong.  Let's say I don't hate him.  Since I don't follow the program, I can't comment on what's going on with the contestants but I have heard the many albums over the years, and wished I hadn't.  Phillips on the other hand has made a full, quality debut disc that shows all the marks of a complete talent rather than a manufactured one.  He's a songwriter, a strong singer, and has a progressive feel to his music, rather than the usual Idol pop or country-by-numbers.

However, he's hardly an innovator.  This is produced for the Mumford fans, or maybe the Avett Brothers followers, and he owes royalties to Dave Matthews for the loan of his voice.  Hit single Home is a bit more pop than the rest of his album, written for him as the finale song for Idol, but really isn't far from his own material.  There's more of a groove to his own songs, that hippie folk-rock with big beats.  Again, it's nothing new, but it's modern.  There are occasional jazz touches as well, including the song Drive Me, which adds a sax solo and a horn backing, and that's probably the biggest innovation.

The thing is, he's an Idol winner, and there's too much at stake for him to get the full freedom for his debut.  This is an immaculately produced set, and it doesn't stray far from the above-mentioned influences, plus the little touches found in the sound of Arcade Fire and Fleet Foxes.  But for once, I'm keen to hear how this guy develops, because it's possible he'll bring even more respectability to the Idol franchise.  Then again, he's already yesterday's news in that show's plans, and I'll be perfectly happy to keep ignoring them unless they find more like this guy.

Thursday, December 27, 2012


Movie-making kinda got me down a few years back, about the time everything switched to superheroes and major action films, and it became hard to find anything worth a fifty dollar night at the theatre.  Yes, there are still some good ones if you look hard, but I no longer follow the new releases with any great interest.  I say this only to explain that I don't know where Quentin Tarantino rates these days.  I haven't seen the reviews for this latest film, except that my kid liked it a lot.  That means there's a good chance I will as well.

I can tell you that Tarantino is one of great soundtrack makers.  He's actually created a genre of his own; he's not a composer but a collector and compiler, and what he does is strip-mine from all his favourite sources and influences.  The music is as much an influence on the film as the story is, and it's hard to say when it entered into his thoughts, and if it changed the direction of the script, or the mood of a scene.  That's how strongly music figures in his concept of films.

Tarantino's knowledge of soundtrack music is formidable, and he has a great sense of the sound of certain songs.  Think of his previous use of surf music, instrumental rock, Mexican sounds, vintage hits, you name it.  He seems to love something from most genres, and has an ability to mix seemingly disparate sources and have them blend into one film.  That's precisely what you get with this latest, Django Unchained.  Set in the 1800's, it pulses with modern hip-hop, Italian spaghetti Western music, soul, and a Jim Croce song.  Several of the cuts come from other movies, where they hit the obsessive Tarantino hard.  He recycles Morricone four times, two of them from the film Two Mules For Sister Sara.  He commissioned new songs, and grand ones, from John Legend, and a gem called Freedom by Anthony Hamilton and Elayna Boynton.  There's even a brand-new mash-up of James Brown's The Payback (originally a soundtrack song, natch) and 2Pac's Untouchable. 

Seriously, this guy is on fire with ideas.  There are few songs here I would normally play in any context, but when they are joined together on this collection, it's magic.  The only complaint I have is the now-overused tactic of taking bits of dialogue out of the film and putting them between songs.  They mean nothing if you haven't memorized the film, and I'm grooving on the tunes here.

Saturday, December 22, 2012


It's pretty rare when the bonus tracks are better than the album on a deluxe version, especially when the album is pretty good, too.  The Jam were big believers in the old-school idea of singles, and they liked issuing 45 RPM and 12-inch tracks that weren't on albums proper.  And, they put a lot of work into the b-sides, they didn't just toss on throwaways.  So when you get The Gift, plus all the A and B-sides, and then a whole pile of demos, this is indeed one deluxe package, made much better than the original album.  Single tracks  here include the excellent The Bitterest Pill, and the group's swansong, Beat Surrender.

This was the last Jam album, as Paul Weller famously pulled the plug on the group he'd lead since he was 14, at the height of their success.  He was tired of it, tired of rock music, and was moving into sophisticated soul.  A much smoother and bigger sound is featured here, along with plenty of horns, and you can follow along on this path with the nine demos presented here.  There's also some of the sleek, Euro-pop sounds that would move to the forefront on his next project, the anti-rock Style Council.  Deeply influenced by clubs and classic soul at the time, Weller even had the group try on some cover versions as b-sides.  Best of them is a take on Curtis Mayfield's Move On Up, with a falsetto he would use on much of his own music.  War, the Edwin Starr hit, was less successful, not gritty enough for such a major message song.  But it's great to have these studio versions right alongside the originals, showing where the influence came from.

It's an interesting moment in time for Weller, shifting away from the crunchy post-punk of The Jam.  Honestly, I always found The Style Council way too precious and high-concept, right down to the tailored image and clothes they presented.  Here, Weller still had the heavy beat of The Jam to consider and serve, and the soul sounds worked much better.  As deluxe editions go, this is one of the best ones I've heard, with none of the additional cuts spread over the two discs filler for completists.

Thursday, December 20, 2012


Sometimes you don't have to think too hard about an album to know it's a gem.  Case in point, Luke Jackson's.  I slapped the vinyl on the trusty turntable, and started listening in my usual manner, picking up the particulars, but perhaps missing the big picture a bit.  Meanwhile, my 19-year old walks in, asks "Whatcha listening to?", and in just a couple of seconds, makes up his mind.  "That's really good, huh?"  From the mouths of babes...

Jackson's album is not new.  It came out in 2008, but I missed that particular boat at the time.  Luckily, I met him recently in Toronto through a mutual friend, and he kindly sent along the vinyl.  180-gram vinyl pressings were pretty rare and pricey four years back, but he said he wanted done right, with the best possible sound.  That's because the whole project was that way, from the creation to the listener's ears.  Jackson got a chance to make his dream album, and went top-grade all the way.

Jackson is a transplanted Englishman, with an ear towards glorious pop.  He had struck up a correspondence with a musical hero from Sweden, Magnus Borjeson, who was playing in The Cardigans.  Plans were hatched, and soon Jackson found himself in Sweden, recording with Borjeson, and producer Christoffer Lundquist, formerly of Roxette.  That's hit-making pedigree right there.  But once again, Jackson was thinking big, and when he wanted to add orchestration, he again went to the top.  He sent the works-in-progress to renowned arranger Robert Kirby, the man who put the strings and magic into the seminal recordings of British folk icon Nick Drake, and who had gone on to a special career working with Elvis Costello, John Cale and others.  Kirby quickly accepted, and as it turned out, fell in love with the songs.  Kirby himself enthused, "This is one of the best albums I have ever had the honour to be let loose on".

Reviewers at the time of release agreed.  In a four-star rating, Mojo Magazine called it "one of those albums it's impossible not to love."  Blurt called it one of the most significant discoveries of the year.  From his Toronto base, and all across Europe came knowing accolades.  And the thing about great albums is they don't go out of style.  Four years on, it may be my first listen, but I love what the others heard then.  Whether it's the full-on pop explosion of upbeat numbers such as Come Tomorrow and Goodbye London, or the gentle and rich melodies of the orchestrated numbers such as A Little Voice and All I Can Do, Jackson's made a record, yes, a record, that lights up our senses.  There's fun and joy in places, nostalgia and melancholy, truths and even beauty.

While many of us have been getting used to vinyl again, or discovering it for the first time, ...And Then Some reminds me of how albums used to feel.  The 20-minute sides seem to rush through, not nearly enough, making you leap to the table to flip it over.  Unlike CD's, or downloads, this leaves me wanting more, wanting to play it again, not clicking buttons to find something else.  For pop-rock fans who love hooks, highs, and richness, with a flow between bright rockers and sweet softness, this should remind you of the high you got when you first tore off the shrink-wrap from your favourite albums.

Do yourself a favour and order yourself a Christmas present: or go to

Monday, December 17, 2012


Missing that perfect new Christmas album this year?  The one you play over and over again, trimming the tree, the one you can't wait to  play when friends and family come over?  Look no further, I've got it.  It is, of course, the grand reunion of John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John...  Nah, I'm kidding.  Don't go there.  Instead, check out B.C.'s Reid Jamieson.  His holiday offering is called Songs For A Winter's Night, after the beloved Gordon Lightfoot song, covered here.  It's a collection of some well-known, but surprising choices, and a few of his own originals. 

Jamieson is finishing up a month of shows where he was once again the featured musical guest on Stuart MacLean's Vinyl Cafe tour, helping bring the Christmas spirit to folks from Toronto to Vancouver.  The  magic of his new collection is in the very different cover versions chosen, certainly not the usual set.  The theme is really more about winter and the season than Santa, and that opened up the songbook for some gems.  Bruce Cockburn's Coldest Night Of The Year fits for sure, as does Gene MacLellan's Snowbird.  Another smart move is the old classic, Canadian Sunset, popularized by the late Andy Williams, with its classic soft-jazz feel.  You might remember the song Winter Time, on Steve Miller's huge hit album Book Of Dreams, a completely different sound than you'd normally hear on a seasonal disc, with its quiet, atmospheric mood.  Originally a guitar-overdub piece, Jamieson makes it more of a relaxed ballad, bringing out the sweet melody.

It's his treatments that draw you in.  Recorded at his home studio, the album has a warm, personal feel, with Jamieson's calming, emotive vocals shining.  The best, and bravest recasting is found on Band Aid's Do They Know It's Christmas.  We've heard it a thousand times, but not like this, stripped of the bombastic gang approach, made mellow, so that we can focus on the lyric, which actually has the power of a strong protest song.  The job done on Tori Amos's Winter is strong too, and you'd certainly not recognize it from his acoustic reading.

The originals are in the same mood, and all are good additions.  Written with his wife and musical partner Carolyn Victoria Mill, who sings, plays, helped produce and chose the tracks, Sentimental Song opens the disc and sets the tone with its heart-warming melody and sweet-but-sad lyrics about memories of mom during the season.  Songs For  A Winter's Night accomplishes the three important goals for a grand Christmas album.  Everybody will like hearing it in your home, you'll like listening to it when you're alone, and you'll want to pull it back out next year.

Thursday, December 13, 2012


The A Very Special Christmas series has presented a lot of great Christmas collections over the years.  We've heard new songs recorded by major stars, and some rare b-sides and such made easily available, making over $100 million for the Special Olympics.  The very first collection in 1987 featured some of the biggest stars of the day, including Bruce Springsteen, Sting, U2, John Mellencamp, and The Pretenders.  There was usually a few people worth listening too, if you were a music junkie, mixed in with more mass-appeal folks like Whitney Houston, Bon Jovi, and Madonna.  No matter your tastes, you could usually hold your nose for the odd cut or two that didn't fit your style.  And there were always some special treats, like Run-DMC giving us Christmas In Hollis.

That mostly continued through the years, except that in those days it was very rare to hear new artists doing classic covers, such as U2 doing Phil Spector's Christmas (Baby Please Come Home).  Now, everybody has done it, and there's isn't a track out there that hasn't been beaten to death in the stampede of Christmas albums of the last two decades, in no small part due to the V. Special Christmas series.

For the 25th anniversary, they would have had the choice of doing an anthology of great tracks over the past releases, but they have already done that, plus all the original albums are still available.  So this does feature new stuff, but boy, has the pot been diluted.  These used to be CD's I'd be glad to play at least a couple of times over the holidays, but aside from a couple of tracks, there's not much to get excited about.  The compilers have eased into a middle-of-the-road format, similar to dozens of other compilations that will come out this year, and line the shelves from seasons past.  It's the adult contemporary crowd, including Amy Grant, Vince Gill, Rascal Flatts and Martina McBride from the country side, and in the pop world, the always-present Michael Buble, Christina Aguilera, and Jason Mraz.  There are names I've never run across, such as Wonder Girls, Graydon Sanders and Jono, and Francesca Battistelli, none of whom make me care that I don't know them, or even lead me to Google them.  Dave Matthews is about the hippest name (**clears throat**), with a live version of his Christmas Song from a 2010 concert.

I'll single out two songs which I liked.  The big number here is a new track from Train, and I must admit their Joy To The World is a different and cool take on the usual.  The one real piece of fun belongs to the always-entertaining Cheap Trick, who have re-made their classic I Want You To Want Me into I Want You For Christmas.  It's the only song that rocks, too.

It's too bad this is what has become of the Very Special Christmas series, but I have a feeling they know what they're doing.  They've certainly made a ton of money over the years for the good cause, and this is probably what will sell the most.  It's too bad it sounds likes almost every other Christmas compilation out there.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012


1975 was a year of transition for The Who.  The previous major tour for the band had featured the latest Pete Townshend major work, Quadrophenia.  But it had failed to match, and replace, the rock opera Tommy as the band's set piece.  Disastrous live shows saw backing tapes fail, frustrating Townshend's ambitions for the drama on stage.  Inter-band tension was also building, Roger Daltry looking for more big rock songs to belt, and Keith Moon's life spiraling out of control, threatening to disable the effort at any moment. 

The compromise was a non-thematic album, Who By Numbers, a collection Daltry was allowed to select from the various numbers Townshend presented. Although a chart and sales success, it was not full of memorable songs, and when the band hit the road again, they found themselves repeating most of the old favourites.  And the old albatross was back; Tommy was a hit once again, thanks to the recent Ken Russell movie.  Now a whole new audience, especially in the U.S., were braying for Pinball Wizard and See Me, Feel Me.  Quadrophenia was scrapped, save for one lone tune, Drowned, and a mid-show set of Tommy highlights was back in its place.

Filmed with just two cameras at a Houston venue, the restorers have done yeoman's work on this nearly-two hour concert.  Long-time Who associate Jon Astley remixed the sound to fine results, and the less-than-industry standard visuals are made to work almost as well.  It's only one camera for the first few songs, one from the left, slightly above, and only able to zoom in at times.  It takes some desperate dissolves to get through.  Thankfully, the second cameraman arrives, and gets some better, straight-on shots to go with it.  But compared to today's 9 or 19-camera shoots, this is bare-bones.  Then again, so is the show.

It's the four guys, the songs the crowd knew then, and you know now:  Substitute, I Can't Explain, Behind Blue Eyes, Baba O'Riley.  The new album is dealt with near the start.  The radio hit Squeeze Box is tossed off as the light-weight piece it is, and two more numbers follow, with Who By Numbers not spoken of again in the show.  So far, so-so.  But then "Thomas" is introduced, and the old magic is back.  However sick they must have been of it, they never failed to pull it off, Daltry especially relishing his front man role, able to rivet attention with his powerhouse performance.  After that, they've got the crowd where they want, and knock it out of the park with more classics, including Summertime Blues, My Generation, Magic Bus and Won't Get Fooled Again.

After seeing this group doing concept tours so many times, it's interesting to watch them simply playing.  They are enjoying themselves, especially Moon the Loon.  On this night, he's on his game, and quite funny.  Yelling joke comments from behind the kit at the others, standing and demanding applause at his stool, even coming forward to invade Daltry's space and make song introductions, he's quite hilarious.  Sadly, he would barely be able to play within two years.  Having that one fixed camera on the left turns out to be a bonus for John Entwistle watchers too (if such a type exists).  He's happily in view for his big number, Boris The Spider, and I've never noticed how many harmonies he provided on the 60's songs especially.

There's no quintessential Who moments here; Townshend's theatrics are kept to windmill or two, and a couple of nice leaps.  Nobody trashes guitars or drums.  The sun doesn't rise during Listening To You.  There are a handful of rare live numbers, including Naked Eye, Roadrunner, However Much I Booze and Dreaming From The Waist.  Yet its excellent in itself, proof that night-in, night-out, The Who almost always delivered as one of the greatest live acts ever.

Sunday, December 9, 2012


This should be a pretty easy decision for you.  If you like the Great American Songbook disc, okay fine.  If you wish he still sang Maggie May, he doesn't here either.  It's the usual holiday songs, backed by an orchestra and produced by David Foster.  That's like adding sugar to your egg nog.  In case you are still holding out hope Stewart might inject a little soul into the proceedings, all there is is a decent duet with Cee Lo Green on the title cut, but it barely gets moving, a rote version of this overdone favourite.  Elsewhere, the guests keep showing up, including the ubiquitous Christmas elf Micheal Buble, Chris Botti, and Mary J. Blige. 

Stewart also commits sacrilege, doing one of those duets with the deceased, grafting on some Ella Fitzgerald vocals to What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?  This really must stop, and fast; there's no reason for it, and it's basically grave-robbing.  He obviously thinks he's in the same class as a singer, and that isn't the case.  Oops, guess I'm showing which Rod I like better.  The only present here is a download code for a track from his next album coming in the spring.  It says it's going to be a ROCK album (the italics are theirs).  I guess I'm not the only one demanding an end to this syrup.  I couldn't bear to listen though, I'd rather live with the hope and hear the whole album, than be disappointed early.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012


Some people make Christmas albums just for fun, because they like the songs and season.  Others do it, sadly, because there's always a market.  Some want to rise to the heights of the best, say Bing Crosby or Phil Spector's Christmas album.  For veteran axeman Gogo, he saw it as a challenge.  At first, he admits he didn't think much of the idea, but then warmed to the idea of finding a bunch of great blues songs in the spirit.  Also, as he'd never made a pure blues album, it seemed a good opportunity to stretch that way.

Putting together a dream team of his favourite West Coast players, Gogo went deep into the vaults for blues numbers both well-known and obscure.  Plus he added a couple of his originals to truly make it a challenge.  What you get is a classic blues album, Christmas or not.  There are stinging leads, as he bends into the cuts.  Also featuring are veteran piano man David Vest, providing the Charles Brown licks, and the up-and-coming harp player Shawn Hall, who's been dazzling the blues community with his new band The Harpoonist & The Axe Murderer.

Gogo draws on his own life for Let's Get A Real Tree.  He actually does live on a Christmas tree farm, as he says in the spoken word intro.  From there, it's an admission that despite his left-coast P.C. leanings, from recycling to keeping the toilet seat down, he has to have the real deal instead of the more environmentally-friendly reusable decoration:  "Don't be a hippie, let's get a real tree."  The other original takes him down south for some gumbo instead of turkey, on the funky Christmas On The Bayou.  As for the covers, there's a nice take on Brown's annual favourite Please Come Home For Christmas, far more bluesy than the bland Eagles version.  Things really rock on the Leiber/Stoller number for Elvis, Santa Claus Is Back In Town.  This one's for Gogo to show off his string style, playing killer solos between every line, and then scorching his way through twelve bars in the middle.  Hall gets to show off his tricks on the version of Little Drummer Boy, certainly the first time it's become a blues harp instrumental.

Of all the various genres, I think I like blues Christmas albums the best.  Every year a couple come out that join my collection of favourite holiday albums, and this one joins that elite club for 2012.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012


The Burlington, Ontario band's first album, 1981's Stick Figure Neighbourhood, was a breakthrough, but the followup made them rare Canadian stars from the New Wave world.  Arias & Symphonies is a rare gem from that time, a synth album that rocked, danced, and had good to great tunes.  Now 30, it's nice to see classic Canadiana getting the deluxe anniversary treatment usually reserved for international star CD's.

In fact, the album did get some international respect, and certainly strong reviews in the U.S. and Europe.  Here was a troupe that could hold its own in the synth boom, and a degree catchier than albums of the day from OMD and Simple Minds, groups that had yet figured out how to bring in enough beats and hooks to fully integrate the keyboards and drum machines.  The Spoons were a more complete band, with Gord Deppe handling guitar and vocals, Sandy Horne bass and some singing, Derrick Ross providing both real and programmed beats, and Rob Preuss playing all those swoops.  So you'd have a track like South American Vacation which opens with a drum machine, a synth keyboard joining in, and then things get going with guitar and bass turning it into a rock song.  Deppe had just the right kind of slightly-worldly voice that made it all modern.

A good reason the album sounds so sparkling today is the production of John Punter, a vet of Roxy Music and Japan, no stranger to taking cutting-edge sounds and finding that bit of Top 40 in them.  That's what happened with Nova Heart, still arguably the group's best-loved number.  It was groundbreaking in its time, getting what would soon to be called alternative music on radio across Canada, enough to land them a gold album.  Remember, this was at a time when The Police couldn't get played on some squarer stations. 

I won't lie, like most early 80's synth music, Arias is dated in lots of places.  But when Deppe's guitar solo rips apart A Girl In Two Pieces, and then he starts off Walk The Plank with some angular, metallic riffs, it proves this is a lot more interesting than most of the peer music from then.  The bonus cuts included here make that even more obvious, with a six-song live set proving they were far more than a studio group, and a new mix of Nova Heart showing it's still perfect for club nights.  Happy B-day Spoons.

Monday, December 3, 2012


Trent Severn is above all else, Canadian.  The trio takes its name from a waterway in Southern Ontario, the area common to them all, and was formed by three friends determined to "write songs that touch the hearts and tell the stories of our Canadian friends, neighbours and legends."  That's quite the manifesto, but certainly one that should raise a little national pride, not a bad thing in the music community.

The group is made up of some surprising folks, best known for quality pop than the roots-folk presented here.  Emm Gryner has Juno nominations, her own record label to put out her thinking-person's albums, and a year in David Bowie's band on her resume.  Dayna Manning has three of her own albums of strong singer-songwriter stuff, and Laura Bates is an in-demand modern fiddler.  But when they got together, they chucked that aside for a new-found interest in harmonizing together, and playing basic instruments such as banjo, fiddle and bass.  And lots and lots of harmony.  It really is a vocal group first, and they do indeed have a blend.

Lead track Snowy Soul spells it out pretty well.  Their voices ring out, with a CSN-inspired blend.  The Tragically Hip are playing on a stereo, and the song is about the far north, about someone who wants to get back there, "When Churchill feels like Memphis, you know you're a cold rolling stone."  It's a potent mix, their vocals soaring high and clear, like chimes.  Elsewhere, there's more of a folksy sound, with Appalachian and mountain music as an influence.  This is a bit odd at times, given the Canadian background of the members, and the purpose of the group, and feels for a time like they've joined all those other post-O Brother bands.  For a precarious moment, comparisons to Alison Krauss come to mind.

Thankfully though, the group return to folk more suited to this side of the border, and we can bask in all the Northern reflections.  It's impressive and clever how much they cram in, from references to Hinterland's Who's Who, to Brian Mulroney and Free Trade, to Crown Royal and the Black Donnellys.  Best of all is Bluenose On A Dime, about moving from L.A. to Montreal, and discovering Kate McGarrigle is your new neighbour:  "Everything just got better/Living in an NHL sweater all the time/Bluenose on a dime and you were mine." 

The members of Trent Severn didn't have to do this, and didn't have to be so blatantly Canadian.  It's usually against our nature to be so obvious, unless you're Stompin' Tom.  It feels a little weird at first, but pretty quickly it feels just right.