Wednesday, July 31, 2013


How in the world does Buddy Guy do it?  Ya, I know Mick Jagger turned 70 this week, and runs, like, 10 kilometers a show, but Buddy Guy plays all year long still, and is still making some of the best music out there in the blues world at 77. This new double album is not just the work of an old legend, it sounds like a guy half his age at the top of his game.  The voice is definitely still there, it's full of incendiary guitar licks, and the energy can't be beat.  In short, he's making the best new blues music out there.

Disc one is the rhythm set, aimed more at modern songs, while the second CD has the rawer, basic blues cuts.  Guy does a bit of songwriting, but mostly these are well-chosen tracks by outside writers, including Canada's David Gogo, and several by his drummer and producer, Tom Hambridge  No old classic covers here, which I'm glad of, Guy's proving he's got the drive to make contemporary stuff.  There are a handful of guest stars, which is really a distraction more than anything else.  Kid Rock, Keith Urban and the guys from Aerosmith might be there to add star power, but really they can't match the power coming from Guy, with his truly soulful voice.  More importantly, the players here, from swinging horns to accomplished vets like Reese Wynans on organ are laying down a big, juicy exciting sound.

Wailing away on his collection of custom and vintage Strats, Buddy Guy refuses to give up on the grand blues tradition of Chicago, which he learned on the stages with all the giants.  B.B. King was always separate from that scene, so really Guy is the only one still carrying the mantle, and amazingly, he's still moving forward rather than trading on past glories.

Monday, July 29, 2013


Smart, very smart electro pop from this new Vancouver duo, featuring Hot Hot Heat's Steve Bays and co-conspirator Parker Bosley.  This is intricately produced, with lots of bits, from 70's smooth top 40 to funky grooves to plenty of synth stabs.  Interestingly, there's always a core of a great little pop song in there, and then on come the studio tricks.

If you stripped away everything, you'd have a cool little retro duo, and the vocals are a big part of that.  Same Temptation, with its chunky, fat rhythm guitar and actual sax, is pure soul at heart, and the boys sing sweetly.  But really, it's more fun this way, because we've already heard lots of great 70's pop/soul, and Bays and Bosley have lots of wonderful ideas to make each track big and beefy.  There are cool breakdowns in the middle of tracks, such as In Between Dreams, with a major tempo change, when things get nice and spacey.  Still though, these are for the most part organic instruments and voices, it's just that Fur Trade manipulate them into brand-new sounds.   There's even a staccato guitar line in Praying To The Lottery Ticket God that will thrill all the six-string fans.  It would take a team of studio engineers and Daft Punk collectors hours to dissect each track, but the end result is an awesome listen.

Sunday, July 28, 2013


Oh that rascally Van Dyke Parks.  His fame comes from the rock world, but he's no part of it.  The legendary lyricist for Brian Wilson's SMiLE sessions has been a go-to guy for dozens of folks looking for his idiosyncratic style over the decades, but almost always as an arranger.  From Harry Nillson and Loudon Wainwright III to Rufus Wainwright, Joanna Newsom and Grizzly Bear, if you want something unique and intricate, with orchestration, Parks is a worthy and complicated presence.  Along with several movie scores, his own albums have featured calypso, Japanese, orchestral, Gershwin-esque and modern classical sounds, as well as a connections to kooky cartoon music.  There's a lot going on in that boy's brain.

Over the past couple of years, Parks has been recording again, this time in a series of 45 rpm releases, which are now collected here.  It's a mix of new and old themes, some of which date back to his first, infamous 1968 solo album, Song Cycle. That's the failed project that showed, despite his pop associates, he'd never be close to the mainstream, and he still isn't.  Instead these are richly orchestrated numbers complete with his own fun voice, sort of what I imagine Mark Twain might have sounded if he sang.  There's a grand theatrical feel to each number, and certainly something from classic Disney scoring as well.  Parks has neatly wrapped up much of his career in these dozen cuts, from his beloved steel drum ensembles to his bouncy accordion South Seas melodies.  And surprise, he even gets political, raking oil companies, Wall Street and any who value money first.  With such a wide palette, this is now the best Parks album, and the one that may finally get him considered as fine a composer as his reputation has long suggested he should be.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013


Well, I just don't know.  Artists love to play around in other genres, expanding their creativity, challenging themselves.  There are lots of examples of musicians who are also painters (Tony Bennett comes to mind), or songwriters who try their hand at prose (lest we forget Dylan's Tarantula or Lennon's In His Own Write).  Mr. Bennett aside, those who manage to become two-sport all-stars are few and far between.  There aren't many Bo Jackson's among musicians.

In this case, we have a team trying that stretch.  And they've been at it for awhile.  It started 13 years ago, when John Mellencamp phoned up Stephen King to suggest they turn a true story that happened in his hometown into a play.  King was up for it, and slowly the work took shape.  King wrote the play (performed first last year), Mellencamp the songs, and T-Bone Burnett was brought in to produce a soundtrack of the songs, so it works as an audio piece as well.  It's certainly a unique work, actors, singers and musicians all part of the play.

It's the tale of two sets of brothers, one pair long-dead, appearing as ghosts, the other their nephews.  Both take sibling rivalry to the extreme, with a deadly fight consuming the first, and the younger ones seemingly headed that way.  Stuck in the middle is the brother of the dead pair, and the father of the younger fighters, played (and sung) by Kris Kristofferson.  The album features some dialogue before each track, followed by a song that fits the story-line.  The bulk of the play isn't here, we get just enough to follow the story to compliment the music.  However, the full script has been included on the enhanced CD for those interested.

And there's the problem.  It seems like a pretty good story, and may be a fine play, but the snippets of dialogue on the disc sound wooden for the most part.  You can't argue with the quality of the musical cast, which includes Elvis Costello, Rosanne Cash, Neko Case, Sheryl Crow, Taj Mahal, and real-life feuding brothers, Dave and Phil Alvin, once of The Blasters.  Costello has fun being the devil character, Kristofferson is perfectly cast as the grizzled dad trying to calm down his fighting kids, and Cash knows how to sing the sorrow of a mother with trouble in the house.  I just kept hoping for better songs.  Writing roots-rock songs, whether honky-tonkers for Sheryl Crow's rowdy bar girl, or nasty back-and-forth arguments for the Alvin's, is such a tricky business.  You're trying to move the story along, but still keep the listener in mind.  I like the slower, thoughtful numbers here, Cash's You Don't Know Me and Kristofferson's two cuts, but I really can't see repeated listening.  It's a better idea than it is a finished project.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013


Kingsway isn't a band so much as a collective, a group of musicians from the Vancouver area who make records around the songwriting of one RC Joseph.  They/he are mainstays on the indie front there, with five albums now over ten years.  RC himself handles the vocals, and is this case, the Van City bunch has teamed up with one of the country's best roots-rock groups, The Weber Brothers from Ontario.  That alone makes the album worth checking out, as the Weber bunch made one of my favourite discs of last year. 

The good news is the band brings its full efforts to the project, providing a grand sound steeped in classic soul grooves, living up to the drama in Joseph's writing.  More good news is that RC's the real deal, a guy who puts together big productions, with some epics that make you move, and make you think, too.  A story-teller, he has that Springsteen street-opera thing, where even a love song has tension and plot.  "Drawbridge" matches call-and-response vocals with Pam Woodall, linking the highest art (Venus d'Milo), water images and the beauty inside a lover.  There are a few of these boy-girl songs, before Joseph gets down to business with the centerpiece cut, "Xmas Song", slower, darker, and eight minutes of excitement. The cuts builds as the Weber guys go slowly crazy, putting everything into a claustrophobic powerhouse of intense guitar lines and drums.

There's nothing particularly alternative here, it's more retro and roots than anything else.  But that's kind of the new indie, isn't it?  All those old-fashioned ideas of songs adding up to something, finding sympathetic players and making a joyful rock sound seem quaint on the surface, but hold a lot more to discover than whatever the post-post-post crowd are up to these days.

Monday, July 22, 2013


This is a themed double-disc collection from the 50's and early 60's, that skirts (pun intended) around the rock and roll era, presenting the safest tracks of those radio days, from the dreamboat vocalists of the era.  The closest we get to the great rhythm and blues of the day is Chuck Berry, but mostly this is the sanitized version of pop and rock 'n' roll, the white singers with syrupy strings.  SO it's Pat Boone, Bobby Vee, Connie Francis and the like.  Yes, the real raw stuff was better, but there's room now for these original teen idols too, and some of them did pretty good renditions.

It's also an interesting collection of 52 tracks, because the set was produced in England, and features many of their singers of the day, most of whom didn't reach our shores in the pre-Beatles era.  They were doing the same thing there as here, turning out safe cover versions of r'n'b, so that the parents would let their kids listen.  British hit maker Marty Wilde (Kim's dad) covers Teenager In Love.  Craig Douglas topped the U.K. charts with Only Sixteen, and sold more copies there than the Sam Cooke original.  Mark Wynter raced Steve Lawrence with his cover of Go Away Little Girl in 1962.

There's a lot of syrup here, but there's also some strong early rock and roll, including a couple from Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison's Only The Lonely, and a great sequence with Dion's Runaround Sue, Gene Vincent's Be-Bop-A-Lula, and Del Shannon's Runaway.  There's some doo-wop, skiffle, and that long-neglected staple, the instrumental, with Duane Eddy, The Shadows and The Tornados' Telstar all included.  The set is patchy, with the inexcusable Bobby Vee number Rubber Ball ("bouncy-bouncy") a horrible choice, with this many classics available cheap, most fans will find a few things worth having on a clean digital copy.

Friday, July 19, 2013


One of the great accidental discovery stories in rock and soul, Redding had actually shown up at Stax Records in 1962 as the driver for wanna-be signee Johnny Jenkins.  With time left on the session, Redding was allowed to perform a couple, and it was the second, his composition These Arms Of Mine, that blew away the Stax crew, including guitarist Steve Cropper.  That song became his first hit, and one of the great voices and writers in soul was launched.

His time was remarkably short, ended with his tragic plane crash in 1967, at the pinnacle of his success.  Redding's performance at the Monteray Pop Festival had opening the door to a huge white audience, and his newly-written song with Cropper, (Sittin' On) The Dock Of The Bay had hit written all over it.  Sadly, it went to number one in the wake of this death.  But as this stunning three-disc set shows, there was already a rich legacy recorded in just those five years.

Luckily, it was a time when 45's still ruled, and Redding and Stax stuck them out like clockwork every two months.  Then there were the duets with his female foil, Stax soul sister #1, Carla Thomas.  Add in a Christmas single and posthumous releases, and you get 70 cuts here, almost all (even the b-sides) tremendous tracks.  This is the way to hear them too, the a-side to the b-side, in their order of release, a career revealed over four hours.

The hits remain milestones in soul, including his original of Respect (Aretha arguably bettered it, but she's about the only person who could), I Can't Turn You Loose, Hard To Handle (no, it's not a Black Crowes song), Tramp with Thomas, and his brilliant interpretation of the Stones' Satisfaction.  But you could just get a best-of for those, the joy here is the complete b-sides collection.  Just One More Day, found on the flip of I Can't Turn You Loose, is Otis at his pleading best, the desperation in his voice almost unbearable.  The b-sides are consistently of high quality, Redding pouring it all into every performance, with the lone exception a very early and regrettable reworking of Mary Had A Little Lamb.

Then there are the rarer a-sides, non-hits that arrived in the flurry of releases.  A live version of Papa's Got A Brand New Bag shows how amazing he was on stage, and equals James Brown's original.  Even as the vault ran dry in Stax's desperation to keep the hits coming after his death, Redding still delivered on a cover of The Temptations' My Girl, his last official single.

The only quibble here is the lack of a booklet, with virtually no notes at all in the box.  However, it's attractive packaging features reproductions of every 45 label, a-side and b-side, so just head to the 'net for any info you need.  This is a feast for the ears.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013


Austra is ...  well, where to start?  The group is plugged full of seemingly endless musical ideas and quite a few contradictions as well.  As much as this is 21st century dance music, there's a surprising amount of organic, and real instrument sounds behind it.  Lead singer/writer Katie Stelmanis straddles a fine line between robotic vocals and ethereal, Celtic sounds, again ancient and modern.  The classically-trained vocalist is just as passionate about the beats.

As much as her echoed vocals seemed to be coming across some distant moors sung to either Heathcliff or Frodo, these are actually modern stories, Stelmanis singing about personal relationships with friends and such.  It's largely postive too:  "You changed my life for the best" one of the direct messages.  All this makes it cathartic and smarter-than-the-average-bear for dance, but it's the beats and riffs that win out.  Nicely though, even the construction is way smarter than normal, with all the little touches of layered backing vocals, actual bass, heavy strings and pretty textures making these more songs than grooves.  This answers the question, can dance music be serious composition?

Friday, July 12, 2013


I have not seen this movie, and judging by the reviews, I am the lucky one.  So I'm not sure how the music is used, or even if much of it is used, since it's billed as "inspired by the film."  However, I can tell you that it's a pretty fine soundtrack, oddly enough.  The musicians and producers clearly took the job seriously enough to come up with properly-themed, and in several cases, darn good songs.

The topics include trains (I've seen a lot of train footage in the trailers), the West (duh), outlaws (double-duh), and 19th century vintage tunes.  That last one is behind Iggy Pop's choice of Sweet Betsy From Pike, a number I learned as a little shaver, and the Popster does a fine job sounding grizzled on the old tale, which has a slight edge to it in the original verses, kind of Nick Cave-like without the swearing.  Same goes for Pogue-on-his-own Shane MacGowan, sticking up for the Irish on Poor Paddy On The Railway.  And Dave Alvin, one of the finest Americana interpreters, scores with his Hank Williams cover, Lonesome Whistle.

The rest are new compositions, and the inspiration continues to work for Grace Potter & the Nocturnals, who contribute a spooky Devil's Train.  Lucinda Williams blessed the disc with a brand-new song, which is enough to get me excited, and on this one she breaks the mold.  Everything But The Truth sounds like her channeling the Outlaw movement, as a Waylon Jennings sidekick.  Another exclusive comes from Iron & Wine, the equally strong Rattling Bone, a kind-of-eerie number that could easily be on the most recent Sam Beam release.  The rest of the material, from the likes of Ben Kweller, Pete Molinari, and The Aggrolites isn't quite as pleasing, but with the above-listed strengths, this is the rare soundtrack that deserves purchase consideration.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013


Vancouver Island's Gogo is hands-down one of the very best Canadians at getting the big, groove-fueled blues sound, whether it's the flat-out rockers or smooth mid-tempo sounds.  His expert guitar playing always slices through, and there's a joy and a party vibe to his sound, especially on this new album, his 13th.

A savvy interpreter as well as a high quality writer, Gogo splits the difference here, with six of each.  The covers give you a good insight into where he's coming from, covering Fleetwood Mac twice, once from the earlier blues incarnation ("Spare Me A Little Of Your Love") and again from the LIndsay Buckingham time ("World Turning").  His ear for sophistication brought him to Robert Palmer's funky Looking For Clues, and the classic rock sound is heard on a strong version of The Faces' "Bad 'n' Ruin".  It takes some guts to lay down a Ray Charles classic, but Gogo does "Lets Go Get Stoned" justice by adding his slick guitar licks. The only let-down is a rote "So Into You", which needs a broader interpretation since its so hard to better the vocals on the Atlanta Rhythm Section original.

The big applause should be saved for the originals, as Gogo delivers strong numbers equal to the task of matching the prime covers.  The title cut has a dark Gospel blues feel, vintage and right.  "Call Your Name" is a big, fun cut, what would have been a hit single back when this kind of classic groove was allowed on radio.  This is the one that will get the hands waving at outdoor festivals this summer.

Oh yeah, luckily Gogo's playing a bunch of them, as well as club dates:
July 14 – St. Catharines, ON – Blues in the Vineyard – Henry of Pelham Winery
July 15 Toronto, ON – Hugh’s Room
July 19 – Peterborough, ON – Holiday Inn – Blues Series
July 20 – Ottawa, ON – Rainbow Bistro
July 26 – Stevensville, ON – Safari Niagara (w/ Colin James)
July 27 – Arnprior, ON – John Street Pub
August 2 – Tahsis, BC – Rock The Dock – Westview Marina
August 10 – Burnaby, BC – Deer Lake Park – Burnaby Roots & Blues Festival
August 23/24 – Nanaimo, BC – Nanaimo Blues Festival

Monday, July 8, 2013


Such was the success of their first album together, the Grammy-winning You Are Not Alone, it's no surprise that Staples wants to continue the partnership with Wilco's Jeff Tweedy as her producer.  Of course, he's more than that, crafting the warm sound on these albums, and even writing some of the most inspirational material on the disc.  As unlikely as it might seem, Tweedy embraces her Gospel background and his three original tunes are as religious as the public domain hymns they sit beside on the disc.

It's one of those discs where everything is done right.  The mood is sanctified, searching rather than preaching.  The songs are built around simple accompaniment, mostly acoustic guitar, soft bass and simple drums, played by Tweedy's 17-year old son, Spencer.  That leaves the bulk of what you hear from the vocals.  Staples' controlled alto remains a magnificent moan, and the call-and-responce with the backing singers is classic Gospel, exactly the way she always did it with The Staple Singers.  The only nod to anything modern is a very rare atmospheric guitar part in behind, and once, Tweedy lets a short, strange-sounding lead break into a track.  But the focus is firmly on the the singing, as Staples shows us what soul is all about.

It's not just Tweedy's material that shines.  Other inspired choices come from the group Low (Holy Ghost), a chugging little number from Tweedy and Staples' touring pal Nick Lowe, with Far Celestial Shore, and a cover of a funky Funkadelic number, Can You Get To That.  Mavis goes back to her family roots with an old song from her dad Pop Staples, I Like The Things About Me, and digs into three old spirituals, the best of them the beloved What Are They Doing In Heaven Today.  Those classics come toward the end of the disc, as it builds from questioning to a positive celebration of faith.  It's not even a particularly dogmatic statement, but more of a relaxed, personal knowledge that the good in the world is there, if you embrace it.  The final word is left to Tweedy's verses in the title cut; "Life had ceased, I was lost and tired, you set me free from this mighty mighty fire, just in time to be my one true vine."  Love song or hymn, it doesn't matter, the point is salvation and peace is out there in some form, for everyone.

Thursday, July 4, 2013


Reggae legend Cliff had a well-received comeback album, Rebirth, released last year.  As part of the promotion, he played this live set for beloved L.A. independent radio station KCRW.  Arriving with just  a second acoustic guitar player, Cliff did a nine-song, 37-minute set of his iconic hits, as well as taste of the new release.  The guitar playing is a little loose, and the tuning is suspect, but as for the man's voice, and the power of the songs, this is brilliant.

Rock fans may know the first song better from Bruce Springsteen, who first introduced his take on Cliff's Trapped on the Born In The USA tour.  Here, stripped of the live bombast, the power of the words comes through, a pledge of freedom.  Next up is a surprise, as Cliff turns the tables on those punkers who took great influence from his music, as he covers The Clash's Guns Of Brixton (as found on the new studio album), immediately identifying with the isolation of young people in 1970's England. 

Cliff remains best-known as the actor and musician who did nearly as much to spread reggae around the world as Bob Marley did, chiefly with the film The Harder They Come.  While sadly the title track isn't performed here, two more included on the soundtrack are, You Can Get It If You Really Want and Many Rivers To Cross.  If you're not completely familiar with Cliff's catalogue, the several well-known tracks here start to make his influence clear.  Other hits include Wonderful World, Beautiful People, and the song that Johnny Rivers covered and made an international hit, I Can See Clearly Now.  But the best part of the disc is the warmth exuding from this man in the simplest of formats, two guitars and one voice, and how much power and emotion reside in his still-vibrant voice.