Thursday, November 28, 2013


Sweet and Hoffs return in their alter-egos of Sid n' Susie, in their ongoing series of pop covers.  While the previous two have covered the 60's and 70's, this one is dedicated to 80's new wave and college rock tracks.  That means it's straight out of my record collection, made up of music geek tunes from back in the day when you were defined by your playlist.  I'm pretty sure most of these ended up on my Walkman mix tapes.

As usual, the duo do a bang-up job, with pretty faithful recreations.  Much of the fun is just how close they come to sounding like the originals, without being perfect.  Lindsey Buckingham's quirky solo hit Trouble is a great example, where they do his breathy vocals, each singer somehow managing to sound like the original.  Sometimes they just come close, like on REM's Sitting Still, but mirror the music to great effect.  And when they choose a cut that can't be mimicked, like The Smith's How Soon Is Now, then they just prove what talented performers they are.

Mostly, its a laugh, and why not?  I can't think of a reason to not hear the Dave Edmunds/Elvis Costello number Girls Talk, The Pretenders' Kid, or Save It For Later by the English Beat any old time.  And the inclusion of XTC's Tower Of London?  Geez guys, wish I was friends with you first time around for these songs, I wouldn't have felt like such a geek.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013


Most 19-year old pop stars from England are X-Factor contestants doing cover versions (looking at you, One Direction).  Then there's Bugg, who exploded two years ago with a #1 British album and actual credibility.  He even came up with his own sound, a hybrid folk-punk-rockabilly that was so retro it was brand-new again.  Plus, he rocked, not popped.  The real deal, then.

Still, he's ambitious and impatient, moving quickly on to album two.  He's spoken of wanting to write in different styles, sucking up influences like a vacuum cleaner.  He's jumped from his council estate upbringing to Los Angeles and celebrity producer Rick Rubin.  And Rubin's given him his wish, letting him try on a whole lot of different sounds to see what sticks.

The first three cuts, including lead single What Doesn't Kill You, stay pretty close to the album one feel, vigorous acoustic guitar over a thumping band and Bugg's thick Nottingham nasal vocals.  With the nu-rockabilly out of the way, Bugg then goes wandering, some mellow stuff here, rockers there, even a country number to close.  At its weakest, it's generic British rock from the lesser Weller and Oasis camp.  But that's only a couple of cuts.  His desire to make important music is hampered by still-developing skills, but numbers such as Messed Up Kids grow on you quickly, with a catchy riff and lyrics about the latest lost generation of kids in England. 

Bugg's certainly doing more valuable music than the rest of his generation, and seems keen to keep doing that.  Hats off for stretching so soon in his career, rather than taking the easy way and making the same album as the first.  Shangri La isn't as great as his debut, but in the big picture, may be just what he needs for a long career.

Monday, November 25, 2013


An interesting duo for sure; Jones has certainly showed an interest in roots-country before, but Billie Joe Armstrong?  The Green Day guy has been wandering from punk, but this is a whole other highway.  In the end, it doesn't matter who they are, it's whether it's any good.

What this album isn't also matters, because it isn't the Everly Brothers you know from the golden hits collection.  No Wake up Little Susie, no Crying In The Rain.  Instead the inspiration is the brothers' 1958 album, Songs Our Daddy Taught Us, which was made up of old weepers and folk songs, hill music and murder ballads.  Don and Phil laid into these songs with their trademark harmonies with love and respect for the traditions they had been raised on.

Of course there have been plenty of roots revival albums made, and lots of traditional folk ones, by modern upstarts.  But it is quite something that Armstrong and Jones have decided to focus on this distinct part of the Everly Brothers career.  You'd better be good harmonizers if you do, and they do it very, very well.  We knew she could, but Armstrong again is the surprise here, as he turns in not just tuneful vocals, but a pretty fine impersonation of an Everly.  Only on the ancient Barbara Allen does he decide to sing in his nasally punk voice, to the detriment of the piece.  It's almost like they decided to do at least a couple of tracks not quite so Everly, so they wouldn't be accused of taking all the songs verbatim.  Meh, they shouldn't have bothered.

It really is quite refreshing to hear them copy and cover the style.  By the time I'm Here to Get My Baby Out Of Jail comes along, at cut 8, sung almost solo by Jones, you've pretty much forgotten who these modern stars are, or what year it is, and have sunk back into the pleasure of timeless music and vocals.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013


John Hiatt has been a huge influence on roots music fans and songwriters for years now, but he's best-loved for his pair of late 80's albums, Bring The Family and Slow Turning.  After decades of pounding away at the star factory on major labels, the new millenium saw him move to the independent circle, signing with venerable folk company Vanguard.  2000's Crossing Muddy Waters saw him turn from the rock combo even, dropping drums and electric guitar for a stripped-down, largely acoustic effort.  I thought he was going folk full-time, and was a bit concerned by this, as the dude can rock righteously.  It turned out to be a side-step, and he soon returned to the full band, even bringing back slide wizard Sonny Landreth, the swampy fixture of his sometimes band The Goners.  There was life, and this best-of proves it well.

Since many have neglected him, they should know Hiatt has never neglected his craft and drive.  For all those who just know Have A Little Faith In Me, this set is a great place to reconnect, as it finely cherry-picks rockers and a couple of ballads from his eight albums in this period.  Master Of Disaster is classic Hiatt, with rich rhymes and a dark, comic take on rockers aging less than gracefully.  What Kind of Man, from The Open Road, is nasty country, the kind of stuff the Stones were doing with Tumbling Dice, another mean character that might have been Hiatt at one point in his life:  "I cheated on my love, I cheated on my taxes/Burned bridges, ground axes."  Blues Can't Even Find Me, from his most recent disc, Mystic Pinball, is about being down and feeling nothing, and nobody can describe that kind of lonesome like Hiatt.

Look, I'm as guilty as everyone else, I didn't even get the last two albums, but with handy reminder, I'll remedy that soon.  There's no drop in quality from his heyday, and his only sin is consistency, as in consistently excellent.

Monday, November 18, 2013


Back in the old days, when everybody still bought music in stores and stuff, record collectors were considered the oddballs.  Many artists disliked their intense interest and annoying habits of knowing every obscure song and the name of the bass player in their high school band, and the music industry didn't spend an enormous amount of time worrying about them either.  They knew they didn't have to put a lot of work into selling to them, they'd buy anything that had their favourite musician's name on it.

A funny thing happened around about the time the internet darn near killed the record labels.  With profits dropping everywhere else, the one place companies could still rely on was their catalogue division.  And those collectors were still buying.  What used to be chump change for the labels was now all that was keeping them in the black.  The ability to sell the same music over and over again to largely the same people, by clever repackaging, is a much-valued business model.  All those deluxe sets, super deluxe sets, greatest hits, boxed sets, 25th anniversary editions, they are all marketed at collectors.  And who's behind the vinyl boom of the past couple of years?  Old, and new collectors, as another generation of lifelong purchasers is indoctrinated into the club.

Remember 45's?  Who's still playing them?  I'm not really sure if they're playing them, but collectors are buying them, new ones.  Those Record Store Days, half the sales are in 45's, Jack White has his own label for them, they're getting as hot as LP's.  Of course, collectors have loved 45's for years, with a big boom coming in the late 70's, when punk and new wave artists started putting out tracks just for the 7-inch.  Back in the day, we used to hunt out any British import we could, for the rare b-side, and the picture sleeve.

That brings us back to today, with a wise old 70's artist doing the same thing with the same music he was doing then.  David Bowie has been celebrating the 40th anniversary of his great 45's by reissuing each one as a special, limited-edition 45.  Every few months, to coincide with the actual 40th release date, another arrives, in the same format:  a gorgeous picture disc 7-inch, with a colourful shot of Bowie on one side, and a nice in-action photo on the other.  The A side is the single in question, the AA side (no B's for Bowie) is a live version of the same, previously unreleased.  Man, they've thought of everything here, getting all the collectors excited.  It's worked, too.  These limited-edition singles have completely sold out in the last year, with some now going for $75 on eBay.  For a 45!

There are two out right now, lots of copies available, grab them now if you're worried about missing out.  Bowie's cover of The Pretty Things song Sorrow was more a British hit, taken from his covers album Pin-ups, and I've always loved his more spacey version.  The live b-side comes from a 1984 concert in Vancouver, a decent funky take from the Let's Dance years.  The other was a song forced out in England thanks to the huge demand for his songs at the peak of his Ziggy years. Life On Mars? had been an album track on 1971's Hunky Dory, but Bowie couldn't record new stuff fast enough, so it was pulled for a single.  The British public loved it just the same, as it reached #3 on the charts.  Here the b-side comes from a more vintage source, a 1972 Ziggy-era concert in Boston.

Prices are not stable on these discs, with the new releases going anywhere from ten to twenty bucks at different stores.  Oh, they're pretty things though; you'll be hard-pressed to walk away, even though that voice in the back of your head is reminding you that you already own the song, probably two or three times.  You know you want it though.  Collectors are pathetic.

Friday, November 15, 2013


Well, this ain't your normal Cowboy Junkies album, not by a long shot.  Instead it's a rock musical piece, created by the group along with a grand hosts of pals, about the assassination of John F. Kennedy.  Huh?  Well, the 50th anniversary is coming up Nov. 22, and composer/lyricist Scott Garbe had the bright idea.  Michael Timmins of the Junkies jumped on board to produce, along with Andy Maize and Josh Finlayson of The Skydiggers.  Then they assembled the large crew, arranged it all and have themselves a tight little collection.

First off, Junkies junkies, this rocks a lot more than their usual albums, thanks to guests such as Jason Collett, Harlan Pepper, Lee Harvey Osmond (type casting) and ex-Rheostatics Martin Tielli and Dave Clark.  Considering the subject matter, it's quite a bouncy disc at times, which reflects the interesting take on JFK murder.  All the various plots and schemes of the times are brought into the lyrics, from Castro and Cuba to what Jack Ruby was thinking.  Mostly, it looks at the event from different and sometimes unexpected angles.  There are three sisters who come to Dallas to get a glimpse of Kennedy, the local cop who was driving in the car when the bullets flew, Osmond himself when he does the deed, and even the President is given a voice, after the killing as he's about to be buried.

It's not a strict narrative, but rather slices and imaginations, which actually works better for the songs.  If anything, it feels more like a Skydiggers album, and that's a fine thing, too.  There isn't a dull song on it, it's highly listenable, certainly intriguing.  When Margo Timmins finally appears, it's a jazzy, spooky, slow number as Jackie Kennedy contemplates it all.  Lyrics are included, it's fun to read along, and like all good theatre, it makes you see things differently.

Thursday, November 14, 2013


The question is, how into Moondance are you?  Not just the song, but the whole album.  What we have here is an album exploded, with three 70+ discs of different takes, early versions, alternative mixes and out-takes, as we walk through the studio sessions.  Plus, two more discs, the original album remastered, and a Blu-ray audio version too.  There are three previously unheard cuts, but for the most part you're listening to, say , take 16 of Into The Mystic, as Van and band try to perfect the arrangement and tempo.

All that is pretty fascinating, if you indeed love the original album, and are interested in how tracks develop from rough ideas to full band creations.  It can also get tedious, after 25 minutes of Caravan stops and starts.  Really, you have to decide your level of interest:  The 5-disc treatment for the obsessive, the 2-disc, with an overview of the alternatives, or just the single album.

Whichever, you have to have this, even if you still have a perfectly fine copy of the CD or album.  They've done a tremendous remaster of the original, with the horns much clearer, and much more space between the instruments and backing vocals.  I'm hearing lovely little touches I never knew were there.

It is a glorious album, of course, with one of the great Side 1's of all time:  And It Stoned Me, Mooddance, Crazy Love, Caravan, and Into The Mystic.  Listen again to the subtle answering horns after Morrison sings "When the foghorn blows".  If you get the expanded set, check out the alternative instrumental take of Moondance, with completely different solos.  And you should be tempted by a major out-take, the famous I Shall Sing, dropped from the album but picked up by Art Garfunkel, who had a sizable hit with it.  Note to purchasers:  The 2-disc deluxe set is only a couple of bucks more than the single disc, so you might as well get at least that.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013


Here they are in all their cheeky, Mop Top glory, the early Beatles, charming England.  The BBC and the Fabs were made for each other from 1962-65, as the Beeb was the only radio station in the country, and The Beatles were drawing millions of youngsters to their programs.  The group recorded dozens and dozens of numbers, and the first batch of Beatles at the BBC only cracked the door open.  Here are two more CD's worth of cuts, from such programs as Saturday Club and Pop Go The Beatles, plus delightful snippets of the four kibitzing with the staid announcers.

Because they recorded so often for the radio shows, the band didn't have enough material from their albums and singles, so they went back to their club days, digging into the Cavern and Hamburg repertoire from the days when they had to do several sets and hours a night.  They loved to find obscure U.S. pop and R&B numbers, especially from their heroes:  Carl Perkins, Little Richard, Chuck Berry and the stars of Motown.  Most of these cuts were unknown in England, so there was little difference to the audience between, say, Honey Don't and Please Please Me.  The best finds included here are numbers covered but never recorded by the band, including Berry's I'm Talking About You, Perkins' Sure To Fall, and Chan Romero's The Hippy Hippy Shake.  Lots of the other covers The Beatles made famous on record are here as well, such as Roll Over Beethoven, Twist and Shout, and Honey Don't.

They had to play the hits too, and some of them were recorded up to 16 times (From Me to You).  So now we have Please Please Me, I Want To Hold Your Hand, She Loves You and I Saw Her Standing There yet again.  If there's a gripe with this set, it's the repetition with the first one.  There are songs repeated, only slightly different from the other BBC collection, and there are even some actual repeats; cuts from the CD EP Baby It's You that was issued at the same time as Volume 1, and a cut also included on Beatles Anthology 1.  With so many Beeb numbers available, this seems a little cheap for those many collectors out there.

You can however pick up a couple of better versions than the ones you've had before.  This is probably the best vocal Paul McCartney did on the Broadway number Till There Was You, less schmaltzy than usual.  And his rip through Little Richard's Lucille beats the take included on BBC Volume 1, recorded just four days later in '63.  The big win though, same as the first set, is hearing the band virtually live, recording direct to mono tape at the BBC's studio, the way they would have sounded on stage, without all those screaming fans.  If there's enough left for a Volume 3, I'm in.

Friday, November 8, 2013


I'm not really sure how much interest is out there in a new Paul McCartney album.  Still beloved, still a huge concert draw, this release will be greatly overshadowed by the new Beatles collection, Live At The BBC Vol. 2.  But as for an audience for new stuff, it's probably down to the die-hards.   In the meantime, Canada's top albums chart boasts such winners as the new Cher and a Christmas album from the Duck Dynasty people. 

But really folks, this is Paul McCartney making an excellent Paul McCartney album.  It's full of catchy songs, quirky production, lively vocals, playful lyrics,  and great melodies.  Most of all, it's inventive.  Nobody knows more about putting together a pop song, and finding new and fun ways to liven them up.  The entire texture of a song can change in the middle, including all the instruments, the key, the way he's singing, yet fit perfectly.  Of course, he learned much of this back in The Beatle days, and continued it into the 70's, with early solo works such as Ram and Band On The Run.  All those different McCartney voices, such as the rockin' Wings one, the gentle ballad crooner, the funny bluesy guy, he can switch to at will, and it keeps you on your toes as he goes from one to another.

What's new about New is a little more production savvy, as McCartney worked with four different youngbloods, each with their own set of skills.  Giles Martin, the son of George tackles some, after inheriting his dad's job working on the latest Beatles reissues.  Ethan Johns, son of Glyn, and current hot hand behind the board was another natural partnership.  Mark Ronson, another A-lister, was a pal and fave DJ of Paul's, and Paul Epworth was first on board, actually co-writing three of the cuts.  Instead of being a disjointed affair, the many different sessions and styles flow very well, mostly because of the very nature of songs, being stuffed full of sound changes already.  What holds it all together is McCartney's always-pleasing vocals, and a batch of songs that are way above the bar.

What's missing are the grating moments that have popped up so often.  Often they kill entire albums, like his last one, the syrupy ballads album Kisses On The Bottom, or songs such as Ebony and Ivory.  Sometimes his lyrics can be just dumb, or over-the-top, look at me, I'm rockin'!  None of that this time, he certainly never seems like he's acting, and the lyrics are fun but not stupid.  He puts in some absurd situations, such as in Alligator, about a man who works in a zoo, which may be a big metaphor, but who cares, the words sound great.  That's another thing about McCartney when he's on his mark;  he knows that its the sound of words and phrases and the subtlety of how they are sung that matter just as much.  The woman in On My Way To Work comes from Chichester, just because it rings when he sings it.

One little bit of the McCartney edge comes out in Early Days, the only song here that's biographical, on the surface.  It's about the pre-Beatles days, the struggling duo of Lennon and McCartney trying to break through in music.  It's mostly a complaint, against those who want to write and pontificate about the origins of the Beatles, stating "They can't take it from me if they try."  It seems just a bit whiny, the off-putting arrogance coming through, but that little bit I'll forgive because, like everything else hear, the song sounds great.

Monday, November 4, 2013


The venerable institution which is Downchild is still, and forever, Canada's reigning blues band.  And in case you wonder if the old dog has any new tricks, the group's 17th album is full of originals, moving from style to style.  Mr. Downchild himself, Donnie Walsh, sends in the lion's share, and keeps things moving and grooving, which is what the band has always done.  Kicking things off with a horns and piano jump blues, the title cut is straight out of the 40's ballrooms, and matches anything Roomful Of Blues is doing.  Singer Chuck Jackson gets soulful for One In A Million, with some gospel harmonies and Walsh's sizzling Southern slide work. 

There's also a dignified maturity to the band.  They aren't writing or bragging like they're teenagers, and they aren't covering the same old classics half or more of the other bands are.  Downchild is well-entrenched, and that means confidence do to what THEY do, and sing their songs.  Bass player Gary Kendall came up with the number that fits perfectly, called Worn In.  It's the middle-aged blues:  "I got some snow up on the roof, but there's a fire deep inside/This old boy's got low mileage so come on baby, take a ride."

Kudos for the best Canadian album cover this year, too.  It depicts the famous Sam The Record Man sign from Yonge St. in Toronto, now the source of controversy in the city, as it hasn't yet been restored and displayed by current owners Ryerson U., as promised.  Downchild is Canadian music.

Sunday, November 3, 2013


More sanctified blues from Vancouver's excellent vocal trio, gospel singers teamed up with fine musicians to bring back the fine tradition of electrified salvation.  All three came from the States, fully versed in the traditional church harmony singing, and the importance it played in social movements, so this is the real deal.  With album #3, there's a no shortage of fine material, including some clever secular covers that fit nicely in the spiritual realm.
This time out, they're working with a tight blues combo led by producer Pigat, who adds strong guitar lines, and if there's a fourth voice on the disc, it's Canadian harp favourite Steve Marriner from MonkeyJunk, adding lots of piping fills between the harmonies.  It's perhaps a tougher sound than their previous work, putting them more in line with Staples Singers material, but certainly at no loss to their finesse and I appreciate the added punch.

The group does draw on The Staples' catalogue twice in the 12 cuts, including the lovely opener Don't Knock.  They prove their gospel worth on a beautiful version of Ezekiel, the high harmonies thrilling.  There's a grand original from Vancouver bluesman Brandon Isaak, his Dressed For Heaven, which could easily be a vintage number from the days of the great quartet singers.  They also turn their hand to some rock covers, including a lovely slow version of Dylan's I Shall Be Released, and a take on Buffalo Springfield's For What It's Worth works as a message song, and even has a gospel connotation, in a pinch.  It's all high-quality material, but as always with the band, the harmonies thrill from start to finish.