Monday, March 31, 2014


This 30th anniversary set comes in a couple of configurations, a single disc that is expanded by three remixes (yawn), a better double-disc that includes demos, rehearsals, a live track and a b-side. But the meat is the precocious main set, the debut that became a perfect storm in late '83, and into 1984. The 80's were all about bright colours, the explosion of the visual image as beamed out on MTV and all the other video shows starving for content. Lauper was perfect for it.

Her Betty Boop character was fun, but she also had the chops as a singer (and actress), and had the tunes. Girls Just Want To Have Fun was the killer of course, but Time After Time, Money Changes Everything, She Bop and All Through The Night were stacked up on the album, insuring the disc had a long live. Relentless touring built her a solid fan base too, and the shrine of Cyndi still exists, smaller but no less loyal.

The songs have actually aged well considering the era, thanks mostly to the total pop sound, and you can hear their echo in bouncier R'n'B hits of today. However, as pop songs, they are also on the disposable side, except for the ballads. So props for the enduring success of the record, but it ain't ever gonna make any 100 Best Albums list.

Sunday, March 30, 2014


One of the bright young lights in the Canuck blues world, Isaak's out of Whitehorse, and developed a strong reputation with his debut, garnering lots of attention and nominations. This, his second, sees him continue in the acoustic storytelling style, with spare, sharp backing and lots of intimate, blues-in-your-face vocals.

Isaak has a classic voice, mellow, gruff when he needs it, warm and personal in the quieter moments. On other words, he's singing right to you. All 13 of these cuts are originals, and move from country grooves (City Lights) to deep Delta solo (Dead Ass Fool). He knows to keep the histrionics and show-off moves out of the picture, never-overdoing anything, always let the words paint the picture and the playing set the mood, rather than crashing the party. Piedmont blues-styled Dianna Was Her Name is easy and breezy Sunday afternoon music, with its bounce accentuated by simple concertina, while Up The Frisco Line adds a gypsy-jazz fiddle to great effect. He even sticks in some gospel flavour on Dressed For Heaven, the kind of song Lyle Lovett does so well. Isaak sounds great in every acoustic style he chooses, and has proved he can write the good ones too.

Saturday, March 29, 2014


One of the frustrating points of trying to get a full collection of Sam Cooke's key songs has been label rights. In his 13 years of recording, he bounced from Specialty to Keen to RCA, and set up his own label, SAR. Plus, he became entangled with the notorious Allen Klein at the end of things, and that always spelled trouble. For instance, the long-serving, big-selling Best of Sam Cooke, still in print after decades, has never included the important A Change Is Gonna Come, thanks to ABKCO's ownership.

So Hallelujah, here's a set that does cover all periods, from his first gospel recordings to Shake, made a month before his death in 1964. It's far from the complete picture, but at 30 tracks it's got all the biggies and lots of variety. And here's the big news: the scintillating audio. This is a Blu-ray, using the Pure Audio system. So not only do we get the best available hits package, but it's in the best-ever sound. And for your car or headphone listening, there's a coupon for a free download of the Pure Audio as well.

Friday, March 28, 2014


It's Elton's best-known album, although not necessarily his best. But biggest, ya, so it deserves a nice big super deluxe edition. This one comes crammed with four cd's and one dvd, plus a 100-page hardcover book, quality packaging for sure. As always with Elton, it's as much style as substance, and the book is rather short on actual words but includes a ton of pictures of various stage outfits of the time, including close-ups of boots and glasses. He's famously forthright about his past these days, so why not include a bit more of his interview?

Onto the music: You know the album, I assume. At least you'll know the hits, including the title track, Bennie & the Jets, and Candle In The Wind. This was a cornerstone album of my early collection, and I poured over every bit of it, and know it inside and out. I've always felt there are exceptional songs here, including the opener Funeral For A Friend/Love Lies Bleeding epic, and the closer, the beautiful Harmony. Then there's the pounder Your Sister Can't Twist, which sets up a one-two punch with Saturday Night's Alright For Fighting.

If there's a fault here, it's not with Elton, who pours a whole lot of great melodies, rockin' performances and heart-tugging ballads into the double album. You have to point the finger at Bernie Taupin, capable of excellent lyrics and complete howlers in the space of one record, and even one song. As much as I love the sound of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, I cringe every time Elton sings "hunting the horny back toad." Roy Rogers is a fine story about escapism via Western TV shows, "Roy and Trigger have just hit the hillside, while the wife and the kids are in bed." But then there's the near racist Jamaica Jerk-Off, and the equally offensive Dirty Little Girl. Even with my nostalgia, I can also remember the embarrassment I felt at some of these songs at the time. You know the old cliche, it would have made a better single album.

As for the super deluxe additions, they are plentiful, but spotty as well. Nothing wrong with the two discs that offer up a complete two-hour show from Christmas of 1973. Since it's England, it's a little more subdued than U.S. audiences of the day, but Crocodile Rock and Honky Cat get them going, and some choice album cuts such as Elderberry Wine make this a more interest live set than his more recent, hit-smothered live discs. The other bonus disc has the most problems. We get the same b-sides and non-album tracks that have been included on previous reissues, with nothing new found. Demos or radio shows, anything would have been nice. There's also this weird nine-song section called Goodbye Yellow Brick Road Revisited, which sees new artists doing covers in tribute. That in itself isn't strange, but the choices and versions suck. Country acts The Band Perry, The Zac Brown Band, what's up with that? Fall Out Boy ruins Saturday Night. Only retro-rocker Imelda May really shines, on Your Sister Can't Twist.

The DVD is okay, if you are into 70's TV production. This 45-minute film was done at the same time as the album was coming out, and features a fawning host trying to sound like he's being serious about the whole thing, but is really just throwing softballs at Elton. It features awful set-up visuals such as the whole band walking through the woods wearing identical long-sleeve t-shirts advertising Elton's new record company, Rocket. At the same time, there's some great concert footage, which unfortunately has been chopped to pieces in the original edit. It's really just a curiosity, okay for one viewing.

The Super Deluxe version is certainly a good price, in the mid-$60's, but the thinner Deluxe edition just has the extra disc with the covers and the non-rare b-sides. Wish it had the live show. Like Elton himself, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road is more famous than good. But again, like Elton, when it's good, it is very good.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014


It's hard to believe there was a time when hardly anyone cared about Johnny Cash. The early 80's saw him adrift, with a record label uninterested in releasing his material, and country radio ignoring any of his new songs. It wasn't all their fault though; Cash was stuck for a sound, not going contemporary, still using pedal steel and backing singers, slick but 70's slick. Country radio was moving to cross-over sounds from the likes of Kenny and Dolly and Barbara Mandrell. Plus, Cash wasn't writing much. And, there was no such thing as roots music or Americana at the time, so the idea of stripping back his sound hadn't crossed his, or anyone else's mind.

His recordings of that time were hit or miss, mostly missing, but he was still Johnny Cash, capable of greatness when the elements were there. This collection was found recently in the archives by his son John Carter, and put together from sessions in 1981 and 1984, produced originally by Nashville Row legend Billy Sherrill. Sherrill was past his hit days too, so perhaps that was part of the problem, and really one can hear this stuff wasn't going to put Cash back in the hit parade. However, a good half of the songs sound great today. They are, quite simply, the well-written ones, with the least adornment.

There are a couple of fine duets with wife June, recalling their glory moments as country's power couple of the '60's. Baby Ride Easy is fun enough, but the gem is in the old-time ballad style, Don't You Think It's Come Our Time, using that Carter Family honesty they knew so well. Also fun is a duet with old buddy Waylon Jennings, a take of Hank Snow's I'm Movin' On, done as well as you'd expect two pros to do it, with especially good harmony from Waylon. The pick of the bunch though is She Used To Love Me A Lot, a heartbreak tale that Cash delivers with full strength. Obviously these were keepers in his mind. Another that he did write, Call Your Mother, is a sad one as well, not as good a lyric but close, about a dumped boyfriend asking the girl to say goodbye to her family for him.

It's always dicey when new elements are added to old tapes to spruce them up for release, and that's happened here. The parts weren't finished, abandoned before solos and overdubs were added. John Carter Cash has done the work to spruce them up, and quite well, you'd be hard-pressed to find the seems, and certainly it fits the feel, there's no attempt to modernize. Oh, except for one song, and its very much on purpose. Elvis Costello was brought in to create a modern track for She Used To Love Me A Lot, an alternate version to the earlier one of the album. He emphasizes the darkness, and drops in modern beats and atmosphere. It looks good on paper, but really, it's a pointless exercise and does nothing for the track, which is thankfully much better in its original form.

With hindsight, we all appreciate Johnny Cash a lot more these days, especially after his resurgence and regained stature in the last decade of his life. This isn't a lost treasure chest of tunes, but there are good ones, and its a decent collection. It's certainly worth its release, and worth owning if you're already a fan.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014


The Truckers have been shedding members in the last few years, but manage not only to hang on, but keep on the right path.  The latest major split was with bassist and singer Shona Tucker, still holding on after her one-time husband, Jason Isbell left a few years before.  Losing two major writer/performers would kill most groups, but really it just moves the band back to the beginnings, as founders Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley continue to anchor the group.  And for the new album, Cooley in particular has stepped up to the plate, contributing half the songs, a big burst in his productivity.

Having two writer-singers is important to the band, giving them lots of variety.  Cooley's Jagger-like drawl fits the tight southern boogie well, with its guitar-drenched grooves recalling the Stones' Brown Sugar period.  Hood continues to act as the social conscious voice, and he has some pretty intense political statements to make on this one.  The Part Of Him is directly aimed at the power players and backroom boys who stop at nothing to elect questionable candidates.  From buying votes to hanging chads, Hood has had enough of these types, wrecking democracy:  "He was an absolute piece of shit, to tell the truth.," and "He was a piece of work, more or less a total jerk, his own mama called him an S.O.B."  Tell it like it is, Patterson.

This back and forth system really works well, as we rock along to Cooley and get inspired stories from Hood.  Twelve albums in, and numerous line-up changes, the Truckers continue to put out first-class albums, rejuvenating their sound with each new period in their career.

Monday, March 24, 2014


This is a new thing, a brand-new four-disc boxed set, but issued right away in budget configuration.  Usually these sets by major artists (no snickering about Rod, please) come with all the bells and whistles first time on the racks, with the books and scholarly essays and impeccably-sourced photos and such.  The artist has spent months listening to every concert tape, and gets insanely picky about the sound, as CSNY are doing right now as we (still) wait for the much-promised 1974 "Doom Tour" box.  Not our Rod though, and I wonder if he's even heard any of this.  Not that its bad, it's far from that, it's just...  well, a box on a budget.  It has the skimpiest booklet, with just the bare credits, a couple of photos and that's it, four discs in the smallest jewel case possible.

Now the good news; it's very listenable, even during the direst 1980's times, and answers the important question of, Where was the great singer hiding all those years?  As his albums got worse, his live show kept things up.  Now, part of that is thanks to some judicious choices on the compilers' part.  It doesn't dwell on the hit singles of those times, instead pulling out lots of classic cover versions (Rod may be the best Otis Redding impersonator around), and trotting out lots of Maggie May-era tracks and Faces numbers.  He even jumps back into the blues at times, for numbers such as I Just Want To Make Love To You (Willie Dixon), proving he still has the old touch he began with, back when he was performing with the likes of Long John Baldry.

Disc one is all from 1976, while he was still pretty cool, and although Tonight's The Night was the hit, and featured here, the bulk of his show was made of high quality stuff from solo and Faces albums, such as You Wear It Well, Hendrix's Angel and Ms. Maggie.  The second disc is 76 - 81, and although the rot is starting with weaker numbers like Passion, his crack band more than makes up for it with a quality Stay With Me, and Twistin' The Night Away/Every Picture Tells A Story.  Problems spring up on disc three, as we hit the mid-80's, and some significant suckage (and synth) comes in.  Tonight I'm Yours, Infatuation, and some piece of crap called Bad For You are included, the latter actually marred by some kind of stage hum, a very audible bad chord or the like.  Here's where this budget thing comes in, it's the kind of audio error that would normally be either cleaned up with technology or omitted, and it's shameful to hear it on a major label release.

But disc four brings us back to better quality in the 90's, the synth if it is there sounding much better, thanks to improved machinery and tastes of this decade.  Again, the compilers get their game back on, grabbing cuts such as Mandolin Wind, Cut Across Shorty and Reason To Believe over more embarrassing Rod fair.  Hey, I also seem to have developed a tolerance for Baby Jane, no doubt a side effect of this year's flu vaccine.  I'd say a good two-thirds of this box is quite worthy, which is damn good picking for post 1975 Rod Stewart, and at 58 tracks and a $40 price tag, it's a good deal.

Sunday, March 23, 2014


How may singers are there in the world?  Well, all of us I suppose, but a small percentage are good enough to carry a tune, and an even smaller bunch do it professionally.  Even that number probably counts in the hundreds of thousands if not millions around the world.  And how many of those have truly memorable voices that from the moment you hear them, stand out as pure and perfect?  I listen to music all day long on good days, and I dunno, I figure I might have heard a couple of hundred in my time, at least from the folk/jazz/pop world I hang around.  Clela has one of them.

Clela Errington is a Toronto based folk-world music singer, who writes most of her own songs and plays guitar and ukelele.  On her latest, you get a mix of songs with just her voice and accompaniment, and some with soft, spare and well-chosen backing, from strings, steel guitar, some light synth, etc.  The focus is clearly on her voice and words, the first of those truly stunning, the lyrics heartfelt and sentimental.  Much like Eva Cassidy, when you hear her sing for the first time, you wonder where this voice has been all your life, and want to hear more.

She can do lots, and I think we're only get a taste of what she's capable of here.  Open Up My Heart is a hypnotic, mystic blues, where she gets to lean back and perform with power, quite a stand-up in a set dominated by softer numbers.  Home On High is one of the songs performed solo, just her guitar, a lament for a passing friend, but sung with a great amount of joy for the life and strength this woman is showing in her last time.  It's a terrific and powerful lyric, meant to give heart to the family and friends of this loved one, and must have done the job.  Indigo Blue is a lovely closer, a lullaby for a child played out at the end of the day.

The ukelele playing is a nice touch, taking us away from all-acoustic guitar tunes, and it's especially effective on More Love And Happiness, a song written in tribute to Kate & Anna McGarrigle, mentioned in the opening verse, sung in French.  I'm not so keen on another tribute, Angels On the Radio, too cliche in its reference to Dolly Parton, Townes Van Zandt and Emmylou Harris, hoping to one day join them on the airwaves.  Since she can sing anything and make it amazing, I'd love to hear her find an inspired cover (like, not Hallelujah or Songbird) and make it her own.

Thursday, March 20, 2014


Harness goes political and apocalyptical on his latest, clearly with a bee in his bonnet. The esteemed Toronto songwriter lets it all out, taking on the greedy, the powerful, the politicians, and all the perceived villains of corporate culture. It's enough is enough, for him, singing "They're traitors to the human race, an evolutionary disgrace, they're low, dishonourable men." He's channeling Dylan '63 in the lyrics, going all Masters Of War on their heads, but more Dylan '66 in the music, rushed and rough rock and roll behind him.

It's not all bleak by any means, with some humour diluting the venom, but its at the expense of the greedheads, us against them. The accusations fly, from deliberate polluting to starting wars to stealing land from farmers. There's a rushed feel to the material, as if he wanted to get out while the mood was with him, and sometimes the lyrics are undercooked, as if the first rhyme available had to do: "Slaughtering everything in sight with a machete/turning the environment into confetti." These aren't his most polished songs, but they are passionate.

Wanting to keep the finger-pointing going, Harness also tackles a couple of major crimes in Ontario history involving disgraceful justice. The Black Donnellys isn't a new story to songwriters, with both Steve Earle and Gene MacLellan tackling it in the past, but Harness does it almost as bleakly as Nick Cave. That's safe subject matter, over a hundred years old, but not so Ipperwash and the death of Dudley George. Clearly on the side of the First Nations protesters, Harness condemns the politicians who sent the riot police in to break up a peaceful protest, using transcripts from OPP radios that night. In an album that's filled with anger and the most heinous crimes perpetrated on a global scale, it's the most powerful story.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014


Don't fret, they had planned to be back. Waterbound, the debut album by The Fretless was a huge success, grabbing Canadian Folk Music Awards for both Instrumental Group and Ensemble Recording in 2012, thanks to their totally fresh sound. They are all classically trained players, bringing their talent and technique to folk, coming up with new arrangement ideas and of course, playing impeccably. This time, in addition to originals and traditionals, they take it further, covering Radiohead's Airbag of all things, featuring guest vocals from Ruth Moody. I like it better than the original.

Aside from one other vocal, this time with Moody and Oliver Swain, the real business is folk melodies with fascinating, weaving arrangements by the three fiddlers, er violinists, and the cellist. Grabbing snatches of most old folk-fiddle styles, the sawing up front is adorned by intricate harmony lines and complex four-part arrangements. Hearing these tunes, which conjure up thoughts of Celtic colours, turkey in the straw and Civil War documentaries, now gussied up with orchestral precision and virtuosity, is the best of both worlds

Tuesday, March 18, 2014


The venerable Blue Note label is one of the most appreciated in jazz circles, with a roster that has included many of the greats over the years.  Still going strong, it now has diversified into all sorts of sounds, but back in the day, it was pure cool, and released many of the landmark albums of the 50's and 60's.  Miles and Monk were there for a time, and in their wake the hard bop sound became the house specialty, with such names as Bud Powell, Art Blakeley, Sonny Clark, Lou Donaldson, Horace Silver and Sonny Rollins all in the discography.

When Universal Music snapped up much of the EMI catalogue, it got Blue Note, and has been actively repackaging the works in this, the label's 75th anniversary.  That includes this nicely-priced double disc, part of the Icon series.  Short on notes but long on music, it's a diverse collection that includes all the above names, and some key tracks, although none of the cliches of jazz samplers.  Davis is featured as a guest on Cannonball Adderley's Somethin' Else, blowing great solos, while Monk is featured in his own performance of 'Round About Midnight, which Davis later claimed as his signature song.  Coltrane blows Blue Train, and Jimmy Smith, master of the B-3, delivers his hit Back At The Chicken Shack. 

Disc two takes us into the modern era, with the 60's represented by Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and Kenny Burrell.  You can also catch Horace Silver's influential Song For My Father, and hear where Steely Dan ripped off the bass-piano motive for Rikki Don't Lose That Number.  After being sold in 1965 and passed around in corporate deals, the label was revived in the 80's, and still has strong jazz  roots, as heard here from Cassandra Wilson.  But you'll also find hip-hop, and label saviour Norah Jones too, covering Hank Williams' Cold Cold Heart.  These days, Blue Note releases everything from Rosanne Cash to Petty/Heartbreakers keyboardist Benmont Tench, but the glory days still give the name prestige.

Monday, March 17, 2014


They don't make 'em like this anymore.  Actually, I'm not sure they ever did.  They, being the beat poets, jazzers and folkies who tried matching poetry to music back in the coffee house days.  Certainly they didn't have sampling.  Usually, it was somebody in a goatee with a bongo player, if the stereotypes are correct.  This is not that.

What it is, well, the sum of its parts is harder to describe than the trio of elements in the mix.  First, you have the words and spoken performance of Canadian poet and author Brian Brett, a gritty and funny collection of earthy verse.  Then there's the music, created by producer Andy Meyers, largely weaved from samples of his early avant-punk Toronto band The Scenics, from the late 70's.  Thirdly, there's the performance of composer Susheela Dawne, who sings much of the Brett poetry, composing new melodies to the loops and such.  She often joins Brett in the songs, and their contrasting styles is one of the highlights here, his sonorous delivery and her haunting beauty.

Don't worry about the high-brow combo of all this, although it is quite an artistic feat.  It's quite entertaining, the poetry plain-spoken and full of laughs, never stuffy, with lots of word-play that adds to the aural experience.  Clothing Of My Youth is a tribute to bad fashion of an earlier time:  "The purple pants, skin tight, except for the flaring bell bottom, I wanna wear the clothes I wore when I thought I was beautiful."  Mostly Brett takes on the two big pillars, death and sex, neither one of them very pretty:  "This is the beauty of creatures like us, tomorrow we'll be dead, today we will be desire."  Take that, Cohen.

Meyers' music is more than just a bed, or sound for emphasis.  It drives the rhythm of the performance, the mood, and mirrors the emotion.  There's slippery fun, dream worlds, and tall tales all within the sounds.  Great White Whale is demented surf music to accompany the story of a near-drowning, repetitive in its loops as Brett's words repeat key phrases.  Hearing, of course, is a necessity here, and despite the unconventional nature, I think many would find this quite accessible.

Sunday, March 16, 2014


Elvis was so great, he was easily the biggest talent, and the biggest waste of talent at the same time.  Case in point, Elvis on stage in front of his hometown fans for the first time in 13 years.  It was just one of dozens of sold-out gigs that year in a huge tour of America that stretched from March to October of 1974, with the usual Vegas stand in there as well.  But this was supposed to be special, and the tapes were rolling for this live album, released a couple of months after the March show.  He was still in great voice too, in shape with none of the voice or health issues that plagued his last couple of years, not yet Fat Elvis.

So why a waste?  The guy had it all, except he also had a lousy sense of humour, and spotty taste in music too.  His lame patter and in-jokes with the band are annoying on disc, and worse, he liked to act silly in the middle of songs, wrecking numbers such as Fever.  It's just childish, the result of playing the same numbers too many times, and having such an adoring audience (plus all his sycophants), willing to act like it's quality entertainment.  As for the song selection, this throws the out the old suggestion that if he had been allowed to record what he liked instead of the numbers Hill & Range Publishing pushed on him (they all owned a piece, the Colonel included), he would have made better albums.  Look at what he chose to perform, instead of all his own hits:  Let Me Be There, by Olivia Newton-John, Steamroller Blues by James Taylor, the insipid flag-waver An American Trilogy, and a bunch of oldie hits from Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino and Little Richard, songs they owned even if the King wanted to claim them.  His own hits, what there were of them, were given the indignity of being shoved into medleys, rushed through and barely acknowledged.  We're talking Hound Dog and Jailhouse Rock, being squeezed into a segment with Flip, Flop and Fly and Loggins & Messina's recent Your Mama Don't Dance.  Then there are the usual problems with an Elvis live show, all the missed vocals when he was handing out scarves or laughing or whatever, enough to be a reoccurring annoyance.

Listening to an Elvis show will never give you the true perspective though, as we don't get the incredible charisma, the crowd excitement, and umm, the karate moves.  What you do get is occasional examples of the greatest voice of rock and roll, and certainly one of the best-ever bands as well, led by The Master of the Telecaster, James Burton.  There are, count 'em, three different vocal groups on stage as well, Sweet Inspirations, Voice and J.D. Sumner and the Stamps.  And an orchestra.  Overkill, oh yes, but at times awesome and overwhelming.  Again though, bad choices abound, especially with the singers, ridiculous parts swelling and taking away from the songs.  All in all, a typical early 70's Elvis show and recording.

This Legacy edition is spruced up quite nicely however, especially the bonus goodies.  We get a handful of songs stripped from the original album release, and it now includes the entire show that day.  On the second disc, a test recording from two days earlier in Richmond is included in its entirety, pretty much the same setlist, but with a little less goofiness.  And best of all, there's a chunk of a band rehearsal from August that year; not long, five songs, but now we really hear the full talent.  Running through these to get them stage ready, there's no scarves or puns or kicks, no showing off, he's working with the players and singers, and taking care of business.  There's a stunning version of Good Time Charlie's Got The Blues, and now he's thinking, now he's interpreting and harmonizing with great voices.  Even if the songs he's chosen are sentimental and showbiz (The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face, The Twelfth Of Never), to hear him in this way is to understand why he was, and still is The King.

Thursday, March 13, 2014


Washed in country, and steeped in sadness, Ellis brings us real-life stories with sharp insight and touching empathy.  But calling in country is just the introduction; certainly Ellis' classic twang leans you that way, but the music is an inventive hybrid that takes us all over the map.  There's the gorgeous Jimmy Webb-meets-soul melody of Steady As the Rising Sun, with strings AND pedal steel, the saloon piano of Bottle Of Wine, the haunted Western electric number Houston, and some fiery picking on Sing Along, a dark bluegrass tune.

What will stick though are the unflinching lyrics, powerful vignettes that perfectly set the scene, with complex themes but plain-spoken truths.  His Tour Song is perhaps the most heartbreaking look at the relationship-crushing life of a musician on the road with a love left behind:  "On an endless string of one-night stands, with okay girls and shitty bands, a good one comes by now and then, but I long to be back home again."  Sing Along is a flat-out condemnation of the effects of a strict religious upbringing on young people in small town America:  "That's a hell of a thing to do to a kid, just to teach him right from wrong/you can burn in hell for the rest of your days, or you can choose to sing along."  His picture of the industrial towns of the U.S., which have replaced much of the rural life, is bleak, even though the young lovers in Chemical Plant still have soul and somehow find romance:  "The lights from the chemical plant burn bright in the night like an old kerosene lamp/from a car park by the ocean, what a vision to behold."  Ellis' cover of Paul Simon's Still Crazy After All These Years is dead-on, and sets the bar for his own writing, and damned if he doesn't match up to it.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014


Having released a mega-CD limited edition collection of all his works and scads of rare stuff a couple of years back, Rufus now lets us mere regular fans have a set of his best in a much more affordable set. This two-disc number (a single set is available as well) collects 25 choice cuts from his career, as well as eight performance tracks from various sources. There's some wise inclusions from soundtrack work, such as The Maker Makes from Brokeback Mountain, and yes, Hallelujah from Shrek. That's nice, so we don't have to go out and get those soundtracks to own all our needed Rufus.

Early faves Cigarettes And Chocolate Milk and April Fools remind just how clever he was in the pop world, but truly his talents really showed best once he hit the Want One and Want Two albums, liberally sampled here. The Art Teacher remains one of his most riveting performances, simply Wainwright at the piano, live and spellbinding. There are new songs as well, grand ones, such as Me and Liza, about you-know-who. Best of all, his live selection from a tribute night to Leonard Cohen is included, a bang-on version of Chelsea Hotel #2. If you are a Rufus fan, this is a must.

Monday, March 10, 2014


One of the bigger and better female voices in Canadian rock, Smith fronted The Joys for several years, and now has a solid solo career going out of London, Ontario.  She plays and plays and plays, a much in-demand live performer, with gigs pretty much every night across southern Ontario, and that's just this month.  This is her second solo disc, after 2012's Stronger Now (and a couple of live collections you can find at her website).  That last one featured the breakthrough track Shine Bright, which brought her lots of airplay and attention to her songwriting, and a much-remixed version also appears on this disc, such is the ongoing popularity of the tune.

Smith fits nicely between classic and modern rock, just enough production finesse to keep contemporary, but plenty of rock and roll basics covered as well.  And underneath that big and bright sound lurks a writer with a solid understanding of hooks and structure.  Believe In Me has snappy lines and a catchy chorus, straight out of the John Hiatt school.  Opening cut I Need To Know builds from verse to bridge to chorus, getting more and more addictive.  And as always, Smith's powerful vocals give everything a dramatic feel, a tension in the ballads and celebration in the rockers.  Catch her regular Wednesday residency at the Liquid Lounge in Brantford, ON this month, and visit for other dates.

Sunday, March 9, 2014


Back in the early 80's, a branch of L.A. punk was fused with rockabilly, and in some cases, actual country. You had Rank And File, and even X could lean that way. Lone Justice came along in 1982, quickly becoming a buzz band in the region, grabbing up a contract with Geffen Records and an initial burst of fame, particularly for lead singer Maria McKee. It was a brief career though. Despite lots of hype, big-name connections, opening for U2, getting Tom Petty to write for them, Steve Van Zandt to produce, nothing really clicked, and McKee went solo after 2 albums in 1986.

This collection of demos made in 1983 explains a lot. They were really country at the start, fused with that raw punk attitude. They were doing covers of Johnny Cash and June Carter, George Jones, as well as raw band originals, McKee sounding like a deranged Dolly. Somewhere along the line, things went more earnest, more singer-songwriter, and they tried to fit in to modern rock. Big mistake, as these dozen cuts show. They had spark, energy and stood out, always a good thing. Certainly the rest of the original band knew the score, they all had quit by the second album. Meantime, alternative country came along by the end of the decade. McKee did make some fine music solo, one excellent album called You Gotta Sin To Be Saved in '93, and has also acted and published fiction. As for Lone Justice, great promise went unfulfilled. But this kick-ass dozen recorded cheap in a couple of days beats the crap out of the group's two official discs.

Saturday, March 8, 2014


The on-going reissue series of classic Bowie 45's continues with one of his biggest. Each original single is being re-launched on the 40th anniversary of its first appearance, as a limited-edition picture disc, with a unique B-side. These are beautiful pieces, excellent quality pressings and gorgeous colours on the rare photos. In short, collectors should love them.

Some of these have already become incredibly rare, fetching prices upwards of a hundred dollars. Now, don't expect that from the later ones, the secret is out and probably a lot more are being demanded and pressed. Still, you'll enjoy having any of them, you don't need the whole set unless you're, well, like me, and have to have the complete set.

Previous singles have included rare and live b-sides of the main tracks, which I consider great, instead of the old b-side which most collectors will no doubt have. So I was a bit upset to see that the flip here was simply a remix of the normal version of Rebel Rebel. But wait! I forgot that this, the U.S. mix of the 45, is drastically different than the original. It starts, not with the familiar guitar line, but instead, with the line, "Hot tramp, I love you so." The song is taken apart, bits lifted from other areas, volumes raised, edits made, it's all recognizable but a much different experience. I have this on another CD compilation, but most won't and it's a smart and quality edition. I'm not the biggest picture disc collector, but I am a big Bowie fan, and this series has me hooked.

Friday, March 7, 2014


The Icon series was launched by Universal Music to provide yet another line of best-of's or greatest hits by their many artists.  That's because those are all that the few remaining mall stores still carry other than new releases and a few classic albums, so these fill the bill, and seem new.  With Universal purchasing much of EMI a couple of years back, they have lots more new artists and catalogues to repackage in the Icon format.

That also means they can cherry-pick hits, and plug them into these types of compilations.  Both these sets are double CD's, jammed with familiar tunes still played on lots of radio stations.  It worries me that the 90's are considered retro now, but that's just because I'm old and still think it can't be more than say, 2004, until I look at my calender.  

I thought I'd like the 80's more than the 90's set, but the compilers have surprised me with pretty good selections.  I'm always up for Concrete Blonde's Joey, a great song in any decade, and as overplayed as it was at the time, Joan Osborne really did a fine job with One Of Us.  Sheryl Crow's All I Wanna Do is still fun, and New Radicals You Get What You Give is such a pop gem, I can't believe nothing else happened for them.  Sadly though, this was also the decade of Blind Melon, Sublime and Wilson Phillips.

The 80's set could have been better by far.  There are lots better choices for hits than the likes of Tiffany, Kim Wilde and Billy Squier.  For some reason, the bulk of the songs come from the early to mid-80's, and that means a lot of over-produced, dated sounds from The Fixx, Asia and Level 42.  There also seems to be an inability to make an 80's collection without including Don't You Want Me (Human League), Shout (Tears For Fears) or Karma Chameleon.  This was not my 1980's.  The 90's set does the job, but you can do better by making your own 80's mix.

Monday, March 3, 2014


At first I was pretty surprised by this album, not least of all because I put the deluxe version's disc two on first, the remix collection.   Do yourself a favour, and don't. Once I got to the main disc, I was still skeptical, because of the blatant embrace of pop and uptempo grooves found on the tracks.  These were catchy songs, too catchy I felt.

That feeling has quickly worn off with a few listens.  What I've found, in fact, is what I've been looking for in a SRB album since the famous debut EP from 2002, The Inhuman Condition.  That release announced the group as a strong rock-hit machine, with Brother Down, Don't Walk Away Eileen, and Where Have All The Good People Gone.  Subsequent albums, which toughened up the sound, lack the spark and radio-friendly fun I enjoyed.  But here Roberts and Co. are back in that vein, with the happy hooks of Shapeshifters and Human Heat.  I'm groovin'.

There's more synth and electropop sounds than on the early, guitar-oriented records, and the beats are crisp and produced, but for once I don't feel like this is a bad thing. These are strong songs, big melodies, and deserve the giant polish placed on them by producer Youth (Paul McCartney, The Verve, U2).  Roberts is one of the few artists who can pull off this much synth and still sound rock, and if it grabs him higher pop presence too, good on him.