Saturday, May 31, 2014


Vocal fans will be excited by this debut from Estabrooks, a Juilliard-trained baritone from Ottawa. Already well-traveled and acclaimed from Carnegie Hall to opera stages, he's veering off the well-worn path for classical vocalists. Using Kickstarter and social media, he's established a fan base, and now delivers with a mix of pop, musicals, and a little bit of opera.

Using rich orchestral arrangements, Estabrooks performs a few surprises, including Neil Diamond's Play Me. The blend of acoustic guitar and strings are a lovely reminder of 70's pop balladry, his vocals rich and poor, but wisely his full power is held in check, as he could easily overwhelm the delicacy of the number. Another strong choice follows, the gentle Kathy's Song from Simon and Garfunkel, performed with even more restraint, the higher key bringing out a sweeter vocal.

There are a couple of over-heard selections that feel a bit ho-hum, the ubiquitous Time After Time, Always On My Mind and yet another version of Aznavour's She, but those are redeemed by a fun Any Place I Hang My Hat Is Home by Mercer/Arlen. For that taste of his more classical material, there's a duet with Jonathan Antoine, the British teen vocal sensation, Por Una Cabeza. Estabrooks can sing anything wonderfully, and seems to have the personality and drive to connect with a broad audience. It's all class, and an uplifting and soothing listen.

Friday, May 30, 2014


Big sounds and big adventures await with the new Black Keys disc.  As anti-star as they want to be, there's no denying this is one of the world's biggest groups now, with Turn Blue entering charts at #1 or close in many countries, and the summer tour booked for the biggest enormo-domes.  Then there's the sound crafted with co-producer Danger Mouse, hardly the rough and bluesy murk of their early days.  Yet shall we tarnish them with a commercial paintbrush?  Hell no, it's brilliant stuff.

There are more instruments now, the edges are softer and the mystery is turned up.  Comfortable in their experiments, we get lots of keyboards, more textures, falsetto leads, and a looser feel throughout.  The songs have wider gaps, room to drop in a few bars of mood music or tasty guitar.  Above all, it does not rock.  It grooves for sure, but these guys are more soul men now, looking to get under your skin.  The title cut is sci-fi Curtis Mayfield, and smooth as silk.  The dance beat of Fever is all in the bass, with the cheesiest synth in history, as creepy as is it infectious.  It's Up To You Now has a tribal, huge drum beat, scuzzy guitar and a mind-bending middle section borrowed from your basic 1972 high school psychedelic band.

Waiting On Words is the pretty ballad, but even that gets some space and time shifting, like we're slightly out of phase with reality.  That's pretty much the overall sound here, uneasy and not quite real, but extremely catchy.  I've never felt so good about being so unsettled.

Thursday, May 29, 2014


It's been 45 years, and finally Pete Townshend can adequately explain his most famous creation, Tommy. The epic rock opera has always sounded great, no question, its story was pretty much understandable, thanks in part to the movie of the same name, but what did it all mean? In this 90-minute documentary, Townshend, Roger Daltry, and many of the key players and pals of the production explain their parts, and give a go at what was behind Townshend's thinking.

Key to it all is the composer himself, seemingly and finally happy with it all. It turns out many key moments simply fell into place, good timing for good ideas. Playing the nearly-finished piece to a friendly reporter who was a pinball fan led to the idea that Tommy could be a savant at the game, and of course spawned the most famous number from the album. Keith Moon suggested that Tommy's followers should go to a vacation spot where he would lead them, which became Tommy's Holiday Camp. Even though there was a great big idea in Townshend's brain, it was too big and complicated, and we even get to see his lengthy original prose piece describing it all. What needed to happen was a focusing, his artistic and philosophical notions needed to become a clear story. That complicated process is explained here in a way that should clarify the whole thing once and for all.

There's a second thread as well, the story line of how the album took the band from near-collapse to the top of the rock world. The arty singles band finally had a full, classic album, plus a performance piece that made them the toast of the stage. The Tommy performance at Woodstock was the key, and they are still a huge draw thanks largely to that moment. Roger Daltry gets his due as well, as the singer took over the Tommy role on stage, blossoming into a rock god with fringed vests and long curls. Despite the complications, everything went perfectly for the band.

Also included in the bonus section is a wonderful 1969 German TV program, Beat Club, fully dedicated to the group and Tommy for that episode. The black and white show had the group performing many of the cuts, with tons of special effects and sets, all of them hokey by today's standards but quite imaginative for the time. The group is miming, which is too bad, but there's no way it could have included live music without hours more work and a lot more money, so its understandable. It's a great bonus, topping off an excellent documentary.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014


There's an argument around that everybody lost their way in the 80's, at least part of the decade. It certainly sucked for The Rolling Stones, for the most part. Van Morrison couldn't find his focus. Elvis Costello made what he still considers his worst album, Goodbye Cruel World. Joni Mitchell released confusing mainstream rock albums. And Neil Young takes the cake with his string of releases, including Trans, Old Ways, Landing On Water, Everybody's Rockin', largely painful.

Then there's the always-enigmatic Dylan. The decade started with his so-called Christian phase, one of his most reviled periods, and ended with the sputtering Under The Red Sky, leading into a period of writer's block. There are fans of certain albums, especially '83's Infidels and '89's Oh Mercy, but I rarely have a hankering to hear Empire Burlesque or Knocked Out Loaded. However, like all things Dylan, something is happening here, you don't know what it is...

This album, made for charity, attempts to prove there was plenty of high-quality material by the bard in the 80's, if you look closer. A gang of younger, alternative artists digs deep for the best cuts from so-so albums, or digs a tune out of the Bootleg series of out-takes, and even reclaims one from a weird soundtrack. Veteran indie rockers Built To Spill handle the most famous number, Jokerman, which is a pretty easy choice. A tougher job goes to Craig Finn of The Hold Steady, who puts his typical urgency into Sweetheart Like You from the same album. The out-there choice is by Deer Tick, tackling the obscure Night After Night from the Hearts Of Fire soundtrack, a gawd-awful movie in which Dylan had a terrible role. It's too much of stretch, never good, then or now.

Mostly though the reinterpretations work. The unheralded Hannah Cohen does a soft reading of Covenant Woman from Saved, which could make some reach for that misunderstood collection. Dawn Landes and Bonnie "Prince" Billy do a similar good thing to Dark Eyes from Empire Burlesque. And Glen Hansard has no trouble making the case for Pressing On, another of the numbers labelled gospel, but better thought of as spiritual. So, mission accomplished, it's hard to argue the premise that Dylan did indeed write lots of fine songs in the 80's after hearing these 17. Still, I think it was pretty easy. Try it with Neil Young next.

Monday, May 26, 2014


Neil Young has never met an off-the-wall idea he doesn't like.  Follow up a huge, international hit album like Harvest with a ramshackle, buzz-killing live album of new, loud songs?  Check.  Meet the unknown art-punksters Devo (pre-fame) and make an unwatchable film?  Did that.  Embrace the latest gizmo, the vocodor, and once again send most fans screaming away with the album Trans?  Ya, that worked out well.  You show him something different, and he'll want to do it right then, and release whatever the results are.  That can work well, or horribly, but he doesn't care, he's on to the next project while you're still complaining about the old one.

A stop at Jack White's Third Man Records store/studio in Nashville introduced him to the refurbished, 1947 Voice-O-Graph recording booth, pictured on the cover.  It was a nifty place where you could make your own instant record, albeit a scratchy, mono disc of the day, and this is the only working one left in the world.  Entranced, Young decided it was perfect for the series of cover versions he'd been mulling, songs that had proved inspirational to him over the years.  These include Dylan's Girl From The North Country, Gordon Lightfoot's Early Morning Rain and If You Could Read My Mind, and Willie Nelson's Crazy, via Patsy Cline.  Plus, he starts each side of the record (if you get the vinyl), with a call to his late mother, telling her about the wild weather we're having, all these old numbers he used to do that he's re-recording, and asking her to patch things up with his dad.  I guess he felt the magic booth had some spiritual properties.

It is all pretty interesting, even with the pops, clicks, and low fidelity the machinery offers.  Do we really want to hear these numbers in that way?  Some of them are quite lovely, including his versions of Phil Ochs' Changes and Ivory Joe Hunter's Since I Met You Baby.  They offer invaluable insight, especially Bert Jansch's Needle Of Death.  Not only did it provide the template for Young's own Needle and the Damage Done, you can hear how it informed the basic Young acoustic style, most notably the similarities with his Ambulance Blues.  These are indeed some of the songs that made the man.  Others though, are throwaways.  Nelson's On The Road Again sounds like the last song played on the bus before everyone passes out, and the odd choice of Springsteen's My Hometown seems more of a nod to a fellow star traveler than any great inspiration.

With just Young's acoustic, a little piano (presumably parked nearby the booth) and some help from White (playing Phil to Young's Don on the Everly's I Wonder If I Care As Much), you can't get more basic than this.  However, I would have been happier hearing a live show featuring these numbers, as some of them have been played acoustically the last couple of years.  That, no doubt, will be released someday as well.

Sunday, May 25, 2014


Parton returns to the bluegrass sound for this album, which she's been doing off-and-on since 1999's The Grass Is Blue. I'll take this over any of her more mainstream country/pop albums, and if you compare the styles, this is much closer to her best material, such as Coat Of Many Colors and Jolene. When she embraces country and roots, Parton reveals her greatest strengths, including her unique voice and actual authenticity.

But she can't help reveal her other side, even on a supposed bluegrass album. Her commercial hopes always come packaged with a corny aw-shucks persona, blatant attempts at cross-over hits and questionable musical choices. We get a mix of all that here, even though the larger theme is the bluegrass stuff. When she plays it straight, such as the new, self-written number If I Had Wings, it's sublime. Recalling old classic Wayfaring Stranger, it's one of the best songs she's ever written. But that's followed by Lover du Jour, just horrid and cheesy, with her tee-hee mangling of French phrases and Pepe le Pew humour. Her duet with Willie Nelson, From Here To The Moon And Back, is lovely, but the one with Kenny Rogers, You Can't Make Old Friends, is calculated. A bluegrass version of Dylan's Don't Think Twice, It's Alright is a good idea, but covering Bon Jovi's Lay Your Hands On Me as an overblown gospel number is sacrilege.

Parton seems torn between being an artist and a celebrity. She knows it was a combination of both that brought her to fame, and she just can't bring herself to abandon the act.

Friday, May 23, 2014


This is Strongman's first disc since winning the Juno Award for Blues Album of the Year, plus three Maple Blues Awards, for A Natural Fact from 2012.  That disc was a bit different for him, an acoustic one, and here he returns to big electric blues, with lots of uptempo party tunes, full of energy.  His slide playing rips through the tracks, and producer Rob Szabo has put together a full, dynamic band sound that simply doesn't let up through the eleven cuts.

There are plenty of reasons here to show why Strongman leads the pack in making blues albums.  He easily moves from style to style, and tempo to tempo, on all original cuts.  What I Believe is deep and dark and nasty, from the Wolf/Muddy school.  That's followed up by the good humour and bounce of Get Used To It.  With its wordplay, hook likes and big backing vocals, it's worthy of a John Hiatt disc.  We're Goin' Out Tonight has spoken verses and roadhouse choruses, plus a grand story, about hooking up with an old pal who still parties like the old days, while the singer has the kids, job, etc.  Been there, got in trouble.  Then it's down to Texas, for the modern Let Me Prove It To You, blues verses with a soulful chord change in the hook.

Strongman isn't re-invented the blues wheel here, he's just doing it much, much better than most.  Every song here feels like some sort of classic or hit, all the lyrics right, all the stories solid.  Plus, there's a freshness and excitement to the disc, like he was itching to get these recorded and out, to show his electric side equals or betters the acoustic numbers of A Natural Fact.  It all adds up:  Acoustic grace, electric energy, Maple Blues-winning guitar player of the year, and a fine songwriter across genres, Strongman has the perfect last name.

Thursday, May 22, 2014


Call it Mellow Cold.  The group's sixth album is a quiet affair, built on soft melodies and gentle beats, and choruses that soar rather than rage.  Intimate is the key, as the band backs down from the stadium-filling sounds, and sing-along hits.  Apart from the single A Sky Full Of Stars, with its pounding dance beat chorus, for the rest imagine Chris Martin hunched over keyboard with ghosts and atmospheres swirling above.

Of course, all we've been thinking about for the past two months is the Martin/Paltrow break-up, another lesson in why celebrities shouldn't mate.  That seems to be the fuel behind the sad, solemn songs, and Martin's ruminations on love.  As he sings in Magic, "And if you were to ask me, after all that we've been through, 'Do you believe in magic?'  Yes, I do, of course I do."  Closing cut O sees him sing, "Flock of birds hovering above, just a flock of birds, that's how you think of love,"  over a simple piano.  There will be no fist-pumps during this section of the live show.  It's pretty much all classic break-up material and images;  he hasn't slept, he's thinking of her, it's full of rain, bells, birds, all those things that sign-post change.  For volume changes, the loops, swirls and swooshing are faded up or back down, and Martin himself rarely raises his voice, other than to add harmonies.

All that said, it's quite pretty in its sadness, and has a charm in its intimacy.  I like this Martin fellow more than the stadium one, and there's no arguing his melodic sense.  Viva la Heartbreak.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014


Nice to see the archives opening up for the late, great R.E.M., this double-disc featuring two complete MTV Unplugged shows, from 1991, and then 2001.  A lot changed in that 10 year period for the group.  The first time they were on, they were at the top, having just released the monster Out Of Time album, a #1 in several countries including Canada, England, and the U.S.  Bill Berry was still drumming in the band, and their decline unthinkable.  By 2001, the sales and interest decline had begun, Berry was retired, and the group was less interested in a big hit sound than in experimental beauty, as heard on the disc Reveal.  Quick, name a track from Reveal!  Actually, there are lots of fine ones (All The Way To Reno, Imitation Of Life, I'll Take The Rain), but R.E.M. had lost the connection with current listening habits.

The first set sees them truly unplugged, with Berry on bongos, and acoustic guitars all around.  So stripped down, the band and Stipe show what fine stories are in these songs, long-hidden behind mixes and early mumbling vocals.  Now, Stipe is up front, Mike Mills is singing his heart out on harmonies, and the group is shiny and happy (but they don't do that one).  Early cut Fall On Me, which Stipe calls his favourite R.E.M. number, has a majesty in this form that is spine-tingling, and when Losing My Religion comes around, you hear a band at its peak, the mandolin riff one for the ages.

That number is the only one repeated on the second Unplugged show, as old faves are interspersed with the newer numbers.  This will be the revelation to those who ignored the last decade of R.E.M.'s struggles.  The more intricate arrangements in Daysleeper and Disappear point to a different band but prove equal to the classics Cuyahoga and So. Central Rain.  Let the re-evaluating begin here.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014


They don't call him Shakey for nothing. Neil Young loves to shake things up, and you never know what kind of album he's going to release, whether it's country, folk, rockabilly, screeching rock, blues, he just follows his muse. This time, for the new A Letter Home, he's putting out an album that nobody's ever made before. Teaming up with producer Jack White, Young has recorded acoustic cover versions of songs that have long been favourites, that he says set the direction for his career. You get Willie Nelson's Crazy, Dylan's Girl From The North Country, Gordon Lightfoot's Early Morning Rain, and eight more. But it's the way they were recorded that sets this apart. He used White's vintage 1947 Voice-0-Graph recorded booth, the only working one left in the world. These machines, much like a phone booth, allowed people to walk in and immediately make a record. Seeing the machine in action appealed to Young's nature, and away he went. A Letter Home will be released on Tuesday, May 27. But thanks to the folks at Warner Music, you can stream it here for a preview listen. So click the link, and go back in time with Neil Young.

Monday, May 19, 2014


Any addition to the Little Feat archives is welcome news to rabid fans, especially quality video. This comes from the 1976 Pink Pop Festival in Holland, and while not the highest quality audio and video, the warts are more than made up for by the close proximity of the cameras, and the level of performance. 1976 was pretty much the peak period for the group, and this is a core set of classics.

Most importantly, we have Lowell George still in good shape, notably much skinnier than he'd soon become, in fine voice and a vibrant part of the band dynamic. Sharing guitar solos and vocals with Paul Barrere, he's at centre stage, obviously the leader and spark. Yet the whole band is on fire, and a well-oiled touring outfit, a tight groove machine, with parts of soul, funk, New Orleans, blues, rock and roll and doo-wop feeding into a sound all their own. Dixie Chicken, Fat Man In The Bathtub, Skin It Back, Rock and Roll Doctor, seeing these favourites being performed by the six-man version of the band finally gives us a visual of the majesty we've long known exists thanks to the 1977 Waiting For Columbus live album, surely a contender for the greatest concert disc ever.

The package comes with a CD and a DVD of the set, although the DVD is missing two cuts, Oh Atlanta and One Love Stand. But the limited TV audio sounds thin on CD, so the DVD is the way to go. Not many concert discs demand close attention, but I was glued from start to finish, and what a glorious finish. The Feat had an encore trick of going off stage, but continuing to sing "roll on through the night" from Feats Don't Feel Me Now in a microphone carried back by George, until returning to finish the number. Here, they then finished with the insane Teenage Nervous Breakdown, extra speedy and probably confusing for the Europeans. But it made the right statement; Some folks say that rock and roll is bad for the body and bad for the soul; Little Feat forever proved the opposite was the fact.

Sunday, May 18, 2014


I'm sure there will be more and more archive stuff to come in the wake of Reed's passing. This is stuff that has already been out on DVD, and now Eagle is making it available on Blu-ray for the first time. Economically, there are two different features on one disc; a live concert from 2000, and an episode of the fine Classic Albums series, on Reed's landmark Transformer album.

The gem is the Transformer doc, as it features Reed in full participation. Made in 2001, it follows the usual Classic Albums pattern, participants discussing the making of the disc, going over it cut by cut, even isolating specific parts on the original multi-track tapes. It's a joy to see Reed at the console, fading down everything else so he can hear vocals by co-producer David Bowie, or parts by the other producer, MIck Ronson, praising both. Reed is nowhere like his nasty reputation, happy to talk about the genesis of songs such as Perfect Day, Walk On The Wild Side and Satellite Of Love. Of course, it's all praise on the doc, which he obviously agrees with. There's not much to criticize about this album, though. Only Bowie's input is missing, and that would have been quite the reunion on screen.

After those high moments, the concert feature is a disappointment. Recorded at the Montreux festival in 2000, Reed is promoting his latest, Ecstasy. Not a bad album, but the performance is leaden and lifeless. Aside from Fernando Saunders' fluid bass lines, the guitars drone and the songs over little variety. Reed uses a teleprompter to read the lyrics, and smirks his way through, the whole show feeling like an in-joke for the band. Even a trio from the acclaimed New York album (Romeo Had Juliette, Dirty Blvd., Dime Store Mystery) and a closer of Perfect Day can't liven up this flat set.

Thursday, May 15, 2014


Dylan-approved, T Bone Burnett produced, real sisters Laura and Lydia Rogers have been gracing various Americana projects (usually involving Burnett).  The duo have a special talent for old-fashioned vocals in close harmony, and look like Depression-era trouble makers.  Retro roots is getting pretty crowded these days though, and the Sisters don't have a problem updating.  The subject matter and singing style is more 30's to 50's, but the ace Burnett band doesn't get stuck in the past.  Marc Ribot is on hand for jazz riffs played through the eccentric filter, while drummer Jay Bellerose is busy and woody and loud, no processing but defiantly modern.

The Sisters write much of their own material, along with top pros, including Cape Breton's Gordie Sampson, country singer, Brandi Carlile, and notably one B. Dylan, contributing new lyrics to his funky Tin Pan Alley number Dirty Lie.  It's a beauty, a bluesy piece that Tom Waits might have done as well.  The number Iuka is a messy murder ballad, in an updated, Ode To Billy Joe style, and aside from the car mentioned, could be from 1850 or 1950 or now.  The cover of P.J. Harvey's The Pocket Knife works too, retaining a bit of her edge and power, but its folk side  more prominent. 

So, it's got lots of top-notch material and expert playing.  But the vocals are the real difference, as near to the Everly Sisters as we're going to hear.  When the close harmonies begin on Let There Be Lonely, you'll get shivers, and on Black and Blue, you'll probably feel the same way you do when you hear Cathy's Clown.  Beauty.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014


From Australia, but also based in Ontario the last few years, Pacek certainly sounds at home with troubadour/alt-country sounds from these parts.  A fine songwriter and singer, her tales are touched with sadness but full of strength, and the track "A Girl Gets By" could be the theme here.  On All I Need, she defiantly announces, "I don't need another lover to tell me that I'm beautiful," later explaining what she needs is someone to "learn the song inside my heart, and sing it to me when I forget."  With a bit of a beat and a lot of honey, she fits in the Shawn Colvin sound.

Speaking of beats, producer Brad Albetta (Martha Wainwright, Teddy Thompson) has taken her a bit out of the country comforts sound on selected cuts, adding subtle touches such as programmed beats, replacing bass with cello, or mysterioso lead guitar from Hamilton's Frank Koren.  Things never get too carried away though, with the cut Favourite Thing straight country, and Pass Me Over acoustic confessional folk.  Her fine voice will capture you right away, and she has the songs to match up with the best.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014


Few albums are as sonically exciting as Finn's.  Now on his third proper solo album, the son of Crowded House kingpin Neil has the family knack for melodies, but takes inventiveness a whole step further than pretty much anyone.  Already known for his looping, Finn disgorges every conceivable burble and beep across these twelve cuts, everything built from complicated, fantastic drum and percussion beds.  There are these gorgeous songs going on, and the synths, bleats, pops and beats rise up to meet them on an equal basis.

Finn just can't leave anything alone, and for once, more is more.  Yes, you could strip all these down to nice, serviceable tunes, maybe even tour them as a singer-songwriter, but we probably have enough of them out there.  What we don't have is enough crazy bastards conducting sound symphonies.  There are layers on layers, parts of great beauty, odd twists, and unrecognizable bits, no doubt something sampled and processed into submission.  And with all of this, and it's a lot, there's always those songs, as sweet as the pop Dad (or Squeeze for that matter) has laid down for decades.  Viva New Zealand!

Monday, May 12, 2014


One of the great things about the famous Stax/Volt labels being revived a couple of years back has been the reissue campaign.  Yes, they've been hitting the glory days of the likes of Otis Redding, The Staple Singers, Booker T. and the MG's, but also they've gone into the vaults for some unreleased works, and have been re-evaluating the work of some of the latter-day artists.  As the company was collapsing in the mid-70's, even proving hitmakers like The Dramatics couldn't get on the charts because the records weren't getting to the public.  The group had two huge hits, both Top Ten and million-sellers, Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get and In The Rain, but never again hit the Top 40.  That's despite a succession of worthy singles, and no drop in quality for several years.  After the Stax/Volt demise, the group switched to ABC Records, but the career damage was done.

This set isn't a greatest hits in the normal sense, but rather a collection of their best soul ballads, for the U.S. radio format called slow jams.  Now, that just happened to be the group's specialty, so many of the chart hits are here, including the gorgeous In The Rain, but since many of them only made the lower reaches of the Top 100, they'll be unfamiliar to all but the biggest fans.  The excellent Toast To The Fool, the follow-up to In The Rain, certainly deserved a better fate, a great example of their multiple voices style.  And I Panicked is another should-have-been, a gritty vocal from Ron Banks over sleek soul.  There are several album cuts as well, including 1972's Fall In Love, Lady Love, a huge production with strings, horns, percussion and harmonies, proof of how deep the quality was for this band.  I could have used a little variety rather than all slow stuff, but each cut has beautiful moments.

Sunday, May 11, 2014


Supernova should confuse a few fans, and delight lots more. Working with producer Dan Auerbach (Black Keys) for the first time, Lamontagne has penned a series of quite different numbers than his previous works, from fun and poppy to 60's-influenced pysch. Despite what he's been called in the past, I wouldn't call this a folk album.

There's an Auerbach haze over the whole thing, keeping some songs mysterious, others more upbeat, which feels like the sun poking through. The title cut is the most straight-ahead pop-rocker, with a big chorus, hand-claps and a glorious, positive message, "You're a blazing star, yea that's what you are." Pick Up A Gun is weary, dreamy, slightly murky like over-saturated tape, back when they only had four tracks and kept overdubbing and bouncing down generations. Smashing is the set's biggest head trip, with its I Am The Walrus feel over multiple sections. Closing cut Drive-In Movies sees him move into country rock territory, with lots of pedal steel, and wouldn't sound out of place on a Sadies album. It's the widest, and weirdest range of songs Lamontagne has yet recorded, and all the better for it.

Thursday, May 8, 2014


As they enter their September years, there's nothing faded about the talents of this trio. Boz Scaggs, Michael McDonald and Donald Fagen are a great trio to front this side project, as they represent a blend of soul, blues and jazz. They all had big hits on the charts but also have a high level of musical integrity, and don't seem to take the star thing seriously. Sure, they play the hits, but they are enjoying themselves too, just as much as on the cover versions.

The loose concept is to play some older songs that inspired them, and then trot out their big numbers, each of the trio getting a fair share of lead vocals, plus staying onstage the whole time, playing on each other's numbers. It's largely the touring group that has been featured on the last few Steely Dan treks, which means very strong players, and a horn section. This set-up works just as well for Scaggs and McDonald as it does for Fagen, with numbers such as Lowdown, Lido Shuffle, What A Fool Believes and Takin' It To The Streets sounding great beefed up. Fagen knows the crowd well, and sticks to the bigger Dan hits, chart numbers such as Peg, Hey Nineteen, and Reelin' In The Years, rather than go too deep into the albums. That's for this year's Steely Dan tour.

The covers are fun as well, with everybody trading vocals on Johnny Taylor's Who's That Lady and Arthur Conley's Sweet Soul Music, while Scaggs does a nifty Love T.K.O. All this is grand, except for one big problem: It's a PBS special, done for Great Performances. I don't quite know why, but all these PBS music shows, aside from Austin City Limits are too sterile, and the audience is filled with geezers, like it was a Lawrence Welk reunion. They must give the tickets out to big donors. Get some new directors, PBS.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014


A strong and different debut release from an actual Mississippian, at 29 Singleton is old enough to have developed his own sound, and young enough to have vastly different influences from previous generations of blues players.  What's really different about him is his strong hip-hop streak, an early love.  What he's doing is electric blues, but singing and writing in a hip-hop style, using the rhyming patterns and first-person style.  Now, don't expect all the guns and ho's, thankfully.  This isn't gangsta, it's still blues, but certainly with an exciting new twist.

Singleton's also a smoking guitar player, with lots of terrific and soulful licks.  When the hip-hop isn't present, he comes up with more typical originals, all first-rate as well, such as the slow and fiery Crime Scene, something you could imagine Charles Bradley digging into.  Keep Pushin has a big rock drums, organ stabs and a great, true story.  Seems Singleton wasn't just a blues prodigy, but a basketball star as well, and he sings about his two NBA tryouts until an injury wrecked his hopes.  Luckily an uncle took him to Mississippi blues clubs, and he "got blues blood in my veins".

But it's those hip-hop lines that make the album most interesting, even though it's excellent across the board.  Simply, I can't think of anybody sounding like this before.  It's actually only heavily present on a couple of tracks, including opener I Refuse To Lose, but what a cut.  The bragging is there, but the blues is pounding behind, as he's telling us his career is just starting, and to look out for him: "Y'all ain't caught onto it yet/maybe this time you won't forget/I win at whatever I choose/because I refuse to lose."  I wouldn't doubt him, this sounds like the future of the blues to me.

Sunday, May 4, 2014


Nice to see Arden back in the writing groove, after doing another covers album last time out in 2011, and various broadcasting and memoir things the last few years. She's an interesting personality for sure, but I like her best when she's coming up with original songs, and ten of the eleven here are her own. I like her even better when she's rocking it up a bit, and lead single You Love Me Back has punch. Working again with heavyweight producer Bob Rock, there's a renewed vigor here.

Opener Comin' 'Round For Us is the best of the bunch, a co-write with Emm Gryner. It's a fun and rocking number, our heroine battling the elements for love: "Earthquakes, big snakes, salt lakes, each and every mistake I've made." Another strong story is Karolina, a woman with a past that's holding her back. This being Jann Arden, there are a number of sensitive ballads too, a little too mellow at times. But with her strong, caring voice, Arden always can engage you, and some extra Rock is what the doctor ordered.

Saturday, May 3, 2014


Oh, the curse of Red Red Wine. No, not drinking it, it's apparently good for you in moderation. I mean the cover version UB40 did, giving them their biggest hit, way back in the 80's. The trouble was how much it overshadowed their own writing, and still does to this day. Every time they have come close to being forgotten, they have gone back to the covers well, releasing another Labour Of Love collection, trying to find that level of popularity again.

Too bad, because this collection, which takes us into the mid-2000's shows, they can write good reggae, and remain a solid bunch. It's the covers that lapse into schmaltz. Elvis? A minor hit with (I Can't Help) Falling In Love With You, ska-lite. How about a reggae-fied version of the spiritual Swing Low (Sweet Chariot)? Pointless and bland. In the meantime, their own numbers languish. Listening through the double set, it becomes clear they work well on their own merit. The best tracks are predictably the earliest: Food For Thought, If It Happens Again, Rat In Mi Kitchen, Riddle Me. The good news is their latest album was pretty darn good, so there's more than hope, and maybe no more covers collections.

Friday, May 2, 2014


Easy-going, funky and fun, Toronto's Raoul and The Big Time take a little jump blues, some Chicago, and add a jazzy sophistication, like a twist of Mose Allison. Eight vocals and four instrumentals move from uptempo harp blowers (Raoul's ax), to some sad, shaggy-dog stories, hurt by love, and to add insult to injury, the Motor Vehicle office too. Raoul has a good story-telling style, and everybody is playing it cool, no showboating or overplaying, just high quality licks and material.

Raoul can write 'em, and he can pick 'em too, with four great covers among the tunes. Calling on current members of Mavis Staples' band for support, they lay into the Staple Singers' Why Am I Treated So Bad, with a deep soul groove. The funk comes back for Allan Toussaint's Get Out Of My Life Woman, and Raoul does a fine take on Bobby "Blue" Bland's Someday. What I like about him as a singer is his phrasing; he punches the right words, stretches the right notes, picking up on the syncopation, becoming an important instrument in the whole. It's especially effective on the jump number Spoken For, which also features tasty guitar runs from guest Junior Watson on guitar.

There's plenty of solid harp throughout as well, especially on the instrumentals. Curtis Salgado shows up for a showdown, the pair trading harmonica solos all through the cut Curtis Charm. The guests don't overshadow the tunes though; for once, all the folks invited contribute to solid numbers, rather than simply add weight to the liner notes. This is a great mix of styles, moods and rhythms, that leaves you with quite a joyous feeling.

Thursday, May 1, 2014


The first thing you notice about this album is that every song is credited to Carter. Then you notice only a couple of them are Carlene. The rest are from her famous family: Mother June, The Carter Sisters and the original Carter Family, pretty much the monarchs of country music. Carlene has been making her own music since the late 70's, but this time she's honouring the family name, and perhaps cashing in on it a small bit as well.

With a band of top pros led by producer Don Was on bass, Carter claims the lineage with updates of several of her uncle A.P.'s classics, including Give Me The Roses and Black Jack David. For some of them, she plays it relatively true to the originals, but others, such as Little Black Train, the numbers are rocked up a bit, to show how they can be modernized and retain their quality. It's only a partial success; there's an awful lot of instruments and a mighty thwack from drummer Jim Keltner. Carter has a nice, sweet voice, and she sounds better with the acoustic instruments.

She brings back one of her own numbers, the lovely and autobiographical Me And The Wildwood Rose, about growing up with those famous folks, being a kid in the back seat, hearing them sing, and learning from her grandmother Maybelle and her mother and aunts. Interestingly, the songs she does best here are the ones she chose from the strong women in the family. Her mother's Tall Lover Man sees her bring out her best growl. Maybelle's Troublesome Waters is treating with devotion, which it deserves.

It just seems there should be a better album in this. Perhaps they were trying too hard; star guest duets with Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson and Vince Gill add little. There are too many heavyweight players around, and we're reminded way too often of her heritage in the booklet. In the end, I have to think it should have been a simpler project, truer to the originals.