Monday, June 30, 2014


For the first time, Hynde abandons the long-serving Pretenders name.  She pretty much is the Pretenders sound though, and I don't know of anybody who could make her sound differently.  Certainly the producer and co-writer on these songs, Swede Bjorn Yitling (see the title), keeps her strengths right in the front line.  Hynde's sounding great, all her tough persona and rugged voice fully intact.  And she has a batch of first-rate tunes that bear up to scrutiny as well as any Pretenders disc of the last 25 years.

Your Or No One gets the softer pop side of Hynde out of the way at the start, with a big sound on the chorus and her nicest coo, with that little warble she does.  The production has a bit of Spector to it, and if this was 1985, it would put her right back in the Top Ten.  Then we get to some meat, with a classic Chrissie put down of a middle-aged hipster trying to surround himself with cool, on Dark Sunglasses.  Down The Wrong Way sees Hynde use a guest star perfectly, with Neil Young contributing the lead guitar all the way through, sounding just like electric Neil Young, in a brilliant cameo.  In A Miracle is a dark ballad, reflecting Hynde's ongoing belief in the chance of true love.  But don't expect a softhearted romance; on Sweet Nuthin', she reminds "Don't you be such a baby/man up to me..".  Tough talkin', tough rockin', the way you want a Chrissie Hynde album.

Saturday, June 28, 2014


The Small Faces are the great lost band of London.  While all their equal contemporaries became huge stars, fate conspired against the group.  That, plus a few bad decisions too (not touring the U.S. was a big one).  Their recording legacy is a mess because of label and management politics, crappy deals and bad mixes.  Finally after years of this, it's all being straightened out, and hopefully this will let us appreciate the fine music they did manage to make.

There Are But Four Small Faces was the first album by the band released in North America, but the third in England (under the title of Small Faces).  It also had a few different cuts, thanks to the usual singles and E.P. differences.  It was a good time for the band, as they had started take more control of their recordings, signing with England's Immediate label, which gave them studio control.  So the rush-in, rush-out recording was over, and the group started experimenting with studio effects and more complicated arrangements.  The writing team of Ronnie Lane and Steve Marriott was at their peak as well.  The group's sole North American hit, the druggy Itchycoo Park is featured here, as well as another thinly-veiled reference to the group's favourite pastime, Here Comes The Nice.  Get Yourself Together highlighted the R'n'B side of the band, and shows why they are considered the best of the mod groups in England, even above The Who of that time.

This is the first I've seen of the new reissues and remasters of the Small Faces catalogue, and it's extremely well-down.  It's a two-disc set in a book-style case, with extensive notes, and some good bonuses.  Disc one has the original album, and disc two has a previously-unissued mono mix, always fun to hear for the 60's vibe.  There are a handful of different mixes as well, altogether a first-class presentation, and hopefully will do the trick of bringing the Small Faces up a notch in these parts.

Friday, June 27, 2014


In a company dominated at its start by male producers, writers and performers, Mary Wells was the first woman to burst out, and was in fact the company's biggest star from '62 to '64.  A smooth singer with far more maturity than the girl group Supremes, Wells could sing about having "two lovers and I'm not ashamed", and make it a Top Ten hit.  She became Marvin Gaye's first duet partner, and finally the company's #1 seller in 1964 with My Guy.

But all was not wells, as Berry Gordy started to favour The Supremes after they finally hit with Where Did Our Love Go.  Wells grew jealous and distrustful, and launched a suit for more earnings, and ultimately, to be released from her contract.  20th Century Fox thought she'd remain a huge star, and offered her a fortune.  It was a bad move all around, as Wells couldn't find the Motown magic elsewhere.  She became one of the company's list of casualties, which is perhaps longer than its star survivors, and died of cancer in 1992.

This set captures the Motown highlights, a very strong greatest hits, lead by Top 10 entries You Beat Me To The Punch, The One Who Really Loves You, Two Lovers, and of course, My Guy.  Like all Motowners, the secondary singles are where the magic lies now, the big ones having been overplayed on every soundtrack and TV show.  What's Easy For Two Is So Hard For One barely scraped into the Top 30, but has a classic Smokey Robinson lyric and a happy swing to it.  And Your Old Stand By has some old R n' B grit in it, not often heard from the slick Motown studios.  Although this collection is licensed to a secondary label, the sound quality is excellent, better than many other Motown collections I've heard, and at 14 cuts it fills the bill for your Wells needs.

Thursday, June 26, 2014


Ontario`s Gauthier is a wonderful soft-rock songwriter, without the occasional negative connotations of that term.  Back in the 70`s, you had bands such as Bread, or people such as Jimmy Webb and Art Garfunkel that made pop music with tremendous melodies, interesting words, but way too commercial and easy-breezy for the Zeppelin crowd, or the BTO crowd either.  So you soft-rockers got a pretty bad rep, and its never really got out from that.

But I can`t think of another way to describe what Gauthier does, and does so well.  It`s certainly not the old-style approach though.  His songs are layered with loops, a bed of ambiance and modern sounds, over which we get his beautiful words and voice.  Seriously, this guy has Glenn Frey beat for sheer emotion.  It would be folly to surround his pipes with anything but the loveliest harmonies, and prettiest keyboards.  There`s a calm country lope to Everything Is Gonna Be, with a little weeping guitar.  Hold My Hand is a stunning piano ballad, with this scratchy electric guitar hidden way, way down in the mix, and some doo-wop singers helping out.  Then there's the surprise of the set, the only cover, a radical reinterpretation of Phil Collins' In The Air Tonight, with spoken word samples, playful beats and tons of sound effects throughout the loops. 

The thoughtful lyrics of the album could only be placed in such a reflective setting, where we can ponder the life questions Gauthier lays out before us.  He`s looking at himself closely, examining the way he`s acting, how he`s fooled himself, what can work in the future.  And of course, in doing so, he`s helping us examine in the same way.  As he sings in I See You, the album`s centerpiece, "The only way that I see the light is through the cracks I once tried to hide/ If hoping is as love strives to do, I see you, ya I see you."  It may be the quietest album you hear this year, but certainly it will be one with the most going on, too.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014


Sweet vocals, West Coast smooth rock, but that name, I dunno.  San Diego`s The Donkeys seem to be doing alright though, after a decade together and four albums.  Their latest sees some harmony stuff, a slight bit of surf on a couple of instrumentals, and lots of inventive pop.  Their influence come from up and down the California coast, from the dreamy pop production of L.A. to a bit of jamming courtesy of classic San Francisco. 

Sunny Daze is the perfect title for the lead-off track, as it does incorporate some seagull sound effects, strumming campfire acoustics, harmonies and a lead vocal that sounds like the guy from America, but it also has a fuzzy, distant feel.  It`s one of a couple that question whether one should stay in the Golden State, or try out the rest of the world.  I Heart Alabama expresses love for other places, but states `Gonna keep my home in California`, while chugging along in a nice country-rock groove, as invented there.  Giving themselves the whole musical palette of their state, The Donkeys have a fun and eclectic album, with a extra dollop of peaceful on top.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014


Barely a whisper here, but still top of the heap in Jolly Ol', Weller is now old enough to be a beloved English character.  Every utterance is newsworthy, and every new album scrutinized for high quality, which is usually there.  This is the second set of his better songs since going solo from The Jam and The Style Council, and reflects the various versions of his very British styles since 1999. 

You have Weller the soul man, his favourite pose, but perhaps the hardest to take at times.  He doesn't have Curtis Mayfield's voice, and while the music side is always groove-worthy, his gruff vocals might be the very reason he has virtually no following in North America.  Then there's Britpop Grandpop, where Weller shows the little rotters how to write English rock and roll and not just copy The Beatles.  Pastoral Paul was the sound that brought him back to the top, that very British thing of acknowledging the folk side of things, getting out of the city and writing about trees and grassy places.  And every so often, you'll get a whiff of the old Jammy Paul, when he wants to act partially punky. 

That's my favourite, and you'll find it here on Push It Along, and even more so on Come On/Let's Go.  Some of the more celebrated songs here (at least in the U.K.) seem busy and big for no reason, such as 22 Dreams, which shamelessly takes its cue from the old Electric Prunes hit I Had Too Much To Dream (Last Night).  Wake Up The Nation is a kind of dumb chant, punk by numbers for what's left of that generation.  Fast Car/Slow Traffic is Small Faces experimentation, but The Small Faces did that in '67.  While almost everything falls on the good side, it's hard to get excited by Weller's output, especially when there are British giants such as The Kinks and even Billy Bragg worthy of more fans here.

Monday, June 23, 2014


Newbie blues boy from New Orleans, Johnson's debut disc includes some surprising maturity and some heavyweight acknowledgement from guests Alvin Youngblood Hart and Sonny Landreth.  The self-professed guitar slinger also writes seven of eleven cuts here, and shows a surprising palette of influences.  The disc feels like a showcase of his talents, with a bit of everything on display for all to see.

Original Don't Make A Sound kicks things off, and sometimes you have to admit that certain guitar playing is just nasty.  Not only is it technically good, there's a dirty effect on it, lots of guts and it's a moment (well, couple of minutes) where Johnson throws down the gauntlet.  The Hucklebuck is another, six minutes and some of Johnson dueling with the organ on the old dance craze number.  Elsewhere, Johnson moves back and forth through modern blues.  The title cut is is mid-tempo soul blues, while So Glad You're Mine is even smoother.  Don't Take It With You is very tight funk, almost a pre-hit Robert Palmer groove.  Long Way Back To New Orleans is the only nod to his home music, but what a number.  It has a pulsing Second Line rhythm throughout, and Johnson and Landreth duel away on ripping slide solos.

The covers include a matched pair, Dylan's Meet Me In The Morning, and Hooker's Meet Me In The Bottom.  It's one of the best Dylan covers I've heard, going a long way to show how underestimated he is as a pure blues writer of the late 20th century.  The Hooker number, which shares more than just half a title with Dylan's, is rearranged and intense throughout.  Not all of them work though; his version of As The Years Go Passing By is by the book, over long at 13 minutes, and the vitality of the tune drained out by long guitar noodling.  But overall, it's the kind of album that puts a young blues artist on the map, and on the road to a long career.

Sunday, June 22, 2014


Purple fans, especially those who (rightly) believe that the Mark II lineup was the best, love this set. Mark II, for you uninitiated, means Ritchie Blackmore on guitar, Ian Gillan singing, Roger Glover on bass, Jon Lord at the keys and Ian Paice drumming. They'd been in this configuration since 1969, and had just finished recording the high water mark, Machine Head. This set was taken from their first tour of Japan, over three nights, where they were hugely popular.

Like Cheap Trick, Bob Dylan and others, the band's Japanese label wanted a live record to satisfy the huge interest the tour was bringing. Purple weren't too interested, but agreed, as long their engineer, Martin Birch, was the one recording it. It turned into a massive hit, and when import copies started showing up in the U.S., the band was forced to release it world-wide. Good plan; it went Top 10 in the States, #1 in Canada and several other places, and is often cited as one of the best live albums if you like that sort of heavy metal thing.

Touring a big hit album certainly helped, and Japan included four cuts off Machine Head: Lazy, and three stone classics, Space Truckin', Highway Star and of course, Smoke On The Water. With hard rock still in its infancy, fans were happy to head bang to extended jams and even drum solos, and Truckin' filled up an entire vinyl side, with the other three holding only two songs each. That did mean a few extra Gillan screeches than needed, but the trade-off is nifty Blackmore licks, and playfulness around the usual melodies. Smoke is teased out, the group in no hurry to get to the rest of the tune after the well-known opening chords.

The album has been reissued before, but now we get the super deluxe, deluxe and vinyl reissue versions. The super deluxe is nuts, with all three complete Japan shows, each with the same exact tracks, except one variation in the encores, plus a dvd documentary, hi-res content, etc. The deluxe is more sensible; the original double-album is on disc one, the three nights of encores on the second, although that means three versions of Black Night. Rock on.

Friday, June 20, 2014


Jill Barber loves a love song, she loves vintage music and she loves orchestrations.  This time out, it's as simple as that.  Along with her producer, Les Cooper, she wrote ten tracks, not from any specific style, but music that could have come from the 30's up to the 70's, from Tin Pan Alley to countrypolitan to Brill Building pop.

Opener Broken For Good is the most current number, with a big beat, pop-soul feel and 60's flourishes.  A nasty guitar is cleverly out of place, and the drums mixed up front, and those modern hints make this the closest to a contemporary single Barber has come.  Oughtta be a hit.  Next up is The Least That She Deserves, one of a few here with a slight country hint, the string-laden 50's and 60's Nashville numbers of various Brenda's and Patsy's, although these arrangements are bolder, more oomph and less syrup.  Let's Call In Love is another more modern one, the soul turned up higher, and a laid-back lilt that recalls the more playful Al Green songs.  Lucky In Love is the most old-fashioned tune, a jazz ballad with a cocktail easiness, as she sits in with the Nat King Cole Trio and a side of strings.

The real trick here, and what makes Barber great at what she does, is how she and Cooper evoke period music, but still manage to make it contemporary.  Much of that is due to the quality of the writing, performing and arranging, and the magic comes from Barber's vocal talents.  The secret ingredient, to my ears, is the production style, leaving in just those few modern touches that will attract fans that would never put on a record from before they were born.  Then there are us who remember the stuff when it was on the hit parade, and we can like it too.

Thursday, June 19, 2014


Every once in a while, Willie Nelson tries really hard.  Not that he's putting out junk; the guy can whip out a fantastic solo or turn in a passionate vocal at any time.  But he also puts out a constant string of albums, and rarely commits to a full batch of new material.  You're more likely to get one new one, and a bunch of covers.  This time, you can tell he wanted to prove something, as at 81, he has a full 9 new tunes out of the 14 here.  Also, it's not a concept set, such as last year's To All The Girls..., which teamed him up with famous females for duets.  This is simply new material with a few outside writers, the aim being quality.

Like Daniel Lanois did for Willie back in 1998, it seems a producer lit the spark here.  Buddy Cannon is the co-writer on all of the new tracks, mostly for his job of taking Willie's guitar and vocal demos and fleshing out the arrangements and polishing the final product.  Unlike Lanois, he doesn't leave his stamp on Willie's sound though.  This is vintage Nelson, clean and unchanged from his 70's sound, Trigger the acoustic at the centre, Willie's warm voice up front, Mickey Raphael's harmonica all through it.

There are a couple of major songs here, including The Wall, a ballad about burning out from pressure and overwork:  "I went off like a roman candle, burning everyone I knew, I hit the wall."  The title cut might be about his long-serving band:  "We're a band of brothers and sisters and whatever/On a mission to break all the rules/And I know you love me because I love you too."  The covers are well-chosen too, including a gem from his old running buddy Billy Joe Shaver, who sums up Nashville in Hard To Be An Outlaw, which probably sums up Nelson's thoughts too:  "The record people nowadays keep spinning round and round/Songs about the backroads that they never have been down/ They go and call it country, but that ain't the way it sounds/ It's enough to make a renegade want to terrorize the town/ It's hard to be an outlaw who ain't wanted anymore."  Nova Scotia's Gordie Sampson gets a credit here as well, with a number called The Songwriters.  A new Nelson album is always nice, but I'd probably give back two or three of them if he'd make more like this every couple of years.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014


It's fascinating to see what happened to Ray Charles, the acknowledged Genius of Soul.  He pretty much invented the style, mixing jazz with a hard-edged R'n'B sound, adding in just the right elements of blues and gospel, and setting the benchmark for the genre throughout the 1950's.  It's a remarkable body of work, but for the most part, he's not even best-known for it.  That didn't happen until he crossed over to a bigger (and whiter) audience after 1960, and the hit What'd I Say.  Then he went on a string of popular (but lesser) genre-hopping discs, including Genius + Soul = Jazz and Modern Sounds In Country & Western Music.  The big hit freed him, let him leave Atlantic Records for much bigger paycheques, more experimentation, but ultimately diminished artistic work for the rest of his career.

Unless you really have a hankering for his I Can't Stop Loving You, or Beatles cover Eleanor Rigby, the place to head for Charles is any of the Atlantic Record compilations, like this new one.  I'll take Mess Around, Lonely Avenue and Drown In My Own Tears anytime.  There have been boxed sets and greatest hits around for years, but this three-disc budget release is reasonably-priced and pretty complete.  All three discs are over 70 minutes, so that's three-and-a-half hours for about 40 bucks.  It's packaged similarly to sets earlier this year on Aretha Franklin and Otis Redding, all thrills and no frills, so don't expect liner notes or track information.  You can get that online anyway, or email me and I'll write back a couple of thousand words.

Briefly, you get all his hits here from the start of the Atlantic contract in 1953, after he wrapped up the more jazz-leaning days of the Ray Charles Trio.  This stuff is gold, and what's great is his dynamic electric piano and organ-playing, and the vocals.  His voice is much grittier than you're used to, and there's a lot more emotion and rawness on the best songs.  Plus, the Raelettes get involved, excellent singers themselves, able to take major parts and co-leads on some numbers.  While the R'n'B chart hits were the bread-earners, Charles was still interested in jazz and orchestra numbers, big vocals numbers with sweet choral accompaniment, and instrumentals.  I'm partial to the raw stuff, but his vocals win you over on the ballads and jazz numbers, and he seemed to make better song choices then as well.  For instance, Don't Let The Sun Catch You Cryin' is covered with strings and and sweetened with singers, but it stills has, well, it's called soul.  He invented it.

There's a bit of a bonus here as well.  In the past, the Atlantic compilations have pretty much stopped at What'd I Say, as Charles then jumped ship to ABC.  That meant some pretty good early 60's hits were left off.  Now though, the rights to those songs belong to the Charles Foundation, so the compilers have been able to license three of the best from 60 - 61, Georgia On My Mind, Unchain My Heart and Hit the Road Jack.  They are certainly welcome.

Monday, June 16, 2014


Montreal's Hill is redefining blues, taking it forward and back all at once.  Back to the days of one-man operations, doing it all himself, and taking that forward with up-to-date electric heaviness.  2012 saw him start a new journey with Solo Recordings Vol. 1, stripping it all back to a one-on-one experience with the songs and the listener.  Already recognized as a leading guitar player, Hill grabbed even more cache with a raw, intimate set that was nominated for that year's Juno.  Volume 2 is richer, deeper, better.

What you get is all Hill, no overdubs, and that alone is quite a feat.  Not only is he playing either acoustic or electric, he's laying down a bunch of one-man band accompaniment at the same time.  He's got a mini-drum set with a bass drum and hi-hat, other bits of percussion, harmonica, plus playing bits of bass line on guitar as well as the chords or lead.  And, he has to do it while getting across a batch of new songs, eight originals and three covers, making them as strong as can be.  The goal is to have the listener concentrate on the quality of the material, not on the novelty of the performance.  This he accomplishes in spades.  Numbers such as Never Is Such A  Long Time, a blistering and dark tune with hair-raising guitar in the middle, an ominous performance with a passionate vocal, sound complete.  His version of Little Walter's Hate To See You Go is just as tough and scary as the Chicago harp players' take, Hill's more claustrophobic.

For those who feel modern blues players don't get to the core of the music, a listen to Hill will help.  He's one of the few that has found the way to pass on that primal urgency.

Friday, June 13, 2014


With former mentor Dan Auerbach (you know, Black Keys) no longer on board as producer, album #3 for Mayfield sees her ditch the Southern Gothic for tougher sounds.  There's more heavy guitar, more jangle, and even darker than her last album, which was scary enough.  Mayfield's drawl is particularly effective on the hazy Party Drugs, bad news all around:  "Party Drugs/I've got used to/without them I'm bored and tired."  Other tracks are nasty and distorted, big punkish music from the band, but with Mayfield's vocals pushed over top, an unsettling sweetness especially given the bleak themes.

On her last one, Tell Me, it seemed Mayfield's role model was Tammy Wynette.  Now, it's Nirvana.  Even the love songs are filled with despair.  Closer Seein' Starz, the lone gentle number, has her describing her relationship as a consuming passion that can't be escaped, for the worse:  "You've got a stranglehold on my heart."  Death images are all through the album; it opens, on Oblivious, with "I could kill with the power in my mind/but I'm a good humanitarian."  Meanwhile, the guitars sound like they're being choked too.  She's the toughest thing out of Ohio since Chrissie Hynde.

Thursday, June 12, 2014


Excuse me while I, err, Ramble On awhile about the new Led Zep reissues, with their Page-led improved audio, and "companion" discs of alternate mixes, backing tracks, and in the case of the first album, a vintage live concert.  There certainly aren't many albums left that can generate excitement (and big sales) for their archival reissues, at least of the old-school rock stars.  I'm sure at some point we'll get a 40th anniversary issue of something like Synchronicity by The Police, but that's not the same is it?  There are stars, and then there are solar systems.  If you are picking up hard copies of the albums, I figure the majority will be getting these double-CD versions, rather than the singles or the pricey Super Deluxe editions.

Here's my take on the first three albums, the caveat being that I've never been a huge fan.  I know, sacrilege in some quarters.  But it's the later albums I don't care for, these first three are the ones I'll champion, especially the first album.  Page and Jones, studio pros deluxe met up with wild rural blues belters Plant and Bonham, and there's much experimentation and brilliance on display.  While much is made of Page's lift of blues classics, its what he did with them that's so exciting.  Such guitar of course, but the use of studio dynamics, especially the space left in the tracks, is equally smart.  The pauses and the changes all make what follows, whether a Page solo or a Plant vocal, stand out even more.  And all this is made only better with the new audio here.  So much more than hard rock/blues was going on as well, with lots of pop touches Page and Jones would have picked up from other bands and producers over the 60's.  Youngsters, that's Anglican church organ you are hearing at the start of Your Time Is Gonna Come.

Then came months and months of touring, through Europe and the U.S., and out of the studio they had to rely on power.  Guitar heroics, drums solos and screeching Plant came to the front, and it certainly influenced Led Zep II, recorded later that year in 1969.  Much of the variety of the first album is gone, to its detriment.  Zeppelin was becoming the big hard rock band they are best remembered as, but it was more out of necessity.  The songs were still great though; Whole Lotta Love, Ramble On and Living Loving Maid are among their best. 

Zep III is best known as the album where Plant and Page took off to Bron-Y-Aur cottage in Wales to have a break from the constant touring, and write.  With no power and no amps, the songs started as acoustic numbers, and it is a more folk-oriented album that the first two.  This annoyed the heavy fans, but actually took them back to more imaginative sounds, with Immigrant Song, Gallows Pole and That's The Way far more subtle than the crunch for which they were better known.  It was as if they were two different bands; brains in the studio, and brawn on the stage.  I'll always choose the thoughtful stuff, at its best on I, II and III.

The bonus or companion discs hold few revelations.  Most of the extra tracks on II and III are rough mixes or backing tracks, hardly worth straining your ears for differences.  There is a fine instrumental chunk on II called La La, not a complete song but quite tuneful and good to hear.  Zep III has a few more interesting bits, including quite a different mix of That's The Way, with a dulcimer to the fore.  As is usually the case with these things, the right choice was made for the final album.  The much-bootlegged Jennings Farm Blues appears, actually electric guitar parts recorded but discarded from Bron-Y-Aur Stomp, and entertaining for sure.  Finally, there's an out-take of Page and Plant doing an acoustic version of Key To The Highway/Trouble In Mind (old blues standards if you don't know) with good picking and a Plant harp fill.  This is the big find, I'd say.

The live concert on Led Zep 1 is the most significant bonus, a 70-plus minute set from France, recorded for radio broadcast just before the release of Led Zep II.  It includes a couple of numbers from that next album, Heartbreaker, and that concert staple, Bonham's showpiece Moby Dick.  Yes, the nine-and-a-half minute number centered on a drum solo.  Oh well, there are fans of it, just not me.  Dazed And Confused is more my style, and there's some long blues workouts as well, the group still fleshing out their set list.  But I'll take a live set over the minor out-takes featured on the other discs.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014


What's Jack White on about?  That's always the question with his music, his business, and especially his lyrics.  Sometimes he can be rather straightforward, as on his first true solo album, 2012's Blunderbuss, which tackled that old theme, relationships.  But he's back to more obscure writing for Lazaretto.  Or very, very quirky at least.  There are some more pointed aggrieved partner songs here, but the blues are much deeper than that here.  We're talking about God, the devil and personal demons too. 

In the title track, White's debating with God (she, by the way), but gets a truly Biblical punishment, thrown into a Lazaretto, which is an old place for those with contagious diseases, as he's "born rotten, bored rotten".  In Want And Able, the characters are updates of Cain and Abel, "One is desire, the other is the means".  Yes, White is doing a lot of thinking here.  You can spend a whole lot of time examining his lyrics.

Or, you can spend a whole lot of time listening over and over again, taking in all the nuances of the production.  Once again using the two bands he introduced on Blunderbuss, all women or all men or sometimes a combo, the songs rush from style to style.  Inside each one, you're never sure what instruments can be introduced or what flourishes could be introduced.  All together, it's a lighter affair at times, with pedal steel and fiddle and even harp taking important parts.  Odd little musical moments are dropped in, such as strange vocals or clavinet parts, just like he dots his lyrics with words such as avuncular.  But the same song (That Black Licorice) also includes nods to rap in its verses, "I play dumb like Columbo and get my feelings hurt". 

To top all this off, White's even come up with new ways to market the album via his Third Man Records, especially the vinyl version, the first-ever release to feature 33, 45 and 78 RPM portions on one platter.  And that includes a playable center.  Is there such a thing as too many ideas?  There's a time when cleverness overshadows high quality.  White may be close but thankfully, he's not there yet.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014


He's happy, he's poppy, but he has a cynical streak a kilometer wide too.  From vengeful to corrupt to downright twisted, Fisher hides his dark topics in infectious, pleasing and pretty numbers.  If you don't listen closely, you'll think all's right in the world.

As a parting gift in a break-up, he writes a Last Song for the ex.  But unlike Edward Bear's song of the same name, this comes from a poisoned pen:  "Maybe it'll get stuck in your head/running in circles and driving you mad."  Song In My Heart, with its Spirit In The Sky groove, reveals the tune is "sweet and it's a great big mess."  A duet with Serena Ryder, Uh-oh, is about the culture of denial.  It's okay if you don't get caught, and even if you do, just deny it some more.

The one I like most (which probably speaks volumes about me) is the ghoulish The Bride Is Dead, where the love of his life has unfortunately met her demise, but he marries her anyway:  "It was easier I guess, fitting in her wedding dress/cuz she hadn't eaten in a couple weeks."  Lots of writers like a bit of black humour or a heavier twist, but sugar-coating it with breezy pop makes it all the more biting.

Sunday, June 8, 2014


Muddy Waters wasn't the only one who made the blues electric, but he perfected it. Moving from Mississippi to Chicago in the 1940's, Waters was armed with the Delta style, but once he grabbed an electric he started thrilling the clubs. He joined the Chess business even before they launched their eponymous label, recording for Aristocrat when the brothers bought in. Once they did rename it, Waters became the label's biggest blues star. His stinging guitar and deep moan were dark weapons, and his own lyrics from the same well as all the classic Delta verses.

When he teamed up with writer/bass player Willie Dixon in 1954, the electric Chess sound really took off. Dixon's lyrics weren't the old language, this was modern city stuff. Hoochie Coochie Man, I Just Want To Make Love To You and I'm Ready were plain-spoken and a lot more upbeat, for a faster-paced scene.

This double CD is packed with 50 cuts, from Waters' first Chicago recording, 1947's Gypsy Woman, to the 1972 number Can't Get No Grindin'. The music changed a lot over those years, but his dangerous and sexy vocals did not. Along with his rival, Howlin' Wolf, Waters made a series of Chess classics that are still the yardstick that newcomers are measured with. At two-and-a-half hours, this is a great way to get the essential stuff.

Friday, June 6, 2014


The 20th anniversary of the band's biggest album, but the 30th of the group itself.  Soundgarden spent 10 years in the grunge pits, another Seattle band combining punk with metal and slowly helping build the scene.  Their sound was a bit more mainstream on the metal side, and was edging further that way, as more and more rough edges were being polished up ever so slightly.  By the time this album came through, they had been opening for Guns N' Roses and edging into the Top 40.

Home to Black Hole Sun and Spoonman, post-Nirvana the world was ready for Soundgarden, and Superunknown entered the charts at #1, buoyed by big MTV play.   They were more understandable than Nirvana, more aligned to metal and hard rock, and lyrically less challenged than Nirvana.  The themes were bleak for sure, a lot of images and darkness and heavy moods, but not with the progressive-thinking edge that Cobain brought.  And while their contemporaries reveled in the punk basics and tried to keep that energy, Soundgarden was willfully trying to develop, bringing in more melodic sounds.  Anyway, those are the differences with this album, and if you leaned towards classic metal Soundgarden stood on top.

It's a pretty prime set of bonus cuts on disc two of the Deluxe edition.  There are several demos, and some nifty rehearsal takes of songs, including one of Limo Wreck that really shows how it began life as a reworking of Led Zep's Dazed And Confused.  There's quite a striking acoustic version of Like Suicide, and even some studio chat that shows how they were working things out as they progressed.  It's one of the rare times when the bonus disc of demos is actually quite interesting and worthy of playing on its own a few times.  There's also a super deluxe version available, with two more CD's, loaded with even more demos, b-sides and rehearsal versions, plus a fifth disc of Blu-ray audio, and a big hard cover book.

Thursday, June 5, 2014


For a time in the late 60's and early 70's, it was considered uncool to release a basic greatest hits or best-of package by hip bands.  If it must be done, it had to be called something else, and not just be hit singles.  There was no Best of The Beatles, for instance, for several years.  You know it would have sold millions, and when the band relented in 1973 with the famous Red and Blue albums, they did in fact tear up the charts.  But it still wasn't a greatest hits, there were lots of album cuts included.  In the FM radio/album rock era, hip bands didn't do greatest hits, pop bands did

The Doors always considered themselves a hip band, so it's no surprise they downplayed the hits factor, even though they had a few significant ones.  After Jim Morrison died, there was a push for a compilation, so Elektra Records put out this set in 1972, a double album at the time that feels like a precursor to the box set model.  With its cryptic title coming from a line in Morrison's lyric for The End, the tracks came from all the studio albums put out by The Doors, with the hits scattered between a selection of album cuts.  There were even two rare tracks, Who Scared You and Don't Go No Further, b-sides to singles.  It wasn't a huge seller, but fans always liked it for the running order.  It was also the first Doors album I owned, so it gave me a completely different view of the band than those a little older who had grown up with the group's progress.  Kind of forgotten, this is the first time it's been issued on CD, making a lot of older fans very happy to see it again.

Break On Through starts us off, never a hit but a big favourite, and quickly different layers of the group's sound are unveiled, as the cuts jump from Strange Days to Shaman's Blues to Love Street, with psychedelia, blues and pop.  Odd choices continue, such as The Wasp (Texas Radio and the Big Beat), a deliciously bombastic number from the last true Doors album, L.A. Woman, sounding so out of place that it's always stuck out as a gem.  Finally a true hit is offered, Love Her Madly, and side two of the album (the end of side one on CD) is devoted to the eleven minutes of the notorious The End.

More proof that The Doors were prepared to sniff at the idea of Top 40 hits is found on the second album (or disc), as the cuts continue to get more obscure.  We find the b-sides here, but it's what is not included that is meant to impress.  There's no Light My Fire, their first hit, nor Hello, I Love You, their other #1 chart topper.  There's no Love Me Two Times, or Roadhouse Blues either.  Perhaps they didn't want to repeat the track list of 1970's 13 compilation, but that didn't sell much either, so there would hardly have been fan complaints.  Instead, we're treated to more fascinating cuts such as Running Blue, a catchy little number with hoe-down verses and a jazz bridge.  Weird scenes indeed.  So why, without the hits, would you be interested in this?  Because you probably own the hits somewhere anyway, and if you don't have all the albums or a box set, this is just what it was supposed to be, a different way to explore the band, a way to understand there was plenty going on besides the Morrison mania, possible public exposure and a greatest hits collection.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014


Kiss is all about an image, and a brand.  It was established way back at the start of this 40 years, and is well-known:  Four guys in costumes, one guy with a big tongue, I Wanna Rock And Roll All Nite, and big cartoon rock music.  It's pretty simple, and it's worked out very, very well, even a belated acknowledgement this year from the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame.  However, dig a little deeper into the recording career of the band, and you'll find out how many times they have tried to step away from the format, only to see that anything else they try fails.  Luckily for the band, when they step back into the image and brand, things get back on track.

This 40th anniversary 2-disc set covers all the hits right up to 2012's Hell Or Hallelujah, from the album Monster.  That's pretty typical stuff for them, cartoon devils from the pen of Paul Stanley, in arena rock.  But back on disc one, you'll find out that early on, Kiss were seduced by the dark ...or make that, the light side.  They may have hit with the teens big-time with the Kiss Alive! album, but they got even bigger with the pretty ballad Beth.  Well, once pop success is reached, those dollars are hard to resist.  After that came Hard Luck Woman, a total rip-off of Rod Stewart and Maggie May.  It was somewhat of a hit too, and the Stanley/Simmons axis seemed bent on finding more of that.  When things were starting to fizzle in the late 70's, somebody came up with the pretty decent idea of each member doing a solo album.  Decent on paper, anyway.  In truth, the albums were horrible, topped by Stanley's ghastly, sappy Hold Me, Touch Me single.  These albums are often mentioned as the most "returned" albums in history, meaning hundreds of thousands of unsold copies were sent back to the manufacturer from stores.  The message was clear:  stick to the formula.

Only Kiss still didn't get it.  Unmasked saw them take off the make-up, undermining the core mystery of the group, the comic book secret identities which appealed to teens.  Then came a supposedly serious rock album Music From The Elder.  Kiss was close to death.  That is, until they finally got the message in the early 80's.  Back to hard rock, and back to big crowds and respectable sales, featuring the tacky but catchy I Love It Loud, Lick It Up, Heaven's On Fire, and Let's Put The X In Sex.  By now the giant tongue'd one had figured out the whole merch thing too, and any more attempts at broadening their sound and audience were abandoned.  Funny though, proving a bunch of different theories right, especially the one about hanging on long enough brings grudging respect, Kiss have been embraced by new generations while regaining some old fans who like reliving their childhood.

This set features a few rare things, nice for diehards, including some demos and live cuts.  All the expected numbers are here, as well as several live versions from the many, many live albums they've put out.  But that's what people want from Kiss.  Or as Simmons says to a July 4 crowd in Pittsburgh in 2004, "Whaddya say we play some good rock and roll music and blow some crap up?"  It's that simple.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014


Dave Bidini is not a shy man, and he has had many platforms to get his art to the public.  A founder of Rheostatics, his first forum, he then developed as an author, frequent broadcast guest, and newspaper columnist.  The latter especially showed his opinionated side, but usually his albums saw him more in story-mode, or perhaps a bit of social commentary.  Seems he's decided to speak his mind on the Bidiniband's third, with his home and native land, the True North strong and free directly in his sights.  Bidini isn't happy with what's happened to his country, and he's not afraid to name names either.  One Stephen Harper comes up, and although he's not shouldering all the blame, Bidini's probably not voting Conservative.

The words here aren't all blatantly political or finger-pointing, and Bidini builds some scenarios to set up his major theme, that we've become a nation that isn't what we'd hoped for, or believe in.  The rousing sound of All Hail Canada is a ruse:  "All hail Canada, we know what's best/the only country but the States not to sign the Kyoto Accord/All hail Canada, from sea to sea/polluted by the cancerous toxins of our industry."  He's not mincing words, mentioning "the mutilation of our laws", "civil unrest", "greedy needs of his and his kind", no need to mention who the "his" is.

As opposed to Neil Young's Living With War, there are lots of breaks from the bolder words, and plenty of inventive, fun music as well.  Of the three Bidiniband albums, this feels most like a Rheo's set, from its somewhat conceptual flow to the inclusion and update of the old group tune Fat, now (The Return Of) Fat.  The core band (drummer Don Kerr, guitarist Paul Linklater, bassist Doug Friesen) is augmented as well with lots of extra help, from strings and horns to soundbites and backing and co-vocals, making it the biggest production of the three as well.  Other songs here look at images of Canada, past and present, including Bidini's favourite topic, what it was like growing up in this country.  But sentiment doesn't get in the way, it's here for you to make a comparison, yesterday's Canada, or where we are and where we're heading.

Monday, June 2, 2014


Next time some boy band or Spice Girls (gawd I'm out-of-date) or whatever the latest teen sensation comes along, send a little acknowledgement to Ricky Nelson.  Compared to his contemporaries Elvis, Jerry Lee, Little Richard, Johnny Cash, etc., Nelson barely gets a mention these days.  But he was not only the original rock and roll teen idol, he was a massive star in the late 50's - early 60's, and had a ton of high quality songs.  Sure, his career was the product of a brilliantly conceived TV-music crossover from The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, but the kid had the real thing vocally, and charisma to boot.  Plus, the grade-A material and the presence of James Burton, the Master of the Telecaster on guitar just made things that much better.

The eleven songs found here on the budget-priced Icon line cherry-pick the biggest hits, but there are many more that are deserving.  From the Holly-like rockabilly of Hello Mary Lou to the vocal group harmonies and hiccups of Young World, Nelson could move from style to style.  Given his TV, clean-cut image, dad Ozzie never let him get too out of control, so Elvis and Jerry Lee got to keep the rebellion.  Perhaps that explains why he doesn't get as much respect.  And yes, numbers such as Fools Rush In are pretty slick, but listen to Burton's solo!  Appreciate the 50's craftsmanship too, as the 50's suburb dream of America was still holding on.

The set finishes with Nelson's famous Garden Party, his 1972 comeback hit about hating the oldies circuit in which he was stuck.  It's the only self-written number here, and is a great one too, in the country rock feel of The Eagles.  He really did have talent,he  just never got respect because he was a teen.  And such it has been ever since for teen stars.  At least he didn't go all Bieber on us.

Sunday, June 1, 2014


Payne grew up in the same area of Ontario as the acclaimed traditional group Leahy, and took her fiddle lessons from them. When Natalie MacMaster married into the family, Payne hit the road with her, part of the crew, and got to see first-hand what life as a touring musician would be like. She obviously has that part down, as she does double-duty as a member of Express & Company, plus leading her own band, now with a second album under her belt.

Produced by Greg Keelor of Blue Rodeo with Jim McKenty, for her new disc the fiddle takes a backseat to her songwriting and mature roots sound. Payne's songs are shot through with urgency, whether slow or fast, up or sad. There's a cowpunk urgency to Gunning For Me, room for a scorching guitar solo and explosive drums, the kind of tune that would win any band an encore at the end of their set. Both Downtown and Cold Out There are keyboard ballads, the latter all heartache. The title cut is a gem, a kiss-off to a failed relationship. It features the signature sound on the disc, a smooth electric piano on top of the roadhouse band, something quite different and smart. Payne's expressive voice telegraphs all the emotion, with an attractive twang sealing the deal. Great sound, great songs.